Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cats & Books

Cats & Books
By Leena Calso Chua

The picture shows cats playing atop some books -- cats on books, literally speaking.

But that's not what I mean. This is about cats and the books they like. It's common knowledge among dynamic pet breeders that cats adore books and start to read as early as two weeks old, when they open their eyes. In their kittengarten stage they start with kiddie fare like Dr. Seuss's A Cat in the Hat, then move on to Saki's Tobermory, though not one of them likes what happened to the only member of their species that had gained the ability to talk.

It is not unusual to find some of the more sedate kitties preferring T.S. Eliot's juvenile Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, from which the smash Broadway play, Cats, was adapted. I have even seen kittens, in private moments, humming the theme song, Memory. One of them even extended his reading to Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This poem has nothing to do with anything feline, but cats do like the somber sway and tenor of the poem.
What student of Literature doesn't know Gray's Elegy? But cats sneer at the student's ignorance of Gray's lament over his beloved Selina, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. Anyway, that's ok, since kittens realize early in life that the luminosity of the human mind is uncannily equivalent to that of a dim bulb.

Kittens have a deep fondness for specialized magazines about them: Cat's World, Kittens, Cat Fancy, and occasional articles in National Geographic about their favorite country in this planet, Egypt. They venerate their ancient ancestors who lived in luxurious palaces with pharaohs who really knew how to give cats their rightful place -- way up in the pantheon of nobility.

Mau's baby Persians may root for Batman, but they purr at the Dark Knight's romantic link with their green-eyed heroine, Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. They also lapped up Vonnegut's Cat Cradle, but were miffed after they found out the novel is not even remotely about cats at all. Rightly, they settled for Golden Age copies of Felix the Cat.
One of Hemingway's early short story, Cat in the Rain, is a kitty favorite. Another oldie-but-goldie is Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, where, in the film version, an orange tabby plays a crucial role (also in the rain) to bring the angst-ridden Audrey Hepburn to the arms of budding-writer-cat-sympathizer George Peppard. Yes, cats swing to the slow tune of Moonriver.
Would you believe songs by Cat Stevens are still extremely disliked by erudite and musical cats? They hiss at Morning Has Broken, yowls greet Wild World, tuffs of fur are tossed against the composer of Father and Son. Kittens and old cats have on record the sin of the erstwhile-adored Cat Stevens, talented singer turned idiotic Islamic convert, who with great cacophony supported the crazy Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against prolific writer Salman Rushdie. For writing The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had been sentenced to death by whatever means in the hands of any Muslim who succeeds in making Rushdie shake hands with his creator, asap.
Of course, they dote on the late James Herriot series of books about his growth and fame as a veterinarian who loved, saved and took care of big farm animals and the smaller pets like dogs and -- ahem! -- cute kittens. The title of four of Herriot's books were the first stanza of Hymns For Little Children, an 1848 poem by Cecil F. Alexander: All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All.
Cats read for leisure, not for career: they'd rather take catnaps, sniff catnips, and stay cute all their life. After all, that's what pets are for.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Galit sa mundo?

In the late 1980s up to June 15, 1991, there were about five bookstalls at the Dau Supermart, which was known among shoppers from Manila for its PX goods. The supermart still stands; it was rebuilt after heavy ashes from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption crumpled the structure, but the bookstores did not return, their existence swept out with the fine ashes from Pinatubo. One of them, mine, holds a memory of Miriam, through his young son, who will remain young forever.

Before the volcano went ballistic, Miriam was a suki of Dau, going there about every weekend. She even had her hair cut in a small saloon owned by Linda. Back then, hair was still an option with me, so I also went to Linda, who extolled the virtue of her famous client, how Miriam went about just with her husband, her son and the yaya, and no bodyguards! While Miriam was having her hair trimmed and groomed, her son, who was about 10 years old then, strolled around the corridors with his yaya.

I can recall the last time Miriam's youngest son went to my bookstall, a prototype of Book Sale, which sold used and new pocketbooks, magazines, and comics. The comics were placed in a box, and the boy rummaged there. "O ano, gusto mo iyan?" the yaya asked the boy, who had chosen just one. "Pumili ka pa," she said. This woman apparently loved her young ward, who I noticed was painfully shy.

The boy approached my desk and asked, "Magkano po?" In my store, books and comics are not moneymakers like the magazines, so I tended to sell such slow stuff at cost. "P10 na lang," I said. "P8?" he offered. I liked the boy, unspoiled by the power, popularity and wealth of his mother, and I was tempted to sell the comics at a loss, but at P10 it was a bargain. "Mura na iyan," I told him, expecting concurrence. To my surprise the boy turned his back and returned the comics to the box. Then he went to his yaya, who was standing beside my desk, and looked up at her. "Ba't di mo pa bilhin?" she asked the boy. "Di ba gusto mo yun?" He just shook his head and walked out, the yaya following him, shaking her head.

In 2003 I was assistant editor at People's Tonight, having left Pampanga and the book business after Pinatubo restructured my life. On November 20 a report reached my desk: Miriam's son, 22, had shot himself in the head that afternoon. I asked the reporter to get more details. The boy had been under a lot of pressure, the reporter told me later, he was reportedly depressed about not being admitted at the UP College of Law after failing in Constitutional Law, a subject on which his mother is renowned as an expert.

At her son's funeral mass three days later, Miriam recounted: "[He] graduated Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, and decided to go into Law. He passed the written admission tests for both UP and Ateneo. Ominously, the faculty panel in UP that conducted what should have been routine interview cut him to the quick. Questions like: 'What is your reaction to the charge that your mother is insane?' and 'How much does your father bet in cockfights.?' He answered politely that it is in the nature of Philippine Politics today to deliberately inflict falsehood; and that he never knew how much his father bet, becasue as a stress- reducing hobby, it is not considered important enough for discussion in our family."

In an interview with media people during the wake, Miriam would recall the happy days with his son. He and I would hold hands, even in public, she said. "He was never embarrassed. People at the market or the mall envied us. We were like a love team, they teased us, because I would hug and kiss him in front of many people."

Reading the news reports, my mind reached back to Dau. Was the dead son the young boy in my store 13 years ago? I did some mental calculation, and the years seemed to add up to the young man's age when he committed suicide. It could not have been his brother Archie, who was 10 years older.

At the time of the tragedy, Miriam had been out of the limelight for some years, having left politics after being discredited for her staunch support of President Estrada during his impeachment trial. She, along with Enrile, Tito Sotto and other Erap allies, kept her silence after People Power II erupted in 2001. Later that year her term as Senator ended. She ran for reelection and lost. She spent the last two and a half years with her family.

In 2004 she decided to run for senator again, setting aside her promise to her deceased son not to enter politics again. Her son, she explained, did not like politics because it made thingd difficult and it changed her. "He believed people should see the real me, my natural personality -- my Ilongga side which is malambing."

Miriam won. In late 2006, according to Wikipedia, a group of young lawyers nominated her for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But she reportedly gave way to the senior associate justice, saying that she was too young for the post. In 2010 she was reelected, and now she is in the heat of another impeachment trial. When I saw her on TV a few days ago, haranguing the prosecutors, even quarreling with one of the lawyers, I wondered if the inner burden of a dead child in her heart weighed so heavily that she would let her temper erupt so violently, like the volcano that transformed me from a bookseller to a newsman.

Note: I've extracted some information from the following article, which I reprint in full so readers will get a fuller idea of what Miriam had gone through:

Ex-senator Miriam Santiago: 
I'm done with politics
Posted:0:14 AM (Manila Time) | Nov. 23, 2003
By Tina Santos and Juliet L. Javellana
Inquirer News Service

"I AM removing myself from politics to fulfill my promise to him."

Former senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago told reporters Friday night that this was the wish of her son Alexander Robert.

Speaking at "AR's" wake at the Christ the King chapel in Greenmeadows subdivision, Quezon City, Santiago said her "baby" had consistently objected to her political career because it gave people "the impression that I'm bad, since I'm always indulging my sense of humor."

At around 8 p.m. on Thursday, AR, who turned 22 on Oct. 2, was found with a gunshot wound in the head inside his room at the family's new home in the posh La Vista subdivision in Quezon City.

Family and friends have flocked to the wake since Friday. And though not exactly AR's favorite people, politicians have come, too, among the first being President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte.

AR didn't like the way politics made things "difficult" and constantly "changed" her, Santiago said. "He believed people should see the real me, my natural personality -- my Ilongga side which is malambing (affectionate)."

The last two and a half years that she'd been out of the public eye -- after her Senate term ended in 2001 and she lost a reelection bid -- brought her closer to her family, especially AR, Santiago said, and for this she was "very grateful."

It has also made it easier for her to accept AR's suicide, she said.

AR is the younger of the ex-senator's two sons by husband Narciso Santiago Jr., former interior undersecretary.

Archie, who is older than AR by 10 years, has been devastated by the incident, according to their mother. "They were very close," she said.

At the wake, Santiago also talked with AR's classmates at the Ateneo de Manila University, where he was a law freshman, describing him as "a perfect son any mother would wish to have."

AR was an "illimitable source of comfort" especially when she underwent "the usual grind of black propaganda and name-calling," she said. "If I were asked to manufacture a child according to my specifications, the result would have been AR. We were really joined at the hip."

'Hot Babe'

She had only happy times with AR, she said, up till the end: "Every night when he came home from school, he would enter my room, and give me a snappy greeting like, 'Yo, woman!' or 'How's my hot babe?' We would talk about his day in school, his classmates ... he would kiss and hug me, he was so malambing."

Even in public, she said, they would hold hands. "He was never embarrassed. People at the market or the mall envied us. We were like a love team, they teased us, because I would hug and kiss him in front of many people."

Like any young man, AR dated, his mother recalled. He once consulted her about making a choice between a girl who lived nearby and another whom he had to make a long detour to fetch.

"I told him it depends, if her value exceeds the amount of gasoline," she laughed.

Santiago was sure he had placed her "above everything else." He would drop everything when she needed company, even to go shopping, Miriam said.

Best of all, she said, they talked. "Oh, how he loved discussion. So he was a child after my own heart. Not everyone wants to discuss philosophy, or Marx versus Hagel ... but he enjoyed that kind of thing. My husband would sometimes complain at the dinner table, saying, 'Go ahead, just talk between the two of you since you ... don't care whether other people understand you or not."'

Among her last discussions with AR, Santiago said, was about turning over her law firm to him when she retired.

Goodbye, mom

The grief that the feisty lawyer and former public official almost succeeded in hiding surfaced when she recounted AR's last few days and their last encounter.

The night before her son took his own life, she recalled, he came into her room looking as if he wanted to say something.

"He did not say it, but I could see it in his eyes," she said. "I saw that he was very tired and I tried to raise his spirits. Instead of kissing me goodnight, he asked me to sit up. I did, and he gave me a very, very tight hug and then said, 'Goodbye mom.' I let that slip ... and that's the last I saw of him."

The following morning, there wasn't the usual sign on his door asking her to wake him up. "He would stick it up on his door with a piece of gum," she recalled, unable to resist a chuckle. And then in the afternoon, at 4 o'clock apparently, he got his father's gun and shot himself in the head."

Because workers had been drilling iron bars onto her windows, she said, the maids did not hear the gunshot. "My husband and I came home after five. We assumed our son was in school and the maids did not tell us (that he never left the house). At 7 p.m., the maids went to call him to dinner. That's when they found him."

Hope never dies

When her husband insisted that she "stay away," Santiago said, she knew it was bad. So she forced herself through AR's door. "He was lying face down in a pool of his own blood and his face was gray. I knew my son was dead, but still I hoped ... hope never dies in a mother's breast."

Archie carried his brother while their father took the wheel and sped off to the East Avenue Medical Center. Santiago was left at home. When her husband called later, he instructed her to "fortify" herself.

In denial

She recounted: "I asked, 'Is AR dead?' He said, 'We'll continue to try to revive him.' But I knew it was more of a wish. The whole night I couldn't cry at all. I was in denial, I couldn't accept that he was dead. In the morning, that was when I started to cry." When she finally saw AR inside a coffin on Friday morning, she broke down altogether.

Santiago was certain that AR killed himself because he had received a failing mark in constitutional law. "He took it hard because of me," she said, eyes misting over. She is an acknowledged expert on the subject.

But the young man's anxiety could also have built up from the time that he was denied admission to the University of the Philippines College of Law prior to his enrollment in Ateneo, his mother said.

AR had passed the UP entrance test but failed the oral exam, during which Santiago said her son was asked "cruel" questions.

"He was asked what he thought about the charge of her mother's insanity and how much his father bet on cockfights," she said, shaking her head. "Apparently they (panel interviewers) were no fans of mine."

AR lost confidence in himself and the system as a result, Santiago said. "He had that in his heart, like a big heavy rock."

In his first semester at Ateneo, AR failed the subject of persons and family relations. Santiago said they protested this, but "did not even get the courtesy of a reply." Soon after, he told her he was worried about his grade in constitutional law. "He was afraid that if he had two flunking grades, he might be kicked out. Dean (Joaquin) Bernas (said that) was not the case. But for a person who had been on the dean's list and passed two written exams, I think AR found it unacceptable to flunk twice in a row."

Layers of humiliation

She learned later from AR's classmates that the grades were released in the afternoon of that day she last saw him. They also told her that among those who failed, he took it the hardest. "It was actually layer upon layer of frustration and humiliation that reached an inevitable peak," she said of her son's extreme reaction.

The Santiagos also have adopted twin daughters, Megan and Molly. Without AR, whom she had also called "Toto" or "Hunk," the ex-senator said, the family will never be the same, and the coming holidays "would definitely be a lot different."

She did not feel guilty about AR's suicide, Santiago said. "But for a moment, I had a very strong sense of self-hate. I have an accomplished student record, and maybe my children (thought) they were expected to match this -- if not by me, then by society. Sometimes I also look at my professional career as a curse on my children."

Right now, she said, she was thankful to God for having brought her "so much love" through AR: "There will be a lot of pain because it will take maybe 10, 20 years before I see my son again. But at his level of existence, there is a certain philosophical view that he will not suffer even if we are separated because at that level, time moves at a different pace and his expectation will be that I will be there in a minute, I'm just turning the corner."

Until then, she will take it slow. "I used to have fire in my belly," she sighed. "But now I am numb."