“Freeheld”: A House. A Dog. A Woman I Love…

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While at the Cornell writing program, I worked one summer for the university newspaper, writing 500-word pieces on campus activities and clubs. After my hours, I would wait at a stop outside the office for a shuttle ride towards home at Ithaca Commons downhill. Since a large chunk of the student population was away, the parking lot where the shuttle would pass was virtually empty. Days were routine and monotonous, until the afternoon I saw something of an oasis. Whatever it is those stranded in a desert hallucinate – palm trees, water, harem beauties – caused me to blink then stare incredulously. From the horizon, two guys on roller blades appeared like Spartans in a victory march, nonchalant and self-assured. Both were buffed, sculpted, and wearing nothing more than shorts and sunglasses. As they skated my way, a thought came to me as if I were sobering up from a long stretch of inebriation: You guys are gorgeous, white, in an ivy league institution, and probably straight. The two of you have every door, in every facet of society, in every part of the world open to you. You have no reason not to make it. No reason at all.

In the 30 years that I have been in America, the eminence of a select group of people over the rest of us never hit me with the bluntness as it did at that instant. Of course, I know of the Gettys and the Kennedys and the Mellons, but as folks I’ve read about. Those two frat boys (I assumed that’s what they were; a fraternity consummates the image), they were within my field of vision, a jolt of reality. I could imagine their names – John Langston Baskerville IV and Edward Jacob Allerton – long and snobbish and aristocratic. “Oh, my God,” a friend reacted when I told her of my encounter. She was an African-American in the poetry program. “I’m just thankful my limbs are intact.”

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A more affecting confrontation with privilege occurs in “Freeheld” (2015), a movie based on factual events about one woman’s fight against discrimination, although the hierarchy plays out in the New Jersey police force, itself a microcosm of a white male powered environment. Lauren Hester (Julianne Moore) is an officer, one of the most dedicated in her unit, a top ace. Since her goal is to be lieutenant, she exerts herself more than her male counterparts, invariably to laudable results; a major accomplishment is the bust of a drug cartel. Ascension to the top of her profession suddenly takes the back burner to another challenge. Hester is diagnosed with cancer. She petitions for her pension to be appropriated to her spouse in the event of her passing, but is denied. The reason: the spouse is another woman. This is 2005, and same sex marriages aren’t yet legalized. What gay and lesbian couples are granted instead is a domestic partnership bill, which we learn doesn’t provide the same benefits of a marriage license between a man and a woman. Without the pension, Hester’s wife, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), is at risk of losing their home. Here begins a battle with state lawmakers, called freeholders, to recognize Hester’s and Andree’s rights. “In my career, I’ve never asked for special treatment,” Hester says in court. “I’m only asking for equality.”

“Freeheld” is ultimately the story of the pains we undergo for our basic prerogative to be happy.

Hester: If you could have anything, what would it be?

Andree: A house. A dog. A woman I love, loves me.

Hester: Me, too. 

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We can’t get anymore basic than this, yet we hear of situations where what seems simple and easy to attain eludes people because of the doings of either the law or fate. With the Philippines jubilating over the crowning of the country’s representative in the Miss Universe competition ten days ago, I googled the whereabouts of past contestants and came across the dismal tale of Damarys Ruiz, Miss Venezuela of 1973. A law degree holder, she was, as a friend was recently quoted in the online paper, The Daily Mail, “wonderful, educated, and a great conversationalist,” who “had opinions about everything.” Ruiz, with her beauty queen title, modeling career, and intelligence, was on the path to stardom. But something was wrong. She could never sustain a relationship with a boyfriend and lived with a brother who kept her cooped up as he would starve and beat her. In spite of her pleas for help, the police never interceded. In 2000, she fled from her brother, and with nowhere to go, she sought refuge in the streets, a homeless drifter for the last 15 years of her life. Damarys Ruiz died in May of 2015. Her family refused to identify her body. She was 68.

Another international beauty whose life took a downward spiral is Spain’s Amparo Muñoz, a Miss Universe winner I remember with fondness because she was the first pageant contestant I had ever seen crowned, and it happened in the Philippines in 1974. She relinquished her title a few months after her victory. Accounts range from her being disagreeable to her disagreeing to be treated as an object wound up on high gear for one public appearance after another. Film directors in her motherland subsequently took an interest in her, which led to several screen appearances, a few wherein Muñoz exposed flesh – an innocuous amount by European standards, but excessive to Americans (read: breasts) – and this led to rumors that she was an actress in soft porn, followed by hearsay of AIDS, prostitution, and heroin addiction. She made TV appearances to counter the negative speculations. Parkinson’s Disease claimed Amparo Muñoz at the age of 56 in 2011. Her last words: “I’ve always respected everyone, most of all God, though I haven’t been treated with respect myself. I hope that people will start to do that now.”

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The two frat boys that afternoon at Cornell were eye-popping, the license to own the world theirs on account of birthright, gender, and race. Own they will, while the likes of Lauren Hester and Stacie Andree assert their voices in courtrooms for a minuscule slice of the pie, and others who have tasted the pie’s topping lose their way through no fault entirely of their own, tumbling into homelessness or landing on the receiving end of a slander. Yet ownership warrants immense obligations, burdens we can only guess at. As political activist Robert W. Welch, Jr. has said, “The responsibilities which are imposed by rank and privilege and good fortune can… become very onerous indeed.”

“Forrest Gump”: Life Is Not Like a Box of Chocolates

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Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. The first lines to “Forrest Gump” (1994) are candies for thought. A man trapped in the intellectual stage of an eight-year-old recites them, and aptly so; Forrest (Tom Hanks) is meant to be an inspiration for us adults to be in touch with our inner child. Reason exists to his philosophy, at least as far as his own existence is concerned. Marvelous things happen to our hero, all without a thought on his part. Forrest doesn’t plan. Neither does he gruel over education and hard work as the rest of us do. The only input required of him to wreak the benefits of the world is to get out of bed each morning.

For this mechanical act, Forrest’s lucky star shines upon him day to day. Through a series of coincidences and random occurrences, he becomes an honorary guest to the White House, an athlete who excels in a variety of sports from football to ping pong, a celebrity, and a war hero. Yes, a war hero. That a mentally handicapped person would be entrusted with a gun to protect our motherland is perplexing and frightening. But Forrest wouldn’t have gotten his chocolate in the form of the Medal of Honor otherwise, and certainly, we can congratulate him for rescuing comrades who stumble in the battlefield, even though he does so devoid of emotion. His rationale is that when something falls, to pick it up, not that a man is in peril and so needs help. He might as well be picking up a fallen pencil. That we understand what he doesn’t is apparently enough for Hollywood to construct a story on a character who drifts through life. Thank goodness this is just a movie, and one that requires its audience to suspend disbelief from beginning to end. There’s nothing real about “Forrest Gump,” nothing relatable. If there’s one thing “Forrest Gump” impels us to ponder it is this, that we must face the truth: life is not like a box of chocolates.

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Life is more like a box of strawberries. How enticing that red fruit is. We salivate over the mere sight of it. Beware now. Not every picking in the box is as it appears. Getting the right strawberry is a gamble. The brightest and the plumpest of the lot can be sour, while a tiny one at the bottom, somewhat blackened on the side, can melt like a sugar cube on our tongues, and there are some yet that are as bland as they look and leave us neither discontented nor satisfied.

As I write this, I sit at the Haneda Airport in Japan for a ten-hour layover, en route from San Francisco to Manila for Christmas. I am flying Nippon Air (ANA). Normally, I take Philippine Airlines (PAL), which provides a direct flight. The fare, however, was 4K at PAL this year for business class. My sister’s agent found a pricing at $3,400 with ANA. I jumped at the deal. I was to leave in the morning of the 16th of December, Wednesday, for a two-hour layover in Haneda, where I would then catch a flight that would land in Manila at 9:45 pm on Thursday, the 17th. What a succulent choice, a strawberry ripe for the picking. I have historically departed on PAL on Wednesday night, with an arrival scheduled at 4:30 AM on Friday due to the international time zone. With ANA, not only would I be saving $600, but I also would be saving a day. In addition, I’d get a full night sleep on the bed of my youth instead of a restless repose in the odd hours of the morning.

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ANA turned out to be a bust. The carrier bumped me off my flight. Wednesday morning seemed to conspire against me from the second I called for Uber. Uber was going to charge me $56 to the airport as opposed to the $40 I have gotten in the past. I attempted to cancel, but the app on my cell phone for me to do so was out of service. Instead, I responded of my intention to a notification text. The driver called to say that he was waiting anyway. When I told him I’d rather not, he yelled that a cancellation was not an option. “Don’t yell at me,” I said. “I’m not yelling,” he yelled. I hung up on him. Inquiries with Luxor Cab revealed a rate of $65. Another attempt with Uber got me the $40-quote, only the time of my driver’s arrival would tick at five minutes… four minutes… six minutes… five minutes… seven minutes… six minutes… five minutes… eight minutes… As I was waiting outside my building, a taxi happened by, Luxor Cab.

By then, I was antsy. I had planned to be on the road at 8:30. It was nine. Streets were blocked off in the city, resulting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. What should have been a 20-minute ride turned into 45 minutes, during which the driver spoke non-stop about an ex-wife from 30 years ago who was jealous of his current girlfriend and how, having been young, he had not been ready to be father to the kids he had sired with the ex. “Will I be there by 9:45?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. My flight was scheduled to leave at 11:10.

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9:45 it was, and yes, I made it. I fell in line at ANA. Once I reached the counter, the ANA representative told me that I needed to fall in line with the carrier supplying the aircraft, that being United. We’ve all flown United, have stomached the crowd while we wait… wait with patience exponentially drained… to get to the front. The seconds tick as if counting down to blast off, and we’re stuck, moving at the pace of a slug. Five minutes prior to the cut-off time of 10:10 for check-in, I was directed to another line, which wasn’t moving at all because a lady at the counter needed an issue resolved. A United rep informed me that I was too late. When I told her I had been waiting all the while, she waved her hands to shoo me off to another line and hurried away. Disgruntled passengers mounted by the number, as those barred from various flights piled up. Worse yet, aside from being rebooked, I was downgraded to coach because business class was filled.

This incident will come to pass. Already yesterday I dismissed it as a blip in life. Regardless, its aftertaste is not sweet nor will it ever be. It’s something I’d rather forget. After this posting, I shall never speak of the major inconvenience that United Airlines has dealt me. And although I had not anticipated it, I hold my share of responsibility. I made a conscious decision of ANA over PAL based on the practicality of spending less money and the advantage of being in Manila at a certain hour. Nothing of the arbitrariness in “Forrest Gump” occurred. I don’t regret my decision. What happened hasn’t rattled any hopes. Decisions I do regret involve those made from fear of rejection or failure – ignoring a guy I would rather have said hello to, sulking at home instead of attending a party, disregarding Tin House as a possible publisher to a story… Forrest doesn’t regret anything. That’s because he doesn’t lay claim to any decision.

As I said, the events of the past days are a blip in life. Most strawberries are as delectable as their packaging promises, and we make our choices wisely. Just don’t expect all of them to be coated in chocolate.

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“It’s a Wonderful Life”: A Guardian Angel in Faith and Family

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Every family that has suffered the loss of a child has a guardian angel in the dead offspring. This my own family has decreed by virtue of our Catholic faith. I first heard of the belief when my aunt lost a daughter, a stillbirth, nearly 40 years ago. Tita Zennie had three boys. The eldest then was 14 and the youngest was my age, ten. She had longed for a girl and got one. My aunt named her Cherry. On All Saints Day, we stood in the cemetery of the town my uncle, husband to my aunt and brother to my mother, had grown up in. Cavinti is perched on a hill. Stone and wood houses line streets part paved, part gravel. In the square, a church centuries old constructed of volcanic rock overlooks a basketball court, across from which crucifixes and tombstones stand on a knoll a patchwork of grass and earth. Tita Zennie laid a hand on Cherry’s resting place, bowed her head, and sobbed. “Tama na, Mommy,” her youngest, Joel, said. The girl had been born a few months before, and such was my aunt’s grief that my cousin implored my aunt to stop mourning, for she had shed enough tears. Other relatives consoled her with the assurance that, from then on, her family would have an angel by it’s side.

It dawned on me then that my family might have not one guardian angel, but two. My mother’s first pregnancy had been ectopic, while the second produced a boy strangled by its umbilical cord. He was named Philip, and he is buried in the same plot as Cherry. As a child, I heard my mother’s cousin describe him as handsome with soft curls and fair skin. My father had foreshadowed his death. The night before the birth, my father dreamed that a doctor was bundling a baby’s corpse in a newspaper, and the next day, as my father entered the operating room, he saw exactly that. He demanded the doctor to stop so that he could search the hospital for a clean towel; his son deserved a dignified wrapping, no matter that the infant had never breathed life.

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Christianity and popular culture have angels existing in other guises. Gabriel had no relation to Mary, yet God had designated him as the envoy to bear the tiding of her pregnancy, and in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), a Kris Kringle mirthful old man named Clarence (Henry Travers) descends to earth on Christmas Eve in order to earn his wings by means of saving George Bailey (James Stewart), a good Samaritan about to end his life due to a financial crunch that could throw him jail. As George readies to jump off a bridge to freezing waters below, Clarence dives in, yelling for help so that George rescues him. The angel reveals his identity, in whom George confides that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence gives George the rarest of gifts, a chance to glimpse Bedford Falls, New York and those dear to him should his wish be granted.

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Bedford Falls transforms from a community of friendly neighbors and policemen to a pit of depravity populated by goons and gamblers, brothels and saloons, all under the control of Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the meanest and richest man in town. Only George, through a business inherited from his father (Samuel S. Hinds) that provides affordable housing, would have had both the ideals and the grit to challenge Mr. Potter. Without George, people are on the streets or in slums. The world beyond has changed, too. His brother, Harry (Todd Karns), doesn’t live to adulthood to be the war hero that he would have grown up to be, for George isn’t present in their childhood to save him as he falls into a lake through a crack in the winter ice, and without Harry, comrades in arms whom Harry would have protected also die. “Strange, isn’t it?” says Clarence. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

George sees not only how the course of the universe would have been altered, but how important he is to the prosperity of home, as well. He wanted to leave Bedford Falls. “I’m gonna shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world,” so he tells future wife, Mary (Donna Reed). But a duty to his father’s legacy and to a family of his own redirects the course of his destiny. Dreams of college and exploring the globe, of Baghdad and Samarkand, are dashed. It’s a brutal blow, and a necessary one. Sometimes, we need to trip on shattered glass in order to be set on the right path.

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I am at the age where I must weigh the pros and cons of my own dreams. This morning I received a rejection to a short story. No problem. I shrugged it off. I get lots of those. Nonetheless, a voice murmurs within me that perhaps I am not meant to be a star writer. When we dream, we dream big. That’s why it’s called a dream. The chance of a dream becoming reality isn’t ludicrous when we see it has happened to our peers. A guy who had left the Cornell University writing program a year before I entered now has the Pulitzer, while a colleague got a major agent and a Norton imprint on his novel binding upon graduation, and another has become the buzz in the industry with her six-figure book deals. “You’re next,” one of my mentors told me. That was 15 years ago. I might not be on the wrong path, but perhaps this path I am on leads to a destination contrary to what I have been dreaming.

Similar thoughts apply to home. Growing up in Asia, I considered a vacation during summer break from school to be one spent across the Pacific, in either the United States or Europe, far from my culture and country of residence, and through my twenties and early thirties, with San Francisco now my address, family visits were more a chore than a delight. I sought independence, aimed for the moon. As it does for George Bailey, splendor awaited me in the unknown distant. I had to get it on my own because in dreams, we are self-absorbed and unstoppable.

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George tells Mary that he’d lasso her the moon. “I’ll take it,” she says. Question is, what would she do with the moon? Ever the quixotic, George has the answer: “Then you could swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see. And the moonbeams will shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair.” He does lasso Mary the moon, but not in the form of Manhattan, Bermuda, champagne, and caviar. He gives her a home in a tumble-down grand house that together they restore, children, and an upright citizen of a husband whom had he never existed, she would have been a spinster entombed in a library.

It’s a wonderful life, George realizes in the end; a person can be great by doing small things. So Clarence earns his wings. As for me, I more appreciate my parents and siblings the older I grow, and I understand more clearly that the blessings that have graced me would never have been if not for them. “Be thankful you’re able to come home to the Philippines and just sit and do nothing,” my sister once told me when I complained of boredom during a visit. “Not everybody has that luxury.” Saying goodbye becomes more difficult each year, for time is fleeting, and gone are the days of youth and the notion of forever that comes with it. Exhaustion and disappointment have tainted my dreams. I’m not entirely sure anymore of the future.

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Still, I believe an angel does watch over me. In moments of doubt, it flutters its wings to remind me that my life is not in vain. For writing is a craft that seasons with age, I’ve got stories in me that have yet to happen, more lives to touch, a chest of riches to share with all. Whatever my qualms, I can be sure of this: the strength of faith and family that has guided me thus far will allow me to prevail, be it through one tiny step after another.

“Tootsie”: The Poetry of Humor

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“Tootsie” (1982) is my favorite comedy ever. I didn’t even like it on my initial viewing, not that the plot and characters are problematic. I happened to watch the movie at the wrong time, late night at the end of exam week my sophomore year in high school; I could hardly stay awake. Worse yet, the betamax cassette was a horrendous copy. Scenes were blurred, and static lines crossed the screen. When a friend said he thought “Tootsie” to be funny, citing moments such as those in which Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) in drag as his alter-ego tries to hail a taxi, only for one to bypass him in favor of a pretty flagger, and in Central Park, he pushes a mime in venting his frustration over Julie (Jessica Lange), who regards Dorothy Michaels (a.k.a Tootsie) as her best friend without knowledge of the man who exists underneath the hair curlers and garters, I offered no comment. I am usually keen to either agree or disagree. With “Tootsie,” I felt I had missed out on something. The film must have merit for my friend to have liked it so and for it to have been bait for the Oscars (ten nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress win for Lange).

I would discover the rom-com for all it’s worth some 15 years later, when it screened on a bus ride from Ithaca to Manhattan, and again a few years after that at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. “Tootsie” is a riot. It is also storytelling at its most clever. An unemployed male actor shams as a woman at auditions to get a female role on a TV soap. By living a double existence, he experiences the misconducts to which men subject the opposite sex. Sexism is heavy material, one that incites febrile emotions, but under the adroitness of the writers and director Sydney Pollack, “Tootsie” eschews heavy handedness in favor of humor and humanity. Of all the novels that have guided me in my craft as a writer, the medium of film can stand among them as a supreme example of how to make people think through the heart and feel through the brain. “Tootsie” is one such film.

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Truman Capote has advised that in order to relay the impact of an emotion, a writer must be levelheaded and clinical in one’s approach to a story. An emotion needs to be dissected, much like a frog in high school biology, for the perfect words to be applied; to write in the heat of the moment produces a mishmash of a piece. I told a friend this after he had penned an e-mail letter to San Francisco AIDS Foundation wherein he expressed his indignation at a response received a year late to a job application. “I got my anger across,” Doug said in defense. “Yes,” I said, “but it wasn’t logical.” Human Resources had brought the e-mail to my attention since Doug had cc’ed me. It manifested an irascible disposition, jumping from one subject to another in a single paragraph, from calumny of the foundation to a declaration of voting Republican. HR called Doug “crazy.”

Although I understood Doug’s stance, I would have expected him to have heeded to the tip he had given me when I had a disagreement with the doorman to my building. A guest who had parked in the driveway didn’t align his car with the pavement, at which the doorman phoned me and flouted, “What kind of parking is that?” I was inclined to tell him off in the lobby. “You’re not in the best frame of mind, Rafaelito,” Doug said. “Cool off and write management a letter a few days from now.” I did. I stated in my letter that the doorman could have been courteous in addressing the issue, that everybody in the building, from the tenants to the maintenance men, must be treated with respect, and if he couldn’t do this, then perhaps he ought to find employment elsewhere. The doorman apologized, and he has been polite to me in the 17 years since.

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For passion to translate into eloquence, we have a teacher in Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Tame words, I think not. A diatribe, I think not either. The injustice of racism, the pain and fury that erupt as a consequence, and the shout for equality, grip the listener through poetry. The greatest stories ever told do the same. Many even employ humor, which itself can be both material for poetry and emotional artillery, as William Shakespeare demonstrates in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” hence, the Shakespearean elements in “Tootsie.” Dorothy and Julie are alone in the latter’s living room. Over a bottle of wine, Julie expresses her yearning to be loved as Dorothy moves closer to her, closer, until they nearly kiss, upon which Julie jumps from her seat and Dorothy chases her, anxious to expose the man behind the woman. (“If you can only see me out of this dress.”) The phone rings. Discombobulated, Julie picks up an acorn. Then when she does answer the phone, it’s dad (Charles Durning) on the other end, who himself is in an awkward spot because he has fallen for Dorothy. Gender role-playing results in more complications than Michael/Dorothy anticipated. With such a convoluted tangle of relationships, somebody is bound to get hurt. Let laughter engage the audience with the conflict. Laughter elicits sympathy. We’ve all had comedic moments, even in the most severe situations.

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Humor was a primary factor in the development department at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a necessary diversion in a work environment that operates in the shadow of illness and death. The director of development had been a frat brother in college whose Boston accent would surface on occasion (i.e., kah for car), while my supervisor, a hardcore Britney Spears fan, had been a drama major. A fellow donor services specialist was an aspiring movie director, and on Saturday nights, a few other colleagues where my party cohorts. A mélange of artistic personalities and free spirits, we let loose with bathroom jokes and celebrity gossip to temper the intensity of HIV/AIDS. We were more than employees. We were friends. Such is how the foundation regards its clients so that in annual reports, smiling faces and the personal accounts attached to them humanize statistics.

We hear it often in the news, societal ills from homophobia to xenophobia that cripple a community. Politicians debate. Activists rally. Tempers flare. Amid the clamor, a voice demands our attention – a whisper of words as lyrical as notes to a Schubert sonata, a spurt of laughter as an antidote to the chaos. What we are listening to is the story of a life, the tragedy and the comedy of the everyday, and in its softness, it articulates the state of the world with more force than the loudest of vociferations.

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“The Sound of Music”: Till You Find Your Dream

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Pop culture is divided between two generations – pre and post “The Sound of Music” (1965). Like “Star Trek” and the Beatles, the musical is one of those mid-20th century phenomena that children and youths of the 1960s own and that continue to impact everybody born in the decades after. There’s the score; that’s a given. Most everybody below 60 has the soundtrack recorded in one’s subconscious and can name at least two favorite songs. (“Do-Re-Mi” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” for me.) The cinematography is such that we feel the crispness of the Salzburg air, smell the edelweiss, and taste the mountain dew. Then we’ve got the story, a buffet of genres, each one complimentary to the other to concoct a feast for the soul: coming-of-age, romance, family drama, and war.

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Even though I didn’t watch “The Sound of Music” until high school some 20 years after its premier, it had been summoning me way before. In the fifth grade, a girl named Marianna strutted around class one day, head high, declaring that she was naïve. The film had been screened at a theater, and she, an aspiring dancer in ponytail and flats, fancied herself as Liesl (Charmian Carr), the eldest von Trapp daughter with the va va voom bosom whom her suitor, blond and mushy-eyed Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), leads in a pas de deux in a moonlit gazebo. I wouldn’t know until I was 17 anything of the character with whom Marianna identified, when betamax finally provided the opportunity for a private viewing. I had never even heard of the word naïve. I did sense, however, that Marianna had experienced magic, for so dreamy was she, as if she had been swinging on a star.

A couple of years later, in the seventh grade, I caught the film on TV mid-way through, in the scene where Maria (Julie Andrews) walks down the aisle, her wedding veil a train of gauzy lace, and a choir sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” to the majestic blast of trumpets. That was all I saw because it was dinnertime, and the rule in my house is no TV during a meal. Boy, was I pissed. But I was in no position to argue with dad. I felt as if I were the only kid in the world who had never watched “The Sound of Music.” My brother and sister had before I was born, when the film was first released and pop culture history was about to happen. In every house we moved into, in whatever part of Asia and America, a record of the soundtrack came with us. The album cover that features a painting of Maria in a pink dress as she runs atop a hill, valise in one hand and guitar in the other, to the glee of Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his brood promised three hours of enjoyment. My family must have been spectators to the captain’s ball for my parents to buy the thing.

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The enjoyment continues. I say this as someone who has seen the film six times ever since I was 17 going on 18, the last viewing having been during Thanksgiving last month. What distinguishes “The Sound of Music” from many other musicals is that it is based on fact, which all the more highlights its message of hope. We love Maria not just because she’s a caring soul, but also because she’s a strong force, and this she only realizes of herself as she steps out of the safety net of the convent to tackle the duty of governess to seven children and, later, to confront special feelings she has developed for the captain. As the Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) advises the novice, “Maria, our abbey is not to be used as an escape.” And then these immortal words:

Climb every mountain. Search high and low. Follow every byway, every path you know. Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. Follow every rainbow till you find your dream, a dream that will need all the love you can give every day of your life for as long as you live.

 Love hits Maria with the brunt of a rock. Her mind is in a jumble. She had never conceived of marriage, least of all to an elite naval officer of aristocratic lineage. She’s only a village lass, one sworn to chastity in the service of God. Herein is the reason that “The Sound of Music” is a classic: anyone of us can empathize with Maria. “There’s no pattern or design to love,” a friend has told me. “You don’t plan on it.” Howard was then 38, a figure of wisdom and experience compared to my 23 years. We met at 24 Hour Fitness. He would tell me as we’d spot each other on the bench press of his youthful escapades in parks, his conquests aquiline-featured bodybuilders in uncompromising positions behind bushes. What a surprise Howard must have been to those men, he clean cut with a boy’s scout demeanor. Although he spoke fondly of them, his ultimate preference was a younger version of himself, an Asian of athletic build and hiker legs and a nice guy above all, someone he could call family.

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Outside the gym, I would see Howard at the N-Touch on Polk Street, a club for us Asians and their “admirers.” The N-Touch was a replication of a Bangkok boy joint. A narrow passage lined with a bar on one side and a ledge on the other led to a dance floor no larger than a hole-in-the-wall diner. Bleachers were positioned in front of mirrored walls, and a disco ball hung above. Its seediness packed in a crowd on weekends, and it offered tales that feed our appetite for the ironic: two Asians, initially in search of white guys, would pair up with each other, and Rice Queens – a label for non-Asians with a weakness for Asians – would be locking lips at the chime of midnight. Howard was always open to the probability that tonight could be his night. To him, every strike out brought him closer to a win.

Howard did get lucky, and it wasn’t at the N-Touch but at a party. When he later spoke of the moment he met Lance, he didn’t depict it as anything exceptional, which is exactly what renders it exceptional. Ten years younger than Howard and the boyfriend to another, in a moment as unpremeditated as two people stuck in an elevator, Lance was a shimmer of gold at the end of the rainbow. This was over a decade ago. Howard and he have since adopted a child. No pattern or design to love, indeed. The world is a labyrinth of portals that open to myriad destinies. Whether it is Salzburg during the rise of the Third Reich or San Francisco at the cockcrow of the second millennium, a door could lead to marvels that bless our lives with music. We just need the courage to turn every knob that comes our way.

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I’ve always longed for adventure, to do the things I’ve never dared, and here I’m facing adventure, then why am I so scared?

So sings Maria on the path to the von Trapp mansion. We share her apprehension when we ourselves journey beyond our doorstep into the future, and just as she does, we assay to overpower it. Of this I would remind my students during my tenure as a lecturer at Cornell University. All ten writing programs I applied to in my first attempt at a fellowship rejected me, including Cornell, I’d tell them. I tried a second year, this time limiting my choices to eight universities with Cornell off my list. Again, I was declined admittance. On the third year, I had intended to stick to the eight, but added Cornell, and only as an afterthought because I had extra money to spare for the application fee. It was the one place that took me in. Every student in every class I taught appreciated this bit of myself that I confided in them. I saw the deference on their faces – mouths agape and absorption in the eyes. An easy climb up a mountain makes for a dull narrative.

We find strength in stories of dreams pursued. The outcome might be uncertain; failure is as much a contingency as success. Nevertheless, we believe in the best because life wouldn’t be worth our energy otherwise, so we strive in spite of the odds, and for this we deserve our laurels.

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“Carrie”: It Gets Better

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Sissy Spacek portrays the titular character to “Carrie” (1976), the Stephen King tale of a teen who possesses telekinetic powers that unleash a high school blood bath. I was nine when I first saw the film in Manila, and I couldn’t stop talking about it. Scenes today iconic slaked my appetite for over the top cinema: girls harassing Carrie White in a locker room shower as she experiences her first period; our heroine, the butt of a bad joke, soused in pig vital fluids; prom partiers trapped in a blaze; and flying daggers that crucify Carrie’s bible fanatic mother (Piper Laurie) on the pantry door. Hardly viewing for a child, the film shows in mortal form evil elements already present in many Disney classics. “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), “Pinocchio” (1940), “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/)… they all depict a battle with a dark force. We can say then that Disney is a precursor to the real deal, a mousy girl who moves objects with her mind, and not always to meritorious effects either. And yet, we like her because we are like her.

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“Carrie” is about bullying. Therein lies its global appeal. For all the doting we get in the home, outside is a different matter. I speak on behalf of the best authority. In nursery school, on days that I arrived early, the classroom would be empty. A flight of stairs led to the front door. Before I’d exit the car, I’d trail my eyes up each step in dread of what lay in store for me at the top: the teacher’s son would sit me on a chair, then slam a basketball against my face. During Physical Ed in the fourth grade at the International School Manila (ISM), we had to climb a rope. A boy turned to me as he and I approached the front of the line, and with a look of alarm, he asked, “Are you all right? You look pale.” Curt was a rare one to express concern. Being soft and clumsy in sports and always the last chosen to a team, I was the subject of many an insult for fumbling up a chance at a goal or a home run. Guys dubbed me Fagalito. Jeers due to my fey mannerism persisted into high school. While at Bancroft Elementary in Walnut Creek for the sixth grade, my girth had been thrown into the mix since I was so fat that, one day, a button popped out of my shirt.

That was the 1970s and the ‘80s. Bullying in the computer age has grown ever more barbarous. Teen suicides are rampant. Audrie Pott and Jadin Bell, both only 15, hung themselves in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The former was sexually assaulted by three boys who posted online pictures of her taken during the rape, and the latter was harassed both in person and on the internet for being gay. Megan Meier, 13, had been struggling with weight and self-esteem issues when she, too, hung herself in 2006 because a boy who had seduced her on the social network, MySpace, ultimately rejected her, claiming, “The world would be a better place without you,” and in 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey after his Rutgers roommate, without Clementi’s permission, urged friends on Twitter to watch via a hidden webcam the victim kissing another boy. To save lives, anti-bullying campaigns have been launched, the most widespread being the It Gets Better Project. Initially created for LGBT youths, the project is now inclusive of all people at that impressionable age, and it features the likes of me, adults who have survived the meanness of our peers from long ago, as we speak on video of a promising tomorrow.

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Not only a tragedy, these suicides also highlight a helplessness inherent in us all. As a faculty member at the Cornell Writing Program said in a talk on the personal essay during my stint as a lecturer, “Whether a homecoming queen or a jock or a nerd, everybody has an insecurity. Everybody has felt lost or that they don’t belong, that they wish something about them were different.” Empathy spurs compassion. Some are more heedful to their aptitude for this than the rest of us; thus, charitable souls in “Carrie” like Sue Snell (Amy Irving), gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Bukley), and Tommy Ross (William Katt). Tommy is Sue’s boyfriend who escorts Carrie to the prom upon Sue’s goading that he distance himself from the popular clique and do something nice for an outsider. He actually has a pleasant time with Carrie and Carrie with him, and Sue is pleased to see the girl being accepted and liked.

There must be a God. Could it be 
that He has heard me at last 
because you look at me
 as though I’m beautiful? Could it be the lady is me? I never dreamed someone like you could want someone like me… So, c’mon let’s dance, let me have it while I have the chance ‘cuz there’s another world where there are other girls, but tonight there’s only me.

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At last, Carrie has reason to smile. She is actually very pretty. Flowing hair, freckles, a slip dress that hints at womanly curves, she’s a virginal vision that stands out from a pack of girls hardened beyond their years. She and Tommy gaze into each other’s eyes. Neither one wants to let go of the other. He leads her across the dance floor, to a song with lyrics that voice her emotions, as the camera closes up on the precise second when two people fall in love. If only “Carrie” could end right there, happily ever after. But the world is cruel. Nasty girl, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), and her douchebag boy slave, Billy Nolan (John Travolta), have a trick in store that will make movie history. The slow motion moment when Carrie, crowned prom queen, stands beaming with a bouquet of flowers in hand, only for the radiance on her face to blacken upon the shower of pig blood that drenches her from head to toe, as if she had been dumped in a barrel of red paint, is orgasmic. Watch it. Notice your jaw drop. Listen to yourself gasp. It’s horrible… and thrilling.

Carrie has her revenge. Under the ire of her telekinesis, everybody burns and dies, including mom, a bedlamite who deems satanic most everything from a menstruation to a high school prom. The captions roll. We are back in reality. Kids continue to be bullied. We are sad for them and feel the bite of guilt, as well, because we realize that there have been occasions in which we have not been the nicest of people. Fact: a dose of Chris and Billy courses through our veins just as Carrie does.

At Bancroft Elementary, I may have been picked on but not as harshly as a boy named Scott. Blond and pale, quiet and portly, Scott was an easy mark. Although I have no recollection of the heckling targeted at him, his face one day ended up under my foot. We were mounting the ladder to a slide, he behind me, when I lost my toehold and my heel landed on his cheek. Scott didn’t say a word. I didn’t apologize. He was red, though not from the pressure of my shoe as much as from humiliation, and with eyes averted, he gave a smile as if being stepped on were a matter of course. In Manila, at ISM, I was verbal to two Richards. They both wore glasses and had bangs. One was Chinese with a diamond-shaped face and responded with a lost expression when spoken to. The other was American, lanky with reddish-blond hair and a narrow face, and when he ran, he appeared as though he were prancing on hot coal. I called them “retard.”

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While I haven’t forgotten those who bullied me, I more strongly hold in memory those I bullied. Sticks and stones break bones, but bones heal. Words inflict a hurt that never quite dissipates. Certainly, life does get better. We grow up, and all that was hell during our school days is relegated to a corner of the past. Unfortunately, not everybody survives, and thus we remember.