29 December 2012


...love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you. And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars....
...your solitude will be a hold and home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions and from there you will find all your ways. 

While living and working in Chile, I picked up a habit of reading several books at the same time. It was not something I was used to doing, so more than one book was one or more books too many, especially given my extremely short attention span. I can’t say that I accomplished anything by doing this; even worse, I can’t figure out why I did it in the first place. But I started with Edward St Aubyn’s series of Patrick Melrose novels, and it took forever to get to At Last. That’s because I was also reading Howards End and Bouvard et Pécuchet on my phone, and a random selection of essays by Cynthia Ozick on my computer, and The House of the Dead (a tattered copy of which I bought from Libros El Cid Campeador on Merced Street), and stories from Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons collection, and, later on, after mi jefe C had given me a Kindle, Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says. (Guess which one entertained the most.)

For my return flight to Manila I thus resolved to stick to one book, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, from which the above passage comes. I like writing letters, and I love reading them even more. About four years ago I read the 700-plus-page Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, which proved to be at once a hoot and treasure, and instantly made me want to be a more outstanding correspondent; the book was given to me by a friend in New York. The Rilke, meanwhile, was given by another friend, who told me about another passage (from the same collection of letters) that I agreed was pretty useful advice for writers. (Identification of this other passage upon request.) He added a Flavia Weedn quote as his dedication, and it is the exact same quote that was printed on a bedroom poster (of a bear) that I had when I was a kid. (Identification of quote also upon request.)

So anyway: I read the Rilke in the time that it took to get from Santiago to Manila. My stops were São Paulo, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur. After several months in Chile of not hearing another human being speak Tagalog, I was relieved to hear and see Filipinos at the Dubai International Airport. But I never did move to speak to them. The book absorbed me completely, and even though I had not given Rilke’s poems a try, I was glad to have his letters, which made the forty-hour journey somehow shorter.

23 December 2012

Julia Roberts

My friend J got married today. She looked so beautiful. The wedding was held just outside of Manila, at San Antonio de Padua in Silang, Cavite, followed by the reception at Hacienda Isabella, a charming private resort neatly tucked somewhere at the foot of the Tagaytay mountain ridge. I sat with a group of friends from the university and before the night ended, J came over to our table and showed us her ring. She also told us the story of how her husband had proposed—which he did, if I heard correctly (and if I didn’t, blame the vodka), after a hike somewhere in Malaysia, on top of another mountain called Gunung Datuk. 

J’s wedding is only the latest in a series of wedding- or engagement-related notifications I have recently received on Facebook. I don’t know how or why exactly these notifications have suddenly come to multiply—is twenty-eight or twenty-nine the new twenty-five, or are couples simply keen to avoid the curse of 2013?—but at least seven other friends (that I know of) who are my age got married or engaged in the last two weeks alone. Seven! (And I don’t even have many friends, which makes the ratio that much more impressive.) To me this feels a lot like three years ago, when wedding albums first began to clutter my Facebook news feed. The difference this time is that I am much closer to being thirty and unmarried, which therefore also means that I am closer to being forty and unmarried.


Not that there’s any, you know, pressure. In fact, don’t mind the gasp; it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. I’m not—or no longer—in a particular hurry to acquire the trappings of maturity, of married life, which everyone will surely tell me cannot be rushed into anyway. But owing perhaps to these recent events and notifications, I have wondered, more so than ever, if among my friends I am one of the remaining few who wake up next to an open book, a bottle of wine, or an ashtray of cigarette butts (I’d have added ‘beautiful stranger’ but unfortunately my romances, if I can be said to have them, are not at all whirlwind); if at this point—at my age—I really ought to have a spouse instead of a pillow. (A second gasp!) This, I like to believe, even if no one else will, is less a case of sentimental imagination than of a sort of tangible stress currently being thrown upon my own personal relations—and stress as in an external force instead of an internal one. 

Funnily enough, the stress may have begun to assert itself outside of Facebook, even before I found myself under barrage. A little over two weeks ago, when I was still in the Chilean capital city of Santiago, my dear friend K showed me pictures and videos of his wedding in 2004. I loved the crisp white suit that he wore, loved it more than I had let on. It drew attention to the blue of his eyes, such that I began to secretly wish—as he swiped an index finger across the screen of his iPhone, showing images of the kiss, the ceremony, the signing of papers, the delivery of speeches, the raising of toasts, the opening of gifts, the institutionalization of his love and his right to love—I secretly wished that if and when my own special day came, I would look as handsome, gentle, and pure as he did on his, eight years ago in Hamburg. 

The wish was secret because it was also impossible. It was the product of envy: wishing to be what will never be. ‘Gentle’ and ‘pure’? I would definitely be pushing it. (Even more than I would with ‘handsome’.) I am a bigger sinner at twenty-eight than I was at twenty-five, and each year—if not each day—my baggage gets heavier, stuffed increasingly and haphazardly with fresh anxieties, hurts, mistakes, doubts, impurities, phobias. If only one can marry a cardboard cutout! But one can’t. We can only marry people, and when we marry people, we also marry their baggage.

I don’t mean to sound horribly disenchanted; this isn’t my intention. My belief in marriage is actually firmer than ever, and my understanding of love and romance has ceased to be primitive. It has ceased to be romantic. It is governed not by some vague fantasy about meeting the One in a gondola or a dusty library, but by lesser excitements and tamer, yet more enduring, throbs. Like seeing the example of my parents, who have been together for over three decades, through thin more than through thick, through perhaps as much bad as good. Like observing the quiet, unannounced interactions of old lovers who never seem to run out of things to talk about, even after all these years. Like befriending couples who, when they have sex, are not, by arrangement, in the same building—let alone the same room!—but who manage nevertheless to be the most inseparable couples I have met. How much I have been through personally, I do not know, and would much rather not reckon anyway, but it is enough, I think, to part me from certain previous notions. I can see now that, when I was younger, I conformed to the sense one had in those years that a walk in the park with a beautiful stranger was the same as true love; that mountaintop proposals, white-suited fashions, and copious Facebook wishes comprised the fairy tale to which all marrying couples should aspire; that the loveliest unions took place in a church, to the soundtrack of a pipe organ being played by a virginal old maid; that breaking someone’s heart was the worst thing you could do to a person, just as having your heart broken was the worst fate imaginable; that the promise of fidelity was the promise to not sleep with anyone else, ever; that the joys and affections shared by two men or two women were somehow less than that shared by a man and a woman; that marriage bound instead of freed, and marked a single-occasion milestone instead of a happy responsibility that one chose daily to bear.

Why daily? Because married or not, we need reminders. Don’t tell my university friends, but I did shed a little tear at J’s wedding. It was because of the grand fireworks display that her husband had arranged as a surprise. And what a surprise it was: I mean, he lit up the sky for her—literally. The thought of it, along with the vodka, made me reach for my pink hanky. I relayed this information to mother by sending a maudlin text message, to which she replied, perfectly, “Who do you think you are? Julia Roberts?” This was my reminder; there was no need to cry.

21 December 2012


My first few nights back here in Manila I couldn’t sleep at all. I mean, forty hours—that’s how long it took to get here from Santiago. Actually, I’m still not able to sleep very well. Even if I go to bed early and slightly drunk I still wake up at one or two in the morning. The last time I slept for more than five hours was the night before we met outside the metro station and you drove me to the airport. That was over a week ago.

My strategy—the one that doesn’t involve alcohol—is to tire myself out as much as possible and be out for as long as I could, even if this means being aimlessly out and incredibly tired. This was the plan exactly when a few days ago I went downtown after work to shop for some holiday gifts. I rode a jeepney, a bus-like alternative to taxi, to get to Robinsons. On the way to the mall a young girl climbed in. 

Let me tell you about this girl. She was—what, seven? Eight? Young and feeble. She had this Dora-like mop of hair, and she was wearing an oversized yellow shirt with grey stripes. I noticed that she had a wart on her left eyelid that maybe looked like it needed surgery, and on her right arm she had another cauliflower-like growth. In her hand, she held a soft wad of red envelopes, kind of like what the Chinese use on Lunar New Year, except hers did not have Chinese characters.

She made her way through and passed the envelopes around and when she finished she backed off and stood on the single tread separating the speeding vehicle from asphalt. Clinging precariously to the chrome handrail at the back of the jeepney, she began to sing, and it lent her yellow shirt—raggedy and ill-fitting though it was—a new sunshiny splendor that I could not look away from.

The girl’s voice was soft and sounded drowsy. But it was the voice of an innocent. The thing is, she wasn’t even facing us when she sang. She was looking out and her audience was the wind, the world, the makings and manifestations of a life that perhaps has not been as kind to her as it has been to me. I have never had to sing for food, and if I did I would certainly always be starving.

And I know I already told you how much I hate Christmas songs. (Grinch may as well be my middle name, but honestly it’s all those minor seventh chords.) Well, this was the second time in as many weeks that I didn’t nervously run away from the music, that I actually listened and felt no irrational sadness or anxiety. The first was the time we spent assembling your Weihnachtsbaum in Santiago. I can’t really pinpoint what made the difference but I guess in both cases the presence of other people, of another person, reached parts of me that were not previously needed, that were perhaps unloved and unsung. 

Anyway, after her set of carols we, the passengers, gave the young girl a bit of change. She got off the jeepney somewhere between City Hall and the National Museum and jumped into another jeepney, the one I think trailing ours. That night, when I went to bed, I thought of her for a long time and wondered why it was always the most unlikely people who touched us most deeply. 

11 December 2012

Vineyard by the Sea

In a few days, I’ll be leaving Santiago and returning to Manila. This fact hit home when, late last week, I went to visit my barber one last time. Her name is Nataly. She’s in her late sixties or seventies and she’s married to the old, V-neck-sweater-wearing gentleman who runs the money changer next to her peluquería, on the ground floor of Crowne Plaza. She reminds me of Sally Fields. I say ‘barber’ but Nataly is what one may more appropriately call a ‘hairstylist’; I may be, for all I know, her only male customer. (Geographic incompetence had fortuitously led me to her instead of to some other, more traditional barbershop.) “Esta es mi última visita aquí,” I said to her, “porque tengo que volver a las Filipinas para la Navidad con mi familia.” After brushing and sweeping the hair off my shoulders, Nataly gave me a hug, as warm and soft and delicate a hug as only a meticulous silver-haired mestiza can give.

Don’t look too sad, she said. You’re going to be very happy to see your loved ones again. 

Nataly is not the only woman in Chile to whom I have said goodbye. There’s also red-haired Grandma, whose real name I still don’t know, even though she has served me lunch and offered seconds multiple times a week for the last several months in her humble Chilean—what to call it? carinderia? café? eatery?—her humble Chilean cafeteria, a block off Providencia on Monsignor Müller Street. There’s the kind Mapuche woman at the hotdog stand in Bellavista from whom I regularly order Chilean completos; she’s always smiling and she has the gentlest brown eyes in the world. There’s the marble-eyed cleaner who cleans our apartment once a week, whom I had once asked about a faulty laundromat, and whose Spanish-song-singing voice seems to float in the air, through the halls of the building I will soon stop calling home. But is it such a surprise that seeds grow where they have been scattered?

Then there’s her—Viña del Mar, about a hundred kilometers northwest of Santiago. She is so beautiful. I went to see her with my friend K from Hamburg and we drove up in a rental Chevy along Ruta 68, a winding highway that, once we reached Casablanca Valley, teasingly branched out to acres and acres of winery. (Why I waited until my second-to-the-last weekend to go for the first time, I couldn’t tell you.) The weather on that day was perfect. We rolled our windows down—eyeing and imagining verdant countrysides, Chardonnay plantations, voluminous grapevines, all the tangible joys of Chilean spring—until finally we approached the last of the hills and could smell the smell of the sea. 

First, we stopped at Valparaiso, Viña’s charming coastal neighbor, and got out of the car. There, an old, raggedy woman—bless her soul—approached us while we were sitting at an alfresco café. She was begging for alms but I did not have change. Then she asked for a cigarette, and I said I didn’t have any cigarettes left. The woman walked away, stopped at the corner of the street, looked back, and shouted to me (in accusatory English), “Your heart is very poor!” 

My heart is very poor all right. It is also very weak. This must have to do with having to leave. K, who, for work, spends months at a time in foreign cities (Santiago is as foreign to him as it is to me), wisely let me in on the dangers of attachment. “Saying goodbye is kind of like dying,” he said as we drove on. “You go back home, you think everything is the same, yet you are not the same. You are never the same.” I find indeed that with every act of farewell—however hurriedly it is performed, however disaffected and undemonstrative it is intended to appear—my heart breaks and I die a little.

The slayer is no brute. She is quite the opposite. Viña del Mar literally means “Vineyard by the Sea,” and she is also known as Chile’s “Garden City”—fondly, la ciudad jardín. Even though I only knew her for a short time—too short, in fact; an afternoon!—Viña del Mar is, for some reason I cannot explain (at least not with words), the one to whom I will have the most difficult time saying goodbye. Or could it be precisely because I only knew her for a short time, and no more than that? There is no guarantee that a hundred afternoons will be a hundred times better than one afternoon—or even as wonderful. We take what we have for what it is. And here’s what I have: an everlasting image of Viña’s greyish blue waters, her long stretches of white sand, those steady rocks that line her coast and tame the anxious tides of the Pacific. 

Before heading back to the city, K and I went to another café on the palm-lined oceanfront promenade, along which old couples ambled, children bicycled, lovers kissed. From there we could see Castillo Wulff, a granite German castle nestled magnificently on a rocky seaside cliff. It was the crowning touch to Viña’s beauty, which rallied me toward an exalted moment of restfulness and peace, while at once reminding me of the world that I had to love and leave.

And leave I did—exiting the shore, driving out of the carpark, heading toward the southeast, and dying a little once more.

09 November 2012

Bellas Artes

This afternoon in an area of Santiago called Bellas Artes I was thrilled to find a piece of home. Bouncing from bookstore to bookstore in search of English translations of Latin American novels, I spotted a Spanish translation of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado. It was buried under a stack of Allendes, Nerudas, and Fuguets. 

The name of the bookstore carrying the Syjuco is Metales Pesados (Heavy Metals). It's on Jose Miguel de La Barra, reportedly Santiago's version of Castro Street. I was cruising—cruising for books—and it thus pleased me to encounter, for the first time since coming to Chile, something veritably Filipino, something unforeign. The memory of a story I'd read and reread, reasserting itself eleven thousand miles later. There is otherwise nothing here that can be described as being from home or of home: there is not a single Filipino restaurant, a single Filipino work of art, a single Filipino anything. More than once I have wondered if I may as well be living in another planet. 

After asking the clerk the usual question of whether or not they sold novels in English (and getting the usual reply that no, he was sorry, they didn't), I made a point of showing him the Syjuco. “A novel by a Filipino,” I said (in my sorry Spanish), beaming with pride. “You and your customers ought to read it.” I placed the book on top of the stack, took a picture, and felt suddenly less transplanted than I had been these last few months. 

02 November 2012


First of all, fuck you. I hope you both lose at least one testicle someday, in the most horrible way possible. 

You're lucky I'm a foreigner, you know. An extranjero. I come from Manila, a tougher, rougher, harder city than Santiago. Just how much tougher, rougher, and harder? The location researcher for The Bourne Legacy, a film I haven't yet seen, saw it fit to shoot the bowel-loosening climax of that movie not many streets from where I live. Being Manileño, I would have engaged the two of you in an equally bowel-loosening chase scene and hounded you into the depths of Baquedano metro station. But not at all costs. After all, I was carrying my laptop. And my twenty-dollar Bench sneakers weren't fit for running. And the cars that were rolling along Costanera Norte seemed frightfully fast. (In other words, I chickened out.)

I would have at least cried for help so that a truckload of dashing carabineros could come and beat you both up. But I did not know how to say “Help!” or “My necklace!” in Spanish. It's such a shame; I really ought to try Rosetta Stone. Or hire a charming Spanish teacher—someone not from Chile, which even locals say is the worst place to learn Spanish, in the same way that perhaps the worst place to learn English in England is north of England, among the slag heaps. But whatever. Right now, the only thing I consistently remember how to say is, “Perdón, pero no entiendo bien el español.”

Speaking of pardon: you might want to ask it, too. Tsk-tsk, such a bad name you give Santiago. Instead of thinking endearingly of your city as the place where I have turned to some greasy heart attack in a bun—called as completo (“sin mayo, por favor!”)—for sustenance (thereby gaining, according to the scale, fifteen pounds in a month), I'll remember it as the site where I became for the first time in my life a victim of theft. And instead of regarding you as two of the better-looking Chilean twinks I have so far come across—don't be too flattered, I still wouldn't put you in a museum—I am now inclined to look out for your faces somewhere in Providencia, on a bridge over the Mapocho River, before one crosses Avenida Santa Maria, so that I, bolstered by the aid of carabineros, could crush said faces into looking like filleted mackerel. 

Up until this damnable incident it had been a nice quiet weekend for me. Even a nice quiet week. In fact, since coming to Santiago I have come to establish a sort of routine, and there is nothing I do outside of this routine that doesn't help keep me on an even keel. Monday to Friday, I work at Centro Movistar Innova. I start the day with non-Nescafé coffee at Baquedano (the old-fashioned diner, not the station) and when I head out to lunch, I usually end up at Grandma's on Monsignor Müller Street or the empanada store on Rodolfo Vergara. Predictably for groceries I go to the Walmart-owned Lider at the corner of Avenida Rancagua and Seminario. When I need a haircut I swing by Nataly's, which is at the commercial area on the ground floor of Crowne Plaza. On weekends I play basketball at Parque Araucano in Las Condes or do some much-needed reading at Café Literario Parque Bustamante. So genial and undemanding is this routine that portmanteaus like “Sanhattan” and “Chilecon Valley” have begun to sound cute and just right.

In fact, that fateful Saturday at the aforementioned library, I spent a happy couple of hours finishing Bad News, the second novel in Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose book series. While I am reluctant to liken Mr. St. Aubyn to Evelyn Waugh (whom I adore, by the way), it is easy to see why others have made the comparison, asserting that the former's savage writing and elegant wit are reminiscent of the latter's work. The prose is certainly delicious, and I was still savoring Mr. St. Aubyn's words when I emerged from Café Literario around seven in the evening and started to walk back towards our apartment in Bellavista.

At this time you must already have been in Plaza Italia, surveying the scene and keeping an eye out for anything that glittered. My necklace glittered. It was 24k, a gift from mother, who was smart and kind enough to let me wear a solution should I ever struggle against either emptiness of the pocket or dryness of the soul. Never mind how much it actually was: the necklace made me feel like a million dollars. It included a Mama Mary medallion that I kissed every time I felt happy or sad or on top of the world or disappearing from the world. I am not at all a religious man, but I did find that this regular act of kissing motherly gold somehow helped ease pains and intensify joys.

Friends say I was very stupid for wearing this necklace. I don't disagree. I was stupid. I was incredibly stupid for wearing it, but the thing is that I had not had problems before. (This is exactly what stupid people would say, I realize.) When you ripped the necklace off—as I was crossing the bridge over Mapocho River—the medallion fell to the ground, clinking. By then I had realized what the hell was going on. I picked the medallion up and turned around, ready to pounce, but what happened, really, was that I just stood there, limp and mute, close to crying like a wittle girl, less a Manileño than an extranjero, less an extranjero than a complete idiot. I watched you ugly little rascals escape and disappear while a random middle-aged couple slowly approached me and asked, “What was that all about?”

They were Australians on holidays. The wife was wearing nice earrings. I told them what that was all about, whereupon she nervously took off her nice earrings. Her husband reached out for her hand, and the three of us continued walking and talking until we reached Patio Bellavista, one block from my apartment. Before parting I put a word in for Backstage Experience, where they had to try the pizzas, they wouldn't be let down, or if not the pizzas then the fritto misto. Then I walked back home and kissed the medallion, and for the first time it didn't do anything; you two must have taken more than my necklace—who knows what and why and how—and run away with it, chortling.

21 October 2012

Jokes and Realities

"Money pads the edges of things," said Miss Schlegel. "God help those who have none."
"But this is something quite new!" said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable.
"New for me; sensible people have acknowledged it for years. You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It's only when we see some one near us tottering that we realise all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin."
"I call that rather cynical."
"So do I. But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticise others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others are down below the surface of the sea. The poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can. Imagine the tragedy last June, if Helen and Paul Wilcox had been poor people, and couldn't invoke railways and motor-cars to part them."
"That's more like Socialism," said Mrs. Munt suspiciously.
"Call it what you like. I call it going through life with one's hand spread open on the table. I'm tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves. I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed—from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don't want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them and do steal them sometimes, and that what's a joke up here is down there reality."

The above passage comes from Howards End, which I'm currently reading, along with Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series of novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last). I can say in hindsight that it probably was not a good idea to read these books—English in very different ways—at the same time. (I prefer the Forster.)

Bringing books by English novelists to Chile was an even worse idea. Before coming to Santiago, I could have packed a Vargas Llosa (who is Peruvian-Spanish, by the way), a Bolaño, an Alberto Fuguet, or a Pablo Simonetti. Something Latin American, you know. Something un-English, thematically speaking. But of course I had no idea back then how difficult it would be to find an English-language bookstore in Santiago. The Chilean titles tickle me, but until I learn to read well in Spanish I can't scavenge the shelves the way I do in Manila. A couple of months ago, an interesting local who wrote poetry in French and admitted to disliking Neruda had pointed me to the direction of Takk (near Los Leones metro station) and Librería Alquimia on Manquehue Sur, but being extremely geographically challenged I have not found these bookstores. It's kind of sad. It'll be even sadder once I run out of English words to read.

08 October 2012

Something True

Recently I went to Fausto with M. She's from New York. It was sometime during the week of the Dieciocho celebrations in Chile, and there wasn't much to do except to party. The Providencia office was closed; so was the library. The metro was taking passengers, but where to go? The only places that remained open were the places that served liquor. So we decided to go to one. This is on Av. Santa Maria, next to a gasoline station, just past the hospital. However, the driver of the taxi we had jumped into didn't know where exactly the club was. I don't blame him. There aren't any signs outside the door. There aren't any banners or neon lights or loudly painted walls. If you can't find Fausto in the daytime you won't find it at half past midnight, which was the time that we went, M and I. 

I don't dance much. Actually, I don't dance at all—except probably in the shower. But dance I did that day, in the spirit of Dieciocho. Dance we did. Not the traditional cueca, mind you, but disco. Forget folk stylings and handkerchiefs; this house blasted Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Pitbull, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, that sort of thing. It wasn't exactly the most edifying playlist. Other people from other places in other times would laugh. But for these head-bangers both M and I were able to draw courage from the heady goodness of terremoto ("earthquake"), indeed a drink with shattering effects. Thus courageously and shatteringly did we move from the first-floor bar to the dance floor, from the dance floor up through the decadent marble staircase to the second-floor bar, from the second-floor bar to the other dance floor, which was wider and denser and darker and bigger and louder, while hours passed in the woozy blur of laser lights, cigarette smoke, and heavy bass lines.

Somewhere in a corner you saw somebody snogging another without seeing his face or knowing his name. Somewhere at the bar you heard drunken promises being uttered only to be broken in the morning. Somewhere on the floor you felt the random brushing of expensive tweed, cashmere, and corduroy, worn solely so that a handsome stranger could be teased into stripping them all off. Somewhere in the bathroom you understood that the effects of initials (Es, Vs, Ps) were being relished, that stuff was being divided into lines. It was reminiscent of college and after-college—of days that I had squandered largely by means of hallucination. I told M that I thought so. Does this not remind you of those days? And she said that it did, without offering a different story. 

At around five we finally went downstairs. We got our coats then sat again at the first-floor bar, watching a few more people file out of Fausto while in the background Rihanna chanted, we found love in a hopeless place, we found love in a hopeless place. This was when the couple came in. A middle-aged Chilean couple, probably in their late forties or early fifties. One had a well-groomed beard, the other was clean-shaven. One wore a simple V-neck sweater, the other a simple crew neck sweater. Both wore brogues. They literally swayed their way from the concierge to the bar—swayed slowly and ever so sweetly, at their own pace, to their own tune. They were smiling and holding hands and whispering in each other's ears. At some point, they realized that M and I were watching, whereupon the clean-shaven one turned to us and waved and said, "Hola!" with such unrestrained joy that it was all I could do not to shed a tear. Then they wrapped themselves up in an embrace and I was sure that whatever it was they were saying to each other, it didn't have to be sexy, it didn't have to be smooth, it didn't have to be grand. It only had to be true. The words and rhythms of two men who were done with settling for counterfeits.

M and I left Fausto before the sun came up. We decided not to take a taxi and walked instead towards Vicuña Mackenna, by the Baquedano roundabout, where we parted and went opposite directions and headed to the places in Santiago that we call home.

24 September 2012

Septiembre Once

Last September 11, I witnessed a terrible fire break out at Mall del Centro in Santiago. It started late in the evening, around ten or eleven, when I was with a couple of friends in their apartment, enjoying a good old bottle of Malbec from Mendoza. As soon as we heard the sound of sirens, we put our glasses down and looked out the window and saw, with our view from Diagonal Cervantes near Plaza de Armas, a steady plume of black smoke above Iglesia de Santo Domingo, rising into the night.

Soon more trucks came. Yellow tape was rolled out. News vans appeared and reporters and cameramen spilled out onto the street. Smartphones and cameras sprouted one by one from the windows of surrounding apartments. The Carabineros arrived. It was a fitting scene that drew to a close what to me—a clueless, silly foreigner come ten thousand miles from Southeast Asia—had been a profoundly strange day; a day of general disorder and disorientation. Half-faltering under the smoke and haze of wine and fire and cold and dark, I walked back to my building in Barrio Bellavista just before midnight, no less ignorant of what was going on around me than if I had simply stayed at home, read the news, and watched television.

Actually, we had been asked to stay at home. This was earlier in the day. “For your safety,” said the kind staff of Urban Station at Centro Movistar Innova, who each had walked from table to table to tell us, in slightly apologetic whispers, that the office would have to close before six. Certainly for good reason: on the outskirts of Santiago, public buses were being set on fire, hooded protesters were throwing metal chains onto power lines, Molotov cocktails were being hurled at police officers, supermarkets were being looted. Here's what I was not actually told: if, on September 11, Chile seemed farther from New York than it actually was—and if the distance to my home in the Philippines seemed somehow shorter than the entire stretch of the Pacific—it was because the day here meant something completely different. It had nothing to do with World Trade Center.

Before leaving the office, I read a Philippine Daily Inquirer piece by Benjamin Pimentel, a San Francisco-based journalist who wrote an open letter to “young Filipinos who never knew martial law and dictatorship”; it was thus a letter to me. “One thing you need to remember,” he wrote, “and perhaps we need to remind ourselves about this, too, (is that) those of us who joined the uprising to get rid of Marcos...didn't face riot police and the security forces thinking that the country's problems would suddenly disappear. We joined the fight to get rid of a tyrant. And guess what—we won. And you won.” If today, in the face of the annoying inefficiencies of the state, a number of young Filipinos were wont to dismiss the effects and rewards of having won yesterday—if one should go on to believe that Marcos wasn't, after all, so bad—Mr. Pimentel simply offered, “Trust me. It was much, much worse back then.”

Curiously, the Inquirer chose to run the piece not on September 21—the date martial law was declared in the Philippines—but on September 11—Marcos' birthdate and, here in Chile, the anniversary of the day Augusto Pinochet advanced upon La Moneda Palace and staged a coup against Salvador Allende. The coincidence, if it can be called that, was not lost on me, and made it impossible to resist drawing similarities between the periods of dictatorship in the Philippines and in Chile.

Indeed, there is something worthier of note than the amusing (and amused) reactions of Chileans upon hearing that my name is Juan Miguel, born and raised in a predominantly Catholic country, that I frequent Café Adriatico in Manila for their fabulous pollo a la pobre and divine estofado (downed with local cerveza negra), and that my childhood summers consisted of taking siestas and eating empanadas for merienda. The grander discoveries, at least for me, take place much later, as we go deeper in conversation, when the cumulative effects of Escudo and Crystal and Pisco Sour and Terremotos in the bloodstream finally bear upon the Chilean consciousness, when like a diary unbound one begins to recount the Pinochet days, starting from September 11, while in the background the guitarra fades out and the night eclipses the red, white, and blue of the bandera, and it becomes apparent that the women and men of Chile bear not just similar names but also similar scars, and carry equally heavy grudges, and remember still those times of inhumanity and unfreedom by beating their breasts and vowing, never again

(“But we don't like talking about politics in Chile,” said my friend S before downing a tall glass of Absolut orange. “For me it's just not fun.” A Filipino may as well have said that, and naturally S and I soon began to talk about politics.)

If both Marcos and Pinochet had won supporters over for their roles in developing economic policies that made the Philippines and Chile (to varying degrees) flourish, a question remains: but to what price? It's a question that I believe Filipinos like me—too naive, too young to understand, too far removed from the clutches of a dictator—should continue to ask and wonder about today. Arriving at answers may be beside the point; but perhaps we ought to allow ourselves to love and guard our freedom—however small and minor—a little more ferociously, a little more passionately, a little more honestly.

Before September 11 came to an end, I looked out again, this time from my bedroom window, and searched the cityscape for Mall del Centro—a piece of Santiago ablaze. I found out the next day that the fire had nothing to do with the protests; it was caused rather by faulty wiring.

29 August 2012


I saw her last week, on my way back from Valparaiso. It was close to ten at night, and I was on the train, the Metro de Santiago (headed towards Los Dominicos), sleepy and quite tired from the two-hour bus journey and thinking already of the nice little (albeit cold) walk from Baquedano station to our Barrio Bellavista apartment along Dardignac Street. She got on from Las Rejas, along with a few others, including whom I initially thought was her boyfriend but was actually, I soon figured out, her father. (They seemed very close, you see, and in Chile I find that being very close is often expressed in public displays of affection.) He had his back to me, so that as they talked I could see only her face. Like most Chileans, she spoke too fast—demasiado rápido—her loud, unguarded words like a burst fire of Spanish, rata-ta-ta, quite impossible for me to understand.

Still I couldn't help but listen in. I couldn't help but steal a glance whenever she crackled with laughter at something her father had said. It was the laughter of the young; indeed, she could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen. She kind of reminded me of a young Mena Suvari—in both American Beauty and Loser—plucky and capricious, with her blue American sweater, her black nose piercings, her loud auburn hair, her moody mascara, her red nail polish (that more than verged on being bold), her rugged brown leather bag, and, finally, her orange rolling luggage, which, as we thundered past station after station, she handled expertly with one hand and secured between her two sneakered feet.

Instantly I began to wish that I knew where she was going, and why. Perhaps she was off to study somewhere outside the city or country, or to spend the last of winter with distant relatives in a warmer place, or to find a good job, wherever the train took her, wherever the plane flew her. This was the only thing I'd become certain of: that she was headed to the airport. I was eavesdropping on a tender goodbye. The father, in his slickly gelled hair and black leather jacket, holding her hand, hugging her, kissing her, maybe with his hushed, fatherly Español (barely audible to anyone with manners) making her promise to take good care of herself; and so before long her tears replaced her laughter. She wiped them the way the youth often do: without care, without shame, and without fear.

I have since looked out for her face in the streets of Santiago, among the groups of students who seem these days to regularly clash with the police, protesting boisterously against the Chilean public education system. She could very easily belong here, in the middle of the crowds that gather at one of Santiago's many plazas—yet she couldn't. Her unrest must be of a different kind: less like theirs and more perhaps like mine. It is in any event a useless search: how can one find if one can't see? Just a couple of days ago, while walking around Plaza de Armas, I inhaled something in the air that began to make my eyes burn and my nose runny. It was tear gas, canisters of which, along with water cannons, are used by the police to subdue the student protesters. Later in the day I was convinced that the sense of panic I'd felt upon realizing what I inhaled was, in many ways, a kind of passage. A Chilean moment, if you will—my first. Ignorant of the science of lachrymators, as well as of the bigger goings-on in Santiago, I exaggerated the dangers of exposure to tear gas and, with calamitous nerves, snuck into a half-empty shopping mall, my face covered in a scarf.

Suffice it to say that I have not come across her again; I probably never will. Yet no matter how little I see or how blindly I roam, there is at least this memory, this mentally photographed image that I have, and can look upon, and surrender myself to, invariably rousing a raw, primitive feeling deep in my gut that, when she comes back, the young girl on the train will have grown into a woman.

22 August 2012

Dear Budoy, From Santiago with Love

I'm so sorry. It happened pretty fast. When C, my boss from Chicago (for whom I had worked only through the Internet), wrote to tell me that I was joining him in Santiago for the rest of the year to participate in some sort of business accelerator program, I had less than a week to get ready. He had booked the flights himself, but actually, up until then, I had no idea that I was going. Or I had the idea that I was not going—especially after weeks of not being able to find flights that worked, that didn't require more visas, that weren't ridiculously expensive. When his E-mail came it thus took me by surprise, which I then expressed tearfully while touching your face and rubbing your chest and stroking your hair. 

I hope you will forgive me despite this shy-making business of having told you one thing and doing another. Writing this letter probably won't make our separation any less damnable, but where I am here in Santiago, Chile, approximately 11,000 miles away from Manila, Philippines, my heart longs for you. Begs for you. Pines for you. I have fallen head over heels in love with you, Budoy.

People will say you're an askal, but who cares? Not me. You're not even a year old, yet you are already dearer to me than all the other dogs our family has had in the past. It isn't simply because you are handsome, of course. But do you know that in the right light you kind of look like a Jack Russell? Or so I'm convinced: that's why I couldn't stop taking pictures of you—in the garden, under the white van, in the living room, at the bottom of the staircase.

Before you came into my life, our family had had to deal with the unexpected deaths of a couple of Shih Tzu hybrids: Martin, whom we had to put down, and, about a year before him, Mitzie, Martin's mother. You'd think we'd been devastated enough by the loss of these two, but when late last year my Aunt Josie arrived from Pangasinan with you and your sister, there was no question, at least to my mind, about taking you both on. This was at the height of the popularity of a local telenovela on ABS-CBN starring Gerald Anderson, who played the title character named—you guessed it—Budoy. (Rest assured that you are handsomer.) In typical Filipino fashion, your sister was named Buday. 

Here's something you might remember from those days: a nasty fight broke out between you and Buday sometime during your first few weeks at home. Lots of squealing and scratching and barking and biting. We tried to stop the fight, even going so far as pouring a bucket of cold water over the two of you, but you wouldn't separate until, finally, you just did. When it was over, Aunt Josie found that she'd gotten a bad gash in her right wrist, which she began to wash with water and rub with garlic. It must have been Budoy, she said. Budoy got me. In fact, it wasn't you. I saw the whole thing. It was Buday, with her sharp fangs, and her uncanny strength, and her hard claws, and her beastly (as opposed to sisterly) qualities, who had struck Aunt Josie, and made you retreat to a corner with a whimper, down and defeated, blood dripping from somewhere—one of your legs, apparently—and sending me to the kitchen to search the cabinet for the Betadine and some cotton balls. 

Anyway, this turned out to be the least of your worry-making issues. You're a sickly dog, aren't you? Bless. Last February you had that parasitic infection that caused you to lose the hair on top of your head. (It was nice to watch it since grow back.) Last April you contacted canine distemper, the same viral disease that had killed Martin but which, fortunately, the vet was able to detect early in you. After spending two nights at the clinic in a steel cage with an IV, you seemed to have gotten over the worst of it, and were even barking enthusiastically in agreement, but the morning after your first night back home, when you were heading out to pee, you had to jump over a paved step, and the foreleg that had swollen from the drip burst open. There was blood all over the floor and pathway. I rushed you again to the vet's and by the time we arrived, my arms were covered in your blood, too.

The wounds took a couple of weeks to heal. Then, after deciding that you were finally healthy enough, I scheduled a round of vaccinations (including that for distemper)—your first. You must have hated me at the time, but to clear things up, I did it because I thought it would mean that you were soon going to be less prone to getting sick, that we were both finally going to enjoy more hours of sleep at night, that I was soon going to be able to take you again for a nice, pleasant Sunday walk in the park, and put your stuff in my backpack, and buy us a bottle of water from a concession stand in Luneta, and treat you, if you behaved, to a lick of ice cream. I was wrong. Before I could even plan a trip to the park, you began to lose your hair again. This time it was caused by sarcoptic mange, a kind of mite infestation, from which you have been trying to recover these last eight to ten weeks, including the days before I left. (Thank goodness for the shampoo that at least keeps the mange under control.)

I would wish you were here, Budoy, but as I figured out very quickly you cannot be hairless in Santiago. It is winter; the temperatures go no higher than 15 degrees C; I still shiver in my usual four to five layers of clothes, and I still see vapor coming out of my mouth when I breathe out. The stray dogs on the streets of Santiago—and there are many of them—all have thick hair, or are clothed in used sweaters, and are twice as meaty as you. (I have been told that they are seen by locals as angels of a sort—guiding, guarding, watching over people.) Nevertheless, when I look at them I am reminded of you, whom I miss very much, and would like to cuddle again very soon, in early December to be exact, just before Christmas, it won't be too long, my dear, it won't be too long.

P.S.: Last weekend I went to Valparaíso, a coastal city northeast of Santiago. There I visited one of Pablo Neruda's many houses, where I found a well-preserved poetry book that had fortuitously been opened to "Ode to the Dog" (Oda al Perro):

The dog is asking me a question
and I have no answer.
He dashes through the countryside and asks me
and his eyes
are two moist question marks, two wet
inquiring flames,
but I do not answer
because I haven’t got the answer.
I have nothing to say….

The dog makes stops,
chases bees,
leaps over restless water,
listens to far-off
pees on a rock,
and presents me the tip of his snout
as if it were a gift:
it is the freshness of his love,
his message of love.
And he asks me
with both eyes:
why is it daytime? Why does night always fall?
why does spring bring
in its basket
for wandering dogs
but useless flowers,
flowers and more flowers?
This is how the dog
asks questions
and I do not reply.

Together we roam,
man and dog bound together again
by the bright green morning,
by the provocative empty solitude
in which we alone
this union of dog and dew
or poet and woods….
and the ancient friendship,
the joy
of being dog or being man
in a single beast
that pads along on
six feet,
its dew-wet tail.

29 July 2012


I am not much of a cook; in fact, the culinary achievement of which I am most obscenely proud does not happen, really, to be particularly impressive. It was Rogan josh, made not from natural ingredients but from a lone sachet of curry paste I had rescued from a random grocery aisle. This, of course, remained unbeknownst to my guests—a lovely South African couple who have since moved to Dublin—until after dinner, by which time the kind compliments and several bottles of wine had relaxed me well enough to finally confess to my cheating ways. 

I share this only because lately I have once again been pretending to know Indian stuff—all sorts of it, and not just food. First I read Bharati Mukherjee's Miss New India, with its portrait of a small-town girl drawn toward the promise of increasingly metropolitan Bangalore. This came after (but not shortly after) my having read Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. Then I watched John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which you probably already know is infinitely more English than Indian. (I did laugh out loud at Penelope Wilton giving new meaning to BLT, and at Dame Maggie Smith attempting to smuggle Branston pickles to sustain herself throughout her stay in Jaipur.) The next night, wondering if someone else's India could be as light-hearted and colorful as Mr. Madden's, I downloaded Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which I think is an okay film, expectedly eccentric, but not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be, although of course I am under no authority to speak of films, and even less qualified to speak of India. Unlike in books, I can't say I have had an introduction to any sort of homegrown talent in film (Slumdog Millionaire is only slightly less English than Marigold), but I guess what intrigued me the most about both Marigold and Darjeeling was not how authentic both films were supposed to be, but how familiar they looked, at least to me, with their tales of the comedies and sorrows of migrant Westerners in the East. This is to say that if Mr. Madden's film is about the English, and Mr. Anderson's about the Americans, then both may as well have been about the English and the Americans in the Philippines.

Even if I don't recommend either, there is a golden one-liner in each of the films. "We haven't located us yet," blurts out a character in The Darjeeling Limited; meanwhile, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ms. Wilton had the fortune of being given the line, "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." You've got to watch out for it!

Up next for me: Jerry Pinto's Em and the Big Hoom, recommended by an Indian friend whom I absolutely trust knows her stuff. I shall take notes as usual and write out what I think of the book. But first I have to find it.

16 July 2012


"The smudge pot they stood upright on the ground near the chute and Harold bent over stiffly and held a match to it. When it ignited he adjusted the flue so it gave off the heat, and its smoke rose black and smelling of kerosene into the wintry air, mixing with the cattle dust."

Kent Haruf's Plainsong is so beautiful. I love everything about how it is written: the prose is so simple, so unadorned, that I couldn't help but be taken in, even though I'd already read it previously, the first time about four or five years ago, and never remembered a thing about it, except for the part of the story about a pregnant teenage girl (Victoria Roubideaux). When I went to get my NBI clearance (a criminal record certificate) at Robinsons Otis and had to line up at six in the morning to secure my place in the queue (one has to sit on the floor, too!), my nose was in the book for three or four straight hours, making the wait very bearable.

One of the nicest things about Plainsong is that it's set in a small Colorado community, somewhere in the high plains called Holt, which means that the language used by Mr. Haruf is the language of this community's people. In 2009, Laura Miller wrote in Salon that American literature favors books about "men in boats" (over "women in houses")—Melville, anyone? Well, to me, books about men and women in a small town are just as charming, and the language just as lovely.

Take the passage above. It doesn't matter that I don't at all know a thing about what one does with cattle: as long as the farmers—here named Harold and Raymond McPheron, the old, unmarried brothers—know what they're doing with their cattle, I'm happy to read descriptions of them going about doing it. Thanks to Mr. Haruf, these happen to be rich, beautiful descriptions, too.

I'm also happy to be let in on a number of Americanisms—the kind that never annoys—which pepper the cuttings of talk in Plainsong. Here's an example: "Well, he might of went to Denver, Raymond said. Then he might of went back to the Rosebud in South Dakota. I doubt anybody knows. He's been gone a long time." "Might of went," of course, should be "might have gone," but who cares? Not me. When I read it, I heard it, too. It sounded like country music without the notes.

07 July 2012

Anthony's Entourage

Anthony still plucks his guitar the way he did in high school: brilliantly. Only, he's better now—much. He's got real fans, too. Been jamming, recording, singing. Professionally, I mean, like in fashion shows, school dances, homecomings, praise communities, and events organized by Filipino student groups in America—well, Illinois. He'd moved from Minnesota to Chicago with Voltaire, the other half of the Roxas Brothers. "Ma was like, it's all right, at least it's not suburbia," Anthony said. "But I know she got a bit sad, with the two of us going."

Anthony is an accountant by day. He told me that sometimes after the nine-to-five he goes dancing with FIA Modern. Some sort of group, I didn't catch what the acronym stood for, but F probably means "Filipino". I can picture him now in something like a Wade Robson dance practice: a studio, mirrored walls, bubblegum sounds from an iPod dock, snappy movement, young urban hip hop attire ("threads"), baseball cap worn crisply at an angle, such that the golden authenticity sticker, left unpeeled under the brim, flashes whenever the head cocks like this and like that. 

I was more interested in Anthony's music—how he got gigs, for example. "Word of mouth," he told me, although Word of Web is what he probably meant. I've seen some of the stuff on his YouTube channel—two-hundred-thousand-plus views, six-hundred-something subscribers. In reply to the Label Type question, he wrote, "Unsigned"; his influences included God, Jesus Christ, Mama Mary, all the saints, and John Mayer.

I still remember Anthony at a more hazardous age: when we were in high school together, before he went to America. He went by Dennis then, because Dennis Von Anthony sounded a bit too grand. His hair was curly, but not like mine, which was shy-makingly curly, and the shoes he wore weren't made of black leather. They looked like it, though, and the teachers never noticed. The soles were, in fact, made of rubber, giving its wearer the slightest athletic advantage whenever slight athletic advantages could be taken. He wasn't as bad as I was at billiards, and he liked cafeteria dumplings. After class we walked to either McDonald's on Retiro Street—to gawk at girls from nearby Saint Theresa’s College (well, I might have merely pretended to gawk)—or our house, about eight to ten blocks away from the Lourdes School campus in Quezon City. Anthony, myself, Dann, Triggy, and Miko. That was our entourage right there.

A typical Lourdesian entourage, too, which means that we made fun of each other all the time, always boisterously. Lose your temper, take the name-calling and the game-playing too seriously, and you'd make a complete fool of yourself. Yet on a deeper, somewhat more implicit level, we also envied each other. Each one was laughed at and envied: me (pre-tonsillectomy) for singing the national anthem and the school hymn every morning; Dann for shooting off his mouth with details of his first sexual encounter ("she bled, man, and we brushed our teeth every hour"); Triggy for playfully dismissing the magnetic effects of his charm, which attracted boys in school who wanted to do his music class homework in exchange for who knew what; Miko for owning, in the era of Linkin Park's global domination, a Dance Dance Revolution pad (a pink-and-blue disco controller thing which lit up like neon litmus) for our regular Playstation afternoons; and Anthony, with his acoustic stylings and hoarse, pubescent countertenor, for unwittingly imposing pop into our brotherhood. He used to mispronounce words, particularly those containing the letter 's'. He couldn't properly say "fist" or "gas", so instead we heard "fished" and "gash". But when he sang the impediment inexplicably went away, so that 'N Sync's "Selfish" was never about clams and oysters. 

As a prophylactic, we kept to ourselves, unassumingly ambling along school corridors with a kind of conforming hush. Part of conforming meant playing basketball, which we did, and our given class numbers became our default jersey numbers; we liked to think we were all vital cogs in our intramural teams. Of course, none of the other guys at school ever suspected that we represented a boy band, and that we all wanted to be Justin Timberlake, even though no one really fit the bill. Girls just loved Justin back then, but can you imagine? It would have been disastrous for us. We might as well have hidden in a corner to eat our mommy-packed lunches. It would have been even more disastrous had we been the Backstreet Boys, because the Backstreet Boys sort of overdid it with those silly astronaut costumes and chest-baring wet shirts. We had these classmates—a come-hither group of five zingingly perfumed boys with cosmetic cases and glittery peacock fans—who were basically known as the Spice Girls; Posh, Scary, Baby, Sporty, and Ginger, each one of them a peach. Everyone knew who was who. The Spice Girls kept to themselves, too, but almost never by choice. But at least they knew themselves far better than we did—than I did—at the time. They were so much surer.

I saw Anthony when he came back to the Philippines for a two-week visit, at least nine or ten years since he first left. He brought chocolates and Gummi Worms at the informal reunion at another old classmate's house, somewhere in Santa Mesa Heights. Sweets: as if we were all still classmates. Not everyone was in attendance, though. Dann was reportedly working somewhere in Malaysia, and Miko was reportedly working somewhere in Paris. Triggy showed up, if only for Texas hold 'em. We sat al fresco in plastic chairs at a plastic table, amidst beers, brandy, cigarettes, poker chips. "I don't think I can take any more alcohol," Anthony said later that night. We weren't surprised. Every time a familiar face showed up and walked in through the front gate, he or she was offered a shot, two shots, three shots of Emperador. Like in the old days, there were consequences for refusal: not only did you remain inhibited; you also instantly became peculiar. I thus must have been swimming in drink when we did the slip-me-some-skin handshake, said our goodbyes, and drove away—none of us, I bet, more concerned about what we'd become than about how we used to be. 

16 June 2012


(I wrote this in April 2010, as another writing exercise. I thought I could use one after a fire completely destroyed the ancestral home—affectionately named the "Big House"—in Quezon City, sending our family into a sort of traumatic shock. Since then we've built another house on the same land and brought grandmother, who is ninety-five, to her “new” home in Manila.)

The last time Lola Auring was in Manila, she wrote things on the walls of the Big House. Wrote with a Mongol Number Two. This here is Josie’s, this is Jose’s, this is Violeta’s, this is Edith’s. Her four children didn’t seem to mind the penciled instructions—only, she could have gone about assigning minor spaces and inheritances in a less pointed manner. We, her children’s children, laughed at the idea. Like the bathroom would go anywhere! As though decades-old spiral staircases were assets! As though we’d leave Manila for Cagayan to take up agriculture and feed the carabaos, a suggestion which she had made more than once, I suppose to secure our future. 

But that is how she has always been: fixed in her ways and whims. Mother and Aunt Josie had the apartments at the back, but Lola had the land, all of it, which she divided, multiplied, expanded, and extended howsoever she pleased. She bought it in the early sixties, so who were we—not technically renters, but tenants still—to not forgive her for such eccentricities? Old age made her feeble, but it was just characteristic of her to keep reconfiguring, though more slowly, more deliberately as the years went by, the chairs and the tables, the plants in the garden and at the balcony, the picture frames and very old portraits, the dinner trays and the candlesticks, the icons that shook precariously whenever someone’s waist did so much as catch the edge of her lace-covered altar table.

It was also characteristic of her, when she went deaf at the age of ninety-two, to have acquired the skill of hearing the songs of angels, and to transcribe these into a form that it was hoped we all could read. She breakfasted at the round table downstairs, and whenever mother or Aunt Josie went to sit with her she talked of what she had heard the previous night, the Hallelujahs and the Emmanuels. Must she be so repetitive? At that age it seemed she must, because the young never listened. We were equally stubborn, really.

What can we do, Lola, what can we do for you, was the question that drove us in efforts to bring forth peace and tenderness in grandmother’s days—to make her feel loved. Can we help you move that chair, can we get you a slice of mango, can we get you a glass of Coke and some Cream-O, it really is scorching hot, and it’s nearly time for merienda anyway? It turned out that she hadn’t stopped doing what she could for us, never mind that she did it in ways that were solely her own.

A year before the fire, during what was her final stay at the Big House, I once came up to her bedroom and heard her struggling with a nasty cough. She was seated on the bed—her white grandmotherly hair undone, loose, and honest, her reading glasses off, her thin spotted shoulders bare and oily-looking—and she was spitting into an empty Selecta ice cream bucket, the one she used for watering the plants at the balcony. I made a move to try and clean up the mess but she wouldn’t have any of it. Instead she pulled me aside, opened a drawer from the study table, and reached for a manila envelope that contained sheets of music, the edges torn and yellowing.

Practice these, Lola said, practice like your grandfathers did so that the angels and the rest of heaven can hear you play. Never mind if you remember none of your piano lessons! Of all things, that was what she would have me do: the dignity of habit, the joy of song, a joy that seemed to fill her heart to bursting.

Two weeks later grandmother took a plane flight to Cagayan to spend the second half of the year in her hometown. I doubt if the thought had occurred to her that it was the last time she’d ever see the Big House. After all, she’d built the place and, with her weary hand, marked it. Erasing the charcoal was never for us to decide. 

11 June 2012

We're Wrong

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes the same for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

Philip Roth has been recommended to me by a few friends. They are very good friends, and some of them love reading books as much as I do, so it made sense for me to take their recommendation and go out and get a copy of American Pastoral, from which the above passage is taken. It's a book, though, that I have not finished, and likely will never finish, because no matter how hard I try I just cannot bring myself to read any more of it. This doesn't mean the novel is bad. It just means the novel isn't for me. And that I must really have bad taste. (I felt exactly the same way reading The Finkler Question, which happened to win the Man Booker Prize two years ago.) Like what the above paragraph says, people get other people wrong. Even people with the best of intentions. Those who thought I would like Roth were wrong about me, in the same way that I was wrong thinking that I would like the same things and books that they did. But it's okay. 

"I hope you don't give up on reading American writing," I just wrote to another friend who had recently expressed his intention to do just that. (Naturally, he was not one of those who had recommended Roth.) Little did I know that I would soon be giving up on an American writer—well, an American novel—leaving me with the sense, as usual, of not having known what I was in for.

With that said, I am rereading The Corrections, which is turning out to be so much funnier than when I read it (and loved it) for the first time. The difference a few years can make!

23 May 2012

The Stranger's Child

She'd been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn't easy; she was thinking all the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he'd come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.

The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel, is a pretty long book. (Close to 600 pages.) My copy is a present given by my older brother, Francis, who took the trouble of finding the Waterstones nearest his hotel in Belfast, where he'd gone for a couple of weeks. From his room he had a view of the headquarters of an entirely different H & W: Harland and Wolff, that is, or the company that built Titanic. I was going to ask for a Tóibín, and I was going to demand that it be autographed, with a dedication, that Francis fly south and find out where this favorite writer must be living, and perhaps, on my behalf, remind Tóibín about an E-mail correspondence that had been struck three or four years ago, but of course this was all a dumb fantasy. I was simply jealous of his trip: when was anyone ever going to send me to Belfast? But Francis has a kind heart. He does not care who the finer writer is; he is only after bringing something nice back to a younger brother, and making me giddy with delight, which is exactly what he did, since The Stranger's Child, as demonstrated by its absolutely beautiful first paragraph, is as elegant a novel as any. 

10 May 2012

Writer's Block

I have a good friend in New York whom I once asked about writer's block. Why does it happen? Does it happen to you? What can be done about it? I received a thoughtful response, which you'll find below. I hope his advice is as useful to you, if you are writing something, or are planning on writing something, as it was to me. Though I can't say that I'm any closer to being the kind of scribbler that I wanted to be when I asked the question, it is possible that I have since become a much better reader.


Dear Migs,

Thanks for asking about writer's block.

I happen not to believe in writer's block, for what it's worth. And it's not worth much. I have bad days, when the words don't seem to come and even my thoughts are sluggish. But these are extremely rare. I always have a number of things to write about, and usually there's one thing that is a lot more congenial than the others. I write a great deal, in sheer word count. And I have arrived at a philosophy, I suppose you might say; I have a few basic ideas, a few notions against which I shape everything that I write. Although I've always written, I started making sense only about eleven or twelve years ago—until then, I was dreaming. Not that dreaming is bad. But my dreams were science fiction without the science. They were not about people.

I am a very late bloomer, which is probably the last thing that you want to hear. But I really do counsel patience. I'm sure that your blockages are attributable to unavoidable ignorance. Now, forgive me for calling you ignorant, but as it happens everyone your age is; it is, as I say, unavoidable. There is so much to know in today's world, so many connections to understand, that, as I've heard more than one person say, 35 is the new 21. What you have to understand is that if the world continues on its present course (scientifically speaking), you're going to live to a great old age. Don't be in a hurry to acquire the trappings of maturity. Let them develop naturally.

What you can do is read. Read and read carefully. Start a commonplace book, in which you write out sentences and passages that really strike you as important. You'll look back on it later and have absolutely no idea what it was about this or that that meant something to you, but copying out passages strengthens the mind. Carry the book with you. Try to memorize poetry—Shakespeare's sonnets will never let you down. In the end, you will have a happy old age if you read a lot now—always understanding that you think about what you read. There are books that you ought to make a point of re-reading. I can't tell you what they are, but I can tell you that I've read Jane Austen's Emma seven times, and that it is always a different book. Donna Tartt's The Secret History is a more recent book (much) that I've re-read and will probably re-read again soon. Write about what you read—that's something that you can do.... Or start another blog just for your reading notes. But be sure to read, read, read.

That's why I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that "writer's block" is something that happens to people who have stopped reading. Or they have stopped reading widely; they're just about obsessing one or two authors and suffocating on imitation. As you grow older, there's one deep danger: you know better and better what you like. To some extent, you have to follow this knowledge, but to submit to established taste is to die, which is why so few middle-aged people have active minds. Now, when you're young, and the field is wide open, you ought to read everything that comes to hand. When you're older, you won't believe what a luxury it was to have, when you were young, plenty of time for reading.

Real writers are turned on by what they read. Not by everything that they read, but by a lot of it. Reading creates an itch, the itch to write in response. The itch to answer. People who don't read but who want to write—and they're unfortunately numerous—are the most pathetic people on earth, in my view. My good friend B doesn't get enough time to read, owing to the demands of his life. He would be a happier writer if he could read more. But already it is very late: he is sixty. How to catch up on the reading that he ought to have done as a young man? Well, in the end there is no catching up, there is just making the best of what you can do, and B is doing extremely well with that. But it would be easier if he had read the way you do when he was your age.

The one other thing that I would counsel is this: don't try to be original, not yet. Don't be afraid of imitation—but make sure that your imitations are very good imitations, that you understand what you're imitating from the inside out. This is how all great artists learn their craft, and, to a lesser extent, it's how writers get to be good. (The difference is that, unlike artists, writers deal in a medium that's universally understood, at least as speech.) Don't try to show off, but make sure that when you do show anything, it's well done. Take pains. Look things up when you're not quite one hundred percent sure.

And now I shall close this tedious outpouring. Immodest man that I am, I hope that you will read it several times. Just remember this: writers can't help writing. If you can go for a year without writing anything important to you, then writing is not your métier. I'm pretty sure that this is not the case with you, Migs, but always remain open, now at least while you're young, that writing is not for you. Believe me: it will make you a better writer if writing is what you're meant to do.

Here finisheth the lesson (a bit of old church English).


25 April 2012


I can time Kester, the boy is so regular. His Nintento Game Boy and an odd assortment of school things in his hands, he comes in the house, unafraid of the dogs, to pretend to listen to my mother, his tutor, as she teaches him the basics. Algebra, verbs and nouns and predicates, the Blessed Sacraments, the priest as an instrument of Jesus Christ in confession, that sort of thing. Kester has big, sad eyes, and cute beads of sweat under his nose, where soft hairs will soon grow, in five, six, seven years, once puberty sets on.

But where was he last week? Nowhere to be seen. Yet he didn't go anywhere. It was the haphazardness, or the bad health, of our own household that won Kester temporary freedom. My father had shingles. My sister Lourdes had chicken pox. My younger brother Josemaria had a sort of attack Sunday inside the church, then discovered at the checkup that he had an abnormally slow heartbeat. At about the same time, all coincidentally, of course, the miraculous ministry of Father Fernando Suarez, a sort of healing priest, arrived in Manila. His pre-Lent carnivale drew mother, grandmother, early-rising aunties, and over a thousand others to a healing mass at the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Mandaluyong City. It was later reported in the papers that the profundity of the religious experience was marred by fainting people and profiteering.

Once upon a time I was Kester’s age. I played and prayed. I attended novenas and joined processions, and rubbed my chest with blessed oils. I looked up at a helicopter in the Manila sky, flying over Luneta Park. Pope John Paul II was here now, said the people beside us on the grass, pulling themselves up. This was World Youth Day. Mother herself seemed about to burst; what a way for the pope, after all, to arrive. We couldn't really see without binoculars, but I, too, in the intensity of the moment, was prepared to weep for joy. The helicopter landed behind the park's Quirino Grandstand and from it emerged the caricatured ears of President Ramos.

Once upon a time I had a tutor, too—a kind of after-school governess. Her name was Miss Lyn, Miss Lyn with the fair and naturally powdery skin. I used to dread her arrival, because it meant having to face the piano. It was so embarrassing, because even then I had sweaty palms, and had to wipe the wet dirt that they made off the keys. Did you practice any since our last session? she would ask, in the same manner that mother asks Kester questions: with gathered eyebrows and a tone pregnant with disapproval, that just knew that the answer they were looking for was not the answer they were going to get. Well, you can't expect us now to move past the opening until after summer. “Für Elise” was so hard, especially for a beginner, but I knew that to have rebelled and sought refuge in my first-generation Game Boy was out of the question. Besides, Super Mario never interested me, and Miss Lyn would have frowned if it did. 

Lucky Kester. He finally showed up today and was, as usual, absorbed in the kaleidoscopic blocks of his Nintendo world. Big eyes, sweat under the nose, and—what's this?—no black Ash Wednesday cross on his forehead. I wanted to find out if he'd washed it off. But I didn't ask. Instead I pinched his ears because that means we are friends, and he can watch YouTube videos on my laptop once he finishes his homework.

09 April 2012


I cannot describe it, the kind of pictures you take. I can't put it into words. Well, writers are always going to have problems putting anything into words, but a couple of weeks ago, when I looked through an album you'd put up on Facebook, with pictures from your recent trip to Hong Kong, I went through a rather severe case of it. I thought I'd lost all ability to write! If we were talking of speech, I wouldn't be stammering, but mute. A troubling malady of wordlessness indeed, sucking out the vocabulary and leaving only the word "like", whatever that means on Facebook.

Of course, you must be aware that, in the first place, I know nothing about photography—other than that it's probably nice and awfully cool to be able to make a living out of it. Two: that's how many photographers I've dated. (Or two and a half, but that's a long story.) It occurred to none of them that it would be flattering, wouldn't it, at least to me, if they took my picture, just one shot, an artsy little shot with a subtle bokeh effect. Not that I ever asked, no (although I may have pathetically struck a pensive pose once or twice); I was terrified that I would cause a particular temperament to come to the surface, complaining about bad light, pleading lack of appropriate lens, muttering a carefully worded reminder that one didn't work for free, that the labor of love was expensive labor. So I learned little from them about the art of taking pictures—certainly not more than I did, than we did, about the pain of breaking hearts.

Having said that, I hope it means something when I say that your pictures make me feel something I cannot describe. It happened again with the Hong Kong album, though I've never been to that part of the world myself. It began with the picture of a red taxi in Yau Ma Tei, banners proclaiming "Drug Drug" and "Exclusiv Fashions" (without the second e) in the background. Then an exterior shot of Chungking Mansions, from across the other side of the road. Then, after a series of pictures of your friends walking to the ferry, in Harbour City, I think it was, a stunning early evening cityscape, between sea and sky. This was followed by a bunch of gorgeous pictures of Jenyne Butterfly performing in some big pole dance event, but the feeling I'm talking to you about—a description of which, because it's so unattainable, has been substituted by this letter (and if here you'll indulge me)—the feeling was keenest when I looked at an almost empty street in Wang Chai District, the neon signage of Neptune II Pub and Disco staining the concrete with red light; at a snatched glimpse of two young Chinese men on a bench (you captioned the picture with "Beautiful Boys"), looking quite intensely at each other, the plaid-shirted one holding his friend's nape; at a shadowed little staircase in Lan Kwai Fong, with a string of red and white lanterns hanging from a street lamp (my favorite from the set); at the lady in a crisp blazer sitting at a round table in the dim, old-fashioned bar (I saw barrels), accidentally lighting her face up with her cell phone screen; at a ray of morning or afternoon light spotting the heads of two women in black who were walking along heavily peopled Causeway Bay; at the blurry close-up of a couple eating at an upholstered booth inside the restaurant where scenes from In the Mood for Love were shot; at a rich grayscale image of many tourists on Kowloon City Ferry Pier, their long extended shadows heaped across the floor as though to match the verticality of palm trees and banner stands; and at an elderly man pedaling his bike along an unknown street, a three-tiered lunch box dangling from his right hand.

It's kind of strange, actually. When we met in the university eleven years ago—can you believe it? (neither can I)—I had no idea that I would not know another photographer, no matter how many I have since met, whose work moved me in the same way that yours does now. No kidding. Your pictures have a certain quality, I don't know what it is, they're all very beautiful, of course, but there is something else, an enigmatic quality, that stirs within me sadness, anxiety, yearning—all at once. It puts me in this really funky and vulnerable sort of mood; my palms sweat, my pulse quickens, as though I've been unhinged by a minor-key song. I cannot for the life of me tell you why or how, and even if I can and did, you might very well dismiss this as nothing more than the sentimental opinion of a friend trying to be a fan. But there's no denying the ability of your pictures to sweep me away in a torrent of feeling, demanding me to look upon them and see, invariably, an image of everything I have ever loved, and everything I have ever longed for.  

I just thought that you should know—and know, that is, through something other than a Facebook Like notification. But if one word, one click of a button, was all I had in the world, take it anyway to mean something nice and sincere, even if it did come from someone who knows nothing about photography.