Thursday, June 12, 2008


More and More of Less and Less

In writing, as they say, less is more. In life things may be just a wee bit different, depending on the situation. Sometimes, getting more is definitely a plus in every way; sometimes getting less translates to being more. The key word, of course, has to do with either having or being. And the focus on one or the other spells the difference between merely being satiated or being truly satisfied. Not all the filled are really full, as our experience teaches us. Being filled is really having more and more, but being full is being plain and simple, being satisfied, being happy, not primarily with what one gets, but being happy with what one does have. It is about being what one ought to be; a condition, not of want, but of never being in want despite the lack, despite many things always falling short of expectation.

I write this piece whilst I am traversing the Pacific – whilst the plane goes north, and then veers toward the west, in order to go the east! I have not been good at any time with directions, but there is something curious about how northwest airlines charts their flights from the US mainland towards what they call the orient. As I write, the plane skirts above the Pacific northwest, traverses the Russian Kamchatka peninsula, and then eventually will find its way towards Korea and onwards to Japan. Whilst it is true that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, obviously, in a world that is round, the best and shortest path from California to Tokyo, Japan is not to draw a straight line right across the Pacific, but to more up north where the globe tapers off, and traverse the distance therein.

But this makes me veer off course the chosen topic …

I write because there is not much else to do. I cannot sleep on planes, generally. I have just finished watching two movies, the second of which bored me stiff. The seat, with all the squirming and the turning around a very limited area, after some hours, does become – excuse me – a pain in the butt. Add to that a growling stomach that, after what is passed off as dinner fare a few hours ago, has been burnt and digested, with the next meal still hours away.

All airlines all over the world and especially in America, are losing a lot of money on account of the skyrocketing prices of oil. Given the fact that about 40% of their operational expenses go to jet fuel, all airlines simply have to be very creative in finding ways and means to make more money. Today, I have been had, in a sense. I had to shell out an extra 50 dollars for me to be assured of an aisle seat. The worst thing that can happen to me is to be wedged for 12 to 14 hours in between a few rows of seats, or worse, to be at a window seat, and having to squeeze oneself out of those rows every time one has to relieve oneself.

There is more and more of less and less in what airlines offer the economy passengers. Having been travelling to and from both sides of the Pacific since 1984, and having boarded several airline companies in all those years, I surely have enough data to work with informally in terms of assessing what once was, and what now is reality.

For one, the choice of preferred seats is no longer free. Exit seats and even aisle seats are not there anymore for the asking. No … they are there for what they call a modest fee. Snacks on board domestic flights all over the continental US are there, too, for a modest price. And don’t even think of changing your flight date unless you are prepared to pay more than a tenth of the whole round trip ticket price.

I predict that if the rise in oil prices goes unabated, blankets and pillows will be the next to go. Already, the food carts have been made less heavy. Winglets in many airplanes have been added to boost lift. American airlines has begun imposing a one-luggage limit per passenger, and even charging 25 d0llars on that one bag allowance. All other airlines will follow suit in the next few coming months, and the old weight allowance of 70 pounds will be pared down to about 50-60.

There is more and more of less and less … In Israel, they were forced to develop a state of the art desalination process because the old supply of fresh water, the “Sea” of Galilee’s level is falling faster than the price of oil rises all over the world.

Happily, things are changing ever so slowly in terms of consciousness. In many airports, one begins to see signs that remind people to get only what they need. Two things that by and large, the American society wastes so much of, are paper and water. Paper, incidentally, takes so much water to produce, and water is something that is fast becoming a “casus belli” ( a case for war) in many places all over the world. The much coveted Golan heights in Israel that links Israel with Syria has not been a disputed territory only in terms of military strategy. It sits right on top of what was once their only precious water reservoir – the Lake of Galilee!

But despite the reminders, the whole world is still pretty much wasteful all over. Old habits die hard, and the most difficult habits to eradicate are those that cater to our tendency toward more and more creature comfort. SUVs in the US are in for a rough ride ahead. People are going to be forced to say good-bye to them, not because of what Al Gore said, but because the trip to the fuel pump is getting to be more and more painful to consumers.

Flying and traveling is indeed, educational and formative. But so is the reality of human experience. With more and more of less and less becoming the order of the day, perhaps the whole world will eventually learn the hard way, how to be satisfied with less and less, do without more and more stuff, and become more in the long run. In this case, then the high school and college composition teachers were right all along … Less is more!

NW 027 – SFO to NRT
June 6, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Set Apart, or Treated Differently?

I saw it in Athens, over at Piraeus port, a sign that was as striking as it was incongruous … a sign in both English – and – hold on to your seat – in Tagalog! The sign says: “Please do not take away chairs from here.” But that was not all. Below was a Tagalog translation of the same thing in big, bold letters: “Sa Tagalog: Bawal alisin at ilipat ang mga silyang ito!” Hmmm …

This morning as I was boarding a flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul en route to San Francisco, over the Northwest counter, another sign reminded me of what I saw in Athens: For Manila flights only! Apparently, there are check-in counters and there are check –in counters … some for the regular guys and one for Filipinos! Hmmm …

A friend from Dubai once told me something similar. A sign in some of the shops at Dubai airport said once in English and in Tagalog: “Shoplifters will be prosecuted.” Translation in Tagalog right below it said: “Bawal magnakaw dito.” Hmmm …
My friend jokingly told me. Well, that sign is placed there for other nationalities, not me.

Four years ago, I was invited to do the invocation at the Philippine Independence Day celebrations at Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. I was privileged to have been seated together with former consuls who worked for some time in Manila, and other personages who had business to do with Filipino Americans. One of them asked me at some point: Father, could you please tell me which among the many groups who claim to speak for Filipino Americans we need to deal with directly? I could not give a ready answer. For around me were a multiplicity of groups all with fancy names each one of them representing a group, a cause, a party, and a convocation!

Fast forward to Jerusalem … over at Renaissance Hotel, the first day we were there, there were not too many signs other than what told people where to go, in what section of the restaurant to go to, depending on which group one belonged. The next day, a sign was placed conspicuously at the buffet table: “Please do not take food out of the restaurant.“ Hmmm … Of course, there were Filipinos checked in at the hotel, and that, of course, included me. Whoever took food out of the restaurant should be easy guess work for you. And your guess will most likely be not too far off the mark.

Back track to Madrid’s Barajas international airport. We were just walking off the tube towards the arrival area. The plane was full of mostly Caucasian travellers. Who do you think would the guardia civil stop on his tracks and to check on his passport? Well, it was me. I did not take offense, but surely, you would agree with me that there is something about being Filipino that would sometimes make you at least suspect we are being profiled. No one else was stopped on his tracks but me.

When we had to navigate our way to the new, huge, and sprawling airport terminal to get to where our flight back to Washington-Dulles international airport was, at the security check, what do you think would the airline staff at the gate would do, but to thumb through my passport and pass his fingers through the US visa page as if to check whether my visa was genuine or not?

Are we set apart, distinguished, renowned, or are we being treated differently? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Rising Fuel Costs and the Falling Standard of Living in America

The trip that took me from the third world, to the new world and to the old world and back to the third world in less than a month’s time has taught me some precious insights. In the US, big wholesale shops like Costco, Sam’s club and others have begun controlling the number of bags of rice they can allow people to buy, something that never happened before. Apart from the obvious fact that prices have risen drastically, supply is carefully monitored. There are unverified media reports that a number of business people are hoarding the rice, too!. So what else is new? Many Chinese businessmen in the Philippines, including Chinese tourists in the country have been at it before original sin was discovered!

But despite the rising costs of fuel, America’s love affair with the automobile has not gotten any less intense. The world famous freeways and expressways and turnpikes (and a whole lot of other fancy names for the same thing) that made America the trendsetter all over the world are all getting clogged, like they do in all parts of the world. Slow moving traffic is no longer the monopoly of third world countries. At the capital beltway, I-495, rush hour traffic could be a bore. The same is true in the beltway around Baltimore, the I-695, with some very young and very impatient drivers learning to do the swerving technique that Filipino drivers have long been famous for. And let us not speak about LA!

I write this blog piece aboard a Northwest flight from the Midwest, en route to SFO. The more than four hours trip from O’Hare to Minneapolis/St. Paul and on to San Francisco is devoid of any meal that once upon a time was the hallmark of all US airlines. No … each one buys snacks or meals for oneself. All they give now is a drink. People allergic to peanuts can at least rejoice. No more signs of peanuts in the air. No tiny pretzels, no nothing! The trans-Pacific flight from Tokyo to SFO and back can boast of the barest minimum to keep body and soul together. You won’t die of starvation, but you won’t alight from the plane satisfied either. Almost all airlines seem to have become very creative in making more money to offset for the rising prices of oil which accounts for more than 40% of the airlines' operating costs.

The experience of Europe and Israel was another eye opener. Americans and the rest of the world whose currency is pegged to the dollar now feel poorer as compared to the Europeans. The buying power of the dollar has fallen. Whilst officially the exchange rate is something like 1.6 something for every Euro, the reality in Europe is far different. In effect, every Euro now almost costs two dollars! That means that a simple essential lunch that in America would cost people no more than 10 dollars, could amount to something like 16 dollars or more, especially in Israel. There, our guide was boasting that the NIS (the New Israeli shekel) is among the top 15 strongest currencies in the world. Well, I believe them. But after our stay there, where we were literally forced to eat and buy where they wanted us to, I did not have to wonder why their economy is damn good. It almost seemed like we were being fleeced every step along the way, including the use of toilets for minor necessities that would set you back by 50 cents or a dollar in some places.

Grace, Gift, and Gratitude

Pilgrimages are a Christian long standing tradition. Back in the day, they used to walk and go through rough uncharted – even dangerous – territory. That, indeed, is the root word of pilgrim – the name of this blog – per agrum. It means exactly that – to go through the fields – for a deeper reason and purpose. This pilgrimage on my 25th has been a grace-filled event. It is so primarily because it is gift … given to me and made possible by friends who believe in the gift of priesthood, and the ministry it can offer them. Whilst I shelled out something, what they spent for me towers higher than what I eventually could contribute.

This blog entry, like my first issue of Pilgrim Pathways, is for them. I acknowledge this singular grace from God, as part and parcel of the graciousness that God has always shown me, and has been showing me since I got ordained 25 years ago. I acknowledge this as gift, along with so many other gifts I have received and continue to receive, albeit unworthily. I am filled with gratitude. I end with something I heard so often in Greece – a word that all of my readers should very easily understand: Eucharisto. Eucharisto. Eucharisto.

NW 675, June 3, 2008
37,000 feet above sea level

Monday, June 2, 2008


Being Some Place Again for the First Time

My pilgrimage began with some work to do … a recollection to preach to Fil-Ams in Hayward, Northern CA, a 50s era once progressive city that sits nestled below, or on the foothills of the now brown and barren heights of the Bay area. That was May 3, Saturday, just two days after I arrive from a rather long and tiring trip that took me from the cramped NAIA to Tokyo’s spacious and quiet airport of Narita. (Actually it is not anywhere near Tokyo, but it belongs to another Prefecture which is some two hours away by train from Tokyo city proper).

The topic and the reason for the recollection is not new to me. I have seen the issue everywhere I was asked to work with and for Filipinos whether home grown or raised some place else in this whole wide world. I saw it two years ago as I preached in New Jersey. I saw it in Italy, in Rome in particular. I saw it in Baltimore, Maryland. I see it back home where I am based. I see it in every institution, every organization made up of Filipinos (which includes me, by the way).

The issue whereof I speak is unity, the capacity to feel a sense of oneness and belongingness to a bigger group, to a greater body, to a greater whole. How many times have we heard of big groups including convenanted communities breaking up after some time? How many times have we seen otherwise very successful groups being fractured, fragmented and divided after so many years of untold success?

This is I think part of what James Fallows unflaterringly calls a “damaged culture.” This for my part is what I refer to as the unevangelized aspects of our culture that still needs to see the light of Gospel good news.

The day after, May 4, I preached to almost all Masses and presided over three of the Sunday Masses. The best was reserved for the 12:30 Mass which was the Filipino Heritage Mass. The best of our culture was on parade and on display. It was kind of incongruous to hear Filipino songs being sung by a Filipino American musician, all to the beat of Brazilian drums and Brazilian rhythm. I could not join the singing of “Salamat sa Iyo, Panginoong Jesus” as I could not accept the hybrid of melody and rhythm that were worlds apart from each other. (It was accompanied by blaring jazzy trumpets).

The second part of the working tour brought me to Northern Virginia. I was asked to do a refresher talk on pastoral planning to the core group of leaders of the Fil Ministry of NOVA.

I was back again to a situation and place that I was treading on for the first time!

My pilgrimage began with things familiar and things unknown – pretty much uncharted terrain that frightens, as much as it bewilders and challenges me. I am back to what I have learned to accept over the past 25 years as a priest. Things are both the same and never the same. The French have a beautiful way of putting it: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Life being what it is, a perpetual journey, it is both new and old. Forrest Gump was right. “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna git.” Take it from me … I have been there, done that … One could be very much up there in people’s estimation many years, and something happens, or someone spreads false rumors about you and you’re down there in the gutters (at least in some people’s estimation). You could be looked at highly for some time, and some people who do not know Joseph take the leadership and you suddenly become a pariah of sorts.

The talks I gave both in Northern Virginia and in California were pretty much reminiscent of what I gave two years ago in Jersey area. And the questions are all very familiar … how to mould our people into one, how to make them see the bigger picture and the greater whole … It all sounds old and yet so new.

Following (Some) of the Footsteps of St. Paul

I am privileged to antedate the international year of St. Paul in some respects. We did the pilgrimage trying to follow where St. Paul trod. But the intrepid missionary is impossible to duplicate. We did it in relative ease and comfort. What made my hair stand on end is to see that little harbor where Paul landed in Pergamum, a harbor so tiny from my vantage point one could not even see the tiny opening that was enough only for small boats that Paul must have used in 58 AD.

Another place that really got me all excited was Ephesus. The big theater where Paul spoke to 37,000 people is still very much extant and in a high state of preservation. The arena could ordinarily contain only 25,000 but the crowds swelled because it was Paul who spoke. Tiny man though he was, according to reputable tradition, he was a mighty man with a stentorian voice, and a powerful message.

The highlight of Ephesus, of course, was Meryemana, the house of Mary Virgin and Mother, that is, the house of St. John where he took Mary after the crucifixion. We were privileged to say two Masses in a row in that holy place.