ANTONIO A. HIDALGO
I can’t remember exactly when I came across the kooky actress Shirley McLaine’s autobiography with that title. It must have been a long time ago, perhaps 30 years ago. I remember that it was an easy and interesting read, for she had done some unusual things in her life. It wasn’t profound, for that is not her strong point, but she was able to effectively convey her free and daring spirit through repeated use of the saying: “You can’t fall off a mountain,” that she said had guided her throughout her life.
The book struck a chord in me. I have made a number of very risky decisions in my life guided only by a deep intuition and, as yet, undefined but extremely urgent need. Afterwards, I would try to explain my radical shifts in life directions to those close to me in rational terms that I never found to be completely adequate. I think now that what was missing in the rationalizations was my inborn belief, long before I had read Shirley McLaine, that life is too short not to do what you need to do for fear of the risk, for you can’t fall off a mountain.
In 1967, in my 20s, I wrote an article using a pseudonym in the Graphic magazine that predicted that President Marcos would declare martial law. I had been primed to be sensitive to a crisis in the larger society because the company I was working for, Esso Fertilizer, was losing money, was breaking up, and had been put on the auction block. Guided by my insight, I obtained a study grant from my employer and enrolled in Ateneo for an M.A. in Political Science, the better to understand the changes that were coming. This led to my resigning from my cushy job in Esso in 1970, despite having a young family of my own, to join the militant left to help prevent the imposition of martial law by teaching at the Philippine College of Commerce, then a hotbed of student activism, and writing for the Graphic, then a leftist publication.
As we all know, martial law was imposed in 1972, and though I was not jailed, my wife and I lost all four of our teaching and writing jobs in the pogrom that attended it, leaving both of us jobless and virtually penniless. We bounced back, though, and by an unusual confluence of fortunate events, I joined UNICEF in Bangkok to embark on an enviable career as an international professional three years later.
I did it again in my late 40s, when I resigned from UNICEF in New York to return home, leaving a well-paid job with diplomatic rank and privileges just eight years before I was old enough to be entitled to a pension. Tears flowed when I discussed this decision with my wife and our teenaged daughters. My wife was scared to death of the financial uncertainty of going home without the safety net of a pension and the drastic change of life that faced us in the Philippines after 15 years of being UN expats. My daughters saw their shattered hopes for an Ivy League education in the US and the end of the comfortable First-World life they had been living.
It was not easy, but we all managed to eventually rebuild our lives back home. My wife blossomed, earned a Ph.D., carved out a successful career as a teacher and administrator at the UP, and wrote many books. My daughters earned their college degrees, learned Filipino, developed permanent peer groups and close friends at last (compared with their evanescent ones during our itinerant life in various countries when I was with the UN), and became bonded to the country and Pinay at their cores. I took a more circuitous path and became a professional breeder of fighting cocks, wrote a series of cockfighting manuals, moved on to write an opinion column for Money Asia, served in the cabinet of President Ramos as Secretary General of HUDCC, wrote 17 books, and established a book publishing house that has done well since 1999.
Knowing only too well the volatility in my nature and my penchant for taking large risks to embark on new journeys, I surmised that my daughters probably had these in their natures too. I thought I would prepare them to handle this part of themselves by giving them the confidence they would need to safely navigate around the risks they were bound to take. I told them about Shirley McLaine’s autobiography and her mantra: “You can’t fall off a mountain.” This was the opposite of my own upbringing. My parents were quite traditional—they had no inkling that my nature was very different from theirs and they often tried to instill caution and conservatism in me, like most parents are wont to do.
My unorthodox parenting sometimes led to funny situations. I had been teaching Anna, our 15-year-old daughter then, how to drive a car for about two weeks, when we took a family trip to Baguio during one of our home leaves while living abroad. On a flash of inspiration, I stopped the car when we reached Kennon Road and asked Anna to take over the wheel.
My wife knew what I was up to, but had to worriedly ask me anyway: “Do you really think she is ready to drive up the zigzag road?” Anna thought so and took over the wheel with relish.
Carmen, our youngest daughter who was nine then, didn’t think so and frantically remonstrated with us: “This is very dangerous! We could fall off the cliff and die!”
I tried to reassure her: “Don’t worry. Remember what I said? You can’t fall off a mountain.”
She refused to be reassured and shot back heatedly: “That is sooo dumb! Of course, you can fall off a mountain. Rona, my classmate in Rangoon, fell on a mountain trail and sprained her ankle badly. She was lucky not to break a leg. And my friend in New York, Jenny, fell while biking down a mountain and broke her leg!”
My wife and I smiled at each other and I said: “That can’t be true, for you can’t fall off a mountain.”
Carmen stuck to her guns and cited three other instances that she had heard of where children had fallen on hillsides and had hurt themselves. I figured she was too young to really understand what I was doing, so I let her win the argument.
We made it safely to Baguio City.
After this incident, my unorthodox attempts at values education through “You can’t fall off a mountain” became an object of fond mirth within my family. My wife and daughters would sometimes utter the mantra in incongruous circumstances to rib me. Like when talking of final catastrophes like dying from a car accident, or when doing something quite safe and mundane, like getting up on a stool to wipe off the roof of a car.
In college, Anna once wrote an informal, humorous essay for her class that dwelt on her unusual upbringing. “You can’t fall off a mountain” figured prominently in it, along with growing up in many foreign lands.
Little did she know when she wrote that essay what treacherous paths she would tread in only a few years. After heading a student org and becoming managing editor of her school paper, she decided upon graduating not to get a job. Instead, she set up her own company with almost no capital, Really Swell Multimedia, and convinced a cousin and a close friend to join her. Unbelievably, they got a number of contracts and the company did well for a couple of years. Anna rented a condo and moved out of the house with the Honda City I gave her.
Then the economy took a bad turn and the contracts dried up. The City disappeared, and we suspected that she had sold or pawned it to see the company through hard times. But we weren’t sure and we never did find out, for none of us had the heart to ask her about it whenever we saw her, for she was always so obviously unhappy and stressed out from seeing her dream crumbling. It took less than a year for her company to go bankrupt. Anna had to give up her condo and humbly move back in with us sans the City.
But she didn’t fall off the mountain. After some months, she landed a good job with a multinational NGO. In a year, she bought herself a secondhand car and moved into another condo. After some more years, she won a Fullbright scholarship and earned an M.A. in the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, fulfilling her dream of an Ivy League degree. Then she joined the World Bank in Washington, D.C. to serve in Asia.
In one of our conversations at home, she told me that believing that she couldn’t fall off a mountain helped her a lot during her tough period.
Some years after we had returned home, Carmen went through a rocky emotional patch in college from a romance that had ended badly. My wife went up to her on one of her bad days and asked: “Are you okay? Can you get through this?” Carmen smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry, Ma. You can’t fall off a mountain, remember?” When my wife told me this, my heart swelled and I stopped worrying about Carmen.
She didn’t fall off the mountain either. She recovered her gung-ho disposition and finished college. Then she tried her hand at modeling, got a few contracts, and won a minor national beauty contest. New in the world of work, she tried a couple of jobs—doing communications for a university, then an NGO—and later settled down for a few years in a large advertising and PR company. She did well enough to rent a condo and move out of the house. But last year, when the company she was working for encountered serious financial difficulties, she decided to take the high-risk path of making a life for herself in the US. She is now working there and saving up to take graduate studies. She sent me a card for last Father’s Day. It said that I taught her how to get what she wants out of life. That she is still clinging tenaciously to the side of the mountain, but she is sure she can scale it.
I E-mailed her to say that I wasn’t sure whether her mountain is there or here, but that I was certain she would reach its summit.
Published in the column "Imagine" in the Philippine Chronicle in 2007.
Posted on November 23, 2008