Tuesday, September 27, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Jasmine
You were the first person I knew on the job. You will also be the first one I will forget.

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Monday, September 26, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Charlene
Seeing as you take delight in other people's misery, you should have a particularly happy day if you think of me just once.

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Saturday, September 24, 2005 A.D.
Bleargh Survey: Hard Sell Serving Suggestions
You should remember them. They prominently figured in ad campaigns of yore, products that, in a way, did make an impact on our cultural memory (although why they did in the first place boggles the mind). It seemed that we were offered these food preparations by marketing mad scientists and we took delight in them, largely because we kept seeing them on television. After all, anything good enough to be broadcast couldn't possibly be wrong, could it really?

Star Rice - The name itself needs no introduction. It also needs no explanations except for those who don't like to take things as they are. Literally, Star Rice is the resulting mixture that you get by adding a few spoonfuls of Star Margarine to warm rice. Non-literally, it can mean anything from a particularly inspiring grain of radiant rice to whatever it is that they feed to talent search winners for them to reach that extra octave. It can also mean a dog's benign tumor if you're really poetic. You can concern yourself with radiant rice, singing contests or suspicious canine lumps, but for this entry, we will only deal with the concoction that we get by mixing Star Margarine with warm rice. Incidentally, you can try using cold rice, although your final product will end up as a lumpy group of unpalatable rice clusters smeared with pasty yellow clumps.

In general, 'margarine' refers to all butter-substitutes, whether they are derived from animal or vegetable fat (the latter being more popular these days). It was discovered by the French during the 1800s as a more portable and less costly substitute for butter. Like most food invented by the French though, it hardly proved edible. This was because back then, margarine was extracted from beef fat and was colored white due to the absence of artificial coloring. Conventional dairy farms naturally championed butter and looked down on margarine, which they considered bootleg butter. Various legal tactics were employed in keeping this bootleg food product off store shelves. Since then however, pure creamery butter became something of a rare luxury when the popularity of margarine spread (cheap pun not intended), with butter-margarine mixtures becoming more common of late, even though they couldn't be marketed as 'butter' in most countries. The popularity of all things bootlegged spread, generally speaking, and it shouldn't be surprising should someone eventually come up with a margarine substitute to be sold in tiangges by whispering but hardly secretive mustached vendors.

Star Margarine has been around in the Philippines since the 1930s, before refrigerators became commonplace, and until now, this popular table spread requires no refrigeration. The Department of Health seal of approval was added to the label in the early 90s, after it was fortified with Vitamin A (Star was still owned by Procter & Gamble then). Most Filipinos were Vitamin A deficient, as a study conducted then showed, and Star Margarine was a good choice for Vitamin A fortification because its consumers mostly belonged to the lower-income classes. It was, after all, a cheap and easily available product that didn't need to be kept in a refrigerator. This DOH endorsement encouraged many other companies to fortify their products with Vitamin A as well, ironically raising the potential for toxic Vitamin A overdoses.

Derived from hydrogenated palm oil, Star Margarine assumes a pasty, semi-solid state at room temperature and has a deep almost-orange shade of yellow. While I suspect that the shady color is mostly artificial, the added Vitamin A no doubt contributes to the overall hue. The actual margarine spreads easily on most surfaces, but despite how tempting it may seem at times, it is simply not advisable for people to spread it just anywhere. Please note that it's only meant as a substitute for butter, even though one can think of 1001 uses for Star Margarine, from the practical and the industrial to the downright deviant. To add, Star Margarine also comes in tubs of varying volumes, and as far as I can remember, the tub has always been colored canary yellow. Regardless of size however, Star Margarine tubs are always handy to keep around as containers except for furred or feathered little creatures.

As much as Star Margarine is rich in Vitamin A, it is also rich in trans-fats. Trans-fats result from the hydrogenation process, which solidifies vegetable oil into the familiar spreadable paste. Trans-fats are just like saturated fats in that they raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Margarine however, unlike butter, does not contain cholesterol, and the San Miguel Corporation makes it a point to put 'no cholesterol' on the Star Margarine label, never mind that trans-fats are actually more threatening than dietary cholesterol. Still, it is true that they do have one point over butter. One thing about Star Margarine that puzzles me, however, is that it seems to be the only table spread of its kind available in the market. It is not necessarily good or bad, it's just different.

Knowing all these dietary facts didn't help me in my attempt to rediscover what Star Rice was all about. I remember that it was being advertised as a nutritious supplement for faster growth (Batang Matangkad, Batang Star!), although it still confounds me how margarine can supposedly help increase a person's height, especially since Star Rice was marketed in the 80s before it became fortified with Vitamin A (which actually improves eyesight). It should be an industry standard by now, what with the average Filipino's vertically challenged disposition, for advertisers to promote products with the promise that steady consumption could make everyone taller. With all the added height that we should all be receiving supposedly, it's a wonder how our current generation still hasn't developed gigantism. The ideal scenario for the Philippines, apparently, would be for us to become a nation of basketball players. We would all be over six feet tall but utterly useless with chronic heart conditions because if consumption of Star Margarine could indeed get us a couple of extra inches, then just think of the resulting artery blockage that those extra inches would come with when even at room temperature, Star Margarine already assumes a semi-solid form.

I mixed in two tablespoons of Star Margarine into a standard cup of steaming rice and kept mixing until the rice mixture appeared uniformly yellow. I ate two spoonfuls and noted that Star Rice tastes slightly salty, with the somewhat artificial-tasting flavor sticking around long after I have swallowed the rice. It can be compared to fried rice in terms of texture, although softer to the palate. What really distinguishes Star Rice, however, is the smell, which I think is also Star Margarine's one differentiating factor from all its other competitors. The familiar fragrance, however artificial it may seem, is something that people have come to freely associate with Star Margarine over the years. It is a point of polarization though, as some people love it while some people simply cannot stand the smell. For myself, I don't mind the smell at all. I ate two more spoonfuls just to make sure I remember what needs to be remembered. I never particularly enjoyed eating Star Rice even as a kid and I didn't particularly enjoy it now. I realized that I probably didn't have a Vitamin A deficiency, so the health benefits I got out of eating margarined rice were close to nil. I didn't even feel taller after.

All in all, I wouldn't recommend Star Rice to anyone who wants simply to grow taller. There are better products available for this purpose, like elevator shoes and encyclopedias. Star Margarine can possibly help improve your eyesight, fortified as it is with Vitamin A, but you also risk developing a heart condition with over-consumption. It's not necessarily evil though, as it is proven to work for undernourished people whose diets aren't as taxing as most of ours are. Of course, you're probably improperly nourished if you have been following fad diets, so it's perfectly ok for you to eat Star Rice all the time, although seeing as your fad diets probably prescribe you to avoid eating carbohydrates of all kinds, just eat Star Margarine, minus the rice, straight out of the tub, and by the spoonful, then take delight in your improved vision.

Sarsi with Egg - Again, this is pretty much self explanatory: empty the gooey contents of one whole uncooked egg into a mug of Sarsi rootbeer. Why someone even thought up this concoction is beyond me. Why someone even decided to market this concoction baffles me further. It's probably a direct consequence of the philosophy that putting two perfectly good things together will result in a perfectly better thing. It's also probably a direct consequence of the instance when someone put a hippie with a chronic case of the munchies in a room with a poorly stacked refrigerator. If vanilla ice cream, a dairy product, can be used to make rootbeer float, then why the hell can't we use raw eggs to make special rootbeer float when they also qualify as dairy products?

We do not know the exact origins of Sarsi with Egg, but we do know that sarsaparilla is a type of plant, used among other things, to create a certain drink, aptly named 'sarsaparilla.' We also know that the sarsaparilla plant was known as 'rabbit root' to Cree Indians, who used it as a cure for syphilis (no, dipping your infected bits in Sarsi won't work). The sarsaparilla drink belongs to the larger family of rootbeer, which as the term implies, is a brew made by fermenting yeast, sugar and extracts from various barks and/or roots. Rootbeer has been around since the 1800s and is regarded as a classic softdrink. Though rootbeer recipes have varied over the ages, original rootbeer was commonly flavored with sassafras roots until the 1960s, when sassafras was found to contain the carcinogen safrole (modern blends typically use artificial flavorings to replace sassafras extract).

Sarsi is also considered a classic softdrink in the Philippines. It's arguably the most popular local rootbeer brand, having been around for several generations. Until recently, Sarsi was entirely marketed by Cosmos Bottling Corporation, known as the 'other' softdrink company who, despite having competitive brands, has always lagged behind the multinational giants that are Pepsi and Coca Cola. Despite this, Sarsi has always managed to stay popular and it has even reached the crowning achievement of branding, which is of course inspiring the name of a bold star. Ironically, Sarsi Emanuelle became the most famous among the stable of softdrink starlets beating out Pepsi, Coca and Mirinda. Apparently, the Cosmos brands are now owned by Coca Cola, hence the resurgence of Sarsi in fast food fountains, where the less popular Barq's was seemingly phased out. Sarsi Emanuelle, in a rather peculiar coincidence, has also found something of a career resurrection, although not in fast food but on TV, where she joins the cast of a tele-serye. In recent years, the Coca Cola Company has also started marketing Sarsi regionally (the drink and not the former bold star), introducing the well-loved beverage into neighboring nations. In what may be considered either as bad timing or poor foresight, they introduced Sarsi right about the time when SARS was all the rage, prompting some people to think that they were mocking both Pepsi and SARS at the same time (strangely, an Australian sarsaparilla brand named 'Sars' exists, becoming popular among tourists during the epidemic, who were amused that they could buy 'SARS in a can'). Incidentally, it's not funny at all to mock SARS, because SARS, like other living things, has feelings too, theoretically speaking. It's also not funny because it can very well kill persons and economies in a matter of days. It is ok, however, to mock children under the age of five, because you know that they can't really outsmart you.

Sarsi, the sarsaparilla from Manila, hardly qualifies as classic rootbeer. It's more softdrink than beer, with a body more carbonated than foamy and with a distinctly sweet aftertaste. It's also not as smooth or as creamy in texture as classic rootbeer brands are (i.e. A&W and Mug). I recall, however, that Sarsi used to be foamier when it was still sold in those old angular bottles. One could appreciate the foam by dipping their upper lip into the drink entirely to make rootbeer mustaches that kept disappearing easily, prompting stupid kids to keep dipping their snouts into the frosty mugs. What remains consistent about Sarsi though, is the strong sarsaparilla flavor. The flavorful bouquet, however artificial, still leaves that same fruity bite. As potent potables go, Sarsi is arguably more robust than other rootbeers. Again, people either love or hate the Sarsi smell (the drink and not the former bold star). Similarly, I don't mind it at all, and I sometimes think that I do actually like it.

I filled a highball with ice cold Sarsi and carefully cracked the contents of an average sized chicken egg into the drink. The drink seemed to grow foamier with the addition of the egg, although I found the presence of the undisturbed yolk suspended near the brim of my glass quite unsettling. I assumed that this was the proper way of drinking Sarsi with Egg so I took a sip and regretted at once doing so, noting that the raw egg just floated on top of the liquid. I knew I was risking salmonella poisoning, but I was adamant that I should get to drink Sarsi with Egg at least this once in my lifetime. I remember having someone tell me about the carbon in the Sarsi apparently being able to 'cook' the egg, except I wasn't seeing any such kind of reaction so far. Hoping to induce some kind of reaction in the mixture (and not yet worrying about inducing potential reactions in my digestive system), I got a swizzle stick, actually a chemist's glass rod, and stirred the drink, ending up with a concoction that was foamier and had the color of chocolate milk. The resulting drink also had a layered head, with a creamy first layer and a second slightly chunky yellow layer (the yolk, I presume). The mouth of my glass was gurgling with viscous bubbles and I found it harder then for me to dip my upper lip into the foam, smelling the unmistakable odor of raw egg. This was a rootbeer float after all. It was just chunkier and biologically under-processed but a rootbeer float all the same. I stirred further, but only managed to disturb the topmost layer of foam, observing that the addition of the egg easily caused the soda to go flat. Mustering the strength of bodybuilders who swear by raw eggs, I gulped a few mouthfuls, not daring to breathe in the process. I must have drunk half the glass before I realized that the concoction was more egg than Sarsi. This simply couldn't be, I thought, because I wanted to drink Sarsi with Egg and not the other way around. I emptied more Sarsi into my glass and was delighted to see more of the creamy foam forming on top. I swallowed a few more mouthfuls and decided that regardless of it being Sarsi with Egg or Egg with Sarsi, I simply didn't like how it tasted like fishy licorice, how it felt like chunky porridge going down the gullet, or how it left a slimy sensation in the mouth after.

I love Sarsi (the drink and not the former bold star). I also love eggs. I love my Sarsi cold and my eggs cooked, however. I can't recommend Sarsi with Egg to anyone, not when I can't enjoy it myself. Raw eggs, despite this, actually contain many complex proteins and fats, and eating them can prove to be beneficial in the long run (raw fish too). Salmonella contamination, while somewhat prevalent in live poultry, occurs rarely with eggs, as most salmonella-infected hens actually lose the capability to lay eggs. Raw eggs that are left exposed to the environment (i.e. scrambled eggs for dipping) are actually more prone to salmonella contamination via airborne bacteria, so it is best to cook or consume eggs right after they have been cracked open. Eating raw eggs, however, will take getting used to, and if I slowly build up the capacity to eat them, I know that I'll probably try Sarsi with Egg again eventually. It must be one of those things that take time to grow on you, like wisdom teeth, mutant hair, and extra nipples.

Mang Tomas, All-Around Sarsa - They want us to believe that this popular brand of lechon sauce actually has the same versatility of ketchup and they took a MacGyver mom to endorse this, accompanied by the MacGyver theme in the TV spots. In the commercials, the MacGyver mom offers Mang Tomas as a quick solution to the members of her family, one of whom was looking for ketchup, another for something to eat with leftover rice, and yet another who was looking for some kind of sandwich spread.

According to folk legend, Mang Tomas was actually the one who discovered lechon (the national dish), when he found his prize pig burned to a crisp after a fire burned down his house. Furthermore, Mang Tomas was supposedly an ancestor to the lechon dealers in La Loma, being Mila, Ping Ping, etc. I first heard the legend from a maid when I was young, who poorly explained it to me (thanks to a language problem), leaving me to believe that Mang Tomas was actually the one who got burned to a crisp. It was a confusing situation I found myself in, noting that we kept using a sauce that had cannibalistic overtones. Moreover, why was Mang Tomas even smiling on the label? It just wasn't right for somebody who got roasted alive to be commemorated on a food label smiling and sporting a salakot, looking like a happy Katipunero.

Traditional lechon sauce is made primarily of liver and spices. Reading through the ingredients (water, sugar, breadcrumbs, vinegar, iodized salt, liver, modified starch, spices, pepper, etc.), it can be said that Mang Tomas is essentially your average lechon sauce. It used to be sold as 'lechon sauce' too, even if the current label calls it an 'all-around sarsa.' That Mang Tomas can maintain a consistent level of brand recognition is definitely to its credit, as other lechon sauces hardly taste different (such as the short lived bottled Andok's). This probably is due to the fact that other brands simply do not have the backing of folk legends. The Mang Tomas label makes sure to point out via a red starburst that it is rich in iron, and it is a known fact that liver really is a good source of iron. I generally find people who enjoy liver odd, but that's just me (that's really big coming from me because the girlfriend does). There used to be a variant of the sauce that was marketed to contain more liver and this was predominantly packaged in red instead of yellow. It must not have yielded better sales because the red variant is now only a spicier version of the sauce. Promising a higher concentration of internal organs does not a good marketing campaign make unless you are selling liver spread, in which case, then you're much better off just quitting your job (unless you're French).

For this little undertaking, I decided to go for Mang Tomas as a sandwich spread, having already tried out a rice preparation earlier (Star Rice). I poured a significant stripe of Mang Tomas onto a piece of sliced bread, nothing fancy. A pan de sal would have made for a better photo, but I recall that the MacGyver commercial used sliced white bread anyway. Surprisingly, among the three preparations, I had the least problems eating this thing up. Essentially, Mang Tomas was only a sweeter, spicier and more watered-down version of liver spread, so a Mang Tomas sandwich isn't as inappropriate a combination as Sarsi with Egg (Star Rice isn't so bad). I don't like liver personally, but Mang Tomas somehow found a way to mask the presence of liver, which I think they were able to achieve by simply adding more of the other ingredients, in that the resulting mixture contained practically very little liver. It may be considered cost-cutting, but that's good for non-liver lovers like me. I don't mind that they added both breadcrumbs and modified starch to the recipe when they are in essence the same, just as long as I get to know in what way the starch was modified.

While I wouldn't recommend for anyone to eat a Mang Tomas sandwich, I could assure them that eating one wouldn't activate your gag reflex as much as Sarsi with Egg and to an extent, Star Rice, would. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily, because you would have to be severely wanting mentally or overly famished to even consider eating such a thing. Not even MacGyver himself would eat this during an emergency. Had he been friends with Mang Tomas, he would even have found a way to extinguish the fire that birthed the lechon in the first place, negating Mang Tomas' legacy. Angus MacGyver is God, and Biblical scholars can attest that God just does not like pigs.

I think that I'm simply too curious for my own good sometimes. I realize that I could have actually come up with the same piece without bothering to taste the actual stuff, but then that wouldn't have been as fun (it wouldn't have been as traumatic either). I still find myself asking the same questions that I did at the start, particularly who thought up this stuff? and for the love of God, why? Although it would seem as if I achieved nothing in this little undertaking, I do like to point out that I have learned an important thing out of this: I found out firsthand that things get forgotten for a reason and sometimes, they should remain that way. More importantly, I learned how not to trust older people whose jobs involve thinking up unnecessarily novel ways of preparing food. Some things just go together, like milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly, and beads and lubricant, while some simply do not, like milk and lubricant. Still, this update was an interesting piece to research (anything that poses health risks usually are), and it leaves me wondering how next to traumatize myself.

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Monday, September 19, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Jeff
Ours is a friendship that will last until the day we share the same locker room.

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Friday, September 16, 2005 A.D.
The Wake
After a most tiring and eventful week, I can only look back and wonder how I managed to take in that kind of abuse. I practically spent entire days in Arlington, where my grandmother's wake was held, and the atmosphere really got to be disorienting at times. It was easy to lose track of time, and as the week progressed, even the days started blending into each other. Time and place seemingly stood still in that dreary chapel.

We buried my grandmother last Tuesday, on my grandfather's second death anniversary. The burial, which marked the conclusion to a whirlwind schedule, was really just one of the many memorable moments of last week. I can still remember most of them in detail, I think. I list them below, but please forgive the apparent absence of order... I place the blame entirely on my mind's incapacity to comprehend the workings of time in dreary chapels.

The Initial Undertakings - A bunch of paperwork had to be settled and decisions had to be made. Upon reaching Arlington, we talked to the funeral director and the memorial plan coordinator, both of whom were quite helpful. The funeral director for the evening shift was a courteous woman in her 30s who dressed neatly, in the typical manner of a lesbian (by inference, she was, but that didn't matter). I observed how she managed to handle herself in conversation in a way that was very business-like and sympathetic at the same time and thought that she was far better than the one we talked to when we arranged my grandfather's funeral two years ago. Back then, the funeral director for the graveyard shift (cheap pun not intended) was a wiry, balding sleazebag who spoke like a showbiz tabloid reporter and displayed all the tactfulness of one. His limbs carried the exaggerated expressiveness of a dangling marionette's, and the skin on his face seemed eerily pulled back. His eyes were deep-set yet bulging, resulting probably from years of exposure to artificial lighting. He also irritatingly kept pursing his lips every so often, which he probably thought qualified as a gesture of sympathy. He was already taking on the features of a nocturnal creature (think Gollum). To say the least, he was about as entertaining as a death in the family, and definitely the last creature that one would like to meet in such a place. After working out the forms, he took us to the showroom. The showroom was where they housed the assortments of caskets and urns that they offered. He was actually there to help us choose a casket for my grandfather, although he ended up not so much helping as he did coercing. I found myself amused at his sales talk though, which he delivered with the uncanny skill and familiarity of a used car salesman. He took us from casket to casket dropping the names of recently deceased celebrities who enjoyed (for lack of a more appropriate term) the benefits of particular models (back then it was Rico Yan and a sleek blue casket, Sen. Rene Cayetano and an expensive wooden one, and Ishi Raquiza with a simple white one painted with flowers). He went on to describe the features of the different caskets, noting the thickness and quality of the metal used, linings, bubble tops, gaskets for airtight locks and swinging handles for pallbearing ease, as well as a lot of other items that escape my mind. He wasn't merely selling us used cars, I thought, he was selling us macabre Transformers. We did finally choose a casket, but it did feel a lot like blackmail. This time around, for my grandmother's, we were politely shown around the newly renovated showroom and were given a sales talk not different from the one we got two years ago. The list of celebrities were dropped (Miko Sotto, FPJ), and the same features were enumerated, but the final decision regarding the casket didn't feel at all forced this time. We finally opted for a simple but elegant casket that I felt most suited my grandmother. I stepped outside the offices to see a banner displaying Arlington's contact details. The Smart number listed there was 0920-9SOLACE (that's not so bad as personalized numbers go). The Globe number, however, was 0917-8BURIAL, which was a bit blunt for my taste, although by far, it's still better than 0917-8EMBALM or 0917-8CREMATE, so it should suffice.

Food for the Soul - For the duration of the wake, we had to ensure that we never ran out of food to serve to visitors. Water and juice were always kept chilled in the refrigerator, and the candy supply was replenished daily. Snacks were in abundance, with some visitors gifting us with even more food by the pot-load. We also had a regular supply of vegan food for special guests (more about them later). The nice thing about all this was that we had free access to all these edibles. We ate when we were bored and we ate when we were not bored. We also ate to compensate for our lack of sleep (I know I did). For dinner, we ordered out nightly, accumulating some 30 to 50 packed meals a night. Since my uncle is part-owner of a Japanese restaurant (Nippon, Tomas Morato, good food), we had Japanese food almost every night, served in neat styro boxes (I averaged two a night). It should be noted that I was discovering the many different permutations of bloated and gorged on four hours of sleep a day, and thus always felt as if I had liquefied stomach contents.

Room Without a View - When one feels both bloated and gorged, what better way is there to wind up the indulgence than with a good long sleep? The Felicidad chapel provided us with a backroom which we were able to use as our base of operations. There was a bathroom with a shower stall, a dining table beside a kitchen counter (with a microwave and a sink), a refrigerator, a couch, and an adjacent room serving as the sleeping quarters. Unfortunately, the toilet in the bathroom had a flimsy flush mechanism, so I avoided using it, thankful that my stomach was capable of dealing with liquefied contents for extended periods. The shower stall ended up as the repository for discarded mineral water boxes, and the couch a bag depository. The refrigerator was worked non-stop, as were the dining table, microwave and sink (see previous paragraph). The bedroom was only large enough to fit a closet and a single bed with two night tables on either side. Two table lamps were placed on the night tables, and they were the only sources of light in that particular room, giving off a pale yellow glow. The room also had its own aircon, ensuring that the temperature there was lower than the other areas in the chapel. Two pictures were hung on the walls, both of which looked like photo-realistic Victorian paintings. The room was cramped, cold and dimly lit, in short, and exuded a general ambience similar to that of the Bates motel. We avoided it like the plague. It didn't stop my cousin-in-law, however, from napping there (then again, nothing does). It also didn't stop me this one time, tired as I was, and as I lay there staring at the gloomy ceiling cast with sepia shadows, I thought, 'People who sleep here will look just like that - as if they are merely sleeping.' To sleep there was to lie in state. I forgot the urge to sleep that instant, not wanting yet to be available for viewing.

Enlightened Poultry - As my grandmother was Buddhist, it was but fitting for us to observe Buddhist rituals during the wake. My aunt arranged for two sets of monks to preside over the ceremonies daily at 3:30pm (is there a word for a female monk? monkette perhaps?). Joined by devotees in civies, the monks all wore flowing orange robes and shaven heads (even the monkettes). The daily ceremony lasted for more or less an hour, and had us, the family members, neatly filed in two lines, with males on the right side and females on the other (think soiree). For most of us unschooled in Buddhist traditions, our participation merely consisted of standing with our hands clasped and bowing when we were told to do so. There was the full bow, which required for us to bow while kneeling, palms on the ground and foreheads on our hands (thus assuming the armadillo position in a way). There was also the half bow, where our clasped hands were swung downward with the actual bow. Our hands were unclasped before the upswing, with the index fingers and thumbs forming a triangle that we then brought up to our foreheads (I was to know later that the triangle symbolized a heart). The choreography for the half bow was more difficult to enact, as evidenced by my rather problematic articulation in the previous sentences. We all got handed a book of meditations, written in Chinese no less, for us to join in the continuous chants (fat chance... most of us couldn't even read the characters). Note that I used the term 'meditation' as opposed to 'prayer,' because Buddhists, I found out, generally do not 'pray' in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term, but practice a more inward and contemplative approach (Buddhism being an ethicalist religion and not so much deistic). The meditations were either in a continuous string of characters or in the form of Chinese poetry. Again, this form of poetry is different from the more familiar Anglicized and Latinized forms in that rhyming is practically inessential to the art. Chinese poetry commonly values cadence, grouping verses by a fixed number of characters/syllables (like Japanese haikus). This ties in with the esteem given by the Chinese to calligraphy, as the poems display in neat columns when written on paper. The monks ably went through meditation after meditation, even calling out page numbers despite the fact that they weren't looking at the books. The cadence varied with each meditation, however, kept in time by the monks themselves who had bells, cymbals, skins, and various percussion toys. It didn't help me much though, as their memorized meditations often went from zero to a hundred kilometers per hour in an instant, obliterating all my attempts at figuring the characters out. One more thing to be noted about the chants was that there were symbols on the books that told when one was supposed to hold a syllable, how long, to trill or not, go faster, slow down, and so on. I never got it, needless to say. This convention of writing was apparently understood by the devotees, as they didn't have a problem in joining along with the chanting monks. The symbols didn't really indicate pitch, however, so the resulting chant was consistent merely in timings and far from harmonic - a pulsing monotonous cacophony that was surprisingly conducive to meditation, as I somehow discovered (although I found mantras, in their calming repetition, more effective). One time, after the service was finished, my niece and nephew - both four years old and perpetually caffeinated - went up to me and said that there was a goose in the backroom, and apparently, the goose was also 'sitting like a pretzel.' Curious, I looked in and saw one of the higher monks meditating with closed eyes and gracefully swaying like a drunken master in a stupor. He was on a chair right at the entrance to the eerie bedroom and, true enough, was sitting with his legs crossed - like a pretzel indeed but far from fowl-looking. I patronizingly asked the pepped-up two what a goose was, expecting to be lectured about the newest Cartoon Network character (a goose in orange robes?), and received the reply, "A mumu."

Sacrificially Senile - Not to be confused with Buddhist rituals, we also observed Chinese traditions. A monkette casually remarked one time that Buddhist and Chinese practices have been practiced simultaneously over the years that it was easy for anyone to regard them as interchangeable, which should not be the case. She went on to explain that some practices actually conflicted, as one of the basic precepts of Buddhism is freedom from material attachment while Chinese mourning usually involves 'gifting' the deceased loved one with a plethora of offerings. These offerings typically include his/her favorite things, symbolic gifts made of paper, and actual food (dishes designated in both variety and number). There is also a predominant theme of having these offerings burnt, because the ancient Chinese believed, as with most ancient belief systems, that burning is a transubstantiation of sorts, like a direct line to the immaterial world (sticks of incense are used for 'talking' even if some find them more useful to mask certain gateway odors). For the complex task of directing the various Chinese practices, we had a Chinese ritual coordinator. It wasn't really a free market in Arlington for this sort of service because there was only one such shop set up there (in the parking lot of all places). The shop pretty much sold everything, from candles, sticks of incense, lanterns, paper offerings, donation invoices, stamps and stamp pads, to cloth banners and articles of clothing. They even brokered intricate paper structures that stood for houses, cars and varied appliances (to be burned). The main coordinator was an aging Chinese man who walked with a noticeable hobble and a stiff but partially bent spine. He also had an expressive face that helped much as he spoke very little Filipino and what little he spoke only sounded Filipino but without the intended meanings (he should come with subtitles). His expressive face had white eyebrows, the last traces of hair above his shoulders seemingly, all of which had gone immaterial long ago, along with most of his teeth. I had very little chance of interacting with him, but what helpfulness he had in him was marred by the fact that he was already going through severe memory lapses that, among other things, hinted at senility. More than overseeing things, he actually overlooked them. He displayed a suspicious jerky alertness that gave away a certain amount of overcompensation, making it seem as if he went around his day in a freshly woken up state. I was myself in a freshly woken up state one morning, after staying overnight at the chapel, and saw the old man enter with no apparent purpose. We stared at each other awkwardly for several seconds, waiting for each other to make the next move like dazed deer doing a stare-down. I watched him curiously while he looked around the chapel, and finding nothing of interest, casually hobbled towards the door but not without first grabbing a leftover packet of Zesto by the exit and stabbing it with a straw through the bottom, proving that overseeing funerals can be a thirsty affair. I've seen first graders snatch Zesto with more discretion.

The Tonsil Shredder - Aside from the daily group of monks, we also received visits from a gaggle of people who belonged to the same Chinese associations that my uncle did. Some of these associations came about from immigrants who were from the same province in China and who congregated locally. Some of them were alumni associations, business clubs, volunteer firemen, and some were civic clubs. Like the running joke but elevated to social groupings, I couldn't distinguish between these associations because to my untrained eye, they all looked alike. The groups came to pay their respects, which they did via a traditional ritual. A band that played traditional Chinese instruments backed them up, and at one time, a dirge singer even 'sang' with the band, himself playing something that resembled a clapper. I wanted so much to give the high pitched singer a glass of water and a roll of tissue because he really seemed like he was bawling. We received around ten groups during the last night of the wake, and while they were doing the rites, we were required to kneel until they finished, during which time they went around offering us handshakes. It came to that, I thought, condolences had become institutionalized into standard procedure, like their uniform barongs. Each group offered at least one basket of flowers and at least one paper lunchbox (it looked like that although I have no idea what it really was). Some also offered food, which were again traditionally designated, totaling some twenty-four dishes in all. Each group also employed a barker. His role was to shout out the items that were offered, prompting the members to hold the particular item out in front of them and bow (e.g. "STRAW MUSHROOM!"). For this, each group followed their own choreography, with some adapting ridiculous hip movements (hip as in the body part) that made them look like Power Rangers with deadly sticks of incense. The last group for the night, who offered the most number of items, also employed the loudest barker. It probably would have seemed weirder for me had I actually understood what he was shouting about (everything was read in Chinese), because he was technically reading from a menu in a voice that not only sounded angry but was loud enough to rouse the dead (cheap pun not intended). I had to turn my head slightly to avoid being directly affected by his sonic assault. I also had to turn away because I was already breaking into a cold sweat from trying to hold back laughing convulsions. Noting that his group offered the most items, Mr. Barker was practically shredding his voice box each time he announced a food item that his voice was starting to come apart toward the end. I was expecting for him to cough up blood, and I swore he popped a vein while shouting "SEA CUCUMBER!" That would actually make for a good t-shirt slogan, I think: 'I lost my voice shouting SEA CUCUMBER'... then again, maybe not.

Layered Clothing - We cousins spent the night in the chapel on the eve of the burial. It was, after all, the last night of the wake. In preparation for the next four occasions that we would be requiring them (i.e. the burial, the 49th day, the first anniversary, and the second), my eldest cousin began to segregate the pile containing grandmother's clothes into four appropriate boxes. The clothes were to be burned - at least most of them were, while the rest were to be given to charity. We were to decide that night which we would be offering and which we would be donating. It was a painful chore to have to look through all her things and figure out which among them were her favorites. It was an unsettling realization that people do actually leave everything behind, with the seemingly meaningless things mattering only to knowing eyes in the end. We were assisted in the segregation by my grandmother's nurse and another helper. We cousins easily identified which items were the ones she most frequently used, those being the clothes that she wore five to ten years ago (including four identical pairs of shoes in varying stages of usage). However, given their time frame, the two helpers claimed that my grandmother preferred clothes that she wore during the later stage of her life, which I knew for a fact she only wore for function more than form. It begged the question, "Would Ahma wear a Boracay shirt?" The two insisted that she actually liked the t-shirts and that they should also be burned, though it pained me to even imagine my grandmother wearing them when I didn't even see most of them fit to be donated to charity anymore. I proposed a solution, 'Give me a box of matches and I'll happily burn them outside right now.' We did eventually settle on a logical compromise. We figured that all of the worn out stuff should be burned, since we weren't going to donate them to charity anyway, given their state. Anyhow, being worn out did mean that she did get to use them a lot in her life. My brother then picked a handkerchief for my mom to keep as a memento, as my mom wanted. Earlier that night, the family was actually thrown into a bit of panic when a helper informed us that all this time, my grandmother hadn't been wearing shoes. The odd thing was that my grandmother herself had long ago already approved of the clothes that she was to wear for that occasion (she was a perfectionist, as I pointed out, and she always wanted to look her best). All her things had been kept in a dress box since then, so we found it really strange that her shoes had somehow disappeared when the box had been securely tied ages ago. We couldn't have merely used any pair of shoes, since tradition required cloth-soled shoes (i.e. quiet footsteps). We asked the Chinese funeral coordinator if they sold shoes of that kind. They did, except the pair they sold looked as if it had been around since the World Wars, with the soles already peeling in places. Not good. A massive shoe-hunt was then set into motion, with practically all of my grandmother's shoes brought in for screening. The first batch yielded nothing, and we were already contemplating on options that seemed impossible at that time of night. It was already close to midnight when the right pair was finally found among my grandmother's things at her home. Looking inside, we found out who actually took the shoes out of the box in the first place, because lovingly placed inside each foot was a balled-up stocking. She was a perfectionist, you see, and she always wanted to look her best.

I cannot think of my grandmother and not think of a happy memory. I do not intend at all to trivialize certain circumstances, and I definitely do not mean to be irreverent except at specific nocturnal types who sell lined metal boxes. I merely want to point out that despite a huge sense of loss, I still found amusement at several things. It's only being human after all... time may have stood still inside that dreary chapel, but the Earth still kept continually turning on its axis outside. I look back at the tiring week and realize that life really does go on. My grandmother's wake entailed a lot of contemplation on my part, even without accompanying chants. I am going to miss her dearly, that much is clear. I am going to remember her for as long as I am humanly capable of remembering, that much is also clear. For sure, the recollections will mostly involve the short span of time that we spent together, although I do not think I can forget about the many memorable moments from last week, however heartbreaking they may be. Everything is all right though, and it still holds true: I cannot think of my grandmother and not think of a happy memory.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Ferlin
Your person inspires me to write poems of beauty, majesty and other words that end in -ty. I would too, if only I could come up with something to rhyme with your wretched excuse for a name.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Karen
I'm afraid you were born on the wrong day, dear.

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Passing Lights
There is a distracting lump in my throat, although right now I can afford to ignore it because of another lump that just so happens to be in the more distracting region of my right eye. I swallow the last of the largish breakfast banana (the lump in my throat) and turn my attention to the odd chunk in my eye that feels like a flap of eyelid folded wrongly. My cornea feels scraped to its core, thanks to the reflexive proddings of my little finger, and despite the unwelcome secretions, it doesn't seem likely for the mysterious lump to dissolve within the next hour. Bright little lights are waltzing like fireflies wherever I look. It seems as if I have been crying from one eye, and I can very well do so if I can afford myself the luxury with both eyes. Later, perhaps... these things take some time to digest.

I woke up an hour earlier than usual today and refused to budge from where I lay because I desperately wanted that extra hour of sleep. Not fifteen minutes later, my dad entered my room and told me to get out of bed, adding that my grandmother had gone. OK, I thought. My grandmother (his mother who lives with us) was going away again on a provincial trip and we were going to see her off. I remembered then that most of my family had just gotten in from the province. It just wouldn't make sense for her to leave this soon. I then thought about my other grandmother, immediately rushing out to see how my mom was.

I remember my grandmother as a warm and gracious lady who gave the impression that she was taller than she really was (although she was already quite tall by generational standards). Her gentle presence commanded respect. Even when she was old, she still maintained a posture that one can only learn today from beauty queen charm schools. She also walked with a meek confidence before she became bedridden. I look back and realize that she had very few by way of vanities, with the little exception that she always wanted to look her best. She somehow kept creases off her clothes all the time (including her pajamas) and she always wore her hair neatly, having it done on a weekly basis.

She was a simple woman who found joy in simple things. In many ways, she was very much what one would expect of a typical Chinese grandmother, but in many ways, also different. She was a practicing Buddhist who stuck to mainly fish and vegetables as a diet of preference. She ate with chopsticks from a bowl and enjoyed traditional Chinese edibles. Despite this, she also loved sour cream and onion flavored Pringles, and being generous to a fault, she made sure that my brother and I got a steady supply of green Pringles from her weekly Unimart trips. People more often than not typically associate being stingy with the Chinese stereotype and I won't disprove them. In many cases, however, those people confuse stinginess with economy, and my grandmother wasn't stingy - she was an economist. She didn't work with the laws of supply and demand - or at least not in the textbook sense - although she always knew just how much to give and when. She never overdid things but she never held back. She rarely spoke unless she had something meaningful to say (and she always spoke with a gentle voice when she did). She didn't spoil her grandchildren (that's us) rotten even if we kept receiving gifts from her regularly, like sour cream Pringles and orange jelly candy (which she also liked). Thinking about it, I never recalled an instance where I received a telling-down from her, partly because I somehow knew how to behave with her around, and partly because she had always been really patient with us. I don't think that she had it in her to hurt a fly. She did scold my brother this one time, but that doesn't really count because the idiot's nose was too runny for his own good. She was almost hysterical, and I learned that day that my grandmother practiced cleanliness religiously. The crease-free pajamas should have clued me in. Then again, she probably disliked flies and could have had possibly hurt a fair number in her lifetime. She was a perfectionist, like my mom minus the crease-free pajamas.

Her lifestyle did work wonders. Her diet and stress-free disposition, among other things, ensured that she was always in the pink of health. She knew how to take care of herself, evidenced by her conscientious yearly checkups. She walked straighter than a ruler even during her 80s and had no dietary restrictions (not that she would have had harbored guilty pleasures anyway). The odd thing was that for years, despite her clean bill, she actually lived with asthma and a heart condition. She also survived a short bout with breast cancer in the 1970s and had a hip joint replaced four years ago after she shattered it getting out of bed. Other than being slightly senile, being hard of hearing and having anterograde amnesia (i.e. she couldn't remember new experiences), she was healthier than most people half her age. The recent years saw her going in and out of the hospital, resulting from old age more than anything, and despite nail-biting odds, she always came through. She was very much a resilient individual who shocked even her nurses (she was named after a type of jade after all) and the instances of her passing surprised us, to say the least.

Just this morning, she started complaining about a slight pain in her abdomen. This was probably related to the digestive problems that she got treated for during her hospital stay not two weeks ago. She was brought to the same hospital once more for tests, and as she was being wheeled in, she even managed to wave weakly at the nurses from her wheelchair, like a contestant probably would at a kiddie pageant. Her blood pressure had spiked and then dropped at staggering levels in just a few hours. Her heart stopped just when she was connected to the cardiac monitor and further attempts at reviving her proved futile. My grandmother always came through despite the odds, and that she just went away in a short instant, it seemed to me as if she simply just finally lost the will to live. She joins my grandfather finally, who went ahead of her two Septembers ago practically a century old. We didn't let her know of his passing then, something that we could only do because of her amnesia, though it hardly matters at the moment. She knows now.

I can't possibly say that I was particularly close to my grandmother though, not in the traditional sense. Firstly, we didn't share the same house, and at most, we only got weekly visits. Secondly, there was the language barrier. I was smart enough as a child to shut up just to avoid embarrassing mistakes in Chinese conversations, where a slight lapse in intonation could mean the difference between having beautiful toes and having an opium habit (that's an exaggeration, by the way, but one I subscribed to as a kid, hence my fear of the Chinese language). I didn't even know my grandparents' names when I was given the grade two assignment of drawing my family tree (I never really needed to call them by their names anyway). The language barrier worked for us though because we were good economists. Words are only as good as what they actually convey after all, and the nature of our relationship didn't really demand much wordage. She never needed to tell me that she loved me because I always knew, and it was enough. Among the countless gifts I received from her, I distinctly remember two. First was the customary watch that I still wear since I received it more than ten years ago. She always gifted her grandchildren with an expensive timepiece, as way of a rite of passage whenever one of us turned sixteen. I remember, secondly, the Family Computer that she bought for me and my brother when she learned that we didn't have one, this despite four years of pleading with my mom, who saw the Family Computer as a non-educational tool and thus, evilly unnecessary (or make that unnecessarily evil).

I spent a good deal of time with my grandmother four Septembers ago, right after 9/11. She was just recovering from her hip-replacement surgery, and we thought that it would be good for her to revisit her place of birth in China. My aunt owned an apartment in Xiamen and we stayed there with her - me, my mom, my aunt (who owned the place), and my two uncles (i.e. the four siblings and me). That trip was a memorable one in that I never found the urge to explore the city, finding it better just to stay at home with my family. It felt like a retreat of sorts. We usually got invited out to dinner by relatives though, where with typical mainland exaggeration, we were force fed like French geese. The local delicacy was a kind of sea creature (they call it a worm, but I believe it's some form of seaweed). These were boiled until the protein got broken down into gelatin. The resulting jelly, with the segmented worms suspended in it, was then left to congeal in molds, chilled, and then cut up in cubic chunks to be eaten like sushi, dipped in Kikkoman and wasabi. I had already gotten used to this common appetizer at that point due to all the special dinners we got invited to. During the start of the meal, we casually ate the chunks until my grandmother attempted to get a piece from the table, at which we all got alarmed. My uncle asked her if she could handle eating something that cold on an empty stomach. She looked at all of us with the amusement of a kid just given a dare and said defensively that she always ate worm jelly when she was younger. Finding it amusing ourselves, we let her have a piece and thought nothing of it. My grandmother at that time could only walk slowly and with a cane because of her hip replacement. She was partially deaf as well, and was already living with asthma and amnesia. The meal went on smoothly until dessert, when she started complaining of stomach cramps, undoubtedly brought forth by the cold worm jelly. Her stomachache got worse until she started having an asthma attack in the restaurant, which was when we realized that we left her inhaler at home. Panicking, we hailed a cab to head for home at once. My eldest uncle tried to distract my grandmother from her stomach cramps by continuously talking in the cab to her annoyance. It was a quick drive, luckily, and we reached the apartment complex in less than ten minutes. Because my grandmother could only manage very little steps, my aunt went ahead to get the inhaler upstairs while the rest of us slowly made our way to the building entrance. My uncle then asked my grandmother if her stomach was still hurting, to which she loudly replied in the manner of an impatient child, "Are you an idiot? How can you even ask about a stomachache when I'm obviously having an asthma attack?" Turned out, thanks to short-term memory loss, she did get distracted from her stomachache after all. We all found it funny of course, and after being slightly surprised at our sudden laughter, my grandmother also managed a questioning smile through her wheezes, as if she heard an inside joke she didn't get.

In that regard, I think smiling was one of my grandmother's defense mechanisms. Just last Sunday when we visited her, I saw her taking sharp breaths while rubbing a part of her belly. She didn't yet notice me at that time, but I thought that she looked like she was in some kind of pain. I waved for her to notice me and she waved back, smiling as if it was the most comfortable thing for her to do at that point, probably not wanting to let me know how she had been suffering. I stepped aside to leave and saw her rubbing her belly once again, like a child who could not keep a secret. That was the last time I saw her alive. She was definitely hurting, and she was also probably in pain when she waved at her nurses this morning, but that never stopped her from attempting to make others happy in her own simple ways.

My grandmother was 92 years old, and not counting in-laws, she left four children, fourteen grandchildren and nine great-grandkids. She lived through many of the 20th century's historical events, affected in particular by the Cultural Revolution, which saw her being separated from my grandfather for fifteen years. She survived breast cancer long before it became popular by way of Kylie Minogue and Olivia Newton-John. I remember her fondly as someone who always overcame the odds without making a big deal out of it and as someone who found joy in other people's happiness. She lived, in many ways, a full life. I can't possibly aspire to even live to be 92, definitely not with my diet or the slouch that my defeatist posture has already adapted. Needless to say, I am going to miss her dearly. In a weird way, this dark moment allowed me to see clearer just how much I felt her radiance, in the way that stars merely appear brighter with dark skies, waltzing fireflies made daytime-invisible by limitless pinpoints joining in the somber dance.

So far, I've written two eulogies in my life, and as much as possible, I sincerely hope that I don't get to write more. Eulogies are tricky, I figured, because the right words always have to be chosen. I don't want to fall into the trap of making an overly sentimental eulogy because those kinds are only appreciated by personal acquaintances. On the other hand, I don't want to make an overly clinical one either. It's really about the words, more than anything, because it's not at all difficult to think up topics when they just lend themselves to the piece naturally. Fleshing out words is an easy task given a rich inkwell, and I realize in conclusion, that we actually write our own eulogies, and other people merely word them out in the end. I live hoping that someone will take the time to word mine out in the future, because - having been enriched with the experience of knowing my grandmother - I already know how I want my life to be written.

Good night Ahma. I'll see you in the morning.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday LJ
I forgive you. I walk on water. Who am I?

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Thursday, September 01, 2005 A.D.
Happy Birthday Janette
It's the thought that counts, although in my case, the thought won't really count for much. I don't have the capacity for thinking, sadly.

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