Monday, March 21, 2016

120. Open Notes

When I used to teach in a law school, I had a policy of open notes during exams.  I guess my students loved me for it, but soon they realized that the answers to my questions are not in any book. My theory is that the true measure of learning is in the ability of the students to determine the relevance of available legal information given a particular problem and the ability to apply the legal information to the problem. This process presupposes that the student has read through the material, determined the important matters, synthesized the lessons, and has found their connection to real life scenarios. So the students who have not been doing their homework will never pass the exam even if I allow them to open their notes during exams. They would more likely than not miss the point, fail to spot the relevant issues, and cite the wrong law.  This is the same view I have for the presidential debates. It doesn't matter if they have open notes.  If they don't know their stuff, they would be muttering irrelevant information and they would miss the point of every question. Besides, intelligence is less about data, but more about disciplined thinking, just like the presidency being less about debates but more about leadership. Incidentally, the candidate -- who claimed to be unaware of the no notes policy and insisted on a compromise where everyone is not allowed to have notes except him -- has already shown the brand of self-entitled idiotic leadership he brings. Heaven forbid that he wins. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

119. Coffee, Chocolate, and the Doctrine of Eternal Return

"Everything has returned. Sirius, and the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return"

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been trying to decide whether my earliest memory was coffee or chocolate. It has something to do with Nietzsche's idea of the cyclical nature of things. If Gary Larson were to make a comic out of it, it would be like those well-drawn characters and "Infinity" would be telling "Finity", "You cannot fill me up because I'm limitless and you're limited." So, "Finity" answers, "Oh yeah, what if I repeat myself endlessly?" It's like putting a mirror in front of another mirror, a trick I used to play as a kid. If you peek inside it, there is an endless repetition of the mirror inside a mirror, with your nose peering into it. But my inclination is trying to remember where it all began -- coffee or chocolate -- and by so doing I hope I could explain where I am and predict where I would go. And maybe I might find out something interesting too. 

1. Coffee

I was born in 1970 in Manila but I grew up in Pola, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines, south of Manila, north of Cebu, east of Palawan, west of Boracay. My mother, Zennie,  who was taking the first board exams for medical technologists after I was born, had left me in the care of my grandparents, Benedicto (Tatay) and Maria (Inay), while my Mom and my father, Edmund, started out with their young married life in the outskirts of Quezon City. She had been teaching medical technology college students, and she couldn't live with the thought of her students passing exams the board exams and she failing it. Thus, the toddler, who happened to be me, had to be sent to the old town with the grandparents while she focused on the review.

In Pola, we lived in a big house made mostly from trunks of Narra trees, which my Tatay patiently planted, tended, and harvested in his homestead farm after the war.  The house had three big rooms and I stayed in the master's bedroom with my grandparents. I would normally wake up alone at dawn as the folks were early risers. While the roosters began to cock, Inay would be sweeping the front of the house. I could hear the gentle swishing of her broomsticks as she cleared the ground of dried leaves from the previous day.  Tatay would be at the public market awaiting the day's catch to prepare for our meals. As I open my eyes from sleep, I would be greeted by the high ceiling works of those Narra craftsmen who built the house in 1967. I would then slowly make my way to the dining table, which was a long twelve-seater and also made of solid Narra. I would be by my usual chair at the left side of one end, and there I would find it -- a cup of coffee. 

It's Kapeng Barako, caffea liberica, always fresh and warm, which Tatay boiled in a pot over a stove. The coffee was a daily staple. As soon as I stopped drinking milk and became conscious of the world, I started having coffee. So, I don't ever recall having taken milk.  We put sugar and evaporated milk on it. Sometimes, we pour coffee over rice. Fried eggs and rice soaked in Kapeng Barako was our daily breakfast fare. Sometimes, we had pan de sal,  pineapple jam, and cheese. 

Kapeng Barako is probably one of the boldest flavors of coffee. I would describe it to my future wife, Ma. Celeste, as the one without finesse. It is bitter and has that Turkish roughness at the finish. But Tatay's pot-boiled Kapeng Barako has somehow tamed its boldness and cleaned up the finish. That's why it's best for soaking rice, a practice which amuses  Manilans and foreigners alike. 

The coffee is grown in the farms of Pola but the variety came from Batangas and Cavite. Back in the 70s, I would often see coffee beans being dried on mats laid out on the streets. On one occasion, I tasted one of these red cherry fruits out of curiosity and found it mildly sweet. After being dried under the sun, the coffee was roasted and then brought to the market where it would be grounded and sold. Inay owned a store, and she sold ground coffee in old newspapers rolled into cones for “manalapi” or fifty centavos each. She made a good living out of that store where she sold rice, canned goods, soft drinks, cigarettes, and liquor.  Coffee was sold cheap and the margins were low. But I could tell from memory it was the one which always registered a sale day in and day out. It was what retailers would now call a "fast moving consumer item".

The coffee would stay in the pot the whole day to be warmed as the need arose. And if there was anything left at the end of the day, it would be poured on the sink so the pot could be cleaned for the next morning’s brew. Meanwhile, with the advent of processed food, instant coffee made its way to our dining table too. But Tatay never quite gave up on our Kapeng Barako. He would offer guests coffee and ask them if they preferred instant coffee or the pot-boiled Kapeng Barako. He always had both in reserve. 

Preparing instant coffee was easy. Hot water, coffee granules, sugar --  and it was done. Instant coffee demystified the complex process of making pot-boiled coffee for the young kid that I was. Unfortunately, it lacks flavor, which is what coffee is all about. When I was a teen-ager, I once stayed in a house in Barangay Sinipit, Cabiao, Nueva Ecija and was served instant coffee that looked so pale, it could compare with  a baby’s urine. I felt pity for the people in that town for having known coffee only in that way. 

Recently, I met a client who owned a coffee plantation in the Kona belt in Hawaii and she would give me a kilogram of Kona coffee every year as a token of her appreciation for my work. Kona is considered the champagne of coffee. It runs in one's mouth like water. No bite, just smooth, no sourness. It has low acidity, so to drink it is to have a clean luscious coffee experience. How can instant coffee ever compare?  

Yet, commerce succeeded in subverting the experience and changing our perceptions. Advertising and the onslaught of mass media made it impossible for common folks to resist the lure of modernity. Were it not for Tatay who prepared coffee the old fashioned way, I would not have known that real coffee is not instant.

2. Chocolate

An equally strong memory that lurks in my mind, however, is chocolate. We poured hot chocolate over suman and laced it with condensed milk. We also pour it over our rice. But often the chocolate is made into champorado with sticky rice. Condensed milk is how we sweetened it. When I was four, I remember being impatient with eating the hot champorado one day. Tatay who was concerned about my predicament taught me the trick of spooning the champorado from the edge  of the plate, which was the coolest part of the porridge. It worked, and since then I never had trouble with hot chocolate porridge again. 

In 1987 as a teen-ager going on summer vacation,I arrived in Pola and found Inay roasting cocoa beans in a big pan. The smoky aroma of the cocoa roasting enveloped the kitchen, and I could hear the sound of Inay's rhythmic and gentle strokes on the pan cradling the beans from one side of the pan to the other. She was like a conductor as she gracefully stirred the beans from side to side and around the pan above the light fire, carefully paying attention that the beans were roasted evenly without burning them. The outer shells were popping out of the beans and the chocolates were revealing themselves in the heat. Then, she stopped. It was time to  ground them. 

Tatay had set up the grinder on his working table. It was screwed from one edge of the table. It had an opening on top where he put the beans, and a long hand lever which he turned on a circular motion to grind the roasted beans. Chocolate would then emerge from the other side, oily and sticky brown, to be scraped off and placed on a plate. 

As the chocolate landed on the plate, it was mixed in brown sugar, rolled into balls,  and left to dry overnight. It would be then kept in glass bottles before they were given away as gifts or consumed. We never sold them to anyone. They were too precious to be sold. When groceries marketed their own local chocolate tableas, Tatay lamented that they were mixed with peanuts. So, through the years our family continued to make our own chocolate.

Unlike the instant coffee, however,  instant chocolate was never quite regarded as an equal to our chocolate tableas. We rarely had instant chocolate in the house, and Milo was never considered a chocolate drink at all. It was something you drink to make it to the Olympics, a product of Filipino marketing genius and hot air. 

Milo is made from chocolate and malt, and it is an energy drink because of the carbohydrates in it which is derived from sugar. So, in a sense it's claim as an energy drink has basis but it makes Coke, which has seven teaspoons of sugar in a can, the energy drink for all seasons. 

Yet, in the 70s, people were not aware that a boost in energy from sugar would be accompanied by a sugar crash. So, if you were going to the Olympics and you're drinking Milo thinking it can boost your energy, you're actually setting up yourself for defeat. My family knew it was all a ruse. Thus, for my current household, where four kids grew up, I have bought not a single tin can of Milo. 

3. Repetition

In the 80s, my Dad had this steel contraption where a ball with swing back and forth by its own weight. I was in grade school then and I wondered often if the swinging would ever stop. Every time I visited my Dad's office in a building in front of Stella Maris School, Aurora Boulevard, Cubao, Quezon City, I would notice it swinging. Nobody seemed to touch it and I concluded, it would probably never stop unless it got toppled over accidentally or on purpose. My Dad moved in to a new office soon and I lost track of what happened to that steel contraption. 

After finishing high school, I went to Ateneo to take up a degree in philosophy. I soon got introduced to the works of Albert Camus, especially The Stranger and the Plague. What fascinated me with Camus's work, was its eloquence yet it inhabited a sense of quiet resentment about the condition of man. In another book, Albert Camus had an image of the Sisyphus whom the gods condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, and the stone would fall back of its own weight over and over again. It reminded me of my Dad's steel contraption. 

Many years later, I discussed the myth of Sisyphus with Juan Benedicto, my first born son, one morning over coffee and chocolate, and he said it was sad. But I told him that in knowing that we are destined to swing back and forth and repeat what we have done, there is a possibility that the understanding can give us an idea on what we can do about it. The alternating current moves from point A to point B then pulses back to point A and point B. Sure, it is repetitive,  but something happens in this repetition, energy is present. And as long as the swinging goes on, the energy is there. 

4. Coffee again

Tatay and Inay traced their heritage from Batangas Province home of Kapeng Barako. Inay hailed from Bauan and Tatay from Calaca. Inay's family moved to Pola before World War II and started a farm where they maintained a self-sustaining community during the war. Tatay was a typewriter repair man. They got married and had their first child, who was my Mom, after the war. They stayed in Gov. Forbes street in Manila while Inay's siblings finished their studies in the University of Sto. Tomas. Life was full of hope then but it was not easy. Inay noted how unstable Tatay's job was and decided to pack their things, move out of Manila, and get into agriculture in Pola. Soon, they attained success in farming. Their farm grew to 37 hectares which allowed them to build a big house and send their children to school. All their three children finished college, and one even became a lawyer. They lived unto their 80s, sustained by the fruits of their farming venture. 

My Mom passed the board exams and was a topnotcher. My Mom said she dreamed that she got 33.33 percent, and was bothered by the dream, until the results came out that she was #3 among the topnotchers. I then moved in with back with my real parents in an apartment owned by Ilocanos in Quezon City to begin my schooling.  But the coffee habit had stuck, except that we never had Kapeng Barako in our apartment in Quezon City. We had Nescafe or Great Taste, which didn't taste that great. Once in a while though, chocolate tableas from Pola  would make their way into our kitchen, and I would have a blast with champorado for breakfast. 

Relatives from Canada soon introduced us to the foreign instant coffee brand, Taster's Choice. It was much better than the local brand as it had this pleasant aroma, which all things imported seemed to have. Yet, it was still pale compared to Kapeng Barako. The 70s and 80s were the era of instant coffee. Hardly any household in Manila brewed their own coffee. On one occasion though, I found different kinds coffee beans being sold in Rustan’s Supermarket in Cubao. Yet, my curiosity and interest for different kinds of coffee could not be supported by my allowance. So I often wondered how the other types of coffee tasted like.  One afternoon while preparing for philosophy oral exams, a classmate, Vinnie, bragged about his dad who was a regular purchaser of Rustan’s coffee beans. He said his dad always said that all coffee was bitter, the difference was in the aroma. 

In 1991, I decided I was going to law school. I was about to finish my degree in philosophy from the Ateneo, and I asked my metaphysics teacher,  Fr. Roque Ferriols, S. J., to make his letter of recommendation. I met him at the lobby of the Loyola House of Studies while he was having coffee. Fr. Ferriols was the first Filipino to teach philosophy in Filipino during the 70s. He was a young Jesuit scholastic during the war. Thereafter, he was then sent to New York to complete his studies in Fordham University. He was a linguist as well. He translated Greek texts directly to Filipino and often in class, he would provide the equivalent of one Greek quotation in English, French, Spanish, Ilocano, Bisaya, and Tagalog. The man was a genius, but I would remember him for the depth of his simple philosophical statement, "Sana wala na, ngunit meron." It's hard to capture that in English, but my best attempt is, "It could have been nothing, but it is."

He greeted me that morning, and filled out the boxes in the form. I remember him ticking the boxes that was probably a little short of a grand slam recommendation to the law school and showed them to me. He said that he wanted me to see what he thought of me, which was contrary to the instructions of the law school forms. I thanked him for it, because it weighed a lot considering his reputation. It gave me confidence that I could make it to law school. He folded the paper and put in the envelope. He was about to lick the seal of the envelope with his tongue when he stopped and said. "Better seal it yourself as the ants might eat it. I'm drinking coffee."

My new adventure could have ended there as I almost got killed on the day I started law school in June 1991. I was on the seat farthest to the driver on a jeepney. Buendia Avenue was slippery as it was drizzling. We had just traversed Makati Avenue and the driver had stopped at the WIP building to load some passengers. We were accelerating to a full speed when I saw this light blue armored van approaching us. Its driver had lost control as the front wheels were locked but the van kept moving on the wet road. The van's driver swerved to our lane and hit us, landed on the sidewalk, bumped a few pedestrians, and came to a full stop after hitting a plant box a hundred meters forward. I had scratches of the van's blue paint on my jacket. We were fine. But the pedestrians were wincing in pain. We got off the jeepney as they loaded the victims on the jeepney which was to take them to the nearby Makati Medical Center. I took short walk to the Ateneo Law School, uttered a prayer in the chapel, and went up the cafeteria. I ordered coffee which they brewed in a large pot and some rice and  longaniza.  I poured coffee over the rice and ate the meal that I could have missed forever.  Thinking about it now, I was just an inch and a second away from certain death. But I was not meant to die yet, because I  had to complete a cycle. I had to drink coffee first before I die. It's not superstition, but Nietzsche, or it could be Fr. Ferriols with his cup of coffee muttering, "Sana wala na, ngunit meron."

5. More Coffee

In law school, I had to find a way to stay awake every night to finish the reading list for the following day. Ground coffee was hard to find in Project Two Quezon City where my Mom and my sisters stayed until I got married in the late 90s. So, I had to get by studying late nights in our apartment on Nescafe and Taster's Choice. The boost from caffeine was there, but it soon wore out as I had to drink cup after cup to keep up with the readings and recitations. I struggled in my early years. I felt sleepy and I couldn't focus. And with the Ateneo Law School’s demand for academic excellence, I was always a few points away from failing marks.

At the turn of the 90s, somebody marketed Jolt Cola, which had a double dose of caffein. But it didn't have a lasting effect either. I got appointed as a Notes and Comments Editor of the Ateneo Law Journal in my junior year. We had access to the student activity room which we shared with the student council.  It was the elite crowd of the school and we soon learned that we all shared a passion for coffee. Somebody organized the Coffee Club, and we chipped some of our allowance for a large coffeemaker, ground coffee, and a rack for our mugs. We were blissfully united by the smell of coffee that enveloped the room as soon as the first cup was brewed. By this time, I had managed to get a grip on how things worked out in law. I had more focus. I ditched Jolt Cola and the house blend Nescafe and looked forward to my daily cup from the Coffee Club. 

One morning I arrived in the student activity room and found a friend, Blue, visibily agitated that the coffeemaker ran out of filters. He opened the drawers of the table one by one only to find out that the boxes of filters were empty. We thought of options like using our socks instead to help us get by, but we decided it was not a good idea (too many flavors), and we settled with tissue papers. It worked and we found peace and harmony again in the coffee that was brewed as we tackled the reading list of the day. The coffee from the Coffee Club probably turned around my academic carreer.  Thus, I attributed it less to coincidence but more to the Coffee Club that I soon made it to the Dean's list and then graduated with a silver medal in 1995. 

Passing the bar exams was my next hurdle. My Dad decided he was going to allow me to stay on my own apartment to help me focus as I reviewed. It was the first time I was going to live on my own with one specific objective, pass the bar. The first person I visited to help me assemble my stuff for the apartment was my Mom's brother, Tito Dexter, who was then Vice President for legal in a local bank. He was kind enough to lend me his coffee maker that afternoon and gave me some money to buy coffee and a box of filters. I emerged from his office gleefully clinging to the machine like a kid happy to bring home a toy. 

The coffee maker was the only appliance in the apartment. I had a bed, a table, a guitar, and books. I shared the apartment with a friend, Punzi, who once tried out the coffee and couldn't sleep for the night because of the extra doze of caffein. The smell of coffee dominated the apartment, it was the elixir that kept me going in the dead of the night for months as I prepared for the big exams. 

While taking a break from the preparations one Saturday afternoon, my friend, Enzo, brought me to the lobby of Makati Shangri-La Hotel. He said this was where he spent his days reviewing. He ordered coffee which came in a small pot, good for three cups, and some biscuits. He had a good view of the orchestra which played baroque music and he opened his books. I decided it was not a bad way to spend 60 bucks in 1995.

My friends, Punzi and Enzo, and I eventually passed the bar. I became the third lawyer in the family after my two uncles, Edgar, my Dad's brother, and, Dexter, my Mom's brother.  I took my oath as a lawyer in April 15, 1996. and applied for work in a securities law firm, Picazo Buyco Tan Fider & Santos where the bosses were all coffee addicts too. The curious thing was they didn't have any coffeemaker, so we all had to content ourselves with Nescafe. One day my Mom bought me a Taster's Choice Coffee blended with almonds. It became a hit in the firm that it ran out in less than a week. One of my bosses who probably consumed a lot of it apologized to me and I told her it was fine. Besides, I never really liked Taster's Choice as I was always yearning for real brewed coffee.  A few weeks after, the firm management decided we were going to have a coffee machine and the lawyers blissfully worked day in day out. 

In 1996, I started dating my soon to be wife, Ma. Celeste. We met each other in college. She was two years behind me in school so she was in third year when I started law school. I lost touch with her until I was already working. A friend of ours, Steven, gave me her number and one Saturday afternoon in 1996 I decided to call her.  We went out to have a quick dinner in EDSA Shangri-Mall food court and watched a play at the theater. After the play, she invited me to her house where she stayed with her mom, Percy, and sister, Cristina. Celeste prepared some coffee in her cafetiera, which she took home from Italy, after a year long stay. Unfortunately, when the cafetiera was about to finish boiling the coffee, it tipped over the stove and spilled the coffee. I found the cafetiera a curious piece of gadgetry that evening and that made me more interested in Ma. Celeste as we obviously both shared a passion for coffee. We got married a year after and I finally got to have coffee as prepared through the cafetiera when we moved in together in 1998.

At about the same time, I was invited by a client for a meeting at Starbucks, 6750 Ayala Avenue, which as it turned was the first of more than 200 coffee shops they would soon put up.  I wondered what was this hip place with the young professional crowd? It brewed coffee and made chocolate all day and served expensive baked goodies. I would hang around the place since then and find my way too in other branches. They had coffee and chocolate from all over the world. I thought it was brilliant way to earn a living. Finally, commerce has found a way to make money on coffee and chocolate without disrespecting them. 

6. Coffee still

By 2003, I have started my own law firm and high in the agenda of the to do items was how to serve the coffee for  clients. I have taken fancy for the Verona blend of Starbucks coffee which has a bit of cocoa on it. I instructed the office manager to make sure only Verona blend is served and coffee was prepared through French press. One of our first clients was a congressman from Leyte whose term has ended and who asked his wife to run for the seat that he vacated. She appeared to have been cheated in the race so we filed a protest in her behalf. The couple came to the office  several  times and had coffee while we were discussing the case. We did not know each other before the engagement but we got to know each other well through those moments. I noticed that whenever coffee was served, his wife would have the task of putting milk and sugar on it. She would taste it before she would turn it over to her husband to drink.  Our firm was on the cusp of a breakout that year. We had few retainers and we were living from payroll to payroll. Their case provided us, however, with a steady cash flow that helped us make it that year. Many years later, Steve, one of the partners who handled their case. asked him why the former congressman chose our office to handle their case. He said it was because he liked our coffee. 

Soon, I landed an opportunity to be the Corporate Secretary of The Coffee Bean &Tea Leaf Philippines. It lasted for about four years as and I found Coffee Bean to be the classier place. I learned a lot from the company and I often requested to be paid in part with coffee. In 2011, Coffee Bean introduced its concept of pod coffee machines. I was excited about the product that I bought two machines, one for the office and one for the house. Later, I realized they had allotted free machines for members of the Board, but I had already mine and didn't mind spending for it. The great part about it was I could have espresso shots whenever I wanted one. When I first had an espresso, I thought I couldn’t handle it. It was far too bitter a drink to handle. But it was quick. 

So I developed a ritual on drinking espresso, pairing it with a glass of cold water:   First, smell the aroma of the espresso. Drink the water to prepare the mouth. Take a sip of the espresso. Drink water. Then, finish the espresso. Done. And then,  drink water to clean it up. Beautiful. Espresso shots had a way of shooting straight up to the brain to generate the energy that I crave. 

7. Chocolate again 

Inay and Tatay died in 1996 and 1997 respectively. My Mom passed away too in 2014. My family, including Celeste and my four kids, had only been to Pola twice since I got married, so I brought every one home for All Soul’s day in 2014. When we got home,the house made of Narra had not changed at all.  I told my kids how one day I came home to find Inay making chocolates from the fruits of the cacao tree. I showed them the table where Tatay had placed the grinder with a screw and where the last step for making chocolate was done. I opened the drawers of the table and suddenly I found it, the old grinder. It was rusty but all its parts were in place. It only needs to get cleaned and it is ready to make chocolate again just like in the summer of 1987.

In 2015, my wife, Ma. Celeste, and I are in our mid-forties and have taken to morning jogs at the grounds of the University of the Philippines. As early as in our 30s, we have  figured that a lethargic lifestyle is not good for our aging bodies and a solution is to try to exercise regularly. One day after our morning jog, we noticed a new Chinese Restaurant near Quezon Avenue, Lido. It turned out to be owned by some friends of ours from college, Eric and Alvin. 

I felt like having chocolate that day instead of the usual coffee, so I ordered chocolate. The chocolate arrived with a small cup of milk, which I readily poured into the chocolate. It was different in a brilliant kind of way. I told Celeste, if this were steak, this would be perfectly marbled. I thought this drink had the right balance between chocolate and fat content. It's like premium ice cream. And this drink has made me think again that chocolate is for special days. I can't have this everyday because it is too sinful. But I'd like to have this every now and then. 

Recently, my cousin, Jade, who now works in my firm brought chocolates from Pola and prepared it in the office by boiling it with water in the rice cooker. We served it to a new client who liked it so much that he asked for another cup. My client came once more to the office and he asked again if we had chocolate which unfortunately ran out. Then, I thought of our first major client, the congressman who chose us because of our coffee. I thought maybe I should stock up on that chocolate to keep this new client? 

8. The Doctrine of Eternal Return

I still can't decide whether my earliest memory was coffee or chocolate. The legend of Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder, who is credited for discovering coffee from the 10th century is a younger tale compared to the 3,100 year old history of chocolate from the Aztecs.  But history has a sort of disclaimer. It cannot claim which came first, coffee or chocolate. All it can say is what is supported by historical evidence which can be overturned as more research is done. Who can possibly tell which drink the first human beings took?

I drink coffee everyday, but chocolate makes any day special. Perhaps, it is both. This is how it has always been. In the cycle of sunrise and sunset, we keep in tune with this rhythm, we have coffee to pepper our day. We are satisfied with it but on special days we have chocolate. We live like my Dad's steel contraption swinging back and forth in a corner of his office day in and day out. And we find ways to preoccupy ourselves on how to make our coffee, boiled, drip method, French press, instant, or pod style for it is  our nourishment. And  still we’re finding more ways to make it, for there is no limit  on how our minds can create the methods to help us do the same task over  and over. "Finity" fills "Infinity" with repetition. And still,  chocolate is our alternative, our special treat, the one that  makes the ordinary different. And we live by it, make it, and share it with family and friends. 

Of course, it would be disrespectful of Nietzsche if we say eternal recurrence is simply about drinking coffee or chocolate everyday. The mystery is that somewhere sometime I already wrote this essay about my life with coffee and chocolate trying to find out where it began,  and I am writing  it again, charting the same thoughts every moment, everywhere, and somehow going back to where I started, not quite achieving the purpose of this quest, but finding out more interesting things than just coffee or chocolate. 

We can look at it as a curse, a boring way to spend a morning, an evening, or forever. It's all the same, like the house in Pola or the names of the people we encounter in our lives. Nothing happens. It is the cycle of Sisyphus repeatedly pushing the rock over the cliff which comes rolling down again as soon as it's there. Coffee and chocolate could be just the props for this farce. They mean nothing and stand for nothing, which only shows that, no matter how far we have gone, we have never been anywhere and we are staying where we are. Salvation never comes.

But we can accept it as our destiny, for something is there to nourish us and it isn't dreary because even if it's just coffee, it's never the same coffee. There are permutations of blends, and methods of brewing it that makes a different experience every time. And on special days, there is chocolate. And our chocolate gets better, even if the process of extracting from the seeds of the fruit has never changed. Thinking about my first cup of coffee, or was it chocolate(?), in the old Narra house and the things that happened thereafter shows that the possibilities are endless, even if things are just repeating. Nietzsche said it was amor fati, the love and acceptance of our fate. I asked Ma. Celeste, as I showed her the mirror trick I used to do as kid, "would you make the same decision to marry me if you knew you would have to make the same decision through out eternity?" She stared at me as if amused by the question, smiled, and said, "Of course!" The Sisyphus who is pushing the rock is tired, but as long as he is smiling, does it matter?

Or we can look at it the Fr. Roque Ferriols way. We live like the current that moves from point A to point B then pulses back to point A and point B that is repetitive, yet something happened in this repetition. I  became the toddler of Tatay and Inay, the son of my Mom and  Dad, the husband of my wife Ma. Celeste, the father of my kids, the friend of my classmates, and lawyer of my clients. We celebrate our lives with coffee and chocolate in the here and now, limited by time and space which we navigate to and fro, and if we live the same lives over and over again, aren't we blessed?  Someone's hand, not quite like Inay's gentle hand that stirred the cocoa beans above the light heat, is not only keeping us in sync with the rhythm of the universe, but also sustaining us. And we found peace, friendship, and love. As long as the swinging goes on, coffee-chocolate, generation after generation, we should be grateful and happy to be around.  Sana wala na ngunit meron. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

118. Sen. Jovy Salonga and his Three Chairs

Sen. Jovy Salonga was the commencement speaker when I graduated from the Ateneo School of Law twenty years ago. Coming out of law school with  a dream of starting a rather late adult life -- I considered law school as a leave of absence from life -- I left the graduation rites that afternoon with the images of three chairs in my memory. Sen. Salonga was quoting Henry David Thoreau, who said, "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." The images never left my head, and I have lived trying to set my life in this frame that Sen. Salonga had suggested from Thoreau. Sen. Salonga died a few days ago and I realized most of us only know him from his third chair.  In 1991, I read an essay by Conrado de Quiros on why the Salonga-Pimentel team deserved the presidency and the vice-presidency because they earned it from their work fighting martial law, and I decided to spend the summer of my second year in law school campaigning for Salonga-Pimentel. I also remember Sen. Salonga beaming with pride as he displayed a copy of the Foreign Investments Act before a television crowd. The law was passed while he was the Senate President.  

He claimed that it was a landmark legislation that would propel the Philippine economy. I must say that I regularly refer to it as our office advises foreign investors in the Philippines. It is a well written law that allows the President some leverage on directing investments to specific industries through the Negative List.  If we whispered thank you for every dollar that was brought in through that law, it would probably be louder than the loudest rock star crowd one could ever gather. But nobody ever did and Sen. Jovy never asked for anything in return, except that we vote for him so he can serve us more. Sen. Jovy Salonga did not become president, but I would never forget our graduation day when he came to speak about the three chairs. It is a special reason to be forever grateful for this great man from whose wisdom as a leader the Filipinos have all benefitted. Thank you Sen.Jovy Salonga. May you rest in peace.