Unknown Author of the Month

“Hey, Grace, congratulations! You're author of the month!” a friend called early this month.

“Huh? Where? When? Why? How?” I asked in rapid fire fashion, wondering where that news might have come from. It sounded formidable.

“You’re Power Book’s author of the month! You didn't know?” she asked, her doubt echoing in the receiver.

“No, I didn’t,” I replied. Power Books, my favorite bookstore, never called.

“Well, your prom picture is in all the branches,” she added, her voice singing with undisguised mirth.

Friends. They don’t mince words. I was certain she was referring to my photo in my first gift book six long years ago. In those days, I was a new and unrestrained student of Adobe Photo Shop, experimenting on erasing lines and vanishing blemishes. Nobody has ever asked me for a new photo. And I don’t remember having any solo shot of me taken in the last… well, several years.

That same day, with pulse galloping, I brought my digicam to the Greenbelt branch. This historic honor needs to be properly recorded for the next generation, I told myself, thinking of my 45-day-old grandson, Adrian, who lives in the US.

I took the escalator to the second floor and lo and behold, right there before me—a special gondola filled with my books and atop them was my—yes, prom picture! I rushed to customer service to ask permission to take shots of the display.

“Sorry, ma’am, we don’t allow picture taking,” both young salesgirls said in unison, looking at me with toothy smiles. (It's the story of my life—being turned away when the photo bug bites.)

What to do?

I looked for a mature, sensible saleslady who could give those two girls some motherly advice. “Miss,” I said in a voice reserved for my husband when my driver calls in sick. “Can I take a picture of me?” I cooed, pointing to my picture. “My name is Grace Chong.”

Her twin retinas tripled in size as she exclaimed, “Wow, ma’am, yes, yes, yes, I’ll go and tell Customer Service!”

I followed her long, hurried strides to the two girls.

“Girls, look, this is ma’am Grace Chong, the author of the month! She wants to take pictures of her . . . picture.”

Two loud gasps. “Ma’am, the author of the month! Sorry, sorry, sorry ma’am, we didn’t recognize you. You look older . . . (brief, self-reflective pauses) than your photo!”

Power Books has an excellent training program, I noted, chortling.

Dreaming these days to become a photographer par excellence, I clicked away. But at that hour, the bookstore suddenly teemed with the after-office crowd and all I could have of my prom photo and special corners are what you see in this post.

To my friends and family who are reading this post, you missed your chance at raucous laughin’ and ribbin’. Today, the last day of the month, they are taking that photo down.


Sweet Secret

My endocrinologist will shoot me if he found out what I had for dessert in Cebu!

I am not a dessert person, which is what puzzles me about having been declared diabetic. Not any of my forbears was, according to my mother and father. But my doctor insists, I must have had at least, from ancient past, one diabetic in my family tree. Well, I will never know now, will I?

Back to the doctor-defying dessert.

I usually have a steely will power to resist sweets no matter how loud those finger smacks coming from friends and family are. But this one time, in a quaint, artsy restaurant tucked in an unknown small street in Cebu, I had an out-of-body experience. A dozen sumo wrestlers couldn’t have brought me back to earth or pried my fingers off my fork for the second bite . . . and the third . . . and the fourth. It wasn’t actually that sweet (excuses, excuses), it was just finger-smacking good.

Durian Chocolate Cake, the menu said simply. And my two Cebuana hosts gushed, with dilating irises, “It’s the best, best, best dessert ever!" They ordered one slice each. I ordered another glass of water.

I don’t jump up and down over durian fruit. There’s something about its smell and texture that somehow makes eating not too, um, pleasurable? So that should have been that.

But my hosts were insistent—reminiscent of that tragic day in Eden—just take one bite, they said, and I, Eve, stared at the brown and yellow concoction. It stared back at me. I blinked.

I’d give you the address and name of the restaurant, but I have a funny feeling the owners want the place a well-kept secret. In between my oooohs and aaaahs, upon entering the place (filled with old Filipino artifacts and antique furnishings), I grabbed my camera and started clicking. Before I could take my third shot, however, I was stopped by a lady. “I’m sorry, ma’am, pictures not allowed.”

“Should I erase the two shots I have just taken?” I asked, disappointed but obedient.

She replied with a smile perfected in customer service seminars, “Well, you don’t have to. But you can’t take any more.”

Okay, so I assume I have been given permission to post the two pictures of the place and one photo of the Durian Chocolate Cake (that one she allowed, as long as it is a close-up shot).

My photo of the cake doesn’t nearly capture its indescribably delicious taste. So how come I feel like a heel for sharing this experience, but not really sharing it?

I feel like my cousin Benny when he was nine and I was six. He probably doesn’t remember it, but I do! He licked his two scoops of yellow and pink ice cream, perched on a brown, crispy cone, so very slowly—with big melodramatic sounds—while I sat drooling miserably, nursing an acute tonsillitis.

I also feel like I have an acute tonsillitis while dreading my next visit to my endocrinologist. I wish that my blood chemistry results will not reveal the Durian Chocolate Cake I succumbed to in Cebu, and will remain a sweet secret.


Did I Forget Anything?

On the eve of my departure for Cebu City, where I have been invited for a series of book talks and book signing, I should by now be logging out. Although I think I am all packed and ready, there may still be one or two items which I missed.

Think . . . think . . .

Packing is a very tricky and baffling business. You count the number of days you’ll be away and match it with the same number of clothes and underwear, plus extras. Then on to toiletries, prescription and vitamin pills, and some cheap bling-blings. You tick off the items in your list, one at a time.

But somehow, when you get to where you’re headed, some of the small items which you thought you had are simply not there, even if you turned your luggage upside down.

It's predestined—I always forget some teensy weensy things which were in my “to-pack” list but, for reasons that escape me, never get thrown into the luggage. Nightie. Sunblock. Toothpaste (Why do most hotels withhold this item? It’s infinitely more important than the omnipresent hand and body lotion!) Shades. Vitamin pills. Reading glasses. Mobile phone. Battery charger. Camera. Battery charger. . .

Writing a post will clear my mind. After a paragraph or two, I should remember what my bag—still unzipped—is missing.

O, my plane ticket! Some cash and credit card!

That should be it. I will know for sure, alas, when I land in Cebu. And now to catch some sleep and shush my head from asking the question, “Did I forget anything?”

Before that, I pray for traveling mercies and draw upon the good Book an assurance, 2 Timothy 4:22 “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”


Special Three-hour Trip

Two of my favorite topics for “inspiration” exercises when I conduct a creative writing seminar are:

“The best thing I ever did for a child”
“The best thing an adult ever did for me as a child” 
I like them because I always get stories that move me to tears or tickle me to laughter, even from non-writers. Somehow, at one point in everyone’s life, an act of kindness—big or small—is etched in the heart.

It seems to be waiting for a chance to be retold. And when it is, it leaps at you, larger than life, as though it is happening for the first time. The emotions are fresh, and the images, crisp. Every word is caressed before it is finally released.

The beauty of these exercises is that they are not exclusive to seminar participants. Each time a story is retold, I remember my own two stories, and I am transported to certain special days and times when magic was real.

Let me tell you about “The best thing an adult ever did to me as a child.” As in research, this falls under the category, top-of-mind recall.

I must have been five or six years old when my father brought me to the nearest city from the small town where we lived. It was a three-hour bus ride. The purpose of the trip I can’t recall because it is irrelevant. But it must have been important for me to merit this rare, just-him-and-me, out-of-town treat.

On our trip home, the bus was packed. Aside from their bags, the passengers had with them big boxes, live chickens, sacks of rice, firewood, and many more. The conductor instructed all adults that the children they were with couldn’t have a seat except their laps. (Have you tried sitting on someone’s lap? It’s cozy for a while but it’s the most uncomfortable place to rest on, well, on a three-hour bus ride anyway.)

My dad crossed his legs and let me sit on the space where one of his legs would have been. From where I sat comfortably, by the window, I had the most spectacular view of many town plazas, rice fields, scarecrows, carabaos, birds, all kinds of people doing interesting things, and if I stretched my neck, I would see the mountains afar and the cloudless sky.

And my dad, he stayed in the same exact position--for three hours.

End of story.

Huh? That's it?!

I know it’s nothing earthshaking and may seem a little trivial. But why do I smile and feel warm whenever I remember that day? Why does it top my list as the best thing an adult ever did for me? Why is it that on Father's Day, it is the most vivid image I see when I think of the good times I had with my father?

Beats me.

What I know is that children are different from adults in ways we can never fathom. They treasure things adults ignore or may think insignificant.

In one of my book talks in Cebu City, a little girl about five years old came to me, touched my face so I could focus on her, and recited one of the pages of my book, “What’s for Breakfast?” from memory. I was so moved by her effort I hugged her.

“That’s the devotion for my birthday, May 5," she said.

“Oh, wow, you memorized it!” I said.

“You read it to me when you were here in Cebu one other time,” she said.

“I did?!” I honestly couldn’t remember.

“Yes, you asked me when my birthday was and you turned the book pages to my birthday and you read aloud the whole page!” she said, her eyes shining like 1,000-watt bulbs.

I . . . simply . . . couldn’t . . . remember.

I said a little prayer that when this little girl grows up, she will include my reading of her birthday devotion in her list of “The best thing an adult ever did for me.” It is now in mine as "The best thing I ever did for a child."

My father might not have thought much of that three-hour bus ride when I was five or six, but it stands alone as the best thing an adult ever did for me.

Enjoy the Lord's wondrous grace as you celebrate Father’s Day . . .


Choosing the Right Words

“When you stop learning, you stop living,” my late dad, a reading advocate, used to say. I took that to heart and try to learn something new everyday, hoping to live to a ripe old age.    

Yesterday I learned about the exciting world of anagram from my friend Adie. He and I share the same advocacy: advertising that adheres to the code of ethics. Which is why we see each other at least twice a month.

In our last meeting, while polishing off our lunch, we chatted about his favorite de-stressing activity: anagram. I gasped and rasped a “wow” at the lengths the world has gone to advance anagram art. Today it is a game that is becoming more and more popular among office executives throughout the English-speaking world.

Anagram as I knew it is was simply: a word or phrase spelled by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase—to discover a hidden meaning. Adie’s anagram of “Come to Marlboro Country” = “Cancer Tumor or Lobotomy” earned for him first prize in the worldwide anagram group to which he is an active member; and from me a standing ovation.

But, Adie tells me, that’s nothing. Anagram artists can now work on a poem, a whole essay, or even a book!

I had in mind images of Adie hunched for hours on his desk, ticking off each letter with a pencil and a huge eraser as he forms a new word from one word. “No,” he says. “I have just installed a software called Anagram Artist in my Mac.” This makes rearranging letters and words so much easier and faster. It also allows him, more than ever, to be more creative with the emerging new word or phrase.

Our conversation so fascinated me I surfed the net on anagrams. My mind-bending discoveries included Cory Calhoun’s anagram of Shakespeare’s (the Bard) most famous line in Hamlet:

“To be or not to be: that is the question, whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”


“In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”


I tried my hand at this new learning with the word “grace.” I came up with nothing. Grace is grace. It is complete.

I ponder the word, which is what this blog is all about in the first place, and its completeness—which is written in the scriptures—never fails to overwhelm. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV) quoted the Giver of unmerited gifts, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness."

As I ponder other words, put them together, and give them sense and dimension, I am bowled over by the gazillion of possibilities at my disposal.

Whether anagramming, writing, or simply wordsmithing, we all swim in endless possibilities. But in the end, one has to make choices from this sea of alternatives. It is in the picking that learning--and eventually, skill--takes shape. These come not from our own making, but from a power so big it makes ours so puny.

So, really, everything boils down to one word, grace.

Complete and sufficient, grace is at work when one gains insight into the right word choices that glorify the Giver.

Grace D. Chong = ragged conch? Ouch.


What I Remember (Part 2)

I imagined Brunei (officially Negara Brunei Darussalam), a very rich country, to be as efficient as Singapore and as modern as Shanghai. I imagined glass and steel, cutting edge technology in a place teeming with all the trimmings money can buy.

My imagination failed me.

The Sultanate of Brunei is like a small, developing suburbia with a modest skyline and a landscape sparse in buildings. What it has is a dense water village with about 40,000 families living in homes connected to each other with wobbly wooden bridges. The first thought that comes to my mind is the sewerage system.

The tour guide has a ready, and serious, answer, “Catfish. They’re in those waters and they eat anything and everything.”

On a motor boat, we tour the village, stopping to taste native food inside the biggest of them. As we totter over the rustic wood planks, I take a picture of my foot and beneath it I catch the yellowish water. Why people choose to live on water instead of dry land is beyond tourists like me.

The missing opulence in the landscape is concentrated on the mosque with 29 domes in 24-carat gold; the repository building of valuable gifts from foreign royalty and dignitaries; and the Sultan’s palace—the biggest in the world—with over 1,700 rooms!

Although not visible from the road because of the well-guarded fence and trees, I am able to take a shot of the huge 24-carat gold dome.

"We revere the royal family,” our tourist guide says and announces that alcoholic beverages are banned and therefore, “no nightlife.” It goes without saying that the country is very politically stable and that nobody from the less than 400,000 population will initiate any uprising.

Again, Filipinos are everywhere. One can always tell because they have that special, infectious smile that never lacks luster even under the direst of circumstances. They’re here—far away from their families—because they found jobs they can’t find at home.

My mind leaves Brunei and the cruise.

I remember that there are nine million Filipinos working in every part of the world—caregivers, housekeepers, nannies, waiters, chefs, seafarers, laborers, software designers, nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

These hardworking Pinoys brought to the Philippine coffers over 14 billion pesos in remittances last year, a much-needed boon to our gasping economy. The government calls them modern-day heroes.

They are. For they sacrifice much to be that—the familiarity of home, the culture they grew up in, their friends and families: mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, and children.

At the Captain’s Gala dinner that evening, between the appetizer and entrĂ©e, I chat with our assigned waiter, Richard, 28 years old, who looks spiffy in his tuxedo. He serves us well, extremely well, and his manners are impeccable. He hails from Tondo, Manila, and he has been on luxury ships for eight years as a waiter. Although unmarried, he supports his parents and younger siblings. “I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says nonchalantly.

“What?! No day off?!” I am horrified.

“Twelve hours is long enough for resting,” he says, meaning it. “Besides, where would I go on my day off? And after eight months, I get to sleep and rest all I want,” he adds.

Every member of the crew is hired for only eight months, after which he needs to renew his contract.

My friends and I quickly huddle into a caucus and unanimously decide to double the standard gratuity. It’s the least we can do for someone who deserves more than we do.

I remember other people at home who have at least one member of their family working abroad, serving people other than their own. I intend to tell them about Richard and all the other Pinoys I have met on board and in Sabah, Brunei, and Singapore—about how hard and efficiently they work, and how they make us proud.

And how God’s grace made it possible for me, on this cruise, to come face-to-face with living heroes.

"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Miriam Beard


What I Remember (Part 1)

“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen," said Benjamin Disraeli. I quote him now because he describes me to a tee—in cruising and in living.

If my friends and fellow cruisers were to read what I am about to write, they'd most likely exclaim, “Were we on the same boat?!”

My family often says I either blow things up or shrink them down in writing—never in between. Well, I tell them, I am not a journalist. Having embraced creative writing, I remember only the statistics of my imagination.

Costa Allegra, our posh Italian dwelling at sea for a week, is pristine white, very large, and very proud. Dazzling at noon, it towers over Manila’s Pier 5, where my seven friends and I embark after showing the immigration officers our passport.

On board, people in all colors, speaking in varied European tongues, mill about comfortably, having been on it for days after their last stop in Hong Kong.

The opulence is a bit intimidating. It’s like being in limbo; one is unsure whether he is on earth or elsewhere. But after a while, one seems to fit right in, especially after hearing muted sounds in Filipino coming from the efficient crew in every nook and cranny.

Nena and I share a cabin—complete, compact and squeaky clean. I whine about no Cable TV, too small library, and choppy internet connection, outrageous at one Euro per two minutes! That’s P35 or US 0.80 per minute!

Nena reminds me of what this cruise is all about: 3F’s—food, fun, and fairy tale. I do a quick paradigm shift and promise myself to focus on what’s new, not on what I am used to.

It takes two nights, one day, two West-End-like evening presentations (bravissimo!), five meals from buffet tables laden with what could feed an archipelago, and hours of contemplating the wide blue yonder to get to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah. This city with less than two million people seems to have magically sprung out of a forest. For indeed, Sabah on Borneo Island is encircled with forests.

“We have the cleanest air in the world,” our tour guide says proudly as he points to our next photo-op site, the tall one-pillar building of the Foundation Center.

For one fleeting moment, I rue about Sabah not being ours. This land is being leased from its rightful owner, a sultan of Sulu, Philippines! But in the 60’s, the inhabitants and the UN resolved to make it a state of Malaysia.

I remind myself . . . 3 F’s.

As we walk around the museums showcasing Sabah’s past, I see our own huts. Our cultures are interlocked; we share the same roots.

I follow my friends who earlier rushed to the curio shop. They gush at the novelty items. I look closely and they are the same as those I’ve seen in my frequent travels to Mindanao, Philippines. I skip shopping.

For me, the green, green horizon, endowed with more chlorophyll than all the trees I’ve ever seen, and the lush, lush flora (waiting to be explored), dotted with commercial areas and rimmed with well-paved, wide roads, are what make Kota Kinabalu a place worth visiting again.

Wherever we go, I hear the familiar lilt of my language from waiters, vendors, pedestrians, salesmen, doormen, and taxi drivers. I pause to smile and nod, and they smile and nod right back.

The Muslim mosques astound. Their over two dozen domes are made of 24-carat gold!

If melted, the precious metal would fetch a sum that could build two million modest huts for the homeless in my motherland.

At day’s end, in the taxi that takes us back to the port—where our floating palace stands regally illumined by the crescent moon—with my friends, their purchases crowding our feet and laps, I ask myself, “Having enjoyed a place cleaner, fresher, and prettier than my own, why do I miss home?”