“Moonlight”: The Birth of a New Dawn

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On my 25th high school reunion with the International School Manila (ISM), I ran into a guy who used to bully me. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/big-the-best-that-we-can-be/) The moment was not only nerve wrecking, but also unexpected. Robert had left after middle school and was at the reunion by invitation from an alumnus with whom he had kept in touch over the decades. Until then, I would occasionally wonder what ever had happened to Robert. He had been orangutan portly with dark hair and beady eyes, and I envisioned him in adulthood as an obese lout, surviving on a diet of beer and McDonald’s, his home in America a cigarette cesspool of a trailer car.

A man the complete opposite stood before me. Robert was Mr. Clean incarnate – bald, brawny, and sporting a collarless white tee. He approached me at the poolside buffet to compliment me on my own musculature and then, “I don’t recognize you. I recognize almost everybody here, but you.” I responded that I remembered him very well, referencing his heavy weight when we had been kids as proof, though I dared not mention the homophobic epithets he would hurl at me. As the sensation of worms churning in my insides debilitated me as if I were once again 11 years old, Robert expressed pride in the trajectory his life had taken since leaving ISM. Karate put him in shape, and a job first as a policeman followed by one as a juvenile correctional officer enabled him to release his aggression on the side of the law. “So you beat up guys,” I said. “I’ve been known to do that,” he said with a laugh.

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Some past traumas stay with us through adulthood, and bullying is one of them. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/carrie-it-gets-better/) The trick is how to put it behind us. The It Gets Better Project was founded in 2011 in response to the reports in recent years of verbal and physical assaults directed at gay, lesbian, and transgender youths. Its website (www.itgetsbetter.org) offers video clips of former victims who have prospered as adults; in effect, relaying the message that the torment endured in childhood and adolescence should not cause one to languish but to strengthen, for the future is about rebirth. Finally, we are taking an aggressive stand against an issue too long ignored. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of suicides among youths between the ages of ten and 24 amounts to 4,400 a year, with bullying a primary impetus. (http://www.heyugly.org/aboutStatistics.php) Due to the disturbing statistic, cinema itself is bringing attention to this social ill.

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One such film is “Moonlight” (2016). A coming-of-age, coming out tale, it follows a boy’s life as he braves face beatings in school and name callings at home. We are introduced to Chiron when he is just about ten years old, nicknamed Little for his timid personality. Little (Alex Hibbert) is fleeing from a pack of neighborhood no-gooders when he gets cornered in an abandoned motel. There he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), who comes to his rescue and ultimately becomes the boy’s surrogate father. The bullying worsens in Chiron’s teens, though sexual identity is of no provocation. Lanky in oversized clothes and with head bowed as if in constant remorse, a young Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is prime target, a cat in a lion’s den. High school sucks, and home is no haven when mom is a junky who digs into her son’s pockets for cash to fund her next rush.

As an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) travels far for a fresh start. He drops the name Chiron for Black and, with a new identity, develops his physique into a steamroller of muscles, brandishing jewelry and gold teeth. No one dares mess with a hulky Black. However, the stony exterior belies the tumult within. Too much has happened to Chiron for him to simply let go, until he reconnects with childhood buddy, Kevin (André Holland), and onward he treads on a path to love and forgiveness.

Sexual awakening is petrifying to the young. It spurs a sensation never before felt, a mystery we boys seek the answers to in men’s magazines found hidden in our fathers’ closets. For those of us who experience lust for one of our own gender, there is no answer, and thus we fumble through the maze to a destination of discovery. So it is for Chiron. Evenings for him have a sensuous aura. The tide is high. The moon is a crystal ball of electricity. One night he has a wet dream. A 16-year-old Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is smiling a smile part mischievous, part inviting. He is fornicating with a girl in some outdoor space at the end of a labyrinthine passageway. A terrace, maybe, or an alley. Chiron watches from a doorway, drowning in a cauldron of terror and desire. The smile is directed at him.

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We all experience a Kevin of sorts. Mine was in the body of Guy, another boy who picked on me in the sixth grade. While I detested Robert, my feelings for Guy were contradictory. He had dark hair cut in the signature 1970s fashion of feather bangs, freckles, and that slightly bow-legged jock strut. Robert, he, and I were in the same gym class. One day in the locker room, Robert, seated on a bench, pulled a prank on Guy by attempting to yank his briefs from his ankle so that he was hopping on one foot, laughing like a goofball as his penis flopped. The vision of Guy naked was one I would have for the rest of my prepubescence on many nights that I lay in bed. He may have been a jackass, but I didn’t hate him.

Guy also didn’t proceed onto high school at ISM. Nobody I know of had maintained contact with him either. What man he became is hard to tell, for even bullies can undergo changes that vitalize in them a latent kindness. Here’s a case study courtesy of my brother-in-law. The quarterback to his Long Island high school would threaten to beat up other boys if they refused to do his homework. According to Steve, “He had to repeat a grade twice. That’s how dumb he was.” The footballer was aged 16 in a class of 14-year-olds. Fast forward 45 years later. He is now a science teacher in that same Long Island high school. Student comments Steve has googled are awash with commendations on his friendly disposition. “He’s such a nice person,” they chime.

At the 25th class reunion, Robert took the initiative to reintroduce himself to everyone, exerting the extra measure to compliment married men for having beautiful wives. Two years later, I learned on Facebook that Robert died from a heart attack. I wouldn’t call his passing retribution. I’d call it irony. He seemed to be making amends for past reprehensible behaviors. Then fate dealt a blow. I was rather surprised at my sadness when reading the news, for I carried no grudge towards Robert, never had. Neither did I care for an apology during our brief interaction as grown men. A state of dither aside, I had allowed bygones to be bygones a long time before. Cutting loose enabled me to thrive through the decades so that I embraced my sexual identity in college and, shortly thereafter, came out in San Francisco.

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This spirit of strength in letting go suffuses “Moonlight” like a haunting melody. In certain African mythology, the moon is the goddess of creation, a symbol of motherhood and fertility. Its light promises the birth of a new dawn, and as the sun rises, we see more clearly where tomorrow is meant to take us.

“Race”: Triumph of the Will

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Jesse Owens is an American hero. History remembers him as a soaring figure who dispelled Adolf Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. His main event was track and field; hence, the film’s title of “Race” (2016), an allusion to the man’s legacy on account of the sport and his ethnicity. As expected of a bio-pic on a personage of African-American heritage set in the Jim Crow era, the film depicts hurdles in a segregationist society that Owens (Stephan James) pushes himself to rise above. There’s the snubs of fellow athletes when he’s a student at Ohio State University and later, when he’s hailed champion, the White House’s refusal to allow him entrance through the front door so that he could attend a dinner in his honor.

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The incident that causes him the most anguish, however, comes from his own community. Many blacks accuse him of betraying them for accepting the Olympic committee’s invitation to compete in a country blatant in its persecution of Jews and people of color. Jesse Owens’s mission is a titanic one. He must snag the gold. Anything less, silver or bronze, would be failure; only first place will make a statement about the inequity of discrimination.

The Olympics brim with stories of trail blazers. In exceptional cases, a participant gains acclaim despite zero medal victory. Nobody is a loser. If Jesse Owens is at one end of the spectrum, he a born thoroughbred, then at the other end is British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. Far sighted, physically heavy, and his skills deficient, Edwards was the proverbial dark horse relentless in his training, every faulty landing and every jeer never clouding his focus. He made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Although he came in last, his pertinacity was so inspirational that at the closing ceremony, the president of the organizing committee singled him out amid the horde of gold, silver, and bronze: “You have broken world records and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.” And so was coined Edwards’s nickname of Eddie the Eagle, which also serves as the title to the ski jumper’s own 2016 bio-pic.

Whether political or personal, sportspeople have something to say. At every Olympics, a star emerges to capture our imagination. Scottish runner Eric Liddell, who regarded his speed as a gift from God rather than an expedient for the gold, was altruism personified in the 1924 games held in Paris (Liddell later became a missionary in China), and in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci earned the perfect score of ten in the uneven bars competition – the first time in Olympics history for a ten to be given and the first of the seven tens she would amass at the event – in effect rousing admiration and affection in the West for this 14-year-old child of the Eastern Block.

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However, Owens is unique among the greats. In spite of equality laws executed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the ills of racism, sexism and homophobia still thrive today. Strong evidence is in the continued existence of the Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, he the president-elect who demonizes Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, is himself a purported rapist, and pledges to abolish same sex marriage. White supremacists threatened to assassinate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had she won as well as to murder blacks. Now as in then, Jesse Owens is a symbol of disenfranchised empowerment. We who are oppressed must fight to protect our standing as citizens of the world, not with weapons as much as with faith in our cause and the will such faith imbues, and in so doing, we will race to the finish line, our arms raised to the heavens in triumph.

Triumph of the will is not just idealistic blather. This is a conviction that encapsulates the spirit of the Olympics. One of the 20th century’s most iconic films is testimony to this – “Olympia,” a project the Third Reich commissioned to memorialize the 1936 games. Although, as “Race” depicts, the film’s ulterior motive was to validate Aryan supremacy, director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) does something that the German government considers questionable, if not an affront. She includes athletes of all races. Owens, especially, captivates Riefenstahl, his record breaking feats impossible to ignore, and she dedicates copious footage to him. The director isn’t the only German in amazement of the African-American. In a gesture of sportsmanship, German runner Luz Long (David Kross) visits Owens in his room the night before they are to compete. Owens anticipates a disgruntled foe. Instead, he meets a fellow human who discloses his disgust for the Nazis and assures Owens his comradeship.

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Allies exist in unlikely people, in unlikely places. As long as what we advocate upholds respect and dignity, we are not alone. I will never forget my sister’s 26th birthday. She was earning her master’s at Harvard University, while I was an undergrad at Tufts University in the neighboring town of Medford. After a celebratory dinner, I joined my sister and her friends to a restaurant bar, and though I was 21, I didn’t have a valid ID. I presented my credit card to the waitress, thinking that financial means would indicate a relative maturity of age. She was a Caucasian woman in a tank top and hair cut short, with brisk movements and a blue collar Boston accent that elongated the “a” as “ahh.” Since she denied the credit card, I gave her dagger eyes, at which she responded likewise, averted her head, and huffed. With every valid ID the present company handed her, she took each with a jerk from the holder and returned with a flick of her wrist. We decided to leave. On the way out, I told the waitress she was rude. In my youthful impertinence, I might have even uttered that she was a bitch. “Get out of here, chink,” she said.

I would have accepted had the waitress called me an asshole. The obscenity would have been an attack on my attitude. No. “Racist,” I said. Andy, a Filipino such as I, pulled me by the arm to the door; the confrontation was futile. “They’ll see,” my sister said once we were outside, they a reference to the waitress and all like her who hate because of skin color. “We’ll make successes of ourselves.” My sister and her friends today build homes and commercial compounds, and I persist on my calling as a writer, having penned one novel thus far. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) We didn’t succeed on our own. Our ammunition: the opportunities with which our education gifted us. I myself can mention a few motivational words from teachers, but none as encouraging as those from Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize author who mentored me at the Cornell writing program, when a manuscript I had completed was accumulating rejections. I had not foreseen Lurie and Cornell University to be in my future, but through faith in my talent and diligence, both were:

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Please don’t give up. You are a gifted writer, and have important things to say. Remember that many, even famous writers, were rejected many times by stupid editors.

Please don’t give up. Nobody ever says that unless he or she means it. How this plea pertains to us all in these uncertain times. Donald Trump is to be the 45th president of the United States of America. In defiance and fear, people against him are talking of migrating to another country. Abandoning ship is a reflex action. As President Barack Obama stated in his post-election speech, the path of politics has never been linear; it’s a zigzag with every blockade to progress an incentive to unite us so that we break through and march forward mightier than before. This is what impresses me about America. When summoned to act in the name of liberty and justice for all, Americans produce wonders as big as the nation itself. The Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, The Women’s Rights Movement, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement… all these movements happened here, their impact manifest in many parts of the globe. Rather than quit as the going gets tough, we Americans get even tougher. We haven’t reached the finish line yet. Lord knows how many decades or centuries more we need to trudge. Nevertheless, we will.

Hence, Jesse Owens and the Olympics. The games are a microcosm of the world, a simulacra of life. Not everything is in our favor. Life is a melange of rights and wrongs, privileges and injustices. To surmount the odds seems impossible, until a hero like Owens defies gravity to make us believe otherwise. Owens was one man. Imagine the heights ascended if we each could muster his will to join forces towards a unanimous mission.

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“The Notebook”: Do Not Forget… Do Not Forget…

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Sure, “The Notebook” (2004) is sappy, a weepie contrived to appeal to a demographic of teen girls and ladies with lacquered nails. But hey, the film has a male fan base, too. 12 years after its release, “The Notebook” is now a classic, primarily due to Facebook. Originally ignored when released in theaters, it created a buzz when postings of the love story that vanquishes Alzheimer’s crowded the social media.

From the very beginning, “The Notebook” gets it right by introducing us to Allie (Gena Rowlands) and Duke (James Garner) in their old age. She is in a nursing home. He is a frequent visitor whose identity causes her much confusion. We sense the two must have a history for Duke to be diligent in his visits. How sprawling and beautiful that history is only becomes apparent to us when Duke reads passages Allie had written in a notebook. As expected, they were once a vivacious pair in the throes of a passion that glosses the world an eternal spring. And so we watch the progression from youth to agedness. Such is the power of the flashback, its ability to contrast with starkness two polar points in life: birth and death.

Upon love’s nativity, young Allie (Rachel McAdams) is a rich girl and young Duke (Ryan Gosling) is a poor boy torn apart by a class structure that deems them unfit to wed. However, she isn’t distraught for long. Enter Lon Hammond, Jr. (James Marsden). Her societal match, Lon is a Southern aristocrat with a penchant for wine and horses and a genuinely nice guy, besides. Since he has the approval of Allie’s parents, Allie experiences a resurgence of joy, and with her faith in love restored, she believes she is over Duke. She isn’t, of course; this is meant to be a tale of a woman torn between two lovers. Hence, the guy comes back and what we’ve got is drama upon drama.

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Really, “The Notebook” is all very formulaic. Nonetheless, the movie resonates with us because we all eventually fall prey to time and the loss of memory. As I approach the end of my fifth decade, the notion of a mid-life crisis flabbergasts me. When we are young, we think we will be young always, all the more in the midst of childhood. As long ago as that was for me, I still feel the security the white carpet and four walls of my parents’ room assured me, in a white house on a street named Carissa. With “The Carol Burnett Show” my family’s favorite TV viewing, laughter filled the room. Not even murder could dampen the conviviality of our evenings, thanks in part to “Ellery Queen,” the whodunit detective series, every episode of which introduced a victim about to be offed talking to the camera as if the viewer were the killer. Such a gimmick engaged us in a guessing game for the next 30 minutes.

My reality paralleled the ebullience of the alternate universe encased in a black and white portable TV: the birthday cake Tita Zennie baked that was a diorama of match box cars on an icing highway; sleep-overs with my three favorite cousins Richard, Ariel, and Joel; sun blazed weekends as we lounged by the pool, the grass and shrubs that surrounded us the brilliance of polished jade. An accident on the day I turned eight nearly ruptured this idyll existence. My parents had given me a clock, one that with its white stem and red head resembled a flower. At school, I was excited for dismissal so that I could return home to gaze at the glow in the dark numbers as the time piece ticked away the seconds. I ended up at the dentist instead.

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During recess, in a game of patintero, where players were dared to cross a line without being tagged by the It who stood on the demarcation, I had not been looking in front of me while running to avoid the It. In a moment as spasmodic as the shower scene in “Psycho” (1960), life was reduced to a series of splice edits. A boy before me was crying; my teeth had formed an indentation on his bald head. I turned to the side, only to witness my friends recoil in horror. I looked down. My white shirt was red. I attempted to shut my mouth, but couldn’t. One incisor was protruding from the gums, while the other had fallen out. For I was numb from shock, an older boy brought me to the clinic, where my mother was then contacted. At home, as I rushed to the bathroom to change out of my bloodied top, I glimpsed my clock and thought of the mishap, This is a gift from the devil.

The dentist reinserted the incisors, a procedure that required five anesthesia shots and took three hours. This was 1975. Needles then were tooth pick thick. I had pleaded with Dr. Eraña’s assistant to wait until I dozed off before the operation commenced. Caressing my hand, she would ask, “Are you asleep now?” I’d shake my head, until she finally said, “We need to get started.” I can still hear the crunch upon contact between the needle and the gums – the snack, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies. “You’re the bravest boy in the world,” Dr. Eraña said when the operation was done. She was impressed that I didn’t cry, contrasting me to a grown man whom she claimed had been sobbing the other day over work done with his molars.

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So I survived, and my childhood resumed its innocence. We moved to a larger house on a street named Acacia, with a larger pool in a larger garden. Trees were ever present during my formative phase. Just as leaves sprout on branches, layer upon layer of foliage that reach the sky, so did one gleeful memory after another. It seemed they would never end. Every weekend was a frolic in the pool. Every summer brought me to relatives who reside in America. Every Christmas and New Year’s gathered yet more of the extended family in our garden, a landscape of hillocks and orchids and trees a bonanza of tropical fruits.

Love renders our memories golden. To an equal degree that Allie and Duke in “The Notebook” regard each other, we treasure those who have been a part of events we have come to enshrine in our thoughts. Yes, we all have stories of romance to narrate, perhaps not on the scale of a Nicholas Sparks heart tickler, but some even so that evince our dedication to a place and a person… be it a lover, a friend, or a relation. We are the sum of our memories. To lose them would be to lose who we are. Thus, our ceaseless efforts to keep them. We take pictures. We maintain personal bonds. We write.

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Our efforts adapt an urgency as time hastens. Funeral bells toll. Voices diminish into a murmur. Faces fade. Do not forget. Do not forget. Without the love remembrances sow in us, we are vacant entities, bodies bereft of a soul.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: Ignorance Is Bliss… Or Is It?

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During my junior year at the American College in Paris, I took a philosophy course where the discussion for the day was a utopian future in which we human beings could achieve a uniform state of happiness. One guy in class supported the possibility. He justified his stance with theories of conditioning and physiological programming. The guy could have been a sci-fi junkie, what with his nasal voice and dark hair Medusa curly, black-rimmed glasses and stout physique – the embodiment of a nerd – and only a nerd could subscribe to the notion of people as mechanical as robots. I disagreed, of course. The problem was that I hadn’t yet acquired the material or developed the rhetoric to defend myself. “As it is, we all have a different idea of happiness, so how could it ever be the same?” I asked, at which he responded that we could evolve to a Nirvana in which all our dissimilarities would disappear. “But… but…” I stammered.

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Through the 29 years since that day, the liberal politics of San Francisco (where I now reside) have enlightened me to the merit of diversity. If I could relive the discussion between the two of us, I’d say that for Homo sapiens to converge on one definition of happiness, we’d have to eradicate all that individuates each of us – from gender and ethnicity to creed and personal history. We would even need to do without love, for love begets pain, and considering the multitudinous degrees with which we hurt, the intensity that we feel love’s joy would vary in equal measure.

A world bereaved of the sensation of our hearts in a flutter over someone who stands out as unique to the rest of the population… what would that be like? The question could be the basis of a separate course entirely. Unfortunately, most of us are working folks scant of hours to sit in a classroom. We can spare 108 minutes, however, the running time of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). No need to read Buddha or Plato or Sartre either. Simply grab a bowl of popcorn, relax, and watch. The answer will unfold before us.

As the film title indicates, every day would be sunny, life carefree, and we wouldn’t have a bothersome thought, at least not the kind that drives Juliet to stab herself with her dead beau’s dagger. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) It really is an attractive prospect. In the alternative world presented in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a clinic performs a procedure to obliterate all remembrances of a failed romance. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is proof of the procedure’s benefit. She can carry on with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), the man who caused her emotional ruination, as though the split between them had never been; absent from her recollections, Joel is now a stranger. If she could do without him, he reasons, then he could do without her. But mid-way through the procedure, Joel realizes that he’d rather live with heartache than without.

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The guy is a clodpate. What good does hurting do us? If anything, we yearn for the wretchedness to pass, downing a bottle of vodka to benumb our insides. Some of us are so messed up from a break up that a psychiatrist’s couch is more comfortable than our own bed. And yet, this apothegm: “Better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.”

Love is veritably the stimulus to our existence, despite its outcome. Today would not be today as we know it had Mark Antony and Cleopatra remained immune to the spell of dopamine and had Edward VIII not abdicated the throne to wed the American divorcee who, in rattling his heart, sabotaged the British monarchy. The Egyptian and Roman empires might have flourished for centuries more; Charles and Diana would never have been; and we would have less to gossip about. Now take away Lancelot and Guinevere, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Urbino, and the many trysts of Querelle. Gaping holes would be left in our literary canon. As a result, we’d be deprived of tales to fortify our conviction that love exceeds the limits of age and death. In essence, love… for all the weariness it inflicts… gives us something larger than ourselves to aspire for – a treasured place in someone’s memory, a piece of heaven, immortality. Even if the affair should come to an end, we shall have made an impact on a life.

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I have no doubt that breathing would be simpler should the yearning to possess and to be possessed never aggravate us, for it is an aggravation. Worse than that, it’s a tribulation, especially when it becomes a pattern that our own status with the person we so desire puts us in a quandary. We lose appetite, sleep, and rationale. We’re angry and frustrated but have no outlet to vent. A community such as that which thrives on the Star Trek Enterprise is ideal. Be us black, white, yellow, or brown, race is of no issue, and whether Vulcanian or Earthling or a specie from any member of the United Federation of Planets from Aaamazzara to Zytchin, relationships of all nature prosper. We are more similar than different. Conflicts over love never linger. Whatever our dissentions, we reach a resolution by the end of an episode, and forward we voyage through limitless galaxies with our hearts at ease.

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Or we could regress to the innocence of Adam and Eve. How liberated we would be prancing nude among bushes a combustion of butterfly leaves and wading through streams jewel blue. No shame in our bodies equals no self-doubt. Love is a given. We wouldn’t need to fight for it. We wouldn’t need to prove our worth. So complacent we would be that we probably wouldn’t know what love is. That’s as good as having a spotless mind on which the sun shines eternal. As poet Thomas Gray once wrote: “Ignorance is bliss.”

But then where would be the passion in such ignorance? In a resolution secured in a span of 30 minutes? Nowhere. We would be as characterless as unhatched eggs – alive within, but entrapped in shells that deter us from expressing the multidimensionality of our colors. So the serpent despoils Eden, and Krall attacks the Star Trek Enterprise. With the omen of danger forevermore a stain on paradise, we are alert to all we must value, reminding ourselves never again to take them for granted: family, friendship, companionship… everything that instigates in us selfless acts in order for us to hold closer those who are dear.

Joel Barish in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is no dummy. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) himself is skeptical of his own love-amnesia device. So someone we thought would grow old with us has taken off, never to return. Tears were shed and words of hate were spewed. We’re a prostrated lot. Yet through the murk, a light shines through. We have learned through the ordeal what we are capable of giving – a helluva lot – and with our appetite for life rejuvenated, we continue our march on the battlefield of love, positive that victory awaits at this next round, a happiness ours to keep.

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“The Searchers”/ “Les Cowboys”: We Belong… Neither Here nor There

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Some stories are so universal in their themes that every other generation reinvents them to conform to the current condition of the world, though with their essence intact. One such theme is the quest for an identity. At a time in America when cowboys were considered the good guys and Indians the bad guys, “The Searchers” (1956) premiered to commercial success and posed the question of what we would do if a person we love reestablished roots with a group of people we have been brainwashed to hate.

The movie follows cowboy Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) on a mission to rescue his niece (Lana Wood), whom Native Americans abducted when she was eight. Although Ethan completes his mission, he does so seven years later, and the 15-year-old Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) he finds has adopted the language, way of dressing, and rituals of the tribe that plundered her girlhood home. Meanwhile, the reunion triggers memories in Debbie long suppressed. Who is she really, both wonder. She belongs neither here nor there.

The French remake, “Les Cowboys” (2015), has replaced Indians with Muslims, the pariahs of the internet civilization as Islamophobe runs amuck over ever-deadlier terrorist attacks purportedly committed in praise of Allah. 16-year-old Kelly Balland (Iliana Zabeth) has run away from home with her Muslim boyfriend (Mounir Margoum), spurring her father, Alain (François Damien), and brother, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), on a wild goose chase in pursuit of her. The pair travel from the comfort of a prairie town in France to Belgium, Yemen, and Pakistan, enmeshed in a decade-long hunt blotted by the breakdown of a family and unwarranted deaths. The obstacle is Kelly herself… she doesn’t want to be found… and should she be, elements of the daughter and sister so beloved might no longer exist.

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Every one of us, at some point in life, embarks on a diaspora of sorts. Whether we are off to college or migrating to another land, we part from a place that since birth has provided us a sense of either belonging or disconnection in answer to a call of distant frontiers to forge our own destinies. My origin is the Philippines, the bedrock of many of my fondest childhood memories: weekend swims in a pool amidst a garden of hillocks and trees as bountiful as those in a rain forest; Grandma Antonia’s meat omelet; a house awash in light as relatives from second cousins to grand aunts gathered for Christmas; and the boom of New Year’s Eve fireworks. I could not conceive of being anywhere far and apart from family. Then puberty hit.

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Today the United States is my home. “Would you ever go back to the Philippines?” my friend, Vince, has asked. To visit, yes. I do often, every holiday season. To live in, no. Only the U.S.A. can ballyhoo a diversity of creeds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. As the 2016 presidential campaign has reminded us, it’s this very diversity that makes America great, a nation founded on immigrants from Europe to Asia, from Africa to the Latin continent, all who have converged on the shores and tarmacs of this world power for one unified purpose: the prospect of an auspicious future. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunrise-the-allure-of-the-american-dream/) San Francisco has provided me the community to be true to my nature. I can dance with another man at a bar… hands on the other’s hips, lips close as to suggest a kiss… without fear of censure, and every June, flag poles on Market Street brandish the rainbow banner in celebration of Gay Pride month. The subject of HIV/AIDS is a public discussion. For those personally affected by the disease, a support network exists. Medication is available to prolong life as are counseling and social organizations so that one need not feel alone.

This isn’t to say that America is perfect. Homophobia persists, as evidenced by the murders of transgender people (21 were reported for the year 2016) and the shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay nightclub where a madman opened fire, killing 49 men and women. Nevertheless, America holds sacred the first amendment. Whenever we are victims of an act that violates our civil rights, we speak, we shout, we protest, we take to the streets and raise placards at arms length that demand enough is enough. And those in government do listen. Ten years ago, we would never have thought possible marriage between two persons of the same sex and the abolition in the military of a law that prohibited homosexuals from serving. The United States is indeed a sanctuary for each to exert one’s rights as an upstanding citizen.

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The Philippines is developing its own progressive view towards homosexuality. I have seen in 20 years the influx of gay bars in Manila, some located in the commercial center and that attract the patronage of socialites and yuppies alike. More than ever, the media allot coverage to gay, lesbian, and transgender personalities. One such public figure is Vice Ganda. A movie star and TV fixture, he is heavy on the make-up and speaks with a voice as whirly as his sashay, he is Linda Evangelista in his array of hair colors and prone to histrionics when speaking of his past as a victim of anti-gay defamations. Ganda is a stereotype, which is not entirely good. While lending a voice to a segment of Philippine society to a large scale voiceless, he does so in a way that fans preconceived notions of what it is to be a gay man.

Ultimately, homosexuals in the Philippines do not have a political force. Their presence is contained within a box of flamboyance, everyone’s favorite couturier, hairdresser, gossip, and comic relief – an overall buffoon. Blasphemous is the gay man who breaks through the encasement. Because he isn’t easily identifiable, he is somewhat of a threat, like an enemy spy who blends in a crowd, unbeknownst to all lugging a bomb in a satchel.

In “The Searchers” and “Les Cowboys,” our self-anointed rescuers believe their respective enemies have corrupted the missing girls. Filipinos far from regard Americans as the enemy, despite having been under their colonial authority for half a century. On the contrary, we Filipinos are rather enamored by Americans. We so prize Stateside products that we don a tee stamped with a Tommy Hilfiger logo as if it were ermine, and billboards along freeways feature Filipino faces that promote a Western ideal of beauty of fair skin and aquiline noses. At the same time, while in high school at the International School, my Filipino friends and I had constructed an invisible wall between Americans and ourselves. We considered them loud and sexually loose, an eyesore in frayed jeans and athletic wear as daywear. By pursuing a higher education in the U.S.A., I invited a foreign culture to mollify my conservative outlook on clothes and manners so that, upon my senior year, my father disapproved of my daily attire of shorts, high tops, and a collarless tee. Meanwhile, on the sexual front… well… let me just say I was coming into my own.

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My sister, Anna Maria, never thought she would again live in the Philippines once she left for college in New York five years prior to my own departure. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/breakfast-at-tiffanys-sunshine-through-rain-clouds/) She had found her domain, there in a world capital synonymous with beauty and fashion, art and intellect. How she bemoaned being a misfit when, some 14 years later, she decided to expand her architecture firm to Asia by setting up shop in Manila. “This place really isn’t for me,” she said. We were at a luncheon during one of my visits, and she was criticizing the customs of a myopic society, namely the compliments on appearance that verge on sycophantic and the twaddle whispered over private lives, often false and pernicious. Yet in Manila she remains, and there she will be for a long time to come, perhaps for the rest of her life, for her career has flourished and her American husband shrugs off all about the culture that grates her.

Cowboy or misplaced soul, we are each a bit of both. As Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” does right with Debbie, he gives us a closing shot a trademark of every tale about the wild, wild, West: that of a figure, stooped and solitary, lumbering into the sunset. Ethan is us either on the road to stake our territory or going back from whence we came.

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“Imelda”: Our Guilty Pleasure

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What’s in a name? If the eponym happens to be “Imelda” (2004), then the answer is a closetful. The mere mention of it generates a universal reaction – those shoes! When in 1986 the Philippines’ former first lady and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, fled the country for exile in Hawaii, the presidential palace, Malacañang, was opened to the public as a museum of greed. I was there. Among the items I viewed: a receipt from Italian couturier, Valentino, for the purchase of two dresses the sum of $150,000; throne chairs; and a hand mirror that bore the initials IM encrusted in diamonds. The grand showcase was saved for the last. Underneath Mrs. Marcos’s boudoir, racks of stilettos, slip-ons, and pumps in leather or woven in bamboo – many of them of the same style in various colors – lined a basement the size of a department store warehouse. The place could have been a DSW outlet, only with every Ferragamo fitted for one woman and with somebody else footing the bill (namely, the Filipino tax payer).

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For the public’s amusement, the Ramona Diaz documentary titled after one of history’s most infamous consorts depicts much of the excesses. Everybody adores a rags to riches story, especially when the story turns sour, and this is the reason Imelda Marcos feeds our fascination. No ordinary woman can boast a trajectory from a hayseed in a third-world archipelago of a nation to a glamazon bejeweled in Cartier, ballroom waltzing in the arms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Adnan Khashoggi. At the peak of her power, the Marcoses amassed a fortune estimated at $10 billion. Their illegal holdings included such New York real estate as Lindenmere – a Long Island mansion that flaunts 16 bedrooms and seven gables – and the Crown Building. Then the People Power Revolution broke out. Mendicants and millionaires took to the streets in rallying for an end to the 20-year dictatorship. Nuns formed human barriers between tanks and protesters that chanted, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” – the nickname of Corazon Aquino,  the soon-to-be new commander-in-chief and widow of slain Marcos opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr. A nation was being reborn.

That such a shift in politics was about to happen was as overwhelming to me as my transition from adolescence to manhood. The Marcoses had held the number one position in the land my entire life. When the uprising in the Philippines made international headlines, I was on my freshman year at Tufts University in Boston while my sister had commenced with graduate courses in architecture at Harvard University. A higher education in America had been my plan ever since my sister had left Manila when I was 14 for her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. When she transferred to Columbia University, I stayed with her during two of my summer breaks, and with days spent eating out and nights clubbing, I envisioned my own future as an undergrad to be equally fun-filled.

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The opportunity existed at Tufts. My roommates had the time of their lives – a dorm party here, a frat party there, and cultural clubs that offered a banquet of social activities from barbecues to dances – which for me was the problem. I was so absorbed in an image I harbored of myself as a dandy about town, a trendsetter dressed in black and white, that I struggled to make friends. In reality, I was an average teen dealing with the issues of self-image and sexuality. So what that I wore Benetton and Calvin Klein? No designer label could conceal the pockmarks and the body that lacked even a hint of athleticism. The lying was worst of all. I lived in an all-male dorm. My two roommates – one from Puerto Rico and the other from a town 40 miles southwest of Boston – griped that slots to the co-ed dorms had all been taken, so there they were. I voiced the same fate. The truth was that I had opted for an all-male boarding situation, motivated by hopes of a boy meets boy romance.

As I spent weekends at my sister’s place to escape the Tufts campus, the People Power Revolution was brewing. My mother wrote of my father’s and her involvement in a letter:

On January 7, the Management Association of the Philippines (Daddy is the president this year), the bishop, Businessman’s Conference, and the Makati Business Club had Cory Aquino as the speaker during their combined meetings at the Intercon. The affair was flashed briefly… A picture came out in the USA Today paper, January 8th. Daddy was in the picture. He gave the closing remarks on that day. Cory’s speech was very good and she intelligently answered questions from the floor… People are clamoring for change that a big number are volunteering to help Aquino. On my part, I volunteered for NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections) and we help any way we could. 

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By the end of February, the revolution swelled. The news featured scenes of military helicopters landing on Aquino territory as their pilots renounced allegiance to President Marcos and of citizens that numbered in the millions thronging Manila’s main thoroughfare, Edsa Avenue, the banners they waved and confetti that danced in the air yellow, Aquino’s official color. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible. Guys in my dorm would ask, “What do you think about what’s happening in the Philippines?”

I have no recollection of what I might have answered. In the midst of a personal coming-of-age saga, the current events of the day were the least of my concerns, until the afternoon my Puerto Rican roommate showed me a New York Times picture of Imelda Marcos taken during her husband’s 1965 inauguration. She is pristine in a bubble do and a white gown. Her smile is serene and her eyes are limpid with conquest. I wondered what must have gone through her mind at that instant. A decade earlier, she had been a salesgirl in a music store. Now… “She was beautiful,” my roommate said. She was, indeed. She was also omnipotent and omnipresent. Everyone from high school classmates to my mother’s friends had an Imelda anecdote to tell: Imelda once ordered a Philippine Airline carrier to be available at her disposal, leaving the passengers stranded at the airport; Imelda had reserved two floors at the Waldorf Astoria; Imelda would throw $100-tips to the bellboys.

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I most relished my father’s anecdotes. Malacañang Palace would call our home every so often to extend an invitation to a social function, all of which my father would decline. Nevertheless, Imelda Marcos would summon him for a so-called discussion on the Philippines’ economic state, during which he along with other businessmen would ride in a van to the presidential palace with the first lady as a fellow passenger. She was always seated in an elevated section at the back. “I’d be right in front of her,” my father once told me. “Whenever I turned to say something, I’d be talking to her knees.”

What did I think? I was all for Cory, but Imelda was one colorful character on the par of the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/), as comical as a Disney villainess, and because of her, the People Power Revolution bordered on entertainment. The jokes were non-stop: raise Imelda Marcos’s 500 brassieres on a flagstaff and salute, “Erin go bra”; Imelda Marcos makes Marie Antoinette look like a bag lady; Did you hear that Imelda Marcos committed suicide? She piled up all her shoes then jumped.

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And this brings me back to the footwear. I visited Malacañang Palace during vacation from Tufts. A pair of sandals was on display on a pedestal. In transparent platform heels, bulbs flashed with the zaniness of lights in a pinball machine. “Madame’s disco shoes,” the curator said. Ideas of my own purpose in life percolated right there. Adolescent blues, goodbye. They were momentary stuff. The factor intrinsic and everlasting to my being was my identity as a Filipino man. It’s no coincidence that I was born two years after the Marcoses ascended to power. The stories about their exploits became my stories. The nationalism that led to their debacle was in my blood. Write it, I thought. Hence, my calling.

“Hello, My Name Is Doris”: In Defiance of Age

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I went to watch “Hello, My Name Is Doris” (2015) with a group of gay men. We were about a dozen in all, and we ranged in age from our forties to seventies (with the exception of one tricenarian in possession of an old soul). I loved the film. As someone soon to turn 50, I saw in the title heroine my own attempts to retain a youth that no longer is and my imaginings of a life that could have been. Doris Miller (Sally Field) is a dreamer somewhere in the half-century mark. Dolled up in Minnie Mouse hair ribbons and vintage ensembles of cardigans and pleated skirts the muted colors of a 1970s snapshot, she has been severed from living due to an adulthood as caregiver to an infirm mother. She is given the chance to compensate for the years lost when her mother dies and she befriends John (Max Greenfield), an officemate so much of a charmer that every one of his gestures, be it a parting kiss on the cheek or late night phone calls, awakens in her the probability of a romance.

Half Doris’s age, dimples, eyes as translucent as afterglow, and a hot bod… John can put anybody in a trance. He sure did me. Plus, he’s got slicked hair the brown of chestnut combed high in replicating the style of bygone movie gods (think Montgomery Clift). If I had hair like that, I’d ornament my hip pocket with a comb. So the fantasies begin. For me, my John came in the form of an online hook-up ten years ago named Scott.

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Now before I proceed on Scott, allow me to emphasize that I rarely get hits online. A lucky night for me generates five messages despite the numerous appeals on my part, and of those five messages, even rarer is my attraction to any one of the senders. Imagine, therefore, my incredulity when I first saw Scott’s pictures. Holy mackerel, I thought. With dark follicles and a swimmer’s physique, Scott could have been cousin to Doris’s own object of infatuation. I had not even sent the man a message. He would later tell me upon our meeting that a filter search produced my username (feednseed), which he found “interesting”; thus, his initiative to reach out to me. In his message, Scott didn’t merely introduce himself nor did he limit his communication to some lame remark such as “what are you up to right now?” (my line); he provided his phone number. I would also learn that Scott was new to the site. He had signed up three days earlier, and within 72 hours, his profile garnered over 300 hits. “I started clicking on each one,” he said, “and then I stopped. It was too much. Ridiculous.” That was how oomph the man was.

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Unlike with Doris and John, I had the fortune of consummating my desire for Scott. More than that: we formed a connection. I recall the precise second the zap of a visceral charge transmitted between us. We were rolling in the sheets when at one point I released myself from him to lie on my stomach. I turned my head. Our eyes met. I chuckled and so did he. And that was it. As if upon the touch of our fingertips, my insides burst with all the good feelings known to human – Scott had brought me to life. Doris may not have a physical interlude with John, but she does experience this form of internal light in talks where they share bits of themselves never before divulged to others and in the comfort of one another’s company. Their friendship has the marking of a love affair. So instantaneous and entwined is their connection that no wonder Doris develops delusions of a courtship.

Delusions, however, played no part in whatever I envisioned as possible between Scott and me. The guy asked me out to dinner after our first night. There’s nothing to misinterpret about a date, particularly when it ends with a smooch at the MUNI station. It’s this easy, I thought on the subway ride home. Love doesn’t require effort. Love happens on its own. My sister has said that the right person “fits like a glove.” If the disparity in age between Scott and me had caused concern (I was 39; he was 28), it dissipated as the subway chugged along. On the window, against the blackness of the underground tunnel, my reflection was a beaming face. Although I can’t say for certain that Scott and I were a fit, something was right.

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The rightness gradually eroded in the string of missed opportunities that ensued. The letdowns consisted of missed phone calls. I didn’t pick up when he attempted to contact me at work for lunch. He tried once again during a weekend I had left my phone at home while with my parents in Monterey. Indeed, something as innocuous as failing to answer the ring of a mobile or to respond to a text can alter the course of a relationship. Scott must have assumed I was no longer interested.

I believe the real deal breaker came on our second sexual episode. Porn was playing on the TV monitor. I was in an altered state of mind. The happenings onscreen preoccupied me more than did Scott, and this led him to comment that I was disconnected from him. My efforts afterwards for future meetings, both romantic and erotic, resulted in declines. How is it that our initial encounter should offer such promise and end up two months later generating a bust? In addition to a spectacular first night and first date, Scott sent signals that I read as an invitation for a boyfriend. He would sign off his e-mails with the closing of “hugs and kisses”; he left a voicemail expressing concern in response to my voicemail that my father had a stroke; and those missed phone calls, no doubt they suggested his interest in me exceeded the platonic. A friend said that my being high during Scott’s and my second mating might not necessarily have put him off, that perhaps the inclination to have me as a partner was never there to begin with. If it had been, he said, then Scott would not have given up, for love spurs a person to dive in, not to hold back.

I didn’t need to wonder for long. In his last e-mail to me, Scott blatantly stated, “I do not feel the same way about you.” This the night before I was scheduled to appear at a function to read from and promote my novel, “Potato Queen.” (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) We’ve all been up through the late hours of dawn, in a state of such helplessness that we lose our hold on life, in the darkness of our rooms. Add heartache to this. I sat in bed, the walls around me creating a box that entrapped, and I screamed at the slashes ripping apart my insides. I wanted Scott. I was in love with him (or so I thought). I was angry and desperate and lonely, the condition Doris sinks into when she faces a moment of truth about John.

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Yet on I went with my appearance the next day, dressed as a kid in a Superman t-shirt. Silver-haired men constituted a large chunk of my audience. The event was in a hotel banquet room. The carpet was frayed and stained. (I don’t even remember the color.) The chairs were brown vinyl cushions in metal frames. One fellow reader, a professorial type advanced in age – bald with spectacles and a raspy voice – spoke about a liaison with a go-go boy in Bangkok, the basis of his memoir.

While mouthing answers to a Q&A, I guessed at what might have been had I calculated my moves more carefully in order to have circumvented certain gaffes with Scott: I should have brought my phone to Monterey; I should not have been messed up on our follow-up fuck; blah, blah, blah…. I questioned when I would have another chance with another guy, at what age would the golden goose of reciprocated love be mine. I’d be damned should I find my match in a macho dancer five decades my junior. Scott would have been perfect.

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Alas, it was not meant to be. What the heck. Tomorrow remains as it does for Doris. Spunky woman that she is, she permits neither age nor failure to deter her dreaming. Certainly, other men exist with whom she could experience the connection she does with John, and in so doing have someone’s hand to hold by the fireplace. The potential is available to us all, whether young or old, so long as we keep our hearts open and welcome love’s setbacks with the fierceness we do its blessings.

“The Jungle Book”: In Search of Who We Are

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I lost my job two weeks ago. For eight months I was employed at a K-8 school, where my task was to manage the database and to print acknowledgment letters. Familiarizing myself with the database was a trial, despite a three-day tutorial course. Matters of technology, from a project as minor as generating a spreadsheet to the titanic undertaking of designing a program, encrypted codes and all, are best in the hands of those who are left-brain dominant. They can apply the basic mathematics of one plus one equals two to a computer’s mumbo jumbo. In addition, my fastidiousness was continuously put to the test. My enumeration of oversights consisted of the following: duplicated addresses on a report, a letter with the closing attributed to the incorrect person, a donation appropriated to the wrong campaign. I consider myself detail-oriented; however, with the literary elements of characterization and sentence structure rather than with clerical duties.

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I believe in signs (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/groundhog-day-a-spark-of-newness-in-the-everyday/), so I must have prognosticated that an end would come soon, though I didn’t anticipate that it would occur as it did because previous employers had always complimented me on my industriousness. Even my supervisor at the school offered me praise at the start; she once said I was doing “great.” Suddenly, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Those of you who have experienced this, you know what it’s like. We are incapacitated when our employers inform us that we are not performing up to their standard, for we are disappointed in ourselves. In fairness, I wish my supervisor had confronted me early in the spring about her misgivings, at the point when her opinion of me shifted, instead of slamming me with a 30-day probation period without a forewarning. She would meet with me in the fall every Friday to appraise my conduct for the week. Since the meetings had stopped mid-way into the New Year, I assumed I was on the right track.

Fortunately, I have family and friends with whom I was able to discuss my situation. When I met with a friend, Mike, for advice, his first question was, “Are you happy there?” “No,” I said. I sensed as early on as the day of my interview in August of last year that the school would not be a right fit. Technical issues aside, the office was cluttered. Stationery and binders and yearbooks lay in disorder in shelf compartments. Documents stuffed drawers. A carpet the hue of cannabis – faded green with traces of brown – was in desperate need of replacement. I accepted the offer only because it was a reason to move forward from San Francisco AIDS Foundation, where I had been employed for a decade and a half. While the load work at the foundation had been conducive to my writing schedule, I needed change. I’ll get used to this, I thought of the school; I regarded it as a platform to reentering a career in academia. As a former colleague commented during the interview, “I’m not sure what your long-term plan is.” I told her, “To teach again.”

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“No regrets,” my sister wrote in an e-mail in the eventuality of a discharge. “You’re a creative person. You’re not wired to do administrative stuff.” My friend, Wendy, said over the phone shortly after the school released me, “You tried. Now you know that it wasn’t for you.” Meanwhile, Mike a few weeks earlier had said of my promise to my supervisor that I’d do my best, “Your best may not be good enough.” I did do my best, and this my supervisor recognized. “We like you,” she said. “You’re a good guy, Rafaelito… I see that you work hard and that you apply yourself, but….”

As all this was taking place, I went to watch “The Jungle Book” (2016), the story of an orphan boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has been raised since infancy by a pack of wolves, climbing trees and sprinting with such alacrity that he outruns potential predators, the most vicious being the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba – voice). Khan wants the boy dead. Years ago, a human out of self-defense scarred Khan’s face with a fire torch, and ever since, the feline has been obsessed with vengeance to bite into Mowgli’s neck. The problem for him is that the beasts in the kingdom are protective of their “man cub.” Mowgli is family. For his part, Mowgli, under the tutelage of Bugheera (Ben Kingsley – voice) – a panther half Kung Fu master and half surrogate father – undergoes rigorous training so that he could fight in a mode that would make his wolf tribe proud. This poses another set of problems: Mowgli is a Homo sapien.

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Here is a message as primordial as the Congo Jungle: never try to be somebody or something you are not. Computers in this era are fundamental to the functioning of civilization, be it for business or leisure, though not everyone of us is techie attuned – I, for one. I forced myself to be; hence, the outcome. Every Sunday, I would get the willies. What I experienced wasn’t the perfunctory blues that a weekend was ending. It was a presentiment that Monday could sabotage the four days to follow with a database demand. For example, my supervisor once requested that I generate a donor report that included e-mails. While filters had been encoded in the database that enabled me to search for first names, last names, cities, and other forms of information, I couldn’t locate one for e-mail addresses. Hours later, I presented her a report with everything she had wanted except that. Only by accident did I find the desired filter, and this when I clicked days afterwards on the filter for phone number. It so turned out that e-mail address had been encoded as e-mail number.

All this is the past. I am relieved to be out. Happy. On the day I packed up my desk, HR asked, “How are you feeling right now?” “Fine,” I said. I truly was. I admitted that I had my doubts about the job as far back as the fall and that I have plans – to earn a teaching certificate. I need the intellectual stimulation that a classroom alone can provide. Printing nametags, stuffing envelopes, and recording contributions are necessary procedures for any business to operate, the vital nuts and bolts to a machine, but… to be blunt (and somewhat hubristic)… education at Tufts, the Sorbonne, and Cornell programmed me for higher responsibilities. Had the school not confronted me with its dissatisfaction in me, I would have floundered there. A friend in Manila said over Christmas when I expressed my reservations about the school, “You’re like a person who has outgrown his shoes.”

Yes. The shoes were too small, not too big. I need a larger pair, one that fits the size of my true talent. Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” vanquishes Shere Khan. He continues to live and thrive in the midst of the beasts that have taken care of him, but this time as a man, for it is as a man that he stands his ground against Khan. As for me, words are my talent. My calling is to guide young minds in asserting themselves through the power of language. I am a writer. This is who I am. The school was nothing more than a detour, albeit a necessary one. I am a wiser man as a result, and onward I travel on the path to my rightful place in the world.

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“45 Years”: Two Strangers, One Bed

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How well do we know the person who shares our bed? This is the question that insinuates itself like arsenic in water between Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer on the days that lead up to their 45th wedding anniversary. At the outset, they are a typical couple. They laugh at one another’s jokes, enjoy the same taste in music (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is their theme song), and are sentimental over shared remembrances. She bandages a cut on his thumb. He tells her she’s beautiful. Childless, their home a cottage amid sky, trees, and grass redolent of a David Hockney landscape, they are severed from the world, their reason for waking upon sunrise each other. A letter Geoff receives one morning over coffee ruptures the serenity. The body of his first love, Katya, who was killed in an accident 50 years ago while both were on a snow trekking expedition, has been found preserved in a glacier. Now the memory of a dead woman frozen in youth invades every moment between the Mercers.

The added complication to “45 Years” (2015) is that the revelation that surfaces of Geoff’s commitment to Katya confounds the man himself. Like a volcano presumed dormant, latent feelings erupt unexpectedly, burying in ash everything that surrounds him. Kate fights to breath, while Geoff labors to stop the blackening of the air with pledges of emotional fidelity to Kate. How well do we know ourselves?

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“45 Years” heeds to the preaching of gurus as a blueprint for an answer – that love is our best bet to realizing the yet undiscovered within us. We’ve all had someone who has generated a ripple beneath our hearts, someone we had been able to keep at bay until one day we found ourselves thinking about the person with a hollow feeling. Here’s a guy I’m surprised my insides didn’t palpitate over at the start. Meet Derek: early thirties; 5’11”; brown wavy hair cut preppy short; hazel eyes; a rugby player’s meaty and muscular physique. The year was 2004. We made eye contact at a club, the Mack Folsom Prison, the kind of place far from conducive for conversation. Slings were set up in caged areas, and monitors installed in ceiling corners played man videos. (You get the idea.) The joint was emptying out after a long night. I was standing by a sling, ready to leave, when Derek walked in and sat on a chair nearby, across a row of lockers that lined a wall. And then he approached me. “Come over to my place,” he said. The guy had a voice to match his look. How could I have gotten so lucky? I thought. The pick up was as simple as that.

Derek lived a few blocks away. His building was an industrial salmagundi of sliding doors to balconies enclosed in square spaces and rectangular opaque windows. His walls were white and bare. The floor was beige wood. Sun filtered through a tank of gold fish in the living room, while on a loft, on a leather-covered bed, Derek and I were gratifying our most animalistic of urges. Amid our intertwined limbs, he revealed bits and pieces of the person beneath the image. He worked as a flight nurse, a paramedic assigned to commercial airlines in the event of a medical issue among the passengers. (I had never been aware of such a profession.) He had earned a business degree from De Paul University in Chicago. And… here’s the real clincher… he moonlighted as a $300 an hour escort. What a compliment that he was offering himself to me free of charge. “What are you doing later?” I asked as noon struck. “You,” he said.

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That morning was the start of a connection between Derek and me that would persist for over a year. “I always, always have fun with you, Rafaelito,” he once told me. On another occasion, as I walked into his place, he gazed down at me from the loft, his eyes a shifting shade of blue and green, piercing with want and tenderness. One thing he withheld from giving me was a kiss. A kiss for him was cognate to a commitment. Still, what I saw in his eyes was unmistakable. I might have felt something, too. I’m sure I did. I would send Derek sexy e-mails. To the first one, he called me while I was at work. “I jacked off to your e-mail four times,” he said. “How did you learn to write like this? It’s like a combination of poetry and sleaze.” Herein began my knack for erotica. Derek suggested I get published, and I did. Four of my erotic pieces so far have been anthologized. The latest is based on him:

Have you forgotten that scorching May afternoon in the park in front of my building? Kids played in the sand dune, folks sunbathed on the grass, and we sat on a bench. We were stoned, sweaty, shirtless and reeked of each other’s sex. A couple nearby commented to each other that the heat was indicative of an impending earthquake, so I said to you, “If an earthquake struck and trapped me beneath a mountain of rubble, everything would be okay so long as you were with me.” 

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You hooked your arm around my neck, laid my head on your heart. “Me, too,” you said.

Now this interaction never transpired between Derek and me. While some instances I do relate are factual, an element of wish fulfillment pervades the story. Through art, we writers seek answers and resolutions to the jumble that is life. Only on the afternoon that Derek spurned me did I long for him. He had found somebody else, somebody he called a boyfriend, and in front of this guy while at Derek’s place one weekend I brought up a topic intimate to Derek and me. Being cut off was a sort of death. Perhaps I hadn’t been in tune to what lurked inside of me because until then, Derek was available and easy. So it must have been for Geoff in “45 Years,” this blindness to a deep-rooted affection. For the old man to confront the facts, Katya’s corpse needed to be unearthed intact in a time capsule.

As for Derek, he is somewhere out there alive and well, though enshrined in my memory as a young Goliath. My own fantasy of him remains as such:

You know what I really want is for you to wrap your hand around my neck with loving hands and to kiss me, kiss me long and hard. That is all I have ever wanted. I know a kiss is what you want from me, too. Never mind that I’m from across the Pacific, a newbie to your country, a newly minted citizen of this land of the free and land of the brave. What we have between us surpasses all cultural divides. Do I dare call it the “L” word? 

I can merely guess at what Derek would have truly wanted from me, be it a kiss or anything else. Warm looks and hours of physical unity aside, we never spoke of what might have drawn us together on a subliminal level. He always had “fun” with me, so he said. Am I to take that word at face value? In the end, we were two strangers in one bed.

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“Begin Again”: Alone on a Pedestal

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Laurence Olivier once said of Vivien Leigh that if not for her breadth as a thespian, then he would never have fallen in love with her. She was ravishing, to be sure, a glacial beauty with neither a hair out of place nor sweat on her brow no matter the depravity of the character she played, which made her ability to convey torment all the more uncanny. This was no easy feat. So comely was she that she had to summon her inner demons in order for others to look past the surface. One doubter she won over was Elia Kazan. During the casting of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-streetcar-named-desire-forever-young/), the director was skeptical of Leigh in the role of Blanche Dubois. He considered Leigh an actress of “small talent,” an opinion he would recant the instant the camera rolled. “She’d have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance,” he said.

Talent accounts for a lot, and not just in the professional arena, but also in love. Olivier’s admission of his choice of a second wife would impact me as a haunting refrain ever since I first learned of it 25 years ago. As I am in a creative field, talent surrounds me. Katharine, a girl I knew while on a writing fellowship at Cornell University, speculated that myriad romances must have blossomed through the centuries on account of a reader’s infatuation with an author’s words. Seems logical. Authors must write fabulous love letters, and who of us wouldn’t want to be the recipient of an epistle where we are the source of rapturous prose? Gustave Flaubert must have seen the form of Emma Bovary in his paramour, the poet Louise Colet, when he lavished her with this:

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“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours. I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of me.”

To be the template for one of literature’s most revered creations is the highest flattery. A colleague at the writing program who had feelings for me expressed regret when, one day, I missed his reading of a story. “If only you could have heard me,” he said, hoping that his oratorical talent would have caressed my ears and stirred my own feelings beyond the platonic. Even if it had, whatever tenderness that might have budded between us could just as swiftly have wilted, for we artists are selfish and envious. Place us with six other people in one workshop that meets weekly, critiquing each other’s manuscripts to the point of lashing out insults, and you’ve got a brew that simmers with competition. One falls to the perimeter. The other basks in the limelight.

Cinema has quite a few tales about such couplings. Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) in “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) axes lover, playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), for raking in all the plaudits. In a film named after her, “Camille Claudel” (1988), who was protégé and mistress (Isabelle Adjani) to August Renoir (Gerard Depardieu) and who herself was an exceptional sculptress, is confined to a psycho ward as the world lauds her mentor as a master. “Sylvia” (2003) portrays Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) as a poet whose emotional paralysis under the weight of the success of husband Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) drives her to inhale gasoline in her sleep.

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Art is a Greek tragedy. Even without the drama of murder, institutionalization, or suicide, we are lamed when it gives us the short end of the stick. Our talent accounts for nothing. Life is meaningless. In this, history repeats itself every decade. “Begin Again” (2013) is a film of today with the pathos that has made some of our artist couples of yesterday prime subjects for the big screen. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is musically gifted. She strums the guitar to lyrics of her own musing, her voice a whisper more than a bellow, ethereal, sensuous. Nobody at the bar hears her. Her own boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) is deaf to her, himself a singer-song writer to whom she is both a muse and a critic instrumental in elevating his compositions that much closer to glory. He makes it, a record deal and a world tour the answer to his dreams, yet not once does he acknowledge the woman who has placed her own talent secondary to his.

Although “Begin Again” is fiction, it is rooted in reality. At Cornell, Katharine and I worked together during our first year as editorial assistants to Epoch, a literary journal the English department publishes. One of our instructors had been a Stanford University Stegner fellow, an honor bestowed upon the most promising of writers. (The Stegner roster includes Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, and Molly Antopol). She had come out with a collection of stories to rave reviews, one of which I had read in creative writing 101 during my freshman year at Tufts University. She was also the romantic partner of the journal’s editor-in-chief, a man. Katharine would wonder why our instructor’s initial success had not led to further accolades, until she had a conversation with her mother, who said, “She doesn’t want to lose him.” Stated another way: for one to be a star, one must make a choice between fame and love.

Vaudevillian, Fanny Brice, was well aware of this sacrifice. “Funny Girl” (1968), which features Barbra Streisand as the comedian, depicts her marital collapse to Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif), a man about town who introduces her to the good life when she is yet a nobody slaving to have her name spelled out in bright lights. One hitch: Arnstein is a gambler and a crook. Guilty of embezzlement, he is imprisoned and his fortune dwindles. Brice, now a star, offers financial rescue, which his masculine pride refuses. Neither can he remain affiliated as husband to a woman who eclipses him.

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Luckily for Gretta in “Begin Again,” her fate isn’t dismal. Someone in the crowd is actually taken by her music, and he happens to be a somebody. He is Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a record producer. Hold on, though. The days ahead of Gretta aren’t as simple as this plot turn implies. Heartbreak is never so quickly resolved. In an epiphanic moment, Gretta watches in the sideline as Dave onstage performs to the orgasmic screams of the audience. He glances at her and smiles. She smiles back. Amid the percussion of drums and electric guitars and the orgy of arms that reach out to Dave from a pit of gyrating bodies, an invisible current welds the two together. They have been through so much. He has come so far. But like all sparks, the current lasts through one verse of a song.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were able to share the limelight, the wattage of their combined talents so refulgent that it garnered them ovations and awards. Alas, the big bang that they were resulted in a dark void. The genius of creativity triggered her mental breakdown. He left her for Joan Plowright, herself a fine actress, though one denuded of the trappings of celebrity. Psychological and health issues notwithstanding, Leigh continued to make movies and to appear in the theater. The public’s adoration was all she had left.

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We all need someone. Life is too full of quicksand for us to free ourselves from the guck on our own. And yet, when a burning within to show the world our ability for greatness flames our egos, we jump into the fire. Either we disintegrate to ashes, scattered in the wind and forgotten, or we blaze into immortality. We accept the risk, regardless of the expense on the one person who matters most, for we more fear domestic complacency, the realm of the ordinary.