Reading, Fast and Slow (or the Top 6 books I’ve read in 2015)

(Apologies to Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, the inspiration for the title of this blog entry. The same book is also mentioned below.) 

Some books grab you by the balls and never let go unless you’re finished with them (or, for that matter, finished with you). Other books are far less dramatic, allowing you to dip into several pages on occasion, while in between meals, naps, or commutes. 

This, more or less, illustrates my life as a reader in 2015. Continue reading

Modesta Abella, 99

Nanay is dead.
When her time was up, when she breathed her last, when she ended the business of living and began the business of leaving, she was 99, just two months short of celebrating her 100th birthday, an event that I was looking forward to this year.
What does it mean now that she’s gone?
My uncles—middle-aged, eyebagged, all heavy in the belly, with a faint air of money about them—have kept commentary to a minimum, just like criminals during interrogation after being caught in the act.
One preferred to delve into other topics—the misuse of water resources in the Bataan Peninsula, the fortress built in the middle of nowhere by a Pampanga-based gambling lord—but eventually returning to why Nanay was unable to reach the 100th year milestone.
Another uncle, who turns small talk into a courtroom proceeding, is evasive when his childhood comes up.
Both appear to be afraid of losing it in public since they may bawl like little kids when recounting memories of a mother they all loved dearly.
Which is all perfectly understandable.
Nanay was gentle yet strong, choosing to grieve quietly when her husband died of several complications 16 years ago, and much later, when her eldest child (who happens to be my mother) checked out before her.
Without much fanfare, she was also able to accept that her husband had a child with another woman when he and his girlfriend were much younger.
Nanay had lots of practice in the pain and suffering department.
After all, she endured World War II; stories of her adventures have been lost to time and forgetfulness.
Nanay also ran for mayor of Samal, Bataan twice, perhaps making her the very first woman mayoral candidate of the town, if not the province. She lost both times but no one—at least not me—has heard her express bitterness. (Also deceased, my paternal grandmother was by no means ordinary. Besides raising six kids alone—her husband died of a heart attack at 38 with the youngest still a few months old—she was also reportedly the first female driver in Bataan. When she was in her sixties, she helped faciliate the transport of heavy equipment to Iloilo to assist her youngest son, who, at that time, was in the construction business. All these achievements certainly trump what I have done with my life so far: typing at home in boxer shorts.)
Nanay spoiled my brother and I whenever we stayed at the house in Samal for summer vacation.
Disobeying my mother’s explicit instructions, she offered me coffee for breakfast—and sometimes even during merienda—which she herself prepared just for me (supposedly the favorite grandson having gotten first dibs to be doted on. An older grandchild was born abroad whom they would only see ten years later.)
One night, when I was about eight, I snuggled in bed with Nanay and Tatay, asking her to scratch my back which was peppered with bungang araw.
The last time I saw her, she was unable to recognize the grandson that she sang to sleep that same late summer evening more than three decades ago.
Her mental faculties slowly began to deteriorate right around the time my mother died, struggling—although successfully—to remain lucid whenever the occasion demanded it.
A few months before she passed away, Nanay was seen stretching her two hands out while in bed, apparently reaching for something no one among us knew about. One night, she got out of bed, trying to look for a baby who was crying. (There was none.)
On the evening of April 19, a few minutes after bedtime, she took her leave in what would be a peaceful, graceful death; the death of, among others, the best mayor Samal never had.
Goodbye, Nanay.

Morbid, Merry Memories of Marilao

Marilao exit sign along the North Luzon Expressway taken from an inactive ad. (la3rt/sulit.com.ph)

My memories of Marilao, Bulacan — a municipality an hour or so away from Manila — are not exactly pleasant.

It was where two uncles were figured in a freak car accident that seriously injured one and later killed the other (which would eventually turn out to be one of two deaths I would get to witness firsthand).

Everytime I got the chance to pass by the town’s territory along the North Luzon Expressway, I always think about my uncle’s useless, tragic death brought about by negligence, carelessness, and apathy.

Which explains why as a place, Marilao  for all its attractions — whatever they might be — never ranked among the list of places I wanted to visit.

In February 1991, two uncles on the way to Manila was involved in an accident along a portion of the North Luzon highway that was within the town’s territory.

While cruising at regular speed during an early evening trip, their vehicle smashed into a flatbed truck that wasn’t supposed to be there.

Why?

The truck was cutting across the highway.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: From out of nowhere, the truck cut across the highway, navigating through an intersection that existed only in the driver’s imagination.

How was this possible?

Cyclone fences within the vicinity of both the expressway’s northbound and southbound lanes were torn down, allowing vehicles — such as the truck in question — to make a convenient, if very dangerous, shortcut.

This was the same shortcut that the truck driver decided to take.

And before he knew it, a white, two-door Toyota liftback rammed into the truck’s left side.

The truck driver was unhurt, the car was totaled, and both of my uncles were rushed to the hospital.

My uncle who was driving had his right leg and a few ribs broken, took more than three months to recover, and nearly a year before he regained confidence sitting behind the wheel.

My other uncle who rode shotgun died later that night, the first of two deaths that I would witness rsthand.

Moments before he passed away, I saw his nearly-naked body on a steel gurney, covered by a sky-blue hospital gown.

His whole torso was moving in erratic spurts, as if dancing to a morbid rhythm,  the final stages of a sudden, painful transition from life to death.

Minutes after, the attending physician tapped me on the shoulder, informing me of time of his death.

I then walked out the ward, searching for the nearest pay phone to call home to announce the bad news.

Weeks later, a settlement with the truck’s owner was reached and a proposal to sue the municipal government for negligence was no longer pursued.

But my impressions of Marilao changed last March.

A co-worker who lived in the municipality invited me to attend his second child’s birthday party.

Commuting to his place was easy, he said.

And I was only too glad to find out he was right.

It will take anyone a little bit more than an hour  including traffic delays  to get to Marilao, Bulacan from Manila, he said.

And that’s during regular days.

On off hours, travel time may be reduced by a third or even by half, depending on road and weather conditions, my friend added.

In the meantime, the availability of all sorts of buses, jeepneys, and specially-deputized vehicles (i.e., marked vans with set routes) headed for Marilao make it easy for commuters to shuttle between the city and the suburb.

Upon arriving at the party venue, I enjoyed the free food and the free beer and became a member of a cheerful, fun-loving group that made me realize that I had friends inside and outside the office.

Thanks, Jon P. Until next year.
———————
From the Fine Print Dept. This piece was supposed to be uploaded in March but was ignored for reasons I now can’t recall.

Mother

(Below is a slightly edited version of a piece that I wrote when my mother, Aida A. Basilio, died just a few days before Christmas five years ago. I just find it fitting to upload and post this essay, which was also published in the Manila Times at around the same period, especially since many of us will be remembering our dead, grateful or otherwise, during the next few days.)

Any piece of gossip regarding anyone’s relatives will always have more entertainment value than the most popular television show.

Whether it’s an unwanted pregnancy, an unpaid debt, or a quadruple heart bypass, the life and times of our dearly beloved blood relations will always prove more interesting than the season ender of CSI: Las Vegas or the latest American Idol.

And this is where reunions can be useful.

Perhaps the only activity which allows relatives to share meals and then criticize each other behind their backs, reunions enable interested parties to either con?rm a piece of information or further in?ame speculation.

Unfortunately, as someone who checks unveri?ed reports, I failed to get the latest buzz regarding my siblings when I recently got the chance.

After all, I was quietly mourning my mother’s recent death.

Her funeral, as it happened, became an extended family reunion of sorts.

Had she been around, she would have been the ?rst to remind everyone that rumor-mongering, a staple of certain sensational newspapers, betrayed an utter lack of breeding.

My mother, if anything, was never one to trade in gossip, always dismissive of news, con?rmed or otherwise, which put any entity in a bad light.

Thus, she was only too dismayed when she realized that her ?rstborn chose to join the media industry, which traf?cked daily in gossip and its manifold con?gurations.

Fortunately, her regret was short-lived.

While Mama intervened in virtually every decision made by members of her family, she nevertheless respected individual choice.

Which explains why I was ?nally allowed to make a living as a deadline-beating keyboard tapper, rather than a pianist or a priest.

Thanks to my mother, I also have been able to get over stage fright early in life, since she was always inclined to show off skills and talents her son never had.

When I was twelve, I sang Panis Angelicus with an aunt, a soprano, in church. Fortunately, the performance was held during Lent, convincing the faithful of a sleepy Bataan town that enduring my rendition was just one of their many acts of penance. (My aunt did well however.)

December of that same year saw me in front of the same audience again, this time, failing to give justice to a  Christmas song in Latin the title of which escapes me at the moment.

Similarly, my mother also taught me to be conscious of cleanliness early in life, a lesson which I sometimes forget in my early thirties.

Besides reminding me that the presence of oil and dirt on my face led to the formation of blackheads, she also introduced me to the virtue and value of home-service facial treatments. [See: In Your Face]

While there still is a substantial amount of blackheads on  my nose, I am nevertheless ?nicky about keeping my ?ngernails clean, a habit brought about by my mothers almost religious preoccupation with her children’s personal grooming.

For this and many more, including the appreciation for fine Filipino food, I remain thankful to my mother.

But I was too late to show my gratitude.

By the time I arrived last week at a provincial hospital where she was con?ned, she was unable to recognize me in the same way that I failed to recognize her.

Kept alive only by a respirator, her small, frail ?gure was a travesty of the proud and con?dent mother I knew so well.

Mama passed away exactly nine days before Christmas.

Even in death, she was able to teach me one painful lesson: it always pays to show your appreciation for a loved one, even at the risk of embarrassment.

After all, sometimes, it may be too late. [See: Mother: The Podcast]

Life after death: A book review of The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

Yes, there is life after death.
But it doesn’t involve cryogenics or Christianity.
It’s the obituary: The written tribute that is born immediately after someone — usually famous and otherwise — departs for parts unknown.
Putting it together is not easy.
Besides requiring meticulous research, it also involves managing morbid expectations especially since those considered terminal cases have a bad habit of bouncing back to the pink of health.
That’s not all.
Preparing an obituary more often than not involves disturbing the bereaved, who may find it unpleasant to discover that the deceased left the maid pregnant.
But then again, these complications have failed to prevent Marilyn Johnson — who has written tributes for Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, and others — from writing a book about the whole subject.
“Obituaries have a pull, a natural gravity, for those of us who’ve observed that life has a way of ending,” she says in the book’s introduction. “But however morbidly we arrived at this page, we’ve ended up sticking around, hanging out, admiring the writing, getting hooked on the daily rush.”
Published in 2006, The Dead Beat just about covers the length and breadth of obituary writing in newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Although newspapers in both countries generally employ an obituary writer and an editor, the similarities end there.
Americans are more inclined towards solemnity, preferring to treasure “folksy,” romanticized impressions, even though the deceased while alive was a notorious neighborhood drunkard who asked everyone for some change.
The British, to their credit, are less forgiving, employing euphemisms — if at all — to “aim for some higher truth,” Johnson quotes an editor as saying.
As a result, the book cites an obituary for outrageous British comedian Malcolm Hardee, which was published in the Telegraph.

“He did an impression of Charles de Gaulle, his penis playing the part of the General’s nose. He was also celebrated for a bizarre juggling act performed in the dark and with nothing visible apart from his genitals, daubed with flourescent paint. Fans would greet his arrival on stage with cries of “Get yer knob out.” He was said to be huge in Germany and Sweden.”

But whether British or American, risque or respectful, obituarists, just like anyone else, are prone to quick judgment.
Which explains why Andrew McKie of the Daily Telegraph ran an essay-length correction entitled “The Day I Managed to Kill Off Tex Ritter’s Wife.”

“I apologise unreservedly to our readers for having misled them. More importantly, I apologise to Mrs. Ritter. I am genuinely delighted she is still with us — I came to like her a lot while preparing her obituary for the page.”

Despite these oversights and various other complications surrounding the composition of an obituary, scores of people remain obsessed with them as indicated by frenetic online activity in various usenet groups that Johnson cites in the book.
This prompts her to say that “[i]t’s the best time ever to read obituaries, and I’m here to tell you, it’s a great time to die,” she says.
Amen to that.

My funny Facebook friend

To Alecks Pabico, who wouldn’t mind my jokes

Next to feigning sickness and alien abduction, the death of a family member or a friend is one of the better excuses to avoid going to the office.
This was exactly the reason why I was able to skip work for two days, however short and temporary.
I told my supervisors that a friend died and I was in quiet mourning (i.e., comforting my similarly-bereaved friends while drinking vodka at the wake on the sly).
In doing so, I accidentally stumbled upon one of life’s most well-kept secrets: to avoid work, have someone you know die.
But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
And in the case of Alecks Pabico, the very first Philippine Collegian editor I served, I would rather be a bundy clock boy and HR’s BFF than have him beat deadlines somewhere else.

Alecks Pabico's Facebook picture

Alecks, who calls himself Rastamad, shown during daughter Kaya's seventh birthday

Alecks was so loved that hours after he died on Wednesday last week, funeral arrangements were already being prepared by an ad hoc committee composed of his friends — an ADB consultant, a UP law professor, a litigator, and myself, a drunkard.
Although I fail to remember having to volunteer for such a responsibility, I took to the mission with much aplomb since it involved free alcoholic drinks upon its successful completion.
Moreover, it was my only way of paying tribute to Alecks, one of the gentlest, funniest people I have known (and I say that as someone who excoriates the living, the dead, and other half-dead entities whose only contributions to this planet are hot air and carbon emissions).
My task at Aleck’s wake, while easy, was both a curse and a privilege.
It helped me get in touch with other friends I haven’t seen in decades but it also emphasized that the instant reunion was brought about by Alecks’ demise — an eventuality that he was prepared to face even before he knew his time was up.
About a week before he died, he delivered a speech during a benefit concert held in his honor.
Alecks pretended to stumble on the stage, much to the horror of the audience. He then chuckled, poking fun at the audience’s worst fears.
During his remarks — which I missed by an hour — he also made light of his condition, just about the same attitude he exuded the last time he and I made contact.
Sadly, it was only through Facebook (though we did see each other in August when Collegian alumni held a separate dinner in his honor).
Two weeks before the benefit concert, he uploaded an image of the concert ticket and wrote a status message that said: “Look at what friends from UP Samasa are plotting, but with my consent, of course. To those whom I count as friends, hope you support the effort. Thanks!”
I was the first to reply and did so in jest. “What about your enemies? What will they do? :),” I said.
Alecks was nonplussed.
“Hmmmm, how about asking yourself that question? :-P”
Hours later, in the same status thread, he gave me a gentle reminder, something which I will never forget.
““Enemies” invoke a lot of negative energy. Dwelling on the negative only serves to defeat the event’s very purpose, which is to send positive, healing vibrations.”
So I said: “OK, smart Alecks. I’ll send you good vibes. :)”
Apparently, my online gesture wasn’t enough.
Goodbye, my friend.
Too bad we weren’t able to see each other one final time.
In any case, I’ll always remember you, Alecks — inside and outside Facebook.
Just promise to go easy on updating your status messages.

———————
Contributions for the family of Alecks Pabico are still accepted at http://onelove.chipin.com. All funds will be allotted for his family, wife Mira, daughters Marlee and Kaya, and son Giles.