Thursday, August 27, 2009

Promised Pictures

New hair!
Now if mine will just grow long enough for a pony tail, so that I can get it off my neck...

Pedestrian Entry

Warning to the reader: this entry contains blow-by-blow minutia. I drowsed, it seems, while writing it. I suspect that reading it will be even more tedious...


Another sticky day, skirt and shirt clinging to the sweat dew on my skin.

Lizzie went off to school early--school hours 10:00 to 3:30 today, instead of 12:00 to 5:30, in order to accomodate a whole-school special production, something to celebrate Filipino culture. "Wiki something or other," Lizzie said this morning, after I made her dress in a collared shirt to honor the day. Actually, she was supposed to wear something Filipino, she said, "but I don't have anything."

I don't know if it's my sudden descent into middle age or the weather or the time of year or even where we are (3 months out of 5) in the stream of this adventure, but when I've got a day off from teaching and Lizzie's not around and no one wants to take me to lunch and I don't have a stack of papers to read or a short story or clutch of poems to pore over in preparation for class, I don't know what to do with myself. I wander around in a half-daze, room to room, putting things into my backpack in the interstices between mental vagaries. It's not as if my head's in the clouds. It's as if my head IS the clouds.

Today I packed up and headed out by 11:00, taking the umbrella that Beng delivered me back past her house, thinking, in a wandering and nonspecific fashion, of inviting her to a last minute lunch at the Chateau Verde. I took a new way down to Juan Luna, her street, passing into a dark, slightly cooler section of Roxas Street where dogs drowsed on the ends of their leashes, giving me half a lidded eye as I passed. Sweat soaked my back under the pack.

At Beng's, both the cars nestled under the carport, behind the closed gate. The whole street drowsed in the hazy sun. I pushed the big white doorbell and it screamed into the house. "Cesar, the driver, came out.

"Ah, Ma'am," he said. "How are you?"

"Returning umbrella," I said, waving it like a baton.

"Oh, yes," he said, as I handed it over.

"Thanks," I said. "Salamat."

"Don't you want to come in?" he said.

"No," I said, already turning away from the gate. What had happened to my lunch plan?
I walked around the curve and past the Alumni building. Oh. Yeah. I should go in to the tour agency and see how the plans for Singapore and Bohol were shaping up. I threaded my way through the side door into a tangle of sound equipment, folding chairs, cords, men struggling with big pieces of wood, a stage and a colorful banner that stretched over the entire back wall of the meeting hall. Crap. The guard watched me from across the room, hands on his hips. Perhaps I imagined the wrinkle between his eyes. He smiled when I got to the stairway, nodded. "Hello, Ma'am," he said.

I nodded and trudged upstairs. Watch, my brain said, the cynical part that hides when it's so hot but pops out as soon as a little cool breeze reaches it, the agency will be closed. But it was open, and I pushed into the airconditioning and plopped down in front of the receptionist's cluttered desk. Oscar, the manager who I talked with last time, wasn't in.

Turns out they're waiting for confirmation on our hotel reservations. Should be ready this afternoon, maybe. They'll call--Oscar is out of the country.

I left the Alumni building thinking hm, lucky Oscar, but not in a way that meant anything in particular, because I realized at the same time that I was already worrying in a small way about getting to the airport for a 6:30 AM flight to Singapore, going through all the taxi traumas that might happen, the language barriers we'd have to navigate while still sleeping, a sure sign that the reluctant, fraidy-cat part of me is already on the travel case.

I made my way through the sunken park that serves as the vast, semi-jungly center of the campus, toward the Museum. I'd have lunch at the cafe, read my book, drink some coffee. A group of bumptious students jumped off and on a concrete stage I'd never seen in the middle of the park, hooting and shoving each other. I walked past them on autopilot, semi-floating through the heat, up the bank, across the busy street in between cars and jeepneys, down the small bricked path, and up the museum steps. I wanted a piece of cake--Chocolate Explosion, I saw it in the refrigerated case, yes.

I sat down, looked over the menu, ordered a 3 cheese panini and an iced mocha and a glass of water. No cake. Read my book. Drank more water. Finished my mocha. My sandwich. Almost all of my book.

Paid my bill, left a tip, wandered back home past the Coop, where I got a package of Kleenex, a banana clip for my hair (which is still too short to scrape up into it--hope springs eternal, though), wet wipes. In a daze, I made it back here, damp, sticky, melting, retrieved the key from the guard, climbed up to the 4th floor, and found housekeeping wilting on the sofa, taking a short break from cleaning the apartment.

So now I'm downstairs with the laptop, tapping this out, enjoying the smallest of breezes over the top of the bushes. I'll read the last three pages of my novel, let more of this folk music trickle out of the Ipod into my ears (Nick Drake right now), upload this (assuming that the Internet gods allow me to connect with my tiny prayer), and pray for a cooling rain, something to rip through this haze, push away the clouds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On One Hand and the Other

Little Irritations that Loom Large on a Rainy Afternoon

1. The forgotten umbrella, safe at home in the dry apartment.
2. Walnut shells cracking between molars--ouch--as I try a new cake flavor (Date Walnut) to use up the rain delay...
3. Small rocks kicked into the Birkenstock sandals, between the sole and the bottom of the foot.
4. Humidity that pools at the small of the back in a small, drippy puddle. Humidity that soaks the underarms in damp halos. Humidity that slicks the insides of the thighs and slides the legs along the seats.
5. The new middle-aged feel of belly flab sloughing up and down, jim jam jiggle, with each step.
6. An unexpected trip to the bathroom in the late afternoon--digestion on fast forward. Was it the oatmeal breakfast? The afternoon snack of cake and coffee? The last minute glass of water? Some unknown stress?
7. Tiny freaking ants marching along the crack of every wall, the kitchen counter, the soap on the bathroom sink.
8. Building pain in the bottom. That old, niggling, mean spirited friend, Mr. IBS, back for an ill-timed visit. Making dinner--and thinking I don't want to eat, ever again.
9. Burning the toast.
10. Remembering that I haven't worked out yet at 7 PM.
11. Working out. Melting.

Compensating Factors to More than Even the Score

1. A visit to the travel agent, beginning plans to visit Singapore and a beach resort in Bohol.
2. The travel agent, like nearly everyone I meet here, who smiles, asks me a lot of questions about my time here, suggests trips to take, gives me his card, promises to email soon with details on the two trips.
3. A text message from Beng: Just thinking about you. How are you?
4. Special delivery from Beng: Her cousin arrives at the Chocolate Kiss with a gentle smile and a plaid umbrella.
5. Sipping coffee in the warm atmosphere at the cafe, its rich, smokey flavor. Each moist datey bite of the cake. The delicate butter cream frosting.
6. Thinking about Lizzie as I walk home through the rain. Thinking can't wait to see her and thank God she came with me. Smiling as I think of her face.
7. The gentle rain, little tap tap taps on the umbrella, more loving than furious.
8. Looking into strangers' eyes as I pass and and smiling, tentative. Fragile connection. Getting grins in return.
9. The smoked gouda cheese I bought yesterday--perfect for a stop-me-up dinner.
10. Cold water, glass after glass, sliding down my throat.
11. Dinner with Lizzie, complete with sing-a-long rehashes of the "Once More With Feeling" Buffy episode.
12. Post work out buzz. Nothing finer!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Lizzie was alternately morose, angry and resigned to the fact that no hairdresser on either side of the Pacific Ocean would agree to give her bangs.

I suggested that I cut them for her (remembering how my own mother would cut my bangs for me in the bathroom off my bedroom, perching me on the kitchen stool and muttering curse words under her breath as she crouched in front of me, wielding the ungainly sewing shears) but we couldn't find a pair of hair cutting scissors that didn't come bundled with electric razors, nose hair trimmers, and other expensive grooming instruments.

Then I got a brilliant and cunning plan: we'd hit up the University Coop down the street, where there are at least three hair cutting establishments of various levels of intensity (traffic, that is), two of which are hair salons. "We'll go in there and say you just want bangs, and that's it," I said.

We marched over there and went into the first salon we could find, a hive of bustling female energy. Even the male hairdressers there were feminized to the nth degree, fluttering and half-frowning as they pranced into and out of the salon. "Yes, ma'am," a woman said, getting up from her stool and storing a magazine.

"She wants bangs, that's all," I said, making the universal bang gesture across my forehead (as if slicing open the top of my skull).

"Yes, ma'am," the woman said, smiling, as she settled Lizzie into a chair and encircled her neck with the standard hair cutting tissue they use around here. (Looks like a nice toilet paper necklace to me...) "You want," she motioned at her own forehead, "like swept," and I cut her off before she could follow up on the evil phrase, side swept.

"No," I said, again severing the top of my skull with an index finger. "Just to the brow. Straight down."

"Okay," she said, grinning, and began to pin the sides of Lizzie's hair out of the way, familiar operations to anyone who, like myself, spent the first 20 years of her life with such bangs.

No arguments, no consultations, no serious lectures about conditioning, blow drying, or vent brushes, and no expectations of artistic prowess or incipient genius. A simple bang cut.

It took her about 7 minutes to give Lizzie a very cute bang, gentle and layered. She put Lizzie's hair back into her ponytail, unwrapped the TP necklace, brushed off her shoulders, and shook out the apron.

"How much?" I said.

I thought she said 40 pesos, but that didn't seem right. Four hundred? I've given up on trying to make it without asking for directions, or asking for repeats. "Excuse me?" I said. "How much again?"

"Forty pesos," she said.

"What? So little?" I handed her a 50 peso bill, feeling, still, that she deserved ten times as much for the beamish grin on Lizzie's face as she examined her new look in the bank of mirrors. "Thanks a lot," I said. "You did a wonderful job. She looks beautiful."

Everyone smiled as we walked out of the salon, Lizzie floating on pillows of air. "I really really like it," she said.

And later, when she caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror at the Alumni building, after our yummy Chocolate Kiss treat lunch, she did a double take and gave herself another wide grin.

"You really like those bangs," I said.

"I do," she said. "I do."

(Don't worry. We'll post pictures soon!)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Burning Through Vacation

Lizzie and I had three days off this week--Wednesday through Friday (today).

On Wednesday, we toured the Laguna de Bae area with Beng and Lili. This was our first trip out of Manila.

We stopped, first, in Jose Rizal's birthplace and toured (a reproduction) of his house. Then we drove through Los Banos and saw another UP campus. We ate lunch at Exotic, a place with lots of stairs, pools, animals in cages (monkeys, massive boa constrictors). Then we visited Lili's hometown, Pila, and looked at the historic town square, as well as the old church. Finally, we saw a baroque church from the 1600s.

We also saw rice fields, squatters along the roadside, a neat sunset on the lake, beggars, mounds of trash (some of them on fire)... By the end of the day, I was quite dizzy with new (and familiar) sights. I can't say that I got exactly what I wanted from the trip outside of the city--I think I wanted to escape from this metro madness, but it's leaked so pervasively into the countryside that I suspect there's really NO escaping it.

I will probably appreciate the trip more in hindsight.

Yesterday, Lizzie and I went back to our favorite mall to see Up in 3D. It was sort of a strange day, because we did things we'd do back home: ate lunch at TGI Friday's, saw Up, got our hair cut, browsed in a bookstore, looked at shoes, bought shirts--but everything had a little twist to remind us that we weren't back home.

TGI Friday's: the waiters have to wear all the ridiculous flair, but they're definitely Filipino/a in style, with knee high Converse laced up with neon laces, or a flouncy black skirt paired with swiss cheese black tights and witchy black boots.

Up: the projectionist couldn't get the film aligned properly for the previews and short, so even with the special glasses on, everything tripled on us.

Hair cut: the woman washed our hair for, I kid you not, at least 5 minutes, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing, bouncing the backs of our heads against the porcelain sink, rubbing her knuckles into our scalps until I wanted to jump up and scream.

Our hairdresser, Mr. Ben, who trained in Santa Monica, lectured Lizzie on using conditioner and me on how to use my vented brush to make my hair flip under. (I didn't have the heart to tell him that I'm beyond pro with the hair; it's just that I didn't blow dry, for a change--didn't plan on getting a trim, actually, because we were there only to get Lizzie bangs, which of course she didn't get, again [in this way the experience was exactly like visiting Gregg back in the States; it must say NO BANGS somewhere on Lizzie's invisible operator's manual]--and at the last minute scrunched some lame product into the ends of it, making it flip up a little, which is apparently a fashion no-no here...)

Mr. Ben told me all about the shape of my face (oblong) and why I need a brow skimming fringe, and how he was going to soften it near my eyes but not shorten it, and it wasn't until I visited the bathroom at the Pancake House, much later, and looked into the mirror, that I discovered that I looked a bit like Eddie from the Munster's.

Today, Lizzie and I got massages at the spa near the UP. My masseuse, Cathi, must have been one of the strongest women on staff. She had fingers of iron--and boy did she use them to get at the knots in my upper back and shoulders. At one point, though it felt good, I thought that perhaps one of the knots would explode, travel into my brain, and turn the rest of me to mush. Our massages included both back AND front, much to Lizzie's consternation. "I wish I'd had a little privacy," she said, as we dressed afterwards.

My massage was heavenly, though, and I'm nicely sore now. Tomorrow, I'll feel as if I've been beaten up, I'm sure. The price tag for this double dose of crunchy, knot eliminating muscle fun? 1100 pesos for the two of us, which translates to about 23 bucks. Can you believe it? Definitely A DEAL.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Born Again Luddhite?

Today I waited for 7 minutes for Facebook to fail to load. 7 minutes! The whole time, I must've gritted my teeth, contributing to the sore muscle on the right side of my jaw. I can feel it there, like a plum pit sized knot.

I fantasize about the days when we didn't have computers that automatically downloaded stuff, and slowly, agonizingly, again and again scanned themselves for viruses, sucking out all the energy from the processor and myself. I think fondly about those years when I typed up my poems on Grandpa Mac's old smelly electric typewriter, still smelling of his cheap cigars, or when I handwrote the first drafts of my ridiculously benign and banal literary analyses on notebook paper.

If I couldn't have access to all of my friends back home and variously scattered around the world, I wouldn't miss it. I wouldn't gnash my teeth over it as I struggle to make it happen. I wouldn't drop out with the Skype call, or glower over gmail's failure to load.


Inventing Worlds

I'm cached away in my bedroom where the aircon has been burbling away all night and morning. Outside, it's mizzling into a thick, warm afternoon gray; all day long, it's been an oppressive waiting-for-rain, breath held kind of weather.

I collected a batch of essays from my American Literature survey yesterday so I have that stack of papers to grade. I set aside seven to go through today (my usual quota plus 2), read three of them, and then, after running into Beng at one of the University Co-op's crowded, hot, nearly all male computer dens (I was getting Lizzie a flash drive), I decided that I should not fail to keep my office hours on campus, even though I knew that no students would wander in to speak with me--especially after I've collected their essays and they've washed their metaphorical hands of me for at least two weeks.

So I got out the Ipod touch, queued up David Sedaris' "In the Waiting Room," and headed down the hill to campus.

On campus, I discovered that, ironically, I'd been guilty of Sedaris' sin (he doesn't really learn French, living in Paris, and decides that saying "d'accord," or "okay" to everything anyone says to him, will service--and of course pandimonium ensues). The truth is that I don't understand about 1/3 of what people say to me here. Yesterday, one of the American Literature students came up to me before class, handed me her paper, and said something like: "I couldn't do the five pages, ma'am, I tried, really, but bloobldee badda winky ka, and that would just be padding, so deedle dum dooby, eh?" She was speaking Taglish to me and didn't even know it, and I didn't have the heart to tell her, so I just nodded and smiled and told her that page limits weren't rules but suggestions.

After class, two men came up to me and introduced themselves. In the classroom's bad acoutistics, I interpreted their meaning more by hand gestures and smiles than by capturing real words. To tell the truth, at first I was mildly afraid that another set of Jehovah's Witnesses had managed to sniff me out. But then I started to get the gist.

"Ma'am, we're from a group on campus, the ------, and we're preparing for the Alternative Classroom ------- on August 20," said the more forward man of the pair, "and we'd like to get your permission to use your classroom to ----------, I think it's 310, right, from ----- to 2:30."

Huh? I pulled out my folder for the class I'd just finished and flipped through the stack of papers to the syllabus. August 20: I'd planned to cover Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. Could we skip those worthy poets? Not likely. "Sorry," I said. "I've got two poets scheduled for that day and I really can't give you the classroom."

The man smiled--in retrospect, he smiled in that small, tender way I might smile as I try to fish a popcorn hull out of my molar's gum with my tongue.

"What are you planning to do?" I said.

"Inventing w----ds, ma'am," he said.

"Inventing what, excuse me?" I said.

"Inventing Worlds," he said.

"Oh, that would be good for my fiction writing class," I said. "But we're supposed to be workshopping then," I continued, thinking aloud.

"I'm a creative writer, ma'am," the man smiled, a real one this time. "I'm a senior. This is my last year."

"Wonderful," I said. "I'm really sorry that I can't help you out. It's just that I have all this material to cover, and, well, good luck with it."

He and his friend nodded, said okay, smiled at me, and shuffled out of the classroom ahead of me. I was left to trail in their wake, certain that I'd made some sort of mistake.

As indeed I have. I went into the main office today and discovered that classes on Thursday afternoon, August 20, have been cancelled so that students can participate in a special program of Alternative Classroom Methods. So what that means is that the young creative writing gentleman was only being polite and letting me know that he'd be using the classroom on August 20--and of course I won't be in it.

And I'll have to figure out how to massage my syllabus so as not to exclude Sylvia and Allen.


I'm wistful about this language barrier. I feel as though 33.3% of my life disappears down a rabbit hole of confusion and misapprehension. I imagine that the poor kid went off shaking his head at my thickness, my apparent inability to figure out what he was saying to me.

I'm also a little lonely here without much adult company. At home I'm used to spending a good portion of my days with others--Dave, Lizzie, students, colleagues, neighbors, friends. Most of the time, if I get a yen for conversation, face to face, all I have to do is to leave my office door open, or wander down the hallways looking for another open door. In fact, it's sometimes too much of a good thing: I wonder if I'll ever have 5 minutes to myself.

Here, I've gotten to the point where I'm not afraid to pop the Ipod buds into my ears--damn the traffic and the need to seem vigilant--because I need to cocoon myself in a world of poetic sound, where familiar friends whisper and sigh into my ears, the old stories of connection, disconnection, and despair. On the way home today, as I wandered off the sidewalk into a drive, a Toyota Yaris nearly took my hip off as it slipped past me into the parking lot. Whoops, I thought, in a wistful, floating fashion, and kept on walking in the dreamy, step by step rhythm that music helps me to achieve.


I've been trying to think of a nice overnight getaway (in town) for us. I got the brilliant plan, sitting at my desk yesterday and feeling the pretzeled muscles in the small of my back bunch, that Lizzie and I could check into a swank downtown hotel and visit one of those super sweet spas for traditional Filipino massage, steam, and so forth. We could swim in the hotel pool, watch cable TV, shop in the attached mall(s). There's a really nice hotel in Makati City, the Shangrila EDSA, that costs P7000.00 a night (about 140 bucks) with a swank spa attached, where massages (2.5 hours!) run about P3000.00 (or 60 bucks).

After doing a little mouth watering research, I discovered that most spas won't allow kids under the age of 16 or 18. Dang.

Beng suggested that I get room service to work on us. Good idea--but then again, I'd like Lizzie to be able to experience that new-age music, little waterfall over smooth rocks, good smelling kind of spa space I'm craving.

Lili Rose, who I ran into in the hallways--a moment like home that made me even more wistful--thought I'd be able to convince the spa to make an exception. "No problem," she said. "Filipinos are like that. We like to make exceptions."

Maybe rules here are like the lines painted in the road, marking off lanes--ridiculous suggestions nearly always sacrificed to expedience: three lanes become five; a 12.75 year old girl becomes sixteen.

Then again, at the rate of at least 15,000 pesos per day, time might accelerate.


The afternoon's waning. Something approaching sun is peeking out from behind the gray. Lizzie will be home from school in an hour or so and I'll have to think about what to fix us for dinner.

So now I'm going to unplug, get out of this airconditioned box, and wander downstairs, load this onto the page, dream about ice cream, red wine, dark chocolate, and giggling in the kitchen, late, with my best girls.


... and of COURSE I can't get onto the internet down here. I get the connection symbol, the little green fan of joy down in the bottom righthand corner of the screen, and the little yellow dancing ball that tells me that the network's acquiring my address has stopped flitting back and forth, but freaking Firefox tells me that the "host server" of everything can't be found.

I'm no longer wistful. Now I'm FISTFUL, me and my permanently impacted anus. Grrr. Which means that I'm totally ready for the spa getaway.

(I purchased a little internet prepaid stick thing that you put into a USB port. It screams along at 3 mbps--yeehaw! Right now it's working, at its painful speed. But it's working. And that's how I'm circumventing the downstairs tangle. Bermuda tangle.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009


1. Those frogs I see squished into paper thin ghosts of themselves, dried out by the sides of the roads--where do their guts go?

2. Why do the comfortable shoes that I spend $70.00 on give me blisters on both heels?

3. What are the small yellow fruits that litter the sidewalk with mushy splotches, asking me to slip and fall?

4. Where do these fits of restlessness, which no amount of movement or stillness or talk or silence will cure, spring from?

5. Will I be able to plan a trip out of Manila for the week after next or will I find excuses to put it off and put it off?

6. Why does chocolate cake taste so good?

7. How did the little black weevils get into the package of macaroni in the bottom cupboard (and how did the package get slit)?

8. Why do people put their small dogs into parrot sized wire cages in their front yards?

9. Who would think to breed husky dogs for the Philippines and why did we see so many husky puppies at the pet store?

10. Why aren't there more swimming pools here?

11. How far away from me, right now, are the white sand beaches?

12. Where's the low level shock I feel, the humming in my bones and the frizzle in the tips of my fingers, coming from when I use the left burner on the cookstove?

13. Does that mean that, while I'm cooking, I'm cooking myself?

14. Where does my mind go when, all of a sudden, it drifts away from me?

15. How do I get it to come back?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Soaked and wet"

When Lizzie was a little girl, and got caught in the rain, or exited the bathtub before a towel could be made ready for her, she'd hop up and down on her feet, shiver loudly, and complain that she was "soaked and wet," which always made Dave and me giggle.

Now we're living the "soaked and wet" episode of our lives, Lizzie and I. It's been raining, madly, with whipping winds that howl through the apartment and smack the doors and windows around, off and on since... God, since I can't remember when. Did this start on Saturday? Sunday? In any case, we're up to the J name typhoons, and my students (source of all information on the fly) assure me, with shrugs, that this is normal, yeah, about 10 storms, by the beginning of August.

I walked home from classes yesterday and got wet, again. My Earth sandals (flip flops) have developed a nice earthy smell that no concoction can eliminate, and every dip in the rain accentuates it. Furthermore, I think the skin on my feet, which can never really dry, is beginning to slough off. If you're thinking ew, gross, you're not alone. I think that a lot, too.

Beng thought I should not let the rain get to me, and should venture out today, Friday, to the Vargas Museum cafe on campus, sip a latte and scribble in my notebook. Sounded like a good plan, in the abstract. And then a massive wind tore through the yard outside and a wall of water smacked against the open window, drilling onto the floor and tumbling all the random papers off the table. Lovely.

So I slammed the rest of my Coke Zero and came down here, to the breezeway, where the aggressive breezes are at least keeping the mosquitoes at bay, and have been lost on Facebook for more than an hour. Maybe I'll make it to the cafe later.


Cynch has been busy with "depressing" reports to the Department of Education, so I toddled off to the nearby UP Cooperative to buy a few necessities (syrup, butter, Pringles, ice cream). I dumped all the change coins into a pocket on my shopping bag and headed home.

As I walked toward the Campus Health Center, I saw a lost and semi-drugged looking little boy, probably about 7 or 8, waiting for me in the middle of the sidewalk. I prepared myself for the encounter, flashing back to Slumdog Millionaire, which Lizzie and I just watched. Okay, I said to myself, do it, give him the change. He asked me for money and I dug around in the pocket until I fished out the handful of coins and handed it to him. He looked into his palm with narrowed eyes, probably wondering just how much I'd managed to dump on him. Across the street, a woman with a baby in one arm and an umbrella in the other, and a little girl of about 5 wandering in front of her, smiled and called out to him.

By the time I'd made my way nearly to the corner, where I turn in to home, the Balay Kalinaw, an old woman had stationed herself in the middle of the sidewalk. What? Do they have radar? I had time to wonder, before she stopped me and asked for help. She gestured to her neck, where scaly white patches climbed up into her hair. "I'm sick," she said.

"Oh," I said. "That's too bad." I fumbled with my wallet and pulled out the first bill--50 pesos--and handed it to her. I smiled and she smiled and nodded and then I moved on.

As I made my way down into the apartment complex, it occured to me that my colleagues, if they'd been with me, never would have let me give money away. "You encourage it," they'd say. "It creates a bad atmosphere at the University. Beggars flock here, and bother the students. Then we have a situation like we had a few years ago, where they're holding people up on campus and stealing their laptops. So the University is asking that we don't give money to beggars."

But, I told them in my head, climbing the stairs with my melting ice cream, what am I supposed to do? I just watched Slumdog Millionaire and parts of it made me want to climb out of my skin, screaming. After all, it's just dumb luck that I was born white, middle class, and American, to overeducated parents. What if I'd been born dirt poor, black, and Indian, my mother digging a hole for us to live in the hills of garbage? Shouldn't I acknowledge this luck and, if I can, spread it around a little? Besides, I can't tell a 7 year old boy to "get a job"--begging is his job. And who knows what waits for him on the other side of the street? A mom with her umbrella, waving and calling out, or a Fagin with his eyeball melting spoonfuls of acid. I can't tell a poor old lady with spots on her neck to get a job, or, with a clean conscience, hustle past her as if she's scum...

Besides, I'm reading Charles Dickens now, Hard Times, and I'm reminded that the worst things happen when we lose sight of our humanity, when we look at people as numbers rather than fellow human beings. We become poisoned machines.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Unexpected Holiday

Hi everyone--

Felice asked after my last post about the reaction to Corazon Aquino's death here. Well, today's the funeral, and the government has declared a special holiday so that, across the nation, people can pay respects to a woman who helped the country turn away from martial law and back to democracy.

Last night, Beng went to the Manila Cathedral to pay her respects to Cory, as she's called here. On TV, I could see lines and lines of people passing the open coffin, signing the cross and then moving on. It was raining hard, off and on, and so I decided to decline Beng's invitation to come with her, despite my urge to be a part of this country's history.

Today, we met up with Joe and Kokkeong, who run the Philippines exchange program back at SNC. They're here to renegotiate the contract between SNC and the UP; perhaps if we change the program a bit and add a little more flexibility for SNC professors, more of them will opt to apply for the exchange.

We were going to head out to Intramuros and Fort Santiago again, but the rain is quite heavy, so we ended up at the Mall of Asia (huge place--pictures to follow in another entry), and ate lunch at the Pancake House. I'm sure that Joe didn't travel 1000s of miles to this country in order to eat at the equivalent of a Denny's, but he was a good sport and let Lizzie take the lead (too many choices at the M of A, let me tell you; at the directory, we stood there for at least 5 minutes, contemplating three long lists of available restaurants). Then we headed out for a pair of cheap shorts, which we found at the SM Hypermarket, aptly named. I'm trying not to let it affect my ego that I'm a size LARGE here, by the way.

On our way back to campus, we passed a clot of parked cars on the expressway, pulled over to the side. A line of people leaned over the railing, looking down at the freeway below, where we could see a long procession of people clothed in yellow shirts. That's where the funeral cortege will bring Cory's body on the way to her burial.

When I woke up this morning, it occured to me that I'd forgotten to bring home my work--I've got a set of fiction exercises to read through, and I usually hand them back on Thursdays. So as we passed through campus on the way back to the apartment, I asked if we could stop at the Faculty Center so that I could run in and get my work. The building was dark and, for once, still. No one ran into or out of the building. "I wonder if it's locked up," I said.

"No," said Kokkeong. "It won't be."

But it was. Only a single turon vender sat outside the locked front entrance, giving me a half-hearted smile and shrug as I jiggled the door, futilely, against its bar.

"No homework for me, I guess," I said, dodging fat raindrops as I squeezed back into the car.

And so here we are, fully reloaded with Buffy episodes (Joe acted as our Buffy mule, bringing us seasons 4 through 7 from home), the delicious kettle corn that Cynch has managed to hook us on (there was a stand in the M of A, of course), delivered from school and homework.


We have new neighbors in the apartment next to us. They moved in a few days ago, and we were instantly aware that they were American. Because it's so hot, we've got our windows open all the time, and sound travels nicely across the air shaft--we could hear them and their children talking, laughing, making dinner, playing little kid games full of under-the-breath color commentary.

I met Nathan, a PhD candidate in Political Science at a university in Australia, yesterday when I came home from school. He's studying trade relations with the Philippines, and he followed one of his advisors from the University of Illinois to Australia. He and his family, including wife Vanessa and two boys, 3 and 5, are here for four months while he does research. Nathan and Vanessa are originally from California, but have ended up here. He's actually driving while he's here--they got their car yesterday.

I have yet to meet Vanessa and the boys, but I'm sure that we'll meet up soon, probably over laundry. Nathan says his wife's having a little trouble with "staring and catcalls" while they're out and about. Apparently, they walked down to the busy avenue, Commonwealth, that fronts the main entrance to the University, and managed to walk past rows and rows of shanties. Now Vanessa's afraid, Nathan says, to take the boys out by herself.

I smiled and nodded, thinking thank God I'm past that stage. And thank God I spent all those years in Mexico, getting used to it. Reminds me of our Psychology professor friends at Grand Valley State University, the ones who told us about the consolations of downward social comparison, where you look at those you deem to be less fortunate than yourself and say, with a mental pat on your own mental back, "At least I've got it better than that." Smugness: the universal cure for social and cultural depression.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Adventures in Laurieland

It's very windy at this minute. A gale whips through the plants along the breezeway and threatens the screen, threatens to slam it closed over my typing fingers. But the wind feels good on my skin.

This morning, after Lizzie got onto her school bus, I tried to walk out of campus and down to a big shopping center strip mall, along a busy street, Katipunan. But somewhere along the way, I must've taken a wrong turn, because I got going down C. P. Garcia (which I seem to remember Cynch saying is the way to go) and after passing a lot of squatters' settlements on either side of the street, and a lot of fenced off UP fields with menacing NO TRESPASSING signs, I made it to the Vet Med Center and the Red Cross Emergency Center and hit a snag: no sidewalk, running water and garbage piles in my way and bleating trucks vrooming past me on the other side. Literally, my courage quailed inside me--I felt a little trembling in my stomach that spread out into my arms and legs, then fingers, and I realized that the sun was pressing down on me like a big wet, smoking hand.

So I turned around and made my way back into campus. On reflection, I realized that I probably went drastically in the wrong direction, and that if I'd continued on C. P. Garcia past the obstruction, I would have ended up on the crazy 6-8 lane freeway that fronts the main entrance of the University, and would have had to navigate my way back into the homebase through a snarl of Jeepneys.

That was my adventure for the day. I got back after my long, hot walk by passing the University COOP shopping center, and bought myself some mayonaisse so that I could have a good oldfashioned tuna fish sandwich on wheat for lunch. When I took off my backpack, I discovered that I'd sweat through the back of my shirt and along the strap. I won't even go into details about my khakis. Suffice it to say, I did laundry.

At this moment, the khakis are probably dancing frantically on the clothesline, threatening to break free and whirl into the ventilation shaft in the middle of our building, down onto the blue tarp stretched across half the enclosed patio below, never to be worn again. I'm not sure I'd really mourn their passing.


Speaking of clothing, I need a pair of shorts. I thought that the Philippines, in the absence of any knowledge, would be like Mexico--where the wearing of shorts is done only by clueless tourists, with a slouchy, black socks aplomb that practically screams "I have no idea what I'm doing!" So I didn't bring any shorts, and now I'm paying the (sweaty) price for that assumption. All I've got is a bevvy of skirts. I'm wearing the skirt I traded the khakis for, earlier, and I feel like an imposter. I'm NOT a skirt woman. I think skirts imply a sort of femininity that I can't embody.

Or won't.


I entertained the idea this afternoon, after slogging through the Faulkner stories for tomorrow's American Lit class ("A Rose for Emily" and "Barn Burner") and thinking about how alien and silly the American south of the 1920s and 30s might seem to some of my students here, and thinking further that the American south seems even more alien and silly to my Wisconsin students back home, of hopping into a taxi and heading back to the mall for a shopping excursion sans Lizzie. ("If you get lost," she said this morning, when we first contemplated the possibility of a solo trip to the mall, "just text me when I'm on the bus and I'll have to text you directions out of there." She likes to be necessary to me, my own personal compass and company.) Then I decided that I'd rather remain on my couch with Flannery O'Connor, our Thursday meal, who makes no apologies for portraying her American south as both silly--corrosively absurd, at times--and fundamentally alienating.


A boy is sitting in front of the cable TV here in the breezeway, laughing out loud at something on the tube. It's "I-Carly," one of Lizzie's favorites at home. I can almost imagine that I'm typing this at the kitchen table on Reed Street, looking out over our pathetic backyard into Ruby's clotheslines and the well-tended flowerbeds she coaxes along between baleful glances at the tumbled down piles along the back of our rotting garage.


In other news, I am now able to scrape half of my hair into a tiny pony tail, about the size of a child's thumb.

Also, a mosquito has bitten the soft skin on my upper arm, the white fleshy part closest to my breast. Sneaky little bugger.