Saturday, October 21, 2006


ONE doesn't have to understand everything.

Though hardly the foundation of our entire learning system, it is a principle useful for reading someone like Tom Robbins.

One morning, while our one-toilet household lined up outside, fuming, I tried to penetrate Robbins' epic on perfume. “The beet is the most intense of vegetables” is how he opens his saga of a janitor searching feverishly for a bottle that contains the so-called essence of the universe.

What do beets have to do with scents?

Hunching deeper in my seat, I looked for help to the heavens, forgetting it was just the old ceiling.

There, amidst the mottled spots left by the family of kangaroo-size rodents living above (rent-free as far as I can remember), I spotted something strange.

A white cone, with a puckered-up, eyeless crater, pointed directly at my head. An invasion of wasps?

The usual wasp homes resemble open-necked water jugs that look as if they were shaped by potters using Loboc River mud.

The snow cone was dusted all over with mystery. I could see no hole on it. How then did the creature get ingress?

Tingling, I vacated my throne to solve the mystery. (Except for a few novels, our toilet cannot accommodate reference materials.)

I was sure eight-year-old Juan would soon discover the cone. I had to mirror the perfect combination of modesty and sagacity when he turns to me for answers. Given the stiff competition from the Internet and playground brigade, parents work hard these days for every ounce of their children's respect.

I remember, during recent morning rides to school, we saw a strange flock rising like a daydream near the tarmac of the new international airport. With S-shaped profiles, oatmeal-colored long beaks and black silk stockings, the birds stood out like swirls of calligraphy.

Shouldn't they be in Olango? The boys asked. One weekend, we had watched waterfowl feed around the tidal flats and seagrass meadows of the island sanctuary.

Unable to tell an egret from a curlew or a dowitcher, I worried how such delicate creatures fed among the tar and stones.

So I emailed a friend. A mother who had written that she had “some difficulties getting in touch with that (faith) part of me,” this former colleague swam with sharks before settling down for desk work.

She promptly answered, in the middle of a busy weekday: “maybe those are common egrets. not the chinese dowager or something that royal-sounding. maybe there are swamps or puddles near the airport… they have long beaks to get at small fish, crabs and crustaceans.”

She referred me to biodiversity experts who could precisely explain the anomalous choice of habitat: “maybe they've run out of food in their usual feeding places because/or they're just too many of 'em so they've spread out.”

And then she closed with this hypothesis: perhaps the tarmac egrets are just adventurers and thrill seekers after all.

As rare as brushing up against daily mysteries is finding answers, shivery as spider silk, which, I quote from the boys' science book, is the “strongest fibre known to man... five times as strong as steel and… more elastic than Kevlar, the material used in bullet-proof vests.”

Why underestimate spit, from wasps or otherwise? About to give Juan a bath one day, I found him rolling a ball of toilet paper, wetting it, and then hurling the “cannon ball” upwards. Already affixed beside the old one was an unmysterious cone, still wet.

“The ball just jumped out of my hands” is how my son prevented a domestic invasion of wasps. Truth, at times, is more baffling than mysteries.

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