Thoughts on Happiness and Cheerdance

Full disclosure: I graduated from UP. You may believe I’m a little biased. That’s possible. But just watch the videos of the routines for yourself, and make up your own mind.

Also, I watched only the top three winners on YouTube. If you think there was a performance that didn’t place but should’ve, feel free to let me know.

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“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!” (“The heart… should be sacrificed… to the fight… you’ll get victory in return!”)

So goes the SpongeCola song that was part of the UP Pep Squad’s music tracklist.

I watched their routine after seeing the reactions on my Facebook feed: a barrage of posts, seemingly unanimous in their disappointment and outrage. One says in jest, Guys, kain na tayo, tutal nagluto na rin lang.” (“Guys, let’s just eat, after all there’s cooking going on already.”)

I had slept through the cheerdance competition. Well, not really; around 2 PM, we were watching the AlDub kalyeserye with our mother. With the badly cross-dressed men, shoddy lip-syncing, some missed cues and forced ad-libs… not saying I could put a better show on myself, but if we’re being honest, it’s not the best production by any means. However, there are some bits that work for me through sheer irreverent absurdity. And I see how the segment manages to promote values such as “waiting for the right time”, even if it does so through the crackling megaphone of satire. Plus it makes a lot of people happy: who am I to decide how shallow or deep people’s happiness should be?

Like the cheerdance competition. If you really think about it, it’s pure spectacle too: loud music, tight outfits on tight bodies, dance routines, drums and shouting. It would be too easy to quote the Bard here (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), though I think he wrote that about life in general, so that would be unfair.

And in total fairness, a lot of the stunts people witness there are quite spectacular, obviously the product of hours upon hours of practice and personal risk. I remember reading once that in the US, cheerleading is actually the most dangerous high school sport, even more so than football with its reliance on padding, mouthguards, and helmets to dull the impact from any collisions that occur. Seeing how high off the ground the UP cheerleaders went during their routine, I have zero trouble believing that.

“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!”

UP did it again. Invoking national pride through their typical use of OPM, they pull off stunts and lifts that push the limits, swinging and flying and catching one another, grace and courage in full display. The floor dances were high-energy but not messy, engineered to get any audience member fired up. The mashup of Awit ng Kabataan (Anthem of the Youth) and Liwanag sa Dilim (Light in the Darkness) hit me right in the puso (heart); endorphins triggered an eruption of gooseflesh all over my body. A second eruption during the rock anthem version of UP Naming Mahal (Our Beloved UP). There were some mistakes, I admit, that made me wince for them, but overall, the performance was excellent.

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I then watched the routine of the NU squad, the winner of first place for this competition three years running.

The theme: caveman times. The performance was plagued with gaffes and miscues. It was obvious when the movements didn’t sync. A lot of lifts didn’t work; pyramids didn’t hold. To be fair, there was a gutsy partner stunt around three minutes and twenty seconds in that impressed me, the one where female cheerleaders stood and then flipped into a handstand supported by people underneath (though UP did a better handstand-to-standing-position partner stunt around four minutes and fifty seconds into their own routine). But overall, there were just too many mistakes to make it a stellar performance; some would even call it crude. Again, not saying I could do better, but that’s just how I see it.

After the competition, it was said that the difficulty of the stunts was taken into consideration in scoring. I’m no cheerleading expert, but it just felt like NU’s performance was a whole bunch of what-could-have-beens, and it didn’t deserve first place. It was a “pwede na” (“good enough”) effort, with obvious blunders that can be explained away by saying they “aimed too high”–a common self-handicapping tactic.

Why did they win? One can only speculate.

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Looking further into the results, I learned that UST’s Salinggawi dance troupe clinched second place. My older sister graduated from there (here’s her blog, btw), so I guess she’d be happy that they placed. On the other hand, she’s never been big on the whole school spirit thing, even as a student. Neither was I. I guess we’re just that kind of people.

I then watched their performance online.

While UP went up with their routine full of tosses and lifts, I saw UST’s performance to be a little more down-to-earth. They mostly stayed closer to the floor, carrying their routine through dance with quick steps and nimble rolls, rapid bursts of movement punctuated by deliberate shows of grace and strength. Not to say they stayed low; they also did their fair share of carrying and tossing and lifting, which they executed to great effect. It was a very polished and very well-choreographed performance, one you’d expect from a troupe that, even in my college days, were known for their predilection for and proficiency in modern dance.

Plus they showed a picture of a tiger, which was awesome.

I can see how they got second place. In truth, perhaps they should even have gotten first place. But being an alumnus of UP, my thoughts kept gravitating towards my alma mater’s effort, and my brain kept putting it and NU’s winning routine side by side.

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I saw two visions of the Philippines.

In one, we’re all united, working in sync, each person moving fast, faithful that his or her perspiration will contribute to something that will induce inspiration. Banners wave and music blares as Filipinos rise and fall, taking risks and ultimately landing safe in the hands of their brothers and sisters, a bold and death-defying work of art that culminates in the formation of one heart.

In the other, we’re in the Stone Age.

In my mind, the real one won.

But we shouldn’t lose heart. Wag mawalan ng puso. Just because reality won today, it doesn’t mean ideals can’t win tomorrow.

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Back on the Run 2: The Merciful End

So during the latter half of my 32-km run last week, I was feeling very, very crappy. They say that actions affect attitude; what you do affects your thoughts, so if you want to be a good person, do good things, and do bad things if you want to be a bad person, and so on. In this case, the way my body was feeling–the sore muscles, the aching feet, the sweating, the creaking joints–was starting to affect me, and negative thoughts started bubbling up in the cauldron of my mind.

Run Phase 3: The Existential, Please-Let-This-End Phase

This is the part where I started feeling deep regret. Well, that’s for lack of a better word. If there’s a word for when you want to kill your past self for deciding on something (e.g., signing up for a 32-km race) that’s affecting you negatively now, I don’t know it.

At this point, using my legs was like riding a horse whose previous owner had abused it terribly: they couldn’t do what I wanted them to do, and they groaned and wobbled with each step. I would think “why am I running a route that just takes me back to where I started?” and “I could have passed all these places at a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the price I paid registering for this race by just taking public transportation”, and “What do I get from this? Bragging rights? I’m no bragger, so what’s the point?”. These thoughts passed through me, fueled by the lactic acid building up in my body.

Around me, other runners were struggling too, though some less than others. I noticed the ones who still had a decent gait and form were generally the ones wearing compression socks. I have never tried them, because they were too pricey for my taste, and I wanted to finish the race without any special equipment beyond the clothes on my back and the shoes on my feet. I suppose I secretly always thought compression socks were an unfair advantage for some reason, though really, if I had the income to pay for them, I probably would pay for that edge.

Every step was a cruel, taunting thing: there was so much effort and strain involved for very, very little return. I wouldn’t say I was in pain, necessarily, but the soreness in my legs made it damned close. Still, I knew that every time I lifted a foot and put it down, it brought me closer to the goal I’d set, took me further from the other runners I’d left behind (yes, I can be kind of competitive), and gave me a little bit more Stoic pride.

A bit of digression: the Stoic philosophy is based on the idea that your circumstances don’t matter, but your perceptions of and reactions to your circumstances do. So it doesn’t matter how painful or excruciating an experience is, as long as you can tackle it with an attitude of indifferent resilience. Stoics aren’t “meh” people like a lot of folks think they are; they’re actually very, very mentally strong. In fact, some of the most famous stoics in history actively sought out struggle, bathing in the coldest waters, eating only simple food, and even wearing ridiculous-looking clothing in order to steel themselves against the worst physical, mental, and emotional stresses that life could throw at them (even if it wasn’t throwing it at them yet).

As we runners plodded along Buendia in the early morning June heat, crossing the South Luzon Expressway half-dead in sweat and dirt, some half-naked and wearing their shirts as makeshift sweatbands, most of us grunting instead of speaking and dousing ourselves in water at every hydration station, I knew in my heart that we must have been the very picture of Stoicism.

The last 5 km was just me walking, plodding towards the finish line, back to where we had begun. 7 AM had come and gone, and I’d resigned myself to the fact that miracles don’t happen. You don’t post a sub-4.5 time for a 32-km race unless you put in the work for months beforehand, which I had not. So I put myself in a state of determined resignation, taking my sore muscles and creaking joints on a 45-minute excursion to the end. I was both sadist and masochist. Each step was torture, but it was torture I willingly inflicted upon myself and accepted from myself. Such a pain, but damn it, it was an ordeal that I would see through.

Skinny guys passed me. Fat men passed me. Younger ladies passed me. Older women passed me. I didn’t care anymore. One line from the Bazz Luhrmann classic sunscreen song echoed in my head: “The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself”.

At the end, they were handing out medals for the 32-km finishers. When I signed up for this race, the medal was such a powerful incentive. But right then and there, in my exhausted and frustrated state, it just seemed like they were rewarding me for nearly killing myself going over that distance by presenting me with a lovely lump of metal, which I could hang around my neck like the most beautiful burden in the world.

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Two medals I’ve earned this year: the left from the first Run United 2015 leg, and the second from last week’s 32-km effort.

I wonder how many kings developed physical defects from wearing heavy crowns all the time?

Post-Mortem: Alchemizing Poison into Ambrosia

So the experience I had is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever gone through. But as I drove home, thinking about it, it was still a positive experience. If nothing else, it taught me the value of resilience: push, push, and push, and you’ll get to your goal, however weak or ugly the finish.

It gave me a reason to believe in my potential a little more: if I could finish this challenge with minimal preparation, then there were probably a lot of other things I could do but I wasn’t letting myself try out of a misguided fear of failure.

It reminded me of the importance of preparation and consistency: if I’d continued my practice runs and core exercises instead of stopping them for a month, I’m sure I would’ve posted a much better PR.

And finally, it gave me a glimpse into the heart of people: different we were, from very varied walks of life, and yet we were all there taking on this race. The thirst for fulfillment, the drive to challenge ourselves, was something that brought us all together on that Sunday morning. It was a gathering that was more strenuous and less dignified than any religious mass could possibly be, but in a way, it was more fulfilling.

Why I Can’t Do Everything

There was a time when I genuinely believed that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything (that was around the time I watched Back to the Future for the first time, for those who may know the reference).

Any challenge accepted, I'd think.

But now I’m older, and I can safely assert that mere willpower won’t get you everything. Your expectations have to be realistic.

To that self, I now say "get outta here," euphemistically speaking.

A few days ago, I posted about some car trouble I had. The car broke down, and I had to drive it back home. It was a rattling, clunking mess. There was no way I was going to be driving it anywhere else; it had to be fixed. I called a couple of mechanics over, who determined that the problem was with the brake shoes, and said they would come back to take care of it within a week. When they came back, I watched as they fixed the problem. It entailed taking the brake assembly apart, replacing the faulty component, and putting it back. Simple to write, but for me to have done it myself would have been ridiculous.

I have a book at home. It’s called “How to Repair Your Car.” I bought the book during my “I can accomplish anything” phase, and hardly read it nowadays. On the cover, there’s a smiling man with a wrench, and inside were fairly easy-to-understand diagrams of the innards of a car. The book’s central thesis is simple: if you know the inner workings of your car, and have the right tools, you can fix certain problems yourself and save money.

Watching the two mechanics work on my brakes, I realized that that’s a bunch of hooey. I could fix the problem myself, theoretically; borrow the right tools, buy the right parts, set aside a day or so to figure out how to take the brakes apart and put them back together. But I was worried by the loudness of it all. They had to bang on the brake assembly with a hammer to remove the drum. They had to pry the whole thing apart too, eliciting some whining and screeching from the springs within. But at times, they would take great care. It was a random ritual to me, a strange mixture of force and finesse. I wouldn’t know the difference if I tried it myself.

Afterwards, they lay the pieces on the ground in no order I could recognize. The parts looked different from one another, for sure, but ask me how they came together, and there would be an awkward silence, after which I would exclaim “witchcraft!”

There’s also one basic physical requirement that I somehow failed to account for: strength. Somehow, I had thought that tools were talismans of power. In my mind, simply holding a tire iron would give you infinite leverage. Of course, now I realize that yes, there is a physical element to it. There’s a reason why Thor could lift Mjolnir*, while my girl-like figure could easily be defeated by a P206/60R15 tire.

It took them just over 30 minutes to replace the brake shoes on both back tires, while I probably would have broken down and cried a quarter of the way into the job. So there’s my big epiphany. I can’t do everything myself, and I’ll have to pay someone else to do things sometimes. Perfectly acceptable to me now, no matter how disappointed my past self would be about it.

*Yes, it’s because he’s worthy. But for the purpose of making me right, let’s say it’s because of his strength.