31 December 2020

2020. What a year! So much has happened, and yet it feels like nothing has happened. Did time and space collide, hijack the rollercoaster we were all on, and kept us going through the loops? It's the last day of the year but it doesn't feel like we're getting off the ride just yet. 

But in any case, here is a bunch of things that made me feel less terrible and/or amplified the terrible feelings (in a good, cathartic way) this year.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Did this series really end this year? Did we really see the last of BoJack, Diane, Princess Caroline, Todd, and Mr. Peanutbutter? It had its curtain call last January, and it already feels like forever ago. When I first started watching this show, there were only three seasons so far on Netflix. In between waiting for the new seasons, I'd always feel hopeful: maybe this is the season for redemption, for comeuppance but also recovery. And every finale, I'd be punched in the gut at how much sadder and bleaker things seemed for this crazy group of people you couldn't help but root for. Unarguably, the series finale was the most heartbreaking of them all. Why? Because endings are always hard. But also, because the endings that hurt more are the ones we actually saw coming. When we know things cannot turn out any other way. When the inevitability of anguish can be seen from a mile away, and yet we go through with it because that's life. That's just how it is. Sometimes, life's a bitch and you die, right? But sometimes, life's a bitch and you keep on living. And it was nice while it lasted.

Lana Del Rey

No one else makes music that perfectly encapsulates the psychological phenomena of "the call of the void" better than Lana. Going through her entire discography this year felt like wearing different masks. Each time, it's a mask painted in a shade of gloom and foreboding, but it's actually very freeing, almost like escaping to a world where sadness is the catalyst that turns your charcoal feelings into diamonds. Living in the moment is accepting all the highs and lows of life and making beautiful music because of, in spite of, in pursuit of it. She said it best in Norman F*cking Rockwell: happiness is a butterfly, every day is a lullaby, I try to catch it into lightning, I sing it into my music. I just want to dance. 

"Disco sadness"

Speaking of dancing, 2020 was a year of fully surrendering to pop music. I realized that the most powerful songs to cry to are those that force you to move. Why? Because with them, there is no choice other than to dance the pain away. To acquiesce to the pulsating beats, to be consumed by the music - it's both concession and catharsis. (I made a playlist of sad bangers that clocks in at exactly sixty minutes, and which of course include Carly Rae, Jessie Ware, Robyn, and Mark Ronson among others.)

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys
...Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age

I dove into these two concept albums this year because I felt like the conceit created for each of them was so interesting. Gentrification and media consumption even in outer space, a lunar wedding, a space motel. A vampire that feels frozen in time. The metaphors perfectly bridge the divide between these bands' hard and soft extremes. It all feels so alien, and yet very much familiar. And oddly comforting. (Plus, Dave Grohl returned as the drummer for this QOTSA album!)

Succession (HBO)

Don't be fooled: this is currently HBO's biggest prestige drama. A media mogul is forced to step down from his media conglomerate, but for him, none of his children are ready to inherit his legacy. High stakes, betrayal, money, family, power But damn it, everything about this show is just so, sooo funny. Which isn't a surprise, given that it is produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It's this fantastic portrait of a powerful family, full of terrible people, making terrible choices. The sad thing is it reflects the reality that our fates - the information we consume, most importantly - rely on the whims of these few entitled brats. They're all trainwrecks in their own way, but it's so hard to look away. 

Jeopardy (Netflix)

There really is no better comfort show than Jeopardy. Okay, coming clean: in grade school and high school, I was always our school's representative for quiz bees, mostly in history and social sciences. (Yeah, I intellectually peaked in high school, haha.) This show just gets me fired up, because it makes wanting to learn fun. One of the phrases (and mindsets) I absolutely hate is "Edi ikaw na madaming alam." It's such a stupid retort that shuts down any discourse. So what if I know things??? Learning is fun!!! Knowing the classics and state capitals is fun!!! Hypothetically winning $20,000 by getting the Final Jeopardy question is fun!!! Alex Trebek will definitely be missed though. Losing him was such a gut-punch in an already horrible year.

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

Before this book, I didn't really have an opinion on Colin Jost. I don't consider him an SNL great, although I do know he's been writing for it since he graduated from Harvard in 2005. I think he's an okay Weekend Update anchor, I know he's dating ScarJo, aaaand that's pretty much it. But I'm so glad I picked up this book, partly because since he was writing about the era of SNL I mostly grew up with (2005-present), I knew much of what he was talking about. Mostly because it was very self-aware of what people perceive as his own mediocrity. He recognizes his privilege. He acknowledges his weaknesses. But he hustles his way through. He consistently out-works anyone else to show that he may not be the best, but he's really good at what he does anyway. (The chapter about his mom being the chief medical officer of the New York Fire Department during 9/11 also made me cry buckets. She saved so many lives but also lost so many others. It was a great illustration of her tenacity and compassion, which was great of Jost to highlight in his book.)

Saturday Night Live

Aside from Jost's memoir, I read another book about SNL this year, "Saturday Night Live and American TV." I also started rewatching old episodes on Peacock (on VPN). And I binge-watched "Creating Saturday Night Live" behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. Like I've said before, I've always secretly dreamt of becoming a screenwriter for a comedy show. When people ask me about my "what if" - this is one of mine. And SNL will always be that unexplored, unattainable playground. 

In the Land of Men by Adrienne Miller

Another "what if." This book is unarguably one of my favorite memoirs from this year. Adrienne Miller lived out what every creative writing and literature major could only dream of: become the literary editor of Esquire. This meant she got to meet, mingle with, and critique some of the best writers of her generation. But this also meant learning how to navigate the very elitist, often classist, and sometimes misogynistic world of the modern-day literati. Her tenuous relationship with David Foster Wallace was the highlight of the book, and while I'm an ardent admirer of the man (I still mourn his passing), I felt that it was only fitting that she wrote about the difficult aspects of being his friend/former flame. Some parts of her story felt emotionally crushing, but it was a necessary story to tell, and I'm glad she shared it with the world. 

Big Mouth (Netflix)

I wish I had this show in my adolescence. It would have made me feel less bad about feeling certain things - emotionally and sexually. The premise of this show may seem dumb and wacky (okay, it is), but it's so refreshingly honest and simple. Puberty brings about so many changes. And it's okay to feel worried, anxious, or angry about it. The important thing is to accept that it's all normal. Our body shouldn't define us, but understanding it certainly leads to clarity about who we are. (Connie the Hormone Monster is my absolute favorite! I actually cried when Jessi had her first period because everything Connie said about it was true: it makes you want to listen to Lana del Rey while cutting your hair and screaming at your mom.)

Positions by Ariana Grande

She's my most played artist this 2020. I'm in the 0.1% of her listeners. Need I say more? Much of Ariana's music and disposition mirrors my own struggles. There is something so compelling about a figure who has gone through so many traumatic experiences in such a short time and managed to emerge stronger, kinder, and more self-deprecating even in her vulnerability. It was certainly not easy surviving a terrorist attack, losing your fans, losing your ex, breaking off an engagement. But she manages to distill her feelings of fear, longing, and acceptance into such great pop songs. They're so fun to sing to, to cry to. To find comfort in. To borrow from Pitchfork: "Sweetener dazzled because its joy was defiant. thank u, next caromed through phases of glee and grief, moving from pink champagne bravado into stark confessions. Positions searches for peace. It traces the quiet work of piecing yourself together, the terror of re-learning how to trust." This is Ariana's power for me: the ability to take tangible pain and make something from it, to feel whole again. 

Teaching (and putting studying on hold)

I started teaching at a public, city-funded university's law school this year. It was certainly one of the nice detours this year brought. I applied last year given the university's proximity to my office, but at the time there were no openings available. Enter 2020, and an opportunity opened up for Legal Philosophy. Trying to teach my students about justice, fairness, and due process was especially very difficult this year. Considering this government's incompetence and moral bankruptcy, it was challenging to reconcile theory with reality. But it's also comforting to know that this crop of students are compassionate and intelligent, able to see where our institutions fail and how they should navigate their future place in the profession. In many ways, this teaching gig was a welcome detour. If the pandemic didn't happen, I'd probably be abroad, finishing my LLM under a scholarship. I got admitted to three schools this year, but I had to put that dream on hold, but to be honest, I also feel relieved. The country is in such a mess. It's exhausting and it feels unending. But being forced to stay here made me put things into perspective. What is it that I want to do for this place? Is it a dream worth pursuing? And the answer, every day, despite the gaslighting and the emotional abuse our leaders are putting us through, is yes. Our institutions deserve better. We can do better. And we can do our part when we find it in ourselves to point our goals towards that direction: progress. 


The truth was I almost didn't want to write anything about 2020 anymore. I've already done that several times this year. But maybe that's a good thing. While this year may have been hard to process, I grabbed every opportunity to reflect and to write as soon as I felt it necessary. (Not always in this blog, but in my private notebooks, at least.) If anything, 2020 forced me to face my fears head on. I had no other choice. I was stuck in one place, so I had to deal with things right away. And deal with it, I did, with this list of things  being just as crucial in taking the edge off as the love of friends and family with whom I've grown closer in many ways this year.

I wish 2021 will be kinder. But even if it isn't, at the very least, after this shitshow of a year, I hope we all are. 2020 was tiresome. I hope we never forget the lessons it taught us: kindness, patience, compassion. 

And the fervent hope that things will, should, and can get better. Because what else is there to help carry us through? 

"The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all."

The greatest, Lana Del Rey

13 December 2020

Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, Episode 13: Stephen Colbert
Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, Episode 13: Stephen Colbert

I've been meaning to write about this episode since the first time I heard it in 2019. And I've attempted to do so in the many times I've gone back to it since then. It's a fantastic episode, not just of "Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend," but podcasting in general. Conversations like these are what make this format so fulfilling. Podcasts allow the host and the guest to truly immerse themselves in a topic without the expectation of immediate audience reactions or without much worry over time. But also, the entire hour of this show was a great distillation of what I love most about comedy. A lot of people dismiss the genre as "light." Frivolous. Not serious. But there is a great deal of depth and poignancy behind why it feels light. And it often takes a tremendous amount of sheer will - one that has overtaken or continues to overtake suffering - to create something that triggers release: laughter. With genuine laughter comes levity, and with levity comes ease. This episode demonstrates clearly why and how comedy heals.

(It's also a great introspection on Catholicism, and how our faith compels us to view suffering as imperative to redemption. Who would've thought, huh? On a comedy podcast!)

Let's start in media res: Conan opened up about growing up and suffering from anxiety. Shortly after, Stephen began talking about the tragedy of losing his dad and his two brothers on a plane crash when he was 10 years old. They were en route to the Canterbury School, a boarding school in Connecticut, when the plane was trying to land. It changed his family's life instantly, and shattered him completely. 

Eventually, the two comedians found common ground on how comedy really, truly saved their lives. Comedy, for them, came from this sudden, unexplainable compulsion to enter a plane of "magical thinking." It was relying so much on your imagination, of being so deep in a process of self-reflection, in order to channel something new. For Stephen, it was entering this realm of possibilities inside of head, of trying to change how things were and finding meaning to reality.

Stephen: "I had a magical thinking about suffering and about forbearance and patience. Patience and forbearance of suffering. It would require enormous magic for that not to have happened [to my dad and brothers]. But what kind of brother or son would I be if I didn't at least attempt the magic?" 

With that "magical thinking" also came the acceptance of suffering; in fact, even thinking that pain was necessary in order to achieve some kind of meaning. The logic is that somehow, getting to the realm of "magical thinking" offsets the guilt of being alive or the guilt of having good fortune.

Conan: "I grew up an anxious person, very anxious person, and struggled with anxiety, and I really thought in a Catholic way that everything anything good had to come through suffering. I really believe that you have to be miserable."

Both these guys were raised in a very intellectual Catholic household. Both their dads were medical doctors (Stephen's dad was the dean of Yale Medical School; Conan's dad was a professor at Harvard Medical School). Conan's mom was a lawyer from Yale. They came from a large family (Stephen had 10 older siblings; Conan was the 4th of 6 children). But more than that, they were kindred spirits in how they both constructed a belief system that misery was required for anything good to happen. 

There was a beautiful discussion of how this was necessarily tied to their faith. 

Stephen: "I'm a Roman Catholic, and an 11-year-old altar boy. Very devout household. And the image of Christ on the cross - the highest aspiration is to be able to take up your cross and to alchemize suffering into gold. But you can't have gold without suffering. To the point where I had a magical thinking."

I have gone almost three decades of my life without anyone else understanding this undercurrent of unexplainable sadness I carry with me, a sadness so baffling considering I am often the most cheerful and most optimistic in almost all of my circles. It wasn't until this podcast that I realized I wasn't alone. I have lived a very privileged life. In many ways, I have been shielded from harsh difficulties because of circumstances outside my control. (Class, mostly.) It has always made me feel a kind of much-deserved guilt, that I don't deserve to have these things. And yet, I do have a unique collection of heartaches. The death of numerous family members since I was 13; parents who only tolerate each other; an operation that permanently severed certain body parts - these all change the equation. To reconcile my privilege and my many griefs, my mind learned to cope by creating this twisted way of looking at the world. Anguish was necessary to counterpoise my good fortune, I'd think to myself. But the continuous luck - the "rewards" I got after going through those sufferings - would just add more to my shame and sadness. "At what cost? My loved ones' lives? I don't deserve any good fortune that came out of overcoming that grief." And so begins an endless cycle of gloom and guilt.

At which point, the "magical thinking" comes in. The magical thinking that maybe I could turn back time. Or that maybe, I can create my own reality. The former is impossible; I just settle with leaving the what ifs in my imagination. As for the latter, it's the part where I intentionally disassociate from this self-defeating cycle, and just decide to power through. That conscious conquering - I get that by making jokes, trying to make people laugh. By putting a bubbly, fun, overly optimistic facade. The "magic" happens when I actually start to believe it. When it doesn't feel fake. When it starts to touch that part of me that floats through the undertow of sadness. And for a moment, the gears of the endless cycle screech to a halt. "I am capable of making people happy without putting them through misery. I can do that for others. Maybe I can do that to myself, too." And if I want it bad enough, if I think hard enough, that magic will erase my woes and work on me too. 

Conan: "I felt like I suffered through other things, and they felt very powerful to me. And I engaged in magical thinking and put myself through a lot of torture. And here’s the crazy thing what happens when you do that, and then magical things start to happen for you."

It's no coincidence that this intersects with my favorite book by Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking." It is a masterful account of Joan's denial and acceptance over her husband's death. In exquisite, melancholic, almost poetic detail, she invites us into the head space of an unexpected widow, who was at the same time taking care of a 39-year-old daughter in a coma. Here, she explores her inner voice doing the "magical thinking" -  her way of pervading through her suffering was to freeze her grief, as if preserving it in amber. Charging his phone, putting his shoes by the door. One can say it was denial, but many modern sociologists also argue that it's the self's way of manifesting: of giving power to her thoughts like a child, "as if her thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome." Studies show that any form of "magical thinking" - a belief system that your thoughts can have an influence in the course of events in real life - as adaptive and healing. It can reinforce a suffering person's sense of stability and control. It's advanced-level denial.  

It's not an easy thing to explain, justify, or even rationalize. But I'm so glad Conan and Stephen were able to allow themselves enough vulnerability in that episode that they were able to bring about this truth. To recognize that this coping mechanism isn't unique to each of them. And that this salves the wounds of others too. This suffering, this guilt, this agony - what was it for? What was I supposed to do with it and what was it supposed to do with me?

We embrace the "magical thinking" because we want to justify that suffering is just the prerequisite for any kind of metaphorical or literal reward. A transactional way of looking at life - a lot of therapists will say it's not healthy. But powering through - it happens. And when it does, it just perpetuates itself. It is able to manifest a new reality. 

"The magical thinking magically thinks that the magical thinking worked."

At many points in my life, I feel like it is my faith that consistently pulls me out from a dark place. But - to an embarrassing degree - I place my reverence of the power of laughter on the same pedestal. I am able to access that magical plane because I try to find the hilarity in the saddest, most absurd, most painful situations in my life. I have suffered so badly that I could only end up laughing about it. I carry so much unexplainable sadness that I have no choice but to make fun of it. That's the real triumph, the redemptive coup de grace against that suffering. Losing a loved one, losing a part of your reproductive organs; been there, done that. And when I am truly able to "make light" of it - when I start to believe it and the magic happens - it keeps me moving.

This post is hardly a good distillation of that podcast, nor is it a clear explanation of what that mindset is and how it works. But I just... got it. I was shocked at how much I did. I was stunned at how much they accurately described this affliction. It was so familiar. And it was so powerful. And every time I feel lost or burdened, I find myself coming back to this episode. There will always be suffering. And maybe at the end of the suffering will always be a reward. Maybe we won't always deserve it. But - and I sure hope so - there will always be room for laughter, and there will always be space for magic. 

28 November 2020


First Women by Kate Andersen Brower;
Tough Enough 
by Deborah Nelson; 
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Unearthing our old e-reader from 2010 was definitely a welcome highlight this quarantine. Cleaning out the master's bedroom (after the herculean task of organizing mine) made me find this: a classic Barnes & Noble Nook which my dad bought for me back in college. I don't know why I forgot about it, to be honest, and found it pretty dumb that I never thought about digging it up when I set out to read more early this year. Unfortunately, its battery was bloated when I found it, so I had to order a new one from Amazon. Thankfully, it worked, and now here we are, with many more e-books to add to my list.

These are the last few books I've just finished, and it only took me about a week and a half to go through all three. Maybe it was because of my eagerness to reward myself after two consecutive hearings, or maybe it was my bias towards books that concern strong women. The running theme seemed to be women orbiting close to power, but also, to painful realities. Riveting.

1 | "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies" by Kate Andersen Brower

The first lady has no place in the Constitution; she has no official duties other than to be the President's wife. But it's certainly interesting how they carved their own paths separate from, although entwined with, their husband's and how differently they used the platform the presidency gave them. This book is one of the three nonfiction books by Brower detailing some of the most interesting aspects of the US Presidency aside from the Presidents themselves: the first wives, the vice presidents, and the White House. This book focused on the presidential wives starting from Mamie Eisenhower until Michelle.

Instead of providing a separate chapter for each woman, Brower interlaces their stories under specific themes. What surprised me the most was how much the modern first ladies figured in their husbands' politics. Some of the first ladies actively participated in Cabinet meetings, foreign policy discussions, and even stood as diplomatic envoys on behalf of the US. I will admit that before reading this, I was only familiar with Hillary (with whom I share the same birthday) and Jackie Kennedy (whose grief and compelling private life had been closely scrutinized over the years). But this book made me the most intrigued about Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter (who founded the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity), and Betty Ford (who championed mental health and support for alcoholics and cancer survivors by establishing the Betty Ford Center.) Their contributions to society are considered seminal now, but what role would they have played if they were not given the platform of their husband's office?

Another interesting aspect of the book was how older first ladies belonging to a different generation viewed the relatively younger, more ambitious ones. In particular, Hillary Clinton, who, unlike her predecessors, had goals of her own — aspirations outside and beyond her husband's presidency. Some of the older First Ladies — and I suppose, America in general — found this off-putting at the time. But, as the author surmised, it was probably because they recognized the privilege afforded to the women of the succeeding generation. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s certainly allowed and provided more options for women in their chosen careers. The older first ladies such as Barbara Bush didn't have the same opportunities as, say, Ivy League-educated Hillary, as a circumstance of being born during her time. Perhaps it's not so much disdain, as it is a repressed kind of resentment that they were limited to just being the President's wives as a consequence of living in a different era. 

2 | "Rodham" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Which gives us a perfect segue to Rodham. To borrow from Jane Eyre, in this book, reader, she did not marry him. This novel envisions what Hillary's life would have been had she followed her head instead of her heart and turned down Bill's proposal. 

Full disclosure that I do not claim to know the entirety of Hillary's politics, nor that of Bill's. I just know that we were both born on October 26, so that's worth mentioning. (Another person born on that date? SC Justice Antonio Carpio. I am in great, powerful company.)

This is actually the first book I've read about Hillary. I initially wanted to dive into "Living History" first, her 2003 memoir, after reading Michelle Obama's "Becoming." But I just didn't feel like reading about all the issues that plagued the Clinton presidency, so I skipped it. According to the reviews I found on this book, it was pretty accurate of her life as a young Yale law student and fresh graduate anyway, so I was really interested in reading about how she was before Bill Clinton — and the rewritten history had she let him go.

I've always wanted to believe in multiple universes, in the possibility that out there are a multitude of lives running simultaneously along with this one, with varying degrees of discongruity. And given the huge losses that Hillary had to take in this lifetime, I couldn't help wishing that the fictional tale in the novel was the real one instead.

The novel felt like a realistic portrayal of who she was: strong-willed, stubborn, ambitious, driven. The book recounts the beginning of their romance but the story certainly takes off after their break-up. Walking away from an engagement with Bill Clinton saved her from a lot of bigger heartaches and moral pitfalls. But it was still rather sad to find out that even in that universe, some things would not have turned out that much differently. Her political life may have taken wilder, bigger turns, but people will still see her as cunning, evil, and aggressive — just because that's how society views women chasing dreams that do not solely prioritize motherhood or marriage. I liked how the novel creatively intersected events that actually happened in real life (in one part of the novel, the "Shut her up!" crowd still shows up, albeit from a different side, but pretty much for the same reasons), which kept the story grounded. It also helped that apparently a lot of scenes in the book mirrored things that Hillary herself wrote about in her previous memoirs or that official biographies narrated. It didn't really tackle her policies and politics though, which prevented the novel from being truly compelling.

In the end, despite it being a fictionalized version of Hillary's life, it gave a decent glimpse of who she is: detached but still sincere, honest about being ambitious but still someone worth empathizing with. In opening the door to an alternate universe, it allows us to envision a reality that does not judge her for her husband's actions. It simply allows us to view her as she could have been, on her own. She may have still made mistakes. But it still could have been different; and in this other reality, different was certainly, infinitely better. If only?

3 | "Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil" by Dorothy L. Nelson

This is the most insightful and my personal favorite among the three books. It is not a biography, rather a literary critique of the six women's works. 

These thinkers and artists had significant influence on their respective fields: philosophy, literature, photography. One major criticism when it comes to the scholarship on these fields is that there just aren't enough female voices, i.e. they lack emotion and depth. But interestingly enough, the impact of these women did not arise because of this. In fact, they were largely criticized for the absence of sentiment in their approach to their art. The six women discussed in Tough Enough have been, in varying severity, accused of the opposite: being too cold, too unfeeling. Too detached. In going through the trajectory of their careers and most seminal works, the book explores the ways in which a disavowal of sentimentality by female artists, who are most likely to be accused of it, translates to a powerful stance. Informally dubbed as the "school of the unsentimental," the book examines how human nature is better understood when pain and suffering are processed at an arm's length.

For a sentimental person like me, the impersonality espoused by the book is a kind of wish-fulfillment. I have long admired Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, and I understood the effortlessness of their works was what made them cool. I aspired to be like that. Because their voice seemed so uncaring and dismissive in their writing, they were able to crystallize the minutiae of life in more impressive detail. But I don't think I was fully able to grasp that until this book confirmed it for me.

I was most absorbed by Weil's philosophy of "attention" — attention that is stripped of sympathy and empathy. It is an absolute emptying of our selves, our egos, our feelings, our motivations. When one is "attentive," one renounces this active longing in order to receive what the world has to offer, without the interference of one's limited and biased perspective. For Weil, the problem of actively seeking is precisely that one is too eager to fill the void in our soul. As a result, one settles too hastily on something: a counterfeit, a falsity. It is thus crucial that attention be characterized by detachment. Also central to Weil’s ethics of attention is a certain level of disinterestedness, which is thus the only way we could act justly towards other people's suffering. When we are moved by sentiment, we keep putting ourselves in the narrative. This is not the way to act just; rather we must focus solely on the suffering — the affliction — of others objectively. Otherwise, we cannot truly know. And we cannot truly receive.

Nelson focuses on these women's works pertaining to tragedy and suffering: Arendt's use of irony and discussion of "the banality of evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Susan Sontag's response to the September 11 attacks which did not call for unity but rather castigated the politics that led to the event, Mary McCarthy's rejection of empathy and solidarity in favor of confronting the pain of reality in The Company She Keeps, Diane Arbus's photographs of "the freaks" and the outcasts, Joan Didion's deep dive into grief after the deaths of her husband and daughter — these non-expressive, unemotional responses to reality all gave way to an aesthetic grounded in fact. To them, reality was the antiseptic to pain, and this antiseptic leads to true and actual catharsis. 

Tough Enough is an important book because it proposes that these six women's contributions to intellectual history challenges the modern insistence on empathy as a panacea to all our political and societal illnesses. Whether or not you agree with the case for "unsentimentality," these women's works were monumental in providing different considerations on how to face suffering. In dealing with suffering without trying to inhabit such a large emotional space, we are challenged to accept that empathy is not the only salve to our collective consciousness while still finding something meaningful in our objective collision with reality.


Peculiar, though: none of these books made me cry.1 And yet how fitting, especially considering the last book's appeal to pragmatism. While I wasn't consciously seeking for a theme when I picked up these books, one certainly emerged. To seek out the facts, to make an objective attempt at reality, and to desire the truth, is to create the potential for transformation and action. To be confined to the label of "woman" is certainly a societal flaw that all these women sought to correct. They are embodiments of the female desire to reassess how society views them. They can be many things — caring, detached, emotional, cold, ambitious, facile — all at the same time. It doesn't have to be either/or, and they do not have to be punished for it. 


1 That recognition belongs to "Promise Me, Dad" by Joe Biden, which I read during the height of typhoon Ulysses. By the time our power went back on, I was crying my eyes out on Beau Biden's passing.

31 October 2020


Joan Didion, writer and my own personal hero, echoes in "Goodbye to All That" about 28:

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it has counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it?

Nothing about this year (2020) was normal. And certainly a lot of the things I expected to happen this year (my 28th) did not quite pan out. It still did, however, highlight a lot of things about myself - perhaps to an even more illuminating degree, since we were all forced to stay at home and come to terms with ourselves, flaws and all. 

I realized that much of who I am now didn't happen over the course of the last six months, not even in the last year. Who we are each day is really a culmination of all our past heartaches and triumphs. Each choice, big or small, is a reflection of the value system we've tinkered with, refined, and stood by in years past.

I turned 29 last Monday. Much like everyone else this year, I celebrated simply and quietly with loved ones. No parties, only lots of cake. Lots of wine. And a profound sense of gratefulness. Everything's on fire, but my head's still above water for the most part. It's buoyed by the many things I allowed myself to take pleasure in this year, guiltlessly and without abandon. 

In Joan Didion's essay, she talked about moving from New York while reminiscing about the time she moved to New York. No similar significant shifts occurred in my life this year, however much of the last two years of my life did have similar departures. Leaving Quezon City to move back to Paranaque, finding comfort in Makati only to make a sudden shift to BGC. But these aren't necessarily permanent decampments so much as just minor detours.

What this year felt like though was actually moving permanently back home. I've been living in our house since 2017, after graduation and during bar review, but it never really felt like I was fully present. My mind was always elsewhere, focused on other far more important things outside. I was always leaving the house (for bar review, for dates, for work) and going back to the house (to sleep, to eat, to prepare for the next day), but I really was not in it. It was very rare for me to be  physically, mentally, and emotionally at home. I was always planning ahead or looking forward to a place outside our gates.

And then this year happened. And suddenly, I was noticing how uncomfortable my chair was. How much sorting my dresser needs. How much unnecessary clutter I had to give away. How our couch feels like the best encapsulation of what a cloud is like. How we never run out of Yakult. How much bread we consume as a family. How ideal my room is for sit-ups and planks but not much else that involves a bigger radius. How generous our entire house's lighting was for zoom meetings. How tall our gumamela trees (they really are literal trees now; they're taller than my grandma's house) were. How my ceiling is the perfect blank slate to wake up to.

It really did feel like stumbling into a new place again. To borrow from Didion, nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about. An old photo album, an unseen book, an unnoticed piece of painting under the staircase. Each piece a part of history that was yet to be discovered again. While the last seven months have been emotionally suffocating, it has also been pleasant. It was nice to really know every nook and cranny of the structure again. And more importantly, I'm quite appreciative of the time I get to spend with my family.

I don't know when I started feeling like our house was something I should depart from. It has always been comforting and warm and nice (my mom decorates really well). But it was also very restricting. To put it in very simple terms: my favorite Disney princesses were Rapunzel and Jasmine. Take with that what you will. There was always an "out there" that I had to go to, or be in, or take part of. For many reasons, home felt like an anchor that held me back.

But it isn't and it shouldn't be. I know now how much that rings true, and how lucky I am that I have a safe place to hide in and to take comfort in, especially when the outside is no longer the great escape it used to be. 

If not for the quarantine, who knows if I would've ever gotten the chance to really live here again? Before all this, my mind was made up about leaving for studies abroad, or leaving to settle down. While those are still definitely happening, the certainty seems to have dissipated thanks to the pandemic. But surprisingly, I don't feel so bad about it. 

Maybe I should just stay put.

I know I should be looking forward to 29. For a lot people, 29 is "clutch." It's the last year before 30, a chance to set big goals and take higher leaps. Although - *looks around* - considering everything that's been going on, I'm not about to make unrealistic expectations about what lies ahead. The truth is, on any other year, I would have chosen to ignore the pressure that comes with 29 just the same. More so now, when everything is this chaotic. 

So here goes my prediction for 29, and my farewell to 28: for sure I'll be elsewhere in a few years' time. Definitely. But while there's no certainty about when yet, or even the how, I'll just concern myself with the what: the reality is I'm going to be here for a little while. Time is collapsing into one permanent place, feeling endless and immoveable but also indubitably fading away. Still and all the same, I should be fine. 

It's easy to see beginnings and harder to see the ends.

This is what it was all about, wasn't it?

14 October 2020

Six months ago, it was almost entirely impossible to imagine that I'd be welcoming my birthday month still stuck at home. But here we are, in the middle of October, uncertain still about what lies ahead. Angrier, more anxious than ever.

Not surprisingly, as another way of coping, I've found myself sliding back into a (very, very) old habit. After some herculean house cleaning (my mom's initiative, obviously), I managed to dig up our old Wii and decided to install it in my grandmother's house, particularly in the room I used to stay in for bar review. Needless to say, I was re-hooked, like the sixteen-year-old that I was when we first got the thing in 2007. In less than two weeks, I managed to purchase (secondhand) games, buy a new remote, and set up a whole AV system in that room.

I dove head first into Rock Band the moment the Wii's power button turned green. I cannot genuinely use the idiom "It's like riding a bike," because I never learned how, but I guess I'd have no problem saying "It's like playing fake plastic instruments," because man, I didn't forget.

Muscles having memories has always been interesting to me. It is widely believed that once you learn how to do something physical, over time, it becomes easier and easier to do it without thinking. It feels like your body remembers how to do it. Biologists and neuroscientists propose that it can mean at least two slightly different things: (1) that when you stress your muscles to the point of hypertrophy, your muscles grow new cells which stick around and allow you to continuously perform certain functions, or (2) the parts of your brain responsible for movement develop stronger connections between neurons that function to engage that motion. 

Either way, it being a function of muscle cells or brain cells, muscle memory happens. It exists, and it's fascinating. While our brain may not consciously remember certain things, some way, somehow, parts of us do.

The first song I tried playing again was "Everlong" by Foo Fighters. The drums come in at exactly the eleventh second. The snare and the bass come crashing and the entire song just explodes within the first thirty seconds. The instruments and the harmony fuse together so quickly and effortlessly just before the completion of the song's opening minute; no build up, no fancy lead-ins. It so quickly and immediately assembles a spectacle of a song, like a fully-formed Athena coming out of Zeus' skull. It's joyous and infectious and fantastic. All four minutes of it.

So much of instrument-playing requires feeling instead of thinking. While the first few steps of learning is cerebral, once you master the how's, it's the other elements that step in and allow you to continue playing well. I play the piano; I know how to hit the keys at the right time, to look at visual cues and hold a note, to ease the pressure when the piece requires it. But eventually the actual skill will translate into something less analytical, something more reliant on sensations and impulses. 

It's a skill that I didn't realize would translate even with fake plastic instruments. But there I was, leaning into the song's rhythm so effortlessly, as if I've been playing the thing for years. (Granted, I was just on Medium.) The feeling of just knowing when to strike — it's consistent, apparently. Tapping into our internal metronome, once unlocked, turns out to be a prowess which never fully departs your muscles. 

I didn't forget.

"Everlong" is simple and candid in its message too. It doesn't work its way into a delicately ensconced narrative. It just straight up tells the beloved, Hello, I've waited here for you. No idioms, no analogies, no figures of speech. No thinking necessary. 

Music, motion, memory — a lot of these things don't require much contemplation when we get down to it. Purely instincts. That sense of recognition is automatic. Once it is made familiar — embedded in the fiber of our muscles and the maps of our cells — it never quite leaves. 

I went through all the other songs in my Rock Band CDs in sentimental haste. As I struck the rubber drum pads one by one, all the memories of playing these songs came rushing back. It was such a glorious, carefree time in my life, jamming it out with my friends on pseudo-instruments. All of a sudden, it felt like a virtual time machine to different points in the past: each track made me relive past heartbreaks, old parties, great entanglements, recollections of a percussionist's hands touching mine, tapping along to the beat.

But more than that, the additional weight of knowing that you aren't only singing along — the visceral, intuitive nature of actually feeling like you were one with the song because your hands, your feet, your muscles remember — it was exhilarating.

I sometimes get lost in the sadness of forgetting. I have a tendency to lose things in my mind — I keep forgetting to lock my car, or where I place my glasses, or what friends gave to me for past birthdays, or the things people dear to me last said. And once they're gone, they're forever lost in the ether. But there is so much comfort in knowing now that something within me isn't consigned to oblivion. My hands, my feet — my body — it remembers. It manages to sway along to a familiar beat. When it recognizes something it has done before, it knows.

Grohl asks, "And I wonder, if anything could ever feel this real forever?"

To this, muscle memory attests. It is quiet and surprising in remembering, potent in its affirmation. And isn't the heart a muscle too?

29 August 2020

I received a postcard from Concord, New Hampshire the other day. 

It was from another graduate student from the LLM program I got admitted to. We got in touch through the law school's admissions office via email a few months ago, before the reality of deferral dawned on me, and before their classes, exams, and eventual graduation were all moved online. To reach out to prospective students is already a thoughtful gesture, but to send an actual, physical letter just to say hi and to make us feel welcome? It shouldn't feel like much, but given the current circumstances, it's well-received and appreciated.

It feels like my admission was a lifetime ago. April — and the rest of the year — slipped by so quickly. So many devastating, troubling, and concerning things have happened since then. While it was something I wanted so badly to celebrate, it just didn't feel right then. And it still doesn't feel right now. 

The pandemic has deprived us the opportunity to process things the way we know how. It has shifted, and is still shifting, the ground on which our old lives have taken root. About a month ago, a lola who lived a street away from us passed away on my uncle's death anniversary. This grandma, though not our relative, was always present in most of our family's gatherings and milestones. Her children are aunts and uncles to me. I'd always drop by their house every Christmas. She'd join my other lolas in fetching me on Sundays after bar review. 

How do we grieve without having gotten the chance to say goodbye? How do we comfort others without the benefit of touch? How do we carry the burden of sadness, on top of the toll of uncertainty? And on the other hand, how do we even make room for celebration of our own small victories? It feels paralyzing, trying to navigate through our emotions with all this going on. Our feelings both feel unimportant but burdensome at the same time.

I'm reminded I'm reminded of this essay I read by Andrea Pitzer, an American journalist, and her journey along the Arctic to trace the last voyage of polar explorer William Barents. His crew was attempting to find passage to China; meanwhile, Andrea was trying to navigate through a personal crisis.

While on her trip, her cousin Joe had died. During the remainder of the voyage, she had to deal with the reality of his sudden absence. It was shocking and sad: he was suddenly gone, his PTSD, his terrible jokes, his alcoholism, his love for many people - all of it. "He's already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration," Pitzer writes.

Needless to say, while the primary purpose of Pitzer's voyage was to retrace the final steps of Barents and his crew, their ship soon became ground zero for Pitzer's feelings of regret, shame, and sadness. On top of the list: she saw for herself how the Arctic sea is collapsing, with few signs of reversal. Her family seemed equally vulnerable following Joe's demise, her father and stepfather's cancer diagnoses, and her mother's worsening dementia. In addition, she left back home a husband working full-time, with his hands full as he takes care of their two teenage children. She also has to have her book on Barents out by Christmas.

"I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research. I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical—tragedy. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go. But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime."

This is exactly how I felt about being granted admission to 3 universities a few months ago. I already deferred until next year, knowing full well that I will forfeit my admission if circumstances don't allow me to enroll by next year. Will things be okay by then? Will I be in a better position to chase after something very personal, to be thinking solely of myself? I have no idea. There's this loud voice inside my head saying I may not be able to go, knowing full well that we may not have enough resources to send me to the other side of the world with only, at most, a 60% scholarship. More so, it just feels preposterous to be leaving my family behind during a very turbulent, vulnerable time to go to a country that is just as chaotic and troubling.

But I cannot not go. 

"The future we’re digging for ourselves is at the bottom of a cliff that grows higher every day. But that’s not the same as saying nothing can be done. There are eggs to fry. There is history to remember and glaciers to measure. There is trash to count. 

So much is already going or gone. But what’s still there is vast, stupendous."

I suppose the only way out of this is through. And despite how bleak everything seems at the moment, we have to believe that wonders will keep coming, day by day.Things will get better, things will get better, things will get better. Repeat until it takes root in our soul; repeat until it actually happens. I'll set out to sail one day soon; I have to, I will. Until then, I'll do what I can here, on deck, despite being surrounded by endless water.

"I’ve come back to say that this place is singing a love song. It may be shot through with grief and danger, but if you’re listening and you can hear this, it means we’re not dead yet."

01 July 2020

Are we really more than halfway through the year? Quite unbelievable what the last almost one hundred days have caused and cost us. It has really been difficult, in previously unimaginable and unprecedented ways. We are all forced to find ways to cope, to heal, to survive - easier for some, and crushing for others. The hope is that we never get tired of trying. More importantly, that we never grow weary of seeking accountability and dismantling of oppressive institutions.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I'm pretty vocal about the current state of affairs. But in the meantime, allow me to share things that are currently (and sufficiently) distracting me from the noise and keeping me sane. 

I've been going crazy the last few months (who am I kidding, aren't we all) and funnily enough, out of all the many things I've done - okay, attempted - this quarantine, the one thing that has consistently given me joy is playing with my makeup. Since quarantine began, I've bought new drawers to fix my dresser, had a chance to go through makeup I haven't used (in a while, or ever), and seen what else is in my stash that I can experiment with. The funny thing is that this whole makeup business just started during bar review. To keep myself awake, I'd watch YouTube makeup tutorials and do a look with one eye, go back to studying, then feel sleepy again and try doing another look with the other eye. Fun times. (Not surprisingly, this happened a lot while reviewing for Tax and Crim, so that explains my grades in those two subjects HAHA.) Anyway, what started out as a distraction ended up being a legitimate hobby that I wanted to explore. I can wax poetic and go "I love the whole color theory aspect of it all; blending eyeshadows together requires a good eye for pigments," - and that is true, to a certain degree - but who am I kidding? The best part of it all is ending up looking pretty cute with almost anything you try doing. There, I said it. No shame in admitting it!
Here's a couple of looks I tried over the last few months.
01 | Festive IG Filter look

While browsing through Instagram filters, I came across a particularly interesting look which involved lots of warm colors, contrasted with a bold green eyeliner.
I had just hung up a new painting on my wall (it's one I made at Sip and Gogh with friends a few months back), so while I was taking selfies with the filter on, I was like, "Hey wait, that goes well with my very amateur sunrise!" So off to my makeup stash I went.

Granted, I only have very limited colors, so I made do with what I had. I went from darkest to lightest from the outer corners to the inner corners, starting with a warm red and orange then transitioning to yellow. I used green eyeliner because I didn't have aqua or something leaning towards blue. I also didn't have a bright pink, which is why the finished look pulls a bit darker.

Here's the IG filter I based it on, by the way, vis-a-vis my attempt:

Makeup used
Base: Maybelline FitMe! Concealer in 120
Eyes: Details Metallics palette and Nicka K 23 Mattes palette (Both really cheap brands that I got at the department store! My mid-range palettes are mostly neutral)
Brows: Wildbrow
Lips: Maybelline Color Sensational in 376 Pink for Me
Setting Spray: MAC Prep + Prime Fix Plus in Rose

02 | Ariana Grande in "Boyfriend"

When the video for "Rain on Me" came out, I spent the entire day playing that song on loop and wishing I had a lavender latex suit to dance around in. (Some tears fell too, since it aptly belonged to my "dance-songs-to-cry-to" sub-genre. #OA) I also wished I had white liquid eyeliner to recreate that makeup look, but alas, quarantine said "Nope!" on that.

I still wanted to experiment with an Ariana look though, and I remembered how obsessed I was with her eyeshadow in her "Boyfriend" music video. Ugh, that powder blue matte!!!

Again, I was working with limited colors, so instead of matte, I had to settle with whatever blues I had - mostly shimmers, but I made it work! I mixed some shimmery blue shades with some white highlighters to lighten it out.

We have completely different eye shapes though: I have hooded eyes, which means when I open my eyes, the shadows disappear under my lids! This also means winged eyeliner just doesn't look the same on me, so I can't make it super thick like hers, otherwise it'll come off like a panda. It is what it is.


I went with pink in the outer lids since I swear it looks more blush-toned in the video than in this screen cap. I also think it's because she's more tan than me.

I'm trying to grow out my hair (and resisting the urge to cut it short, out of boredom), so when it's long enough to mimic her signature ponytail, I'll go for another Ari look. But for the meantime, this'll do!

Makeup Used:
Base: Maybelline FitMe! Concealer in 120
Eyes: Sephora Into the Stars palette, Nichido black liquid eyeliner
Brows: Wildbrow
Lips: Tarte Tarteist Lip Paint in Rosé
Setting Spray: MAC Prep + Prime Fix Plus in Rose

03 | Doja Cat in "Like That"

Okay this one is a favorite because it came about via request! (Naks. May demand?!) Plopi, a sis of mine from law school, sent me a DM on Twitter and said I should cop Doja Cat's look on her latest video. 

This one was quite exciting because I love the whole aesthetic of the video. It kinda borrows from Japanese city pop, which is the type of music I love listening to while working (because it reminds me of my Japan trips, and the bills I had to pay for it!)

Again, it's a type of blue/green shade that I don't have on my collection, so I mixed colors using whatever I had and ended up with this. She also had a black eyeliner on top and a solid blue liquid eyeliner on the bottom lids - which, fortunately, I did have. (It doesn't show up much in the pictures though, thanks eyebags.)

I ended up curling my hair too because, why not. The look was - how do the kids these days say it - snatchedttt. My attempt came out more cool-toned than expected, but this can be the more everyday, wearable version of Doja's look.

The longest eyeliner wing I've ever attempted. Man, I was not breathing all throughout!

This experiment was done after I cleaned out my study desk, which explains why I now had space for my camera's tripod and a lamp to add lighting. Wow?! I think I worked hardest on this out of all the three looks because I was salving the wounds of my bruised ego after my failed attempt at kutsinta the day before. (Summary: I tried making kutsinta; it ended up tasting like tikoy, espasol, and buchi ALL AT ONCE, said the people at home. Bwiset! Haha.)

I can't cook but I sure as hell can make my eyeshadows pop!!! There, there.

Makeup used:
Base: Innisfree No Sebum Blur Primer, Innisfree Mineral Stick Concealer
Eyes: Sephora Into the Stars Palette, BYS x Nadine Lustre Lustrous palette in Luna, SilkyGirl Perfect Sharp Eyeliner
Cheeks: 3cE Stylenanda Heart Pot Lip in 02, Sephora Into the Stars Palette, Wet n Wild MegaGlo Highlighting Powder in Precious Petals
Bronzer: Benefit Hoola Bronzer
Brows: Wildbrow
Lips: Kat Von D lipstick in Lolita II, Sephora Lip Creme No. 40, Happy Skin Shut Up and Kiss Me lipstick in Too Cool
Setting Spray: MAC Prep + Prime Fix Plus in Rose
An attempt was made
Anyway, due to insistent public demand (I swear, meron, mga seven?! Mostly Portians LOL), I went ahead and recorded myself to show people how I do my eye makeup. Disclaimer: I'm no expert and this probably isn't the proper way to do it, but I'd argue that my looks work well considering my eye shape. And the fact that I'm trying to pull off casual versions of the looks; nothing too avante-garde or editorial.

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So a bit of an explanation: As you can see, I apply the colors with only my fingers. I only use a brush for blending, to transition the colors and lighten out the edges. I find that colors pop out more when I use my fingers directly instead of with a brush. (This should work especially well for metallic and foiled eyeshadows.)

This is ideal for me because I don't have all the other eyeshadow brushes most beauty vloggers use. They're too expensive, and not really necessary for everyday makeup or just playing around like this one. In my experience, all you really need are good, fluffy blending brushes, *and* an eyeliner brush for sharp lines (just like what I used for the black liner here). The rest, I think, you can do without, if you're not going for editorial looks.

Here, I started from the inner lids and worked my way out. Like I said, I have hooded eyes, so I have to open them every now and then to check if the color still pops out even with my lids open. If it doesn't, I raise it a bit more above the lid. Also, I only use tapping motions to apply. Doing so really packs in the pigment. It also helps to use a light dab of setting spray on your fingers before dipping into the color (like the MAC Fix Plus I used here) to make the color appear more vibrant.

The same technique for eyeliner application: I open my eyes to see if it makes a straight line and doesn't get sucked into the folds of my lid. This is why I primarily use black eyeshadow first before going in with a liquid eyeliner. (I did my liquid eyeliner - both the black and blue one underneath - and my brows off-camera though, since I ran out of battery for a bit.)


And that's that on my not-so-futile attempts at keeping sane while the world is collapsing. Yes, 2020, your e-mails found me quite well. It found me digging into makeup to compensate for these gnawing feelings of anxiety and frustration. The fight for healthcare, liberty, and justice continues. At least I'll look really bomb while we're at it.

22 June 2020

Back in the "old normal," driving through the hellish Metro Manila traffic required a certain level of calmness, which on most days (and nights) for me meant listening to podcasts. It started out as a nostalgia thing - I wanted to relive my college years by listening to late-2000s The Morning Rush episodes (with just Chico and Delamar). But after the novelty of that wore off, I eventually stumbled upon content that  resonated more with my current interests: podcasts with my favorite comedians and screenwriters.

A side note: I have always considered myself lucky that I don't really have a "What If?" course, because I had the fortunate circumstance of actually having graduated from it: Creative Writing. Being a literature major meant I had so many doors opened for me in a field that most people could only dream of dipping their toes in. I was exposed to great Anglo-American, Asian, and Latin literature, and was so happy to have been introduced to fantastic works of Philippine literature in English. In our course, we were required to choose three tracks to major in. I took up fiction and non-fiction, because these were the ones I enjoyed reading (and workshopping) the most. But I also chose playwriting, because I've always had a profound curiosity to what goes into the writing of a script. Even then, I loved quick and fast-paced comedy. I knew I wanted to learn how to make something ordinarily funny work on stage or on screen. While my best professors were the ones in my fiction, non-fiction, and poetry classes, I felt a quiet sense of affinity to my drama, playwriting and screenwriting electives. Alas, if I ever were to have a "What If?", it wouldn't have been as to my course as much as it would have been to a career. I wish I could have been a screenwriter. (For a late night show, or a sketch show, or a comedy series, at least.)

Ah, one could dream.

But, at least, one could listen to podcasts.

And that's what's great for me about stumbling into Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, WTF with Marc Maron, NBC's The Good Place Podcast, Vulture's Good One, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, and other shows that feature actors, writers, comedians, and basically people whose craft involve conceptualizing, writing, and acting out lines. Making things work on the page, and making them jump out on stage. There is so much value in comedy for me because it has the power of saying so much and giving the most impact in just a few lines. It grabs your attention quickly. I think this is what most people underestimate about this genre. They think landing jokes is easy. But it isn't. Something about it has to be organic. Natural. And it has to come from a place of profundity - or at the very least, an acute perceptiveness.

On my most recent drive to and from my mom's office (I'm her designated driver on days she has to be physically present at work) today, I tuned into the newest episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jerry Seinfeld. This interview turned out to be a good glimpse of his "philosophy" as a comedian, what made him successful - and, ultimately, why I think he is no longer as "resonant" as he was before or as compared with other comedians.

Jerry Seinfeld is a craftsman. He crafts jokes. And he's really good at it. He can look at the simplest of things - waiting in line at a Chinese restaurant, for example (from Seinfeld Season 2) - and find the hilarity in that. Funny, to him, is both organic and made. "If you're funny, you're funny," he said in the podcast. But he also diligently writes his jokes. He refines them, works them out until they're really airtight. It's a kind of craftsmanship that's really admirable, and not surprisingly, the primary reason for his success. He doesn't rely on a sad back story (he doesn't have one), a difficult upbringing (his parents were very supportive), or a traumatic experience (he moved out and somehow succeeded through sheer luck and hard work) to click with the audience. He's just very astute with his observations, and understands what it means to work on something funny - and make it funnier.

Jerry: "Why haven't we met before?"
Marc: "I think I represent something chaotic that you tend to avoid."
Jerry: "That's probably true."

Marc Maron is the complete opposite of that. He connects with the audience, both through his stand-ups and his podcast, by revealing his soul, his innermost thoughts. Unlike Jerry, much of his comedy is shaped by his most seminal experiences. His life goes hand-in-hand with the art he produces. Much of his work is shaped by pain and grief. The way he performs is always in relation to his current state of mind. And that's what makes his comedy so resonant, because he doesn't shy away from what is messy and scary and f*cked up about his life, and life in general. 

Jerry: "Funny has nothing to do with anything."
Marc: "But it does serve a purpose. The reason you're funny is because it's part of your ability to deflect, to change."

Marc notes that Jerry's kind of comedy isn't much of a risk, as it doesn't involve putting himself in his comedy. But for Jerry, the very act of delivering jokes is putting himself out there. He doesn't have to go into the whys and hows of what makes his comedy work and why he enjoys doing it. Unlike Marc, he doesn't derive pleasure from figuring out certain aspects of himself through his work. He just wants to write jokes, period.

Marc: "You never questioned the psychology of funny?"
Jerry: "No. I reject that premise.
Marc: So there's no why?"
Jerry: "No. And if there is, who cares."

I loved that despite their very opposing views, they were actually hilarious together. It was like listening to two philosophers having different beliefs on what it means to be good. While their comedic ideologies are at odds with each other, no one is entirely right or wrong. The conversation brought out such unique insights on comedy and what it can mean to us. Marc tries to understand Jerry's way of thinking, because he wants to find out who the real "Jerry" behind the jokes is. But this is the real Jerry: the one that writes jokes. His comedy is as simple and straightforward as he is. On the other hand, Marc's comedic persona is complex and raw and transparent. He doesn't rely on what he wrote on paper - he tries out what he feels on the spot, he engages with his audience, he wears his heart on his sleeve. They're both honest about their craft, in their own ways. But they have a different way of expressing that. 

Jerry: "Laughs are the only genuine currency in the end."
Marc: "Really, just the laugh?"
Jerry: "Yeah. Now if there's something in there deeper than the laugh - which there is in any great joke - then fine. […] But I don't worry about that part."
Marc: "I always look for the meaning in the jokes. That's the reason why I got into comedy. Comedians, we're able to sort of make things manageable, make things understandable, disarm big ideas that are threatening. Things are terrifying, life is complicated, but these comedians are able to put it into little packages and makes it okay."
Jerry: "Yeah. But I never put anything above the laugh. Self-revelation, opinion, insight - all these things - I would never give these things the same weight as the laugh."  

This is crucial for me, because it got me thinking about what comedy means to me. What attracts me to it and what makes it speak to me. Growing up, it was probably really just for the laughs. But eventually, many experiences - both traumatic and triumphant - changed the lens through which I saw life. I found comedy to be comforting, because it wasn't afraid to hit all kinds of buttons at the same time, to get a reaction out of you. Marc said it best: comedy had a way of putting the darkest parts of life into little packages that made you laugh, sure, ans it also put things into an interesting perspective.

It can be a way to deflect. But the thing about really great jokes? It deflects, and then almost immediately, it boomerangs right back at you. Shoot, recoil. And then finally, a moment of realization. And all in just a few seconds.

I agree that comedy doesn't have to come from a broken place, nor does it have to bring you there. But I think I'm partial to Marc's point of view. Personally, I prefer comedy when it comes from a place of pain and healing; when it finds wisdom in the difficult aspects of life. Because that's the kind of comedy that got me out of some of my darkest days. (Looking at you, Fleabag and BoJack Horseman.) And it's the kind of comedy that has the potential to actually change things, to shake up the status quo. I have full respect for Jerry and Seinfeld - that whole school of "comedy about nothing" - because, yes it succeeds brilliantly at what it attempts to do, and it doesn't require you to wrestle with difficult questions to enjoy it. We need that kind of funny.

But especially in these times, comedy has to mean something. It has to make sense of it all, and attempt to move people into action. Otherwise, how can we elevate the discourse? Why waste that opportunity to do so, right? Comedy is relatable. So why not make it matter at every chance?

Jerry: "As long as there's a laugh. That's all I care about."
Marc: "Yeah, but there's a kind of laugh that's like crying."

That's the kind of writing that feels more transcendental to me. When the writing results in laughter and tears and reflection.

But there's no right way of looking at comedy. It will speak to us at a volume our instincts are comfortable with. That's subjective and relative. This episode is an illustration of that. It's a surprisingly beautiful, poignant episode, and something that almost matches another great podcast from one of my favorites. (Hint: Conan. I'll be writing about that one too soon.) I really enjoy listening to comedians going deep. It makes their brand of hilarity more three-dimensional, more grounded

"An essential element in comedy: rage. Aggression, confrontation, resentment, irritation - there are varieties of it. You can't not have it. If you don't have it, you're not gonna get laughs. But I think the greatest use of it, of that rage, is to process it through a laugh machine."

There will always be things to laugh about. And we will always find the need for things to make us laugh, even and especially as we process grief, joy, fear, all kinds of emotions. I guess it's up to us - the audience - to decide whether we need the why behind what makes us laugh. Personally, I like coming face-to-face with the different spectrums of anger and sadness that compels me to find hilarity in the ridiculousness of life. It's challenging and rewarding. And it's oddly comforting.

There is something about comedy that sees you. At least, that's how it feels like to me. Sometimes, there are laughs that make us ask ourselves truly difficult questions. At the end of the day, if it gives us a clearer picture of who we are, and it allows us to keep going, then the joke has outlived its punch line and has done something truly meaningful. That's where the power of comedy lies. Not just in the immediate laugh, but in the lingering chuckle - and sentiment - that it leaves us with. 

And that's why I'm Team Marc on this one. But I'm still giving points to Jerry for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, at least. 

Follow Me on Instagram @karlabernardo


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