Another Book Review: One Smart Heart

(This review by Rufino Pamaran III, 7, was published in the Fun Page of The Manila Bulletin on February 7 this year. Reading does wonders to children. And children who write reviews such as this do wonders to writers who believe that wonders come as a part of the package of grace.)

"I am a big brother. I have three brothers: Carmelo, who is 3 years old, Matteo, who is 2 years old, and now we have Alejandro or Ali who just “came out” from my mama (5 months old). Because I am the big brother, I have a lot of responsibilities. It is very hard to be the kuya (big brother), because my brothers are very malikot (antsy) and they don’t follow me.

"But I love them anyway because they help me sometimes. And I have fun when I play with them my favorite game of “where’s kuya?”.

"But there’s this book, where the smaller brother is the one who is like the kuya to his older brother. It is called Big Brother. I read it and I liked it a lot. Bunsoy is the smaller brother. And he is really small. He is 10 years old, thin, and small—not like me—but he is also smart and is going to be the valedictorian of his class. His kuya Tinuy is big and round but thinks like a baby even though he is almost grown up.

"There are kids like Tinuy in my old school, in a class that they call SPED. They are older than me but they are a little different when they talk or play. Tinuy can only say a few words like Nay (Nany), Nuy (Tinuy), Soy (Bunsoy), tory (story),and Da Best (the best), and likes just one book read to him over and over again called The Smelly Black Dog. And well, he likes playing with smelly dogs too.

"Bunsoy’s mama is going on a long trip and Bunsoy has to take care of his kuya. But Bunsoy is a little angry because he has no time to study after taking care of his kuya at night. It is just like when my mama leaves me at home with yaya and my brothers when she has work or errands.

"But then his kuya surprisingly started sleeping early every night. Bunsoy was able to study. He was eventually named Valedictorian and will get a medal on his graduation. Maybe, Bunsoy thought that his kuya understood what he needed to study and went to sleep early. Maybe his kuya is smart too, after all! Then his graduation day was a big surprise for everyone!

"I like the book, and my mama liked it too. It is a good book for kuyas like me, she says. It is also a good book for kids who don’t know what SPED kids are like. They can be different from us. But they can be smart too in their own way.

"Points I like:
• Bunsoy became valedictorian.
• It talks about SPED kids having a smart heart.
• It shows all the hard work involved in being a responsible kid."

Rufino, if you happen to read this post, I want you to know how happy this review has made me feel. Big thanks, big brother, from the bottom of my heart.


Six-hour Chat

We manage to break our own record—my friends (former peers in the ad agency where we met) and I. We get together on a whim—a rare time when we are all free—and spend six hours chatting, non-stop, in one place!

Six hours is the length of about four movies, or one complete night’s sleep, or a road trip from Manila to Baguio with bad traffic.

It is our longest chat yet. It starts at lunch and ends just before dinner. The only reason the waiters at Friday’s do not throw us out is, we keep our orders coming—from a heavy lunch to a sumptuous snack, to fancy drinks during Happy Hour.

There seems no end to topics, four months since we last met. We've all been buried deep in our own varied persuasions. Julia just arrived from a month-long tour of Europe. Gi vacationed in the US. And By had tourism and real estate projects in Luzon and Visayas, traveling from South to North on frequent intervals.

And me? I travel from my work corner at home to the kitchen, particularly the fridge, and back, then back again—caught in a frenzy of rapt marathon writing.

They had photos and photos to show. I could have shown my new manuscripts had I remembered to bring them.

My eyes pop as I notice Julia’s pewter earrings. “Oh, you are wearing silver leaves of grace!” I exclaim.

She takes them off and says, “They’re yours. Leaves of grace belong to you.” She got them at the Bangkok airport while waiting for a connecting flight back to the Philippines.

“Oooooh,” I swoon and wear them quickly.

“Oooooh,” they swoon in unison.

Julia orders a double chocolate fudge cake, which instantly raises our sugar levels. A couple of hours later, French fries, then one more hour later, margarita for the three of them, and for this blogger, another glass of ice water.

For me, these restful, joyful six hours away from the computer are a boon to tired muscles and strained eyes. To laugh and giggle and talk inanely about everything and anything all at once, now, that’s what I call R&R.

The dinner crowd starts to file in, so we file out. We promise to see each other again. The date is movable. In another four months, or more, or less—maybe.

Plans between friends are best when dates are unscheduled, and hours are unmeasured.


Towel Me Dry

My love for towels is not unique. I have seen some of my friends’ linen closets. They’re filled with towels from floor to the rafters! One of them even has a whole room of towels—every row a different color. If you’ve been to Rustan’s linen section, you know what I mean.

My linen closet is nowhere near those.

But despite my fondness for towels, I never had to buy one in my life—none that I remember. Somehow, I always get them as presents from relatives and friends who come home to the Philippines for a short vacation.

Last December, however, I thought I had to take advantage of the linen sale in a mall. My towel collection was running dry. I hadn’t received a towel gift in, what, a couple of years, or more. Reluctantly, I bought four—thinking twice, thrice, whether I wanted to part with that kind of money (nice, fluffy towels in this country could cost you an arm and a leg!).

Then Christmas came and what do you know! Wrapped grace in the form of towels! And during our clan reunion, we won door prizes in the form of towels. Then a month later, some more friends came home for a vacation and we got pasalubongs (coming home presents) in the form of towels!

You might think towel is too insignificant a topic to even write about. Well, every good and perfect gift comes from above. Nothing is insignificant about grace. Nothing is insignificant about the terry cloth that keeps us dry after a nice, brisk shower or a lazy, lingering bath.

Now, imagine a life without towels. We’d be all wet.


A Book Review:

Full of Grace

(One of the perks of being an author is getting encouraging book reviews. Here’s one— published in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine—that put sunshine in my steps that day.)

"They’re probably the best antidote to the creeping dread one feels when reminded, once again, that 2009 is bound to be a difficult, crisis-logged year.

"The three slim volumes of Gifts of Grace promise just that—with their collection of heartening encounters between the author, former advertising whiz, Grace Chong, and the assorted folk who define her circle: her mother, cousin, neighbor, mentor, boss, sister, aunt, client, brother, teacher, pastor, and so on.

"Reading the short conversational vignettes, one is struck by how Chong’s circle of family and friends seem to be extraordinarily kind and generous with their time and resources, how uniformly inspiring each fellow is and how each encounter bequeaths a blessing. Now why can’t we have a neighbor like that? How come Chong gets all the good ones, while we’re stuck with cranky acquaintances and ornery relatives? Are these people even real?

"But they are, and one soon discovers why the author seems to have cornered a major chunk of these made-for-TV commercial personalities. The answer, quite literally, lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s Chong’s guileless perspective and open-hearted acceptance of people—their flaws, merits and circumstances—that have made the difference. Yup, the usual half-empty or half-full glass point of view.

"Chong’s attitude towards life’s sudden changes illustrates this.

"The former EVP of a multinational ad agency recalled how she balked at the offer of early retirement when their company merged with another biggie. It took a major win at the Palanca Short Story for Children category for her to turn the corner.

"'There is life after advertising,' Chong discovered. At the same time, she shrugs, there was no life after advertising: no rush, no deadlines. 'So I kept busy by writing and rewriting the manuscripts I had written as a closet writer for years.'

"It was at an International Book Fair where she found a brochure of OMF Literature and read about its need for fresh and young writers. 'I am not young but I am definitely fresh,' she chuckled, and forthwith sent the Christian publishing company some manuscripts. 'From that day forward, I have been writing—no longer about shampoos, toothpastes, refrigerators, or other consumer goods—but about God’s grace,' she declared.

"In her three-volume collection, Chong introduces us to people who, in their unique way, have touched her life. Out of everyday encounters with people from all walks of life, she has crafted inspiring stories—at times funny, sharp and witty, often heartwarming and honest.

"'I hope that the people I have written about will make you remember a gift of grace you have likewise received but may have failed to celebrate,' says this author of over 20 children’s books.

"The three volumes, according to their publisher, 'should help you recognize your part in the circle of grace—receiving extraordinary everyday blessings and passing them on to others.

"'Whether you know it or not, you are likewise a channel of grace—healing, inspiring, teaching, pushing, empowering, and disciplining others.'"


Purple Flowers from Mom

After my mother passed on five years ago, I have found no compelling reason to visit the town and the house where I, my four siblings and foster brother, grew up.

Without her, that wooden house with open doors—which she filled with chatter and clutter, and guests of all kinds dropping by and staying overnight or days—is now just a shell, decrepit and decaying.

In its current state, the only things worth saving are bags and bags of photographs of family and friends, diaries, letters, plaques, certificates, and medals of her children which she treasured. A widow for 23 years, she had my dad’s love letters neatly filed still. This was discovered by my sister, who is turning the concrete part of the house (mom's old pharmacy) into a public library, only recently.

Yesterday, however, my foster brother, Peding, and his wife, Carmen, who are visiting from the US, wanted to visit our parents’ gravesite.

And so we trek to that little town’s cemetery. In a sea of stark, cold tombs, we gasp when we see this.

A canopy of beautiful flowers in mom's favorite color—purple! It shades three marble slabs: dad’s, mom’s, and Manang Ibay’s (our househelp of many years).

The flowers are lovely reminders of how grace crowned and blossomed in her life—and how much of that same grace, from the God whom she served, was shared with others.

Mom saw to the planting of that vine with purple flowers, maybe to leave us an imprint of her temporal life with us, and now, her eternal life with Him.


One-chapter Book!

At the launch of Gifts of Grace 3, some friends asked for a copy of the one-chapter book written by JR, “My Mother Grace,” which he read as a part of the program. This number was kept from me by OMF Lit and, therefore, to say I was shocked is way off the mark.

"Your son stole the thunder from you!" friends said as they guffawed the rest of the evening. (Pray tell, from whom did my sons inherit their irreverent sense of humor?)

I promised I’d post it on my site. But what was given to me was the book, and not the soft copy; I never got around to asking JR for his file. Finally I did, and so here it is. It's a couple of months late—sorry about that.

To those who know me well, this one-chapter book is guaranteed to vanish the blues and the blahs.

My Mother Grace
By JR Chong

“What’s that smell?” My upturned nose was in protest as I reluctantly approached my parents’ room.

“Tiger Balm,” my father beamed with delight, as he and my mother excitedly slathered the stuff all over their limbs.

“Smells like ‘White Flower’ to me. You know, what old people use?” I taunted. At that very moment, my life flashed before my eyes. It hit me hard: I was living with seniors and I wasn’t getting any younger myself.

I’m the youngest son of baby boomers who get a 20% discount with a flash of a card. Half of my quirky existence I owe to my mother, Grace, an author.

When my mother became a full-fledged author, I was drafted into service. I’m usually at her book launches, signings, interviews and whatnot, shadowing her or hovering around conspicuously with a camera on standby. And occasionally when she says “This is my son JR,” I flash a ready smile.

In these affairs, I also keep busy by looking at the faces of her readers when they approach her, watching for varying expressions—ranging from unabashed adulation to so-this-is-what-an-author-looks-like. Sometimes it even surprises me how complete strangers know her through her books.

When everything’s said and done, and the last of the support staff file out, the author is no longer a celebrity. She’s back to her role as my mother, plain and simple. A mother who sleeps at a drop of a hat, often open-mouthed, with her head thrown back as if comatose, exposing her turkey neck while snoring. A mother who would probably gorge on a bowlful of cheese-flavored ice cream everyday if I didn’t fuss over her above-average sugar levels. A mother who still covers my books with plastic; probably the only task to which she consents for my laziness.

I suppose my mother Grace is just like all good mothers, the way GOD designed them to be: loving, nurturing, self-sacrificing and “all that jazz.”

So this brings me to an important question: Apart from her idiosyncrasies and avant-garde taste in clothes bordering on Cher, what makes her so special?

Some people might think writing’s a cinch after reading her books, toying with the idea they could do the same feat in a jiffy. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can jot down a string of words that makes some sense. Bite off and chew a mouthful of nouns, verbs and adjectives and regurgitate them into a decent phrase or sentence. No sweat.

But real writers are one in a million.

My mother’s co-teacher once told her she was an excellent caricaturist. A caricaturist, you see, is more than a person who draws and exaggerates the peculiarities of a subject. An excellent caricaturist is actually an artist who sees what others normally don’t. They capture the essence of a subject—the heartbeat—and amalgamate this into their work for all the world to appreciate. True blue writers are, in a sense, caricaturists.

My mother’s so special because she’s exactly that.

It doesn’t stop there however. Not only does she see the beauty in people and things, she makes it a part of herself.

I’m an eyewitness to the different phases of my mother’s life. And I realize this is but a fraction of what she’s experienced because mothers are not born mothers after all. From being a gutsy advertising executive, juggling career and family, to being an inspirational/children’s book author, which is perhaps her most fulfilling role, she continues to learn, grow and move on to the next phase. Not static at all.

She is a gift of grace. A person who, by example, teaches me how to cherish and make the best out of what GOD has given me and embrace life’s changes.

Poised for my late twenties, with people calling me kuya (older male) increasing every year, having a “quarter-life crisis” seems to be all the rage with my age group. My mother used to have the same allergic reaction to getting older.

Contrary to her announcement many years back that she would fight aging every step of the way, she is no longer 50 years old for the nth consecutive year. Now a card-carrying senior citizen, she relishes every single centavo saved with every designer coffee purchase. She blogs about her grandson, accepts the fact that her oldest college student is probably younger than her bunso (youngest child), and shares the perfect ratio for that natural hair color look. And yes, she now reeks of “Tiger Balm.”

Like GOD’s grace, my very own gift-of-grace of a mother can perhaps never be fully figured out. Gifts of grace after all are undeserved but we receive them anyway. All we need to do is be thankful.


Attorney Is as Clever as Her Name

We used to have a succession of dogs—a German Shepherd, a Dalmatian, a Labrador—but none quite as smart as Attorney, a mutt.

All these dogs were sheltered under a fairly big dog house. Attorney gets locked up there too when there are strangers around.

But guess what? Immediately after the strangers leave, Attorney would come out without waiting for anyone to open the latch. Somehow, she has taught herself to turn and push the latch exactly how it should be done. And what's more amazing is, she knows exactly when she is supposed to come out!

Yes, Attorney is as clever as her name. I wonder how she learned the trick and I am wondering even more why the other dogs (all with pedigree) were unable to do the same!

At five months (she was born on September 1), she had to have her shots. And these days, she doesn’t wiggle her tail. It will take another five days before she probably would—when she is allowed to take another bath.

Attorney, the puppy, makes everyone peppy in this household.

Grace comes in various forms. And Attorney is one such form. Yup! I mean, yip!


Scrapbook: Made with Heart and Hand

Scrapbooks fascinate me. I noisily gush over them and I have the deepest admiration for those who make them. Sadly, though, scrapbook making isn’t one of my few assets.

I keep mementoes but I do so very quickly with no regard for symmetry nor beauty. They’re just there, in Clear Books, filed for my occasional peek and posterity.

That’s why when I was given a scrapbook of the Gifts of Grace 3 book launch weeks after the event, but just in time for Christmas, I made an exhilarated leap to the sky.

It was painstakingly made by Gladys (who led the mounting of the event) of OMF Lit and it contained all the things one would want to put in a scrapbook: warm notes from the attendees, ID tags, cards, program, and all the tiny memorabilia that make you play the event in your mind over and over again.

What makes this scrapbook one-of-a-kind is, aside from its contents, the effort that went into choosing and placing every teeny item there, one by one.

It is in this spirit that I remind the young readers of my books that the best presents are not those bought from stores but those made by their own hands, because their hearts are in it.

How many presents do we receive with the giver’s heart and hand? Not many.

But one of them is offered us, over and over again, with every breath we take. This present comes with a name: grace.