Winning Moon Cakes

and Ang Pao!

By now, Tony is so at home with Ilocano traditions that he often thinks he is an Ilocano, too.

I can't say the same for me with Chinese traditions, especially the Moon Festival. All I knew was that to celebrate it, one ate moon cakes. My in-laws had all gone to glory too soon and the possibility of being introduced to this festival became nil—until last week.

The Mid-Autumn Harvest Moon fell on September 22 this year, and I was delighted to be invited by Tony's cousin to join in the family celebration!

To those unfamiliar like I am, every year on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, when the moon is at its brightness for the entire year, the Chinese celebrate "zhong qiu jie."

There are many legends on how this started but the most interesting one, for me, is this:

Overrun by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Chinese vanquished their oppressors in 1368 AD. The moon cakes—which the Mongols did not eat—were the perfect vehicle for hiding and passing along plans for the rebellion. Everyone was instructed not to eat the moon cakes until the moon festival, which was when the rebellion happened!

Tony said he had been celebrating this festival in his office with his staff, although very modestly, with moon cakes and one Ang Pao (a red envelope containing cash) as prizes for the dice game. Unfortunately, I never got to attend any of them. Chinese people usually celebrate the festival with dances, feasting, and moon gazing. And moon cakes!

Moon cakes are sweet, rich, yummy and very complicated to make. Roughly the size of a human palm, these goodies are sold at rather steep prices so we don't get to eat them very often.

But this year, between Tony and me, we brought home quite a bundle! And that's on top of all the Ang Pao we won in the dice game! After a burpy meal, all 14 of us (ages ranging from 9 to 85, composed of the family patriarch, matriarch, heirs, grand heirs, and Tony and me), gathered around the table and took turns throwing the six dice in a bowl. The object of the game was to win as much prizes by getting prescribed number combination.

Prices were, well, moon cakes from Shangri-la Hotel and heaps of Ang Pao.

Did I win? Everybody did, but as in all raffles and other games of chance, I always end up with the most insignificant prize.

My prizes of grace, however, bubbled over: One, I had fun—shrieking, joshing, laughing, and making noise for the first time with Tony's kith and kin. Two, since I am now an authority on Moon Festivals, I could pass for a rare creature of Chinese descent homegrown in Ilocandia.


Birthing an Angel

Birthing a book is like birthing a baby.

Your publisher, like your obstetrician, has a general idea of the date of delivery—"Give or take two weeks" as margin of error.

Two weeks as a variable is a mighty long time! It sets off the panic button. Especially when you have important specific target dates in mind.

The target dates in my mind for Angel with One Foot, the No. 12 book in the Oh, Mateo! series, was the International Book Fair, to run from September 15 to 19 at SMX, Manila.

If the book couldn't be delivered on any of these dates, it would miss the biggest and most important book event of the year.

Again, uncannily similar to birthing a baby, publishing a book—especially one about an angel—can take many twists and turns down the rocky road. There are just too many people (hardworking and committed they may be) and circumstances involved that can cause a miscarriage.

If someone gets sick, the electricity flickers, a virus attacks the computers, a printing machine breaks down, a holiday is declared, the budget is cut, or a tsunami hits, your deadline goes poof.

It was on the first working day of January that Angel landed on the desk of Joan, my main and first-level editor. Nine months of nurturing and caring later, September, it was due for delivery.

"Will we make it to the book fair?" I asked, taking note of the unexpected delays and feeling a thousand butterflies in my stomach, like labor pains.

Joan had more faith—much, much more—than I did. She texted me, "We'll try our best to finish the final art work in record time, and pray that the printer can slot us in despite his packed workload."

"On what day can you come to the book fair for signing?" Jen of OMFLit marketing texted me after a week.

"Depends on whether Angel is delivered before then. I am not very comfortable with the idea of signing only old books. Please ask Joan," I texted back, the butterflies in my tummy increasing exponentially.

Jen got back to me two days later, "Joan says Angel will be delivered." I took note of the period after her statement. Declarative sentence!

Yes, Angel was delivered. Not by a stork, nor with luck, nor through any one man's power, but by sola gracia.

When Jen handed me a copy of Angel at the OMF booth (photo at upper right hand of this site), I lost my tongue. I reverently held it in my hand, the precious bundle of joy—written, illustrated, edited, reviewed, laid out, designed, proofread, printed—born safely and beautifully in God's perfect time.

With flourish, I signed each copy for children of all ages, their teachers, and their parents in both the OMFLit and PCBS booths. With unconcealed excitement, I answered questions about our newborn at the taped interview of 700 Club. They were my own version of dancing, after the unwarranted mourning.

And voila! The debut of Teo the puppet—cute and cuddly—was the day's coup de grace.

Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. "You of little faith," He said, "why did you doubt?" Matthew 14:31


My Daddy in Me

My father had been gone for so long—28 years tomorrow—we don't very often talk about him anymore. I find myself missing and reminiscing more about my mother, who passed on only seven years ago.

But once in a while, when I talk about the love of reading to children, my memory brings back Dad, he who loved books and any printed matter while he was alive.

As I write, I am commemorating in my mind his 98th birthday and 28th death anniversary—on this in-between day.

Yesterday was his birthday; and tomorrow was the day he went beyond the sunset, the same day Martial Law was being mourned as an unfortunate era in our land, but which Dad thought was done for our own good (he was an Ilocano and a lawyer like Marcos, and a fan of the strongman).

There are no planned family get-togethers or anything to mark both dates.

If he were still around, I know—I'm sure—he'd be the most stringent critic of my books. Alas, he never found out I'd one day be so involved in writing books, the love of his life in the same league as planting trees.

And so I get the next best thing—from Dad's clone in reading and planting, my sister Aie, and her not-too-subtle comments preceded with: "Madi!" (bad); or "Mayat!" (good).

Dad may not have figured in my conscious mind for sometime, but by God's miraculous grace, he figured largely in my subconscious. When I examine my books, I read about orchards; arts and crafts; honesty, living simply, loyalty, respect for privacy, patience; love for family, friends, country, books, and the environment; and many other values in each story.

These are my very own experiences and life's influences that came at me strongly through someone who lived them: my father.

Again subconsciously, I chose plants for my blog headers. My dad was regularly planting trees, shrubs and all sorts of seeds. A master of marcotting and grafting, he had a well-maintained orchard where he nurtured fruit-bearing trees that my siblings, friends, and I enjoyed as children. All the tall trees in my backyard were planted by him.

Today, in Dad's honor, I am changing my header. The old one, which is moving down, and all the headers I have ever posted since I started blogging almost four years ago, are all leaves of plants I grew up with, reminding me of him.

Rarely do I talk about Dad, but the work that I do—and love—is proof that regularly, his memory is a part of me.


Gintong Aklat Awards Night

Golden Book is the English translation of Gintong Aklat.

It is awarded by the Book Development Association of the Philippines, in cooperation with the National Book Development Board, at the International Book Fair every two years to excellent books published during the period.

This year, there were a total of 256 entries in six categories. It isn't easy to win in this contest. What with so many publishers producing good quality books that get better each year!

But I got a special treat when Bezalie, Executive Director of New Day Publishers, texted me, "Flying on Broken Wings is one of five finalists in the inspirational category. Join me at the awards night. Please!"

What do you say to grace glaring at you from your teeny cellphone?

So I headed to the Awards Night and got a chance to be on stage to receive a trophy! I wish I could talk about this at length in more detail, but I am bushed from a whole day of browsing, and shopping, and signing books at the book fair, not to mention the euphoria of holding a golden book trophy!

The big, unrestrained smiles on these pages (frozen in photos by Tony) with Bezalie and friends, say more than I can with words.

The glory belongs to the great Author who writes out our lives and affirms what we do through awards such as this.

(Oh, there are two trophies because New Day Publishers has two finalists!) 


Hugs for St. Scholastica

"Ladies with blue sashes will meet you at the entrance parlor," texted my friend Louie, a professor at St. Scholastica's College, who had invited me for a book talk before college students in the Department of Languages and Literature.

They were there all right, warmly welcoming and handing me a beautifully made program. Although I was early for my 2 PM schedule, they whisked me up to the Little Theater on the fourth floor where students were beginning to gather.

My eyes were immediately riveted to the stage where two humongous paintings of Oh, Mateo! characters* were hung. These were not tarpaulins printed by a machine, these were honest-to-goodness paintings done by hand! My jaw dropped. I have never been so hugely honored with such huge labor of love.

That set the tone for my afternoon with about 400 students and four professors in a program dubbed, "The Mind behind Oh, Mateo! and Other Stories."

It took only a few minutes to set up my books on a table, my slides and CD in a computer—all timed to be within an hour. I had a total of 50 slides (from an original 150). A stickler for promptness, I had to keep to my one-hour allotted time, allowing another half hour for Q and A.

I revisited with the audience how I wrote many of my books (from ideation to execution), a process that varies with every story. And I got questions that ranged from a writer's inspiration to frustration.

Interacting with readers in Q and A is both uplifting and thought provoking. On the spot, one is pushed into summoning snippets long forgotten, or theories no longer in one's stream of consciousness. But each question gives new leads to how readers think and to how a writer must find new ways to nurse them with words on the printed page.

The book signing was an added grace, with rare moments of brief chats with those who brought their books for signature. I had to part with my own copies—they were purchased on the spot, with Louie doing the job I couldn't do in a million years: add and subtract numbers in pesos and cents.

From there, we moved to a cozy board room where early dinner was served. I had a chance to chat with the professors (one I met in a similar event before, and another who knew me through one of my readers—her son) and the ladies with blue sashes. The topics were, well, the wonderful world of books and literature.

The afternoon ended with the ladies with blue sashes escorting me to the parking lot.

"Thank you, I was abundantly blessed," I texted Louie later.

"We were likewise blessed," she texted back. And added, "The ladies with blue sashes were thrilled that you gave each of them a hug."

When the heart is full, and the mouth can't find the right words, one could only hope that hugs might say it all.

(*The illustrator and book designer of the "Oh, Mateo!" series is Beth Parrocha-Doctolero) 


Thoughts at the 60th Palanca

Generally an early bird, I am hardly late for any event. For the 60th Palanca Awards Night, I was an even earlier bird. One hour too early, in fact.

When I got to the venue's door, a large flock of similarly eager birds were already taking pictures there. My turn, click.

Somehow, this event always brings out the rush, adrenaline rush, in people.

I spotted F. Sionil Jose, who was swarmed with fans and peers. Mental note—bold, all caps: have a photo with him. Nothing occupied my mind more. When I finally worked up the nerve to approach him, after the awarding, he was gone. Sob, sob.

Greg Brillantes, the guest of honor, was still lolling about, though. Click.

When I was young and fearless, I marched to his office at Graphics to turn in a manuscript—an essay I sweated over for a year. He gave me a cursory glance, took my manuscript, and threw it into one of the editors' cubicles. It would have been the end of my writing dream, but that one single act challenged me to slog it out.

Krip Yuson was at the table beside ours. He read two award-winning poems, bravo, bravo! He's one literary star I read often and was I pleasantly surprised to discover he chaired the board of judges for my category. I had a chance to tell him, after receiving my award, "You judged me!" He laughed.

JC was kind enough to escort me (only one guest per winner). He usually drops the duty on JR's lap, but JR was nursing a 39.5-degree fever. JC said, "Bravo!" after Krip Yuson read the first poem. Most of the time, though, he was fiddling with his cellphone, maybe reading his e-Bible (?).

Tony joined us much later, after he had feasted on food elsewhere, which he claimed was "better than Palanca's buffet." He was my alert and willing photographer and I owe him the images on this page.

Luis, my dear friend, was one of the judges (not in my category). I should have sat at his table. I would have quintupled the number of photos Tony took.

Writers, writers, writers everywhere. If Rolando Mendoza hijacked the Manila Peninsula Ballroom instead of a tourist bus, he would have wiped out or held the country's literati captive.

A great equalizer, literature is. Two of the winners were, at the very least, uh, centenarians: a respected Professor Emeritus and a Ph. D. holder. Three were in their teens and one was a 12-year-old! The day I'd stop writing would be the day my fingers could no longer press the keyboard because my mind would have forgotten what a keyboard is.

Going up the Palanca stage, even for the 5th time, is always an unnerving, first-time experience. You don't know what to do, how to walk up, how to smile, how to receive the certificate, how to walk away. I guess it has something to do with expectations of oneself—how to raise the bar, and where to go from there.

The hundred steps from our table and back were one prayer walk, thanking God, with every stride, for this unmerited favor spelled like my name—grace.

Passion for what man calls literature, can it ever be quenched? For 60 years, the Palanca Awards has been honoring writers who churn out manuscripts bearing and baring heart and soul. Masterpieces, they are called.

A book that lists all the winners since 1951 was handed out to this years' awardees; it shows varied names—some known, some unheard of, but all with one common thread: love for writing. I looked once, twice, thrice, many times over, to believe my name is actually on the list.   

(Oh, by the way, my winning piece was "I Am an Apple" in the Short Story for Children category.)