Saving Sally

Photo from the Saving Sally Facebook Page

For the first time in my life, I looked forward to this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). Gone were the usual slapstick comedies, the bland predictable dramas, the sorry excuses for horror, and the endless sequels to these which is probably more horrifying than anything. Instead, the MMFF promised a slew of creative storytelling and clever scriptwriting.

And of course, there is Saving Sally, produced and directed by Avid Liongoren.

My first and only encounter with Avid Liongoren was way back in 2006 at the first Graphika Manila convention — a gathering of graphic design artists, students, teachers and enthusiasts. It was my first year of teaching at the School of Design and Arts of De La Salle College of St. Benilde and faculty members got free tickets so I signed up to go.

Avid was one of the speakers there, and he delivered a very engaging talk about his experiences in the industry — how he had to shoot a car commercial without an actual car, and he instead used a realistic toy model and used some “graphics design” magic (as he called it) to produce the video. He showed us the clip and it was pretty impressive. You wouldn’t know it was a toy car if you didn’t know the back story.

What impressed me most about Avid though, was that he was a passionate storyteller. He weaved in and out of his narrative with just the right blend of humor and seriousness. He connected well with the audience and he could have spoken for hours and no one would have minded much.

After that, I searched for Avid online and found that he blogged at (which was one of the many blogs killed by the coming of Facebook). I first read about this project called Saving Sally there, and I wondered when the film would come to reality.

So fast forward ten years into the future, and there we have it, Saving Sally, on the big screen, which I watched with my wife, my daughter and my sister-in-law a couple of days ago — and it did not disappoint.

Although it promised to be a “very typical love story,” the telling was not at all typical. There was a delightful blend of animation and reality. The real and surreal were paired together in a very matter-of-fact everyday manner, like the monsters walking around Metro Manila or Sally’s weird house on a cliff in the middle of the city.

Humor was subtle, and often hidden in the background, in names of places like Sandara Park, or menu items like Kinilaw na Kanin or Ginatang Gata. It was a delight discovering them, like finding Larry Alcala’s face in old Sunday magazines.

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advises an aspiring writer not to write about love — not because it is difficult to write about it, but because so much has already been written about it that it would be difficult to come up with something original. In Rilke’s words, “Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance.

Saving Sally does not tell us anything new about love, but it never pretended to in the first place. The delight one finds in this movie is not in the story’s originality but in the way the story was told. William Shakespeare wrote, “Things won are done. Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” And in this story, joy’s soul was in the telling from a master storyteller himself.

I waited a long time for this movie, and it was worth every minute.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Atheist’s Christmas

Photo Credit: pinguino Flickr via Compfight cc

I first joined a church choir when I was 14, and it would be many years before I left. Christmas was a very busy time for us because aside from all the usual activities that accompany the season, we would be heavily rehearsing for the Christmas concert of our church (traditionally called a cantata).

At first, these cantatas were sung in the usual way — in choir formation, with solos and duets here and there. As the years went by, the presentations became more elaborate. We would have mini-skits to illustrate the song, complete with costumes and props. The highlight of my choral career came when I was in my early 20’s. We had a full-blown musicale drama where I wrote major parts of the script and played the part of an angel acting as sort of a conscience for the lead character.

That was such a huge event for us that we decided to move the venue out of our 300-person capacity church into a school auditorium that could seat a thousand. And instead of having just one playdate on December 25, we had to arrange for 2 playdates, both of which were jam-packed.

But no matter how simple or elaborate the presentation was, Christmas musicales, concerts or cantatas have just one theme — and that is to focus on the birth of Jesus Christ, who would one day be crucified and thus save the world. So the songs would be all about this, as well as evoking feelings of love, generosity, and kindness.

This was all before I discovered that many Christmas traditions were rooted in pagan ones (like Christmas trees, gift-giving, and so on which I wrote about a couple of years ago in XMas). Even the date itself was borrowed from the annual winter solstice celebrations of pagan religions, in the hopes that the Christian version would be popularly embraced as well, and to the credit of whichever pope or bishop thought of this, indeed it was.

A few years ago, a Christian friend of mine found it amusing and ironic that a group of my friends mostly composed of agnostics and atheists gathered together for a Christmas party. But I thought there was nothing ironic about it. Whether Christians like it or not, Christmas today has become so much more than about the celebration of a person. It has become a celebration of humanity — when friends and families come together in happy reunions, when OFW’s fly home to see their wives, husbands and children after missing them for so long, when we experience the joy of giving and receiving gifts from friends and loved ones.

One of my employees belongs to a religious sect that has a reputation for not celebrating Christmas (even though the name of Jesus Christ is proudly headlined in the name of their sect). So I asked him about this and said, “Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?”

And he said, “Oh but we do. We just don’t believe in having parties or celebrating it on December 25 because everyone knows that’s not really when Jesus was born. We actually believe in celebrating Christmas every day of our lives.”

Indeed, what would the world be like if every human being celebrated Christmas this way? What would the world be like if we practiced love, generosity and kindness every day of our lives?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Letting Go of Your Child

Photo Credit: Duncan Rawlinson – – @thelastminute Flickr via Compfight cc

When I look at my own children, I wonder what they will be 10 or 20 years from now — what path they will take, what mistakes they will make, and what achievements they will accomplish. As a parent, I wish the best for them, of course, and I try to assist and support them along the way. Sometimes though, I it is also important that I allow them to fail, to learn the consequences of their actions.

What is tough about parenting is learning to walk the fine line between shaping and influencing your children to be their best, and being a control freak, forcing them to live a life of your own choosing instead of theirs.

A parent can sometimes be their own child’s worst enemy, as illustrated in this short anecdote by Anthony de Mello:

A man met a woman at a supermarket. The woman was pushing a grocery cart with two little boys sitting inside it. The man said, “Oh what cute little kids you have. How old are they?”

The woman replied, “The doctor is three, and the lawyer is two.”

I remember when I was in my senior year of high school, how some of my classmates and friends were sad or angry because their parents were forcing them to apply to colleges they did not want, and wanted them to select majors they had little interest in. Some were forced into medicine, others into accounting or business, and so on. I was fortunate that my own father let me decide for myself what I wanted, and supported me all the way, even if I later on changed gears and shifted majors.

Having experienced that kind of unconditional love and support from my father, and actually my entire family, I want to extend the same to my children.

My youngest daughter was once asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. I thought to myself that she could be all sorts of things — she was a gifted pianist, a pretty good artist and she excelled in her academics. But instead of saying any of these, she replied, “I just want to be happy.”

When I thought about it, I guess there is not much else one can really wish for one’s kids other than for them to be outrageously happy.

Let me close by quoting a few verses from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, about letting your children be themselves:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Letting Go of God

Photo Credit: .v1ctor Casale. Flickr via Compfight cc

A popular spiritual phrase I first encountered when I was a teenager was “Let go and let God.” Even today I still hear people using these words as a way of comforting or giving advice to others.

If you are angry because of some injustice, let go of that anger. God will take justice for you.

If you are sad because of some misfortune, let go of that sadness. God will make you happy.

If you are disappointed because a broken promise, let go of that disappointment. God will give you hope. He always keeps his promise.

If you are confused and cannot understand what is happening, let go of that confusion. God will make things clear to you in his own time and wisdom.

And so on.

While the above words would probably make a pretty good sermon, they are at best, a temporary reprieve. Do not get me wrong. I do think some people have been genuinely touched and healed by those words. It has allowed them to move on or move forward (which are pretty popular terms these days).

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Rev. Arnel Tan in my column and was delighted to receive an email from him. Let me tell you another story about him. Maybe he will send me another email.

Arnel was officiating a child-dedication ceremony where my wife was a ninang (godmother) and my good friend Arthur Yap (who is a pastor and president of Davao Christian High School) also stood as a ninong (godfather). During the sermon, as he was advising the parents on the roles of the godfathers and godmothers, Arnel saw both Arthur and I sitting close to each other. He said, “You have a complete lineup here. If you want your child’s faith to grow, you go to Arthur. But if you want her faith to be challenged, you go to Andy.”

So let me challenge you to not just let go and let God but to let go of God.

To let go and let God is a temporary relief to a deep-seated longing within you. The admonishment helps you postpone that longing and you hope that the answer will come later in your life, or even at the moment of death. It is like wishing for a magic band-aid to heal all your scrapes and bruises. It is like hoping for a divine father to always be there to fight your battles and to provide what you want and need.

There is nothing wrong with such desires, but if we keep indulging them, we will never grow.

There is an old saying that goes “When a father helps his infant child, all the world smiles. When a father helps his grown-up child, all the world weeps.” (Of course, this phrase also applies to mothers).

As a parent, one of my deepest desires is for my children to no longer need me; for them to be able to think on their own; to handle their own problems; to earn their own money; to solve their own problems. This is how nature is. The eaglet gets kicked out of the nest after some time. The lion cub is no longer fed but taught to hunt on its own.

Why do people hang on to a concept of God that cripples instead of enables them?

“How do I find God?” asked the disciple.

“Let go of God,” said the master.

“How do I do that?” said the disciple.

“It is like letting go of air,” said the master.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Let It Be

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight cc

“Read the music. Don’t look at the keys. Don’t memorize,” said Miss Baz, my piano teacher. She had chinky eyes and white hair and she looked ancient, especially to my nine-year old self. She blended in quite well with the antique surroundings of the Fernandez Piano school in the 1980’s. My lessons were held in a little back corner of the school where there was an open door leading outside, which provided light to that small space.

I would look longingly at that door during my sessions with Miss Baz. I imagined myself jumping around outside like the little elves which adorned my copy of John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course. I cannot count the number times I kicked myself in the head for volunteering to take piano lessons. I had done so because my friend, Arthur, announced to me that he was taking lessons and at that time, I thought it would be a good idea to also do so, so we could play afterwards.

Little did I anticipate that taking piano lessons meant giving up Saturday morning cartoons. Now I couldn’t watch Scooby Doo, Space Ghost, and Superfriends. I wanted to stop but my dad, who was overjoyed when I finally decided to learn the piano, wouldn’t let me quit at first. He said I would regret it later.

So I endured and I somehow finished John Thompson and went on to grade 1. Then I finished that too and made it to grade 2. And then I couldn’t take it anymore. Perhaps it was because I was learning by rote. I could play my pieces but only after long and arduous practice sessions at home. I could read the notes but at a very slow pace. I would go through them at home and try to memorize everything so I could play them when it was time to face Miss Baz.

I remember being so frustrated several times while practicing at home that I took the piece and crumpled it and threw it on the floor. Miss Baz was not amused when I showed up with an uncrumpled piano piece.

A short while after that I confronted my father and asked why he was forcing me to play the piano. He said he wasn’t forcing me and reminded me that I was the one who wanted to take lessons in the first place. Then he told me to think about it and come back to him later in the day if I really wanted to quit, and that would be the end of it.

So I did, and I stopped playing the piano when I was around 11.

I think that was a huge disappointment for him. He probably thought I would be like him. My dad could play the piano beautifully, and sometimes you only need to hum the music and he could play the chords to accompany the tune. We were a very musical family. My sisters could also play, and my cousins as well. One of them is even a professional concert pianist.

A few years ago, my wife and I were pleasantly surprised to discover that our youngest daughter had seemingly acquired the gift for piano-playing. She was around five and a half when she began accompanying her older sister to piano lessons. After a few weeks, their teacher told us that the younger sister was interested in playing her older sister’s pieces, and was showing remarkable progress. We didn’t think much of it that time.

Then we moved to another teacher, Professor Russell Brandon, a retired Scottish concert pianist, who told us later on that he initially didn’t want to take someone so young, but then recognized something in the way she played her audition piece, and so he took her on.

The next few years breezed by and we would be amazed time and again as she began playing more complex pieces one after another. Professor Brandon soon arranged for her to play in public recitals and concerts which she began doing when she was 8. She is now 10 and has played in 6 public concerts both in Manila and Davao, the last one at Claude’s Le Cafe de Ville where she played Mozart to a full house of around 80 people which included the 90-year old Miss Fernandez whom I had not seen since I stepped out of her school.

Anyway, watching and hearing her play inspired me to learn again. I have always maintained that I could learn the piano. I was just taught with the wrong method and didn’t have the right motivation. I recently saw an online piano course that had more than a hundred videos and was selling for a discounted price, so I bought it.

I liked the sample video and how the teacher taught it. It was not very heavy on note-reading but more on learning chords and rhythms. It is easy to follow and after a few short lessons, I can now play the C-chords as well as the other major chords.

At forty-three, I don’t think I will be ever be able to play Mozart in my lifetime, but at least I can passably play the Beatles “Let It Be,” and I’m happy with that.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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