I can't believe another writer-friend just passed away. The last time I spoke to Astrid was a few years ago, during Writers Night at the U.P. She was always a cheerful presence, and a great inspiration -- she was one of the reasons why I even tried my hand at writing stories for children. Astrid lost her battle with aggressive lupus. She will be missed, but her stories and poetry for children will be treasured. Here's a sample of one of her poems for kids...
Juan and the Jumping Jelly Bean Man
When Juan turned ten on the twenty-third of September, his parents threw him a party, one he would always remember.
His friends were invited to come to the lake where balloons and ice cream waited plus a three-layered chocolate cake.
Unknown to Juan, his friends and his parents, an uninvited guest showed up disguised as one of the presents.
This particular present came in a huge box topped by a bright, blue bow with a card signed by a name no one in the party knows.
To unwrap the gift, on a tall stool stood Juan, unknowingly setting free the jumping jelly bean man.
He was a giant, red jelly bean that grew eyes, ears, feet and hands. A jumping jelly bean man that jumped higher than a jelly bean ever can.
At first, he was delightful, throwing jelly beans by the thousands, multi-colored rain pouring over the party guests and Juan.
Then all of a sudden, to the horror of Juan, the jumping jelly bean man started bouncing and jumping on everyone. He sprung over Juan’s friends and over their parents. He crashed on the table that held all of Juan’s presents.
He skipped on one leg and dropped on the spaghetti splashing it and destroying the dress of Juan’s kid sister, Betty.
It still rained jelly beans when the jumping jelly bean man decided to hop inside the caterer’s delivery van.
Juan just couldn’t stand watching the jumping jelly bean man ruin his tenth birthday party. He had to devise a plan.
While the jumping jelly bean man was busy, hopping and popping all the balloons, Juan racked his brains to save his party real soon.
“ I know, I know,” cried our hero, Juan. “I know how to stop that nasty jelly bean. Everybody, quick! Stretch out the table cloth. We are going to make a giant trampoline.”
“We’ll use as bait my delicious three-layered chocolate cake and when the jumping jelly bean man comes, we’ll send him off flying towards the lake.”
That’s just what happened. The jumping jelly bean man, now covered in ice cream, spotted the cake. As he leapt, Juan loudly screamed,
“Now!” The next thing, the jumping jelly bean man knew, He was back in the air and found himself sinking into something wet and blue.
The lake was full of fishes and the fishes like sweets. The jumping jelly bean man who couldn’t swim turned into a fabulous fish food treat.
And that is the end of the jumping jelly bean man who came uninvited to the tenth birthday of Juan.
As for our celebrant, Juan, he now knows better to be wary of strange gifts that will arrive next September.
"I cried with Jaypee de Guzman somewhere in my past." He wrote that once, and it made me laugh. Winton Lou Ynion was a Palanca-winning writer, and a good friend, although we never met. Ours was a writerly friendship sustained through email, but no matter, his passing, at the age of 28, still comes as a shock to me. He was so young. His poetry and his passion will be missed.
This is a short poem he wrote years ago...
bagamat mahirap kang mabighani sa pagdaan mo’y nabighani ang lahat
A working list of things to do for the coming birthday week...
[✓] Own up your real age, and don't say this is the sixth anniversary of your 28th birthday.
[✓] Lose at least 40 pounds, and keep the habit.
[✓] Blow the candles, but don't eat the cake.
[✓] Be less bitchy.
[ ] See your dentist and your doctor.
[ ] Take mother out to lunch or dinner.
[ ] Buy a good pair of jeans.
[✓] Buy pizza for the yearbook staff.
[ ] Finish everything you promised to finish.
[✓] Pierce your right ear.
[ ] Finish that book you've been reading forever.
[ ] Submit a story each to Graphic Magazine and Asian Literary Review.
[ ] Send in that story collection -- finally -- to the publisher.
[✓] Explore a side of you nobody expects at all -- which is, pose topless for a magazine. [That should keep them talking.)
[✓] Pray first thing Monday morning.
[ ] Learn to truly forgive those who hurt you. To quote Xander from last night, "Enough of the hate." (Thanks, Xands, for that bit of common wisdom we don't often take into our own lives.)
[✓] Tell the people you love that you love them.
[ ] Give up that one thing that has made you happy for days on end -- because you know it will only lead to nothing, anyway. Life is too short to waste on "could be's" and "could have's." [This will be very, very hard.]
Eyes wide with wonder and flushed with fear, the individuals at the dark heart of Yvette Tan’s stories are unsuspecting people suddenly touched by an inexplicable yet irresistible phenomenon – just like the readers who gingerly approach Tan’s first collection, Waking the Dead and Other Horror Stories.
That is because Tan has laced her 10 precision-machined stories with elements of horror which are neither contrived nor telegraphed. She takes the mundane and turns it into something menacing.
The first story, “The Child Abandoned,” exemplifies Tan’s approach. Set in Quiapo, the tale centers on the unusual child Teresa, who seems to have an eerie connection with the despoiled Pasig River and the profound change the Pasig undergoes. While it was not obvious at first, the events in this story are the lynchpin of the collection, essentially making the others possible.
“The Bridge” takes that conceit even further, taking a political figure called Madame and the bridge she built at San Juanico into decidedly darker territory: “The presence rode the air, slithered past me, whispered in my ear. It was all I could do, not to bat it away, to run screaming from the room. I could feel my heart beating fast in my chest. I have always been comfortable with my abilities, never been afraid of the beings I could see and hear and feel, until now. I knew what an enkantada was, and a duwende and a kapre. I did not know what was in the room with me.”
Here, Tan introduces us to an entirely new thing to be afraid of.
The other stories trade in the usual-turned-unusual, with familiarity becoming the discarded spirit gum of the city’s disguise. A meticulous set-up leads to the ambiguous ending of “Fade to Nothing.” “Delivering the Goods” is modern sardonic morbidity.
Set in Virra Mall of the future, “Boss, Ex?” takes the ubiquitous Metro experience of buying pirated movies and messes with it.
“Kulog,” seemingly the most lighthearted of the stories, reads like a children’s story about a neighborhood kapre but grows surprisingly poignant.
The titular story “Waking the Dead” is old-fashioned in the sense that its premise is classic, but Tan transposes the zombie mythos to somewhere much nearer to us. Tan does a lot with just two pages.
The ante is raised with “Stella for Star,” a gripping meditation on what happens when the infant left at your door has a taste for blood. By far Tan’s most personal story, “Daddy” involves a writer named Yvette Tan who receives fragmented calls on her cell from her dead father.
The final story, “Sidhi,” is the most ambitious, combining drugs, fiesta and the supernatural into a feverish conclusion that stuns with the realization it unchains. By the time you realize what is actually happening, you also realize that Tan had you – and she had you all along.
Tan’s narrators and protagonists are mostly young yet transcendent, and perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Waking” is how all of Tan’s stories seem to occur in the same parallel Philippines: “Making one’s way through a Quiapo crowd is never easy, especially today. At one point, I found myself in the arms of a tikbalang. Legend has it that before the saint gave life back to the river, the city belonged only to humans. Sta. Teresa’s miracle had opened the doors for the folk of the Other Country… until Quiapo became a melting pot for different species.”
Tan’s stories rise like the enchanted river to meet their readers, the words like brackish water suddenly turning clear. Something is awakened in this book, an irresistible trap of terror and talent from Yvette Tan, whose seductively scary stories will make readers glad they acquiesced when offered this fateful bargain: “Drink, and your eyes will be opened.”
Anvil Publishing will launch Waking the Dead and Other Stories by Yvette Tan at 4 p.m. on 15 August 2009 at PowerBooks, SM Megamall.
This one got swept aside by events this last couple of weeks but is too important to let pass. That is the elevation of Carlo Caparas and Cecile Guidote to national artists, a thing that has the other national artists up in arms.
My take on it is this: I don’t buy the distinction between “artist” and “entertainer.” Nothing prevents the artist from being an entertainer and nothing prevents the entertainer from being an artist. Preferably, the two should go together. Art that is disdainful of audience ends up being more hoity-toity than artistic, or ends up being more a pain in the ass than a joy to the soul.
I myself have never thought of entertainment as something that “whiles the time away” or “diverts.” I’ve always thought of entertainment as something that uses time well or gets to the point. Or gets the point. From an artistic point of view, that’s entertainment.
I do buy however the distinction between commercial and artistic. The artistic adds to the sum of human wisdom, or our understanding of the human predicament. The commercial panders to the lowest common denominator, and adds nothing to, or even subtracts from, the sum of human knowledge. That is my answer to Caparas’s supporters’ charge that his detractors are merely being elitist. I myself have no problems with Caparas being an entertainer. But I have problems with him being a commercial entertainer and not an artistic one.
As accomplishment goes, he will have to fall in line behind Mars Ravelo, Nestor Redondo and the other komiks greats. And their own claims to being national artists will be in serious dispute.
The distinction between an artistic entertainer and a commercial one is easily seen by comparing Lino Brocka and Carlo Caparas. I still remember something Brocka told a group of us sometime before he died. His first line of defense, he said, were his maids. If his maids didn’t like what he did, he would change it. Only when they were satisfied would he be satisfied. You can’t get more masa than that.
But he didn’t stop there. He made sure too that his maids got something they hadn’t seen before. Something new, something different, something better. He made sure his maids went away not just delighted about what they saw but asking questions about what they saw.
Brocka did melodramas, but he sculpted full-blooded characters out of them. Caparas did komiks, and made komiks out of characters. Artistry has nothing to do with whether your material is “hi-class” or “wa-class.” It has everything to do with what you do with it.
Guidote’s case is easier. Of course she helped build the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), of course she, in the words of her defenders, “showed lifetime dedication . . . in leading the movement for national theater and its development to forge our cultural identity and preserve our heritage.” That is a reason only for theater to be grateful to her, that is not a reason for her to become a national artist. The National Artist Award is given to artistry, not to patronage. If it weren’t so, then Imelda Marcos should be proclaimed National Artist, having built the CCP and been a great benefactor to Cecile Licad. Organizing, however it is done indefatigably, resolutely and even heroically as in times of death and fascist rule, is admirable and deserving of honor. That honor is not the National Artist Award.
Now, for the more extrinsic issues, which are in fact the more important issues here.
At the very least, the way Caparas and Guidote have been named national artists is tasteless. Guidote says that though she is the executive director of the National Council on Culture and the Arts, the body that oversees the grant of the award, she had nothing to do with the selection process. What can one say? The GMA virus must be more contagious than A-(H1N1). Guidote’s patron has nothing to do with the Ombudsman either, or shouldn’t, but see if Merceditas Gutierrez will not nominate her saint. As to Caparas, his legend lies only in the way he helped GMA pull down the house Ang Panday built during the last elections.
That brings us to the heart of the matter, which is Malacañang fiddling with art. I have a special fondness for art and artists, and that I truly mind. If there’s an urgent and compelling need for Malacañang to have nothing to do with the appointment of the justices of the Supreme Court, there’s an even more urgent and compelling need for Malacañang to have nothing to do with the appointment of national artists. I don’t know that the appointment of justices should be left to lawyers alone. But I do know that the appointment of national artists should be left to artists alone.
Malacañang has no business decreeing artists. The spectacle I see is that of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev visiting art museums in the former Soviet Union and proclaiming which things there are art and which are not, a presumption as vast as the Urals. Given in particular that they were as much a gift to art as FDR was to the marathon. The notion of Arroyo doing the same, when her palate is limited only to wine and caviar and steak costing $20,000, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Expense is not a sign of art, or of taste.
I don’t know which is worse, Imelda explicitly claiming to be the handmaiden of the true, good and beautiful, which are the hallmarks of art, or Arroyo implicitly doing so. Imelda at least had the external trappings of beauty, even if her and her husband’s rule was uglier than the portrait of Dorian Gray. Arroyo doesn’t even have that. Her own rule has become only, well, the artistic representation of all that is not true, good and beautiful. For her to decree who should be national artists is for her to decree who should be national heroes.
That’s not just a Carlo Caparas fantasy, that’s a delusion.
Tell me, what respectable movie about teenagers today is capable of having lines as immortal as this...?
“I do have a test today. That wasn’t bullshit. It’s on European Socialism. I’m not European. I don’t plan on becoming European. So who gives a crap if they’re socialists? They could be fascists anarchists, for all I care. It still wouldn’t change the fact that I don’t own a car... Not that I condone fascism. Or any ism. As John Lennon once said, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’ Easy for him to say. He was the walrus. I could be the walrus, I’d still have to bum rides off people.”
That's part of a snappy opening monologue by the title character (played to hip perfection by the young Matthew Broderick, before he became Mr. Sex and the City -- which is really snarky of me to say, darn) from one of my favorite films of all time, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This one's a film about a charming, happy-go-lucky high school slacker, his girlfriend and his uptight best friend as he takes them out to play hooky and go about Chicago on a gorgeous day.
But I seriously can't name a movie that has that kind of poetry, and yet remain accessible to the common young person -- the way it did me and other people my age.
The maker of that film, John Hughes, is dead today. With him died the most honest chronicler of my adolescence. Our adolescence -- or at least those of us who grew up in the 1980s and came of age in the early 1990s. Never mind that the teenagers he depicted were from a Chicago suburb, and I was a gangly boy from a tropical small city in the middle of a third world country. There was still something universal in the dilemmas that they faced, and the ways with which they dealt with them. Teenage stereotypes and the bond that unites them all? There's The Breakfast Club. Questions of social class and dating? There's Pretty in Pink. Teenage pregnancy? There's She's Having a Baby. Falling hormonally and realistically in love? There's Sixteen Candles. Harboring fantasies of banishing away your family? There's Home Alone (which he wrote and produced).
And so we elevated many of his films -- especially his early ones -- to cult-level status, to iconic (and much-quoted) milestones of culture, simply because, as one commenter in AwardsDaily put it very nicely, "he took us seriously instead of talking down to us, he understood the cliques we had to go through (as well as seeing past those cliques...), and he took our emotions about love and happiness seriously."
All teenage films since then has only the Hughes template to mind as the gold standard. Most pale in comparison, and even the best ones (like Jose Javier Reyes's Pare Ko, Mark Waters' Mean Girls, or Amy Heckerling's Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) are delightful, well-made, but haphazard approximations at best. (Only Cameron Crowe with Almost Famous, Singles, and Say Anything -- the latter, by the way, was produced by Hughes -- seems to be the rightful heir apparent, but still not in the same class.) The influence is daunting. Director Kevin Smith once famously said: "Basically everything I do is just a raunchy John Hughes movie."
See a good remix of the best clips from many of his films...
Better yet, rent every single one of his movies and (re)discover what it is (or was) to be young.
Read the New York Timesobituary. And read the tribute by film critic (and fellow Chicagoan) Roger Ebert. And back to the New York Times, read A.O. Scott's heartfelt and very intelligent appraisal, where he writes: "But I don’t think I’m alone among my cohort in the belief that John Hughes was our [Jean Luc] Godard, the filmmaker who crystallized our attitudes and anxieties with just the right blend of teasing and sympathy." Amen to that.
Read Molly Ringwald's appreciation of her old mentor here. An excerpt: "None of the films that [Hughes] made subsequently had the same kind of personal feeling to me. They were funny, yes, wildly successful, to be sure, but I recognized very little of the John I knew in them, of his youthful, urgent, unmistakable vulnerability. It was like his heart had closed, or at least was no longer open for public view. A darker spin can be gleaned from the words John put into the mouth of Allison in The Breakfast Club: 'When you grow up ... your heart dies.'"
Do not stand at my grave and forever weep. I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn’s rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and forever cry. I am not there. I did not die.
I’ve written a good many things about Cory this past couple of weeks. I guess it’s time I got a little more personal.
I wasn’t an ardent fan of Cory at the beginning, I was an ardent critic. I came from the ranks of the red rather than the yellow, and looked at the world from the prism of that color. It got so that in one program Kris Aquino invited me to (I don’t know if she remembers this), she took me to task for it. It was an Independence Day show, and during one break, Kris turned to me and said: “Why are you so mean to my mom?”
I was, to put it mildly, taken aback. It’s not easy finding a clever answer to an accusation like that put with breathtaking candor. I just flashed what I thought would be a disarming smile. I don’t know if it disarmed.
What can I say? Maybe I’m just naturally mean. Or maybe I just say what I mean and mean what I say.
Years later, when the world had turned, and not for the better, I got an unexpected phone call. Cory was at the other end, which awed me. She said she was calling just to express her appreciation for something I had written about her. I do not now recall what it was. What I recall was mumbling something about not being the best person to say those things in light of what I had been saying before. She said that wasn’t true: I was the best person to say those things because of what I had been saying before.
I appreciated the appreciation.
Still years later, I would have cause to appreciate yet one more thing. That was February this year when, from out of the blue, Cory visited at the wake of my mother. I did not bother to ask, “Why are you so kind to my mom?” I knew by then it was her nature to be so.
She stayed for about an hour, and did much of the talking. Boy, could she talk! I didn’t know that before. But I’ve always been a good listener. She talked, I listened. What we talked about is best left for another time. But afterward, I thought: What strange directions life takes. What strange forks, detours, and crossings life takes.
I’ve seen activists who began by serving the people, or exhorting the world to, end up serving only themselves. And I’ve seen students who thought only of saving their families end up saving the world, or trying to. I’ve seen the best and the brightest turn only into the worst and greediest. And I’ve seen someone who was walang alam, or who was made out to be so, teach the world a thing or two about honor and courage and grace.
Maybe it’s not so strange that people who start out being enemies on grounds of principle end up being friends on those same grounds. And people who start out being friends without principle end up being enemies on that same ground.
I wondered, like someone who had come back to where he started and saw the place for the first time: Maybe colors are there to unite us more than separate us. Maybe red is just the blood that pulses in the veins in love and war. Maybe yellow is just the pages of a letter from a loved one that magically bring him back to life. Maybe blue is just the sky, however cloudy, when looked at through the bars of a prison cell. Maybe green is just fields promising plenitude. Maybe black is just the tangle of our fate, the twists and turns of our life, as we grope our way forward. Maybe white is just the grace to push on, amid the darkness.
I wondered with the wisdom of innocence and the naivete of age: Maybe we’re divided only into good people and bad people. How people are so, or become so, I’ll leave others to divine. Maybe they are just born that way, maybe like scorpions they sting because it is in their nature to sting. Or maybe they are made that way, as much by the circumstances that mold their character as their character that molds their circumstances. But bad people are there; we know that only too well. Just as well, good people are there too; we know that even more so.
We know the latter because we had someone walk with us who was so. Someone who was so disinterested in power she accepted it gravely as a matter of duty and gave it up gracefully as a matter of trust, for which she remains an awesome force even in death. Someone who, while she lived, showered not very small kindnesses on others in their hour of need or bereavement, having known bereavement herself and the comfort of empathy as much as the empathy of comfort, for which she continues to live with us even in death. Someone who proved once before as Joan of Arc and who will prove once again like El Cid the terrifying and wondrously prophetic vision of her faith: The exalted shall be humbled and the humble exalted.
In life and in death, Cory has been—pardon my French—one damn good person.
Good persons of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your bane.