This made me think, because I have friends who are exactly like this:
Everyone knows a baffling couple like the one that takes shape in Greenberg, Noah Baumbach's defiantly unsettling new film. One half of the couple is a genuinely lovely person. The other seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. You come home from being at a dinner party with them stumped as to why the lovely person hasn't noticed that their spouse or partner is a total stinker. You ponder, maybe for the first time, the term co-dependency. Mostly you wonder how this pair ended up together.
I realize that my favorite characters in film or literature are my favorites, not because they're grandly heroic, but because they're ordinary, flawed people striving for beautiful balance. Like this lost girl singing of rivers in the moon...
... or this one singing of feeling the sun in a whole new world...
Their search for that dreamed-of only happiness in a world that's cruel or apathetic is for me the finest brand of heroism.
You guess, when you woke up this morning to the sound of Bruce Springsteen singing "The Secret Garden," that something must be done about this. The truth is, you really can't control what you feel. When you feel sad, you feel sad. When you're happy, you're happy. Your head can tell you to feel the opposite, but you suddenly find you are not an automaton. You are hostaged to the chemical rushes your body makes. Emotions are the only truly stubborn thing there is. And they're flighty, too. They change with each slight nudge of the seasons. Nothing can be done about that as well.
But you can change the specific circumstances -- deleting the Internet accounts with which you can see him mug for the world to see, for example -- by which you feel things.
Because you can't go on like this forever. Today must be the start of your emancipation. You must remember most that he does not love you, not the way you deserve to be loved, anyway. All that you are and all that you can give, they're wasted on stone. It's not right.
Someday, the universe will conspire to make you complete. But you must first learn to let go.
The thing they don't tell you about graduation is this: the bliss of an afternoon clad in a toga is quick and shallow. The commencement speech is boring, and you feel that the summer sun, which is blistering hot, is laughing at you. It still doesn't quite register that a great chapter in your life is over -- college, you will soon realize, was a time when you had all the chance to explore, and do, all that you can be without adult recriminations -- and then you realize it rang away so quickly and unexpectedly, just like the sound of a misfired shot gun.
Four years are quick. The future is long.
And then this bullet of a realization suddenly gets to you: it's all over. You finally say to yourself, in a sudden acknowledgment of what's to come: "Okay... what now?" You're sweaty in your toga, and all you get is silence. Your mother smiles at you. She expects you to get a job fast.
"I have a friend who owns a college," your mother says. "I want you to stay in our hometown. Be with me."
You feel yourself wilt inside.
The very next day, you realize you can't really ask for an allowance anymore.
A sandwich, especially when done right, is a veritable architecture of food perfection, defined by simplicity of structure—two slices of bread hugging yummy goodness—but distinguished by possibilities of invention. This inventiveness comes with whatever suits anybody’s sandwich fancy—put in salami, put in roast beef, put in a delectably fried beef patty with a melted slice of cheese. Put into the mix your coleslaw, your slices of the choicest tomato, your onion rings, and voila, that’s heaven in all of a piece.
I love sandwiches.
Which is why I’m taken in quite well, in measures of muted admiration, by this establishment in the second floor of UTH Building along Avenida Santa Catalina, a stretch that is increasingly distinguished by the number of restaurants and cafés popping up in what one might as well be call Dumaguete’s new Food Street. There’s Café Antonio at the northern end and Café Noriter farther down south, sprinkled in between by assorted chicken grill houses and high-end gourmet joints like Boston Café. In the middle of it all, like a secret haven, there’s Mels.
It is not easy to spot Mels, if one judges location by quick landmark recognition and accessibility straight from the streets. Its signage outside calls attention to a side entrance, but a quick flight up the stairs leads you to a small square of a café. I’m a little ambivalent about the place’s décor since my preferences usually run towards the artsy and the dramatic, which for me usually provides any restaurant a kind of quirk or soul that certainly lends charm to the menu; Mels approximates for me a spare dorm room made busy with little pieces of stickers, and blackboards, and shelves of books and magazines stuck to the wall. I don’t know what design philosophy has gone into the making of this one, and I could wish for something more that whets both the eyes and the appetite.
But that doesn’t matter. I take in, first of all, the bestselling piece of the menu—something called a Cheezy Burger, which is not a burger but an oversized sandwich. The patty melts in my mouth with just the right kind of texture and softness. Bundled with lettuce in between slices of wheat bread, it has just the right kind of sizzle and bite. The cracklings on the side—not potato chips or French fries as is common in other establishments—is something of an afterthought. But I drink it all in with a glass of Frizz, a carbonated fruit drink (this one’s in strawberry flavor).
“You must try the Roast Beef Sandwich,” somebody tells me.
It was decadently delicious. The roast beef, downy and coming in flakes, is a sweetish blend that belies the whole sandwich-ness of the thing. It is a full meal. I pronounce it the perfect sandwich.
I take that down with what is now my favorite drink in the café: the Butter Beer—something inspired by the fictional drink in Harry Potter’s world—but this one is a non-alcoholic concoction that still gets you drunk with semi-creaming goodness. What I had was a milk-based vanilla inspiration (one can also have the drink in cinnamon or strawberry or banana or mocha) with sprig of mint on top of the froth. It was so relaxing, it’s better than mocha. One sip instantly reminds me of Baguio rainy nights—a perfect nightcap especially on a hot summer day.
The place is called Mels because—as is commonly done by many Filipino establishments—it is the perfect shortcut for the names of all the proprietors. Here, Mels stand for Melvin (whose specialty is soup and drinks), Melody (who concocts the desserts), Melanie (who makes the cakes and cookies), and Melissa (who also does dessert), all of them Uymatiaos with a dream of food.
“How did you come up with the menu?” I asked Melvin.
“It was a matter of us coming together with our specialties,” he said, “and convincing the other that this has got to be part of the whole experience.”
The idea behind the café, which opened in January 2010, began with Melvin who graduated from Silliman University in 2003, with a degree in Information Technology—a far cry from the kitchen from which he invents culinary pleasures. He had done his share of plodding through the corporate warpath in Procter and Gambe, and then in Hewlett Packard, which afforded him to travel extensively—in the United Kingdom, in Egypt, in India, and in China, taking from each place a sense of culinary invention. By 2009, he was back in Dumaguete to begin work for the family company. But he had always felt that Dumaguete was missing something new.
“Can you define that something?” I asked him.
“Innovation,” he said. “Because what do we always have around us in Dumaguete? What’s the usual? Chicken.” He said that even when they were young, they—he and his sisters—knew they’ve always wanted to have something different. But it was always the same—McNelys, Jo’s, City Burger, Jollibee…
In a sense, for Melvin, Mels is the antithesis to all that. “There’s no other place in the city that is offering this kind of food—salads, especially—especially for those who are adventurous, and for those who are on a budget,” Melvin said.
They began constructing a menu they thought would be a little something different. “There’s soup. We have mushroom soup here,” Melvin said. “And our salads comes in seasonal themes—there’s Summer Fruity Salad, there’s Spring Mandarin Chicken Salad, there’s Winter Crab Salad, there’s Autumn Apple Salad. But you must also try our desserts… There’s the WBC, otherwise known as a Warm Brownie Cup, a brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, heated. There’s our mango ice box cake. And there’s what we call muraputo—an angel cake topped with fruits.” That’s what I had, and it was like tasting a sweet but firm brazo de mercedes, without the mercedes.
But they pull out all the stops with their sandwiches. Aside from the ones that I’ve had—the Cheezy Burger and the Roast Beef Sandwich—there’s the Garden Delight Burger, with its inventive use of coleslaw; there’s the California Sandwich, which is all vegan—no meat, just lettuce, tomato, cucumber, crab kani, and mango; there’s the Pork Barbecue Sandwich. Then, of course, there’s the tuna and the classic ham and egg—but with a Mels twist.
One of the things that is quite special about the place is Melvin’s own invention of a parlor game—something he calls Dodecamino, which is composed of wooden blocks inspired by Tetris pieces, the objective of which is to form a rectangle from a pre-selected set of pieces. This sounds easy, but takes a lot of time to decipher. On the wall, tacked to a board, there’s a bondpaper that contains the design of a robot figure. “Use all pieces to make that design, and you get one free meal,” Melvin said.
If you do, make sure you get the roast beef and the butter beer.
[The Team: Photos by Greg Morales. Food styling by Arlene Delloso-Uypitching. Arrangement by Moses Joshua Atega.]
I used to love drinking milk, until sometime ago I developed what medical science calls lactose intolerance. I asked my nephew, Charles Louis Moncal, a medical student, if there was anything I could do to tame it, the way you can do an allergy -- like drinking more milk? until my body just learns to accept the fact that, dammit, this guy loves milk? "You can't, Tito," Caloy says. "You lack the enzyme na to properly digest lactose."
Well, how did I lose it? Did it fall out of my pocket when I was in line at the bank? Did somebody steal it? Did that stupid enzyme crawl out of me when I was asleep in college?
"So how come I can still eat ice cream and have cream in my coffee?" I asked.
"Must be a mild form of lactose intolerance."
"Are you sure I can't just tame it? Drink more milk and let my body get used to the idea?"
"You will only get thinner that way."
"Huh? How come?"
"Because of the constant discharge," he smiled.
On second thought, a diet based on constipation is never a good idea.
I was watching Star Movies a few nights ago, and it was showing an old favorite—Peter Weir’s majestic Dead Poets Society from 1989. This was a film I saw as an impressionable high school student, and I remember that it moved me. It was to become a defining film for my life, something to store in my personal cinematic treasury box—which would include Cameron Crowe’s Singles and Jerry Maguire, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, Audrey Well’s Under the Tuscan Sun, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds—all of them films from which I would constantly derive a sense of drive despite setbacks and ounces of inspiration to give my own life make a little more sense.
The film—which was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture—is a sweet but tragic melodrama that tells of a bunch of boys in an American prep school and the budding of their dreams and adult reckoning in inspiration of their literature teacher John Keating (played by a non-manic Robin Williams). The professor’s unconventionality flies against the school’s stultifying rigidity of tradition and its (almost mandatory) uninspired classroom atmosphere of droning. He urges his class, for example, to one day tear away—with the full force of disgust—the introductory essay on poetry from their textbook because it approximated an appreciation of verse in a turgid mathematical method.
But in the end, even after a tragedy, he is able to inspire his students to find their own voice in the sea of conformity, to become the captains of their fate, and to live each day with unique zeal and seize the marrow of every living moment. Carpe diem! Oh, Captain, my Captain!
Above all, he taught them to stand up and fight for their dreams despite everything, including unreasonable parental disapproval. I cite this specifically because how many of us have killed our vast potentials and our talents simply because our parents, with all their good intentions, have unknowingly killed our dreams in the service of what they think is practical? (And so it is best to quote Aldous Huxley now: “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.”) I know of one Fine Arts student in Silliman University, for example, whose astounding works in a recent group exhibition easily showed an uncanny talent for the visual arts. But he is planning to stop his painting study because his parents are pressuring him to graduate “on time.”
That fight for the dream that dramatically ended Dead Poets Society moved me, because it is the perfect antidote to what Ally Sheedy’s character in John Hughes’ high school drama The Breakfast Club feared the most: “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Or learns to die, in the gradual accommodation in all our lives of everything that runs counter to our dreams.
I had no idea that years later, I would be following in the footsteps of John Keating—much to my surprise. He had always defined for me what makes a good teacher, and when I try to analyze my own methods as an educator, it does not surprise me that what I do is a combination of that film’s protagonist’s efforts—I make my students in Intensive Composition stand on their chairs to prove a point about looking at old things in new ways, for example, a rip-off of one classroom scene in the film—and the efforts of all the best teachers that I’ve had, including Bennie Vic Concepcion in grade school, and Luz Erum and Alice Mamhot in high school, and Timothy Montes, Ceres Pioquinto, Gina Fontejon-Bonior, Peter Sy, Vicente Maxino, Reynaldo Rivera, and Earl Jude Cleope in college. They’ve helped shaped me, I realize that. The best teachers are shapers of our lives.
That realization about teaching sometimes scares me. Because teachers are also frail human beings much in need of inspiration as well, something that is always in short supply given the paltry salaries, the low professional regard, the endless duties of marking grades (always a thankless task), and the accepted role of being parent, guidance counselor, social worker, policeman, and psychic all rolled into one. Then there are the department politics that distract and dishearten. The vexations are eternal. We are undeniably the face of the arching stress that is at the heart of a student’s college existence—much to our consternation, of course, but what can we do about that? When we demand excellence, we are labeled “terror teachers.” When we slack off a little bit to counter that impression, we are taken to task for not providing enough of an atmosphere of competitive excellence. There can be a balance, of course, but there’s no formula to it. I have written before of one fellow teacher who received death threats from students—a case that has remained unresolved. It’s enough to make anyone teaching a schizophrenic. Thus, teachers are almost always wounded souls. We are easily bruised. And sometimes there are days when I think that being a teacher is all about dealing with utter precariousness, like walking a tightrope without a safety net—and there are many days wherein the very act of fulfilling the obligations of that profession requires inspiration that must at the very least be divinely inspired, because anything else less than that would not be enough.
Sometimes, the solution for some is to create an invisible barricade between two worlds—that of teachers’ and that of students’—that only interface during classroom rituals. There is impregnable distance between the worlds. Distance is all good when the thing to be is to become like Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, high up in Olympus, deciding what fate must befall mortals. This whole archetype is typical of our imagination of teachers, who remain as remote figures in a student’s life and who do not seem to have a life outside of the scribbles on the blackboard. When I was a student in Japan, I observed close hand how this Zeus-like archetype defines teachers: the deference Japanese students make towards their sensei almost borders on servile, and in the classroom, there is an invisible but palpable layout of the classroom where the sensei always occupy a throne front-center, surrounded by acolytes who shrink in the shadows on the sides.
I have never taken to that arrangement well, at least not lately. Because I have quickly realized as well that a source of inspiration for teachers can be his students. When I began teaching many years ago, I thought that the distance I was talking about was standard and de rigeur for the classroom setting. But I have since found out that reaching out to students beyond curricular considerations and situations not only humanizes you to them, but you also learn many things about what makes them tick—which are things you can use to teach better. In the past three years, starting with a group of campus writers I called the LitCritters (a loose group of students I’ve gathered to talk about and do creative writing), I have become friends with many of my students—and while the professional demarcations remain, the blurring of the boundaries has afforded me an adventure into a different brand of mentorship. I am able to reach to them, finally, because they have found out—sometimes to their surprise—that I could be reached. I am no Zeus in Olympus, after all.
And they inspire me. They teach me things I would never probably learn if I only kept the company of fellow teachers. Marvin Flores, for example, has taught me that there can be no excuses in one’s pursuit of excellence—not poverty, not bureaucratic nightmare, not anything. Anna Katrina Espino has taught me that talent is always a diamond in the rough—and the only way for it to shine is to strive, sometimes slowly, until you just surprise everybody with your unexpected brilliance. Irish Reambonanza has taught me a grounded sense of loyalty. Likko Tiongson has taught me the value of singularly pursuing dreams until you wear your dreams down for it to be yours. Mariekhan Edding has taught me how to remain strong despite the conspiracies of small things. Jai Dollente has taught me the comforts of staying true to good friends. Robert Jed Malayang has taught me to consider that not all exceeding brilliance can be officially celebrated—and to promptly never mind that fact. They all keep me young, at least in spirit and sensibility. Which is important, because once any teacher has calcified and hardened to old ways, I don’t think he will be capable of inspiration or fresh insight.
The past three years, come graduation time, have become increasingly hard for me. I’ve grown very close to a number of students I could very well call my good friends. After this year, there will only be a few left. Those who already have—RJ, Marvin and the rest of The Physics Boys, Miko Tingne, Yves Villareal, Rodrigo Bolivar, Michelle Eve de Guzman, Lyde Villanueva, Celeste June Rivera, Marianne Catherine Tapales, Fredjordan Carnice, Micah Dagaerag, Matilde Hescock, Zara Dy, Dok Timbancaya, Bryan King, Justine Yu, Alvin Clyde Gregorio, Lycar Flores, Ray Donn Lim, Aiken Quipot, Ernest Hope Tinambacan, Mayah and Yassi Dulnuan, Magenta Villegas, and so many others—or will soon be passing through the portals of Silliman to exit towards their own post-collegiate lives will become part of an irretrievable past no amount of reunions can ever make happen again. And it’s sad. But also happy, the fact that I have somehow become part of some young people’s lives.
Sometimes you wish they could remain in Dumaguete, and Silliman, forever—but of course life and graduation demand that there must be Moving On. That’s why we call this ritual every March as a Commencement Ceremony, because they are all about beginnings, although it starts with a resounding end to one chapter of our lives.
So to those student/friends who are graduating this year—Ramuel Reambonanza, Anthony Gerard Odtohan, Eliora Eunice Bernedo, Karen Grace Yasi, Emarrah Sarreal, Marc Cabreros, Ian Lizares, Bogy Lim, and all the rest—you know I mean this with the deepest love and affection: maayo unta’g mangahagbong mong tanan. Wahahaha! (Wink.)
Thanks for the friendship and the company. And the inspiration.
6:40 PM |
An Excerpt From 'There are Other Things Beside Brightness and Light'
I once cared about a dog named Tibby. It was a white Pomeranian—one of those frivolous types of dogs that are easy to love because the busy brilliance of their thick hair reduces even adults to squealing children. Tibby—if I try to recall correctly—was a gentle soul, and he had eyes that seemed to see through me. I was a young boy, and he was my world—a yapping mass of cuteness that required devotion. I fed him, I bathed him. Tibby slept at the foot of my bed. Once, in a boring drunken episode, my father shot it with his gun, because the dog barked too loudly and made him spill his beer on his shirt that barely contained a swollen belly.
“Why did you kill the dog?” I mustered enough courage to ask my father after mother buried the animal in the backyard, near the garbage cans, which was shaded by a hollowed out acacia tree in the dark subdivision we lived in.
My father snorted. “Because I can,” he guffawed, his breath smelling of beer stink. Hell, I quickly knew, smelled like this.
I remember that was the first time I ever felt pain. Perhaps also the last. I was nine. It throbbed like an ancient truth, coming to the fore from the gut, ending as a strange tingling between my legs that surprised me, just for a moment. There was pain, and there was father looking at me like I was a mouse. All I could see in the feverish anger that swelled my thoughts was Tibby’s shattered head upon my father’s body, blood dripping down its jaws and into the soiled beer-stained sleeveless shirt my father wore that night—five years, eight months, and thirteen days before he died.
I had a hard-on. I remembered that most of all. At nine, I had a fucking hard-on.
Later on, in my quiet days, my imagination tries to springs on me the sound of a dog yelping, in that frightened drawn-out cadence that signaled a knowledge of pain. But I have learned to drown that out with the noise of nothingness—a gathering blob of pure vacuum that settles in my head and sits in it like a strange dark dream.
And all I would ever learn to see would be the dark side to everything.
Unlike history, fiction can proceed with confidence.
For example: a few years ago we were living on a Thames barge, and on the boat next door lived an elegant young male model. He saw that I was rather down in the dumps, a middle-aged woman shabbily dressed and tired, and he took me on a day-out to the sea, to Brighton. We went on all the rides and played all the slot machines. We walked for a while on the beach, then caught an open-top bus along the front. What happiness!
A few days later he went back to Brighton, by himself, and walked into the sea until it had closed over his head and he drowned. But when I made him a character in one of my books, I couldn’t bear to let him kill himself. That would have meant that he had failed in life, whereas, really, his kindness made him the very symbol of success in my eyes.
~ Penelope Fitzgerald, “Why I Write” (excerpt), from The Afterlife