Back to the Hollywood Classics

I  grew up on a steady diet of Hollywood classics and musicals, but getting older and wiser, I jettisoned the heavy portions of  happily-ever-after, love conquers all and pipe dreams.  I became more inclined toward pragmatic, no-nonsense entertainment–with the exception of the last two months.  I was willingly and pleasantly drawn into those same old guilty pleasurable moments of sweetness and light as I followed the 12th season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

I am also a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was raised in the former Steel City, obviously rooting for Hines Ward and his professional dance partner Kym Johnson to win it all.  But it became more than a dance contest after this week’s show because of Kym’s terrifying injury.  It put competition in greater perspective and thus pushed the show to another level.  They went on to dance the Argentine tango of a DWTS lifetime.

Watching this show turned a minor diversion into an almost obsession.  I signed on to the Hines Ward & Kym Johnson Dancing with the Stars Facebook fan page, and I couldn’t believe how deep the enthusiasm ran–wall-to-wall postings of photos, footage, interviews and even dance analyses by some rather clever observers.  It took my mind away from worrying about paying for dental work,  imagining once again the magic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers once created on Hollywood sets and soundstages.  With such ease and flow that belie endless hours of practice and rehearsals, they expressed the story of their romantic coupling in dance.  The fourth wall is torn down; in my opinion, it has the intimacy of a play.

While folks try to figure out Kym and Hines’ chemistry–will they or won’t they–I like to compare them to Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.”  They were two appealing actors who had immense respect and admiration for one another, with the latter, who was a bigger star at the time, even admitting without hesitation that the then-starlet stole the 1953 movie from him, and she deserved top billing as much as he.  They embodied my ideal couple–reserved, smart, attractive and simply lovely together–just like Hines and Kym who are so complimentary toward one other it’s not clear who the star is.  The final dances almost seem moot.  Next week with them, though, there’s no shame in riding off into the sunset.


The creative process this week was a rather terrifying and sometimes lonely journey, and I thought of my literary touchstones, like Louise Erdrich who choose to bravely venture out every time a book needs to be birthed.  Last year, I read “The Blue Jay’s Dance,” her memoir on motherhood, and it got me through a period that required crazy courage, like the one described in the title.  As the bigger hawk encroached, the blue jay outside the author’s window would go into this whirling dervish so odd and ludicrous, she observed, that it bordered on the humorous.  Although the jig never guaranteed the predator wouldn’t kill the lesser bird, the latter demonstrated it wouldn’t give up without a fight.

Later in 2010, I read Erdrich’s most contemporary work of fiction to date, “Shadowtag,” and its astounding power bowled me over that I completely stopped reading literature altogether.  Maybe it’s because my dream was often intertwined with her lyrical, achingly beautiful prose, and the pause made me reevaluate what was keeping me from breaking free at the end of the year.

Now, halfway through 2011, I’m feeling a little jumbled, but at least I broke my self-moratorium on fiction-reading.  I rediscovered Anne Tyler’s books, most notably “The Accidental Tourist,” and I realize the creative process doesn’t have to be so black and white.  There are so many other stories to be told by other voices.  As I write this, I am reminded of these guys, Denis and Francis (, explorers who traveled the ends of the earth, following their historical touchstone.  Indeed, it is all about the journey, which is, for now, being present and moving forward in a haze of uncertainty.

Another 10 years …

It is only fitting that the last ten years, as I approach my 40th birthday this month, is bookended by 9/11 and the death of Osama Bin Laden, the instigator of that tragic event.  Ironically enough, I turned 30 in 2001, and I remember freaking out even a year before about the whole thing.  The year appeared to bear out all that anxiety–I lost my job and the one dream at the time I had for myself.

My thirties, I would characterize, were a more mature, responsible period of being gainfully employed, paying bills and pretty much playing it safe.  The next decade, well, I would predict, would be a hybrid of my twenties and thirties–grown up, yes, but with a hint of excitement and a new investment in my dreams for this upcoming lifetime.  A little hokey, but that’s what my friends in their forties are want to say, especially my female friends who claim it is the penultimate time in a woman’s life.  Judging from my intrepid anticipation, I might just say they are right.

Reflection of 9/11 in 2001

I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1993 during the floods that were devastating the Midwest. I came by plane. It was hovering over the Mississippi River, when the pilot told passengers to look outside their windows. A thick, dark rain-cloud virtually beside the plane appeared to be traveling alongside us. It was like a black furnace whose belly stoked flames of immense danger and beauty. Could it have been a portent of the ensuing years to come?

After nine crazy years in the City by the Bay and having turned 30 last year in 2001, I can say it continues to be a satisfying experience. But I still think about my hometown in Pennsylvania. My parents are still in Pittsburgh and so are most of my closest friends. The moment I heard about the terrible news from the East Coast, I called my parents. It was after noon in Pittsburgh. They had just arrived home, after the entire city was evacuated. My mom told me both she and my dad were okay. With the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a not-so-distant memory, they were a little edgy because they both work in the federal building downtown. Later, I spent time exchanging e-mails with my high school friends in Pittsburgh. Renee, was a bit hawkish, advocating retaliation, while Cindy, was more of the dove, saying prayers were needed for those who wish Americans ill.

Once all the facts were gathered and a grave picture of calamity and death unfolded before the nation, the emotions floated to the top. I felt as though I needed to tell loved ones things that normally went without saying. I called up, Carla, my first roommate at Penn State University. I told her before moving away to college, living at home with my family for 18 years made me so decidedly Filipino, never wanting to be anything else, least of all American.

But over the years, I have become less militant. The tragic event pressed me to play Bruce Springsteen as she used to do in our dorm room. Everything she listened to, I told her, is now part of my character. It also made me decidedly East Coast, and I am grateful for her unique Americanization of me. In return, I was her unexpected writing coach, which was ironic since English wasn’t my first language.

Going for my journalism degree at Penn State University was often a challenge in a small college town. Journalism students had to venture to the media hubs in the Eastern Seaboard for career opportunities. I went to Washington, DC with my parents last summer. It was the first time I was a tourist in the nation’s capital, taking tour rides to Arlington National Cemetery, Georgetown and various other sites. I was seeing this historical city through a different set of eyes.

At the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, I felt for the anguished families looking for a loved one’s name. Once found, relatives transcribed it onto a scratch sheet of paper, somehow accepting that a life given in service of one’s country is one of the noblest of causes. Just a stone’s throw from the Wall is Lincoln Memorial. His administration knew no rest from upheaval, producing some of history’s most stirring speeches. They were rarely superfluous. Lincoln lost very little time in getting to the point: The country was engaged in a bitter civil war. Whatever the outcome, there really were no winners in a house divided and torn to shreds.

My mother once told me one of her grandmother’s greatest hopes for her was that she would never know war. This current war is definitely nothing my grandfathers fought during World War II. My paternal grandfather was a soldier in the Philippine Army, and my maternal grandfather fought as a Filipino-American with his Filipino counterparts. While the latter passed away three years ago in the Philippines, my dad’s father died during the Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. I recall both of them, when I visited the memorial immortalizing the flag-raising in Iwa Jima. I now understand that being Filipino and American means having pride in being both.

These thoughts cross my mind during an unexpected rainstorm in San Francisco that turned into hail. Lightning cracked the sky and broke through the fog, providing a breathtaking light show overhead. I engage in conversation a woman sitting next to me in a bus shelter. She was upbeat, trying to hide her uneasiness over the heavy downpour, thunder and lightning, which, she feared, might strike her. I wasn’t as fatalistic. I always looked forward to the thunderstorms, growing up in Pittsburgh, because they briefly interrupted the tranquility that pervades the suburbs during nighttime. It was often the anticipation of the rolling, crashing thunder that put me to sleep.

After September 11, San Francisco has turned into Anytown, U.S.A. Entering any street in the city with Old Glory draped in windows or hanging outside homes feels like walking into a typical neighborhood in Middle America. San Francisco is generally known for its independent, carefree spirit, not easily swayed by the general national consensus. I realize, however, San Francisco in some ways is not much different from Pittsburgh. Perhaps that’s what I learned here. Apart from moving out of my comfort zone, I have gained perspective and an understanding that regardless where you are, problems and anxieties persist.

So now I am appreciating things that I had previously taken for granted, even the struggles that bog me down. The balancing act of being both Filipino and American, West Coast and East Coast and an independent single woman has become less of an albatross. I have come to accept all these identities as the person I am. As an amalgamation of my family and friends from Lapog, San Juan in the Philippines to San Francisco, California, Pittsburgh and State College, Pennsylvania and back to the West Coast, I am almost whole.

When I sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” as I did a few nights after September 11 in a Japanese restaurant offering karaoke entertainment, it is with another layer of meaning. The heroic acts of passengers on Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, (incidentally 80 miles from Pittsburgh) are not far from the song’s sentiments. Perhaps the connections aren’t so random, after all. For me they are coming full circle.