Saturday, December 27, 2008

Heroes and Saints

Father Andres Soler regarded the crowd with a firm but fatherly gaze, the cold dawn breeze blew and stirred the parishioners, those deeply in prayer and the ones already deep in sleep on their seats like Tomas, gray-haired and chubby now, but whom the priest can still clearly recognize from a fair distance in the middle of the throng. (At least his wife and kids are wide awake). He spoke to the people about the journey of three gift-bearing magi's, and how that journey ended in a shack under the starlight. He spoke of heroes and saints, which according to the advisory from the diocese must be the theme of today's homily.

These are difficult times, he admonished the flock, but the heroes and saints among us make it all worthwhile just to be alive. Afterall, this is not the first time it happened in the history of mankind, but an episode that keeps repeating itself like a bright light in a vicious cycle, heroes and saints providing the saving grace from the time of Christ to the rise and redemption of the everyday man right here, right now while we all live.

Again, he assured them it's going to be alright. Gas prices are starting to mellow after going on a crazed vicious romp. At the Vatican, the Pope had shown once again his very human side by making yet another controversial almost ridiculous quip against the gays, the pan de sal had grown a little bigger because of dropping flour prices, and Manny Pacquiao had beaten Oscar de la Hoya in what could be the greatest triumph of the filipino people to date so what more can we ask for? He chided himself for the near-blasphemy, mentioning the Lord Jesus, the papal paus fax, and Many Pacquiao all in the same message of holiness, but he looked at the faces of Tom and Lyn and their three kids, and with that the priest himself believed what he just said that yes indeed everything will be alright. Then he delivered the punchline.

"We are all heroes and saints at some point in our lives but those of you who are already asleep on their seats right now... I hope that at least in your dreams you will find yourselves as heroes and saints... Let us pray..."

It was the 70s once again and the bell tolled for the Christian faithful on that very cold dawn, while Andy Soler sat on the courtyard's wooden fence, his best friend Tom by his side. They were both fidgeting and perspiring heavily, inspite the biting cold. The previous dawns, the two teenage classmates, both 15, would gorge on bibingka, cochinta and puto bumbong, gulp down huge servings of salabat (ginger juice) from a hot tin mug, and practically feast to death, which is the real purpose of their giving up hours of pleasant sleep for nine straight days just to be at the traditional misa de gallo as an after-thought. But that is not the case today.

"Are you sure she's coming?" Andy inquired nervously.
"Jesus Christ, Andy, you've been asking that question a million times, besides, we're more than an hour ahead, so we just wait now. Stop biting your finger nails, chrissake".
"I can't help it man, remember, you said you'll be sending me part of your allowance each week, don't ever forget that Tomas..."
"I knew it, the allowance again, damn it Andy, how many times do I have to swear?"
"Just so you don't forget, Tom, we're running away with nothing, and if Lyn's parents should catch me, I'll be skinned alive and burned at the stakes, so do as you say you will, Tom. Don't you ever forget that, or I'm dead."
"I will steal from my parents for you Andy, if that will make you feel fine but please, let's have a bite, I'm starving".
"Damn it, Tomas, I told you I need every cent I have, how did I ever come to believe you, my goodness, I knew you're hopeless, so that's it, damn you Tomas, I'm dead meat."

And so he was, or indeed Andy came close to dead meat. A resounding slap on the cheek nearly decapitated the boy, as he toppled from the fence, a ringing in his ears obliterated the choir's chorus of Silent Night emanating from the church, and he saw stars, not the colorful lanterns hanging everywhere or those up in the heavens but stars that deliver a shocking pain. When finally he regained his senses, Andy found himself being dragged by his father to the bus station, to catch the first flight to Manila where an uncle, a new school and a new life came to abruptly accept him, tolerating, and finally repairing his damaged life during the next five years after which, as a gesture of defiance and contrition, he entered priesthood.

But on that very cold lonely dawn, at the churchyard within minutes after Andy and his father had left, Lyn came, yes she did Andy, Tom would later say in his letter to his best friend. That letter spoke from the heart and resonated with pure insufferable guilt, the kind that would haunt and begrudge a man until it became reciprocated with the alms of compassion.

"She had nowhere to go Andy, I just saw you get bludgeoned by your own father at the plaza right before my eyes and I cannot stand the same scene happening again with Lynn on the receiving end. You know how ruthless her father can be when he's enraged. He might even kill her. I took her with me, Andy, I took her. I was ready to claim the baby for my own. Yours and Lyn's baby Andy. I just have to do it. Lyn and her baby deserve better. Pease Andy, I hope you forgive us. We love you Andy and you know that. I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."

It took all of his Christian faith and all of twenty years before Andy could give to Tom the absolute compassion that he craved, which Andy's father unfortunately never lived long enough to receive from his son, one of the greatest regrets Andy knows he will bring to his grave. When at last he was sure his heart was completely cleansed of hatred and indignation, Andy took the first step to reclaiming his life from its silent sins. He returned home to Dumaguete to administer to Tom and Lyn, the holy sacrament of matrimony, and more importantly, to belatedly kneel before his father's tomb to ask for forgiveness and assure the dead man's soul in return that this prodigal son had forgiven him...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Manny Pacquiao

About ten years ago, I would be roused from sleep on a late Wednesday night at the incessant prodding of my father. It was fight night on teevee and he couldn't wait to watch his favorite boxing show. My old man needed company whenever he's up for the late night fights but on that particular occasion, he was more adamant, almost desperate that I watch the show, literally dragging me from bed. The reason for his eagerness was a 16 year old kid who had started to make waves in the sport. I had caught a few of his fights and what I saw was pretty impressive but I wouldn't even in my most generous day, call the kid world class.

He was awkward and freakishly built like a lollipop with the oversized head on a stick for body. The kid was starving and it was pretty obvious. Like most fighters here in the Philippines, They come from poor background, mostly unfed, neglected runaways who stray into some gym and found a way to unload their angst and bitternes at the world. Just my opinion. I have never ever been big on boxing anyway, or at least not the way my father had been all his life. The idea of two men bashing each other's head was not at all entertaining to me.

Fast forward to the present, my father is gone and I am sitting here a nervous wreck on the eve of the country's biggest fight to date. I say the country's biggest fight because when Manny Pacman Pacquiao faces Oscar de la Hoya at almost exactly the same time in Las Vegas tomorrow, it is not one man making a bid for personal glory. I know this has been said many times before but I can't help saying it again. Everytime the Pacman fights, the entire nation of 85-million filipinos prepare to go to war with him, sharing the pain from every punch that catches Manny, his heartaches, and the inevitable blood that would be spilled since Manny's fights are consistently brutal and violent, may as well be the blood and heartaches of his every countryman.

Boxing, and sports for that matter was never a big deal for me. Born unathletic and ungainly, I couldn't even win the simplest street game in the neighborhood as a kid. The other children would consistently kick my butt at play, whether the game involves some running or jumping, and some muscle power needs to be had which I suspect, I don't have. I even suspect I was born without reflexes and balance, a suspicion reinforced by my tripping on the stage at sixth grade while accepting my grade school diploma. Yet on this particular day and at this particular stage of my life, I have become converted to sports, at least as a fanatical observer in the most unlikely game of boxing and all because my heart goes out to Manny Pacquiao. He made me a believer.

Unlike the ordinary sport fan, I wouldn't say my deep affection for Manny is borne out of my understanding and appreciation of the sport of boxing. Without him, boxing wouldn't mean much to me. He was bigger than the sport itself, and larger than life. To me Manny Pacquiao represents the last ray of hope in so bleak a moment in the history of our nation, when all hope it seems is gone. With his rise to stardom, and the success he continues to reap, we realize after a long while that we are capable of fulfilling the dreams we set to accomplish for ourselves. For the first time in years, a filipino competes with the best in the world, and he is not looked down as an underdog but a force to reckon with, an equal of any other man, if not the superior one.

The good thing about it is despite his lack of education, he just finished sixth grade, Manny is a paragon of decency and character. For the first time in years, we see a great boxer who does not thrive on bad publicity, or scandalous behavior, he does not even cuss or badmouth even the most hated, the most hateful opponent, but treats the other man with respect due him. The last time I checked on the web, he had reportedly given Mike Tyson free tickets to his fight, the report insinuating the former heavyweight champion who had fallen in bad times couldn't afford to pay his way to the fight. It was just the natural thing for Manny to do that.

Best of all, he fights for his people. Manny has assumed a very daunting responsibility in dedicating his every effort to the people instead of downplaying the significance of the fight's outcome to a personal matter between him and his opponent. The stakes are already insurmountable the way it is, and Manny took it to an even higher plane by getting the entire nation involved. We share his grief and his victory and even his wealth to some extent The long queue of thousands of poor people lining up outside his house to receive dole outs at his every homecoming will attest to the generosity of the boy who once had nothing to eat and no one to ask for help. I wish my father is alive today to see how far his favorite boxer has come.

So here I am, trying to write something sensible notwithstanding the nervouness clouding my mind, derailing all my faculties for sensible thought. I will cheer hard and pray harder for Manny tomorrow. My heart will be broken if he should lose. It's my fight too.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"I am Legend"

I rushed to the restroom and locked myself up in a cubicle, fighting to keep myself together as the enormity of the decision I just made began to sink in. The door opened and the footsteps of two men echoed on the cramp tiled room.

"I couldn't believe anyone could have done that. The guy was an absolute disgrace, I mean, how could anyone throw it all away".

"I've been with HR for years and this is the first time it happened and hopefully it would also be the last, maybe we should change our recruitment policies to screen out those lunatics".

"Ha-ha-ha... People will be talking about this for a long time."

Their laughter filled the room for a while, and then silence as the footsteps headed for the door, which gave out an audible creaking sound as they went out. I waited a few minutes before stepping out of the cubicle pushing myself into a brisk walk. I couldn't wait to leave.

Two weeks of grueling apprenticeship had ended at this afternoon's citator examination, a hands-on, job-simulated process of analyzing data retrieved from the web through a series of coded entries the apprentices were methodically thought to memorize and put into application during the training period consisting of daily lectures, quizzes and oral recitations.

During the first few days of the apprenticeship, my lack of training in computers and complete unfamiliarity with a class-room environment, it's been years and I couldn't quite recall anymore how it was to sit in class, were a revelation that quickly overwhelmed my initial excitement at having finally landed a second job, rather, the opportunity to land a second job.

There were moments I would completely lapse into an absolute state of ignorance, an alien in a strange planet, while everyone around me were on the same page thinking in the same wavelength, the language they speak a mystery I couldn't quite comprehend. By the end of the week, and following a series of failed quizzes one after another, and equally disastrous oral recitations, I have fallen deep down the bottom rung of the pecking order.

Finally, this afternoon, during the finals, the last straw.

The multi-colored computer screen seemed to mockingly stare at me, while I held the two-page questionnaire, unable to even start. Two weeks of preparation proved to have amounted to nothing as I agonized over each and every question but not finding any sense out of the whole exercise not even the slightest idea what is asked, much less, what is the answer. The computer wouldn't oblige to my command, I couldn't even leave the first page. I went brain dead and it was hopeless.

At some other times, it would be ridiculous, this experience that I am going through except that this all-important opportunity was supposed to make a huge and lasting impact on how I could financially cope with life in the next few years, and how I can feed my family, so it is completely difficult to find the humor on my latest monumental failure.

After one full hour of futility, I've had enough. I handed back the questionnaire to the stunned trainors in the same blank immaculate condition that it was when I received it. "I'm so sorry, I can't go through this".

From the rest room, I went straight to the lobby guards downstairs to claim my ID and sign out. They fell in a hush as soon as I arrived but as I turned my back to leave, one of them whispered to the others "He's the one".

I am legend...