Achieving Happiness

January 24, 2011

It’s not too much to demand justice, the same way that it’s not too much to demand that those who till the land should own it.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 9:16 am

When farmer and activist Danilo Arjona was killed on January 22, 1987, he left behind a wife and five children. He was shot in the head and the bullet passed through his skull cleanly. It’s a detail that has remained in his widow’s memory for the last 24 years.

Danilo’s widow, Teresita, or “Nanay” Tess, can only be comforted by the knowledge that her husband’s death was not ordinary – “Namatay siyang nakikibaka para sa lupa,” she says simply, and even as her smile is sad, her eyes light up in pride.

Two decades have past but Nanay Tess vividly remembers what happened that day. She is unlikely to ever forget, she says, because the reasons why they marched to Malacañang then are the same reasons why farmers continue to hold protests and rallies and why so many others have been killed.

“There were no signs that violence could erupt,” Nanay Tess says. Contrary to the assertions made by police and military men who testified in the 1987 People’s Commission on the Mendiola Massacre established by the Cory Aquino government, she says that the farmers did not shout slogans demanding blood and violence.

“Everyone was shouting the usual slogans calling for genuine agrarian reform and land for the tiller, but no one was calling for violence. If I had any idea that there was going to be violence, Danilo would not have let me come, much less bring my mother with me,” she explains. Danilo, she remembers, was a marshal during the rally, and as such she did not join him in the frontlines.

She says his last words to her were instructions. “He told me to stay put and not wander around. He didn’t want my mother and I to get lost in the crowd. There were so many of us there, and I didn’t want to get lost either so I obeyed,” she says. She kept in the middle part of the throng and from there she could clearly hear and even see what was happening in the front. She saw that there were many men in military and police uniforms, but she didn’t find any reason to worry because, as she says, the farmers went to Mendiola to remind “Ma’am Cory” of her promises. “Hindi kami pumunta dun para maghanap ng gulo.”

The negotiations between the Kilusang Magbubukid (KMP) leaders and officials of the police and military were ongoing when the shooting started, she says. Could she have been mistaken? The Supreme Court in a 1993 decision on the massacre upheld findings that there were no negotiations between the farmers and the armed forces that day.

“No, there were negotiations. Everyone stood still, trying to listen to what was being discussed. I also saw my husband in front, and he was also paying attention to the negotiations.”

Then the bullets started to fall. At first it was like a gentle but deadly drizzle that soon turned into a monsoon rain. Nanay Tess tightly wound her hand around her mother’s own and ran.

“Everyone was running, running every which way. All I could think of was getting to Lawton where the caravan vehicles were; that and returning to my children. I didn’t know what happened to Danilo, I didn’t see if he was able to run or get away. I was crying as I ran and I didn’t immediately notice that my mother and I were both barefoot. The streets were littered with slippers and bags and streamers and placards. People were yelling, but I didn’t know if it was in pain or in outrage,” she says.

Nanay Tess herself felt rage when she saw, even as she ran for safety, that there were “owner-type” jeeps driving alongside the protestors who were scurrying for safety. “They were shooting at us, at everyone who was running!” she says, anger in her eyes, in her voice.

The casualties would without doubt have been more if all the bullets the military and police fired that day were real. It was found out later that they used rubber and plastic bullets, and though these were not fatal, they were enough to raise bruises that would hurt for days after.

By the time they reached Lawton, Nanay Tess thought she would collapse. All that kept her going was her determination to take her mother to safety and to return to her children. Her tears kept flowing as she worried for Danilo and the others, but there was nothing else to be done. The jeepney their farmers’ group rented immediately left bearing Nanay Tess, the owner and a few others. Its driver thought it wiser to leave without waiting for the others because he saw that the police were still running after the survivors and arresting them.

Safe at home in Pagsanjan, the news trickled in: Danilo had been killed. Members of the KMP hastened to comfort Nanay Tess and her children, and Danilo’s remains were taken to Mt. Carmel Church in Quezon City along with the bodies of the other victims of the massacre.

The Aquino government extended no assistance, expressed no sympathy. Not a single flower to the Arjona family and not once in the 24 years that have passed has Nanay Tess forgotten.

“We survived because of the KMP’s help, because the Kilusan gave us succor. I was forced to leave the land my husband and I tilled as tenants because I could no longer take care of it. We had five young children, the eldest was only 12, the youngest five. I had to find other means to secure our survival,” she says.

She has since worked as a washerwoman, a bean picker, and as a rice field worker during harvest season. Her earnings were never enough, and only one of her and Danilo’s children was able to finish high school. It has been a hard life, but not once did she blame the KMP or the mass movement for what happened.

“Pumunta kami sa Mendiola dahil may mga hinaing kaming mga magsasaka. Pinangakuan kami ng lupa, pero bala ang ibinigay sa amin. Pinatay ang asawa ko dahil naggigiit siya ng lupa at katarungan para sa mga magsasakang tulad naming. Lahat ng kahirapang dinanas ko at ng aking mga anak ay dala ng pagtutol ng gobyerno na ibigay ang lupa sa mga magsasaka.”

Through the years she continued to join peasant group activities led by KMP and its formations in Southern Tagalog. She lost touch in 2009 and 2010, however, but earlier this month, she saw a jeepney in Laguna with a KMP sign on it, as well as a sticker proclaiming the just and righteous struggle for genuine agrarian reform. Nanay Tess was overjoyed, and she waited for someone to come. KMP deputy secretary general Willy Marbella arrived — the KMP had been visiting the community — and he secured Nanay Tess’s promise to join the activities commemorating the 24th anniversary of the massacre.

Nanay Tess is now 52 years old, and on Saturday, January 22, she lit a candle for her husband and for the 12 others who were killed in Mendiola.

“I did not expect the government to help us, but I did expect that it would bring justice for those who were killed. Nothing like this happened. Now it’s Noynoy Aquino who is president. We can only hope that he will be able to do what his mother failed to do. Those who shot and killed my husband and the others, those who ordered the police and the military to begin shooting, they have all gotten away without punishment. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that he right the wrongs his mother’s government committed against the farmers. It’s not too much to demand justice, the same way that it’s not too much to demand that those who till the land should own it.”

Remembering Mendiola Massacre: Tata Pido Gonzalez

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 9:08 am

I wrote this for
The photo of the presscon was taken by my friend Jo Abaya-Santos.

It may have been 24 years ago, but for the survivors of the brutal Mendiola Massacre that left 13 farmers dead and many others hurt, the wounds still bleed.

Pedro “Tata Pido” Gonzalez was only 23-years old when the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ government of Corazon Aquino first unsheathed its sword against Filipino farmers in Mendiola. It was only his second time in Manila, but being a part-time municipal organizer of the militant youth organization Kabataang Makabayan (KM or Patriotic Youth) since 1970, he was not new to protests. He has already been helping organize fellow fisherfolk against unfair sharing practices of owners of large-scale commercial fishing enterprises. In his first rally in Manila, he stood alongside other farmers , fisherfolk and other members of progressive sectors in front of the US embassy n Roxas Boulevard to denounce Uncle Sam relentless interference in Philippine economic and political affairs.

“The police lobbed teargas canisters at us and we ran willy-nilly all over Luneta,” he said, smiling at the recollection.

When asked about his experience in Mendiola on January 22, 1987, however, he grew serious, and one could see in his eyes how the memory of what happened that day still affected him.

“I was somewhere in the back of the rally. There were so many of us, but the protest was well organized. We were tired from the three-day vigil in front of the then Ministry of Agrarian Reform, but all exhaustion vanished as we marched closer to Malacanang. We bore with us very legitimate demands, and we wanted to remind Mrs. Aquino of the promises she made to give land to the landless.”

Tata Pido said that farmers groups led by the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) had concrete and unassailable reasons for proceeding to Mendiola that day. In June 1986, a few months after Aquino was propelled to the presidency after the EDSA uprising that rid the country of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the KMP held a national council meeting to finalize an agenda on genuine agrarian reform. With this in hand, 10 of its leaders went to Malacanang where they were warmly welcomed by Pres. Aquino and executive secretary Joker Arroyo.

“The feedback from the meeting was that Mrs. Aquino was elated over the proposal. She said that the KMP’s blueprint for genuine agrarian reform was worth implementing, that it could would serve well as the cornerstone for her administration and its goals,” he said.

But by September, nothing was heard from Malacanang. No announcements were made about distributing land to the farmers, or even just the provision of immediate subsidies to help farmers in the interim. It was then that the KMP decided to hold a protest.

(KMP spokesperson Antonio ‘Ka Tonying’ Flores in a presscon said that farmers wanted to test the waters, to see how sincere the Aquino government was. The farmers went to the MAR, but then secretary Heherson Alvarez all but went into hiding. Alvarez did not show his face in the ministry for three days, and the farmers were left to speak to the employees and explain why it was that they were there – to press for action on their call for land reform. Some farmers pulled down the Philippine flag from its pedestal in front of the department building and hoisted aloft the KMP’s own red banner.)

“So we marched. Those in front were almost in Mendiola, while the rest of us including myself where still in Morayta. Word reached us that there were so many police, marines, soldiers, you name it in the area, but I didn’t feel afraid. What was there to worry about when we had already talked to Mrs. Aquino about our demands? As for our ranks, we were unarmed. We had nothing but flags, streamers, the carton plackards mounted on bamboo sticks.”

“Suddenly I heard shots. I didn’t know at first that they were gunshots, it sounded more like clapping. First it was intermittent, then soon the sound was loud and deafening. There was chaos, everyone began running away from the sound of gunfire. Men, women, children were running. Yes, there were children with us that day. I also ran, and I am a little ashamed even now to admit that I failed to help those whom I saw fall on the pavement. It was all I could do to keep from falling myself.”

Tata Pido lost his slippers as he ran, and as he reached the corner of Morayta and Espana Avenue, the traffic was at a standstill. A jeepney stopped in front of him and the driver yelled at him to jump into the vehicle.

“I was breathing hard, I was more than a little confused, but I was able to tell him that I needed to get to Divisoria where the bus terminals were. I was relieved, when I put a hand inside my pocket, to find that I still had enough money for fare.”

Back then, it cost only P2.50 to ride a bus from Quezon to Manila and vice-versa.

When he got home, he found out that what happened in Mendiola was everywhere in the news. His wife all but berated him for joining the protest where he could have lost his life. His wife was also a member of the peasant group, but in her fear , she told him to stop his political activism,

“I learned an important lesson that day: it’s important that we make sure that our wives , our partners are encouraged to develop politically.”

So now, 24 years later, Tata Pido continues to join protest rallies, demand justice for the victims of Mendiola Massacre, and to continue the peasant struggle for land. He remembers the events that led to the Massacre the same way he cannot forgot how , in 2004, he was shot nine times by members of the military and left for dead.. * The lines on his face, the way his skin has become rough with age and years of toil, are as familiar to him as the aspirations of all farmers and fisherfolk for uncompromising, genuine agrarian reform. He knows by heart the crimes the governments that followed the Marcos dictatorship committed against the Filipino people, and while they taste bitter in his mouth, he says it is what makes him remember what he is fighting for.

“Marami na akong kaibigang namatay para sa lupa. Marami na rin ang dinukot ng mga kaaway dahil ayaw nilang tumahimik sa kanilang pagigiit. Walang katiwasayan, walang pag-unlad, walang kahulugan ang buhay kung hindi ibibigay sa magsasaka ang lupa. Ano ang gagawin ng mga susunod na henerasyon kapag pumayag tayong agawin, kamkamin ng mga dayuhan ang lahat ng lupa n gating bansa? Saan sila pupunta upang mabuhay? Paano sila kakain? Masakit mang isipin, ngunit dahil sa katangiang hindi makatao ng gobyerno at ng sistemang kinapapalooban natin, maraming maraming magsasaka pa ang magbubuwis ng buhay para sa lupa.”

“Walang pinag-iba ang mga gobyernong nagdaan. Lahat sila ay nagtaksil sa mga magsasaka. Si Noynoy Aquino ay walang pinag-iba kay Gloria Arroyo. Ang tanging masasabi mo lang na pinagkaiba nila ay babae si Gloria at lalaki si Noynoy. ”#

* On May 12, 2004, Tata Pido was shot nine times by military men under the Southern Luzon Command (Solcom). He was then campaigning for a seat in the Provincial Council of Quezon

January 21, 2011

legally defining discrimination against LGBTs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 7:57 am

This is an article I wrote for It gave me a headache to write this because it was terrible to realize that the LGBT sector has very little means to defend its members when it comes to the law. Discrimination exists, it’s just not easy to define because those guilty of homophobia can easily dismiss their acts as ‘jokes’ and say that the victims are just being ‘overly sensitive.’
Just because you cannot define something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

This is how Oscar Atadero, regional director of the International Association of Pride Organizers (Inter-Pride) explains how difficult it has been for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) to defend their legal rights against discrimination because up to the present, discrimination against members of the so-called ‘third sex’ has no legal definition.

“Laws of the land proclaim equality for men and women, but when it comes down to the specifics — when it comes down to equal treatment for LGBTs — the laws are severely lacking,” he said.

Atadero shakes his head over what he insists is a misconception that LGBTs in the country no longer face discrimination and are already accepted. “There is no genuine acceptance, only tolerance. There is still discrimination against LGBTs, but it’s insidious. It’s quite easy to deny when someone is discriminating against LGBTs with a thought, with a word, with an act: those who are homophobic can dismiss their homophobic comments or acts by saying it’s all a joke, or that the victim was merely being overly sensitive. LGBTs primarily face discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), and the tragedy is, victims do not have an enabling environment to press complaints,” he said.

The gay rights advocate says that while there’s a whole slew of enabling laws, mechanisms and institutions that help protect women rights, LGBT rights are covered only by general laws. “This is not enough, because like I said, the discrimination we face is specifically directed against our Sogi, but local laws do not give us means to legal means to fight it,” he said.

According to Atadero, there are so many forms of discrimination against LGBTs that are not defined much less penalized under the law.

“They’re in the gray areas. Say for instance, teenaged gays and lesbians, they want to cross-dress in school. They feel uncomfortable wearing uniforms, but they’re not allowed to cross-dress because it’s against school policy, no explanations asked. Those who attempt to cross-dress (the gays wear blouses or the lesbians wear pants), they end up in the guidance office and risk being humiliated and expelled. Young LGBTs have to suppress their Sogi to survive in school and in general society; and everyone knows how important these early years are to young adults — it’s when they’re discovering themselves, but already they face barriers, unsubtly told that what they’re doing, what they are is wrong,” he said.

As for adult LGBTs, the realities of discrimination are harsher.

“There are LGBTs who find it difficult to find employment because of unwritten but all the same enforced hiring policies of companies. This is particularly true in the manufacturing sector. LGBTs are not hired because human rights resource heads think LGBTs are physically weaker, or mentally flighty,” Atadero said.

He said that he once came across a case of a gay man who was interviewed for a job, but in the middle of the interview, the HR manager told him that they had already found someone for the job. “It was all he could do to stop himself from retorting ‘Bakit mo pa ako ininterbyu kung meron na pala kayong nakuha?!’

Atadero added that there have also been cases where lesbians were hired for masculine jobs, but they were paid ‘feminine’ wages. Women workers are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts in the manufacturing sector.

“On the whole, LGBTs go through their lives defending themselves. It’s a necessary mechanism, being always on the defensive. We are subjected to insulting, judgmental remarks even when we’re getting access to health care: imagine being told by nurses or doctors that we become ill as a result of our promiscuity! It’s like all LGBTs are alike, and we can be fit in one box. When we file complaints, most of the time they’re dismissed or not taken seriously,” he said.

A legal definition of discrimination

This lack of empowering legal measures for LGBTs is what prompted Bayan Muna lawmaker Teddy A. Casino to file HB 1483 seeking to define Sogi and what constitutes discrimination against LGBTs. His proposed measure also lays down penalties.

Casino said that while the Bill of Rights guarantees equal protection for men and women, and even as the Philippines is a signatory to international agreements on the respect for human rights of all persons regardless of any condition, including sex or sexual orientation, there’s still a wide area left to cover when it came to upholding the legal rights of members of the LGBT sector.

“The present and future realities existing in the country should not be left behind by law. The noble intentions of numerous national laws and international agreements are still wanting with respect to our compatriot LGBTs.They continue to be discriminated by society at large, primarily because of misconceptions and systemic State ignorance,” he said.

The Philippines is a signatory to declarations and agreements of international institutions, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to include protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The UNHRC has interpreted Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which obliges States to “guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection againstdiscrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” to include a protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also interpreted Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to include sexual orientation in the Covenant’s non-discrimination provisions.

“Despite all this, there is no legal definition of discrimination against LGBTs,” Casino said.

Casino agreed that LGBTs often find it difficult to exercise their rights as persons, laborers, professionals, and ordinary citizens. He said that prejudicial practices and policies – mostly unstated and unwritten – based on Sogi severely limit the exercise and enjoyment of the basic rights and fundamental freedoms in schools, workplaces, commercial establishments, the civil service, even the security services,” he said.

Given this, Casino said it’s long overdue that practices that discriminate against LGBTs be given legal definition and penalized .

Atadero has already expressed full support for Casino’s bill, saying that the Philippine LGBT community should rally behind the measure and pressure lawmakers to do the same. He insisted that LGBTs do not want nor claim additional “special” or “additional rights.”

“The Bayan Muna LGBT bill only seeks to push for the the observance of the same rights as those of heterosexual persons that are denied – either by current laws or practices – basic civil, political, social and economic rights,” he said.

The Bayan Muna anti-discrimination against LGBT bill

HB 1483 has certainly made efforts to give legal defintion to the ‘invisible’, as well as laying down what makes sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the proposal , sexual orientation refers to the direction of emotional sexual attraction or conduct. This can be towards people of the same sex (homosexual orientation) or towards people of both sexes (bisexual orientation) or towards people of the opposite sex (heterosexual orientation). It is not equivalent to sexual behavior since this refers to feelings and self-concept.Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.

Gender identity, in the meantime, is referred to in the bill as the personal sense of identity as characterized, among others, by manners of clothing, inclinations, and behavior in relation to masculine or feminine conventions. A person may have a male or female identity with the physiological characteristics of the opposite sex.

Finally, the legal defintion of discrimination against individual’s Sogi: descrimination implies any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference which is based on any ground such as sex, sexual orientation, gender identity,

whether actual or perceived and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by all persons of an equal footing of all rights and freedoms.

Atadero said that these definitions, if approved and passed into law, will give LGBTs better legal leverage to defend their rights.

Among the discriminatory practices defined and penalized in the Bayan Muna LGBT bill include the denial of access to public service, including military service, to any person on the basis of Sogi; the inclusion of Sogi, as well as the disclosure of sexual orientation, in the criteria for hiring, promotion and dismissal of workers, and in the determination of employee compensation, training, incentives, privileges, benefits or allowances, and other

terms and conditions of employment. The prohibition on the basis of Sogi also includes the contracting and engaging of services of juridical persons.

The measure also decries as discrimination the refusal of admission or the expelling of a person from educational institutions on the basis of Sogi without prejudice to the right of educational institutions to determine the academic qualifications of their students. It’s also discriminatory to include the imposition of disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of Sogi, and penalties harsher than customary primarily due to Sogi.

Bayan Muna also seeks to revoke the antedeluvian laws against vagrancy which Atadero says targets gay men. It speaks against harassment by members of institutions involved in the enforcement of law and the protection of rights, such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), of any person on the basis of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Among other cases, harassment occurs when a person is arrested or placed in the custody of the government institution and extortion, physical or verbal abuse takes place. It does not matter in the least whether the arrest has legal or factual basis.

Harassment of juridical persons on the basis of Sogi of their members, stockholders, benefactors, clients, or patronsare also covered in the proposal.

HB 1483 also considers it discrimination if a person is denied access to or the use of

establishments, facilities, utilities or services, including housing, that are open to the general public because of his or her Sogi. the measure also expands the meaning of ‘denial of access’ by saying that there’s denial when a person is given inferior accommodations or services.

Of course, Atadero said, it’s not enough to give legal definitions. “There should also be sanctions. The inclusion of criminal or administrative charges make HB 1438 even more serious,” he said.

The bill’s section six lays down that those found guilty of any of the discriminatory practiceswill face a fine of not less than P250,000, but not to exceed Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000) or imprisonment of not less than one) year but not more than six years, or both at the discretion of the court. Officials directly involved will be be liable for violations committed by corporations,organizations or similar entities. Finally, perpetrators will be recommended for community service time in terms of human rights educationand exposure to the plight of the victims.

Support human rights for LGBTs

While Atadero says that LGBT rights are at first glance ’emotional’ in origin (“Defending the way we are, the way we live and how we contribute to society is really an emotional struggle for someone who has just come out of the closet; even for those who are afraid to come out”), it’s also a political struggle.

“It’s all part of the fight for human rights because our defense of our Sogi is always part of our struggle for economic survival and political emancipation. Equality is not something you demand off-hand, you do it for concrete reasons because you want to find employment, you want to be able to create and learn, because you want to serve others without there being barriers. Discrimination against LGBTs is like a transparent wall: you don’t immediately see it, but when you walk into it, you get hurt. We want to remove this wall, and fully empower LGBTs not only to defend their rights, but so they can contribute more to society,” he said.

Atadero said that politicians and government officials always say they love gays because 1) Gays make them happy; 2) Gays make them beautiful, and 3) Gays are productive members of society. “But how will they give concrete form to this “love” if they won’t support gay rights and the passage of laws that will protect and uphold them?”

“It wasn’t unexpected of Bayan Muna to file such a measure in support of LGBTs. The LGBT community support its bill fully and we will campaign for its passage. Even if it doesn’t pass into law, it’s already a very good step towards the right direction in making Philippine laws more responsive to the needs of LGBT constituents.”#

January 12, 2011

The Consolations of philosophy and the art in everyday existence (Eight books by British writer Alain de Botton)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 11:02 am

This is my first article for Sana mabasa ni Alain de Botton, hahahaha!

There are no step-by-step guidebooks to life, and most people simply try to get by from day-to-day. Writer Alain de Botton, however, offers his body of work as Post-its and reminders that there is so much more to living than being awake. His series of clever, compassionate and intellectually stimulating books on philosophy and art tries to provide insight on the lighter side of the human condition and the difficulties of coping with the world’s challenges.

On Love (1993)

Here, de Botton writes a treatise on love, using a hammersmash of theories from various schools and periods. The narrator tells a story of one specific experience in falling in love – his own – and he describes moment-by-moment how he came to fall in love with a woman named Chloe.Anyone who has ever gone through the experience of romantic relationships can relate to the author as he goes through the ups and down of being with another person. But before you can scoff and dismiss the book as an expanded excerpt from , say, Cosmo or any other glossy magazine devoting pages and pages to female confusion about the opposite sex, On Love makes clever and intelligent use of theories in art and literary criticism, political discourse, and religious worship, and applies them to romantic situations.

For instance, when confessing the difficulties of understanding his girlfriend, he says it’s a battle between the two schools of Marx– the one founded by the German proletariat Karl, and the other being led by Groucho. The self-sacrificing, humanity-embracing philosophy of the former is what he truly wants to live by when dealing with problems with his beloved, but often when he loses patience (and when the beloved throws a fit as well), everything deteriorates into a situation reminiscent of the skits by the latter and his brothers.

Love, as the cliche goes, is a battlefield; and it is fraught with conflict ranging from small to enormous. Inevitably, however, there will either be a comfortable peace or the damage wrought too extensive for repair. In the book, the story ends with hope after a broken heart, but solace is found in poetry and the syrupy torch songs.

This is the first book de Botton wrote, and it sets the tone for the other books he has written through the years. He writes with intelligence and humor, compassion and an unstated but evident wish to help readers make sense of the chaos that is the romantic world as we know it.

Kiss and Tell (1995)

Here, de Botton creates an ersatz biography of another girlfriend, and as he does this, he posits a few questions: does one really need to be known to be written about? Or is any life so long as it has been lived well worth desribing? In the progression of his biography of Isabel, an ordinary woman with an ordinary background and a less than successful career in publishing, it becomes evident that there really are no ordinary lives: the minute details of our day-to-day existence become weighted by meaning when we glean lessons from them. From these lessons we learn, and the mistakes or weaknesses of our past also become valuable for the same reason.

The uniqueness of every human life depends on how we experience every moment, every challenge, and how we respond to them, either to betray grace under pressure or to show the yellow feather and run. Truth were told, all lives are interesting if told right; but what is crucial in biographies is not the tribute being paid to the subject, but how the life as it is written impacts on the reader.

De Botton’s subject Isabel captivates his biographer with the little quirks of her character, and inspires in him affection. While primary the book reads like an offbeat romantic comedy, there’s more than it in the end because of what the more analytical reader can realize about the difference between the lives of ordinary folk (who are seldom written about) and the members of the ruling classes (who erect statues, build museums, publish books after their own deeds and themselves). Isabel is an ordinary girl, but because she inspired the narrator, she became the subject of his scrutiny and writing.

There are biographies of men and women who enjoyed immense wealth and power, but what do these books say to readers: “Get rich like me or you’re a loser”? Then there are the biographies of people who quietly devoted their lives to causes that seek to redeem humanity and give hope to the following generations. De Botton does not make specific distinctions nor does he lay down judgments, but leaves it to the reader to discern for himself what matters most when reading biographies (or choosing subjects for biographies, for that matter).

A life well lived means a life that was also lived for others: it is here where the uniqueness of a specific life is more defined.

How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997)

The genius Marcel Proust, according to Botton’s book, is a hypochondriac who alternately spent his days sick in bed and writing long sentences and meandering observations.

Here was a man who enjoyed the good life but at the same time, always feared being ill that he seldom went out. He lived with his mother all his life and seldom left her side, but he was able to describe places and imagine events in his work that betrayed a well travelled, wordly and experienced individual. Here was a man who was said to have talked in monosylables with James Joyce, but wrote ‘In Search of Lost Time’ wherein he devoted a total of 17 pages to describing a man toss and turn in bed because of insomnia.

Proust can change your life if you choose not to live like him and instead, live the way Proust wrote: actively, consistently and with grace. Proust may not have been able to live an active life, but as a writer he was prolific, observant, embracing the world. De Botton uses examples from Proust’s life and dealings with others as guidepost on how to live: be resolute and active in pursuing what you believe what will make you a productive human being even if Proust mainly didn’t. The products of Proust’s life — his books, his letters — were, suffice it to say, better than his actual life and how he spent it.

What this humorous yet analytical work seems to say is that the learning about the lives of celebrated writers have the effect of making more discerning and more critical when reading their work. While there are those who much prefer critiquing works of fiction without making much mention of the life of the writers who created them, it is still instructive to not lose ourselves in the work without knowing who was behind it lest we find ourselves misled.

The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)

This is the ultimate self-help book. De Botton picks six ordinary problems: Unpopularity; Not having enough money; Frustration; Inadequacy; A broken heart; and Difficulties, and presents the lives and philosophies of six thinkers as means to achieve solutions.

Rarely does it occur to us that the philosophers of the early ages have anything to say about the conflicts small and large we suffer as we try to maneuver through various aspects of our lives and our careers. Here, de Botton distills the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and presents readers with a virtual guidebook on how to handle stress and difficulties using the lessons from said teachers and intellectuals.

What does Schopenhauer say about being alone? Or Socrates about remaining steadfast in your belief even in the face of hostility? Can Epicurus give consolation to someone who doesn’t have enough money? How will Montaigne’s philosophy address and remove feelings of inadequacy?

Ordinarily when we need advice or a patient ear, we turn to friends or relatives we respect; de Botton gives another alternative: consult the philosophers and see what they have to say about your problem. More often than not, the solutions that the philosophers — and de Botton – recommend have to do with making adjustments in our our personal behavior and views of others and the world.

For instance, on dealing with frustrations of not having enough money, de Botton offers the Athenian Epicurus.

It’s a common misconception that Epicurean philosophy was all about hedonism — the single minded pursuit of pleasure for the sake of it. What comes to mind are all night partying, ostentatious living and scandalous affairs.

The real Epicurus extolled none of that. What he prescribed as a solution to unhappiness and the problems caused by envy of others was simplicity. According to him, life became pleasurable when you succeeded in ridding yourself of unnecessary wants and needs and secured the support and affection of true friends.

Epicurus also went as far as to separate desires into three categories — the natural and necessary (Friends, Freedom, Thought, Food, shelter and clothes); the natural but unnecessary (Grand house, private baths, banquets, servants, fish and meat); and the neither natural nor necessary (Fame, Power).

Happiness, the philosopher said, was not reliant on the amount of money you earn or the accumulation of various possessions. Having freedom to read and think, to confide in people you trust, and to enjoy food you prepared yourself are enough for any one to be happy.

De Botton synthesizes Epicurean philosophy for the modern society: “Most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity.” It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierachy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and the downplay an unsaleable one.

The many causes of life’s anxities, Epicurus says, comes as a result of objects and goals that are unnecessary.

The Art of Travel (2002)

Not everyone has the luxury of time or money to go places, but where we are and the things immediately around us can already teach us and bring us further than our ordinary experience.

In this book, De Botton presents a means to see and perhaps understand the world and humanity through the eyes of artists –poets, novelists, painters –and their work. It’s not only travel in the physical sense that he describes, but how to be a true traveller who sees more than what the eyes can perceive and experiences all that he can absorb with an open mind and heart. As he visits a myriad of places from Madrid to Barbados to London, he uses as tour guides the work and lives of the likes of poet Charles Baudelaire, painter Edward Hopper, the author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert, the tortured genius Vincent Van Gogh, and the biblical character Job.

It doesn’t matter if you travel to Egypt or Amsterdam; or if you ride a steamship to get there or a plane; what counts is cultivating the habit of noticing. Our appreciation of what we see around us is heightened by the depth of our awaress and knowledge about the object or phenomenon. The same then can be said of our understanding of society itself and its economic and political workings: the more we learn about it, the more that we can understand about our own circumstances especially if it’s evident that what trials and tribulations we suffer cannot be accrued to our own faults, irresponsibility, laziness, etc. Learning first comes from observation, and from there, understanding can begin. It may be far off in the process, but new knowledge can lead and has often led to positive action.

This is what happened in the cases of the tour guide artists who’s respective work sought to comment on the societies they were born to, its norms and traditions, and the rules of what merits something beautiful or correct. The more we observe and learn, the greater will our drive be to create and to create something daring or insightful.It can be our reaction to what already exists – say, a society where injustice is prevalent – or our aspiration for something to happen,for example, the attainment of true democracy. Artists use their work to express more than themselves, but to denounce or to praise the status quo and its elements.

Finally in the book, De Botton posits that to be a true traveller is to be more than a visitor or a tourist: it means learning. Travelling to places far removed from the places of our origins grants us a set of fresh eyes. We can compare the differences between our current abode and the one we left behind, and acknowledge that there are more than ecological or environmental variances but the descrepancies between societies are more of a man-made, willful and systemic nature. What we do with our realizations is our choice. As we travel the world, we also conduct journeys within.

Status Anxiety (2004)

Daily we grow weary trying to cope with the demands and expectations of the world. For some of us, work has become more than a means to earn and hence to survive; it has become a definition, meaning the kind of work you perform speaks much about you. It doesn’t matter if it’s manual labor or mental work: when you compare yourself to your fellows and colleagues and how they have been faring, you can get a guage of your own relative status. The question that arises then is this: are you satisfied with it or not? If you’re not, what do you do about it?

De Botton offers oblique criticism against the concept of status as an guage for what is admirable or ideal: society puts too much stress on the accumulation of wealth when the ugly truth is that this very same pursuit of material gain is precisely what makes the world vicious and ugly. He tactfuly but pointedly instructs the reader to assess his standards of what makes success; what defines meaning purpose; and inevitably, what constitutes happiness.

Status, he says, is granted or imposed by society, and we all know that society is controlled by a ruling class. He then goes on to quote Marx who laid down that the ruling class is largely responsible for disseminating beliefs, many of them illogical and unjust. If the often foolish and irrational standards used to determine what is high status as opposed to low status are done away with, it is the ruling classes who deserve to be labelled ‘low.’ Why? Because its members feed off the labor and sacrifice of those below them in economic stature. An ideal conferment of status as a measurement of what is admirable would be to accord the highest title to the working people because it is actually through their toil that the world revolves.

In the end, the values that one embraces are reflected in he conducts himself in all arenas of life, be it work or friendship, romantic relationships and advocacies. The worries and anxieties are also colored by what one holds important: if you think that being fashionable is important, it will cause you anxiety to be seen wearing last season’s shoes. If you believe that public health and nutrition are important, you will be angry to find out that your government has slashed allocations for services for public hospitals while increasing provisions for military expenditures. Status anxiety is only as great or important as how you see your own worth to be granting that you are aware of what are truly important in life.

The Architecture of Happiness (2006)

In this book, de Botton guides us through the history of various cultures and the art they created when it came to physical structures and monuments. He presents the varying and sometimes conflicting schools of thought when it came to architecture and what makes a building beautiful, impressive, or quite simply, appealing.

As he has been wont to do in all of his books, de Botton gives his insight on the human condition, this time by using architecture. As an expression of the self and the prevalent beliefs of the times, what could be more telling than a building erected to the specifications set not only by the laws of engineering or physics, but the personal ideals of the architect and/or his client?

People have altered the environment to suit their whims and needs, and the birth and popularization of of various architectural philosophies throughout the centuries are a reflection of the same. Citing various famous landmarks and non-so-known buildings all over the world, de Botton explains that it is our natural inclination to surround ourselves with what will either reflect what we want of ourselves (our ambitions, hopes and dreams), or what will make us comfortable and feel ‘at home.’ For instance, a museum cannot be anyone’s house, but one can still feel at home surrounded by objects and works of art that inspire or agitate. The skylight, the empty spaces, the way the floor meets the walls and proceeds to guide you towards the stairs or a hidden recess, they can all contribute to how we feel at any given moment.

The value of this book is how, after reading it, one is compelled to look to one’s surroundings and see everything in a different way. The architectural construction of office buildings, banks, military bases, churches, hotels, schools — all of it makes a comment about their occupants and visitors, and on the whole contributes to a general image of the society it all belongs to. Again, the values we hold dear are determinant in how we construct our abodes and other physical structures. For instance, a society that considers education important will take pains to construct a physical environment of buildings and elements that are conducive to learning: large classrooms with good ventilation and lighting; comfortable bathrooms, flood-proof stairwells, etc. Beauty is not only in appearance, but more important, in form and utility.

Architecture can also be a telling sign of hypocrisy or twisted priorities in a society: imagine fast-tracking the beautification of public parks ahead of building public housing facilities for thousands of homeless people.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)

This, by far, is the most impressive of de Botton’s books. Here he leaves behind books and historical learning and goes out into the world to speak to and learn from actual living people and their experiences in their respective workplaces.

In this book, de Botton observes and describes people and their work, ranging from biscuit manufacturing, rocket launching, career counselling, painting, accountancy, aviation, and the logistics of procuring tuna tuna for the dining table.

In the last, he traces the origins of a vacuum-sealed pack of tuna to the seas in the Maldives. Through a series of captioned pictures, de Botton tells how he joined a team of fishermen, rode their boat and suffered through bouts of intestinal inflammation.

After witnessing the fishermen make a successful haul, he proceeded to the fish processing plant with ties to British importers and supermarkets. He watched the workers fillet the tuna, then the machines as they packed, sealed and labelled the fillets. After this, he went on to follow the shipment of fish as it boarded a plane towards England (the fish was in the cargo hold, while de Botton secured a seat in Economy). The shipment is unloaded in Heathrow, where de Botton finds supermarket merchandisers waiting. Eventually, the fillets are sold , and a pack ends up in the kitchen of a middle-class family. The fish, de Botton discovers, is for a young boy’s dinner. He sits with the boy and speaks to him over the meal which the boy Sam eats, even as he, Sam, proclaims that he hates tuna.

All throughout the book, de Botton expresses a wistful hope that we might gain a healthier respect for the working people if we understood better the nature of their work and the difficulties they experience in the conduct of their tasks.

In the process of learning and understanding, we also open ourselves to the possibility of being amazed at how far humanity has gone as a species when it comes to technological advancement even as we rue the backwardness of many of our traditions, values and beliefs, and how we relate to one another. The value we attach to certain pursuits can be seen as mislaid, and our own goals sometimes shallow when seen in the larger context of how the world works, or rather, how it is run.

Given this, work is more than a means of attaining a living when you think of the long hours we commit to it: it can become a means by which we can define ourselves. Far from considering manual labor as inferior to mental work, de Botton calls on the righteousness of being proud in one’s honest labor and its contribution to the social machinery. If we do our work well, no matter how menial it is, we should hold our head high.

Positive Reviews

For the most part, Alain de Botton’s books receive positive reviews. Some criticize his tendency to be pedantic, or the sometimes too-obvious effort to be clever ; but on the whole, it’s never a waste of time to read him. One could certainly do much worse than spend an afternoon in the company of de Botton and the philosophers.

January 7, 2011

To A and the elephant that danced

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 7:54 am

That he wore a replica of the ring worn by Aragon, King of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings movie was already an indication that A would still, essentially, be the same person he was two decades ago.

It’s been 17 years since A and I last saw each other. I was still studying in that supposedly premier state university in Diliman, while he attended that private learning institution in Intramuros that annually churned out engineers and architects. Previous to that, though, we were classmates in high school, and in the last two years that I wore the school uniform, I had a silent crush on him for reasons similar to my childhood belief in fairies and my appreciation for stories that end sadly.

I admit now that I was a bit nervous about seeing A again. The intervening years between the last time we spoke had seen me changing into someone quite different from the person he’d met in high school or seen during the few times we saw each other as university students. But more than anything, I was apprehensive because the last time we had met, I didn’t know if I had broken his heart or at least chipped it.

None of my worries, however, were enough to make me think it was a bad idea to see him again. We had communicated though Friendster and then on Facebook. He was always friendly, he was always kind. I felt that maybe he had forgotten, and that if there was anything to forgive, that he had done that, too.

And so we agreed to meet for tea and cake. I was back in the country and so was he for a short while. It made me happy to think that we could be friends again, and this is what made me shrug off everything else. We hugged and smiled and he apologized for being 20 minutes late. It was easy to forgive him because it was obvious that he had hurried the entire time to get there: he was sweating, and he was practically running when he arrived.

For the next hour he told me about how he had been. He was happy, and while he didn’t come out directly and say it out of modesty, successful; but five years ago he went through hell when his marriage dissolved in a way one would associate with the melodramas shown in the 80s and scriptwriters could not be bothered to be more creative.

I was sympathetic and shocked that he went through all that, but it was hard to keep from laughing: he narrated his story of woe in a self-mocking manner, and while he was not detached, it was obvious that he had succeeded in putting much emotional distance between his experience and himself. He could already afford to laugh and to pretend to look sad. He had recovered; for this I was grateful — I didn’t like the idea of A suffering.

Truth be told, he is the sort you would never think to hurt because, well, he always seemed to me a gentle soul, almost a child, really. Back in high school he was never mean or arrogant or overly self-confident. True, none of the other boys in our class were, but A, to me at least, was a shade nicer than most. But I’m being biased, so nevermind. Privately, I thought his former wife was an idiot.

Then we moved on to other things. I told him about this and that about my life, my work, the onset of what promised to be a brutal winter in Europe that prompted my and my daughter’s hasty departure leaving behind my husband who still had two years to finish his doctorate degree.

By then I was no longer apprehensive, I was certain that no mention of the even more distant past would take place. We could focus on the present, I thought; the elephant that threatened to enter the room would never have to show its face and it would go back to the circus that was my emotional and relationship history.

I was wrong. Not only did the elephant entered the room, it did so being carefully led by A himself.

“I have a confession to make. I know it’s been years and years and years, but I still want to come out and tell you,” he began. I noticed that he sat even straighter in his chair, and he was leaning forward in his eagerness to speak out. As for me, I felt myself slowly turning into a snail.

So he began to talk. He told me that in high school he had a crush on me, and did I ever know that? I shook my head: honestly, I didn’t. There was the prom and we danced…There were times when our friends teased us, didn’t I remember?

Mute, head shaking, weak smile.

But what about after high school — the few times he visited me in Diliman? It was a long ride from Intramuros to Quezon City, did it never occur to me why he made the effort? Or the other times we went out to watch movies? The times we talked and it wasn’t like he was always making jokes…

This is what he said that made the elephant dance: he said that I told him that there was someone else that I cared for, and while that declaration from me did not really constitute a refusal for him and what he had yet to really offer, it was enough to stop him from ‘bothering’ me. It hurt, he said. He wasn’t expecting it. And while he said it with regret, he didn’t sound at all like he was blaming me for the pain.

I could only shake my head. Right then I knew exactly how Celine in that movie Before Sunset felt when Jesse kept telling her details of their one whole day together a decade before, and she kept denying everything: it turned out, in the end, that she remembered everything even as she forced herself to forget.

Interruption — I decided to write about this because I felt, as a writer, that it was something interesting to describe. Chuck Palahniuk in a recent blog post came out with a list of writing tips, and among them he said to ‘write about the things that upset you because they’re the only things really worth writing about.’ Well, this reunion with A upset me, and while it’s not in a bad way, it affected me enough to make me want to write about it.

Then here’s the truth: I did feel that the short time I spent with A back in our college years was happy, and when it ended suddenly, abruptly, and without proper explanations as a result of my …confusion and — let it be said even if some would say it’s a corny excuse — youth, I felt bad and sad about it.

The cliches about closure are true: it is needed. It doesn’t matter if it’s been months or years and even decades; the words left unsaid, the unfulfilled necessity of showing gratitude for kindness received and affection felt; the unperformed ritual of saying goodbyes and stating sincere wishes that a friendship will be kept despite, they all need to be spoken and done.

It had been years, but suddenly it felt like only yesterday. That’s another cliche that I have personally proven to be true. Right then I began to remember what I said, what I did, and it was like being caught between sliding doors. Memory is a funny thing, really. It turned out that, boy!, A had a very good one, and mine, well, there have been so many things that I have chosen to forget because they caused me pain; and there are other things I chose to forget because they caused me shame and a measure of, yes, regret.

Ah, Celine! If only you were real, I would’ve tracked you down in Paris and asked you about the persistence of memory and how it can surprise you!

In the end, all I could offer A was the explanation that I never said that I already loved someone else (I could barely get the ‘L’ word out) and that I didn’t want to see him again; all I said was that there was a friend I cared about and the said person was more or less relying on my friendship (gad, how’s that for a grayish description of a relationship). I told A these things because I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be fair. At the time I was uncertain why exactly A rode the jeep from Intramuros to Quezon City to see me (no, I’m not clueless; I just don’t like to assume things because I’m not vain), so if he was going to speak up, then was a good time as any.

And no, it was not at all like I didn’t like A or didn’t care about him (two years of having a giant a crush on somebody is not nothing; and I did write him this strange letter…).

But he didn’t speak up. Instead, he became silent, and he all but disappeared from my life until Friendster was invented and then years later, Facebook.

Return to the present. To make amends, I made a vow to answer all A’s questions honestly if he issued them. We agreed to meet again for dinner a few days after.

I don’t know what prompted him to tell me, but he told me about how his life was like in college, how he had to struggle to stay in school, and then afterwards to find work. It was not an easy life, and he often felt at a loss, but he persevered. He loved his family, he put them ahead of everything else, and it was for them that he gave all that he could to his work.

In the meantime, I felt it no short of amazing how I, who had once upon a time, had the courage and the anger to accost and berate a row of police armed with truncheons and shields; I who could help emcee a political rally with a crowd of thousands, had to breathe deeply to muster the strength to be honest and to not falter with my words. It made me sound flippant, the effort it took. I was to apologize for this later on, but right then as I sat across A, listening to him, answering his questions, even the ones for which there were no certain answers because the conditions they presented were unknown and could never be realized, I was thankful I could still speak.

I didn’t know that he had to struggle to finish school, and that he worked nights in various fastfood chains so he could have money for class projects; or that he sometimes did the homework of classmates so they would, in return, treat him to lunch…

Oh, but I was happy for him, and proud of how he had succeeded against so many odds! He loved his former wife, and while it didn’t turn out the way he wanted, he at least emerged in one piece from the remnants of their marriage that she broke. More than whole — he was not essentially altered because he became neither bitter or cynical. He was, still, whole at heart.

But this has been a long entry, and I don’t know how to end it. Generous of heart and kind to a fault, A deserves all the happiness he can get. It was a good day for friendship, that afternoon and evening we spent talking. It was not always awkward (on my part — only the guilty feel uncomfortable), and we both laughed and laughed over his romantic misadventures after that episode with his marriage. I told him about my husband, our daughter and how she takes after her father. I told him that no relationships were ever perfect, that they really took a lot of effort and that sometimes it was exhausting to the point of pain and tears. What it all boils down is constancy: love requires faith and constant work, and if you let down your guard or if you are careless, you could lose it and never recover it.

This, he said, was good advice, something he would remember when he finally finds HER. In fact, he may have already found her, but he’s uncertain how to proceed…

A! You wear Aragorn’s ring, and while I did tell you it was soooo geeky, it’s also cool in a Big Bang Theory way and because you believe in what Aragorn fought for and his quest. Forget my comment about it, and forget what I said about Arwen’s pendant and how you want to give it to HER. It’s a gesture that speaks much about you, what you’re like, and what you believe in. I wish you well, I wish you the courage to tell HER and nevermind all your fears and worries — full speed ahead! Thank you for the Listerine juice, thank you for your honesty, thank you for the friendship and the willingness to listen to this bad girl you didn’t know about and about to the ‘different’ life she leads.

And finally, you thought I didn’t hear it when you asked: you more than exceeded all my expectations formed in high school.