“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”: Redemption in Time

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Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig… we all have our favorite James Bond. Biases can lean towards the Welshman who set the bar for grace under pressure while strapped to a gurney with a laser gun aimed at his crotch. Or we might be sentimental over the Brit formerly known as the Saint who traipses a Caribbean jungle, evading witch doctors and voodoo hexes, because he is the 007 our fathers introduced us to. And there’s the millennium star whom doubters first dismissed as James Blonde. In four films of the spy franchise, could he really have raised the bar by several notches? Notable, all. However, this is not the complete list. The one Bond frequently overlooked exposes his vulnerable side in what is perhaps the most challenging of his assignments, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). Our world savior does more than survive a snow avalanche and escape by seconds a villain’s lair, perched atop the Alps, on the verge of exploding. He loses the only woman for whom he abnegates his bachelorhood. He’s George Lazenby, a lover more than a playboy.

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George Lazenby deserved more than one shot as James Bond. Pop lore has it Lazenby did such a diabolical job that he was fired. A friend of mine who was a teen when the actor made his debut is of this opinion. “He looks like an idiot,” Quito said. I was a student in Paris, and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was rerun on TV. The image Quito was referencing had Lazenby in a squat position, aiming a knife at a human target, mouth firm and brow curled. Lazenby was more Kung Fu grasshopper, less Sean Connery. I might have tuned in to the movie till the end. I don’t remember, for although I would catch the latest Bond flick as it either screened in the cinema or was taped on betamax, I did so not because I was a fan but because it was the in thing, and whenever a Bond from the past aired on TV, I watched out of curiosity, though with no recollection afterwards of whether or not I had sat through the entire run. The plots, if any exist at all, are interchangeable, and as for characterization… forget it. James Bond is all posture and mindless adventure.

Not until Daniel Craig did I anticipate two hours of martinis shaken, not stirred, he who has made the character of Bond his own by infusing him with emotion. In “Casino Royale” (2006), the dude cries. When has Bond ever shed tears? Actually… hold on… 37 years earlier, he ended his tenure on her majesty’s secret service with a sob, and this on account of the same loss as his fair-haired successor – the love of his life. Had it not been for Craig, I would never have discovered this. My fandom of Craig compelled me to research the ranking of Bond films from worst to best. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” consistently has a spot in the top five, and one list places it in the number one position. The reason: it contains the singular element that would make “Casino Royale” a smash among audiences of the second millennium – a doomed romance.

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I decided to give George Lazenby another chance this past holiday season. Coupled with Diana Rigg as Countess Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, the sole Bond girl in 63 years whom our hero takes to the altar, Lazenby adds a layer to the secret agent that is vacant in his predecessor. The best moments in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” are with her. A presence of pulchritude and depth, Tracy transcends ornamentation. The most stunning is the montage of she and Bond falling in love – a barefoot stroll on the beach, a horse ride, a promenade in a flower garden. It’s a Hallmark pastiche that is oh so heart melting because he is no ordinary man and she is no ordinary woman. And with Louis Armstrong providing the background music, we’ve got the brilliance of a diamond:

We have all the time in the world, time enough for life to unfold all the precious things love has in store. We have all the love in the world. If that’s all we have, you will find we need nothing more. Every step of the way will find us with the cares of the world far behind us. We have all the time in the world, just for love, nothing more, nothing less, only love.

In a 1970 interview, Lazenby speaks of the pressures to fill Sean Connery’s tuxedo. Director Peter R. Hunt instructed him to imitate Connery’s every nuance so that Lazenby met opposition in attempts to assert his own interpretation of the Ian Fleming creation. (He felt the spy should be humane instead of a cold killing machine.) An object of condescension for his lack of experience as an actor, he refused a seven-film Bond contract, and with heavyweights of the franchise perpetuating a reputation of him as difficult, he found no work in Hollywood after the release of the film that had initially opened a door to million-dollar opportunities. How death-like that must be, to have the world snatched from us when just a year earlier it had been offered as our castle. Lazenby did such a fine job, too. All that romancing humanizes a character usually portrayed as a feelingless fornicator.

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If there is one characteristic for which Hunt and the producers could not criticize Lazenby, it is the panache with which the newbie carries the clothes. So many films emphasize women’s fashion. The Bond films are truly a man’s directory on the art of a suit. I myself had a white dinner jacket back in high school. I never wore it, until a chance came when I was awarded the gold medal for an oratory competition and was sent to Jakarta to represent the International School Manila (ISM) in a competition that involved all the International Schools in Southeast Asia. The subject I spoke on was nothing that pertained to the current events of the day. Never a politico, I am more facund on matters about life that novels impart – the futility of revenge, love, dignity in the face of defeat, philosophies that the heroes who populate the pages of Alexander Dumas live by, Dumas being the author who most resonated with me at 18. What a manly accomplishment it was, how Bond debonair talking of me, to have beaten half a dozen or so contestants in my high school, many of who were vocal in my history class about everything from Communism to Ronald Reagan. Those who had doubted me because of my silence as a student at once deemed my speech and my delivery of it as “excellent.”

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In front of my parents’ bathroom mirror, I practiced my winning speech in preparation for my big turn in Jakarta, white dinner jacket on me paired with beige trousers purchased during the previous summer in New York. Black pants would have been too formal. The competition was a day affair. Day called for a light color, and my attire was the closest thing in my wardrobe to a cream suit, the kind James Bond wears the morning after his first night with Tracy. I rehearsed every pause, every drop of the voice upon a particular vowel, memorized every word. And what words they were, straight out of an SAT manual: perspicacious, pertinacious, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious…

I deserve to be up there, I thought in Jakarta. The final five orators were on center stage in an auditorium with every seat filled. I had not made it past the elimination process. Days earlier, the contestants had delivered their speeches in a classroom to a pair of judges. One judge commented that I was bombastic. That was enough to do me in. As I sat in the auditorium while a girl at the podium clasped her hands to the ceiling in imploring the audience to feed the children of Ethiopia, all I thought was that if she had a shot at the crown, then my strike out was more a matter of bad luck than of bad performance. White dinner jacket, so long.

Three years later, at the American College in Paris, I redeemed myself. In an oratory class, a girl handed me a note in which she wrote that whenever I speak, people’s jaws drop, and at the end of the semester, I was awarded the grand prize at an oratory competition. Such good fortune can happen to anyone. When it strokes a famous face, how the angels sing. Take George Lazenby. He never became a movie star. Nevertheless, the only instance he ever got our attention is in the James Bond installment that has increased in eminence over the course of time, and this in no small part because of him. Odd how things work out.

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“Peggy Sue Got Married”: The Odyssey of a High School Reunion

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To those apologetic for decisions made in high school, don’t be. The irreparability of time gone by aside, perhaps the decision was a wise move to our teen sensibilities. In “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), our title character (Kathleen Turner) sighs, “If only I knew then what I know now.” We’ve all uttered this invocation at some point, and it’s actually not a good idea. We form our life philosophy largely from having overcome past trials – break-ups, career ventures gone wrong, economic straits. For us to possess in our adolescence the sagacity of a person at 40-something, then we need to experience through our childhood the lows of adulthood. So long, Santa Claus.

What prompts Peggy Sue Kelcher’s uncertainty is the corner the woman is in. High school sweetheart turned husband, Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage), has allowed another woman (Ginger Taylor) to come between them. Divorce is in the offing, until Peggy Sue attends their 25th class reunion, where crowned homecoming queen, she faints, and upon regaining consciousness, she is transported back to 1960, the year she and Charlie were seniors. Full aware of their fate in 1985, she continuously snubs Charlie’s advances for a date. Yet date they ultimately do because she can no longer fight the rekindling of feelings for him.

Such is the durability of adolescence. As old as we become, high school leaves an ineffaceable imprint on us. Equally as wondrous is that those four years can grace us with an actual Peggy Sue. For me, she would be my friend Wendy, whom I’ve known for nearly 35 years, but never more so than when I recently assisted her on an essay for a scholarship towards a therapist certification. Wendy wrote of her upbringing under Chinese-Filipino parents, disciplinarians who enforced obedience and education. Until high school, she adhered to their rules. She attended Maryknoll, an all-girls Catholic school, which conditioned her on the conservative values of no boyfriend, no nights out, and no long nails. To this day the student body at Maryknoll is homogenous; the girls dress in uniforms that consist of a green skirt topped with a white shirt and paired with sensible black shoes; and since perms are prohibited, they wear their hair straight, an occasional clip or headband the sole item that individualizes them. Wendy transferred to the International School Manila (ISM) because her parents recognized the profit of a worldly education, one that they planned would culminate with their daughter attending college in the United States.

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Although Wendy wanted this future for herself, as well, ISM proved to be a culture shock. Classes are co-educational with students that hail from six continents, lending to an amalgamation of nationals, each with its own set of values. During Wendy’s and my enrollment there in the 1980s, uniforms were not the rule. Americans, who constituted a major part of the population, sported rock logo t-shirts and sneakers, while we Filipinos made for a pristine appearance in button-down Ralph Lauren and loafers. They were outspoken in the classroom, and couples were unabashed in corridors with their displays of affection, in contrast to us Filipinos, who are reared to acquiesce to authority and to whom sex is a silent matter. Even so, Wendy made friends fast; exposure to diversity stoked an outgoing nature. Then senior year, she got pregnant.

For a semester, I didn’t see Wendy or know of her whereabouts. Neither was I in the loop as to the reason for her absence. Because certain plans are immutable, she was able to graduate then proceed to the States, where she matriculated at Mills College in Oakland. I visited her during spring break my sophomore year at Tufts, and only then did she tell me she had a daughter. Over the years, I would learn of her estrangement from her parents in the months that led to the end of our days at ISM. In her essay she divulges the darkness of this period:

I am aware that teen pregnancy is rampant, but when it happens to you, you think only of yourself, and not in a selfish way either, rather with an anguish that eats at you as you wonder how the life that is forming in your womb will survive when you’re not even sure of how to survive tomorrow.

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A baby in “Peggy Sue Got Married” compels Charlie to consider a future beyond a vocation in music. The girl he’s been chasing after has allowed him to knock her up. History should not be altered, Peggy Sue realizes, even when given the chance. Although she is too young to be a mother, she takes the leap yet again in order to have the child she so loves, and owing to the discernment of a 43-year-old with which she is able to relive the critical age of 18, she sees that nothing is ever hopeless.

We ourselves may not have the convenience of time travel, but we are endowed with the capacity for hindsight, and hindsight begets wisdom:

Vulnerable, I could have fallen into drugs, suffered from an eating disorder, lost myself to the temptations that seduce the young and the confused. No. I gave birth. My parents embraced my child. I went to college. As tear-ridden as that moment in my life was, I see it now as beautiful because of the woman I have evolved into as a result.

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So reflects my friend, Wendy, on her 17-year-old self. As she and Peggy Sue exemplify, the past can also educate us about family and forgiveness. “Teenagers are weird, and you’re the weirdest,” Nancy (Sofia Coppola) says. Nancy is Peggy Sue’s little sister. She is 12, and she has reacted with revulsion at our heroine’s hug and profession of sibling love: “I really want us to be closer. I have enough unresolved relationships in my life.” Mom (Barbara Harris), dad (Don Murray), and everyone else in the Kelcher circle are just as confused as Nancy over Peggy Sue’s puppy excitement to be home on what to them is just another day and at her one-liners incongruous with a pubescent. (“I gave them (cigarettes) up years ago.”) We, however, follow Peggy Sue with a nostalgia that aches. She speaks for us all as she says to her mother, “Oh, Mom. I forgot you were ever so young.”

Peggy Sue isn’t the perfect daughter. She gets grounded. She insults her father for his purchase of a red and white Edsel. She teases her sister. The second time around, she is warm to all, well aware that this is an opportunity to avoid personal rifts before age deepens a grudge, especially with those who pass on early, and she does not hesitate to say sorry to those she wrongs. Neither is Peggy Sue hard on herself. She has made the right choice with Charlie, despite the disappointment that befalls them on the year of their silver wedding anniversary. The odyssey to the past has taught Peggy Sue that the future is not for regrets, but for making amends.

In her essay Wendy never once expresses the wish to have done matters differently. Even if she had taken other paths in high school, they would have led to trials of their own. The same goes for the rest of us. And so we espouse life, come what may, smarter than ever.

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“The Wings of the Dove”: When to Fight, When to Quit

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Milly Theale (Alison Elliott) has everything in her favor – youth, beauty, wealth, benevolence – except time. She is dying. She is also a pawn. It is the turn of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution has witnessed an alliance between the old world and the new that is singular to its epoch: the marriage of European noblemen to American heiresses. Empires indestructible for centuries have crumbled to modernization, placing British blue bloods at the mercy of the tycoons of commerce. To preserve a lifestyle of transatlantic cruises and country manors, penurious royals offer titles to the likes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Whitneys in exchange for a dive into their coffers.

In “The Wings of the Dove” (1997), New York wows London society in the person of Milly. She’s given a chance at a ladyship when a lord (Alex Jennings) financially strapped requests a betrothal. Milly declines, for she is interested in another man, a journalist of charm but with no pedigree and who himself has an empty bank account. Merton Densher (Linus Roache) likes Milly, too. He even falls in love with her, which confounds matters. He’s supposed to be in love with Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), the ward and niece to Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), doyenne of the beau monde. He and Kate want to marry, only Aunt Maude disapproves of the match given his humble circumstance. Because a woman in love is resolute, Kate refuses to comply with her aunt. She devises a strategy to win Merton the grande dame’s consent, that Merton seduce Milly to include him in her will. This he does, and he and Kate get more than what they bargain for.

Flash forward a hundred years later. Times have changed. The criteria to be a member of the elite is in constant flux in the 21st century. Classes intermarry. Anybody has a chance at upward mobility. Hail to Kate Middleton, the commoner turned duchess and future queen of England. She joins ranks with movie stars, rock stars, and supermodels – the new breed of aristocracy – as tabloid material. The one factor sacrosanct through the periods is our stance as a warrior to be with the person we love. With this comes complexities as ancient as the first embrace: What sign do we look for to wield our sword? And if the beatings persist, at what point do we accept our loss?

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A friend a few months ago asked me if I was being a “defeatist” in my pursuit of a bartender I had approached while he was at work. Although my response was no, Pablo’s use of the word defeatist reverberated with me. I never thought my wooing of Steve to be a battle, as a third party was not involved nor were elements conspiring to keep us apart. The question stated that Steve himself was the force I needed to overwhelm. Pablo had reason for this. I had been agog over my first conversation with Steve. He would hold me by the wrists and give an inviting blink. He also related to my literary inclination. Science fiction is his genre. Aliens, he explained, embody a disconnection that we all sometimes feel as strangers in the midst of a crowd. “I’m really a loner,” Steve said – another commonality between us; he spends his days reading kindle. And then, “I wrote part of a novel in high school.”

That Steve referenced a project at a phase in his life that for me was 34 years ago made me gulp. High school can’t be too far away for him, I thought. The man was born in 1985. While he was in his cradle, I fretted over my college acceptances. But it was a promising first conversation, and one overdue. I had been noticing him for two years at the gym. Approximately my height (5’7”) with the physique of a wrestler, dark hair and eyes and a sturdy nose complimented by a pair of glasses, he’s a little bit geek, a little bit jock, and one hundred percent sexy. The night I had the guts to introduce myself, he was in a pair of tight briefs, his uniform at 440 Castro every Monday, that being underwear night. On this occasion red was his color of choice. The green signal to test my luck had occurred at the gym a few weeks earlier. Steve gave me a prolonged look as he walked across the weight area. Our eyes met, and they remained connected for much more than a second. I was aware of where he works because I would use the men’s room at 440 Castro before hopping onto the underground MUNI for home. To pacify my nerves that Monday, I reasoned that as a bartender, he has to be cordial, clumsy with conversation should I be; cordiality is the nature of his job.

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Me: I see you at the gym often. I’ve always wanted to introduce myself. I’m Raf.

Steve: Yeah, I see you around, too. Steve.

Me: I always come here to use the restroom. Don’t worry. I’m not stalking you. Only a little.

Steve: (laughter)

Jackpot! Whatever the cons I perceived to a connection gave way to rationale in the course of an hour. First of all, age. I could allow the wide gap in our years to be a factor and thus ignore him. Even then, Steve and I would continue to exist, so we may as well exist together, even as pals (with benefits). As for his being a bartender, which another friend would later say could be cause for incompatibility to my profession of writer and educator, I defended Steve on account of his youth, that he’s in the beginning stage of his journey as a man. However, none of this is the reason for my so-called defeatism. As promising as our introductory words were, Steve was polite a week later when I returned for another go, and that was it. The third meeting was even worse. It was a blunder. I sat on a bar stool, silent and ill at ease as a dunce in a corner, while Steve darted from one end of the counter to the other, mixing drinks and flashing smiles at customers, paired with a few amicable words. Then I ran into Pablo on the street near 440 Castro a few days afterwards.

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Kate Croy avows that she would do anything and everything for Merton. This is what convinces the man to use Milly. The intimacy that develops between the two permits Milly a share of life’s treasures outside of her gilded cage, and as Merton becomes ever more entrenched in Kate’s scheme, he gives Kate an ultimatum, that she accepts him as he is, nameless and moneyless. The heiress must be set free, a pawn no more. “No,” I told Pablo. I could not possibly be ceding to defeat because this attraction to Steve isn’t love. Where then is my battle? Love is the kiss of destiny between Kate and Merton. Love is Milly coming to life when Merton enters a room. Love is Merton seeing Milly for the beauty of her soul.

Still, Pablo could have a point. Talking to a guy while he’s at work isn’t conducive to discovering the potential mate in him, what more when the place is a gay bar, distractions galore – drinks, men, music, men, erotic videos, men, and more men. “Ask if he’d be up to doing something social. An art gallery opening. A picnic,” Pablo said. To every suggestion, I responded that I didn’t sense any chemistry on Steve’s part, that courtship should not be this hard. The prolonged look, the holding of my wrist, the blinks as if Steve were smooching me with his eyes… they might have meant nothing or they might have meant something, be it for a moment, which itself poses a brain-twister. That one moment should give me a mission to fight for. Love could be in hiding. Never mind the things I told Steve at the gym in the months following my dunce night, things that have caused me to bite my tongue since I imagine he reacted with a roll of the eyes. (“You look tired… You seem sad…”) He did check me out one Monday at 440 Castro when I stripped down to my undies, and he really doesn’t know me. I am still a story he has yet to read. It doesn’t hurt that Steve might find me physically attractive either.

“The Wings of the Dove” is high drama about high stakes, a tale of conventions now obsolete. Then again, not wholly. I’m a simple man, and Steve is simply a bartender… yet how tangled my situation. Whatever it is that rouses the heart to palpitate, it never goes out of style.

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“Passion of Love”: A Burning Heart

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I wonder about women of a certain age in a country such as the Philippines, where people swear by the dogmas of tradition, who have never married, what their history is, what loves and passions might have torn them apart. My family had a cook named Lita. She was in her fifties and had been with us for close to 25 years when she suffered a stroke while in her sleep. She couldn’t speak upon awaking, and paralysis incapacitated her. The medic who tended to Lita informed my parents that had he arrived a minute later, she would have died. An operation was performed, followed by months of rehabilitation. This was a year and a half ago. Lita is now able to walk with a cane, although her speech remains impaired, and she is no longer under our employment. She is back in her hometown. The other housekeepers maintain contact with Lita. They tell my mother that her brother, who is meant to be her caregiver, is never present except to leech off her for money. “Does she have anybody with her?” I asked Cory, our current cook, over Christmas last month. “No,” she said. “So she’s lonely,” I said.

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Yet Lita doesn’t let on about her difficulties. During her recovery, the maids were impressed by her resilience. “She pushes herself to get better,” they told me. When in San Francisco I had first heard of her stroke, I questioned what my outlook on the future would be had I been in her situation (would I will to live or would I choose to pull the plug?), and then I lamented that she would no longer accompany my mother on my mother’s visits. Still, her presence remains. Lita is a little woman, thin as a whippet with a black bob that frames a sallow face and hands made sturdy from years of grooming the kitchen into her dominion. Despite my mother’s and my prodding, she would prefer to stay in the condo rather than to tour the city, busying herself if not with our meals then with the laundry and other errands. On her downtime, she read Tagalog romance paperbacks. A cousin came to stay with us once, and she said to me, “Lita has a ring on her finger. I’m afraid to ask about it. It could be a sad story.”

If a sad story were linked to Lita’s ring, then it would be one, I imagine, on a cinematic scope. A woman hungry for affection, frail, secluded… a heroine of such a description exists in Fosca (Valeria D’Obici). The film is “Passion of Love” (1981), set in 1860s Italy, in a provincial castle that serves as a military outpost. There Captain Giorgio Bacchetti (Bernard Giraudeau) has been stationed. His dispatchment separates him from Clara (Laura Antonelli), his girlfriend in Milan, a woman beautiful in the classic sense of the word – angelic lips, elegant in form and demeanor, soft spoken – a contrast to Fosca, who is sickly and brusque. Under the care of her cousin, the colonel (Massimo Girotti), Fosca lives in the castle. Giorgio learns of her residency upon hearing her cough echo through the halls. Curiosity results in a meeting, and while he is appalled by Fosca’s appearance, he learns she has a poetic vision of love. She lives vicariously through romance novels, for although she was once a wife, it was to a count who had duped her into marriage only so that he could skedaddle with her dowry. Now Fosca wants Giorgio. He doesn’t want her, yet how persistent and near she is, and how increasingly far Clara grows and difficult, besides; Clara is married and mother to a young boy.

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Melodrama feeds the soul. We might consider ourselves above the violins, too sophisticated to accede to the contrivances of emotion. For all our snobbery, we can’t deny that tears and kisses have their value; love is our first introduction to life. I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that Lita should be on the par of Fosca in her consumption of epic romances, albeit those penned by pulp authors and not by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Whatever the literary caliber, love stories serve a primary purpose. So potent is the appeal of melodrama that even Stephen Sondheim, a man of refined culture if there ever is one, created “Passion,” a musical based upon “Passion of Love,” lavish with wondrous declarations of devotement, many of which come from Fosca’s lips:

For now I’m seeing love like none I’ve ever known, a love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone, a love that, like a knife, has cut into a life I wanted left alone… Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am… I do not read to think. I do not read to learn. I do not read to search for truth. I know the truth. The truth is hardly what I need. I read to dream…

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To dream. I’m on the same page as Foscsa. I dare say that Lita is, too. I don’t seek answers in films and books to questions about our journey on earth; rather, films and books are semblances of the lessons in life to which I am already a student. Whatever wisdom I gain, I will do so in reality. Not yet knowing what soul-stirring events I will experience is what gives birth to dreams, and “Passion of Love” is one story that insinuates no dream is improbable, which is what attributes Fosca her authority. She is a pestilence to Giorgio – omnipresent, tiresome, noxious. She is aware of this. Despite her apologies and endeavors at keeping her distance, the intensity of all that she is lingers in the air, infiltrates Giorgio’s thoughts, so that much about the invalid that the captain initially considers a nuisance causes a reversal in his feelings for her.

Love can happen to anyone. We know this. Even so, the questions we confront are ceaseless, riddles for every generation: What triggers love? What is it about a person that excites passion? Why do some of us grow old in solitude? Some years ago I watched a woman on TV talk about her son, a kid between seven and ten with burn scars that deformed his face. She recounted an incident at a restaurant, where the boy noticed seated a few tables away a man and a woman intimate the way lovers are. He turned to his mother and asked, “I’m not going to have that, am I?” Sincerity glistened his mother’s eyes as his mother repeated her answer to the viewers, that people will not always be kind to him, kind as he himself may be, but somewhere, somehow, someone will see beneath the surface all the good that he is; therein love will flourish.

These are hopeful words, neither delusional nor pandering. Dreams and hope go hand in hand. They’re a necessity as much as the air we breathe, the foundations of a future. So some of us may never marry. That doesn’t mean our hearts are dormant.

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“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 am. 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 Airlines. 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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“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. 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, people burn and die. 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.

“Coming Home”: In Love and War

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We’re quick to condemn people’s actions in a time of war when we are mere bystanders to the event. In 1999, director Elia Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar, which sparked dissidence in Hollywood. Industry big wigs refused him a standing ovation due to his cooperation with the House on Un-American Activities 47 years earlier, wherein he had named colleagues suspected of communist leanings; hence, terminating the careers of actors Art Smith and Morris Carnovsky and playwright Clifford Odets. In a press conference, Kazan defended himself by explaining he had opted for the less opprobrious of two options presented to him. What those options were is pointless. The point is that the Cold War perpetrated rancor and suspicion among Americans, largely bolstered by anti-red propaganda. (An ad for Scott paper towels warned that rough wipes in a company restroom were indicative of capitalist abuse culpable of turning employees into Bolsheviks.) We can therefore presume that the taut times led to drastic measures; those subpoenaed to take the testimonial stand must have done so under the pressure of a threat.

The French movie “Diplomacy” (2014) depicts an analogous instance. Based on true events of World War II, it pits German general, Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), against Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling (André Dussolier). Paris is at stake. The Nazis are retreating, and as a middle finger to the Allied Forces, Hitler has commanded von Choltitz to push buttons that would blow up the city. Nordling implores the general to reconsider, utilizing psychological strategies to appeal to his compassion for life and history. Families murdered, monuments crumbled, a civilization annihilated… von Choltitz assures Nordling that all this burdens his conscience. Why then obey the Führer? The dictator holds the general’s family hostage.

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Although both of the above pertain to historical occurrences, they are our stories, as well. War need not be exclusive to either politicians and soldiers or courtrooms and battlefields. Just as with feuding nations, we can’t be too sure of what we are capable in a circumstance that involves the beloved. My cousin, Liza, died of cancer well tended to; her husband, John, comforted her through chemotherapy and promised to fulfill her last wishes. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl-everyones-loss/) Such faithfulness is the prescription for a big screen romance, and two films of the same title, “Coming Home,” screened 38 years apart (1978 and 2015) and from two different countries (The United States and China), pay obeisance to this, each with a plot distinctly its own; the Vietnam War is the backdrop to the early film and the Cultural Revolution to the later.

In the 1978 feature, Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is a military wife whose husband, Bob (Bruce Dern), has been called to action in the Far East hotbed of napalm and stifling swamps. Alone in California, Sally volunteers at a veteran hospital, where she meets Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a soldier recuperating from wounds that have made him a paraplegic. As their friendship develops into something more, Bob returns. He suffers from post-traumatic stress. Sally faces a dilemma: happiness with Luke or fidelity to Bob in order to heal him of his condition? Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) in the 2015 story is a dissentient to Chairman Mao. He comes home to wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), after ten years in a labor camp, where he had been detained for political rehabilitation. Both await the reconciliation, only an accident during Lu’s imprisonment has damaged Feng’s memory. She doesn’t recognize her husband. To revert her amnesia, Lu reads letters he had written to her from his cell, all of which she has stored in a chest, and plays on a piano songs that bear special meaning to them both, day after day for time indefinite.

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My cousin’s husband has since remarried. The journey back to a serene existence hasn’t been smooth. John’s second wife, Wendy, is ill. “It’s like reliving a nightmare,” John said this past weekend during a visit to San Francisco. Within six months of their marriage two years ago, the condo they moved into poisoned Wendy with mold infection. While the sickness is curable in 95% of its victims, she belongs to the 5% that don’t respond to treatment. As a result, her senses are heightened, causing bright light and noise to burden her eyes and ears; high altitude constricts her breathing; and food spices induce vomiting. On some days, she is so enfeebled that she’s bedridden. So that he can watch over his wife during the day, John works on his entrepreneurial projects in the evenings. Regardless, he maintains an upbeat attitude (“What can you do? That’s how it is.”), hopeful that the next doctor will provide the breakthrough.

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“That’s love,” I told my nephew, Rafael. All those present in the living room consented. Love stories surround us. A friend, Rafael P, is caregiver to an ex-boyfriend who is in stage four of cancer, feeding Jeff meals and changing Jeff ‘s sheets on occasions that he messes his bed, while another friend, Joe, has tightened bonds with his partner, who is nursing him through short-term memory loss and limited mobility, the aftereffects of a brain tumor operation performed a year and a half ago. My own mother is now wary about solo trips to San Francisco because of my father’s crippling knee problems and arthritis. To walk, he needs a cane in one hand and the support of an arm in the other, and he has difficulty putting on his socks and shoes. I told my mother that he wouldn’t like it if we were to make him feel as an invalid through constant vigilance. “Of course, he wouldn’t,” she said, yet a fact is a fact. “Still, he can’t be left alone.”

My nephew, Rafael, said about his girlfriend, “I don’t know if I’d be able to do the same for Kelly.” I responded that he could never know. None of us could, for a flip side exists to every position as it does in a war. My sister knew two guys in college, Paul and Jim, who were a couple and continued on as such after graduation, until Paul’s health deteriorated from a brain tumor. As it did for Joe, a surgery impaired his movement, causing Jim to break off their relationship. I read that a similar scenario happened between two men who, in the 1990s, were big names in the gay media on account of their physiognomy and sexual prowess, assets that Colt Studios, a company dedicated to the promotion of superior-caliber physiques, recorded on film. True to the title of their video, “Muscle Ranch,” Jake Tanner and Ed Dinakos were thoroughbreds that boasted ripped abs and Hercules thighs. Then AIDS took its toll on Ed, and Jake left.

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I am not here to make assumptions on Jim and Jake. I am not an insider to their decisions, and what I relate of them are secondhand accounts. I cite the two to underline that we can never accurately foresee how rough a going can get. Only when we are experiencing it can we fathom the full oppressiveness of the situation. Should we quit, would we be committing an egregious act? Nobody chooses to be ill as much as nobody chooses to be a victim of a war. Nevertheless, things happen. When they do, heroes are born. We extol them. We convince ourselves in our moments of peace and health that, in hardship with a loved one, we will hold the likes of John and our devoted spouses in “Coming Home,” Sally Hyde and Lu Yanshi, as examples to follow. But the truth is in my nephew’s statement: “ I don’t know…”

 

 

“Jaws”: The Force of Family

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I learned to read time when I was eight. My family had gone to the beach one Saturday, and I had elected to stay home. We had just seen “Jaws” (1975) a few weeks earlier. A leg underwater without a body, guts in the dismembered section as gnashed up as raw steak in a grinder, quelched my appetite for surf and sand. I was excited to be left alone. The housekeepers were at my beck and call, and all I called for from morning to dusk was munchies. The TV provided me adequate company: “Sesame Street,” Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and Filipino variety shows where the hosts would summon audience members to the stage to chaff.

Home was a mixture of design elements from a hacienda and a Disney mansion. A circular threshold in the veranda led to the garden, across of which stood a bamboo hut. A balustrade with Doric columns bordered the front porch. Cement walls were white, and the upstairs floor was wood. I spent the day in my parents’ room with a view of the driveway. Shingled roofs and windows to neighboring houses peaked out from high gates, and leaves on trees that lined the street were a collage of varying green hues against blue skies. Oscar the Grouch was never that grouchy, his garbage can of a lodging no more than a tin shield to an amiable heart. Scooby and his gang of teen sleuths proved that we kids could outwit any miscreant, any day. As crude as the jokes were on daytime TV about a game contestant’s age, weight, or height, no offense was taken. (Happiness, to the Filipino, is the modesty to laugh at oneself.) This was my childhood, life in a dollhouse.

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Then came “Jaws.” The theater was packed. Viewers sat on the stairs, stood in the aisles and against the walls. I shared a chair with my father. Forget fire hazard regulations. A film that would define the word “blockbuster” was on screen. We were in the midst of history in the making. “Jaws” is scary and it is sexy. A man and a woman strip on the beach. The moon silhouettes their naked bodies. He falls on the dunes, into an intoxicated sleep, as she dashes into the ocean. Our shark lets its victim in on her fate by dragging her around in a carousel of intimidation, with occasional dips underwater. She screams. She cries. She’s a hot chick in deep shit. We all know a shark doesn’t treat a meal in this manner. It torpedoes towards its target and gobbles it up in one go. Then again, most sharks are not subject to the directorship of Steven Spielberg. The showman knows that to unleash an adrenaline rush he must tease the audience.

The opening scene to “Jaws” is box office foreplay.

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“What time is it?” I would continuously ask the maids when half the day passed on the Saturday my family went beach rollicking. With every answer, I’d look at the clock on the night table, calculate the amount of rounds the short arm made and where the long arm was positioned in relation. The thrill of having to myself every room and a back yard pool diminished with every quarter minutes that elapsed. Made-up beds, empty chairs, and the air silent of the splashes and playful screams of a weekend swim instilled in me one thought: a shark. I couldn’t rid myself of the vision from “Jaws” of a leg sinking to sea bottom. It belongs to a father out boating with his son. In an earlier scene, a boy close to my brother’s age back then, 14, disappears as panicked beach revelers are summoned back to shore. All that remains of him is an inflatable raft adrift on reddening water, and with the boy as minced meat in a shark’s belly, his mother is left alone in a summer paradise turned hell, staring into the azure horizon as if, by a miracle, her only child would rise from its depths. Our bloodthirsty fish tears apart families. I wanted mine back.

Not only did I learn to read time that Saturday, but I also realized that the world could be a dangerous place, death possible at any moment, by any means, and without so much as a forewarning, I could be abandoned to fend for myself. I paced the living room, the kitchen, and the den, where hung pencil portraits of my brother, sister, and me. We were the first family to occupy the house. When we had moved in two years prior, it was near the end of its construction. Workmen in the dining area were putting the finishing touches to wall shelves. The aroma of paint wafted throughout, making me reel with its newness. Its pungency assured me that home and family were forever. We had returned to Manila from Tokyo. Back in the land of my birth, I discovered things I never knew exist. “Look, Mommy, tiny crocodiles,” I said of lizards on the bathroom walls. Cockroaches fly at ankle height, and the 7,000 islands cultivate 80 varieties of bananas. Every day was another chapter to a story in progress that I shared with mom, dad, brother, and sister. An ending was too soon.

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Come back. Come back. Families must never suffer the senseless loss of a loved one. And yet, they do. We never know what news awaits us on TV, in a letter, or on the internet. We can be sure of one thing only, that the next disaster is an hour away. Malaysia Airlines is jinxed, so people say. In 2014, the company attracted global attention thrice with fallen commercial carriers that produced a combined fatality count of 699. Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old woman, died after six men on a private bus in New Delhi sexually assaulted her with an iron rod, placing India in the spotlight in 2012 for its lax laws against rape. Just last month, a driver, allegedly drunk, plowed into spectators at the Oklahoma State Fair, killing a handful of people, including a three-year-old infant, and injuring 47 others. The woman was 25. “That’s not who she was. That’s not who I raised,” Floyd Chambers said of his daughter, Adacia, amid the media mania. “She was kind, caring. She loved music. She was a wonderful artist.” Too bad. None of the spectacular things her father claims her to be matters now.

The great white shark exists in different forms, whether at sea or on land. It can leap out of nowhere with the speed of a bullet, and in an instant, someone is dead – a sister, a cousin, an uncle… So that our parents and children be less wide open to danger, we have people like Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Oceanographer Martin Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in “Jaws,” both who team up with shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), to put an end to the slaughters. They investigate aviation accidents, picket against the violation of civil rights, and penalize those who cause havoc at the wrong swerve of the steering wheel. Life is sacred because a life lost is a family’s loss.

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Amity Island regains its reputation as a summer paradise. The sun smiles. The breeze sings. The ocean dances. Outside my parents’ window, a honk and a creak of the gate sent me into a spin. As the family car rushed up the driveway, I anticipated full chairs at the dinner table. The five of us would continue as before – Sunday church, sugar and melted butter on toast, “The Carol Burnett Show,” and karate lessons in the park. Every hour from dusk onward promised the security of the familiar.

This was 40 years ago. Today I reside across the Pacific, and my father walks with a cane. The head count at the dinner table on Christmas has increased to 11, and my mother turns 80 in three months. Placid as life has been through the decades, an undercurrent of trouble brews, a shark that threatens to snatch those I love whose days on earth grow ever more tenuous because of age and ailment. So be it. I hail from a sturdy stock. Come what may, the force of family will never die. It has embedded in me the ability to endure.