January 2007


Until Thursday, I can’t remember the last time I cried while watching a movie in a theater. I remember the first time I cried though — watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape at a tender age and witnessing the death of the obese mother unfold. It must have struck a sensitive chord in me at that time (since I, until now, am certainly not the crying type) but which one, I don’t recall. (Maybe it was ominous of my struggle with my own mild [?!] case of body dysmorphia.) I saw The Queen two nights ago and found myself helplessly tearing up towards the movie’s end. It was during that scene when Queen Elizabeth II begins her humbled effort at acknowledging Diana’s death publicly starting with her viewing of the flowers on Balmoral Castle’s gate (where she holed the royal family in France for a week into Diana’s death, insisting on a private mourning as opposed to the British public’s clamor for a public one.) Alarmed yet grateful, I felt the tears stream down my cheeks as I watched her duplicate the effort, on a grander scale, outside Buckingham Palace, especially when she is astounded by a young girl who offers her a bouquet of flowers, thinking that they were not for her but for Diana.

I had been meaning to see this movie for a long time (since I’ve always been a sucker for any movie that the NYTimes critics pick and this was one of them.) Somehow though, my hectic and erratic schedule always gets in the way. But now that it’s Oscar season, I am more vigorously pursuing my movie sched. (Carter, my ex, got me into the habit of being a cinephile and an Oscar junkie. We would watch docus and foreign films at Film Forum and the old classics at Moving Image; then, we would always resolve to watch all the films nominated for an Oscar during the two years we were together which we never got around to accomplishing. I know feeling the sting in this kind of failure seems petty but, in hindsight, it really was another marker in the death of us, a big part of which were being [pretentious] amateur film critics and cinema junkies, together.) Tim, my bf, shares in my desire to actually finish watching all the films nominated this year.

I hardly knew anything about this movie beyond it being about Elizabeth II and now, an Oscar nominee for Best Film. (I’m sure I read the NYTimes review but since it came out a long time ago, the details escape me.) I spent my childhood in Asia and am more familiar with the preoccupations of Japanese royalty than with those of the English. (Do the Marcoses, the Philippines’ pseudo-royals, also count?!) A movie about Elizabeth II seems to tug at my heart just as much as a movie about another forgettable European royal. What I didn’t realize though was that this movie was about the Queen dealing with the death of Diana which was, practically a universal event. (I recall, still in Manila, coming home on a Saturday night with my brother, in front of CNN, telling me that Diana died in a car accident. I vividly remember being helplessly drawn to sit by my brother and watch the news unfold on tv.) It was a most interesting frame.

A friend has already dismissed the film as a vehicle for the monarchists and Stephen Frears, the director, and Peter Morgan, the writer, among their apologists. (Frost/Nixon, the play coming into Bway, is written by Morgan. I am certainly going to see it.) I really didn’t care for this angle. I cared for the portrayal of the human face that holds the crown. I cared for the woman who was cringing in her nightgown as she watched footage about her estranged daughter-in-law on nightly news. I cared for her in a hunter’s parka and boots driving a truck and getting stranded on a shallow river, allowing her time to gaze at a 14-antlered deer. I cared for her leisurely walking her colties in her summer home — okay, so it was a castle — in the French countryside. What I found most striking about this otherwise ordinary woman was the level of commitment she as a Queen is pushed into giving. She has committed her whole life, and her commitment is lifelong. The tension between her private beliefs (insisting on the funeral issue being a private one for the Spencers since Diana, after her separation from Charles and her subsequent estrangement from the Royal Family, was no longer a royal) and her public trust (which is to listen to her people who are clamoring for a public manifest of grief for their princess) was most palpable. Needless to say, Helen Mirren was the anchor in this exposition. (To say that she delivered an Oscar-worthy and winning performance is somehow still understating her phenomenal acting in this film.) In the end, her decision was most inspiring and, yes, quite moving.

Maybe I cried because I was still dealing with the death of my aunt and this movie allowed me a visceral outlet for it. Maybe it was because I was touched by the power of generational imagery — a young girl giving flowers to an older woman is heartwarming in its raw innocence. Maybe it was due to being witness to the unwavering hope for radical change in even the most stoic and most traditional of people. Maybe it was because of my own envy for someone like Elizabeth II who seems to have had an easier journey at finding her lifelong commitment; it was already an option that she was born into(, and yet, that she still had to accept.) Maybe I cried because of all these.

What is my lifelong commitment? I don’t know yet. At the cusp of a new job and almost a year with my bf, I am consoled knowing where my current ones are.

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My aunt died 5 days ago. She was 71.

She was my dad’s older sister, the second in a brood of 5 girls and an only boy. She lived in Manila as well as spent a few years out here in NYC during her late 50s. She has always been regarded as the siblings’ wild child, partying hard during the 60s with the high-flying friends she had met while in the country’s top university. (It’s pretty hard to imagine how she could have trumped the playboy antics of my dad who was simply seen as one of the boys, nothing extraordinary. I guess a playful woman is viewed as more difficult to manage than a playful man owing to the overtly sexist lens of that era.) Her carousing even led her to be a mistress to a wealthy businessman in a Southern town with whom she adopted a child. The businessman has since died, her youth gone and her wealth and health gravely diminished. She has since gotten around aided by a cane as well as by a female servant; her adopted daughter all grown up and with her own kids, still dependent on her and yet highly unreliable for any semblance of payback owed to gratitude. My aunt underwent a successful tumor operation but suffered a fatal cardiac arrest a day into her convalescence. Her life, in a Joan Didion moment, was gone in an instant.

My tricoastal family has since assembled to meet for the funeral in Manila — my mom and my sister’s family flew in from Honolulu; my aunts from Queens. I wasn’t able to go since I couldn’t afford any vacation right now. I’m starting a new job in a month and have not accrued enough days in my old one to get paid leave for such a trip. I am staying here in Brooklyn while I confront my grief over this event. Or my lack of it.

I really wasn’t close to her to begin with. Except for the occasional holidays that our small family would spend together (since except for my dad and 1 sister, everyone else are spinsters), there hardly was constant contact. Yet, this death is particularly poignant as it becomes the first in this small family that I have lived through. It is a chilling reaffirmation of mortality that hits terribly close to home. We are all going to die. My aunt has just gone; someone else will be next. Will it be my dad? another aunt? me?

Morbid thoughts really aren’t healthy expressions of grief, if they are at all. (Joan Didion, my new guide into the wasteland of human death looks into grief as the wellsrpring of consolation.) They are nothing more than dull needles that prick into this cushion of petty bourgeois indifference that I call my life. My self-absorption has apparently gone pathological that I could hardly be affected by a family tragedy. (To make this claim guiltlessly is quite disturbing. I was, after all, a product of a Catholic all boys'(!) high school and a few Jewish boyfriends.)

I was watching the Golden Girls on Lifetime [yes, that TV for women and gay men] this morning (since I took a day off work) and serendipitously caught an episode on how the girls dealt with the death of their cranky neighbor, Mrs. Claxton — they put her in the cheapest casket they could find and hurriedly held her wake. Rose, bless her soul and Betty White’s, eventually saved their pitiful efforts by scattering her ashes on a grand oak tree on their block which prevented its getting cut after being designated as a “burial ground” due to that selfless act. She battered her naive Midwestern brain for some meaning for the death and found something more. She found something redeeming.

I know that to look to pop culture references for a response to this tragedy is pathetic. (No matter that the reference in question was the long-running, Emmy-winning, Bea Arthur immortalized, homo canonized Golden Girls.) But I find myself challenged by Rose Nylan to wrack my burnt out tropical mind for a proper response. (My aunt did get cremated and, no, I am not going to look around for a Save-a-Tree organization that needs to instrumentalize her ashes.)

But maybe the problem with this whole post-Golden Girls dilemma is that I think I can come up with a more substantial response than a twit-minded sitcom character. To even want to respond to (a) death, as if in a duel, is in itself a conundrum. To be challenged by death is really quite confounding; it is also ultimately hopeless. Death will always eventually win. But it is what I do in between — after it happens and before it happens again — that is of significant consequence. (We are, after all, a people of consequence.) What I do after my aunt’s death and before the next, even my own, is ultimately the response that seems to have been most elusive. I quickly remember the analogy of the fish in the aquarium my junior philosophy teacher luvd to use back when I was in school: it is hard to realize you’re in it if and since you’re immersed in it. I am already dealing with her death by just going on with my life.

I took Tim (my bf and a disavowed Baptist) with me to a Jesuit church last Sunday where we lit a candle for my dead aunt. There were no tears, only a quick prayer before we headed out for a Chelsea brunch.

James Wolcott writing about Katie Couric (and referring to her blog entries on this line) from Vanity Fair’s December issue wrote that “no one over the age of 30 should be resorting to all those exclamation marks and capital letters like some juiced-up Crackberry addict.” I thought it was quite a funny and sensible crack at the much-maligned tv diva. I mean, are all those punctuations and capitalizations really necessary for ANYTHING?!!!! Unless your intent is to be rude (which is social suicide in mature and civilized discourse), then there really is no need for it. What lingered in me though, after the initial bite of this juicy barb, was the bar by which Wolcott raised this rule. Thirty apparently is the milestone for crossing over to the new age of soundness in structure and propriety in punctuation. (Maybe 30-year-olds should start running high school papers.)

Then, it hit me. I am turning 30 this year.

I’ll be checking this new box in 6 months. Sometimes, I wish it were as easy to say goodbye to my 20s as it was to my teens. (Only God knows what I did with my teens. Seriously, I can’t remember.) It was such a definitive decade — my big move out west, my coming out, my first great love, my first great heartbreak, my radical reinvention (enough to make me seem like Madonna in the late 90s) among other things — that I feel the need for another 10 to just make sense of it, enough to let it go. But I know I’m not going to be wasting my 30s just living in the past. (I’ve never been one to waste time. Even idling around for webporn is rationalized as creative indulgence in multimedia.) The challenge is always to fully be in the present. It’s bad enough that homos are so ageist. (I might as well be in my old age. Then again, I can always be 29 online for the next 4 years. Heck, I can pass for 27. It seems everyone else lies about their age on their web profiles anyway.) It’s even harder when I realize that it’s not going to be as easy to fall back on my family. (I rarely do anyway — only on money matters.) It’s toughest when I start going all neurotic and start imposing on myself all these delusions of grandeur owed to my new decade. (I’ve already started getting down on myself for still being a studio renter.) But I know that all these petty paranoia are not going to stop me from making the most of the inevitable. Besides, all my friends are in their 30s and it’s just reassuring that they’re all having a grand, old time, pun intended. They’re finding their dream job, buying their own condo, practically getting married. I listen to them and I learn so much. Tim, my bf, is 41 and he’s one of the most well-adjusted people I know. The world doesn’t end after 29. It seems to suddenly start over, refreshing and renewing, in the similar way that a new year begins.

A new year, a new decade. No, not a double whammy but a double whopper.