The night was serene: its black sky dotted with stars above and sweaty faces below. My right hand ached. My wrist screamed as I flexed my hand to relieve the pain. You do not deserve this, I told my hand. There was a sea of people marching out of the examination buildings. There was the black sky and, in front of me, the backs of a thousand heads like a rolling wave spilling out of UST. I had forgotten I had only a sandwich and half a lasagna for lunch. I should be hungry by now, but I do not feel anything. They all said to hope and be confident on the first Sunday, but I do not feel anything. I had to find the gate. The restless roar of those who took the exam was still dulled by the post-exam daze, but I knew it would explode after a few minutes. I had to find the gate, and night was descending. The first day.
I found little comfort in remembering the exam. Don’t think about it, I told myself, as I thought about it. Don’t think about it! Give away questions some say. I hardly doubt that years later we could all say those questions were give aways. But I would wager that those who were actually taking the test would tell another story. I wondered how much of dumb luck is involved in taking the exam. One could study a hundred cases or two thousand provisions, and yet the exam could pick out the hundred-and-first case or the two thousand and first provision. How much of it hangs in the balance — to be decided on the mere whims of one man?
Yet that is the least of what bothers me. The more disturbing character is the almost magical quality attaching to these exams. The top ten are the most coveted in schools and the media — only to disappear after a few days of appearances in the major news channels. Law school deans appropriate them as personal trophies, and discard the rest of the batch. Those who take it study endlessly for nearly six or seven months, not counting the four years of law school. And at the end of it all, an examinee is asked to regurgitate provisions. Enumerate this, explain that, define this, distinguish that. To draw from Eliot, the culmination of my years of study did not end in a bang, but a whimper. In a supreme irony, the whole exercise, which society had sacredly imbued with so much meaning, seemed utterly meaningless to one actually taking it.
It is with a sigh, more of resignation than relief, that I tell myself: “Alas, my boy, you must go on. March.” What else can we do but play our part in this drama of fools. The show must go on. Next week the sun rises on Sunday once again, and Sisyphus must roll up his rock anew.
[after Van Helsing and Jonathan have returned from driving a stake through Lucy’s heart]
Dr. Steward: I don’t understand it! he’s covered in blood and there’s not a drop on you!
Van Helsing: I have been to many stakings – you have to know where to stand! You know, everything in life is location, location, location..
-from Dracula, Dead and Loving It (1995)
Where to study? This is one of the many FAQs that bar reviewees fling to each other during the season. Oftentimes it comes down to some remote and barren Starbucks branch in a secluded or upscale mall not readily accessible by public transportation that charges fixed rate parking and opens late in the morning. I have often mulled over the thought of studying in Starbucks. In reality, however, all the times I found myself studying in Starbucks was just to kill time. I was always there in between events – sometimes during the time between when I would drop off Urie and pick her up after her OLA moot sessions, or simply to wait for the traffic to subside, or just to pass time off in the mall while Urie goes shopping. Rarely did I find myself going to Starbucks per se to study.
Those times I spent there, however, have changed my views on that strange establishment lately. Since as far back as I could remember, I have always looked with a certain disdain at Starbucks for charging exorbitant prices for mediocre coffee full of calories in outrages sizes. A few years ago I mulled over a joke I shared with Urie that the only drink I would order in Starbucks is a tall, black coffee (P105) and for food: a toasty bagel (P55). I did not take it seriously then, since the coffee tasted terrible. It was only years later that I found out that what I abhorred were really the blended drinks. As for the coffee, Starbucks changes its coffee blends regularly and some blends really do taste like shit. On the other hand, there are also some heavenly blends: Verona, House Blend, Guatemala Antigua, Pike Place, Ethiopia, and recently Africa Kitamu. It is always a delight to see them on the menu. What surprised me is that the description on that blend found in the bag is rather accurate. However, I have blacklisted some blends as well: Komodo Dragon, Sumatra, Kati-kati, Willow, Breakfast Blend. The worst! The only remedy is to ask for a french press because that’s money down the drain.
Recently I found out that black coffee is the only reason why I would consider spending some time at Starbucks. I also considered Bo’s but when the barista told me that they use some kind of arabica-robusta mix for their black coffees and charged me almost the same as Starbucks, I just walked out. I also discovered that my disdain for Starbucks is primarily directed to its overpriced blended drinks that are hardly coffee but (in the words of my bar lecturers when they refer to their books) “sell like hotcakes.” I will not be surprised, however, if those items are the ones that keep the establishment afloat. It’s a great business model: great enough to shield those cheapskates like me who spend 2-3 hours in the store with the cheapest product (actually the short brewed coffee is 95, but come on). I won’t be surprised if people like me are the reason why coffee shops go out of business. Think about it: I buy a cup of coffee for P105 and stay there for around three hours. For Starbucks, I’m a NPC (non-performing customer) – I’m always negative. Personally, however, I book it as P20 per hour and a coffee for P45. Considering that the air conditioning is quite good, with a large table, a view, comfortable chairs, and a restroom, P20 per hour is very reasonable. The P55 for the bagel is only when I get hungry.
So that’s the story for the times I’m waiting.
For the times I have to really study (read: dig in the trenches and study), nothing beats the quiet and comfort of a well-ordered table at home. Of course I have a bag of coffee beans as well on standby for those cravings. I bought a hand-grinder a few months ago and I find there is a therapeutic, if not metaphoric, sensation of grinding coffee for a minute or two while pondering bar questions. With some bar review lectures being purely online now, having a self-sustaining bar review environment at home is not only possible, but entirely feasible. Not only does it save me three hours of traffic and around P500 of expenses a day, but I get to spend time with my family. Win-win.
Sierra madre biking trail
The sun was barely on the horizon when we started biking. It was a quarter to six in the morning and the skies still had a steel-gray look to them. As we pushed off, there came a sudden realization that I had legs. Days, weeks, and months of being cooped up in a room writing papers and reading books for law school had taken their toll. I had legs! And they were shivering in fear under the shadow of the sleepy mountain.
There is a downward slope shortly after the start. It is a good way to warm up the legs and feel the cool air, although I know that all good downhill slopes are going to be uphill slopes on the way back and every bit of pleasure those slopes give, they will take back in piercing pain tenfold. But when I take that first glide downhill, I am always reminded why I love biking — if only to feel the cool wind brush against my face and the occasional sight of the peaks of mountains as they protrude upwards from a cloudy sea. The cool air surprised me the most that time since it was May and the summer heat never had any mercy for bikers. I remembered that it rained the night before and wondered if that was the reason.
Soon enough we came to the first of many uphill slopes that stretched here and there for over 20 kilometers. My odometer fell out of my bike and was hanging over the side by its cable. I had not taken much care to fix it back on its spot, that goes for the rest of the bike too. The sacrifices we make to study law. But then I thought it was quite a blessing, since I did not even dare to imagine what 20 kilometers of uphill biking would be. Here at the beginning I was already in my lowest gear and my legs were screaming. This first slope was a straight one — I eyeballed 500 meters of steady asphalted road ascending eastwards. The sun was still hiding behind the mountains but I could see its faint, piercing glow every time I would glance upward to check how much more road was there waiting to grind me to dust. I realized it was better to keep my head down and count one…two..three…four…one…two…three…four while I watch my front tire miraculously circle around the road and feel my legs push inch by inch those little gears at the back of my bike. One…two…three…four and the next thing I know I am on top of the slope and looking at a steady glide to the next slope. This would go on for the rest of the biking route.
There were times when my legs gave way and I would stop by the nearest rock under a tree to catch my breath. The last time I went up this trail had been nearly three years ago and my body reminded me of that. As I sat down under the shade, the sound of crickets, as if it were the steady purr of the mountainside, enveloped me. The mountain always takes what I could give it, and sometimes it gives me more than what I could take. It has the same slopes, same angles, same curves, same bends — and the only thing that changed was me. The gentle hum of the forest was only interrupted by that unmistakable ridiculous roar of motorcycles as they zipped past me. Rrrrroooooooooommmmmm! they sounded as they went like a horde in single file. Rrrrrooooooooooommmmmm!
As the hours go: seven turned to eight and eight turned to nine. Desperation neared when the shadows started to recede. Biking under the noonday sun would have been suicide, and I was already spent. But as anti-climactic endings go, I hitched a ride on my friend’s car on the way back. And by hitched a ride I meant that he had to drive a bit to pick me up on the trail. Yes, the mountain won this time, but I will be back.
In one lechon-perfumed room in a (literally) dusty hall in U.P., my last class in law school ended with applause and the customary photo shoot with the professor. We were talking about quasi-delicts and how motorists were always at fault when hitting pedestrians and how hitting them with our car’s side-mirror could be our own way of urbanized revenge. This was a four hour make-up class but it was all lectures now since time was of the essence. The room was filled with only my professor’s voice – trying to hack its way to the end of the syllabus and wrap up this review class. Outside, the waxing moon hung under a clear, night sky peppered with its many stars. The walk to the car took a minute or two since I was parked in the annex, which I dubbed as ‘The Swamp’ since during the rainy season it does turn into a veritable swamp. The way was dark, serene and peaceful — a perfect opportunity for me to be mugged.
On the walk back, I thought about Room 307 and how I had my first class there during my freshman year. Ugh freshman year, I thought, how stupid of me. I remember classes in Persons and Family Relations and Legal History and Constitutional Law 1 and how I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. Many times, time just went by in flashes, like broad strokes in some post-impressionist, modern art painting indistinguishable from vomit: exams here, recits there, a head hunched over some papers under a lamp, empty cups of coffee by the side, the tune of jazz in the background, a rosary by the book stand, a stack of books, notes scribbled on loose sheets scattered on the floor, a jacket hanging on the back of the seat, hands aching from shrinking text to fit between the lines in the codal, memories of 5s and of 1s, victories like making it in the OPF and staying there, defeats like Oblicon, deus ex machinas like Oblicon and the 2013 bar results, wondering if I should join a frat, deciding not to, dates with Urie and our movies and dinners and chats – my sanity in this endless sea of unreason.
In hindsight, I could do with more walks in the oval now that school is over and only a few exams stand between me and graduation and then the bar and then I shall fade and diminish and sail over the sea to Valinor.
To friends who left ahead of me:
Eager eyes with hopes we had
when we set our roots to the earth;
a seed in the wind, dust from the wings of moths.
To grow we must at nature’s call:
a journey’s end, four years to come;
with faith and hazard our only friends.
True: in the rains do branches wear their leaves
so ripe and green — the shades above our heads
from dangers yet unknown, unseen
What story could they tell of an inferno — those that
have yet to feel its heat? August passes and April
comes with its thirsty glare. Up we gaze to see
no clouds but the sky: blue and bright with our
death — and some fall: brown and crisp to the earth.
And here we remain to see another May
until for need of lumber the axes come
and take for them those of us as they say.
Nothing in OLA is ever simple. Waking up at 530am and waiting a whole day for a 10-minute meeting to soak up insults is something I could never get used to. We wait all day and she expects us to thank her for allowing walk-ins. I was never too good at kissing ass and have always mistrusted flatterers, sycophants, and bootlickers. What has OLA brought me other than anxiety, countless hours wasted, and money thrown away on that false altar? And for what? Two letter P’s – since that’s what we all get on our transcript. Nothing else matters.
But one song played in my head as I left that infernal office:
Last Sunday I went on a hike up a mountain with some friends. Mt. Ayaas was roughly an hour away from Quezon City in the Sunday traffic. An hour’s drive showed the highway diverging onto a two-laned path lined with trees, which slightly zigzagged its way to the end. It was paved and smooth at first but later carried pockets of broken asphalt and eroded ground. The sight of trees by the side of the road later faded into heaps of garbage – almost two or three stories high – full of old tins of cooking oil and plastic bags and decomposing food. Dogs went here and there while some children played alongside the road, rolling a deflated tire with a bamboo stick. They had smiles on their face.
When we arrived at Brgy. Mascap – a place of which I know is just somewhere in Rizal – we signed a waiver that basically waived any responsibility the guides had for our safety. Given that it had rained quite hard earlier in the morning, we thought it best not to think about it too much. From then on, we climbed – first along paved inclines and then into the muddy earth with stones and trees and vines and sharp things brushing against our arms and legs and faces. The forest air enveloped us with the smell of wet earth and plant life. It was the breath of the jungle right after its shower. Bugs crawled and flew across us while others clung to our skin. Many times we walked along a narrow path. It had room for only one man, and at times only one foot so we had to walk with one foot over the other as if on a tightrope. In those times we had the mountain wall on one side while the other only had the view of a perilous slope to the bottom.
We were not the first ones who climbed the mountain and we will not be the last. The footprints of those who went before were already etched on the earth. The grooves of their feet dug deep – deep enough for a good foothold. I looked out for these prints like hints from ghosts on how to negotiate the mountain. A thought came to me of how the media tends to glorify the new and the different. “Stop living in the past,” they tell us. But in this mountain climb – the past is really all the difference between the summit and the abyss.
We eventually made it to the top at around noon. I made a dreadful mistake of packing only one asado siopao for lunch but it still felt like it was the best meal in the world after that climb. After some pictures and a rosary, we climbed down and made our way back to the barangay hall. On the way back, we stopped by a small water fall where some of us took a dip into the shallow but cool lagoon. After our brief respite we decided to take a tricycle back to the barangay hall since we were all spent by that time.
With aching legs but full of cheer we drove back to Manila. We passed through the mountains of garbage, the lines of trees, and to Commonwealth Avenue just as the sun was setting. And as darkness crawled over the skies, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
There goes another year. It’s quite striking how time flies (though for a senior law student, Time can’t fly fast enough!). A little over three years ago, I read Tolentino for the first time for Persons. Back then I had no idea how to read for class then (heck, I had no idea how to do be a law student). Cases came piling up and the recits came. Readings here and there, seven hectic enlistment periods, at least two instances when I thought I was going to fail a subject, and more than a thousand kilometers of driving – such was academic life for the past three years. Looking back and with a restrained chuckle of desperation, I throw back the question to myself of why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I suspect the question will return (and more emphatically, if I may add) during bar review and on the first day of work.
Outside there is the intermittent sound of fireworks. A sound that bears a strange similarity to a small firefight – a sound I’m all too familiar with after clocking nearly 30 hours playing Fallout 4. Fallout 4: in a sequence of uncanny events, that game actually proved to be the catalyst for me buying a new desktop just to play it. It was a comforting thought that I can still enjoy playing games, given that I could only do so in between semesters.
From law school to Fallout 4 – talk about digression. But hey, maybe it’s good to digress every once in a while. The year 2016 will be remembered for many things – many things. Many, including I, may feel that 2016 itself is a digression (from more reasonable times lol). And yet the show goes on. Oh that reminds me, a few days ago my Mocha Uson blog post got over a hundred views. A hundred views! That’s almost as much as a whole year! Thankfully, it has normalized now and this blog can return to its regular state of oblivion. Heh. Happy New Year, reader!