Saturday, March 12, 2011

Breathing lessons

THE START of Lent assembles an unusual company of fishes on our table.

One lunch, I found “katambak” in the “tinowa,” fried and shredded “anduhaw” in the mixed vegetables, dried “lagaw,” and a dip made of fermented, nearly transparent “bolinao” known as “puti-an” in the southern town of Alegria.

Except for the stewed “katambak,” still gasping and red of gills when bought from the market, all the other dishes were reheated, remains of older meals. It’s just not Lent and abstinence that explains the absence of meat leftovers. My boys are pork-nivores who view fish as suitable only for old people or cats.

Is this piscine bias an acquired taste or a hunting hangover from the days when we chased, tussled with and conquered the four-legged for food but only had to trick the creatures living in water into swallowing the worm-garnished hook or swimming blindly into our traps?

Even this connoisseur—who regards fish as friendlier than red meat on diet and budget—is not above a certain insensitivity to finned creatures. How many times have I crunched head, speared poached eye from a runny socket or sipped flesh from dismantled lips and jaw—barbaric acts committed in full view of the guppies swimming in the bowl placed on our dining table?

Fish is food.

We become only food for the fishes when the divine balance is upset. Fans of “The Godfather” must remember Luca Brasi, the slow-talking but utterly loyal “enforcer” of Don Vito Corleone. After assassins kill Luca Brasi, they send to the Corleone family a fish wrapped in Brasi’s bulletproof vest.

According to the novel written by Mario Puzo and the movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the fish explains an “old Sicilian message”: “ It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."

Yet, while eating fish is more palatable than sleeping with them, humans can take breathing lessons from fish and other creatures. According to experts, the diving reflex, the descended larynx and the capacity for breath-holding indicate that we share an aquatic past.

Among terrestrials with this adaptation, though, humans are less gifted. Compared to our rudimentary and undeveloped diving reflex, a sea otter, for instance, can reach depths of 330 feet and stay under the water for up to four or five minutes. Larger lungs and flexible ribs aside, sea otters have a lot of myoglobin in their muscles. To hold its breath, the sea otter relies on the myoglobin to tolerate the carbon dioxide building up in its blood stream and prompting the instinct to breathe.

Seals and whales don’t even hold their breath. They store oxygen in their blood and release this from their lungs as they dive. An automatic mechanism cuts off breathing so that when a seal or whale becomes unconscious, its lungs will not fill with water.

In contrast, deprived of oxygen, a person will pass out within three minutes. Except for a curious local case, our breath-holding capacity is often associated with our desire to survive, or to escape the very quality that defines our mortality.

Last Mar. 10, Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil reported the death of a high school student days before her graduation. The distraught mother believes that her daughter held her breath and died after she was scolded for coming home late.

Online sources hold that “incredible will power” can enable a person to hold her breath until she passes out. Death is not possible, though, since involuntary control takes over and an unconscious person automatically resumes breathing.

While fishes may indeed have an edge on us in surviving under the water, many people also exhibit “incredible will power,” or an exceptional talent for challenging mortality: children living on the streets, families separating for greener pastures, overseas workers Skypeing to families, in deprivation, war or disaster, to “text lang”.

May this Lent help us see the parity of breath-holding techniques, whether because one can do nothing with one’s world or because one must what one can.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 13, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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