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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

entry arrow6:48 PM | The Year of Tumult and Transformation

“How do you measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets,
In midnights, in cups of coffee.
In inches, in miles,
In laughter, in strife.
In 525,600 minutes.
How do you measure
A year in the life?
How about love?”

The year ends with a sigh and a blue moon.

But it began with chill. It was an uncharacteristic nippiness in the air, something wonderfully and surprisingly wintry; for once it was the kind of January we in the tropics only read about in books or seen in movies—the close huddle under thick blankets, the mist that becomes our breathing or talking, the suddenly ubiquitous scarves ‘round people’s necks as they rushed through the city’s streets in post-holiday funk.

That it didn’t come with rain was providential and surprising. There was only that terrific chilliness, and when day after day we found that it didn’t dissipate into the familiar, but now absent, Dumaguete heat, we began to wonder about such strangeness. And then, later, we began to celebrate. We remember particularly well how the cold descended without so much as a warning on our city for those seemingly endless days—two straight weeks if we remember it right. The meteorologists were reporting a rare, protracted low pressure area somewhere in the horizon. But we weren’t listening to the weather reports: we went out, and smelled the air. How fresh it felt. We were only too used to Dumaguete’s yearlong seaside humidity—and this was certainly new. It felt like a harbinger for strange, happy things in the coming Year of the Ox.

“This year is going to be wonderful year,” we told ourselves with such optimistic certainty.

And it was.

And it also wasn’t.

The year 2009 was confusing, delightful, backbreakingly hard, adventurous, murderous, beautiful, and sad. No other year in memory came close to the ride we had on that Chinese oxen’s back. We certainly rode through some strange landscape. But there was no constancy to its geography; it could not be mapped. It was all joy and all pain at the same time, like a roller coaster ride we could not understand—but we knew, deep in our guts, that it was all about something. Something. What that was? That’s the mystery.

Someday, we will understand the terrible beauty that was this year.

We were all transformed by 2009, and while most of us are more than eager to bid it the farewell reserved for outcasts, I can only welcome it as my year of tumult and transformation. Still, it is not as if any year is free of tumult: 2001 was more than bad enough and the repercussions of those fallen towers still reverberate today; 2004, too, unleashed its tsunamic fury right after Christmas Day. But 2009 felt different—there were of course so many external tragedies to weep to, but the tumult felt largely internal, as if we were collectively going through personal earthquakes that had no names, only degrees of disorientation. When we, however, embraced what the year brought us—both its severest pains and its startling pleasures—that led to unexpected transformations, or at least the beginnings of them. One afternoon, in one of the last days of the year, I was in Don Atilano drinking my usual cup of afternoon brewed coffee, and then, from the playlist on my Mac, Michael Giacchino’s signature musical score from Lost, the mournful/hopeful “Life and Death” came lilting to my ears. It suddenly made me cry—I just broke down, careful to stifle and cover everything with both hands and a trusty napkin—but it was not all because I was sad. In the prayer that I uttered in that moment, I surprised myself by thanking God and saying, “I learned a lot from this year.” The year was a game-changer. I guess it taught many people a lot about themselves, often in ways that transcended even pain, but we learned from it.

It has been a year of delirious triumphs— Barack Obama winning the U.S. presidency in a historic way, Glee coming to our lives, Avatar bringing back the forgotten wonder of the cinematic experience, Kate Winslet finally becoming an Oscar winner, Manny Pacquiao snagging another boxing belt, Efren Peñaflorida becoming CNN’s Hero of the Year, Lady Gaga transcending her one hit wonder status with one curiously catchy tune after another….

But it was also a year of such cutting tragedy and endless streams of public stupidity—the Copenhagen climate change standoff, reality TV losers such as the Gosselins, prominent deaths—Michael Jackson’s, Francis Magalona’s, Brittany Murphy’s, Farrah Fawcett’s, John Hughes’, Patrick Swayze’s, Frank McCourt’s, Johnny Delgado’s, Marilyn French’s, Odette Alcantara’s, Maurice Jarre’s, John Updike’s, Andrew Wyeth’s, Alexis Teosico’s, Cory Aquino’s—we weren’t exactly ready for, the Hayden Kho sex scandal, the Ondoy floods, the Ampatuan massacre, the National Artist controversy, the book tax debacle, the Mayon eruption, and every action that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ever did that makes her, easily, the worst president we’ve ever had.

And so we echo Brooks Atkinson, who once said of old passing years: “Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.”

We were warned, of course, by those who believe in the Chinese zodiac that riding the oxen this year would be tough-going. Money would be hard, we were told for example. And it was, for a lot of people, given the worldwide recession that spared no one. There were also forecasts of a constant stream of challenges in all aspects of our lives—from work to love to family to health—that necessitated belt-tightening and other cautionary measures. Our horoscopes were even more dire: Mercury would be in retrograde for months on end, and the planets and the stars were not in a generous mood.

The fact is, one could argue about the arbitrariness of all these: a year is just a year is just a year. That a year is bad or good means nothing. “Shit just sometimes happens,” so the philosopher of randomness would say. A year is just an invented means of “control” of elusive time, and horoscopes and other forms of divination are our wishy-washy attempts to peer into the inherent unknowability of time’s relentless march through our lives. We invest the magical, I think, into any given year out of habit, or the human characteristic to just behold a pattern in the randomness. Sometimes I feel that all our collective expectations make true the predictions of how a year will be. So the Ox was supposed to be a burden for most of us. And so it was.

And we felt it in very personal ways.

I don't know your own story but I began 2009 fat and heartbroken. A five-year relationship just ended for me around Christmas time—I was famously dumped in Facebook. And I was carrying around my 5’7” frame the 185-pound result of stress eating. In hindsight, I guess everything I did this year—losing 40 pounds by relentless gym-going, rebelling against my image as a staid and strict professor, burning the reliability of an old doormat everybody could abuse because he couldn’t say “no,” living the utmost of the high life, and falling in love with the recklessness of a teenager—was probably my way of trying to move on from the constancy of half a decade. My old life bored me. A bloody revolution was in order. And I can understand all that now: when the very definition of your existence suddenly ceases to be, I guess one flounders for a while in trying to find new footing, a new paradigm for a life. This was my year of wonderful, painful floundering. In the end, what counts is that you finally find yourself, which comes after a long process of constant self-evaluation and reinvention and perfecting the art of picking one’s self up after the nth stumbling into the metaphorical blocks.

In that journey, the one difference that made it worthwhile is friends. Old ones, new ones. I lost a best friend, too—something I grieve over, but do not regret. But I gained better ones, too—mostly people you never expected to be part of your life, but came to it as beautiful additions: Mark Fabillar and Jay Altarejos, both of whom I love like my life; my college best friends—Kristyn Maslog-Levis, Beth Castillo-Winsor, Eric Joven, James Dalman, Clee Villasor, and Ted Regencia; my spiritual and artistic gurus—Arlene Delloso Uypitching, Wing del Prado, and Ces Uhing; my academic mothers who’ve tried to balance my inconstant tempests—Betsy Joy Tan, Betty Cernol-McCann, Margie Udarbe, Gina Fontejon-Bonior, Ceres Pioquinto, Laurie Raymundo, and Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez; my beautiful sidekicks and trusted dreamers—Annabelle Lee-Adriano, Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio, Justine Colburn, Hendri Go, and Myrish Cadapan-Antonio; my patient teaching buddies—Sherro Lee Lagrimas, Rina Hill, and Warlito Caturay; my original pink gang—Patrick Chua, Gideon Caballes, Gerard Adiong, Moses Atega, Ed Yumul, and Joey Alar—all of whom I can always count on as the foundation of deepest friendship; the Silliman High denizens of Class 1993 (and 1994, who kinda adopted me in their partying days); my former students (or students who wished, ehem, I were their teacher) who don’t even treat me as a teacher anymore kay feel ra nila—Marianne Tapales, Rodrigo Bolivar, Cessy Rivera, Fred Jordan Carnice, Michelle Eve de Guzman, Robert Jed Malayang, Lyde Villanueva, Jai Dollente, Anthony Odtohan, Zusabel Digaum, Mariekhan Edding, Eliora Bernedo, Zakiyah Sidri, Jasper Lagang, Bogy Lim, Kathleen Hynson Patacsil, Angel Catada, Aiken Quipot, Jet Tumapa, Likko Tiongson, Razceljan Salvarita, and many others; my writer friends—Kit Kwe, Ginny Mata, Padmapani Perez, Rica Bolipata-Santos, Naya Valdellon, Dean Francis Alfar, Kristian Cordero, Jean Claire Dy, James Neish, Nicolas Pichay, Luis Katigbak, Frank Cimatu, J. Neil Garcia, Yvette Tan, Wendell Capili, and Tara FT Sering; my editors—Lito Zulueta, Irma Pal, and Allen del Carmen—who just let me rant on anything in this space for years and years; and a group of great friends I call The Hive—Anna Katrina Espino, Miko Tingne, Carlo Regalado, Ramuel Reambonanza, Yves Villareal, Ren Dy, Irish Reambonanza, Nice Guerrero, and Roui Faelnar—who took me in when I was floundering, and gave me a sense of community. And, of course, Federico Regencia, who promises something new.

It was, I realize, a year of great friendships. What a wonderful year it was then.

Happy New Year, everybody. And thanks for everything.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

entry arrow5:44 PM | What Cannot Be Denied

My silence and my banishing you into the oblivion where you are invisible to me only serve to underscore this irony -- that you occupy every space of my breathing. And that even when I close my eyes, in the darkness that I behold, I see only you. There is no moving on. There is only living with absence.


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entry arrow4:16 PM | A Sunday

It hardly feels like a Sunday.

Sundays are molasses. Sundays are slow afternoons bathed in yellow sunlight, the changing color of the skies a pageant by itself. Sundays are quiet cups of coffee and soft songs streaming from somewhere. There is a fragile feel to the air, as if any moment now, something or nothing will snap -- and yet, and yet...

The whole city is awake today, the way a Saturday feels like. Thus the last week of the year begins, with such stirring. I wish this can only and hopefully lead to greater things, things with momentum and drive. May the rest of our coming days be the same as the days past -- only better, with wisdom as wings on our heels and a sense of heart that can make even the deepest pain feel like the cleansing fire that makes gold fine.


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Saturday, December 26, 2009

entry arrow2:54 AM | Because of Orville

When you actually realize for real that you have so much of love to give, you also realize with such finality you cannot just waste it on somebody who doesn't want it in the first place. And so we move on... [Thanks, Orville.]

The Fist
By Derek Walcott

The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved

past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.

Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.

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entry arrow1:54 AM | Resolution

I have only one, perfectly doable resolution for the coming New Year: that I will be able to appreciate more and more the things that I am capable of and passionate about -- writing, designing, teaching, among other things -- and learn to value my place in this world. It's the first step to a happy life.


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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

entry arrow11:39 PM | Dear Lord

Ang daming maarte sa world. Pretentious freaks na walang utak. Well, may utak naman -- pero ang kapal ng mukha, I just want to hurl. Sana kunin mo na sila, Lord.

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entry arrow4:37 PM | Recycled Posts

Honestly, there should be a name or a word for Facebook users -- perhaps newbies, eh? -- who are just now posting the funny videos, links, pictures, etc. we were laughing at months and months before. The Regurgitators? The Late Comers? The Oh-My-God-They're-Only-Laughing-At-That-Nows? Yes, I'm a snob that way. Naay mo palag?

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entry arrow1:01 PM | The Pause

This is what I'm always wary about. The pause life takes after I finish a certain something. For example, I've just finished writing my column for this weekend's issue of StarLife, and now I'm trying to relax just a little bit, just to slow down my thoughts before moving on to the next task or appointment. But sometimes "relaxing" turns into a major occupation -- and I don't do anything for hours on end, and I always, always regret the down time. Must. Stop. That. Stupid. Tendency. In the meantime, here's my quandary: lunch, gym, or a power nap? Decisions...

In the meantime, I'm glad I'm back blogging. Staying off Facebook for a while. The relative obscurity of blogging in the Age of Instant Tweets and Status Updates is kinda comforting.


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entry arrow12:07 PM | Notes From the Christ Year

There was a period of my life, shortly after I turned 33, that I was utterly convinced that I was not going to live through to my next birthday.

That inexplicable sureness for finite mortality was like being encased in an iron-clad grip, or like clutching the sharp edge of a knife. It was all over my heart, all over my head—like an existential Damocles’ sword. The profound certainty cut so deep that there were moments (which broke through little things, such as walking to school or riding at the back with the driver of a tricycle) that I would just secretly break down and cry. The whole thing did not end up in wailing, thank God. It was all done in furtiveness, the tears—its onset already surprising—quickly wiped away by the sleeve of my shirt. And then there would be that strange ringing deep within that spoke volumes, but in a language that I could not quite get…

I frankly did not know what I was crying for, except perhaps this: a terrible knowledge that all of my life was ending soon, and I felt as if I had nothing to show for it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nobody, of course, knew this, not even my closest friends. Growing older, one learns sometimes to don a mask of normalcy to counterbalance the surging vertigo of questions that race through our heads. Outwardly, I was the same fellow with the old sureness in his gait. I looked normal. I did normal things. I went about from day to day in the most normal of motions—or at least I tried. Life can easily become a performance, and when you believe enough that you are doing the proper gestures just right, no one questions anything. I would say “Good morning, So-and-so!” with the usual bright smile, and I would get the same greeting in return, engage in harmless small talk, and move on.

And so on. And so forth.

Then again, growing older, one also learns this surprising fact: nobody else really cares that much for drama except their very own. We are our own rapt audience. Life is thus the perfect closet in which to unfurl the teleserye madness of all our existences. (Unless, of course, you’re in Facebook, and the concentrated awareness of your status updates make your drama a little bit more accessible to the rest of the world.)

I did not know, of course, how I was going to die, although I certainly entertained (what a strange word to use) various possibilities of the end, which I will not even attempt to enumerate or mention, at the risk of making this whole essay sound too morbid for Christmas time. This essay is supposed to be about life-affirming resurrection, anyway.

I thought there might be Notes from this turbulent, beautiful thirty-third year, to explain all these. Scanning quickly through my blog, I chance upon this entry from one of those days that perfectly captured the dark aspects of the experience: “I don’t wish for anyone the dark days. But they happen. For me they’re constant visitors. Sometimes I fly right through them like a plane would through turbulence, but sometimes they linger like a dark lover. I pinch myself endlessly to break free from its ugly embrace, but it doesn’t of course leave at my bidding, and all I have left really is skin pinched to raw redness. I always find my dark days after especially hectic—or joyful—episodes in my life. They come without fail. I’d be particularly busy working on some projects for days on end, and when I’d be finally done, there would be that huge sense of relief, followed immediately by a sudden, screaming panic. What now? I’d ask myself. And then the dark would come to consume me. So, of course, after those beautiful early summer days spent in Baguio and Sagada, and then after that hectic week trying to complete those stories for a certain contest, I sensed myself withdrawing from the world, suddenly feeling very sick (really, really sick), suddenly feeling very helpless. And sad. So I took my meds. I deposited my cellphone in a secret place. I watched old Audrey Hepburn movies. I caught all the episodes of the last season of Lost, watching everything from first to last, nonstop. I commiserated with the wishy-washy weather. I Facebooked endlessly, until it, too, became a blur. I surfed all the cable channels—my television was on 24 hours a day for several days straight—and sank deeper into my bed. I sang John Barrowman songs. I tried reading, but couldn’t finish anything. I had my meals delivered to my pad. I watched my hamsters go round and round in their wheels. I slept for the most part, endlessly praying that the pain, both physical and emotional, would go away. It’s a Friday, and there are some glimmers in the distance, so here’s wishing me... something. God? Luck? Happy days? A great cup of coffee?”

But it wasn’t, of course, always that grim. There were long periods of glimmer as well.

From another entry, I wrote this: “I just came off a wonderful lunch with my mother in Royal Suites Inn, together with my brother Dennis Carmelo and his lovely family for Mother’s Day—and now I’m having a cup of the best coffee in Negros Oriental, in La Residencia’s Don Atilano, enjoying free wifi while listening to the violin music of Itzhak Perlman playing his series on evocative film scores. I’m staring out the bay windows of the cafe onto the blue of Tañon Strait. It’s a beautiful and sunny Sunday, and I am feeling that all is right in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? I think of yesterday, which I spent in Antulang Beach Resort, with writers from the National Writers Workshop (courtesy of the wonderful Annabelle Lee-Adriano). After a cruise around Tambobo Bay and a great lunch, I retired to my own private villa (complete with its own swimming pool) on the cliffside that has a commanding view of the blue waters—a sight that practically lures you into going buff without a care in the world. (And I, ehem, did.) After napping and swimming, I was listening to easy music while staring out into the blue in Villa Alamanda, and the thought came to me: ‘This is really a wonderful life I’m having. I really can’t complain about anything anymore.’ If you ask the universe nicely enough, it does give you what your heart desires. I remember exactly a year ago when, on top of a sacred Sagada hill, the view of the Cordillera mountains and the gravity of the blue infinity beyond them unexpectedly made me weep in prayer—and that was when I had first asked the universe for a different reality. I felt I needed change—but of what kind, I had no definite idea then. Still, I remember praying hard on top of that hill. Only lately have I realized that most of what I prayed for in Sagada have actually been answered in the past few months…. I have a new bond with my family that is warm and full of comedy. I have the company of great friends, old and new—and our times together, spent in intimate hours in cafes and dance floors and beaches, are deeper and more heartfelt. I have found a new reservoir of energy, and physically, I have never felt or looked better. I have a life that is a whirlwind of marvelous things. I can taste a future that I can almost bite into for sheer deliciousness. Most of all, I feel I am making the right decisions, and I am definitely bolder, and less hesitant to call a spade a spade, and to call out bullshit when needed. It’s a completely different life—and one I am actually still adjusting into. And I am genuinely, genuinely happy.”

Dark and light. In those hues life becomes. One might notice of course that I mention Sagada both times. There is a reason for that: that sacred quiet spot in the northern mountains became the focal point—the fountainhead, if one must say—of the whole internal journey. Because once, in the summer of my 33rd year, I sought out the solitude of that place, and prayed for direction, just as I described above.

I am still living through those directions, taking each bump as a challenge and each smooth stretch a delight. What a year it has been, beautiful in its inconstancy.

Still, I must deny it was some form of manic depression. Then again, maybe it was. (Who knows these things, anyway… I am not a psychologist.) But its irregularities were what made it a fascinating period, because underneath all that uncharted paroxysm of existentialism and vague notions of the end, I knew there was a positive churning somewhere. Let’s call it birthing pangs—understandably painful to go through, but ultimately yielding creation. Let me give you a metaphor. It was like being a caterpillar in a cocoon. Picture that. There is death and struggle in that tango of a creature in restless sleep, its biology changing in the ticking hours, until finally, changed at the appropriate time, it makes one final and desperate struggle to get through the matting that contains it, to become something else, something entirely new—with wings. The struggle through the confines of the cocoon, of course, is what gives the butterfly’s wings its beautiful sheen. (See? I told you it won’t be that morbid.)

It was a fertile period full of stories. And growing up.

A friend of mine—an accomplished visual artist by the name of Ces Uhing—first gave the turbulence a name. We were in Sugar Beach last summer, and during the lull of a lazy afternoon in a hut within Driftwood Resort, we talked about how our year has been. And I finally told someone about my fixation with mortality, and how life has been, on the whole, such a wild ride.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m 33,” I replied, not quite knowing what she was getting at.

“My dear,” she said, “you’re living through your Christ year.*”

“My what?”

“Remember, Jesus died at the age of 33.”

“What has that got to do with my life?”

She laughed. “Silly you. Only the most discerning feels through this—this turbulence—when they turn 33. Think of it as a gift. That’s when you start feeling the touches of mortality. It’s dreadful at first, but then that’s when you start really feeling how it is to be alive in this world.”

“Is this true?”

“I remember my own Christ year…,” Ces said. “What a year that was.” So chaotic, so strangely sad, she continued, and yet so brilliantly beautiful. And when you finally get through it, it’s like being born again—like you have a new lease on life. Things become clearer. But of course they seem murky at first, and dark, and forbidding, and confusing. But then they start making sense. And when they do, it becomes such a huge sigh of relief. And life becomes new again.

It is safe to believe that every man is born twice in his life: once when his mother gives birth to him, and once more when he starts taking his place in the order of things in the universe. My thirty-third year was all of that.

Here’s wishing you will have the same dreadful and beautiful reckoning, and finally become.

* The Amateur Scribe describes it as thus: "Apparently this is an important benchmark in a man’s life—presumably because it highlights the moment he stops believing he can walk on water, and realises he is destined to spend the rest of his life nailed to a piece of wood while people chuck stones at him and his mother wails in abject despair at all that unfulfilled promise." Of course, he meant this as comedy. (I hope.)


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entry arrow10:11 AM | Like It or Not

"This is who I am
You can
Like it or not
You can
Love me or leave me
'Cause I'm never gonna stop
No no..."

Confessions on a Dance Floor

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entry arrow8:19 AM | Beginning

So this is how it feels like.

There is a slight chill to this December morning, although I can sense the sun trying to break through the clouds. I hope it does not succeed too much. I like it this way: a day, not cast in grey, but in the sheen of nippiness that makes startling colors of ordinary hues. I can see, for example, a purple flower outside my window as I write this. I can almost smell its purpleness, or feel it in my tongue like fireworks. Of course, the frosted glass jalousies that make up my window and the concrete balcony that the owners of this apartment has installed right above it, can only give me a shadowed, slanted, and obscured view of the outside. Nevertheless. I still can see that everything is green outside in the verdant way that chill brings.

A while ago, I was dancing to Madonna's "Like It or Not" in the solitariness of this place. It struck me, in the middle of gyration, that it has been a while since I danced like that, in solo, like a bird in happy flight.

And so the rest of the morning unfurls. Soon, it will be the afternoon. There are plans, of course. I will do them in due course. But first, there is coffee. Then there is dancing. Then there is praying. Then there is writing. Then there is breathing in and out, mindful that there is still the quagmire of the year to deal with. But it is all perfectly fine.

So this is how it feels like. Beginning again. It's like learning how to walk after a paralysis. It's all so beautiful.


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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

entry arrow10:27 PM | Finding the Right Punctuation Mark

Sometimes you have to refuse to be the court jester with the bag of tricks. Everyone's laughing, but you keep the privacy of the tears nobody else sees. Sometimes you have to refuse to be forever the fool for love. Sometimes you will have to strike out on that unknown road leading to God-knows-where, and see where the rest of the days will take you. Sometimes you have to accept that chapters end, and poetry often comes to a full stop, with no enjambment to take you to the next line. Sometimes life is not all about commas, or ellipses, or exclamation marks. Often, there are the questions marks as well. But when all that you are feels the finite appropriateness of a period, embrace it. There is beauty in stopping, and in letting go of all that finally does not matter.


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Monday, December 21, 2009

entry arrow1:19 PM | Brittany Murphy, 32

"You're a virgin who can't drive."

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Friday, December 18, 2009

entry arrow5:46 PM | The Search for Christmas in a Small City

Because Christmas is a season whose very heart lies in the fond memories of all brilliant and shining Christmasses in our childhoods, and because our adult lives are simply a more chaotic attempt to recapture much of that long-lost innocence in gifts and Santa Claus and delicious noche buenas, the search for the Christmas Spirit is something we tango with every single year—sometimes with delirious success, and sometimes with unmet expectations that feel like existential train wrecks.

By Baby Jesus in his lampin, it is one evasive spirit, indeed.

Have you heard that pedestrian observation about Christmas being a holiday tailor-made for children? That’s mostly right. Because it simply becomes more and more difficult to celebrate Christmas as one gets older and older. Perhaps this is because we have suffered through too much pain already, and have surfed through too many disappointments—enough to cloud our capacity for pure joy. Our grownup jadedness sadly soon becomes us, and when we are finally asked to “be of good cheer” one more time, always at the end of a year we are always so eager to put behind us (and 2009 seems to be one of those grotesque years), we do so out of routine, out of a kind of cultural brainwashing. And if you are married and with children, you do so finally because you don’t want your young family to be deprived of the holiday magic you, too, once felt when you still believed in Santa Claus.

Sometimes, though, we get a break—and Christmas becomes happy once more by some strange twist of fate. Often, though, we expect too much out of it that nothing comes of it except another pained resolve not to get too much into the season anymore. “It’s too commercial!” we begin to grumble like this. Or: “There is no longer any Christ in Christmas!”

Or, as Scrooge properly put it: “Bah, humbug.”

Let me put this bluntly: there is a reason why such a naturally “happy” season—or so we are led to believe—also packs in the numbers for the highest suicide rates, especially in countries like the United States. That expectation for happiness has been hardwired into all of us. Loneliness becomes even lonelier in Christmas time. That’s just the way it is. As we spy other people go about their Christmas lives in the company of partying friends and boisterous family, we cannot help but judge ourselves in the light of that impossible picture of a seemingly lived life. Why don’t I have that life? some of us might ask themselves. Why am I so alone?

Don’t think you cannot be touched by such holiday melancholy. It can come. I truly felt the terror of that kind of loneliness once, when I lived in Japan and spent the Christmas break in snowy Hokkaido, with a Japanese family who spoke no English, in a country that was not Christian. The Japanese only celebrate Christmas in the most superficial ways—and when you are out of Tokyo and living in the minor cities outside that megalopolis, Christmas Day becomes just another ordinary day. And so, on the 24th of December of that year of endless travel in my life, when I was 22, I went to bed early. Before sleeping, I spied out the window of my bedroom and saw Christmas Eve descending on the town of Kitami with the heavy snow, everything else dark as coal, and cold. The tears flowed through me that year—and I suddenly had painful visions of family back in the Philippines, gathering around the table for noche buena, enjoying Christmas songs and lechon and chicken salad and fireworks while I cried myself to lonely sleep.

That was my saddest Christmas.

No other season pushes you so hard to treasure what’s close, what’s intimate.

“Have you fount it yet?” we ask each of ourselves silly the moment the ber months start coming in.

“Found what?”

“The Christmas spirit.”

This is the answer (or challenge?) we get from everyone else, and it is something so immediately silly and serious at the same time that for most of us, it is enough to send us panicking—some only subtly so, or at least they pretend not care too much—to try to find the personal holiday bug that will keep us cheerful through the rest of the season.

The bug bite, of course, is a kind of emotional merry zone where we’re readily hypnotized to sing carols at the drop of the hat and buy gifts and what-not despite the monster crowds every which way we go. In the end, it is a lightness of spirit, a communion with the zeal that drives brightly colored Christmas trees and Simbang Gabi and another viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. It is the hint of the smile we feel breaking on our faces when we see the white-lit parols strewn with such beautiful randomness all over the Rizal Boulevard acacias. It is the ease of feeling for friends, the way we are suddenly so generous with our embraces and our beso-besos. It is the sigh from deep within when we hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over the radio. It is the nippiness in the air that drives us completely nuts thinking of wintry fantasies of snow. It is the reunions with family. It is the queso bola. The fruit cake. The cheap red wine.

And so I began looking for it in the usual avenues that have proven successful in past years: (1) a barrage of holiday songs from The Carpenters’ two Christmas albums with its gorgeous mix of sentimental melancholy and hopeful longing, (2) a faithful re-screening of Chris Columbus’s Home Alone with its escapist childish frenzy set to tinsels and carols, and (3) a meticulous Sunday morning spent decorating the Christmas tree in my mother’s house.

Yet nothing worked.

The holiday season, for me, simply flowed in with the weeks and meshed with the ordinariness of the days of the rest of the year. I worked so hard on it, too, I got a headache. Was I becoming too old for Christmas finally? Where was that old giddiness? Where was that pure, unexplained joy from the exercise of wrapping boxed gifts in red and gold paper and ribbons?

Dumaguete as it is now certainly does not make it easy anymore. Over the years, there seems to be a declining tendency to put out the merry best among many establishments around town, the way they used to do in the 1990s. In that decade, there was a virtual contest among many in sprucing up homes and buildings in bright lights and what-not, each one with a holiday theme that sought to outrival others. That decorating spirit is largely gone—and perhaps the bad economy has gobbled that tendency, and perhaps it is also not to wise to be so profligate with energy wastage in the Age of Global Warming and the Worldwide Recession. I get that. But I also do miss the easy way the abundance of Christmas lights around town pushed the I-am-ready-for-Christmas button in all of us back in the days. In the end, Dumagueteños are now left to their own devices—and for the most part, Dumagueteños merely mope and complain.

I tried hard. I tried Simbang Gabi. I tried manito/manita. I tried smiling a lot and greeting everybody Merry Christmas. Nothing.

And that was when I just decided to let go. Yesterday, I hitched a ride with a friend to the mall, with only one mission: to just let go, to act like a kid. Like a kid, I tell you. And so I did. I followed my feet, I played games, I ate ice cream in a cone, I devoured a brownie, I bought books, I had dinner of Japanese food, I watched James Cameron’s Avatar… I made myself get lost in the hours, and just … be. I thoroughly forgot the melancholy attempts at Christmas cheer, which paradoxically led to the very cheerfulness I was looking for. I was finally going home when I heard the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” wafting in from a store—and I felt it: that quiet, beautiful tugging at the heart that I recognized as a kind of simple joy. Something marked by candy and mistletoe.

Christmas is indeed for children. I am in my thirties—but what the heck, I was 12 that day.

And I was—am—happy.

And here’s a Merry Christmas to one and all.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

entry arrow4:49 PM | A Christmas Conversation in Oxen Time

We—a scribe with a broken heart, a butterfly in a lingering emotional standoff, a dentist in tired repose, and the glue that is Moses Joshua Atega—gather in a restaurant called Casablanca, off Real Street, somewhere near the bowels of the city. It is almost late at night. Ten-ish. But there we are around a table near the window, which looks out into the darkening streets as the December night deepens. Around us, the creaking sounds of the long year keep sighing into our consciousness.

The evening is extraordinary only in the sense that we have not done this exercise in a long while, each of us having been too busy surfing and surviving the tumult of our every day. None of that you will see, however, in the surface of things, in the fabulous impeccability of the company.

Still, there is the performance of fine dining and good conversation to accomplish. And there is the bottle of red wine to loosen ourselves up. And the four of us are nothing but experts in this kind of social traffic. This is what you finally call a civilization: people of a perfectly honed skill of treading and tackling the cracks of lives through graceful chit-chat, angst and everything else, channeled through artful deflection, vaguely worded but precisely observed admissions, and mango crepe.

“I have eaten better steak—“ one of us says.

“And better mango crepe—“

“—But given the days, I pronounce the entire thing delicious.”

“It has been a while since we’ve done this, no?”

Ako, I’m always doing these. There’s another dinner I’ve been invited to tomorrow, but I can’t go. I have to leave.”


“You’re always leaving.”

“That’s his job, to wander the earth till he makes everybody a Sillimanian.”

Haha. No, uy. I’m going with the Silliman Band, on their concert tour.”

“They’re having another tour?”

“They’re always on tour. You’re always on tour. But sometimes I think that’s how you try to escape Dumaguete.”

“Escape is the perfect antidote to standing still.”

“I wish I could escape. I can’t bear another minute in this stupid city full of memories.”

“Do you want more wine? I don’t want to hear another word of that affair.”

“I’m so sorry. Not too much, please. There, enough. Is it me just me, or is this house wine a little too … sour?”

“I love the house wine in Italiana.”

“And then, what happens after the tour?”

“And then there’s Davao. I have to be with family for the 25th. It’s to celebrate Christmas, and everybody else’s wedding anniversaries.”

“On the 25th?”

“My mom always believed in Christmas weddings kasi.”

“How convenient for everybody.”

“It has been a while since we’ve done this, no?”

“You’ve been busy.”

“We’ve all been busy.”

“We only meet each other in Facebook these days.”

“You have not posted your travel pictures in Facebook yet.”

“It takes too long to upload.”

“It must be a Java problem.”

“I don’t think it’s a Java problem.”

“Your connection then?”

“Where did you go ba?”

“How do you not know anything?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t accepted my friend request is what I think.”

“Your status updates scare me.”

“I’m a reality show in Facebook. Only more fabulous. I heard you were in Europe?”

“In the U.S.”

“Did you see my brother?”

“I was too busy shopping to see anybody else’s brother.”

“You went shopping with Al de las Armas.”

“Honestly, dearest, you can’t be in L.A. and not shop with Al de las Armas.”

“Which reminds me, there’s something almost mercenary about Christmas shopping this year. I can’t put my fingers on it but—“

“You just like receiving gifts, that’s all.”

“What can I say? I’m cheap.”

“Will you be in Manila for good very soon?”

“That boat has sailed, dearie.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that you should try stocking up on fruit cake soon.”

“But fruit cakes are so … pedestrian. It’s the Christmas equivalent of jologs.”

“I have a new kind of dessert you might want to try. It’s my version of Food for the Gods. Only more sinful.”

“Food for the Devil, then.”

“I think you’re drinking too much wine.”

“Here, here’s more.”

“I miss my better Christmasses.”

“There’re still a few days left till Christmas, you must know.”

“But I can feel it in my bones. I dread it.”

“That’s sad.”

“You choose to be happy or unhappy every day, sweetie.”

“Sometimes though, unhappiness just chooses me, for sport.”

“That’s sad.”

“And Santa should know. I’ve been a good boy all year. Well, sometimes anyway. Effort should count, right?”

“Dearest, there’s no Santa Claus.”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“I feel this: it takes more than Herculean effort to feel Christmas this year. I need divine intervention just to feel it.”

“All I need is Karen Carpenter singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’”

“But this year has been so hard, no?”

“Is it the year of the oxen?”


“The year of the oxen was hard on everybody.”

“It was grueling.”

“And punishing.”

“And challenging.”

“And yet, also profoundly illuminating.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I think it taught us a lot about ourselves. That despite its many tragedies, it was strangely a good year.”

We all fall silent.

And then somebody asks: “So how was your year?”

“We need another bottle of wine.”

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