Easter ever after

Last Sunday, my family went to a windswept swathe of space that served as the lawn--acres of it--of the Kansas governor's mansion. We were there along with droves of children and their guardians for the annual Easter egg hunt. Yes, here in the so-called Sunflower State, Easter came a week earlier ahead of the commemoration of Christ's crucifixion.

What a breezy change, I thought.

From the navel of the "Cradle of Christianity" in Asia, I grew up browbeaten with the stifling sense of the Gothic in the heat of Lent. A time when the altars of churches are draped in purple cloth, and you're expected to wear your Catholic faith like a blood-soaked piece of bandage.

Forgive me, father, but I always had this sneaking suspicion that we were way too self-indulgent circling around our guilt trip over our Redeemer's death. As if we had to feel sorry for having been saved, to begin with! It's like everything God has given us--our senses and its need to be sated--were no less misbegotten than tumors that have to be lopped off with the scalpels of self-abstinence.

Somehow I chaff at the disquiet of being a derelict of my Catholic duty, and I wonder if this is what God wanted me to feel.

Good thing there's always the open-hearted exuberance of an Easter Sunday to validate my innocent belief in a Christ no less alive for truants like me. Whatever faith persists in me, I owe it from an instinctive idea that grace is ineffably larger than dogma-dictated rituals. You and me, sinners all, have long been saved. And it's enough to honor him by being pleased of that knowledge, even if we will lapse as always back to the whole nine yards of our shortcomings.

Through the bone-crunching weight of Holy Week, I prefer and take comfort of the image of Christ smiling despite all the sorrow, our sinfulness, our burden of being human, our never-ending need for our own private paradise. (Something I tried to deal with
here in my latest column in the op-ed page of Sun.Star Cebu.)

Happy Easter to all us, now and forever!


High five, hands down

It's no contest, period. No problem if the presentor for Best Director and Best Picture in tonight's ceremony at the Oscar Awards would sleepwalk to the podium and go ho-hum.
What's surprising would be someone out there not puppy-eyed after watching Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, impervious to its enchantment.

Almost too tricky to be true, how its style and sensibility throw caution to the wind (the potential of falling in the muddy face of cliche, like innocence and goodness overcoming the odds as true love prevails, tra la la). How it nimbly leaps and swoops through its sprawling narrative (dovetailing its hyperkenetic chase sequence in the slums as the film kicks off) and dances around the dusty land mine of a dreary and ordinary tale (a doggone boy in desperate search for his girl en route to a happy ending). Marvel at the smoke-and-mirror structure of its storytelling (memory on a quick burn out of the questions in a game show, and destiny as no more than a matter of multiple choice for two brothers blazing on parallel but forking paths to redemption). How Boyle hoists a torch of a toilet rag called reality in a Third World country through a ripple of silk curtains whipped up by his camera's abracadabra. Such a storm, indeed, of visual (and aural) combustion.

That you come out tripping the cinematic light fantastic after the credits roll to the rhythm of a Bollywood no-holds-barred choreography is no accident. Just the way joy and all that jazz settle down, with spirits rising.

Indeed, to describe this pyrotechnic piece of filmmaking would entail no less than a fire-eater's feat of gurgling petrol-laced syrup and spewing out bubbles of flames. Enough said. Or, if this unrestrained awe is not enough, click here to read my opinion column in Sun.Star Cebu as my head brims with the tune of Jai Ho straight from this video remix below:


Bite this book

It happens that a book might as well bark at you; its dog ears one too many of its prize-winning pages.

"God Laughs and Plays" is the first book I have finished reading so far this year. And there's no stopping me from unleashing again an urge to pore and mull over such watered-down notions on faith and finding joy, how these are suffused with the wildness of its rage and the grace of its wisdom, easing you into an introspection so chockful with a grin and chuckle every now and then.

God bless writers like David James Duncan. He with a maverick's sulphur in the stomach, a Zen master's zoom into sunlit sense of things, and a stand-up comedian's sass. All the world may be a stage for buffoons and charlatans, but Duncan affirms it's also a garden of wonder, a shore of fathomless possibilities, a temple in a playground along a river where fly-fishers can romp around like children.

"Duncan is a scandal both to the institutional church and to secular snobs; a truly dangerous man," a reviewer defines Duncan. Blame it on his writing, "a mind-bending trip through spiritual thought over the ages, with plenty of stops by the wayside of the troubled, politicized present." After all, this book as subtitled is a subversive trove of "Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalists Right."

Forgive me if my tongue is wagging like a tail regarding another reviewer's unabashed description of Duncan and his book: "He has been a denizen of the wilderness for forty years and has returned with liberating parables and allegories that are majestic, rib-tickling, and timeless. He has brought water to the desert of self-righteous 'Christianity' and in so doing, restores our faith in faith itself. Read it once and you will laugh. Read it twice and you will play again with God as you did when you were a child..."

And here's the publisher's postscript: "It is the vision of an activist sage. A sage ecologist. An ecological mystic." Now you see why I'm drooling rabidly.


Star student, proud parents

My eldest son Gabriel Ollivan, who turns six today, recently made it a strain for me and his Wawa to get ourselves immune from immodesty. You see, Avondale West Elementary School recently posted his photo on the wall beside the gym door along with those of other students who got a star certificate for academic excellence. Golli, as he is fondly called, is one of the two star students in Avondale's two kindergarten classes.

Caught me by suprise, really, because I thought all the while that he is a rough chip off the old reckless block. You see, it's been a frequent complaint by her teacher that Golli often has a hard time listening and keeping his mouth shut. Mine is a rolypoly kid, I know. Someone who would rather frisk around as most kids would prefer rather than study. Another thing: he complains a lot when asked to read. So imagine how pleased as punched we were when he showed us his star-fringed certificate.

It's the second time Golli surprised us since he started kindergarten. Last December, he told us that their school will present an annual Christmas play. All of my classmates are in it, or so he mentioned in passing. No big deal. We thought he would be no more than pipsqueak in the background, considering how he merely made us hear a line he had to say to someone else in the play. So we just shrugged the whole thing off, until we saw him onstage so breezy with those long lines he had to deliver! How did he manage to memorize those? Turned out his part (as Papa Snow) was one of the play's main character.

Enough tooting of parental trumpet. Which, as every father and mother would know, is as easy as stifling a post-prandial burp.

Meanwhile, keep up the good work, anak! At least all my panic overdrive while whipping up your lazybone to a frenzy every morning in preparation for school has been not for naught.


Good morning, Mr. President!

This is the day! All the world wakes up with America embracing a new era. God bless Barack Obama as he rolls up his sleeve along with the rest of the nation and its dreamers and believers of the possibilities of hope and change in this time of challenges.

Click here to read my recent opinion column in Sun.Star Cebu in celebration of this unprecedented moment of the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America. For the complete text of Obama's inaugural speech, click here.


Monterey in my mind

Four days into the new year, and off I went up in the air. There I was, peering down the plane's window over the desert of Arizona en route to California to join a multi-cultural gathering of writers, editors, linguists, translators, and professors in the scenic peninsula and city of Monterey.

So there I went spanning the bridge, so to speak, between the fact of loitering after each day's seminar session through Cannery Row, Monterey's most historic spot celebrated by John Steinbeck in his eponymous novel--and the fiction of lives he rendered more vivid into immortality. Where nothing now stays of the "stink and a grating noise" from the fishing industry that Steinbeck scribbled for posterity, the air continues to stir true to the opening line of the novel: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem... a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Amen, I say short of humming.

For someone who owes his lifelong faith to the power of literature in no small measure from Steinbeck's body of works (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, Grapes of Wrath and, yes, Cannery Row, among others), all that I could exhale was nothing less than the inebriated air of exhilaration.

It was also a blast reuniting with a long-missed friend and former colleague in Cebu, Cathy V., with whom I had an exquisite dinner at the Sardine Factory. That Hollywood celebrities gorge themselves here when they are in Monterey is not hard to swallow, pun intented, with its world-class cuisine and ambiance (such a lazy word, I know, for something that takes your breath away). Clint Eastwood shot one of his films here once, or so the book about the Sardine Factory reveals. That Cathy and I had the luxury of having our fill in this adjective-choked restaurant renders only one fact a tad fantastic: How can such fabulous service and delectable menu and ambiance (there goes that word again, waxing ever so pretentious) be so affordable? But, I swear, to slurp is to believe.

Four days drifted like opium smoke: The post-prandial chatter about language and its distances and disguises, the cross-pollination of cultures and its greenhouse of complexities and possibilities and, yes, small talk and side-splitting asides over wine or beer. No wonder, on my flight from Monterey back to my family in Kansas, the cumulus of memory still hovered over my head even as I sneaked a bird's eye view over the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and the Hollywood marker on a distant hill. Always near, these: what the heart opts to hear above its beat. The squeal of a thrill, as if from a shared secret, with Steinbeck's bust. The roar of the shore-scraping surf against the rocks where seagulls gathered to roost. The silence from a fragment of a time-crusted shell that I picked up and promised to keep so it would echo bits of what endures of Monterey inside me.


Holidays and the warmth of home

Let there be more love, joy, good health, safety,wonder, humor, imagination, fortitude, and faith for our family here in Kansas and Cebu for 2009 and beyond. And, yes, peace on Earth in spite of Grinch's grin.


We remember. We celebrate. We believe.

"Except the Christ be born again tonight
In dreams of all men, saints and sons of shame,
The world will never see his kingdom bright."
~ Vachel Lindsay

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."
~ Dr. Seuss

Malipayong Pasko ug Bulahang Bag-ong Tuig natong tanan!


Blowing the blues away

If the footloose Grim Reaper had a favorite song to send him pirouetting on a carpet of petals nipped in the bud, it could be Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."

It's supposed to be an ode to the bliss of being alive, its lyrics utterly incandescent to our ears. We could have hummed along like we were swelling up until we could burp the rainbow into rising above us. But, alas, its evocation of paradise never fails to impress me as something fitting for a funeral procession.

It could be the cocktail of rust and champagne in Armstrong's voice, as if he were tasting the ache of bearing witness to all things sweet and light, so sharp it could whittle his heart to its breaking point.

Happiness, after all, happens like refrains in a dirge. Pretty much like background accompaniment only to our front acts and its regular repertoire of these little deaths: our anxieties, our disappointments, the jiggle of our jaundiced eyeballs to the sonic boom of our sighs.

In this season that confronts us with a compulsion to be merry--the topic of my recent column at the op-ed page of Sun.Star Cebu--it is unavoidable for the vultures of worries to spread its wings over our heads. In the face of crisis--global, local, and personal--the pursuit of happiness does loom no less than an obstacle course up the paths of Sisyphus.

What does it take to be cheerful? It's the crux of the cinematic genius of Mike Leigh in his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, whose chuckle-prone protagonist comes in sunlit contrast to the stripped-to-the-bone depiction of lives exiled into their inner darkness in Naked (so fully embodied by David Thewlis in a bruising performance worthy of the Best Actor prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival).

Worth scrutinizing, indeed, how Leigh mines the dynamics of joy without drilling and driving headlong down the borders of escapism. So far, as in most of Leigh's works, those who have seen it are up on their toes in applause. (Click here to read the chorus of rave reviews.)

No less phenomenal is Sally Hawkins whose portrayal has been rewarded with a Best Actress trophy at this year's Berlin Film Festival. She's been coasting along with a wave of wow as critics' circles from New York, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Boston cast ripples all the way to the forthcoming Golden Globe and the Oscar awards.

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy," exclaims Marcel Proust, "they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." Here's a bouquet, too, for Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins. See the trailer below:


In the line of faith

It's one of those things that are inherently pleasant and yet pisses you off in a manner that makes you a tad guilty for feeling that way. Chain letters sent via e-mail, that's it.

You want to ignore it sometimes just because it obliges you to take your cue from the one who deemed you worthy as one of its recipients. Or responsible enough to push it forward so that it may come full circle. A waste of time, you think. And yet you feel kind of diminished somehow for copping out, as if you're fit to be tied for cutting the chain and its promise of sweetness and light.

From my inbox, here's this piece of pure brightness that might yet send thunderbolt down my path if I would just delete it straight to the trash. What it says is just the way I wish to fill the gap between silence and skepticism in this dark and maddening time. So here I share this prayer:

Dear Lord, I thank You for this day, I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I'm blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me.. Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you.

I ask now for Your forgiveness. Please keep me safe from all danger and harm. Help me to start this Day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each and every day to clear my mind so that I can hear from You. Please broaden my mind that I can accept all things. Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over. And give the best response when I'm pushed beyond my limits.

I know that when I can't pray, You listen to my heart. Continue to use me to do Your will. Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing to others. Keep me strong that I may help the weak... Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others. I pray for those that are lost and can't find their way. I pray for those that are misjudged and misunderstood. I pray for those who don't know You intimately. I pray for those that don't believe.

But I thank you that I believe that God changes people and God changes things. I pray for all my sisters and brothers. For each and every family member in their households. I pray for peace, love and joy in their homes that they are out of debt and all their needs are met. I pray that every eye that reads this knows there is no problem, circumstance, or situation greater than God. Every battle is in Your hands for You to fight



We came (short of a shudder of orgasm), we saw, he conquered. A champ is a champ is a champ. Nuff said.

But more than the whiz-bang wonder of Manny Pacquiao overcoming the odds like a true-blue warrior throughout the rounds, what struck me most was not the upfront stance of one-upmanship while the limelight zoomed in his moment of triumph.

A transcendent instant of self-effacement, a graceful gesture of unbelief masking his gratitude. The wow of it occured when the crowd's roar crested, and all he did was turn his back from the camera's larger-than-life glimpse of his genius as a pugilist. See how he scurried to the ring's corner, pressing his face at the post as if to sob his heart out while crunching himself into a prayerful crouch. Or so my column raved in the op-ed page of Sun.Star Cebu.

To you, fighter extra-ordinary, a high five for humility.


Beyond a Manny-splendoured thing

Just a sleep away, as they say. Isang tulog na lang, the Dream Match in Las Vegas where Manny Pacquiao is out to render a fellowship of the ring out of the whole archipelago. Tomorrow, we'll have our eyeballs in our throats again.

We'll hunker down in front of the telecast, and up on a toehold of hope as the weight of our collective expectation bears down on him. As if his failure would be our doom. As if his victory (let alone his millions and his legendary popularity) would be our deliverance, personally or as a Filipino nation.

For a while there, as if by magic, our mundane lives would hang by the string of his gloves as he'd do the rounds that run circles around our little corners. In our inner arenas, yes. Where we face, battered and without fanfare, our daily fights. Where we'd get lucky enough if we could roll along with the punches and at the end of the day wish for another morning when we could wink, even out of a black eye, at a fistful of possibilities.

Such faith, or grace, would suffice to knock our rundown of failures off its feet.


No sand and fog at the White House

W hen the cauldron of the Democratic Party nomination boiled down to a face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it was like choosing between coffee and beer for a post-prandial downtime at the porch. I can take both, you see, like it were broth.

Although I leaned more toward Hillary at the start of the campaign, Barack had been stirring my cowlicks with the fresh air of his conviction and the force of his character. Both, I believed as I do now, will make the White House live up to its color after the stain and smoke of the Bush administration.

It was a thrill to see them squaring off then. It is phenomenal to see them coming full circle now, and proving they can be "a team of rivals" steeped in the art of sporty statesmanship for a common concern larger than themselves--to overcome the odds in this awful yet awesome time in America.

Here's a toast, therefore, to President-elect Obama for tapping Clinton into the top echelon of his administration, appointing her today as his Secretary of State. In choosing Clinton, among other liuetenants in his Cabinet, Obama proves his governance will be set upon a rock amid raging waters.

"I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," he said. "I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House."

Spoken, indeed, like a stalwart out to bowl us over with his "pragmatic use of power" and "a sense of purpose about America's role as a leader in the world." Salud!


Who's the sexiest of 'em all?

What turns us on often doesn't take a lot of imagination. It just sucks our eyes off its sockets and hits us, wham bam, at gut level just a breath away from our zippers.

Easy to see, therefore, why the choice of E! entertainment television as "the world's sexiest woman" is someone who can wear seduction on her belly button.

Karolina Kurkova, a Czech lingerie model, takes the lead with Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli in the second spot in the list that includes celebrities who take us at hello with the hell-bound bottomline of physical appeal: Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, Penelope Cruz, Shakira, among others.

Which makes me wonder how E! bigwigs come up with the ranking. I mean, how they spot the difference among those women is beyond me. Looks like there's just a skin-tight line of the lingerie and the pout of their lips that set them apart. No brainer if it would be easier for
a sultan, supposing these ladies were in his harem, to have a heart attack than decide who's the most alluring of 'em all.

Well, the likes of Karolina may wrap us all and our winky-kinky thoughts around their fingers. But, in my book, there's no crossing out the cliche about that sex organ under a woman's hair. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if brain alliterates with beauty.

By that standard, no woman in the world stands taller in my eyes than Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies.

From India, which has also spawned such egghead goddesses as Lara Dutta and Aishwarya Rai, Lahiri has been my all-time crush since I got gob-smacked by the sultry poise of her prose, no less bewitching than her photo in the inside flap of Interpreter of Maladies.

Just look at her in this photo accompanying her profile for Men's Vogue magazine. See, she doesn't have to melt us with a come-hither gaze. All the Karolinas and the Angelinas of the world will kill for that Lahiri look so fiery with intelligence and mystery.

Too good to be true, Lahiri also glows with self-assured aura along with her down-to-earth humility so evident in this video of her being interviewed about her work. Beauty without vanity. Something only in the realms of the imaginary, you'd agree.


They're talking about my mother

If I had an epic imagination, an ode to motherhood would have been easier to render. The scope of nitty-gritty about what it takes to be tender. The utter sense of selflessness that love at its strongest is made of. Sweet, but hardly a piece of cake.

As my Mama Violeta turns 62 today, all I can do to honor her and everything that she has done for me is to become a worthy parent to her grandchildren. Apart from wishing her the best of health, safety, and peace of mind, let me echo the following words I hold true:

"Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing." (Toni Morrison, Beloved)

"Women's Liberation is just a lot of foolishness. It's the men who are discriminated against. They can't bear children. And no one's likely to do anything about that. " (Golda Meir)

"The real religion of the world comes from women much more than from men-- from mothers most of all, who carry the key of our souls in their bosoms." (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

"God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers." (Jewish Proverb)

"My mother is a poem I'll never be able to write, though everything I write is a poem to my mother." (Sharon Doubiago)

"A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest."(Irish Proverb)

Happy Birthday, Ma. :) God bless my beer for you!