The Learning curve

Happily playing tourist in SF

On a brief visit with my San Francisco family, I played tourist and willingly succumbed to the city’s holiday treats, all thoughtfully planned in advance by my daughter Tanya. I loved the December chill, the fresh 8-foot Douglas evergreen (a renewable resource I was proud of), the autumn foliage and the postcard-pretty fireplace that was, alas, gas-operated. All that, and a working and efficient train transport system. It was a welcome respite from Manila.

I had ambivalent feelings about watching the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” despite its Tony Award honors. I had mistakenly thought that the story line of a troubled high school kid would be too juvenile. The music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul was a draw, as I enjoyed their songs in “La La Land.”


How wrong I was about the plot, as it turned out to be a powerful story that speaks to parents, teachers and today’s youth. The role of social media in our lives was an insightful focus.  The title comes from the daily assignments required of Evan by his psychiatrist to help him sort out his feelings of alienation and association. He must write a letter to himself, and one of those letters is grabbed by a taunting peer, himself troubled and lonely, who takes his life and is found with that letter, which his parents interpret as their son’s suicide note.

Through the play’s emotional highs and lows, at the end, a touching song by Evan’s mom says it all, with hope despite memories of Evan’s father leaving them: “And the house felt so big, and I felt so small/ And I knew there would be moments that I’d miss/ And I knew there would be space I couldn’t fill…”


The second-night crowd responded so warmly, striking an affinity with the drama onstage. Remarkable was the first-ever pretty theater program I have seen in years, with well-written articles on thick paper. The audience lingered on for wine and cookies after the show. How special everyone felt, even those of us in nose-bleed seats from where we complained about not all the lines being audible.

Concerts in churches are special to me, and so I was eager to be at the noonday Christmas at Grace Cathedral concert. It was a children’s concert of Christmas carols at this beautiful Gothic Episcopal Church in Nob Hill, an ideal venue for cultural events with its stained glass windows, the multimedia installation of 2,000 paper doves by German artist Michael Pendry and a towering 23-foot tree decorated with 17,000 original cranes and stars, inscribed with children’s wishes for the world.

The hourlong concert was interspersed with children’s favorite characters coming to life, as they try to discover the true meaning of Christmas with every opened present. Our eldest grandchild, Diego, sounded blasé at 8, and blurted out the spoiler before the true meaning was found: “It’s love!”

A totally enthralling experience was our trip on the Polar Express train to the North Pole at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. It was a long drive for our patient driver and head of the family, Dr. Edmund Duldulao, who luckily was just as charmed. It was a reenactment of my favorite Christmas classic, a Caldecott award winner by Chris Van Allsburg. Passengers came in their pajamas and we were served hot cocoa as the book dictates. The storytelling, with the train conductor showing the illustrated pages as the train turned and whistled, was a highlight.

There was singing and merrymaking as we made our way to the North Pole. Santa then came on board and gave each of us the bell from his reindeer’s harness, the bell that the main character in the book had lost through the hole in his pocket.  The story ends with, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” I was beginning to engage Diego in a conversation on why grown-ups do not hear the sound it makes, but he ended it by saying, “You just have to believe.”

My second grandson, Emilio, 4, who wants to know what a figgy pudding is, has been walking on air since Santa touched him on the shoulder. His hand smells like cookies, he said.  Nana, 3, had her sleepy eyes wide open when Santa surprised her.

They reminded jaded me to remember what Christmas is all about, and to make sure the bell continues to ring for me. A beautiful way to keep literature and the Christmas spirit alive.


Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.



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TAGS: Benj Pasek, column, Justin Paul, La La Land, opinion
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