Monday, September 25, 2006

Of oghams and arrovos

OGHAM, or ogam, is found in between ogee and ogive. I was really looking for zobo but could not find it in the colony of zoarium, zoea, zonate.

Still disbelieving, I searched for ogive and found myself in the prickly company of other strangers: ogee, ogham, ogive, ohia.

Strangest of all, these exotics brushed up against me while I was wading in a pool of words found in an old, and previously thought of as familiar, Webster’s Dictionary.

Perhaps wading is the wrong choice. The New York Times News Service recently reported that arcane acrobatics ruled the eighth World Scrabble Championships.

“In the end, the zobo and the ogive could not quite triumph over the qanat and the euripi.” A Thai architect was birsled—Scottish for scorched or toasted—by a mathematician from Canada in the final playoff.

Contenders for the high-stakes prize of $15,000 relied on tactics such as knowledge of the abstruse and skill in usage, like applying q’s without u’s.

This arsenal did not apparently include understanding what the word stood for.

Filed the New York Times, “language divorced itself from meaning.”

The national champion of Trinidad and Tobago—a former teacher and accountant—commented that meaning may be important for the player’s personal development but not “for the purpose of the game.”

My Scrabble ambitions never went beyond using q or x for a triple-letter score. But if I were to play for fame or gain, I suspect that the letter tiles ranged on my rack will form a familiar word, not a stranger picked up from the anonymous lineup in a dictionary.

Even silent persons must hold inside them words they like for their feel. Words rasp or sooth, not just due to the arrangement of letters and their rhythms but from the grain of their associations.

Do we summon words we have never met? Even our mistakes, it is said, invoke the self, just disguised.

While the World Scrabble contenders carried out their English of expediency in London, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) circulated newly printed P100 bills that contained a misspelling.

Arrovo instead of Arroyo: the loss of a tail in a v that should have been a y.

Will the infinitesimally small bring low the infinitely powerful?

Aside from collectors that may wish to keep a specimen—only 1,000 of the bank notes were released before the BSP discovered the mistake—the opposition has done its best to milk the printing error.

Unlike the Scrabble champions though, the opposition contends that meaning is everything in a word, even in the lapsed ones.

Thus, Arrovo has been deconstructed as implying robber in Spanish (robar, as in rovo de la cuadrilla that means robbery in band), as well as in Japanese (dorobou, describing thief or burglar).

Opposition lawmakers said that the misspelled bank notes will be constant reminders of the accusations of “cheating, lying and stealing” made against the President in 2004.

The gentlemen may have a future in semantics, but probably not in fortune-telling.

Thus far, the Arrovo printing error has not become a national joke. It may be because many of us are unfamiliar with Spanish and Japanese, and do not appreciate the opposition gentlemen’s great efforts at research and relevance.

Only what’s familiar can tickle the funny bone, the political bone, the bone of memory.

To someone like me, ogham is just a dictionary entry, five tiles in Scrabble strategy. One needs to be Gaelic to envision this ancient alphabet using notches for vowels and lines for consonants, etched on rough standing tombstones.

Arrovo might mean what it means in Spanish and Japanese. As a Filipino, I’ll take its correctly spelled cousin as it stands for very much the same thing in my own tongue.

Outside of Scrabble, meaning is just everything.

( or 09173226131)

Growing a library

A LONG time ago, before the boys came, when the world seemed to be full of possessions giving you lingering, sidelong glances, we bought two bookshelves.

In time, I lost one shelf to the boys, a noble but doomed experiment to get these creatures of the wild to be proprietary about space.

But to my sons a bookshelf is just a thicket of books. Just as trees grow at random, a book is found because a hand just happens to pull it out of the pile.

The gods of random might laugh behind my back but I am the crazy woman in the forest that tends her books, growing them by size and shape and genre.

Having only one shelf to hold all the books collected in a lifetime of reading is one reason for the annual rearrangement.

I prune regularly, giving away books to those I hope have more generous hearts and minds to house them.

Yet the boards of my bookshelf still sag lower each year.

One time, I tried piling nonfiction at the base as I figured the seriousness would be grave enough to support the second and third layers.

As it turned out, the upper layers holding works of imagination were anything but buoyant. One dawn, on my sleepy way to the bathroom, I pulled out a novel from somewhere in the middle of a pile and caused all three shelves to slide slowly towards me.

Whoever wrote that fiction is froth has never had masses of imagination dumped on his person.

In a fit of democratic alphabetization, I have also tried mixing genres and literary reputations. Cartland before Chekhov, Simenon preceding Steinbeck.

In real life, Eco might never circulate in the same cocktail party as Ellroy (who might consider such urbanities as filthier than swigging in the gutter) but my copy of Eco has less molds and fewer roach droppings simply because it is next to Ellroy’s crime noir, taken out whenever checking papers threatens the old lucidity (and I darn well mean “whenever”).

However, leavening literary differences turned out to be an underestimated struggle against snobbishness.

Truth to tell, I enjoyed more hanging out with Gaiman, Hemingway and Macdonald, but quickly stiffened in the petulant presence of the never-finished, never-penetrated Hesse, Ibsen and Melville.

Eventually, the bookshelf followed a new order, split between the Riotous, Irrelevant Contemporary, a section more populous and definitely untidy compared to the Dead Classics, impressive, dignified and undisturbed.

And then this year the screws gave way under the irretrievable shelves.

Realizing that many of my old friends are older than my 40 years (many of the titles were serendipitous finds in bargain bins), I thought for weeks how to reshelf them while minimizing harm.

Age is bad for book paper. It’s gentler though on people, the way our sandpapering at term’s end in grade school left textbooks with soft edges for the lower years to reuse.

I’ve long given up ordering the boys or setting a good example or rearranging my sons’ books on the shelf I lost to them. It’s enough for me now that the boys read, have a favorite title or two inserted in the interstices of their busy, full lives.

I’m even proud that they still consider me as the crazy woman who can find a title anywhere in their part of the thicket, as well as in mine.

For I no longer treat the bookshelf as if it were a European garden with rigid rules of formality to follow. These days, I just put in front what I want to read again.

Of course, being crazy all these years is hard to just undo. So the books are arranged according to the desire: titles-to-reread-now-that-I’m-older, titles-to-compare-with-their-movie-versions, what-on-earth-was-I-thinking-when-I-bought-this-title.

Like I say, raising books is never random.

( or 09173226131)


Jellyfish and lanzones. That would be her answer on the first day back to work, when the inevitable question would be asked: what did you do during the break?

She remembers the lanzones, not the fruits, crated and pinched and weighed at street corners back in the city, but the trees their car passed going up the mountain: light-barked, straight, their lines just deviating for branches that still hold a few unpicked green globes.

In truth, the trees had to be pointed out to her. At first, she noticed only the baskets and the men waiting at curves up the road, and of course the trucks. Driving up the slopes of Montpeller until they come to Guadalupe, they pass lanzones compradors, whose hard eyes she imagines quickly dismiss them: family, visiting, sedan, no room to take away a basket.

Because of the buyers, she sees the lanzones trees, growing in clusters near the road, as cow-like, udderless but nevertheless waiting for people to milk them: pack the globes in bamboo baskets for the city, land of fruit hawkers.

She tastes a phantom archness, as if one of the pearly-white slivers finds its way in her mouth. Journeys are always bogged down by predispositions. Travel light is good advice. And like good advice, nearly useless.

For one, it does not help decide if they will push on for Lepanto, boundary between the eastern and western side at this tip of the south. The rain makes up their minds for them. It is astonishing that a drizzle one ignores because the canopies are so thick can finish a road in ruinous increments: an ominous crack opening in mud and stone, like rumors about to swallow whole sleepy villages.

After supper, their host misses the old gecko that has failed to show up on the whitewashed walls tonight. She wonders whether this is an oblique apology for the swarm of moths attracted to the walls, often caroming at their heads, or if her host is expressing genuine sentiment.

The large-headed, brown-speckled old-timer outlived the old mistress. An unmarried daughter now lives alone in this house, with two other women. The younger women teach in the day; the older one tends the store. They raise chicken, pigs. Eat lanzones that has ripened in trees planted by her late father.

This female trinity would make a fine statement except that she has trouble shaking off a picture of the household, with only a lizard for company, alone in the night. In the mountains, it is hard to shake off the night. The night is a presence with a solidity, a liquidity, even a smell.

She remembers that when they bathed at a nearby spring earlier that evening, the dark was the water stinging, the moistness reeking, the heaving of an animal watching beyond the reach of the hovering fireflies.

Enjoying the solitary wash, she guesses that bathing at night is not a local habit. She is told that a man in the next sitio was slain not too long ago. A group of strangers walk at night, listen beneath open windows. After the murder, people are careful to bar their doors early, extinguish the light.

Used to the half-shadows that lull her to sleep in the city, she does not know what to do with the night streaming in through the windows. A neighbor’s dog barks suddenly in the inky liquid she swims in her sleep. She wakes to her older son telling her about a lizard with a huge head dropping from the ceiling and swallowing one of the enormous moths drawn to the laptop screen, glowing in the dark.

Death, she decides, is the animal waiting just beyond the night. In the morning, they have last night’s food and a story of a knifing in Lepanto. At dawn, while people were going home from a dance, a man stabs a neighbor.

The victim lived. Not all of the jellyfish washed ashore on the coast from Alegria to Ginatilan do. On the drive to Samboan, she sees dozens of lavender plastic bags discarded near the shore. They turn out to be jellyfish, the fat, lovely, duplicitous animals perishing where the receding tides leave them on a languid, sun-drenched Sunday, memories away from the night. or 091733226131

Spice up

HOW do you seize happiness, by pinches or handfuls?

After hunting intrepidly in New York City, my lola brought back bottles of whole black peppercorns and assorted condiments.

As she was unable to find a single canister of Chinese star anise, it was its scarcity that caught her attention.

When the papers recently featured an item about star anise, my lola was very interested to hear that this aromatic herb contains an acid for manufacturing Tamiflu.

It should have impressed me, too, as this happens to be the only drug known to be effective in treating bird flu.

But I was distracted by the whole black peppercorns, all 256 grams of it in clear plastic canisters.

Even just a single shriveled pimienta negra entera is a thing of wonder. Crush it and an entire universe blooms at the tip of the tongue, pierces unimagined recesses in the nose, breaches inlets of memories.

Two hundred fifty-six grams of peppercorn though is not amazing. It is confounding.

I have never been to New York City. Of all the sights I cannot imagine, none can rival the grocery shelves my lola casually mentioned as holding 256-gram canisters of whole black peppercorns, so full to the brim the tiny berries only gently jostle its neighbor when the canister is shaken.

Imagine the affluence of a society that deluges their grinder with peppercorns, blanketing their food with cascading freshly ground pepper.

In contrast, paminta or liso is sold here in pinches. For 50 centavos or a peso, the sari-sari store owner hands over a knotted plastic tube containing peppercorn seeds equivalent to a third of the length of your second finger.

Even if housewives could stock on peppercorn, what would be the use? A twinge or pinch already transforms the simplest dish.

The other day, a restaurant owner bought all the good fish in the wet market near my lola’s home. Not even a decent fish head was left.

My mother decided to prepare a “simple” dish my grandmother made for her children. As the recipe called for adobo cuts of pork belly, I argued that it was hardly simple fare.

But my mother insisted that humba Bisaya was the pared down version. The fancy fiesta version requires salted black beans or yellow strands of azucena. If rendered the Chinese way, whole boiled eggs bob along with the gelatinous cubes of pork. A sweet-sauced version liked by children calls for sugar, pineapple chunks and juice.

But on days when someone with more money has been to the market before you, humba Bisaya is the only life-saving version. While waiting for the pork to turn reddish brown, grind native garlic with peppercorn. The garlic pulp will keep the pinch of pepper from scattering out of the mortar.

Saute. Simmer the pork in soy sauce and water. Share with whoever is at home. Wait at least an hour before taking a nap.

In terms of size of berry, there is no discernible difference between the pimienta negra entera of New York and the paminta in Banawa.

I can only muse at the difference in the amounts of pepper sprinkled over the food. Because our dishes only contain a hint of an aroma, are we at heart emotional skinflints, too scared to revel in the snap and kick of life?

The latest Pulse Asia survey shows three out of four Filipinos consider themselves to be poor or very poor.

Visayans rank highest (70 percent) in terms of those who consider they are “worse off now” than in the past.

But our food contests such a miserly view of life. Isn’t one better off for finding happiness in a piquant speck, rather than in lavish doses?

( or 09173226131)

Eating as protest

I BELONG to a generation admonished never to protest what was placed before me to eat.

With this upbringing, I consumed copious volumes of what would be considered as unspeakable during mealtimes with my own children.

Howls of “eeewww” always followed my pointed reminiscences about some childhood dish. Whenever what I served was underboiled or overfried, I noticed that the boys were always too willing to swallow a whine just to stop me from recalling the goat eyes I once plucked from lash-less sockets swimming in tomato paste.

They winced when I smacked my lips in remembrance of plump fish lips that never tasted a tooth brush.

But when I was modest about the number of turtles I tucked away—only because I chose to first pull out the black nails from the little boiled legs unlike my much faster cousins who would eat first and just spit out the nails later—the boys would just quietly turn the shiny bile-green shade of fragrant turtle broth.

When they were growing up, the boys never gave me a hard time during meals. As I did with my grandaunties, they learned that the dinner table can be a battle field where only the deserving prevail.

So when I read a news report that 400 farmers marched from the countryside to try to dump rotting vegetables at Mendiola Bridge, the significance stopped me with the force of 100 water cannons opened full throttle.

If the farmers wanted to show how difficult their life was under this administration, it was a strange way of expressing discontent.

Old-time recipes call for decomposition to sharpen the flavors, if not the memory, of eating. Take hawaya, for instance.

My mother recently gave me a jar filled with the mess fermenting at the bottom of a pot prepared by a grandaunt.

One night, to accompany adobo pinaputok, I opened the jar. The boys instantly went into paroxysms of coughing.

It smelled, they said later as they gulped air, like an invasion of stinking wet socks.

I argued that in repasts of old, a good host always kept a side dish of hawaya so that even if the guests reduced the lechon to a few desolate ribs, there would be no morning-after regrets or worse, death precipitated by gluttony.

It was a pity that neither looks nor smell give away the hawaya’s true intentions. Slimy-green in a milky white bog, hawaya looks like something the cat threw up after a night of too many rat cocktails.

Those inclined for the exotic would still not find this spinach look-alike in the market. As luck would have it, my grandaunt Ma In tends several bushes; it is reputably difficult to grow one from seed.

Ma In still has in her employ a helper from way back, Nanay Pilang. Nanay can consume voluminous amounts of porridge. The lanot that rises when the porridge boils is the broth poured by Nanay in a clay pot holding fresh-picked hawaya.

After it has rotted for months, hawaya is finally good enough to grace the table.

A dish like hawaya that requires patience in the maker and the recipient is to be shared with friends, not enemies.

Much as I admire the farmers for marching all that distance to reach Mendiola, I do not agree with their intention to dump rotting vegetables as a symbolic insult to Malacanang.

For this president of the Garci tapes, calibrated preemptive response (CPR) and expanded value-added tax law (EVAT) does not deserve the vegetables that people took time to plant and pick and carry all those miles.

Certainly, the table at Malacanang will never be graced by my grandaunt’s hawaya.

( 09173226131)


A FILIPINO sailor was feared to have fallen off a ship plying the waters off
Australia’s east coast.

According to wire reports, the 33-year-old sailor remained missing two days after he may have fallen off the Japanese-registered bulk carrier Hokuriku Maru.

Australian maritime authorities called off the search after medical experts ruled out the sailor’s chances of surviving two nights in the water.

The sailor is not the only thing missing in the report. There are story gaps I am even more curious about.

For instance, I do not know why the Australians launched a two-day air and sea search. The report said five planes, six boats and a helicopter were used. All this logistics for one seafarer, and a foreigner at that?

In contrast, our own labor officials launched efforts on a similar scale to keep out of reports the name of the missing sailor, “in deference to his family.”

When calamities befall overseas workers, official wells of deference are as bottomless as the treacherous seas Filipino sailors crisscross for the dream of a better life.

Perhaps some bureaucrat must have reasoned that keeping the missing sailor unnamed gives time for the Aussies to get over their disappointment in the fruitless search.

Cosmopolites probably think newspaper reading is beyond the families of the Filipino crewmen of Hokuriku Maru.

For example: if my husband were working there and I learned that a Filipino might have fallen overboard, I would be expected to: a) dismiss the story because the ship’s name could have been misspelled by the editor; b) dismiss the story because my husband knows I will kill him for killing himself before we got out of debt; or c) never even read the story because migrant families are so busy getting their life out of order.

Besides, what is one overboard Filipino when there are three million working now in over 200 overseas destinations?

To discover a mythical bottom in official depths of deference is admittedly less difficult than to imagine our officials mounting sincere searches for overseas Filipinos, who are well known for their affinity to go missing.

According to Rev. Fr. Jack Serate, a Franciscan missionary who has worked with Filipinos in the Saitama Diocese of Japan, Filipinos can always be relied on to do the unexpected: enter without papers, exist without records.

Serate says there is only one thing a Pinoy will never learn in a land where suicide forms cults as devoted as those arranging flowers or growing stunted trees: that is to escape by destroying the self.

Perhaps I was too harsh on our own officials, too lenient on the Aussies. Their maritime officials may just have spared no effort and expense to track down the sailor because our nation is notorious for staging disappearances.

I would not put it past a Pinoy to jump off a ship and swim about 250 nautical miles to enter Queensland state.

Compared to this, suicide just seems lazy. Serate says that many Filipinos work in Japan without knowledge of kanji, the ideograms in all public signs.

This has resulted in too much mangling in factories. But families back home exist, too, because Filipinos are fools enough to swim against a tide of kanji.

A minimum vocabulary of 1,945 kanji is required for a junior high school graduate. If you want to read Yukio Mishima in original Japanese, you need upwards of 5,000 kanji.

But a former Bulacan bar girl bore her Japanese boy friend three “double children.” Forced to stay home, she still hardly spoke a word to them because all she had mastered was a smattering of kana for entertaining salary men.

I now think the Aussies should have searched for one more day, even a year. A Filipino is in his element just staying alive.

( or 09173226131)

Sex is a two-letter word

WAITING in line at the bank, I felt what seemed like feathers brushing against my fanny.

I froze. Hold-ups are staged in banks but harassment? I remembered, just before I slipped behind the last person in the queue, a barrel-chested fellow in a tight white shirt was behind me.

I, however, am a pushover at confrontations. Though squirming inside, I just moved surreptitiously forward, putting space between me and what must have been Mr. Muscles’ six-foot-long feather duster.

But when those fiendish feathers grabbed and squeezed a plump handful of my by-now-scarlet-with-embarrassment appendage, I already whirled around in fury.

And caught my attacker in the act. While Mr. Muscles and I looked down, a tot, whose Prince Valiant haircut was still brushing against that offended part of me, watched the National Geographic program playing on the bank’s overhead TV.

Noticing us, the kid chortled companionably before going back to watching some cold-blooded species mate on the mute screen.

Mortified, I dipped my head slightly in the direction of the falsely accused white shirt. I made silent amends to Muscles’ invisible feather duster.

And as embarrassment is best swallowed by pretending distraction, I joined the tot in his intense study of lust among the insects.

Twenty seconds later, I was reeling with wonder. Had I stumbled on possibly the best solution to every parent’s problem: how do you talk about sex to your children?

The answer was simply hovering above Prince Valiant’s head: get young people to watch naturalist TV.

Unlike shampoo commercials that show in situ evidence how human males are immobilized by a few flicks of a predatory female’s mane, your teenager is not bound to pick up any dangerous urges after watching scorpions fool around with their stingers or fire ants do the come-hither with what seems like a swollen, transparent bubble dangling from their otherwise twig-like behinds.

Unlike in reality shows, the naturalist TV hostess making a erudite commentary on the peepfest is never a long-limbed goddess in a micro mini. It is a field biologist, usually swathed in the bland and dusty asexuality of khaki, which also obscures its gender, discernible only because of the existence of a moustache.

The reader fortunate enough not to be a seriously disturbed parent must be confused by all these crossed-up signals. How do you educate young people about sex by refusing to talk about sex?

There lies the unraveling of the whole entangled knot: alarmed that 20 percent of young adults engage in premarital sex, we remain tight-lipped about their bodies and their choices, including safe sex. We only expound to the young that unsanctified sex is “awful preparation” for marriage.

Sex is anything but awful, as our present population of teeming millions tells us.

Do we care that young people tune out when we deign to talk to them about sex? I care more that abortion cases jumped by 56 percent since 2001. It worries me that a young girl who meticulously plans her wardrobe might not even know enough to avoid pregnancy if she decides to go for that “awful” business.

It’s all about being in control of your life, I glumly told my rapt partner while we watched small slimy frogs kick up a mountain of bubbles in a National Geographic moment of ardor.

Prince Valiant chortled when the bubbles toppled over and covered up the amorous amphibians. His father moved away from the teller. The tot let go of my numb behind.

I said goodbye, thinking: I learned about the birds and the bees by watching our dogs. Will you have it easier because of cable TV?

Prince Valiant looked back and blew me a bubble.

( or 09173226131)

Memory warrior

WHO can understand how memory works?

Just a faint smell can set it off. But sometimes doors will not open no matter how desperately you knock.

And though it has been compared to a house with an infinite number of rooms, the tricky thing about remembering is that you have to find the right room.

What if you should stop caring for this wandering business? Tired of getting lost and opening a door into some unpleasantness best forgotten, you fix up only a couple of rooms, perhaps bring in flowers and plump pillows for the nightly reading.

Forget about the rest of the house. Whatever is in those infinite rooms can wait.

Is this selective memory or invention?

Just two weeks ago, a minor news story reported about the passing away of a man whose life’s work seems to show how memory can be “a simultaneous stab at truth and a lie.”

Hundreds gathered at the Vienna, Austria funeral of Simon Wiesenthal, 96, tagged by the media as the “Nazi hunter.”

Wiesenthal was also hailed as the “conscience of the Holocaust” for having helped to track down and bring to justice 1,100 Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

According to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the international human rights non-government organization named in Wiesenthal’s honor, "when the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember. He did not forget.”

By the time the Americans liberated him from a death camp, Wiesenthal had only less than 100 pounds spread on his six-foot frame. He had been imprisoned in a total of 12 concentration camps (five of which were death camps). Wiesenthal survived two suicide attempts, as well as a death march through camps in Poland and Germany.

As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal gathered documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union gradually lost interest in further war crimes trials and Wiesenthal’s fellow volunteers drifted apart, Wiesenthal himself continued to gather information in his spare time while working full-time to help those affected by World War II.

By some online accounts, Wiesenthal is credited to be instrumental in the capture and conviction of many high-profile Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, the main engineer of the Final Solution; Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank (Silberbauer's confession was said to have helped discredit claims that “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a forgery); Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps; and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (meaning female supervisor) who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of children at Majdanek.

But Wiesenthal’s work was also disputed by former Mossad chief Isser Harel. In an unpublished manuscript, he claims that Wiesenthal, "not only 'had no role whatsoever' in Eichmann's apprehension, but in fact had endangered the entire Eichmann operation and aborted the planned capture of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele."

Fellow Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman accused Wiesenthal of concocting “numerous self-aggrandizing lies and of making himself rich from Eichmann’s arrest.” Another Nazi hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, called Wiesenthal an “egomaniac.”

U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations head Eli Rosenbaum said that Wiesenthal’s roles in the biggest Nazi cases were “studies in ineptitude, exaggeration, and self-glorification." Rosenbaum called Wiesenthal a “congenital liar."

These accounts—including reports crowing “Wiesenthal is no more” that cropped up after his death—are rejected by those who say that the Nazi hunter’s belief that the individual should be held responsible has set the tone for UN war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Opportunistic liar or someone who dedicated his life to “making sure that the world will never forget,” Wiesenthal died in his sleep last Sept. 20, 2005.

"Survival is a privilege which entails obligations. I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived,” he had written. "The answer I have found for myself is: I want to be their mouthpiece, I want to keep their memory alive, to make sure the dead live on in that memory."

( or 09173226131)

Anomalies of remembrance

WE ARE unraveled by the commonplace, a daily route that diverts to the unexpected, a scent from childhood, a notebook left in a classroom I am about to close for the weekend.

Why did I pause in my locking up? Young people don’t need their notes on Friday night. Second, the cover had no identification. I did not recognize the penmanship on the pages. The owner might come back for it.

Fortunately, after scanning the notebook’s entries on the journalism topics I lecture on, I came upon tips for writing a thesis. The teacher handling the subject was in the room-next-door so I left the journal with her.

Monday morning, I saw the notebook on Irish’s desk.

What is it about a notebook that cannot be abandoned in a locked room?

Willie Marbella, a peasant organizer from BicoI, records the death threats he receives in his 2004 planner. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Sept. 21, 2005 feature, Marbella’s dark blue mini-diary is his insurance against “disappearance.”

Marbella preserves his diary, legal papers, photocopies of controversial coco levy certificates and news clippings. Should he be killed, Marbella wants the authorities to have leads in finding his killers.

No one lives forever. But a notebook may keep your enemies from erasing all traces that you once existed.

Hard to imagine how flimsy paper kept together by wire or twine can keep forgetting at bay. As a mass communication undergraduate pursuing a martial law story required by my journalism teacher, I witnessed the many anomalies of remembrance during visits I made to the local office of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP).

About torture and the final indignity of pain effacing humanity, the photographs did not lie. But I could flinch away from photographs.

As for the ones that disappeared, what physical evidence can be collected for a crime perpetuated by nullifying existence?

But I could not forget the writing. Accounts brought back by the fact-finding missions demanded two acts of courage: to take up the pen and record what was witnessed; to read and never forget.

Today, martial law is just some event the media report about 33 years later. The 706 persons who disappeared, 880 massacred, 154 tortured, and 2,491 summarily executed have become interesting infographics played up inside a box.

When Sept. 21 comes around, space can be spared for a feature or two about martial law. On the other hand, the Marcoses are more reliable news copy. The refrigerated former dictator, his wife crying over stolen baubles, their eminent politician-children, specially the photogenic daughter so quotable on matters ranging from a president’s impeachment to a hero’s burial. Memories are eminently seducible.

If not for some stained notebooks read as a student, I would buy this news reality. I, too, see the convenience of burying the dead and writing for the living.

Only a notebook can hold anomalies to challenge this truth.

( or 09173226131)

Walking backwards

I CAN think of only two reasons why this should be attempted. One is to retrace the way to uncover a mistake. The other is to come face to face with blind faith.

Notoriously difficult, walking backwards should be unpopular.

The three million Filipinos working abroad don’t think so.

All are scattered farther than the wind blows, or in more than 200 overseas destinations.

Some like Jane Parangan La Puebla were not just driven away by our economy, which the President described in her 2005 State of the Nation Address as “on the verge of take off.”

La Puebla ended up in many places in Singapore: her head and extremities were stuffed inside a bag left at an MRT station; her torso, in another bag left on a footpath.

If you put together the dismembered pieces of a Filipino migrant, can you still see the person before she left?

All photos of the dead look the same: arrested, bleached of something vital, a whiff of a secret that will not hold the attention of the living for long.

Who was La Puebla before she became a jigsaw puzzle to the Singaporean authorities?

The answer comes in fragments.

She is the granddaughter of the woman caught weeping by a TV camera. If technology can impassively record and convert anguish into an evening news spectacle, we the audience can be just as rational and cold to her pleas: what else is more efficient than cremation for sundry body parts?

First and foremost are weightier concerns like national interest. Who has time to reflect beyond this broken woman’s soundbite, that perhaps for their family, much worse than the insult of La Puebla being cut up is her obliteration, the many selves of a beloved—daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter— returning home as ash.

But unless a migrant changes into a Flor Contemplacion, recognizable as front-page martyr and box-office draw, many of us are incapable of really seeing migrants as Filipinos who could be, if not for the grace of circumstances, our loved ones, even us.

We sneer at the neighbor whose hair highlights are brassier and louder than her shrill complaints about how much poorer and dingier is the country upon her return.

With glee, we repeat how we’ve seen this teenager hang out every night with a gang of young thugs. We save the juiciest detail as morale: how his parents, buried under mounds of dollars in Dubai, are unable or unwilling to save their son.

We gnash our teeth when we lose a promising student. One three-unit subject shy of graduating with a mass communications degree, he shifts to take up nursing. We wish he will write short stories in between slow shifts in some remote land.

There is a recorded 3.12 million Filipinos working overseas. No one knows exactly how many are the others: the ones without papers.

Adding the official and the ghost lists, there are enough overseas Filipinos to comprise a small nation.

For that is what the migrant workers really are: random, dispelled, alien.

And the only thing we have in common? A reflex for walking backwards.

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Surviving writing

IN 18 years of teaching, I covet every chance to teach writing.

Even to my ears, that statement is starkly insane.

Writing is almost always required in college. Not only will a semester’s course in journalism assure you of at least 30 students. Most likely, these are 30 individuals conscripted again into taking a subject they probably associate with dark, bitter memories of a kindergarten Nazi forcing their fingers around a pencil.

Although I can by now accurately fix the toll of red pens every semester exacts for correcting manuscripts (answer: three), I still feel like a privileged Earthling who has landed in some planet with three moons and discovered life exists, though it may be so different from what is known.

Where I see interviews as a chance to approach a subject as an outsider in order to later write about it like an insider, my students see fieldwork as mined with disasters: from watchdog-receptionists that see a class uprising lurking in the students’ uncombed hair to sources that lose humor because the interviewer has forgotten a detail like the first question.

While solitude and the dictionary keep me company during the long labor that is writing, my students, straggling in for a 7:30 AM deadline, compare eye bags like jaded survivors.

They moan how looking for a way to begin the article has turned their complexions yellow, how trying to end it has caused portions of their faces to cave in. Writing, concludes those who outlast the quest for the right verb, is an express lane to ugly, lonely solitude.

Going through first drafts, I think I would embrace, even sleep with such unspeakable horror—anything other than the colorless, lifeless specimen first-time writers deposit on my desk, not to be massaged back to life but autopsied for cause of death.

It is amazing how a first draft can be so devoid—no, drained—of any sign of life when its creator is just seats away from me, articulately expounding on a theory of Writing, the New Celibacy or discussing the fine points of a home-movie tentatively titled, The Eye Bags That Swallowed the College Sophomore.

Fortunately for the future of college courses on writing, there is always the second draft. And the third, and the fourth…

Eighteen years of teaching writing. I look forward to more. My students have survived me. I have not yet been murdered.

And the writing? It is as good as ever, thriving in pockets despite life-threatening spelling and alien idioms.

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Confessions in a grocery

WHEN I want to find out how the better-off half lives, I go to a grocery and visit the produce.

My theory is that people are happiest around food. Not necessarily eating, but just paying it attention.

In chance meetings with former students, the first thing I notice is their sleekness. While they tell me how their careers have taken off, I also listen to something inside push happily against those fleshy cheeks. I hear once somber collarbones warble before submerging again in a sea of glossy, dimpled flesh.

When people have staged successful escapes, they celebrate by rediscovering their appetite.

Not so long ago, I complimented a former student about his cheeks. His face was enclosed by twin parabolas, drum-tight and reddening like tomatoes just right to be munched sour.

Those cheeks, he morosely said, were due to his allergy to something he sneaked to eat.

But as I listened to him talk about his son, and how he had passed on to the baby a sensitivity to seafood, I heard how food tattooed a link between them.

On grocery trips, I feel drawn to the produce, upright citizens of well-being. You would not think it from the looks of sikwa that this species is a lot more intelligent about time than the bright minds inventing time-motion studies and multi-tasking.

Sikwa knows time is its friend when it’s ripening on the vine. Left out too long, the gourd turns into useful loofah. Wait, counsels this paragon of patience. Flow.

When the sikwa is no longer what it used to be, the vine turns barren and shrivels. A new vine springs from the seeds of the old one. Reinvent, coaxes this colossus measuring barely four inches. And surprise even yourself.

Despite the invasion of Styrofoam and Cling Wrap, vegetables are souls of individuality. You know what wiser women say about buying veggies: it’s best to select from the pile, not buy the ones in packs.

For all their easy-going, roll-whichever-way natures, onions in a bag don’t show where the rot has started to eat its way out from the inside. When you’re all in the same bag, you can’t blow the whistle on your friends. As an extension of them, you can’t be sure where their hide ends and yours begin.

But it’s equally wrong to think buying the perfect lookers is bringing home the best specimens for your table. Skin on a potato is just as misleading as the skin on you and I.

A worm or two guarantees that a head of cabbage is safe to eat. The flawless-looking ones are preserved by the poison sprayed on them.

A farmer from Mantalongon gave me this piece of advice. That was not why I paid him careful attention then. This unschooled fellow impressed me because he was a millionaire just by toiling at the soil.

But the farmer corrected me. The real winners are the worms, which always get all of us in the end, said this man dying from the barrels of poison he sprayed on his crops.

Torn pieces of cabbage floating in beef lard still turn my stomach.

Fortunately, appetites overpower memory. It must be impossible to think of food and wallow in misery. Food just makes people happy.

My theory is that you can fall dead while eating but you cannot think of dying when you have on your tongue a succulent bit from the tail of a fish, its thinnest, leanest part and therefore, the one most saturated in black beans, garlic, and, if you prefer, peppery previews of the forbidden.

Whether hot or sweet, food is the last Piper, able to summon the living from the merely existing.

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DO you ever look up at the sky and tell yourself, “It’s a good day to die?”

I like to walk. Before stepping out, I check the dome outside. If it’s too bright to gaze at directly, I adjust the stride to a saunter, and scan my inner map for tree-shaded lanes.

If I spy a tinge of lavender or a faraway grey spreading like ink in water, I sniff the air and take a bet: rain’s still 15 minutes away.

To answer my question then: no, I’ve never gazed up at the sky and thought of dying. I can believe that Someone may be gazing down at my exposed head, but I can’t imagine Him wanting to blow it away.

So the Aug. 21, 2006 Time cover was a revelation. Capturing the uncertainties left behind by a foiled terror plot to explode transatlantic planes, it shows one such passenger airplane nosing down to Heathrow airport on Aug. 10, the day of the lock-out.

Photographer Philip Hollis captures the toy-like figure of the plane nearly perching on the blurred snarl of barbed wire and slanting metal incisors surrounding the airport’s perimeter.

Risk threatens not just air travel but all life. We exist and then we don’t. This seems to be the bitter fruit that drops, like a curse, from the Hollis’ photo.

In today’s image-driven world, photojournalists are the new seers, able to read the future from the visceral and raw.

The sky, once the object of daydreams, now holds the hate-talk, as captured in Time’s “75 years,” photojournalism documenting 1923 till 1998.

Against a bleached sky, the Eiffel Tower is silhouetted, a swastika waving from the top. In this July 8, 1940 photograph, a victorious Adolf Hitler strides in front of a line of German art historians and architectural experts that inventoried everything, from the Opera to the Louvre, spoils of a France the Nazis successfully invaded.

Facing this photo, on the opposite page, is one taken on Oct. 16, 1939. A few minutes after German planes bombed a Polish farmhouse, seven women went back to the fields, hoping to scratch for potatoes. According to the unidentified photojournalist, the planes doubled back and, flying as low as 20 feet, opened fire.

The photograph preserves the moment a girl of 10 or 11 kneels beside her sister, one of those killed in the strafing. The young woman’s eyes are closed, shutting out the sky that betrayed her.

The director Francis Ford Coppola said, when he was interviewed for the Aug.21, 2006 issue of Time, that his Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” was an examination of an idea that ”society could send people in to kill on behalf of some moral ideal.”

The smoke blackening out the Pearl Harbor horizon, the desolation shrouding Hiroshima after the bombing, and the ant lines of people crawling against the skyline of Saigon to escape the Viet Cong— these iconic images of war hostage us to the idea that the sky holds enough emptiness to mean eternity, another word for oblivion.

Long after Sartre equated our existence with nothingness, the great Johnny Cash sang in “Hurt”: “Everyone I know goes away in the end.”

Recently, I stopped walking to watch a plane approach the Mactan runway. As the aircraft slid endlessly above, I thought of imprisoned Filipina domestics jumping out of fifth-floor apartments during the bombing of Lebanon, and New Yorkers jumping to escape the gutted World Trade towers.

Did they read in the sky that it was a good day to die? The ones who lived said: no, they just wanted to go home.

Death has a sting, which, by no means, is the most dreaded. “And when it’s all over/ I hope we will go together/ I don’t want you to be alone, you know.” (Johnny Cash, “I Love You Tonight”)

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