The world appears to be going crazy. It has never been as screwed up as it is now, it seems. Whether we’re talking about politics, business, relationships, money or, hey, even adobo, somehow it all feels frustratingly, overwhelmingly wrong. It’s gotten to the point where the common topic at gatherings is: What’s your Plan B? In other words, where will you run and what will you do if everything goes to shit?
I needed to clear my head, so I decided to make a quick trip out to Los Baños, the university town where I grew up. I rarely go home anymore. The house we lived in has been demolished, and Dad and Mom aren’t around to talk with anymore. Talking to their headstones just isn’t the same. But the drive calms me down and the sight of familiar places jogs my memory.
For some reason, I remembered the big slide in the elementary school playground. It might as well have been Mt. Everest when I was in kindergarten, it was so big. It was the territory of the fourth and fifth graders who fearlessly climbed the eight or so steps to the top, then stood there in triumph for a moment before making the long slide down. Back then I imagined you could see beyond the trees and view the whole world from the top of that slide.
As my actual world and I got bigger, however, the big slide shrank. The last time I saw it, it was funny how small it really was. Standing beside it, I could reach up and touch the top step. I guess one reason we return to our childhood hometowns is to marvel at how some things remain unchanged even as we become so different. In strange ways, it kind of validates where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
At the same time, we go home to feel safe again. I remembered John Rey. While I was underweight and anemic (believe it or not), he was BIG. He said he could eat a kilo of hotdogs for breakfast and it was probably true. He once punched me in the chin when we were fooling around with boxing gloves, and I can tell you that you really do see stars and tweeting birds circling around your head when that happens. In our school days, he was teased and I was bullied. No, I shouldn’t paint an overly rosy picture here—I teased him and he bullied me. Eventually, however, and I don’t know how we got there but we found that if he had my back and I had his, we were safe. That was what was important. The power of finding common cause with someone, especially someone who was different, was lost on us as kids. The mischief we could have done together . . .
But then I remembered being summoned by my father and being expected to stand in front of him and own up to my transgressions or shortcomings. It didn’t happen often, but I learned as I stood there growing a spine that integrity mattered and every word counted. As children of faculty members our lives were built around the University of the Philippines. We belonged to a U.P. family and lived in a U.P. community. Honor and excellence were not goals for the future. They were part of daily life, taken as givens. You stood up for what was right and endeavored to do your best in everything. If you said something, if you gave your word, you did not walk it back or ask people to creatively interpret your statements. Maybe the most important reason to go home is to reconnect and recommit to the traditions and values that we knew as children.
Plus, the buko pie is good.
Maybe instead of talking about running off to Canada, Switzerland or New Zealand, we should be thinking of going home to Bicol, Bacolod or Butuan. When the challenges seem insurmountable, we need to be reminded of the playground slides we conquered. When we don’t feel safe in our cities or when we feel powerless, we should find strength in friends and family. When we lose our way, we let honor and excellence be our guide.
I think I’ve known these things all along. In fact, as I wrote the paragraphs above, they seemed painfully obvious and trite, as if they didn’t deserve to be the topic of a column, but there was a moment of insight that kept me going: If we can find the time to go home to where everything began, where we learned the basics, where we first plotted our path forward, I believe we’ll discover that the best Plan B is Plan A in disguise.