BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Manuel V. Pangilinan, the graduation speaker; Iris Cecilia Gonzales, the graduate

Wearing a short black sleeveless dress, I stepped out of the house at around 1:30 in the afternoon of March 27. The dark blue toga on one hand and a small ecru bag on the other, I arrived at the Ateneo grounds a little before 2 p.m.

I was beaming with excitement. In a few hours, I would be graduating. It is the culmination of two years of many sleepless, insane thesis nights.

A few hours before, I just landed from Brussels, Belgium where I spent a week as a participant in an international blogging competition. Needless to say, I was jet lagged and in limbo but the excitement prevailed. I was on cloud nine as the marching song reverberated in the air.

Every step towards the Ateneo Highschool covered courts represented, for me, a piece of the parchment paper called The Diploma.

I learned just there that MVP would deliver the graduation speech. How lucky I am, I thought. I don't know MVP personally. I never had a chance to cover him. I never met the man.

In short, I was curious to hear him speak.

So there I was on the front row, waiting for MVP's graduation speech. I took out my recorder and the camera that I sneaked in.

He was the second speaker. The first speaker, a student, delivered a totally forgettable speech. I don't remember a word he said. Mushy, shallow and really cheesy. Or maybe, I'm just too old for such an oratorical masturbation.

And so when it was MVP's turn on the podium, I was all ears -- recorder on my lap and a camera strapped around my neck.

Just a few minutes into the speech, I was impressed. He talked confidently, exuding an aura of an intelligent billionaire. It was short and sweet and it seemed like every word came out of his soul.

After the speech, I clapped and I smiled and yes -- as graduation speeches should be -- I was moved and inspired -- big time. I would have given him a standing ovation but I was busy sending text messages to people I love because MVP said so.

"First, hug and kiss those who helped get you to this day – parents, grandparents, friends, teachers. If you’re too shy or uptight to do that, please do the old fashioned handshake thing. But I recommend a hug and a kiss. Don’t let the sun go down today without saying thank you to someone," he said.

That was my favorite part.

I also liked the part about money. Hearing it from a billionaire impressed me.

"I‘m not going to stand here and tell you that‘s it‘s not about money, because money is sweet. I like money. It‘s good for buying companies and things – and for putting up a few buildings here and there for Ateneo. But having a lot of money does not totally make you a successful person. What you want is both money and meaning. You want your life and your career to be meaningful. Because meaning is what brings real richness to your life, to be surrounded by people you can truly work with – because you trust and treasure them, and they cherish you in return. That‘s when you‘re really rich, that‘s when you really succeed," he said.

Impressive, really. I even told friends how much I enjoyed his speech.

Fast forward to the weekend. I received loads of e-mails, messages on Facebook and text messages about how I and over 2,000 graduates have been had.

"No wonder it was one of the best graduation speeches you've heard," friends and colleagues told me.

I was shaking my head in disbelief. How -- just how -- can a successful billionaire who moves so smoothly in the corporate world -- make such a huge mistake?

How hard it is to attribute a line or a word? I wished he simply did the proper thing and attributed the words: As Oprah Winfrey said...As Barack Obama said...As J.K. Rowling said....Better yet, I wished he hired honest and trusted writers.

But he did not. Unbelievable, really.

Nevertheless, the damage was not enough to break my heart. The words he borrowed moved me the day I heard him and that can't be undone.

But the irony of it all makes me laugh. Indeed, money is cool but it can't buy everything. It can't even buy an honest-to-goodness graduation speech.

I don't have a lot of money that can buy buildings left and right. I just have enough for the little things I truly enjoy -- a hot cup of freshly-brewed cappuccino or ice cold beer shared with good people. Or Winston Lights.

I don't even need money for the best things in life. Sunsets. Sunrise. Downtown by Petula Clark. Happy trips. Words. Photographs.

And in a little corner of the shack I live in, there's a parchment paper with a "Master of Arts Degree" and my name written on it -- my badge for two years of sheer hard work, mad mornings and evenings -- every word my own, not a word plagiarized nor borrowed without attribution.

This and many other little things are the ones that bring meaning into my life.

I'm not going to grieve or feel insulted over the intellectual dishonesty that marked my graduation.

That day was one of my happiest in recent memory. It was, for me, a fine afternoon, an Oscar moment. Nothing can change that.

MVP, unfortunately for him, can't say the same thing about that day. Ever.

(The views expressed here are solely my own and do not in any way represent the views of any organization or institution I am affiliated with).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dateline Brussels (a lost and found entry)


At 1 a.m., this sleep-deprived muse feels half-dead. In front of me are two huge black suitcases, piled up like the leaning Tower of Pisa. The owner, a long-haired brunette is sleeping soundly, her leg resting on the decrepit baggage cart -- perhaps her only way to guard her stuff while she is in Neverland.

Beside her, sleeping on the same black couch is a backpacker. Her black backpack is her pillow and a dark long-sleeved jacket is wrapped around her.

On my right is another young woman, in dark cargo jeans and black jacket. She is sitting on the couch but in deep slumber as well. Her suitcase is tucked tightly beneath her legs.

I glance to the left and I see Avie, my fellow Filipina journalist. She, too is already in a far-away place, dreaming perhaps of home.

Welcome to Starbucks, Brussels Airport branch. Tonight, this is our home. Our flight is in the morning and with no more euros left (having spent our per diem on loands of Belgian beer and rightly so!), Avie and I have no choice but to spend the night at the airport.

The trip here, after all, is just icing on the cake. Being part of an interesting event, the THINK3 Blogging Competition is what this is all about. Avie and I are lucky to be part of it. Added bonus ofcourse is getting a huge dose of Europe, truly the ultimate lady's drug. You stroll around the grand plaza and you instantly smell the crisp air. Musicians are playing endlessly and children are running up and about.

Belgian waffles and chocolates abound. A thousand and one choices of Belgian beer -- ah what more can two women who know how to enjoy beer ask for? There's free wi-fi, too at our favorite bar.

And then ofcourse, there's Frida Kahlo. Seeing Frida's works for real is the ultimate high. In that dimly-lit, tightly guarded crowded exhibition room at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, I stared at every piece of her work. I could almost see her holding her brush and palate, creating each and every opus -- breathtaking, piercing, emotional and intense.

Back at the airport, fellow nomads are asleep in different corners. I open the ladies room assigned for persons with disabilities, hoping for more privacy but one backpacker is sleeping on the floor -- comfortably -- as if on a king size bed.

On the kiddie play area, there are people sleeping. Men and women, young and old are lying side by side on the cold floor.

I go back to Starbucks. It is my turn to watch over our stuff and ourselves while Avie is sleeping. Later, hopefully, I will also fall into a deep slumber.

In the meantime, I will imagine that I am back in the posh hotel where we were billeted -- complete with cottony pillows and the softest bed.


It is 5 a.m. So I've fallen asleep after all. I'm awake now and I see Avie already up, doing something on her laptop. Some of our "roommates" are gone, off to their flights, perhaps heading home, too, like us.

In the past, during times like these when I had to sleep elsewhere -- in dingy hotel rooms, in a priest's prayer room in a war-torn province, on the pavement while waiting for The Pope, in third world buses, in nipa huts, in an unfinished apartment in the southernmost tip of the Philippine archipelago and in trains going from one country to another -- I would always imagine myself transported back to my very own bed, in my very own room in my parents' house.

That was many years ago. Things have changed now. The bed and the room have been permanently removed from the map of my universe. It is no longer a cartographic reality.

Since then, I have let go of attachments to any bed. Perhaps, as one gets older, there's that intense feeling that there's no time to waste anymore for strings and attachments to material things -- to one's favorite pillow or blanket, for instance.

After being forced out of my bed of more than 20 years, I have come to realize that at the end of the day, it's not the sleeping area that matters. It's really the arms of the loved one that cuddles you when darkness sets in.

For now, as I count the hours to our flight home, I can only dream of the arms of my little beloved eagerly waiting for me for five days now.

I'll be home soon, babe. I will.