Monday, November 27, 2006

The end

A PAGE I found the other day reminded me of a short story I glimpsed and then lost.

I remember Jorge Luis Borges penned the tale. But I don’t remember its title or the collection it came out in.

In the bookstore, I had been indulging in my usual pastime of scanning first pages. I devised this test to pretend that I am more restrained than I am, that I am immune to the blandishments of the cover, the blurbs, the smell and feel of unopened pages.

Dazed and near-blind from the book-covers crowding around the periphery of my vision, I was midway down the first page of Borges’ tale when I realized that a man was talking about a book hidden in the heart of a warren of rooms.

But before I could turn the page to know why the book was important or what happened to his search, my eye was caught by an alien craft resembling a power drill with rows of teeth that illustrated a sci-fi title by Philip Dick.

So I reached out for Dick and, applying the rule of reading only first pages, got lost in the future.

When I returned days later to the bookstore, I had forgotten about Borges’ tale about a man in search of a book.

I remembered only when I discovered a torn page of a pocket-sized dictionary left on the floor of my classroom the other day.

The dirty sheet contained page 15 (from all to allright) and page 16 (from all-round to alter).

Underneath the dusty outlines of countless shoeprints, I could read other words: alleluia (joyous exclamation in praise of God) and almoner (one who distributes alms).

Would the dictionary owner come back in search of the missing page? I looked at the r, g, a, e, b and z obscured by half-moons of dirt and an outbreak of creases, and slipped the page in my notebook.

Borges’ tale of a man driven by a book that’s just beyond his reach is tantalizing precisely because desire is such an endangered thing these days.

It was my former student Vera who taught me that you could download from the Internet classics that belong to the public domain. Family and friends who lurk in the infinite reaches of the Net, as well as the book havens of the West, offer their belief in technology and the market economy to find even titles that are out of print or, as my cousin Ito in New Jersey sniffs, are titles “hardly any human being I know reads.”

I wonder though if Borges’ searcher of a book looked forward to its finding.

When the search yields fruit, what does a searcher do after devoting hours, years or an age living so intimately with the elusive?

Of the celebrated Pacquiao-Morales match, I saw only glimpses but one sight was enough. In the last round, Morales ends up again on the floor after being felled by the Filipino’s lightning fists.

The man from Tijuana has a look in his eyes. Those eyes see beyond the moment, the ring, the exploding crowd.

What these eyes see perhaps is the setting of the man’s next fight, some dusty corner in his hometown, watched by a few old men who remember the days when a youth was just earning the spurs to be called El Terible.

It is the look of someone whose search has come to an end.

Borges, blind but canny spell-weaver of Argentina, would have known the effect of a discarded page retrieved and hidden in a notebook filled with notes on writing.

Even if he wrote a different end to his short story of a man in search of a book, Borges must have seen how a man driven mad by an illusion is less piteous than one deprived of his search. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 26, 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006


GET scarce.

According to Nelly, locals will be endangered when the foreign ministers blow into town.

Nelly is the lady taking care of my mother’s ingrown toenails. Her day job as an on-call manicurist requires her to commute to this hotel outside the city.

Two months ago, she and her co-workers were briefed that the authorities wanted fewer assembly points in the city. A scheme was hatched to transfer Nelly’s usual pick-up/drop-off point to ease “security monitoring” during the Asean meet.

Nelly’s worries were not for the police and their concerns that terrorists might exploit crowded places to stage a stunt.

Not for her the shadowy tango between terrorism and security. Nelly just wants to know how she’ll go to her day job.

The girl has yet to realize that, on the second week of December, all locals are sentenced to take a holiday.

It hasn’t occurred yet to the official imagination that an enforced break, without pocket money, is more dislocating than refreshing.

Housewife Leny heard from her tricycle suki that Mactan drivers were told to go on a holiday during the summit week.

How will I go to the market, Leny worries. Multicabs don’t enter her sitio.

How will we eat, Leo worries. The tricycle driver and family man envies Cebu City jeepney drivers. He heard their City Hall will be giving them a P200 allowance for every day they stay off the streets.

Leo will be happy just receiving P100. It’s good only for 4 ½ kilos of No. 14 corn grits.

That’s better than nothing, which Leo expects he will get from his City Hall.

Corporate headhunter Roy plans to go on holiday, too. Although unsure yet if it will be to the mountains or to the sea, his family just wants to get out of the city when it’s “Aseanized.”

The dispersal of Cebuanos in the exigency of the international meet is given the positive political spin of promoting “provincial” tourism.

Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmena offers to fund any local government that can keep its constituents from coming to the city.

Of 47 municipalities and four component cities, only Toledo City and Moalboal town have accepted the mayor’s offer.

For P200,000 from Cebu City, Toledohanons can amuse themselves with a barbecue festival, nightly concerts, amateur singing contest and bazaar.

Mayor Tom didn’t invent diversionary tourism. In Rome, they once staged gladiator matches and fed Christians to lions to keep tabs on the populace.

It’s a holiday, too, for cops riding jeepneys without paying. An irate Cebuano texted that some members of the police reinforcements think that jeepney drivers plying the routes to export processing zones can show their appreciation of the cops’ peace-keeping presence by ignoring the fact that cops are ignoring to pay the fare.

Some things though remain the same with the new holiday tourism.

Ian’s college students are volunteering for the summit. He fumes that organizers have trained the coeds to refer any delegate inquiring about the euphemistically titled female escorts to the equally euphemistically named official committee on nightly entertainment.

Ian’s just being na├»ve, of course. All manners and excuses of diversion are expected in an orgy of holidays. 0917-3226131

* Published Nov. 19, 2006 in Sun.Star Cebu

Friday, November 10, 2006

Studs and Stripes

YOU don’t have to own cattle to be interested in stud watching.

Last Monday, while waiting in line at banks, I had my first sighting of one in the Nov. 6, 2006 copy of Time I was browsing.

Predicting who will prevail in the fantasy and adventure “Survivor” sweepstakes, the newsmagazine singled out Yul Kwon, described as “smart and studly (italics mine).”

When did word merchants let the stud out of the pen to propagate an adjectival offspring?

After checking out Kwon’s photo though, I agree that, except for the dimples, there’s nothing in the man’s construction that would not be coveted by a bull about to service a pen full of mooning cows.

A stud, according to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000), is an animal for breeding. A well-developed physique and a clear sense of one’s predominance in the circle of life are prerequisites to join the Stud Club.

But, like some misbehaving scions, studly exhibits non-endearing qualities that can’t be traced to the root word but on context.

In the same Time issue, studly appears again in Richard Corliss’ review of Patricia Foulkroud’s “The Ground Truth.”

The documentary shows how young Americans are seduced into joining the military because of its “seemingly studly glamour.”

One soldier’s brainwashing began in high school when he saw the Marines: “I was like, that’s it! They’re mean, they’re tough, they got cool uniforms, and chicks dig ‘em.”

Corliss’s use of studly hints of artifice and deception. Strength is not just the prowess to spawn but also to destroy and conquer, or “keep the peace” through invasion and occupation.

What makes one studly spectacle more viewable than the other?

Footages of war, carnage and atrocities make good TV news. Unless you’re a student of animal husbandry, a habit of watching rutting pigs or humping dogs is borderline, if not pornographic.

That one version of studly is packaged as heroic while the other is bestial surely requires a drafting of word use, such as the Rules on Stud.

Last Nov. 8, when websites first reported the overwhelming victory of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, my idea for studly protocols was reinforced.

The Democrat takeover, ending 12 years of Republican rule, has been seen as a rejection of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

Unhappiness over the bloodshed, ambivalence over the invasion and interference, impatience for a conclusion to a war that has dragged on for four years—media point these as the reason why American voters booted out the Republicans in all regions (conservative, liberal and moderate) and districts (urban, rural and suburban).

The victorious, aside from the Democrats, also included independents, moderates and suburban women.

For someone who was so “steadfast” in “staying on the course (of war)” or “constantly changing tactics to meet the situation on the ground,” Bush has not had the distinction of being described by Time as studly.

But if, years after 9/11, the man decides the legacy of that day of infamy is dialogue, human rights and trade, not hatred and war, I will be first to draft him for perpetual membership in the Hall of Stud.


* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 12, 2006 issue

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Whale of a story

A WHALE is a mammal is not a fish.

This I remembered from the children's book on whales that I dropped on the sand one October twilight when the dorsal fin of a butanding (whale shark) sliced the waters off Matutinao, Badian.

The shadow, as long as a sedan, jostled aside the white buoys no more than 100 meters away from the shallows where my sons were snorkeling.

The fellow was a long way from the coastal town of Donsol in northwestern Sorsogon, the so-called whale shark capital of the Philippines.

In local lore, the butanding translates to a “gentle giant.” According to scientists who’ve studied the Rhincodon typus, its great size and enormous mouth are typical of a filter feeder, whose gills strain water for plankton and krill as food.

But a great blue-black scythe of a fin somewhat alters the facts.

During the brief appearance of that fin, life stalled along this stretch in Matutinao.

Here was the version of a resort owner: “The other day, when two whale sharks circled around a school of fish within sight of the shore, a Taiwanese nearly packed off his children and wife. We could have lost guests.”

This story came from fishermen fixing nets: “A neighbor was down in the bottom, looking for fish to spear. When it darkened all of a sudden, he looked up and saw the biggest fish. And then he lost all the nerve to spear it. Guess who doesn’t want to spread this story?”

From the owner of a two-boat fishing operation. “Nobody knows why but the big sharks show up here when the year is ending. Sometimes one ends up in the nets. These are costly to buy and repair. The fish is a nuisance.”

A friend, marooned in the asphalt wastelands of Manila, texted his reaction to the unusual sighting: “Your lucky 2 have seen 1, always wntd 2 see 1 4 myslf.”

A little belatedly, I remembered to pick up the book on whales I had been immersed in. Written by Vassili Papastavrou, this Eyewitness Book draws many lines linking the lives of mammals in the sea—from whales to dugongs—with the mammals on land.

Although the whale shark is not a mammal, the world’s biggest fish is, like other sea creatures, eloquent about evolution.

Papastavrou writes that 55 millions of years ago, the hoofed ancestors of whales and other marine mammals adapted to their food-rich water colonies by changing form.

Nostrils moved to the top of the head to become blowholes for breathing. Hind legs diminished until they disappeared. Tail flukes showed up.

The evolved torpedo shape, where even the sexual organs are tucked away in a genital slit, keeps marine mammals streamlined for staying alive.

How do we measure up? According to current consensus, modern man appeared less than a tenth of a million years ago.

But to sustain our efforts to remain alive, our seas have only “about 50 years” left to yield fish harvests.

According to the BBC News website, an international team of researchers says we are going through the oceans as if we had others in reserve. True, we have bigger vessels, better nets, new technology—but where is the fish?

Why evolve if only to think in the end, while face to face with a mystery like the butanding: can I eat this?

(,, or 0917-3226131)

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu, Nov. 5, 2006