“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”: Everyone’s Loss

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My cousin, Liza, died of cancer within five months of her diagnosis a little over ten years ago. At her wake, her husband, John, spoke of her no-nonsense attitude shortly towards the end. (“I started bawling. She said, ‘Come on, we need to talk about this.’”) Liza had a list of what was to be done when she was gone: 1) their three-year-old daughter, Sophie, was to inherit her jewelry once the child came of age; 2) photographs of Liza must remain on display in the living room so that Sophie wouldn’t forget her; 3) after a year, John would be free to remarry. Such systematic thinking struck me as lionhearted. Despite the enervating effects of chemotherapy, Liza chose to take control of the situation, giving stock to the tenet that every gray cloud has a silver lining. We never truly realize of what we are capable until adversity strikes, and my cousin is evidence that what we discover of ourselves can be exquisite. Cinema knows this, and therefore the repository of films on bravery and illness. Liza was well aware that only by exhibiting toughness could those around her overcome bereavement. She was 39. Young, but there have been cancer victims significantly younger – kids, really – and as such, their stories effect admiration among us adults. One of the most recent is “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015).

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Rachel (Olivia Cooke) and Greg (Thomas Mann) are high school seniors. Although they are also neighbors, they aren’t friends. Not that they dislike one another. The dissimilarity between them in interests and personalities prompts nothing more from both than a mutual feeling of disinterest. However, Greg takes the initiative to spend time with Rachel, if only because of the badgering of his mother (Connie Britton), who tells the boy it’s the least he can do for a girl just diagnosed with a relapse of the big C. Upfront fellow that he is, Greg informs Rachel that he isn’t doing her any favors; rather, she’d be a benefit to him because his visits would get his mother off his back. For the sake of a story, the two get along royally, although not without their road bumps. Greg is susceptible to bouts of self-absorption. Rachel at times wants to give up. He’s a typical teen who worries over self-image. She’s an anomaly whose condition forces her to repudiate adolescent rites of passage. Still, friends they become. Greg has a quirkiness that appeals to Rachel’s grown up sensibility. He’s a movie aficionado, and with a pal named Earl (R.J. Cyler), he creates shorts based on the classics: “The Rad Shoes” for “The Red Shoes” (1948) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/the-red-shoes-passion-and-sacrifice/); “2:48 P.M. Cowboy” in homage to “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/midnight-cowboy-love-in-all-the-wrong-places/); and “Gone with My Wind,” a spin-off of the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1939 (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/).

In their nod to the film canon, Greg and Earl perpetuate the timelessness of great stories. No tale is ever antediluvian when it takes us on a voyage across the map of the human heart. While both find in Rachel a subject for the camera, I realize as I write this how little I know of Liza and to what depth a story can be built even so on the meagerness of material. Liza was an all-American girl of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Every summer break from school in the Philippines, I would visit her in San Diego, where she grew up an only child to my father’s sister and a dad who would tease her and a friend with the sobriquet Nabisco Twins on account of their shared weakness for Oreos. She, Tita Elvie, and Tito Ed lived in the kind of house that populates every suburban landscape – a rectangular dwelling beneath a triangular roof, behind which mowed grass carpeted a square garden. A stack of Seventeen magazines sat in her closet shelf, and a poster of Scott Baio hung on her bedroom door. We were pen pals. During college at Loyola Marymount, Liza wrote me a letter that included a diagram of her dorm, plus a listing of her classes and activities. Such was the extent of our communications, never past the routine. The diagram did occupy a generous half page, though, and much of herself that she never put into words, her penmanship revealed – oblongs and circles, swirls girly-whirly, a visual manifestation of her voice, which even in womanhood possessed a girlish cadence. Liza was a person of convention.

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In its perfidious way, cancer underscores the portrait of this quintessential American girl. “Every family has lost someone to cancer,” John said of a fact learned in the course of this ordeal, one that surprised as well as consoled, and as rage overwhelmed Tita Elvie, Rita, the wife to another cousin, had to remind her, “You’re not the only one.” Knowing we aren’t alone in an imminent loss counts for a lot. On a routine basis like a clock chime at midnight, Hollywood churns out a movie that speaks of our grief, of this saga that persists from one generation to another, a statement that our loss is everyone’s. “Terms of Endearment” (1983), the most famous of the lot, features Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger enact a mother’s worst nightmare of helpless witness to a daughter’s battle to stay alive. In “My Life Without Me” (2003), Sarah Polley’s Ann, a 23-year-old janitor who learns her days are numbered, tape records messages for her little girl to play on each birthday until the child turns 18. Seth Rogen in “50/50” (2011) is Kyle, comfort in the form of comic relief to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ailing Adam. Whether affluent or on welfare or a yuppy, anyone is a target for cancer. The disease is so widespread that it is ensconced in our national psyche.

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Stories humanize each statistic. Rachel of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” herself is graced with an artistic temperament. Although her eloquence testifies that she is well read, we don’t learn until the end that books to her are more than calisthenics in vocabulary. Greg discovers between front and back covers stairs carved into pages that descend into an empty pit. On the steps, minuscule replicas of Earl, Rachel, and him sit a distance apart. Loneliness had been Rachel’s companion even before cancer. She saw it in her mother (Molly Shannon), a lush whom her father had walked out on and the one person she worries about. She wants to give up. Then again, mom needs her; friendships are thriving; and everybody within her orbit is planning for the future – SAT’s, college applications, and the prom, the entire rigmarole of high school. As classmates lose sleep over whom to ask to the dance of all dances, Rachel grows increasingly certain of one truth: no matter the seeming inextricability of a bond with another, we are all ultimately left on our own because everything in life is finite.

Except art. Just as Greg and Earl uncover facets of Rachel as fodder for a narrative, so it is for me with Liza. Anecdotes about my cousin in the days of her wake were chock-full, as they are inclined to be when mourners gather to commemorate a life. I would never have known her aversion to lilies, my choice of a flower to a funeral wreath, had my aunt not sought my pardon since Liza had requested that no lilies be present, she having been allergic to them, so the wreath was relegated to the foyer. Upon learning Liza was sick, Sophie would place Hello Kitty bandages on her. What cheer this must have brought my cousin, and fitting besides. With baby full cheeks, doll lips, and floral round eyes, one of which a birthmark dotted in the sclera, Liza somewhat evoked a Sanrio image. The advent of middle age neither grayed nor slowed her. She had her sight on a cruise for her 40th birthday. A friend was to be her travel mate, two bosom buddies since girlhood together in honoring a benchmark in the passing of the seasons. Alas, it was not meant to be. “Your bags are packed. The ship is waiting. You’re ready,” Angela eulogized. “Go on without me, and I promise that when the time is right, I will follow.”

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The death of a beloved before one’s time is a never-ending story. Children grow up. Parents grow old. Spouses remarry. The world turns. Regardless, something in us remains incomplete. Enter the cinema. In this most universal of American inventions, we find solace as we band with others in memory of their own dearly departed so that together we could create a communal narrative.

“Groundhog Day”: A Spark of Newness in the Everyday

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Some moments last way too long. We can celebrate a promotion and excite over a date. We can treat ourselves to a mud bath one weekend and to a Caribbean cruise on another. But just as the moon compliments the sun and stormy weathers counter clear skies, monotony intervenes to temper all in life that give us a caffeine rush. Every day becomes a scene on a DVD programmed on replay, which is the reason vacations exist.

The problem is that it isn’t easy to take off. People rely on us to get a job done, be it at home or at work, and the amassment of responsibilities results in a regimen that imprisons. We serve jail time similar to which Bill Murray as Phil in “Groundhog Day” (1993) is sentenced, only he has no escape, not even through such devices as jumping off a building and putting a gun to his head. The world is in a time warp. From death or sleep, Phil opens his eyes every morning the alarm clock rings to relive the 24 hours that had just passed so that every day is Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. That’s our Monday to Friday schedule right there (or Sunday to Saturday).

Phil hates this day. He hates his job. He’s a reporter who every year covers the seasonal event of a squirrel that emerges from its burrow to mark the arrival of spring in this Pennsylvania town. A lumbering presence, Phil has eyes that judge and hair so unruly that it bespeaks his disregard for social etiquette. This drives colleague Rita (Andie MacDowell) crazy, she who is sweet in personality and face. Actually, she’s gorgeous. Teeth made for toothpaste ads visible through a habit of smiling and complexion as fresh as dawn, she’s a mismatch for Phil. We know the two are going to fall in love. The question is how, especially when a Cosmo cover girl and a pock-marked comedian who could pass as a Haight-Ashbury stoner play the leads.

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“Groundhog Day” provides the ideal recipe. The quagmire of the world revolving backwards pairs Phil with Rita again and again. Although he may not like her any more than she likes him, he has to notice that she’s pretty, and as any man would do to a pretty girl, he maneuvers to bed her. Phil smooth talks Rita in the hotel bar, a diner, at a park where they build a snowman – locales now his personal stomping grounds. Should he say a line that distances her, he fishes for the right one and recites it at the next round of this same day.

In getting to know Rita, Phil changes. Pick up moves met with a slap on the face give way to a caring hug. That’s what love does. It brings the best out of us. Phil at last has a reason to rise out of bed, to live. Never in all the years that our couple has teamed as co-reporters had either one anticipated this turnaround in their relationship. As Rita says, “How can you start a day with one kind of expectation and end up so completely different?”

I remind myself of this in my bedtime prayers. There was a time I was entrapped in a job, a righteous job in the arena of HIV/AIDS prevention, but one nevertheless that had lasted so long that I became restless. The comings and goings of co-workers over the decade and a half left me in a state of seclusion. I was alone in my department as the most long-standing employee, a longevity I had not planned on. My tenure at San Francisco AIDS Foundation was initially a means of pocket money, not a career. I believed when I started that in a year I’d be out of there and out with a big book, the perks of literary success exempting me from the doldrums of a regular existence. One year led to another, and then the years accumulated to equal the duration of high school, college, and graduate school combined, plus an extra 16 months.

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As office mates bid farewell in e-mails where they enthused over prospective challenges, beginnings, and adventures, I wrote. “Love Carousel,” a novel about a pair of high school sweethearts who struggle with class and cultural dissonance, took me five years. The project was a challenge since it was on a topic with which I had a dearth of experience. I needed to fabricate. That my duty of data entering donations was a mechanical task that I never brought home gave me numerous evenings and weekends to indulge in my creative juices.

The comfort of familiarity worked especially well with “My Wonder Years in Hollywood,” a two-year venture which I began in November of 2011 and completed in the same month of 2013. We look for signs. A conversation between a co-worker and me planted the seed to “My Wonder Years in Hollywood.” I told him of weekends in Manila with my mother and sister in which we would watch old movies on the betamax, sparking reminiscences from my mother of her first viewing of them as a young lady in the 1950s, at which Jim said, “That’s your next novel.” Had I left San Francisco AIDS Foundation any sooner than I did, then this 399-page tribute to family, romance, and the cinema through the coming-of-age adventures of a character based on… take a guess… would never have been.

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At present, I’ve a got a film blog. I started it the beginning of this year. My postings are not reviews, lest you misunderstand, rather than personal essays on the inspirational impact of movies from the Silent Era to the present, each one an instant catharsis readable to all on the internet. So entrenched was I in a pattern of boredom that I would write my postings during work time. Such was my method of gaining gratification from my own Groundhog Day for nearly two years upon penning the last sentence to “My Wonder Years in Hollywood.”

“That’s good, but that’s not good, Rafaelito,” said Dan, a friend who himself had left the foundation a few years ago. He was right. The furrow I had buried myself in so that I could write was a crutch that prevented me from exploring other avenues of the world. Once Phil warrants Rita’s affection, the earth proceeds to turn on its axis. So it had to be with me. “My Wonder Years in Hollywood” was the reason for my 14 years in one spot. Movement was due. The path I am currently on is in education, fundraising in a school from kindergarten to the eighth grade. A new database, a new environment, a new set of office mates… this newness requires major adjustment. It will happen. I’ll develop a rhythm that will be second nature, and in this will germinate an itch for something else, something more.

Even so, nothing can ever grow so stale that the possibilities a spark of newness promises are completely doused. Look at what Phil discovers of Rita that in turn leads to another discovery, his own ability to love: “You like boats but not the ocean. There’s a lake you go to in the summer with your family, up in the mountains, with an old wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing in the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone, and at night you’d look up and see the stars. You’re a sucker for Rocky Road, Marlon Brando, and French poetry. You’re wonderfully generous; you’re kind to strangers and children; and when you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.”

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“Your Mr. Darcy awaits,” Dan said. My Mr. Darcy… and so much more.

“Midnight Cowboy”: Love in All the Wrong Places

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It’s an unlikely friendship. Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is a thief and a conman. Joe Buck (John Voight) is a Texan cowboy fresh off the bus in New York City. One could have been born with hair already greased and teeth rotten. The other is an innocent under the mirage that Upper East Side matrons are generous with their cash for a Southern drawl and a gum-chomping grin. They meet at a bar after Joe experiences his first brush with disenchantment: rather than paying him, a lady who picks him up – she the perfect client with bleached do, leathery tan, and poodle on a leash – breaks into tears, humiliated that he should ask for monetary compensation, and out of pity Joe ends up paying her. Ratso advises the novice to get a pimp, but it will come with a price. So Joe empties his wallet, only for Ratso to lead him to a preacher – a groveling sort bald and fat in a crimson silk robe, more the image of a lecher than an evangelist. The pulpiteer forces Joe to his knees in prayer before a make-shift altar of the Virgin Mary fixed onto a closet door. A good laugh Ratso has, that is until Joe motions to punch the finagler. What holds Joe back is Ratso’s plea that he’s a cripple. Plus, he’s got space to spare in a rat hole of an abode. From fall to spring, the two live together amid broken windows and a rinky-dink gas burner. Not only does Ratso become Joe’s meal ticket and mentor on petty crime, but he is also as much a dreamer as Joe, our stud whose “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) act works, according to Ratso, exclusively on “fags of a certain type.”

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Precisely what feelings Ratso develops for Joe is ambiguous, though one thing is clear – his protégé is more to him than a hustler on the make. Ratso’s paradise is Miami, where he envisions himself dressed in white, surrounded by ladies in bikinis and outrunning Joe on the beach. Yes, Joe is with him in every daydream, waking hour, and nocturnal slumber. Joe needs him just as much. Ratso turns out to be the only soulful fellow in this city of people who touch but never connect, for how lonely indeed are the men who hook up with Joe. A college student, a middle-aged traveling salesman… they both say they’ve got cash, but fail to deliver. What they truly need is love, or the illusion of it, and intimacy as a business transaction plays no part in the illusion.

So many hungry souls populate the world. On certain nights, as we lie in bed while the roar of a car engine outside our window grows ever more faint in the distance, the stillness that surrounds us can invoke all sorts of thoughts. Loneliness is a condition we all share. It’s the basis of many stories, “Midnight Cowboy” being one so poignant that it was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. This brings to mind another tale, one more blatant on its gay theme, David Leavitt’s novella “Saturn Street.” Jerry, a non-profit volunteer, delivers food to AIDS sufferers, and a person consigned to his tending is a man named Phil Featherstone, a former porn star. Jerry never expected this, that a proverbial Greek God, the subject of many of his sexual fantasies, should appear before him alone in a dilapidated apartment: drab furniture, dirty beige carpeting, walls stuccoed as if they’d been slathered with cake frosting. The dwelling might as well be a morgue. In the progression of Phil’s illness, his emaciation and loss of vision, Jerry becomes the lone person Phil counts on for survival. The caregiver provides Phil not only lunch, but also conversation, a human presence, love and friendship.

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We never see the beautiful as desolate and prone to illness. They can have anybody they want. A porn star in particular must have it all, he who is filmed for posterity copulating with guys equally as desirable, while we plain folks are resigned to our lot of wanting; hence, Joe Buck. Some of us want so desperately that we fall to our knees and clasp our hands in supplication. Nobody wants to be in the position to beg. It isn’t respectable. It’s pathetic. “Don’t beg,” I once told someone, “not for anybody, not for me. Nobody is worth it.” He was a heavyset man at a bathhouse in New York, celebrating his birthday. I happened to pass his room when he stopped me. He wasn’t obese in the vein of a sumo wrestler. He was more Kevin James, whom I think is adorable in his clean-cut persona and physical pratfalls. Stoutness notwithstanding, James has got charisma. The dude is sexy. James may be self-deprecating, but never self-derogating. “Please,” the man kept saying. And then, “I’m begging you.”

I meant it when I told the man that I wasn’t worth the begging. I had my own issues of self-image – a scar on my chest, bird legs, a slight physique. Perhaps these flaws existed largely in my head; nevertheless, they existed. We all have our down moments. A situation where we are butt naked for all to appraise our worth based solely on the superficial places us in a vulnerable spot. Although looks aren’t everything, they sure play a large factor in a world that’s visual. Our face and our walk are what of ourselves people first lay eyes upon, and thus on which they form an opinion. That is why we are sensitive about our weight and age and our self-perceived “bad angle,” as movie personalities gripe. (Candid shots of stars without make-up are always a devious delight.)

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Envy those with the capacity to put precedence to the strength of personality. Had I been one to project an ounce of mettle that those who are internally irresistible do, then I wouldn’t be kicking myself to this day over a missed chance that occurred ten years ago. While at the Powerhouse, a bar in San Francisco that caters to the alpha male prototype of leather bikers and lumberjacks, a guy sat beside me on the pool table. He was frat boy handsome and jock built, so much a catch that the bartenders were quenching his thirst with free drinks. An acquaintance had just gone to the restroom. To start conversation, I used the absent company to channel my attraction for the guy. “My friend thinks you’re cute,” I said. “Well, I think you’re cuter than your friend,” said the frat boy. I had not expected his response. I had not expected anything other than a shrug of the shoulder, a thank you at most. “I don’t know what to say to that,” I said. A moment of awkward silence, then he left. He didn’t leave to go cruising for somebody else at the Powerhouse. He left the bar. It seemed I was the only guy he had been interested in. What might have been? I spent the rest of the evening and many evenings after in a “Midnight Cowboy” funk, as bereft as one of Joe Buck’s johns starved for loving.

As Joe and Ratso are about to enter a party, the former notices how drenched in sweat the latter is with hair unkempt and lips livid. Ratso has been suffering from a chronic cough. We sense this is no passing cold. The guy needs a doctor. Pronto. But Ratso refuses. Besides, they can’t afford one. The most Joe can do is comb Ratso’s hair. (“Few dozen cooties won’t kill me, don’t guess.”) Ratso is at first peeved by the act, and then, in a moment of spontaneity, he falls onto Joe and hugs him. The moment is a singular gesture of love, the kind that transcends a label, be it romantic or fraternal or sexual. These are two human beings who watch over one another, who are so bonded that every decision one makes from a meal to the next destination on a cross country bus ride involves the other. They’ve come to mean that much to each other.

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Love can’t be bought. Neither is love begged for. Love just happens.

“Ratatouille”: Artists and Heroes

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My mother asked me when I was 12 who my hero was. The question might have been in conjunction with a school paper I was assigned to write. I didn’t have an answer. “Daddy,” she said. I laughed. A hero to me was a dead guy whose mug appeared on money, a general or president or civil rights proponent on the scale of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Then again, this was 1979. Whatever acts of valor on the part of the commoner, journalism tended to bury beneath political sensationalism. The despotism of Cambodia’s Pol Pot may have united the globe in approbation, but torture tactics of yanking nails from fingers and the force feeding of human feces produced more hard copy than the refuge a farmer might have provided a government dissenter, and while American bureaucrats that Muslim extremists had taken hostage in Iran received laurels upon their homecoming, we saw their plight as unique to a region too far to pose as a threat to us.

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The world hasn’t been the same since 9/11. Nowadays, we are more probable to credit with the honor of hero citizens of our community who every day disappear into the throng of pedestrians and commuters off to a nine to five existence. Although we’ve always known that firemen risk their lives, we never witnessed until that day to what extent they hold hallowed their oath to put our well-being ahead of their own. We’re worth that much. In the years after, friends and neighbors have risen above the crowd to champion humanity. Kenyan Peter Kithene suffered the death of siblings and parents by the age of 12 due to a lack of medical aid, a loss that propelled him to establish healthcare in Africa’s remotest territories. Maiti Nepal in Kathmandu serves as a rehabilitation center for female victims of sex trafficking, thanks to the leadership of Anuradha Koirala. In the Philippines, Efren Peñaflorida brings education to street urchins via a portable library and blackboard.

Heroes all, and all are a paragon of the heroism implicit in us. We don’t need to put our mortality on a grill to save others. That we are exponents of life is credential enough. This my father is, he whose origins were mired in hardship, which could be why my mother mentioned him. My father lost his own father at the age kids learn the alphabet. To subsidize in the family income, he relinquished childhood to work as an aid to fishermen, accompanying his mother at the end of the day to collect leftovers from neighbors so that, along with his five siblings, they could have a meal. At 11, he left Cavite, this city by the sea where Spanish galleons once docked, for the promise of the capital, where in the ghettos he earned his keeps as a cigarette and newspaper vendor:

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A hundred years ago, Tondo had been the center for blacksmiths and booksellers, carpenters and nose and ear cleaners, a thriving center at a time when people were few and trees were plentiful. Now it was a garbage dump. White papers and papers the color of the rainbow – torn from notebooks, shredded, ripped off walls – paved empty lots, creating a floor mosaic of scrambled letters in every font and size. Windows to houses of wood and corrugated steel piled on top of the other like layers of mountain caves. In this canal, muddy waters buoyed plastic cups, and in that, streaks the brownish green of a serpent slithered to the horizon.

This is Tondo in the 1980s, partially the setting for a novel I’ve entitled “Maria Celeste,” about a provincial girl who migrates to Manila during the Marcos era to pursue her ambition of becoming a singer. My father’s Tondo was 40 years before that. Even then, he said, the living conditions were squalid. My father had been under the guardianship of a family friend. He called her Ate Lunti, ate being the respectful epithet for big sister. I met Ate Lunti when I was a child. So deep was his gratitude to her that he would make it a point to take my brother, sister, and me on visits so that she could see how well he had turned out, both as a family and a career man, he an ascending banker whom newspapers and magazines profiled. Ate Lunti had white hair and was so wide on the hips that she was immobile. I have no memory of her in motion. I see her in a moo moo dress, sitting on a bed covered with white sheets turned gray from age, the walls around her weathered wood. I see hints of sunlight, but no window. If there had been one, drapes could have covered it to serve as a screen from the heat. I see a smile. That’s how proud she was. My father’s story is so inspirational that it’s the stuff of movies. Watch “Ratatouille” (2007) and you’ll see what I mean.

DaddyI know what you’re thinking. “Ratatouille” is a cartoon, a somewhat gelastic one at that. Remy the rat befriends Alfredo Linguini, a clown of a bumpkin wiry with red hair as curly as cauliflower and who works as a garbage boy in an upscale Parisian restaurant. Alfredo is no ordinary floor mopper. The boy has the makings of excellence. He finally gets his chance to shine when he recreates a pot of soup he spills. The diners savor it, and a collaboration between rodent and human begins. By hiding underneath Alfredo’s toque blanche, the rat helps the boy rise to the status of a culinary master as it gives directions with a pull of the hair on what ingredients to use and when to stir. Remy and Alfredo are such a team that they sway over Paris’s most revered critic. Indeed, what praise flows from Anton Ego’s pen: Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

My father once told me that he was never a star student nor had money ever been an obsession. When, in the fifth grade, I came home with five C’s in my report card, my mother blew her top while my father, his voice calm, said, “I was never good in school, but I tried.” His message: it’s unfair to demand perfection; what’s crucial is that one strive to be the best that one can be, and if the best is a C, then so be it. Past grades had indicated that I was capable of more. Though I’ve never been a straight A student, I’ve always been pleased of what I was able to achieve because I had applied myself. With his knack for numbers, my father had gotten himself out of the streets. No goal to him was impossible, and with the incentive to be the father he never had, he set those goals as a must, his accomplishments an example to all that prosperity can flourish from poverty in the same way that artists and heroes are born in any situation.

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And so I write:

Even on cloudy days, Celeste saw brightness. On the stage, she could will Cherry to appear however she wanted and, with her music, claim the place as her own. She learned everyone’s name. She regarded her audience as sharing the same home as she, not under one roof but under one sky. Ermita was where loops of jeepney antennas and hearts painted on buses whizzed around them amid screeches and honks and cusses. Hubcaps shapeless as kneaded dough and trash barrels littered pavements. A movie billboard depicted Nora Aunor, Dolph Lundgren, and Eddie Murphy with lopsided noses and fleshy fingers painted in pinkish swirls.

With the God-ordained gift of a voice, my novel’s heroine earns the adoration of working class folk and social outcasts, all who gather in the city’s tourist belt of brothels and karaoke bars. Her own heroine is Nora Aunor, whose grand slam at a singing competition during the Woodstock era lifted her from the sewers into the consciousness of every small town girl. Fighting tales are a part of our collective identity. We need winners. They give us something to aspire to, someone on whom we can project much of what we wish to be – a hero – and they encompass every spectrum of humankind, from a kitchen hand named after a noodle to the men whose surnames we bear as our legacy.

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“Sixteen Candles”: It Just Hurts

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In a People magazine article circa 1987 that paired the stars of the day with their Hollywood counterparts of the past, Lillian Gish was identified as the predecessor of Molly Ringwald. The two were supposed to be photographed together and involved in a joint interview. For whatever reason, Ringwald was a no show, which led the silent screen grand dame to comment on the lack of respect youngsters demonstrate for their elderlies. (“I guess she doesn’t care because I’m old.”) The article turned into a monologue by Gish – her remembrances of a fledgling film industry in New York, where boarding houses displayed signs that stated “no dogs or actors allowed,” and of her first meeting with D.W. Griffith, for whom she would lie on a slab of ice with her hand and hair in freezing water during the filming of “Way Down East” (1920), causing permanent damage to two fingers. Had the missing company been present, Gish might never have mentioned such memories, each one a gem to film apostles.

I myself was never a Molly Ringwald fan. She was too cute, too Pollyanna, for my taste, and a tad bit whiny. This had never been Gish’s public persona. Mary Pickford would have been a more suitable match, only Pickford had been dead since 1979, half a decade before “Sixteen Candles” (1984) delegated Ringwald America’s sweetheart, and although Pickford herself had been Pollyanna onscreen, that she is of another era allowed me to appreciate her from a historical perspective. Ringwald, she was more the girl on the Tufts University campus we guys joked about – all glossy lipstick and hairspray, pretty enough but high maintenance. She was also full of excuses. Gish later received a note from the teen explaining the absence: she banged her hand against a door in her rush to leave, needed to ice the injury, couldn’t find a cab, and had the wrong address. Rather than legitimizing forgiveness, the string of alibis reinforced her guilt. Why didn’t Ringwald call for a taxi? Get information on the right location from her agent? Cell phones may not have existed then, but phone booths sure did. They were on every other block along with the yellow and the white pages dangling from a cord.

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America’s most darling carrot top might be flinching at the memory; in slightly over two years, she hits the half-century mark. I think she’s earned the right to be forgiven. Hey, that’s adolescence. Now that three decades have passed since my first viewing of “Sixteen Candles,” I am able to confer Molly Ringwald her position in cinema as I have Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. I’ve developed affection for her, too. “Sixteen Candles” has stood the test of time. For those such as myself who were that age when it was raking in the plaudits of a box office smash, it lives as something that was young when we were young and that over the years has become a mirror in which we see a reflection of ourselves getting older. The poodle do, over-sized earrings, and high-top Reeboks might be cause for personal embarrassment, and we may identify a box TV in that scene and a 16-ounce Coke bottle in this as former fixtures in our homes, but the story remains as fresh as a first love.

Who doesn’t go through what Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) does? She’s turning 16. Nobody remembers her birthday because they’re wrapped up in preparations for her sister’s wedding. Worse yet, she’s developed feelings she can’t control. The source of her daytime abstractions and bedtime tears is no ordinary guy. He’s Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), and what a torment the dreamboat is. With a GQ model cast in his role, Jake is the exemplary tall, dark, and handsome boy-next-door. My sister’s friend described his impact best during the summer of ’84, when I was vacationing in New York and “Sixteen Candles” was generating lines to the ticket booth: “If I look at him any more, I’m gonna cry.”

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The scene where Samantha sobs to her dad, Jim (Paul Dooley), continues to activate my own waterspout to this day. She’s been consigned to the sofa in the family den (my lot whenever relatives visited) since an aunt (Billie Bird) and an uncle (Edward Andrews) are occupying her room. Jim notices her agitation. Alas, she vents her grievance. She sees herself as a “ridiculous dork” who follows Jake around “like a puppy,” and she grumbles over what chance she’s got with a guy who’s so flawless that he’s got a girlfriend (Haviland Morris) equally as flawless. Samantha is in such a state that it’s debasing the one guy who wants her is Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a scrawny number with braces that flash upon every cocky smirk. So slimy is Geek that he steals Samantha’s panties (how, I don’t remember; perverts always find a way to commit such atrocities), and he brandishes it as a victory flag in the boy’s room for other guys to glimpse at for a fee. Jim’s words are as follows: “Well, if it’s any consolation, I love you. And if this guy can’t see in you all the beautiful and wonderful things that I see, then he’s got the problem.”

Cliché, for sure. When I was new to San Francisco and I would express my chagrin to friends over a romantic letdown, they supplied me with their own version of Jim Baker’s line: “It’s his loss.” Baloney. It’s the guy’s loss only when he knows that it’s his loss. I’m the rejected dork, not him, so it’s my loss and mine alone. Maybe had my own father dispensed Jim’s words, my reaction would have been different. My father is one man who loves me unconditionally, my faults included, and who has experienced since I learned to walk and talk every one of my virtues. For this reason, Samantha is in a more fortunate position than I have ever been. And yet, a father’s support doesn’t alleviate the burden of a heart breaking for the first time. As anybody would do who has a sibling of the same gender that’s a knockout, Samantha compares herself to her sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), she of the dizzy blonde mold: “But if I were Ginny, I’d have this guy crawling on his knees.” Here we see why Molly Ringwald has to be our Samantha Baker. No fox is Ringwald, but in the wrenching honesty and the magnitude for giving with which she portrays Samantha, she’s our winner. “It just hurts,” she says.

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At last, Jim rises above cliché: “That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ‘em something else.” We can end right there. How does a scriptwriter top that? Still, there’s the issue of Ginny, and we can’t leave it hanging; it’s a big one. Neither can Samantha, and this Jim knows because he’s Dad: “Sometimes I worry about her. When you’re given things kind of easily, you don’t always appreciate them. With you, I’m not worried. When it happens to you, Samantha, it’ll be forever.”

Forever. That word. A hyperbole it may be, yet what importance it holds. Forever is a vow we make at the altar. We utter it in solitary moments to the one we hold in our thoughts and into the ear we have often caressed with our lips. Forever is a conviction the first swelling of the heart conditions in us because no matter how many blows to the heart in the years to come, we continue to believe that someone was made for us with whom we could work towards a splice of immortality. We never quite outgrow being 16. Physicists have sparked debates among us over the Higgs boson. We have theories surrounding the end of the world and the eradication of the universe. Facts available on the internet have made us smarter, some of us so smart that we’re able to predict the stock market. But when a Jake Ryan crashes into our lives like a meteor, all this braininess amounts to nothing. We find ourselves sitting up in bed in the wee hours of the morning, our mind, body, and soul in a jumble.

It just hurts.

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“An American in Paris”: A Song and Dance to a Broken Heart

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“She’s a third-year girl that gripes my liver. You know, American college kids. They come here to take their third year and lap up some culture,” so derides Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) of a young lady who has the temerity to talk shop about his canvasses, in French with the most abominable Yankee twang. He is “An American in Paris” (1951), an ex G.I. determined to earn a spot in the company of Pissarro and Degas. That could have been me – the nuisance of a third-year girl, I mean. For my junior year at Tufts, my address was on the left bank of the Seine River, in the vicinity of the catacombs, an underground burial maze that dates back to the 5th century. To lap up culture was not my intention for residency in the Xanadu where Hemingway and Fitzgerald once battled wits. I was unhappy at Tufts. Being closeted was isolating, an impasse between me and everybody else, and the fraternity system, the nexus of the university’s social activities, was not my scene. I almost transferred to Berkeley, but opted for Paris instead because… well… it’s Paris.

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I was spoiled in Paris. No other way to put it. I declined the study-abroad protocol of living with a French family. I would have had to abide by a curfew every night and to partake in house chores. More inconvenient would have been the need to learn the language. (What little I picked up here and there sufficed.) I got a studio, and not on my own either. A man under my father’s employment at the French division of the bank where my father sat as CEO in the Philippines both coordinated with landlords who spoke English as well as accompanied me to every meeting so that he could handle the discussions. Although the American College, where I was enrolled at, could have assisted, I still would have been left to my own devices for the end result. Hence, I relied on Quito for everything – hooking up my phone, pointers on French lingo, disbursement of cash, home cooked meals. You name it.

If I did lap up culture, then it was an unavoidable coincidence. Paris is built on art and history. Literally. The whole continent of Europe is. I took courses that included in its curriculum field trips to the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens and that brought me to Berlin, where the wall stood as an impenetrable demarcation between the West and the East. Spring break was in Russia when it was still called the Soviet Union, and tours to Loire Valley and Mont Saint Michel required us students to congregate at the school before sunrise. The bus ride out gifted us with a vision of Renaissance columns and pediments emerging from the darkness like treasure excavated in the light of a new day. Even when my eyes were shut, I couldn’t shun my surroundings. Such resplendence would lodge itself in my memory. A quarter of a century later, I had to write about it in a novel:

Paris is an outdoor museum. Films and photographs do not exaggerate the city’s splendor. Cathedral spires soar to the heavens to touch God’s fingertips. Edifices in the architecture of epochs past stand indomitable and ageless. Cobblestone side streets invite romance rather than danger. Contrary to common perception, I found the Parisians friendly. So long as I made an effort to ask for directions in French, they obliged. Young folks at the time were dressed in turtlenecks and blazers rather than in sweatshirts and sneakers. On nearly every block, I spotted a little lady carrying a little dog in a Louis Vuitton purse.

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Starved for money as Jerry Mulligan is, he dresses in tailored tweeds and khakis, and with a grin characteristic of his Irish charm – all teeth and a twinkle in the eye – he claims every boulangerie and flower stall his territory with a song and a tap dance. It’s hard to be downbeat in Paris. On days when I’d find myself in a saturnine state, I’d think of where I was, as easy as that. One thing alone could shatter the spell. In any story where a heart sings, the silence of loss plays just as much a major role. Two women, Milo (Nina Foch) and Lisa (Leslie Caron), place Jerry in an awkward position. One is an American heiress who acts as an art patroness to buy his affection. The other is a French girl whom he decides upon first sight is “the one,” though she is betrothed to another.

Me, I liked a guy in my life drawing class. A grungy Norwegian in beat-up Converse and baggy pants, Aris was the epitome of the student artist – thin with blond hair long at the front that he’d flip back and a nose as prominent as much as his cheekbones were sharp. We rarely talked… in fact, we almost never did… so I can’t tell you why my crush. As Jerry expresses to Lisa when she bids adieu: “I came to Paris to study and to paint it because Utrillo did and Lautrec did and Rouault did. I loved what they created and I thought something would happen to me, too. It happened, all right. Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that’s enough for some, but it isn’t for me anymore because the more beautiful everything is, the more it’ll hurt without you.”

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That’s what Paris does. It rouses our passions and longings. All those masterpieces and marble are too much for one person. We want to share with another promenades on bridges, around us the shimmer of sun drops on water evocative of Monet, and only in a shared experience of the Notre Dame can we truly commiserate with literature’s most famous hunchback. We are in love with love. This yearning to be the star of my own romance has sent me over the years on a quest for he who could be cast as my leading man. Lust has frequently aced love. Regardless, I am never disappointed for long. Paris instilled in me this resilience:

Despite my numerous instances of two lives shared, my kisses with each man were more a hunger of the groin rather than an expression of the heart. Even so, the world became a smaller place. If men whose lives were never meant to converge could find a common bond in me, then love was possible with anybody, anywhere.

I am not giving away any surprise ending in “An American in Paris” when I say that the parting between Jerry and Lisa is merely a momentary debacle. That’s Hollywood. In my reveries, Paris was supposed to bestow upon me the luck it does our painterly charmer, and the swain who would indulge me with his companionship would also have Jerry’s good looks. (Remember, this is Gene Kelly, leading man in capital letters.) But every love story has a Milo – an odd person out, the lover as loser – and so it is in life. Every time I see Leslie Caron en pointe in the arms of Kelly, her skirt fluttering in the air like the wings of a dove, I think how right it is that the score is by the Gershwin brothers, Ira and George, my favorite of all American songbook musicians:

It’s very clear, our love is here to stay, not for a year, but forever and a day. The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know may just be passing fancies and in time may go.

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Poor Milo. A chauffeur-driven convertible, haute couture, and blonde hair salon polished offer no solace in the face of rejection. She may bribe critics to hail Jerry as the next Cézanne, but no amount of dollars (or francs) could dragoon him to sing those words to her. Jerry Mulligan does give Milo one part of himself he had thought would be his lot to bear – a broken heart.