Saturday, August 20, 2016

The rescue

SURROUNDED by a phalanx of reporters and recorders, Presidential Assistant Michael Dino presented an unenviable sight before and after the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) quarterly meeting.

But during the Aug. 18 meeting of the CCPC, where he was a guest, the Visayas alter ego of President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned a detail that made me curious.

He said that even before he has moved into his office at the Malacañang sa Sugbu, “half a sack” of letters is already awaiting.

I turned this fact over and over in my mind, wondering if I ever would receive such a bounty in my lifetime. When my boys—a husband and two sons—were younger, they wrote me letters, often with a drawing or two.

And then text and email came, followed by Hangouts and Facetime.

Also kept as keepsakes are the yellowed notes that a class presented me during one birthday. Now yellow and curling in a paper box covered with news articles, my students’ letters linger longer than the chocolate cake we shared.

Letters, of course, have different flavors. Mr. Dino implied that some of the letters may be divulging more names that may end up in a narcolist.

As a child, I woke up every morning to my late father’s favorite radio commentators reading aloud letters demanding official action. These were sent by “concerned citizens”.

The current War on Drugs and the lengthening “Kill List” stain the civic letter-writing of old with a repute that puts it more in league with medieval plots, wily whispers, and Judas kisses.

More than political vagaries, technology accounts for the dramatic decline of letters. Reading the missives drafted by students for news sources, I am appalled at times to discover how the curtness, informality and self-entitlement of instant messaging and Tweets have turned the letter into a Frankenstein creation of mismatched intentions and expression.

So Education Secretary Leonor Briones’s decision to continue the “Salamat Po (Thank You) Letter Writing Project” on its fourth year should be celebrated by all those who believe there is more to communication than composing and reading “Wer U :-)”.

The Department of Education (DepEd) and the Philippine Postal Corp. (Philpost) will award P50,000 to a student who mails at any post office a handwritten letter to any person he or she is grateful to.

Written in Filipino or English and using the proper format, every letter sent locally entitles the student to a raffle coupon. If sent abroad, the letter writer receives two raffle tickets.

Prizes of P10,000 will be given to students, as well as to their teachers and schools, in the semi-grand draw on Mar. 15, 2017. The grand winner will be announced on April 2017, also the Philpost anniversary.

I would have preferred that the contest involves reading and selecting the winning letters. Other stakeholders have to take up the slack to get more than the luck of the draw to restore the lost art of writing letters.

For instance, will newsrooms recognize the most unforgettable letters written by the public? Do editors still print a letter that’s handwritten? Who has the patience to untangle penmanship?

Letter-writing, penmanship—what else is for the rescue?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 21, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Beyond pages

WHAT do you call the second or the third copy of a book you lend or give to friends?

And how do you call those books that first mushroom and then tower beside your bed?

Do you organize your bookshelf by author, title or genre? Or just by a book’s peculiar hold on your book-mad self?

I took away questions when I left the Presents & Such Café & Tea Room one Friday evening. I walked back to the university, retraced my steps, and somehow ended home without minding the weekend traffic for once.

Even as I sit to compose this piece, the questions still niggle: what do you call the books you first read as a child, lose in the interstices of a life, and then remember while looking through a window misted by a late afternoon drizzle?

Is the feeling the same for books you come back for in a store and never meet again?

How do you describe the daze with which you wander around for days after the last page is turned?

Or the bizarre conditions that afflict readers dealing with the last page. Some must first read the last page. Others are torn between rushing to the end and slowing down to delay the moment of emerging from the spell and returning to life beyond the pages.

Books weave a spell. We agreed that afternoon in the café and tea room along Gorordo Ave.

Eileen and I discussed syllabi. Loy juggled, from answering messages about her coming book launch to ruminating how the zucchini’s confusion about its identity makes it ideal for her ratatouille.

By the time Frankie opened up about her plan to set up a public reading nook in Bantayan, books, past and present, had long been sitting with us and steering the conversation.

Loy remembered when the arrival of a book was so rare, it had to become collective property. She and her siblings and cousins passed a book around until that novel’s characters became an intersecting circle of invisible friends.

Regularly taking a bus to the city, Loy noticed the owner’s son often rode as well. That he was tall, lean and dashing did not escape her attention.

Neither did his books. She found not just a way to get him to lend her, a complete stranger, the new titles but also to wait until her circle of family and neighbors had finished the novels.

Till now, Loy still has the habit of walking inside her kitchen to bring out some titles from her collection.

Eileen calls these books the “keepers,” such as the mint and illustrated copy of Gene Stratton Porter’s “A Girl of the Limberlost,” discovered when Loy was a girl and seen again in a secondhand bookstore.

She has another copy you can borrow from her. The books shelved in the café belong to a second category. Loy doesn’t mind if, after lingering over apple pie and coffee, a customer brings a volume home.

Ei, though, cannot find a specific name for these extra copies. Yet, while keepers effortlessly hold our heart and imagination within their pages, the ones we give away often have the strongest spell.

After Frankie parted with her heirloom collection of “National Geographic” magazines, given by an aunt who stirred her love for reading, to start a reading nook for mothers at the daycare center, she overheard a woman whisper in awe to a companion as they scanned the photographs in this classic publication about explorations: Who knew such worlds existed?

Reading brings us inward but also releases and liberates. Now, how do you call that?

( 09173226131)

* First published in the August 14, 2016 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Cardboard justice

THE CORPSE had clean feet.

The body was deposited beside a highway that would soon be crawling with motorists getting away for the weekend to Tagaytay and Batangas, favorite watering holes for Manila’s middle class and affluent.

On a weekend, the site would have been risky for an execution or a disposal. There are nearby malls, arcades, and the restaurants and excursion sites of Tagaytay and the beaches of Batangas.

But late Thursday evening or Friday dawn? A few meters from a university and situated beside an open clearing, the spot is located along a stretch of road that is unlighted and uninhabited.

The body wore denim pants and a white shirt. Any onlooker could see the packaging tape winding around the head, the hands tied behind the back, and the ankles.

All during the ride to Metro Manila, I wondered if the theft of the shoes was an afterthought of the crime. A man’s life was negligible; his shoes were not.

“Bloody PH drug war catches eye of int’l media” was the title of a Philippine Daily Inquirer page-one story on Aug. 6.

After I searched “death toll in PH,” Google turned up 1.7 million references in 0.61 seconds. The first page of the Google search contained only two references to the Typhoon Haiyan casualties; all the rest were about the body count of President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The extrajudicial killings have been condemned by the Church, media, and human rights organizations, here and overseas.

“Will the human rights people still be noisy when their rights or their loved ones’ lives are violated?” That’s the reaction of Boni, a taxi driver in Lapu-Lapu City who voted for Duterte primarily because of his tough stance on drugs. He said only Duterte is capable of taking on the rich and powerful who are preying on the common people.

Yet, there is a pronounced class slant in the profile of victims falling in the War on Drugs. In photo after photo, the victims shot down in the streets or abandoned in gutters, dumps and grassy lots seemingly come from the lower socio-economic brackets.

The news photos show not just the cocooned faces and the blood bath but also the dead men’s feet in slippers. If bare, the soles are dirty, as these would be if the men had earned their living, shod only in slippers, out on the streets or had just run for their lives.

While drug financiers and narco-politicians are paraded in news conferences or given a presidential face-to-face castigation, the men sharing their crime but not their status end up as statistics. According to another Inquirer report, Oplan Tokhang was not carried out in a gated village after the homeowners’ president certified in writing that no resident was engaged in drugs.

Jennelyn Olayres, widow of a slain drug user, protested against this form of cardboard justice. In an Aug. 1 Inquirer report, she asked President Duterte to look into the deaths of those “judged by a cardboard”.

Beside the body of her partner and many other victims of extrajudicial killings were pieces of cardboard, labelling the body as a “drug pusher” or repeating a moral: “Don’t do drugs”.

To the homeless, discarded grocery boxes have infinite use, whether as a sleeping mat, temporary roof or kindling. Thanks to the War on Drugs, we have another use for cardboard.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 1, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”