Friday, September 19, 2008

Chance Encounters at the National Library


The National Library is 121 Years Old. According to Director Prudenciana C. Cruz, it was in August 12, 1887 when a Spanish Royal Decree created the Biblioteque Nacional. A slew of subsequent legislations led to the evolution of what is now known as the National Library of the Philippines, of which she is the current head.

The building of the NLP was one of the handsomest buildings in the area when it was first built in 1961. It has withstood time and the harsh earthquake of 1990. Its original elevator is still what ferries passengers and books between the floors. And if you love high ceilings, speckled marble floors, old wooden tables, and helpful librarians who know their books, you will find your heaven here. The left wing of the building is occupied by the Archives Management Office. Why it is there is another story.

The two men represented in the sculptures found in front of the National Library are not the first librarians of the Philippines, contrary to what I heard a guide once say to a bunch of Japanese tourists. Maybe he had that idea because in both sculptures, the figures are seated as if ready to catalogue a book and whisk it off to shelving. But if he had looked closely enough, he would have found out that the statues had nothing to do with the National Library and more with the streets fronting the building -- on the left is Teodoro M. Kalaw and on the right is Apolinario Mabini.

When a balikbayan cousin comes to visit Manila, you might want to use the NLP as a boasting point. The original manuscript of the Noli Me Tangere (yes, the one handwritten by the Dr. Jose P. Rizal) is part of the collection of the National Library. Understandably, it is kept in an airconditioned vault where it may be better preserved against the harsh heat of the tropics.

I don’t know about you, but I love books. I collect them like I do shoes or prints of old maps. Sometimes, I buy books for the aesthetic pleasure of their arresting covers, their content, or their age. Sometimes, I find myself very lucky to find these three elements in one book. In one of my forays to the second hand bins in a Recto bookstore, I picked-up the original language version of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt published in 1951. I bought it en seguida, even though I don’t speak a word of Swedish. What made my purchase compelling was that when I was still a freshman, I had the honor of translating this particular play into Filipino (from the English version) for Tony Mabesa’s Dulaang UP Production.

I crave handling books in my hands. Like an anthropologist with an artifact. In between reading the chapters I spend time feeling the book’s paper, admiring the binding and sniffing that weird mixture of dried ink and glue that wafts up as you open and close its new pages. With an old book, specially those which are older than me (and at my age now, I find this happening less and less), I become reverential. How can one not, when these old books carry words which have traveled through time. I begin by clearing the table of all other things before placing the book exactly in the middle of the space. I contemplate the cover while letting it breathe and become familiar in its new place. I imagine the people whose hands have handled the same book. When it is time—when the book signals me to begin—I affectionately and carefully turn over the cover and travel through its pages.

When beset with stressing deadlines, other people smoke, drink or overeat. Me? I visit the second hand book sellers along Recto. Sadly, these bibliographic forays have yielded less and less gems in the recent years, the bookstands’ wares slowly giving way to standard second hand textbooks and novelty store sex aids. My suking Manong doesn’t even sell erotic magazines anymore. The accessibility of images in the internet has adversely affected their market.

The next best thing for me is to go to the rare books section of the National Library, where many a rare book or manuscripts is just waiting for chance encounters. The last time I went there, I had a look see of Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines. As you know this book is one of the few narratives on the Phil-American War. The copy found in the NLP is book number 45 of only 550 book in print. This book was published in 1946 and reads like a fact book with pictures of the era. Here’s some of the interesting pictures between its pages.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Censorship in the Palanca


Whatever other people might say, the Palanca is still the most sought-after literary prize in this country. On September 1 this year, the only place to be was at the Rigodon Ballroom of the Manila Pen where the literary stalwarts toasted the year’s winners. All came in what they thought best expressed their individuality. In similar social situations, the consensus among celebrities is to exude glamour, youth and sexual energy. At the SONA, it is all about power enveloped in staid stateliness. Here at the Palancas, it is—as Sting advices in that song about the queer Englishman—be yourself, no matter what they say.

There were winners who dug up gowns from their prom; A-line numbers in dainty aquamarine. While others were more experimental. One guy from the south wore a Barong adorned with a rainbow scarf pinned with peacock feathers. A fashionista who flew in from the US, wore a baby pink suit complimented with fly-away hair which perfectly suited his personality. They didn’t seem to mind being gawked at by the others. They reveled in their unique flamboyance, I could tell.

Playing fashionably safe were Ms. Debbie Tan, Tara FT Sering, Eman dela Cruz who dressed in black, except for Mr. Allan Lopez who has found his new black in fire engine red. I espied many who wore the traditional Barong (among them Mr. Dennis Marasigan and Mr. Ian Casocot, their jusi crumpled just right from all the congratulatory hugs. While Mr. Danny Untalan, who came from Ilocos, popped up the volume wearing a shiny silver version in see-through vertical stripes so popular in many a Santacruzan. Mr. Butch Guevarra was Saville Row through and through with his properly fitted three piece suit and bright pink tie. The shy types wore what they thought would be inconspicuous street clothes in brown or black paired with matching dungarees. When they went up the stage, we thought that they accidentally stepped onto the stage and were now forced to wall through from stage left to right. Instead they bashfully, almost hesitantly received their certificates or medals. The audience cheered them, nonetheless, with yelps of encouragement as if acknowledging that simple looks are deceiving.

This democratic rainbow is what I’ve always admired about the Palanca. In the years that I’ve had the great fortune of being invited to the awards, I have noted that the topics covered by the entries are as colorful as the people who claim their prize. The Palanca judges have hailed works regardless of content and never withheld a prize (as far as I know) on the grounds that it would offend general public sensibility or for political considerations. Peruse the works in the past entries and you will find a gold mine of plays, poems, essays and stories that mirror the circus of our life.

The Palanca has given prizes to writers of outstanding works denouncing political repression or advocating acceptance for severe homosexuality. Traditionally, the Palanca has been the space with no sacred cows. This, I think is the strength of this competition. More than its longevity and—some say—the inconsistent quality or reputation of the judges, the Palanca, has always been the literary Plaza Miranda, a bastion of the right of free expression; the venue for free-thinking.

I hope that people will not forget that the Palanca stands not only for literary merit, but as the symbol of freedom that continues to strengthen and encourage writers to speak of human experience and to speak out against tyranny in many forms (of which our society, alas, has not run out of).

The Palanca family has been very generous in throwing a yearly party and welcoming the family of writers regardless of how they are dressed. May that they continue to honor the writers by respecting what they have to say.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cinderella's Midnight


Knowing where Lea Salong has been, seeing her do Cinderella is like watching Nadia Comaneci doing the jungle gym in a children's park. It's too easy for her.

Don't get me wrong. She sings her best and reins nothing in. But the songs of R and H in this musicale were not meant to bring out Ms. Saigon’s musical bravura. There is a lack of challenging solos, interesting duets or breath-defying choral arrangements in this light musicale. I could imagine this musicale being well done by advanced theatre students of the Philippine High School for the Arts, but not with Ms. Salonga. She could have best done this role during her Repertory days when she was as young as, say, Monique Villonco. With a few exceptions, women’s bodies change after childbirth. And in her case, no matter the draping, the widened hips showed. (Surprisingly, this was not the case, though, with the Rajo Laurel gowns she wore in her in her recent Manila concert. Maybe the production should hire him as a consultant.)

The cast played out their roles as best as they could, except for the Prince Charming who delivered his speaking lines with too much tremolo. My seatmate, grandmother of five, thought he sounded like Robert Goulet in some ancient production of Camelot. Nonetheless, the children in the audience seemed taken by the set and costumes which were colored like birthday cakes from Goldilocks Bakeshop, down to the last confectionery swirl. But when the audience was let out, after a long two hours with intermission, no one seemed interested to buy the stuffed rats being peddled at the lobby. Being sold for P600, who would?

Driving home, I realized that Cinderella is, actually, the Disney version of Insiang, the movie that catapulted Lino Brocka in Cannes. Funny, no?

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's Like "Mano Po", Only Better

The movie Mano Po was a watershed for Philippine movies, as it seems to be the first Filipino movie done about the Chinoy experience. The movie delved on tradition, modernization, assimilation, filial obligation and individuation. And as far as I can remember, Mano Po is one of the two movies (the other being Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon) which frames the question of Pinoy identity in terms of hyphenated terms. Mano Po became immensely popular that it had spawned a franchise, the most recent incarnation of which was the hystercally unpallatable Manay Po, a slapstick comedy centering on gay Chinoys that did not uplift the gays or the Chinoys.

I was trying to be flippant about the one line review. And all the people whom I've relayed it to seemed to get a sense of the joke but were as equally confused as to what exactly I meant. Indeed, in laying down the comparison, was I referring to the first Mano Po with all its freshness? Or was I mocking The Golden Child by ascribing it to be better than Mano Po, the deteriorating franchise? When I blurted out the one-line review to Rody Vera, he burst into a series of guffaws. Ditto, Liza Magtoto and the members of the Writers Bloc. Let me explain.

At the break after act 1, people were streaming out of the Little Theatre gushing about the set, the costumes, Art Acuna’s snappy accent as Eng Tieng-Bin, and Irma Adlawan’s perfect comic timing as the bitchy first wife. A veteran director observed that general lack of stage action. And Act 2 had more of this static blocking. Characters sit and stand in the vicinity of their original place as if they had an invisible chain attached to the table or chair. It could be that the ingenious set mainly made of gauzes and screens (divided into symbolic pavilions of the three wives placed around a courtyard) demanded a less than busy stage business. But on the whole, the scenes played well.

At the end of act 2, there was an enthusiastic response, but not gushing applause, contrary to what I expected. I went to the show determined to like the play. I have been a fan of DDH ever since I saw Behn Cervantes play Gallimard in the Dulaang UP’s production of M. Butterfly; been happy for his Pulitzer nominations, too. I’ve developed a real admiration for the sharpness in which Hwang dramatizes and dissects race relations. The Golden Child is a cleverly written play. Despite character types, it avoids the pitfalls of melodrama (although one could see it peeking in the sidelines). The repartee is crisp and entertaining. When the characters talk to their dead ancestors—a running devise in the play—the philosophical tone reminds me of scenes from the Greek tragedies. The plot points are suspensefully paced. Hwang structures the scenes evenly among the wives and the excellent actresses each claimed their star turn.

But as all of these elements are building up, the play seemed to end abruptly with the monologue of Eng soon after the death of the third wife (theatrically dramatized using Peking Opera references). After that scene, the play goes back to the present where Andrew, the grandson of Eng (also played by Acuna) is suddenly illumined by the moral lesson of the past. The play’s text sufficiently opens several platforms for discussion. But lack an emotional closure worthy of Andrew’s realization. Golden Child raised the audience’s expectations but—like a banquet that did not serve steamed crabs—it left us craving for some explanation.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Theatre Alert

Loy Arcenas, stage designer and director, is deep in rehearsals for Tanghalang Pilipino's production of Golden Child. Exciting, too, is David Henry Hwang's visit to Manila in time for the premier on 08 August 2008. After watching the opening of the Beijing Olympics, rush down to the CCP Little Theatre for the event.
If you don't know Mr. Arcenas or Mr. Hwang, you're probably not from the theatre. They are famous as famous can be. Among Mr. Arcenas credits is the design and direction for The Romance of Magno Rubio, which was shown in Manila a few years back. Mr. Arcenas (who is the tall guy in the picture) is the resident theatre designer for May-I Theatre Company headed by my friend, Ralph Pena (who incidentally, is not the other person in the picture. I found the photo of Loy and friend in the internet. Send me a message, please, if you know who took it or who is the beautiful girl in black so I can properly credit the same.)
Mr. Hwang is arguably the most famous Asian playwright in the US today. Known for plays that deal with the Chinese experience of America, he has also written an interesting libretto for a muscial sci-fi, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, with music by Philip Glass.
CCP has also scheduled a meet and greet via a a forum with these theatre mavericks on 09 August 2008. I don't know about you, but I'm looking for my copy of M. Butterfly, FOB and other plays by Hwang, thinking about two questions to ask the gentlemen, re-charging the batteries of my digital cameras and getting ready for my photo op.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ped Xing in Ateneo


In my experience, there have been two things that always ruined my theatre-going—a very bad production and sitting in the audience with students who have been required (read: forced) to watch the performance. That premonition was sinking into me as I lined up at the entrance of the Rizal MiniTheatre with more than a fistful of Ateneo freshmen chattering non-stop up to the last second before the anthem was sung. Like children being told to eat their vegetables, an audience being force-fed theatre, even with the best intentions, often triggers rebellious behavior. I’ve seen this before. A well placed disruptive smart aleck comment released in the height of a dramatic moment during the play could ruin everything that the actors worked for. And that’s how, sometimes, a rowdy audience can trigger a dismal performance. I was bracing myself for a rough matinee.

How lovely to have been proven wrong.

The audience stayed alert, critical, and respectful all throughout the three plays that ran to about 2 hours. More than that, they gave back in equal measure by applauding in appreciation for the truthful and generous performance by the Entablado’s roster of actors.
In part, the credit goes to the short introduction delivered before the show by the plays’ director, Jethro Nino Tenorio, for the young crowd to “listen carefully” to the plays. His reminder that, as freshmen, the audience was expected to act mature was well received mainly because it felt sincere and sensible; delivered with humor and without condescension. But most of the credit should go to the energetic and engaging performances by the young cast of Entablado’s Tarong (Tatlong Dula ng Pagtawid).

It is difficult to cavil with earnest performances such as the one displayed by these young actors. Notable was the ensemble work of the three actresses in J. Dennis Teodosio’s Pobreng Alindanaw. I’ve seen this play—about two dragonflies unsatisfied with their looks and wanting to transform themselves into a butterfly—performed by three men in glittering make-up. You can imagine the gay sensibility piled high. Because of the fable-like setting, the snappy repartee, and the contemporary allusions, there is a tendency for this play to be performed like it was a Saturday gay club stand-up: all for laughs. It was refreshing to see three young actresses tackle the dialogue from a wider perspective. In this incarnation, Beauty, the stunning butterfly (Anne Mariel Dionisio), Chubbs, the carabao Dragonfly (Portia Marie M. Silva), and Tiny, the needle Dragonfly (Patricia Ruth Pena), were imbued with charisma. The actresses performed the physical comedy with elan (not slapstick at all); and they delivered their comic punchlines with professional precision. The fact that they didn’t portray the insects sounding like women in drag enlarged the scope of the play’s skimming explorations on beauty, identity, and peer pressure. A more unified costume from Regina Regala would have done wonders to the visuals. And the moving platforms should have remained where they were during the asides. But these small blemishes did not detract the audience from enjoying the show. If the play goes on again, watch out for the musicale numbers. They were, in the words of the dragonflies, “Faaaaabe-ulous!”

In contrast, the third play, Chris Martinez’ Baclofen, tackled violence and sexuality head-on. Tenorio’s direction was direct, unapologetic, and extremely brave in the physical portrayal of same sex couplings. There were gasps (and the young man to my left was physically squirming) all throughout that long kissing scene (1 minute 48 long seconds on my watch, to be precise) between David (Sergio Luis A. Gahol) and Jonathan (Kalil Christian Almonte). But everyone in the audience seemed to understand that it was a necessary portrayal in order to be aware of how, in ordinary circumstances, we react to the physical manifestations of sexual diversity. In several scenes in Martinez’ play, the character of Jonathan answers questions thrown at him by rephrasing his answer in question form reminiscent of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. The writing follows Albee’s signature ambiguity in delineating character motivations. The text does not say, for example, why David prefers Jonathan over Naomi (treacherously fleshed out by the long legged and Salome be-wigged Ariel Acuna Diccion). Is it because David prefers a straight-acting gay male over a mujerista, a transvestite? When David is unable to name his love for Jonathan, the text gives a clue as to David’s perception of masculinity. What are the implications of being Top (gay reference to the Dominant sexual partner, i.e., penetrator) as opposed to being Bottom (the submissive sexual partner, i.e. receiver)? Among the three, this play is the most tricky to direct because the themes are merely hinted at by the text. A strong understanding of the characters emotional arches is a grave prerequisite. Irony, too could have been better exploited. Surely, there were missed moments of tenderness amidst all the violence. Better picturizations would have helped clarify motivations. Extra coaching would have helped the actors discover basic truths in the drinking scene. Didn’t Naomi express his preference for sweaty, grimy, earth-smelling men? Sensory exercises would have expanded the texture and sensual nature of the scenes. How would a rough trade like David sit, drink beer, play pusoy? It would have been informational for the audience if he kissed Naomi, if only to contrast this with his kiss for Jonathan. There’s a hypnotic scene in the play where Jonathan dons Naomi’s wig after he has killed his tormentor and his would-be saviour. He looks in the mirror and then cries out in pain. What is it to be a man or a woman? If the production should go back to this scene, I think they will discover the key that will unlock the full possibilities of the play.

Compared to the complex writing of the two plays previously mentioned, Ramon C. Jocson’s Bulong-Bulongan sa Sangandaan seems too simple in its reliance on the single revelation in the end. This Palanca-awarded play may seem dated in the light of other more successful treatments of the trick employed in movies like The Departed or any of the Shake, Rattle and Roll installments. I am glad that Entablado is doing Jocson, if only to encourage him to write new material. Despite the weakness of the material, the actors did their best to flesh out human characters. The play devotes three-fourths of its length in expounding their back stories. Peryo (Joseph Anthony M. Cuadro) is longing for his departed wife; Andong (Andrie Ellison Y. Corpuz) is a farmer forced to find work in the construction site in the city; and Loloy (Jose Antonio P. Javier) is a happy boy who loves to sing and dreams to study to better support his siblings. The male and female security guards were consigned to connecting the scenes. Although, Jocson writes in a conflict about the delay of their salaries, it is rudimentary. It didn’t dove tail with the real issue of the story. It was not a real conflict: merely another aspect of the exposition. Moreover, the secret of the play is revealed too early. In the first scene, when the lights keep blinking as a prelude to the entrance of one of the pahinantes, there is no doubt that the three main characters are ghosts. Like a magic trick prematurely explained, the surprise is ruined. Too many hints can disappoint. Although Francisco E. Chung, did a great job providing ambiance and illumination to the two other plays, he may need to re-plot the lights to Bulong-Bulongan.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coming and Going


I’m back. To where?

It presupposes a situs of sorts: a physical home, an emotional nest, a place of security. I always think that I’m back after unpacking my travel bag, distributing the little pasalubongs to family, pasting the metro and museum tickets in my journal, organizing the pictures, finding a place for the new mementos from the place visited (which has come down recently—as a result of the plummeting peso—to refrigerator magnets and self-sent postcards), sending e-mail notes to hosts and new friends in between bursts of attentiveness within periods of jet lag. From experience, I’m never back until my clothes have come back from the laundry and I’ve checked the scales and definitely know I’ve gained weight.

I’m back to the good news that the Virgin Labfest was an astounding success with records broken at the box office and thespian heights scaled by the number of de-virginized plays. Not surprisingly, the gay-themed play set were sold out first. I’m still laughing out loud from Rogelio Braga’s play with a kilometric title about an NGO gay worker and a straight muslim in a habal-habal. I wish they’d reprise that set double billed with Floy Quintos’ Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna, his homage to the Queen of The Good, The True and The Beautiful. Many have also been asking for additional performance dates for Debbie Tan’s Ms. Too Bright. Characteristically, Layeta Bucoy’s Las Mentiras de Gloria elicited gasps of shock. But, really, we enjoyed her affront to bourgeois sensibility. I've also been closely following Alan Lopez's works at the VLF. He's been consistently submitting plays that are experimental; almost anarchic. I'm looking forward to the day when his plays are paired with a director who will clarify the text instead of befuddling it more.

I know I’m back because of the work pile. And I’m procrastinating. Instead of working on back log and reports of the conference I attended, I’ve skidded to Cinemalaya to jostle for tickets to one of the best batches of the alternative cinema festival. I’ve wormed my way to the new Batman movie franchise, too. But just to be different, I refuse to comment on Heath Ledger’s “dark” acting. Instead, I’ve been raving about Julian Duque’s endearing performance as a boy ash-tray to his father’s sadistic hate in Boses. I am amazed how this Ellen Marfil film (written by Rody Vera and Froi Medina) managed to incorporate an advocacy with melodrama elements and high brow classical music. I’ve also been raving about Paul Morales’ Concerto. It tackles the indefatigable spirit of a family surviving the Davao hinterlands during the dark days of the Kempetai with memories of music to sustain them. Ms. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino is, as usual, effortless grace. One of my other favorites is Ned Trespeces’ My Fake American Accent, a hilarious, almost satirical poke at the call center culture made human and accessible by the deceptively subtle direction. If you’re used to the technical polish of the other big budget indie films, My Fake…, will appear crude. But it’s this improvisational, done-in-my-backyard-with friends quality that makes this movie relevantly unpretentious and engaging. Watch out for the scene with the holdaper. I was pensively amused with Chris Martinez's 100. It was sleek and a tad product placement oriented. But Eugene Domingo is freshly comic as Lapid's chicharon. And Mylene Dizon is so cinematically alluring--so much so that I couldn't believe she, as the character, had cancer. The awards are out. And so are the catty remarks. Ha!

And finally, I know that I’m completely back, not only because I’m rushing to another meeting while outlining a report in my head, but because, more importantly, I’ve been hugged, kissed and cuddled in the right places for the past two straight nights. Groggy-eyed, but satisfied. I can truly say, I’ve, uhm, come and am back.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scenes from Nanang's Life: Home


Take this trip with me to Linay, Manukan, Zamboanga del Norte. After 37 years, I was going home again to where my family began to bury my Nanang. I was around 11 years old the last time I was in this dusty, sleepy town. Why I ended up in Manila living with my Tiang Caring is a story of telenovela proportions. Permit me to begin from the beginning.

In the 1950’s, just right about the time when the Hukbalahaps were being wooed by President Magsaysay with incentives and benefits to come back to the nation’s fold instead of staying in the hills to fight the government, my Tatang was awarded a land grant of a few hectares in Zamboaga. So, with my Nanang, off they went from one of the farthest towns in Ilocos, north of Manila, to this little town way down south where there was promise of copra. I imagine my parents taking the 12-hour bus trip to Manila and then taking another long trip, this time by a rusty, slow boat from Pier 14, with all of their belongings, which were not much considering that they just got married. Nanang, with her sad eyes and intelligent forehead, was a new graduate from the Philippine Normal College. Tatang was a handsome, young man who, prior to getting married at 24, was endlessly being doted on by his elder sisters.

I would like to imagine a romantic ocean voyage for this young couple whose lives were just starting then. Alas, I know well enough from stories picked up as a child (when adults think that children are not listening) that my Tatang, troubled in his youth, was not yet the good husband that he was to become. And besides, honeymoon cruises were not yet then in vogue for local ship travel. There were no private suites available where a young couple could retire and cuddle after a moon-lit walk on the deck. In the 1950’s, all ship passengers slept on identical iron double deck cots soldered to the floor. The only thing that differentiated the first class from the third is the deck where the cots were located and the number of viands available for them to eat.

If I were to write this voyage scene based on how I know my parents, I would let my Nanang take care of looking after their luggage while my Tatang striding beside her, puffing his endless smokes, is starting to complain and become difficult because of the jostle of the crowd and the balmy April heat. At night, after dinner, my parents would take in the breeze. They would talk about the frontier they were about to cross, gazing towards the dark horizon, holding hands like little children playing fearless in the dark. Deep into the night, as the air turned chillier, I can hear Tatang offer to get Nanang a jacket. And later still, my Tatang, holding Nanang close to him, might have had that naughty look in his eye. Alone in the dark with the girl she loved and a marriage license neatly folded and stuck in his wallet, he had no excuse to rein in the raging hormones of his youth. At this point, I will permit them to kiss, of course. He could even sing to her—this after all, was the 1950’s. Then I would cut to the waves slapping the ship. And you and I would know that the evening was spent happily.

In Dipolog, my parents had to take a two-hour dusty and bumpy jeepney ride to Linay. On my last trip to the place, the scene along the road had not changed much. The view unfurls an endless ribbon of tall coconuts, verdant mahogany, wide and shady mango trees, rice fields in emerald green to jade. In my parents time, one passed by several wood bridges over wide rivers that emptied into the nearby sea. The wood bridges creaked from the weight of jeepneys filled to the brim with people, farm animals and produce. Except for the asphalt road and the concrete bridges, nothing much has changed. To my mind, the road to Linay looked this way. And still does.

My Tatang didn’t carry my Nanang over the threshold of their new home, not only because he wasn’t the sort to, but mainly because there was no house. They had to sleep with a neighbor while a house was being built. Water had to be taken from a well near the school. The place had not heard of indoor plumbing. There was no electricity. The land had not yet been planted with coconut trees from which the copra was to be made. Most of all, the people of Linay did not speak Ilocano. My parents, on the other hand, did not know the dialect. By default, my parents and their new neighbors spoke to each other in English for a few months, just enough time to get my parents started on the local tongue.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Good-bye Nanang


Mahirap ang mawalan ng ina.

( May 3, 1929- June 11, 2008)

My Nanang, died peacefully today with her children by her side. She was an exemplary mother to me and my five other siblings; a doting grandmother; and a loving wife to my father, Florencio (who pre-deceased her). She was a dedicated public school teacher and principal who was respected and beloved by her students and colleagues. My Nanang taught all her children to make use of their talents and to be the best that they can be. Her moral strength, determination, humor and practical ways during times of difficulty was always an inspiration to those around her.

Our family mourns her loss and celebrates the meaning of her life and the love that touched others through her work. We feel blessed that in the face of the inevitable she went peacefully on to her journey, without suffering, surrounded by the family she nurtured and loved. We ask that you, our friends, join us in offering prayers for the eternal repose of her soul.

Interment will be in Linay, Zamboanga Del Norte. The burial will be on 18 June 2008.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ms. Lea's Fairy Tale Life


A few weeks ago, our friends (theatre artist Norman Penaflorida and economist Joseph Lim) handed out to us several technical rehearsal tickets to Lea’s concert at the PICC. The lucky group included two of Lea’s most loyal fans—my tiang Caring and my friend (and one of the country’s leading radiologists) Cesar Co. Ever since I can remember, they’ve watched—singly or together—every Lea concert or musicale she has appeared in.

My tiang Caring’s obsession began many, many years ago when she saw Lea as the red haired, button-eyed Annie. Cesar discovered Lea much later wearing a two piece bikini. When Ms. Saigon opened in West End, Cesar was one of the first to witness her triumph on West End. He has been hooked on her since then.

It is difficult not to like Lea. Her public persona implies the dutiful daughter who made it to the big time by following her mother’s advice. Although she was in showbiz, she exhibited the commitment and dedication usually associated with “real” theatre artists. She was never associated with any scandal involving, drugs, pregnancy or even a bouncing check. She marries a regular guy--who people close to them perceive--is intelligent, humble, loving and with lots of money. Despite having started a family, Lea continues with her stage career. Everyone dreams of a fairy tale life. And in the case of Lea, we love her for living it for us.

And of course, that voice. Pristine like a bell. Her voice is effortlessly powerful specially in the high notes. To my musically untrained ear, she does not only sing a song perfectly, but she also sings perfectly all the time. Parang plaka (like a vinyl record) is the old phrase that comes to mind. In that evening’s concert, Lea delivered her sometimes kilometric spiels without a stutter. She always appeared coifed and fresh after all the fabulous gown changes designed by Rajo Laurel. Does she ever lose her poise or lose her confidence? To be sure, she is capable at poking fun at herself. Her angst-less narration of how Flower Drum Song flopped on Broadway was endearing, despite the almost nonchalant re-telling. And she can muster kilig moments, too. When her former love team mate, Aga Muhlach, (feigning brattiness and bravado) appeared with her on stage, they evoked natural chemistry. They were fun to watch. And the Lea and Aga fans enjoyed the romantic sparks evident in their natural banter.

But try as I might—and I say this at the expense of being crucified by Tiang Caring, Cesar and all the Lea fans all over the planet—Lea’s singing did not move me. The sad songs were slow. The fast songs were happy. The sentimental songs featured the right amount of tremolo. But, to me, that was the whole problem. There was something too mechanical about her singing. It was too technically clean; almost antiseptic. Let me say that I'm saying this purely out of preference. To be sure, there were people around me who were constantly moved by her. Tony King, Cesar's friend for example, became teary eyed when Lea sang her commitment song. But that number was accompanied by her wonderfully edited clip from her wedding. And it would take a stone heart not to be moved by the image of Lea's husband crying at seeing Lea walking in his arms.

I could be a stickler for cleanliness. But that doesn't count in art. I like it when it's less than perfect. I like it when a voice frays a bit in the edges or has a tad difficulty reaching a high note. I emphathize more when a performer breaks into a sweat rather than appearing cool and collected all the time. I will never get tired of listening to Lea, but I wish she sounded and appeared more human.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Salt is Melting


One of the highlights of the movie involves rain, the drying salt beds, and Ms. Gina Pareno
Rain pours unexpectedly on Cuyo, Palawan on a public holiday and poor Gina Pareno's character has no one to assist her in gathering the dried salt to safe ground as everyone, except herself, has gone to town for the "fiestivities". As I watched Ms. Pareno go hither and dither unable to save the melting salt all around her, all of the hysteria of Philippine filmdom came rushing in my mind paralleling the mighty deluge in Cuyo town. At the height of Ms. Pareno's operatics, I clutched the thigh of my nearest seatmate where my boyfriend was supposed to be sitting. So tight was my grip that he uttered a faint cry of pain. I was forced to look to my left and lo and behold, it was not my boyfriend's thigh that I was gripping to the bone but some cute, handsome boy who, judging from the faint light from the screen, was sporting a P40 haircut and nursing a growing boner beneath my palm!. Naturally, I was aghast (by the haircut) and apoligized (for my groping). To this he replied, "Sige lang." I didn't actually understand what he meant by "Sige lang." In the Visayas, the phrase could mean, "It's ok", as in "I accept your expression of apology." Or it could mean, "Sige lang" as in "Please proceed." But before I could make up a conclusion, I was again sucked into the movie.
I watched Ploning and was mesmerized by the cinematography. I was enthralled by the courage in its filmmaking. Amazed, too, by the stories and characters in the movie that spoke a unique specificity.
From the choice of language used for the dialogue (Cuyo-anon), to the time in which the movie was set (1970's), to the characters that pushed the deliberately slow plot, the producers were clearly visioning away from the template of Hollywood or Star Cinema. This movie is peppered with quaint, small town characters. Most of the performers rise to the challenge of emoting everyday feelings in an extraordinary way. No stock characters here. No pandering to the box office, either, except maybe with the choice of Juday as lead actress (and then again, she is not her "usual" self in this movie). She plays Ploning as sweet as candied kasuy, but also restrained, obscure. The fact that the movie dared to open the same week as Iron Man was, to me, an indication of : a) the producer's confidence over their work; b) the creators' commitment to their vision; or c) a grave miscalculation by both.
One could feel this earnestness from the trailer. I felt that this act of courage on the part of the producers seemed to demand a similar gesture from the movie-going public. As I write this, I hear that, mostly, the reviews have been mixed. But you must see this movie, if only to judge it for yourself. If this is any assurance, I tell you, the images are worth the price of admission.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Legislating Nationalism


Mae Paner, a friend, great actress (you missed half of your life if you didn’t see her poignant portrayal of the squatter idiot savant in the play version of Insiang), and talented television director (her 30-seconder infomercial has singularly catapulted this politician into the Senate stratosphere) had a recent brush with irony.

Feeling in the dumps by the growing state of inertia, helplessness and confusion brought about by—among other things—our community’s seeming collective helplessness in addressing issues of government corruption, hopelessnes and general distopia, the usually happy Mae, thought of coming up with her version of Lupang Hinirang. It is her hope that her work would ignite people into seriously taking stock of the possibilites of positive change. Originally shot in video, she has offered to get this version blown up to film for her plan to get it played in movie houses as is the current practice before the first and last showings of the day.

So what’s the problem?

The provisions of Republic Act 8491 (also known as the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines) prescribe, by almost exact dimensions, the manner of carriage and usage of the Philippine flag. More importantly to Mae’s case, the law also stipulates the proper way to sing Lupang Hinirang. Meaning: one must not only sing in tune, but sing in the time signature that the the song was originally written. Harking back to that first day of official independence from Spanish colonial rule, section 37 of the law states that:

“SECTION 37. The rendition of the National Anthem, whether played or sung, shall be in accordance with the musical arrangement and composition of Julian Felipe.”

How hard can that be, right? Well, that provision of the law is giving my friend, Ms. Paner, anxious days and sleepless nights.

Maestro Felipe’s original arrangement is in 4/4 time signature, a marching beat. On the other hand, Ms. Paner conceptualized and directed her version of our national anthem in a much slower tempo.

When Mae consulted with me on the matter, I offered to write to the National Historical Institute to request for a clearance. Under section 52 of the same law, the National Historical Institute is responsible for the strict enforcement of the provisions of this Act. When I called the NHI to follow up this letter, the ever-helpful Deputy Director Mely Almosara informed me that the NHI Board has taken initiatives to clarify the implementing rules for the singing of the national anthem. The NHI, she says, will be holding a public hearing to get the opinions of various sectors to agree to general principles.

Paner’s interpretation of our national anthem is encapsulated in a young boy’s determination to plant a downtrodden Philippine flag to the top of a flagpole by climbing it, slipper-less, to the top in palo-sebo style. It may sound cliché, but its just the inability of my words to exactly describe the effect of this work.

Who can say that a slower-paced rendition of the song will be less patriotic than when sung in the way the law requires? In short, can nationalism be legislated?

Take this test. Free yourself from all distractions and give this work two minutes of your time. It is important that you approximate the conditions of reverence that the anthem requires. Hey, I multi-task all the time, myself. But viewing the work while eating chips, web-surfing, having an argument with your boyfriend or some similar circumstance will not be fair to the work. Think of it this way: When the national anthem is played, arent’ we expected to pay attention?

After you’ve put yourself in the proper mode, click on the link:

Write me what you think?

Or better yet, if you think that the National Historical Institute will be benefitted by your inputs regarding the issue of whether or not there should only be one way of singing our song, email them (copy furnish me, please) at : atttention: Teddy Atienza, Heraldry Division.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cacophony of Weddings, Part I


Who wants to get married?

My niece, P, sprang hers on us one December evening. We knew she had a boyfriend because one day, she brought along, unannounced, this young man to a family gathering. I should have known by then that she had a penchant for surprises.

P’s parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, so my sister, D, who was working as a nurse in the US, painstakingly sent her to ten long years of college because in the middle of her first course, she decided she wanted something else. P had a younger sister who occasionally depended on us for clothes, kikay stuff and, most recently, high school tuition money. They were living in a house that my sister bought on the condition that P’s mom (my other sister) and her husband would pay the monthly amortization. But this they weren’t able to do. As the foreclosure date came nearer, P’s family trooped to my benefactor sister during her annual balikbayan visits, cried her a river and went home happy as a family bringing with them the promise that my nurse sister would take care of it.

I thought P, who was smart enough to have passed her board exam, had by now figured out the familial equation. Hadn’t she watched enough telenovelas to feel obligated to be the breadwinner of her family before setting up one of her own? She announced her wedding that evening by giving out the already printed wedding invitations. It was very clear that she wasn’t asking our opinion—not even that of her aunt who sent her to school for ten tortuous long years. D got her invitation via DHL in the US many weeks later. If P sensed my sister’s disappointment, P never let it interfere with her plans. She went ahead with her gown fittings, making church reservations, meeting with prospective photographers. She made sure to announce that she and her husband were paying for the event from their savings.

When I had the chance to be alone with her weeks before the wedding, I let out a venomous vent. At first, I let loose a wholesale tirade of melodrama staples. Words like “ingrata”, “delicadeza”, “obligacion”--Spanish terms for old-style values I’ve heard in many a soap opera found their way deliciously peppering my soliloquy. As my anger grew, I found myself declaming in longer and more elaborate sentences reminiscent of 18th century Tagalog syntax. P started to cry at this point (from the realization of her folly or from the torture of my convoluted sentences , I couldn’t tell).

The more tears she shed, the more encouraged I became in piling one on top of the other my homily on the responsibility of family, the grace of humility and honorable subservience to obligation. I was really getting into the sweet contravida-ness of my role and relishing the souring of her wedding. The scene was building on the emotional stakes thus far established and the suspense was the kind that held an audience before the network run the commercial for feminine napkins. I couldn’t stop. I felt my face heat up as it crumpled and distorted. I did not slow down to take in air as I raced from one poetic allusion to the next running down mixed metaphors in the process. After twenty minutes, I began to sound like a robot about to disintegrate. My head started to throb, my chest started to tighten. I’ve seen this in the movies. At this point the father would now be clutching his chest and succumbing to a heart attack. Luckily, I was able to step on the emotional break before the onslaught of cardiac arrest. I dismissed her even before she could wipe her runny nose.

On the scheduled date, I drove our family to church. Stood with the rest as they posed for the church photo. I’m the guy left-most in the second row. But actually, I wasn’t there. Sporting a phony smile, I was no less angry there than when I had that talk with my niece weeks before.

It’s not as if she was required to live the life of a soltera. I pleaded that she merely find a job and help out with her family before she moved to one of her own. Three years at best, I said. But, at 28 years old, she couldn’t wait. It seems like sakripisyo is another old-term value gone falling in the wayside.

I write this many months later and thinking: “If my family expectations were different from how I wanted to live my life, would I follow my heart or be enslaved by familial obligation?”

Maybe it is the nature of love that makes us stubborn. And the pride of the young that prevents taking advice from the old. Anger has a way of creeping in otherwise happy moments, like a wedding.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Stigma, Stigmata


I felt like someone twice marked for assassination. Two days before my 45th birthday, I underwent a triple heart by-pass operation. Not even a year later, or exactly six months and two weeks after my by-pass (26 February 2007 to be exact), I was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Rare is the man or woman who receives a cancer diagnosis with calm aplomb. For me, it was like hearing an airport announcement asking me to board a flight when in fact, at my age, I was not even near the departure lounge. My mind zoomed in all directions like an independence day firecracker exploding and careening into a kaleidoscope of clichés, a series of Sisa emotions (“Basilio? Crispin?!).

At first, I noticed a heightened, paranoiac observation of the ordinary. Eating was no longer just a meal, but maybe “my last meal”. Talking was no longer just a conversation, but the possibility (in the future, with people informed by hindsight, gathered at the wake) that it was my “most important last words”. This thought pressured me into uttering pronouncements more substantial than just, “Please pass me the patis.” Waving good bye to a friend—a seemingly
ordinary action learned by a baby’s innocent act of mimicry and repeated over the years in the course of socialization—suddenly acquired spine-tingling nuances. Even a usually innocuous phrase triggered a slew of ironies. Consider the standard: “See you later, alligator”, which at other times would have been sweet and endearing. To my mind, it echoed the following simultaneous translation: “see you later…don’t forget the Mass card” (when saying it to my friends). Or “see you later…in hell!” (when addressing people I didn’t care too much about). But surprisingly, other than the morbid, I discovered that intimacy with death had another emotional but familiar effect.

Twice confronted by death’s proximity, I awoke to a world transformed into an inimitable, precious, and fragile place—what poet Rolando Tinio aptly described as a “crystal universe”—where everything takes on the nature of a very shiny, rainbow gilded, breakable soap bubble. Colors became so intense, it bled into the outlines of figures. Each day burned into my mind vivid, sensoramic, technicolor memories. I became ecstatic one moment and then sad the next. Fear and hope kept competing for my attention. And I took every opportunity to claim or reward a hug. You might be familiar with this feeling—the first time you took ecstasy… Or so they say. If people didn’t know about my medical condition, they could have sworn I was acting like a teen-ager in love and so wanting to get laid. Could this be the reason why the French refer to an orgasm as la petite mort, the little death?

Having cancer has become so prevalent in the modern age. In my close circle of friends, Mimi, Rose’s mother and I were each diagnosed with a different type of cancer within three months of each other. Much can be said about the cause of cancer. But as to its effect, I hazard a guess that if having cancer were an art form, critics would have officially declared it as an exciting genre. Like the Japanese horror movie, your favorite telenovela, or performance art, the middle class cancer story has evolved its own defining set of expectations and common narratives. For example, no cancer story is complete without the character of the doctor, with the CT scan plates in front of him who, trying to be clinical but failing, fiddles with his eyeglasses before uttering the sentence with the C word in it. A cancer narration lacks a sense of the real without that important family breakdown scene where—in the silence after the news—the lumpen cousin who lives with you tries to be helpful by asking, “Are you updated with your insurance premium payments?” I have heard no cancer story without the usual prayerful friends, doting relatives, or the incompetent resident who is unable to properly insert an intravenous needle. My favorite, of course, is the timely appearance of the mysterious donors who come to the rescue in the nick of time to contribute to the payment of, at least, the first set of medical bills. I guess they wish to remain anonymous because they don’t want to be approached a second time. All these have become the stock and shock in trade of the genre. I am pleased to have made their acquaintance, mannerisms and all.

Once, in the many times that I found myself waiting in a doctor’s office, I would read an article in one of the dog-eared magazines proclaiming that cancer is one of the top three causes of deaths in the world. According to the Journal of Cancer Medicine, the total number of lives claimed by all types of cancer has risen since ten years ago. Moreover, new and baffling cancers are being discovered every year. On the bright side, the advances in medical research has somewhat dulled the dread previously associated with the disease. Nowadays, there are more and more cancers thought to be curable by one drug or another.

As early as the time of Sir Isaac Newton, the human body has been viewed as a living system of cogs, levers and springs no different from any of the machines being invented during that time. Mainstream medicine’s curative philosophy has not drastically changed over the years. In fact, this view has been strengthened by the development of chemical, electronic and radiologic technology that has made it possible to read the human body down to its molecular level. Medicine has inherited the love of surgery from Newton’s view of the body as a mechanical apparatus. If something does not work, the best way to deal with it was to bypass it or excise it. In modern practice, this could easily be done through the slash of scalpels, burning of lasers, or the poison of drugs.

Sadly, most people in the third world who have curable cancers lose their life’s savings paying for the cure. More often, when given the choice of saving one’s self or ensuring the survival of a family, heroism becomes the better option as people make ultimate sacrifices. And for those who don’t have the resources to begin with, faith can be the only medicine.

Manang Celi, for example, is our neighbor’s labandera who thinks she has cancer. Six years ago, she experienced stomach cramps that she explained to herself, at first, as signs of hunger. When one has six kids and an absentee husband, skipping meals can be a daily habit. She hid her perennial diarrhea from her employer for fear of losing her job. At the instigation of a cousin, who worked as a janitress at the Philippine General Hospital, she underwent several medical tests. But the findings on her case remain sealed in a small envelope inside a bigger folder kept in a steel filing cabinet in one of the cramped offices of the hospital’s laboratory department. For lack of resources—like someone who doesn’t have enough cash to retrieve the earrings that were pawned—she remains unable to get the results of her medical tests released. She has tried every ruse in the book (from petty bribery to tears) to get the mousy attendant to let her take a peak at what the medical technologists had to say about her bloody and watery stool. But the attendant remained implacable and as cold as a surgical table: “No cash, No test release.”

To this day, when the cramps come visiting, Manang Celi still doesn’t know what causes them. She finds some blessing in the fact that her medical condition is as ambivalent as her sources of income. To her, the vagueness of the future is not a dark and strange place, but a cozy limbo where she can afford to hope. For now, the only liquid currency that she can exchange is prayer. She attributes the lessening of her pain to the six years invested in Friday visits to the Senor Nuestro Poong Nazareno, the Black Nazarene in Quiapo.

The knowledge of a possible impending death—unlike the suddenness of an accident or the vulgar directness of a coronary thrombosis—brings with it a haze, a stage presence, an attraction we reserve for the mysterious. There is an unavoidable grandiloquence about it, like the sound of a lone snare drum announcing the silent shuffling of a funeral cortege. It brings to mind an 18th Century European opera end-of-Act-II moment, say, where the courtesan, in the height of her beauty, coughs her lungs out and produces a speck of blood on her white, lace handkerchief. Instantly, she and the audience recognize this code: the tuberculosis has set in. Referred to as consumption, it was a disease as romantic then, as some forms of cancer are now.

Cancer, unlike a miracle, can be explained. Nature is sustained by a balance of death and regeneration. The human body is no different. Cancer develops when human cells divide and regenerate unhindered, resulting in the development of a mass or a tumor that upsets the balance. Passages are blocked. Internal organs are displaced. Cancer is regeneration gone haywire. The current treatment for cancer generally involves excising the over-developing cells and then nuking the remainder by way of chemotherapy. Taking chemo is like ingesting controlled amounts of poison. While chemotherapy kills cancer cells, the healthy cells are also damaged, maimed or debilitated. This is why in the process, the body’s immune system gets severely jeopardized. The body of the patient undergoing treatment literally becomes a battleground. It is like a mopping-up operations being conducted by a berserk military where the insurgent is killed along with the innocents.

The inner war is outwardly manifested by a body in decay. I’ve observed that people, after knowing that I’m on chemotherapy (instead of being mortified by signs of putrefaction) generally seem to develop an interest in the degeneration of my body. Am I losing my hair? Do I experience nausea and fatigue? They examine my extremities darkened by the burning happening in the molecular level. They raise their eyes in child-like wonder at the slow and ridged growth of my nails. They look closely at the growing pallor of my face. Cellular division in my body slows down having the effect of thinning the epidermis on my face. My skin develops a new smoothness, exposing fine veins close to the top, coloring my cheeks to a nice blush. Visitors declare that I “actually look good”. I am reminded of tourists admiring the red-orange
brilliance of the Manila sunset without knowing that the spectacular color owes itself primarily to the high level of pollution trapped in the sky.

Optimistic comments on the way I look have been repeated to me several times with so much conviction by hordes of clueless people that it has made me wonder whether my pessimism is a natural reaction. They probably think that happy thoughts will result in early convalescence. (I make a mental note that if ever I become rich enough, I’ll build a cancer hospital that looks like Disneyworld.) All of them invariably end their visit with a firm clasp, a hug and an offer to pray for a fast and full recovery. People smile as they walk out of my hospital room. Satisfied at having done a good deed, they rush back to the embrace of their normal city lives of excitement, deadlines, backstabbing, and bills. It always makes me wonder who, among those who offered, actually had time to pray.

What most do not know is that the thinning of my skin also occurs in that sensitive appendage “down there”. Polite etiquette dictates that this information be reserved to a few, such as my lady oncologist (who declined to look) and my intimate who comes to visit as often as allowed. Given the chance to be alone with me, his fingers slowly run through the straight scar on my chest, sheepishly continuing to the snake that forms around my navel and, sensing that I’m not offering any objections, boldly trace the rest of the scar that ends on my lower abdomen, close enough to where the pubic hair starts to grow into a bush (although now, it looks like a five o’clock shadow after two weeks from having been shaved for the operation.)

His two fingers, like uneven legs, tread gingerly, then turn into a light caress. The fingers amble along the keloid path, observant, respectful, but also highly charged—like walking on sacred ground with a hard-on. Was he trying to seduce me in my hour of reckoning? Or was he, like a crowd in a hanging, fascinated by the horror—and motivated by a sense of charity—vying to be my last memorable experience? I drop my robe and step back for his inspection hoping to appear—like Venus de Milo, with her decapitated arm—sublime in my imperfection. When his eyes take me in, it is half in pity and mostly half in horror. I have lost weight, my complexion is ashen and the muscle tone sags in places where previously it was taut. He notices the blisters on my penis; wondering aloud whether I can have normal sex again after it heals, to which I want to reply, “What is ‘normal’ sex”? I have to evade the question not wanting to lie. At that time, I did not know if this, or indeed, any other part of my body would heal. He says he loves me. A thought crosses my mind about how easy it is to promise anything to the terminally ill. But I catch the negative vibe before it takes root. I force myself to accept that his interest goes beyond charity.

We can trace our awe of pain from the initiation rites in our tribal roots. How much is man’s capacity to bear? Instinctively, we reserve a place of honor for those who can stand up to hardship. On the other hand, our horror fascination with sickness may come from a culture of contrition embedded by 300 years of faux Catholicism. A long suffering mother, a wronged mistress, a boxer in the ring, survivors of catastrophic events, and others who have similarly passed a test of physical and emotional endurance all share various levels of admiration and respect. Suffering, when made public, seems to serve as a magnet for sympathy and esteem.

Also, the personal battle to survive cancer has a special niche. The arbitrariness of disease marks it differently. More so, when there is no reason to be sick, no logic in the attack. When stricken with an unexplainable fate, one is crowned with glory or relegated to a room of repentance.

In my life of moderation, I never smoked; regularly ate my greens; and engaged in dutiful exercise. And yet I’ve been stricken with not one, but two, deadly diseases. Under the circumstances, the manifestation of cancer becomes a baffling, undecipherable sign, a misterio—a stigma or a stigmata? They say cancer happens for a reason. It is either God’s will or one’s just desserts. Depending on the perception, cancer is seen either as a reward for a life of blessedness or a punishment for a life of excess. Cancer leads the sufferer on the road to sainthood or to the front gates of derision.

But when one thinks of cancer as a prize for holiness, what does that say about heaven’s reward for piety? From this premise, can one make conclusions relative to the holiness of septuagenarian cardinals and popes? On the other hand, if it is were some species of retribution, how is it that people who have been tagged to various scams and scandals—whose acts have wrought havoc on the lives of powerless innocents—have not excruciatingly died of it?

We hear of trials for various misdeeds—from pre-need companies running away with their subscribers’ matriculation fees to charges of election fraud, to government corruption and military abuse—where the big fish invariably escape the net of justice. If cancer is the physical manifestation of the wrath of the giant Om, why are dirty politicians and crooks alike still living, and living well in palaces? Shouldn’t their various acts of perjuring themselves to the safety of an acquittal deserve some form of irrevocable destiny? Cancer of the tongue, perhaps?

These thoughts cross my mind as I lay sideways on a cold metal table while the doctor, with the help of a thin tube, inserts a microcamera up my ass. It is so very James Bond. Groggily, I look at the monitor and see the inside of my colon in real time. I am amazed by the technology and, under the influence of drugs, find myself on a strange trip. “Look,” I say to an imaginary friend, “A beautiful sight! The landscape of the intestines.” With its dark hues, bright reds and specks of yellow, it is abstract space. The art inside my body. The next frontier. I think other thoughts to distract me from the slow bloating inside. At this point, Dr. Jose P. Rizal, the national hero, appears as a hallucination. Wearing a white lab gown (instead of his usual black overcoat, but still with his bowler hat) he studies the development of our history since his death, as if examining x-rays held against the light. He looks up from the evidence and confirms his findings. “This country is suffering from a social cancer.” In this dream, I ask, “Has the cancer grown? Is it terminal?” And finally, “Which cancer is worse, mine or our country’s?” And Dr. Pepe Rizal answers in the manner typical of the medical community, “Who knows?”

Under heavy sedation, I transform into St. Sebastian, captured in that characteristic, charismatic pose beloved of Michaelangelo—half-naked, arms raised and tied to a post, with arrows sticking out of his white torso and leg—and despite the pain caused by the giant acupuncture needles, still looking sensuously beatific, eyes heavenward, standing fabulously contra-posto. Bravery is the virtue I am supposed to embrace as I fight this cancer into remission, although I know I am no saint, not even close to being a martyr. I look at my agony, not as a chance for heroism, but as my sweet dance with death—a many splendored thing. How else can one describe being alone on the operating table? Aware of the sharps and the clang of metal medical equipment that will be used on me. There is no escape. I welcome fear with a hug I reserve only for intimates. I anticipate the care I will receive from relatives. I bask in their love. With friends, I will celebrate each day with the joy of knowing that hope is a bridge being built everyday. And with God, I hold up my right hand, two fingers forming a V: Peace! But the best thing about being treated for cancer is the blessing that there, in the interruption of normal life, one is forewarned. Most of all, having received a notice of possible eviction, having cancer gives one the chance to write the dying scene.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Blogging Blues


Starting a blog is harder than I thought.

At first, I had to contend with the technology involved of uploading, lay-outing, choosing the appropriate picture. Sometimes, I spend hours getting the fonts just right. Does it really matter whether I choose arial black over century gothic? But often, and I am irked to admit this, I miss the self-imposed deadline because of a lack of discipline. I either fail to wake up early enough to start a topic. Or, in the rare instances that I wake up to my schedule, I find myself unable to sort my jumbled, unwieldy thoughts. At the end of the blogging hour, my computer screen stares back at me looking like the literary equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment—one-eyed phrases, crooked limbs of sentences, still-born thoughts. On the other hand, in the rare instances that lightning struck my writing, I realized that my day was clearer, my plans had a gilt-edged focus, I craved for exercise, I was able to accomplish more tasks and yes., I had better sex.

Mystics have known all along that sitting alone in a room with no one but one’s thoughts gave far better results. The act of blogging, I suppose, is my substantial compliance to communion with the Om. When done properly, it grounds the confused, multi-tasking, third world schizophrenic which is me. The white laptop screen is my mind. I am alone, the sun is just starting to warm up in the horizon. There is no one tugging at my sleeve for this task or that favor. I am confronted by the reality beneath my consciousness. And this is what emerges: “I have to bring the car to the shop why didn’t I not do it last Wednesday now I have to do an extra trip and won’t be able to save gas I should have done the to-do list no wonder I forgot to pick up my blood test results with my stress test or stress test? – shit, that was yesterday. That stupid client is such an asshole why don’t I just terminate the retainer? are you stupid? You can’t live without the monthly check to pay for food on the table and your trip to Boaracay and your sister’s cry for help for her daughter’s tuition. My mom is always looking over my shoulder always asking me when I will marry she lives with me but I feel I live with her but its ok because I love her and she’s just getting old and I hope I won’t grow old like that I am too tired no I am not I feel sad no you don’t I am happy because I will see my love later and excited we will meet later for dinner and his smile makes me warm inside and he holds my hands and I’m re-charged and everything is fine in the world.”

Wading through all that trash and finding wisdom to share with other people who may or may not come across this blog is the excuse for this confessional. Notice that I begin this piece with an address: “Kaibigan” meaning friend. I presume that the reader will, like an ally across the table, listen with empathy and find meaning with me as I gut myself in public.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Under Construction

This blog is under construction,
as is its author who has been sewn
in two places within the span of
six months. There are no more
questions on the warranty clause.
Law offers no answer in interpretation.
Art ceases to be the blue print of plans--
Now, only relief in
These, too, will be hammered, patched and
quilted for bed or shroud; picnic basket
or altar mantle. See me assemble a shed, a home,
a leaf boat
made from fallen log. Welcome we,
who all are,
in seeking perfection--undergoing