Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ghost story

THERE’S nothing quite like the sun filling up one’s room to make even a mass murderer believe in starting anew.

Waking up awhile ago, I had this eureka moment. Today is the 29th day I have been eating slaughtered pigs.

If she could hear me, my mother would consider my choice of adjective a bit self-indulgent. Right now, she and I are glumly sharing a slice of tuna ham, she to clean up her act before her January check-up and I, to sop up the trail of lard revealing my crimes.

But if I were to strictly follow the code of standards binding all journalists to unalloyed truth, I should even further point out that my mother and I have not desisted at all from our rampage of the past days.

After all, this tuna, once a free citizen swimming in God’s glinting sea, was tricked and captured, drowned in flavored brine, and processed beyond recognition to land on our plate, a greaseless peace offering for my mother’s doctor’s late lamented diet instructions and in my case, my remorseless mass-murdering sensibilities.

Why does the placatory taste always like sawdust?

Let me make that into freshly shaved sawdust, garlanded with curls of premeditation and a sprig of malice. For I do admit that months before the December countdown even began, I already hid behind four layers of tomes my boys’ much-watched copy of Babe: The Movie.

Is there anything more seriously skewered than my schizophrenia? One moment, I am vigorously wiping at my leaking tear ducts while cheering on the porker-who-wouldn’t-fit, saved from being turned into a cured leg of ham by a phenomenal gift of empathy and shepherding abilities.

The next moment, I am offering my plate to a man with a knife, following my explicit instructions to break off ribs, scoop out some lemongrass-scented stomach, and carve out triangles of skin and fat-marbled meat from a victim who never knew me or entertained a single evil thought against my family.

(About to leave the lechon table, I spot a long-missed cousin and make small talk, guessing how many so-and-so months to breed a specimen that will fetch so-and-so thousands during the merry spitting months. All the while, the subject of our conversation can do nothing but bite its scorched tongue, stuffed halfway down its throat by a holiday apple.)

Perhaps like that of the bludgeoner Raskolnikov in Dostoyevksy’s Crime and Punishment, clogged consciences deliver the noisiest, most useless soliloquies. Or is the holiday chitchat just too loud for me to hear the erratic skipping of my overworked heart?

I am inclined to blame the hallucination-inducing lures of lemongrass and star anise (the secret ingredients of centuries of lechon makers) for somehow dulling my sense of outrage. It was not the pricking of conscience but curiosity that made me take careful count of the pale carcasses awaiting their turn at the charcoal pit of this popular lechon maker along Basak Road in Lapu-Lapu. The day before Christmas topped the mark: 30 of Those-Formerly-Known-As-Pigs ready for delivery by noon, with another 40 ready for demolition by 4 p.m. (In contrast, business was slow for the lechon maker’s next-door neighbor, a funeral parlor.)

In contrast, scores of freezers in many groceries in the city had a marked vacuum where used to be the legs of ham and balls of extenders-disguised-as-ham. With all these unavenged souls floating around, will the balance in the cosmos somehow not be upset?

I had my answer when I woke up today. There will always be a morning after to greet even mass murderers. We are One is the cosmic justice restoring balance.

I have no choice but to listen when it is my 42-year-old knees speaking with a twinge here, and an ache there, almost as if phantom snouts were nibbling, unseen. 09173226131

*Publish in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 30, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bite-sized grace

CHRISTMAS is that time in the city when your longest and deepest conversations are with the strangers you are marooned with inside a traffic-stalled jeepney or while shuffling along the inevitable queues that hiss and sprout from this hydra-headed season.

As the resident errand specialist in our household, I have learned that a book is most useful in a queue: I gnash fewer teeth when I lose myself in chapters.

There is one tiny flaw to this principle, though. It is nearly impossible to have a Zen moment when one is trapped in a low-ceilinged “comfort” room jammed with ladies, often with tykes, whose body wastes are screaming for immediate release.

Running a close second to this apocalyptic scenario is waiting in an ATM line when the bank employees suddenly draw the blinds and lock the ATM door from the inside, without giving any explanation at all to the folks queuing in the softly drizzling twilight.

Shock, confusion, dismay, anger, one or two expostulations of genuine worker’s angst—a mishmash of emotions runs up and down, electrifying the line where I, admittedly, immediately count and find that I am the 7th person anticipating to step over the threshold and walk away with my yearend bonus or pay.

Seventh is not so bad, I console myself. It’s the seventh day in the week, when one meets up with one’s God who, as usual, extends His usual credit line for another disastrous run of self-indulgence.

Then, lapsed Catholic that I am, I figuratively slap my forehead and groan: Sunday is first day of the week; the seventh falls on a Saturday, when twin writing deadlines fall. Since newsrooms at crunch time resemble more the blood-soaked temples of ritual human sacrifice than the solemn and serene sacrament celebrating the Christ’s Passion, I instantly feel every muscle tense, every instinct kick in to respond to that locked ATM door.

Flight or fight? Looking around, I see indications that my queue companions have also turned feral and rabid. Someone from inside the bank parts the blinds to take a peek, perhaps wondering when we will start to uproot and snap like twigs overpriced lampposts, hurl cars through the windows, and launch People Power 4, the Holiday Edition.

Then I notice the white, splotched with red, neck of the man before me. A Caucasian, I almost groan. Any minute now, this neo imperialist will turn and launch, spittle and all, into a tirade about Third World banks and trash economies.

To my horror, those black-clad Hell’s Angel’s shoulders do swivel around to face head-on my unspoken xenophobia. The red-faced devil stares down, deep, deep into the pit where I cringe and am 50-percent away from completing a faint.

Somewhere under that red-haired bristling bush obscuring his mouth, a smile breaks: this is the fourth ATM I’ve tried this afternoon. And I thought I was lucky to come upon the shortest line in the city. But I guess, I just don’t have any luck, eh, mate?

Strangers—kind, humorous, concerned—are sometimes what’s best about this city. A jeepney can just be a mere box where a clutch of people are temporarily forced to keep company to reach destinations.

But the unexpected happening—a sleek brand-new car being clamped and towed away—stirs up my fellow passengers. A young man chortles that the rich owner will have a rude surprise. But the women titter like roosting birds: poor fellow! A mother holding bags of groceries hopes it was the owner, not the driver, who made the parking violation.

Two elderly women in old-fashioned dresses discuss why the owner was not allowed another chance “kay Pasko man (because it’s Christmas).” One of them worries if the owner knows where to claim his vehicle. A plump girl, cracking boiled peanuts, predicts the owner may never find it again.

Though initially preoccupied with being late, I say that the owner will be traced through the car’s license plate. This greatly pleases the ladies in dresses. The car is so shiny, says one. Her companion pats her knee. After hearing mass at the Basilica, she says, “palitan nato ug inganang trak-trak si Armand (let’s buy him a toy truck that looks exactly like that).”

The best thing about Christmas is being home. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 23, 2007 issue

And a merry PJX-924 to you

THE BEST gift I received from a work acquaintance this year is a calculator.

It's grey and no bigger than my hand. It has large, clearly labeled buttons, the most important being the ones that say “ON” and “OFF.”

Best of all, it makes no sound.

In the age of greeting and conversing automated teller machines, a gadget that goes about its work with quiet efficiency is my favorite technology.

I still remember the discovery I made during an early morning study. While reading in our deserted faculty room, which has a grand tradition of being peculiar, if not haunted, I heard strange sounds ping-ing from nowhere.

The crazed outbursts made me want to ricochet, too, off the walls. A desperate check behind a divider, however, did not turn up a phantom gamer. A colleague was doing sums. Her choice of weapon: a calculator of the yodeling variety.

In fairness, marketing geniuses have toned down technology. The chances of coming upon a gadget that screams for your attention in the mall are now reduced to nil. Clicks and murmurs have taken over the pings. Matte retro dulls the screaming silvers and black braggadocio of old. In looks and in sound, technology taps a deep vein of minimalism.

It figures: the features of devices have to be refined to a whisper as, with today's runaway price tags, there's no room for another shock.

If you have tried techno shopping, you may be familiar with that vacuum of absolute silence created from the second you nonchalantly flip over a softly gleaming device and come upon your moment of truth, the minute your hoarded mathematical knowhow kicks in and you are finally able to make sense of the forest of zeros and commas that critically precede, not follow, the decimal point.

Deep, deep hush.

If the price chokes, the natural reflex should be to gag, remove the obstruction, and resume normal respiration. But when it finally sinks in that I have to mutate into some kind of feline with a thousand lifetimes, or keep a lifestyle of a particularly dexterous cat burglar, just to afford even one set of those cold, brilliant zeros, I've learned to put mind over matter, and gag and cough anywhere else except around that treasure of ingenuity in toned-down luxe finish.

Fortunately, just as the Lent of fasting and abstinence purges the soul of the first half of the year's excesses, Christmas with its sharp tinsel glitter is excruciatingly good at pricking vain ambitions still lingering at the end of the year.

Some never learn, though. As I have three boys (one husband, two sons) with a love for the newfangled, I always find myself cramming for the holidays, scanning brochures and entering stores that tax already my grasp of technological English.

For instance, why are gadgets always named using acronyms? Why use, for instance, DR-BT21G, a ponderous soup of alphabet and numbers for what looks like a thin coil with earmuffs?

Even if this is shorter and more hip to write on a tag than “streetstyle Bluetooth stereo headphones,” doesn't an unpronounceable acronym make customers pause an inordinately dangerous time to ponder the imponderables: how is DR-BT21G an improvement over, say, the earlier model, CQ-AS20F? Or what if I decide to wait for the new and improved version of ES-CU22H to be released so I can now afford the slightly older and thus slightly marked down DR-BT21G?

When my eyes roll back and I am one breath away from frothing in the mouth, my boys know well enough to pull me away from a showcase of the brave new future.

It figures: devices and gadgets are toned down to a suave whisper as more than ample acoustics are provided by the screaming wreck being dragged from the scene of crime. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 16, 2007 issue


LAST night, I woke up with a start. My phone chimed. Someone sent a message, asking where he could find a certain magazine in Cebu.

I squinted at the clock; it was going to be midnight in a couple of minutes.

I did not know the message sender. Was he a he or a she? Was it a work acquaintance whose number I had not saved in my mobile phonebook? I thought of the notebook where I jot down my contacts, except, at near midnight, the world of work is so distant, exactly dead in the middle of the other side of a black hole.

Who could be in extremis at this time of the night for a mere sheaf of glossy paper and photos?

But remembering that these sheets once carried multi-awarded investigative reports urged me to sit up on the bench, where I had fallen asleep after coming home late.

Belatedly, I realized I could have just imagined my phone’s chime and was actually long asleep when the message was sent. I checked and found out that the message was received near 9 p.m.

Instead of reassuring though, the knowledge unsettled me. What if this person was a visitor on a rare trip to Cebu, and, just a few minutes before mall closing time, he or she was desperately trying to find a particular magazine issue before his or her flight, a future trip to Cebu as unimaginable as world peace?

One is made porous by one’s obsessions. Belatedly, too, I realized I was reacting as if I were not the recipient but the message sender, as if it was I about to depart, empty-handed; I, sleepless and waiting for a stranger to advise a way out of the quandary of being separated and isolated from that which is sought.

Although this requires several paragraphs to describe, in real time, there was only a short interval between my waking and sitting up on the bench, and keying in my replies.

Several messages later, my phone was silent again. I had explained to the stranger that the magazine had gone online for some time, but it was reportedly printing out a special yearender issue. I ran over the gamut of possibilities, from conducting a needle-in-the-haystack check of bookstores and magazine vendors located in malls to, as a last resort, emailing the magazine’s editor in chief in Manila for local outlets of distribution.

As we changed roles—my message sender turned recipient while I switched from the stunned-awake to search strategist and mapmaker—I was no closer to understanding the search as when I was first quizzed about the whereabouts of the magazine.

Reconnoitering many personalities on assignment or even for personal curiosity, I realize that, at the level of human intimacy, touching base requires one to only listen, not probe with a lot of bristling questions.

Why did the search preoccupy the stranger? So what if it did? Technology now makes it possible for us to connect one point to another. I hope the stranger eventually finds an issue of the magazine, just as I hope the resurrected magazine finds readers worth the courage and commitment of putting out stories exposing the pathologies of our national dementia.

But sleepless at past midnight, I was in no mood for imagining webs. Any preschooler can draw a line to connect points.

Feeling a familiar parchedness, I reached for a nearby pile and pulled out a book. When wide awake past bedtime, read the questions to sleep. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 9, 2007 issue

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Dear Bru,

Help! Is there a Bumblebee still left standing in a toy store shelf in New South Wales?

I’ve given up hope new stocks will ever arrive from Manila. I suspect there’s a conspiracy of parents keeping watch on all their ports. The chance of any shipment of these yellow-colored robotshifters arriving soon in Cebu—and ending the panic of all parents besieged by nine-year-old fans of the Transformers—is only slightly better than any hope of a silent night on Christmas eve (unless you’re in Davao).

Of course, I am hyperbolic. Life in this country is slightly enlarged beyond truth and reasonableness. So I am not exaggerating that I am considering flying so many
miles out to buy a toy Juan might outgrow during the two-week Christmas break, despite the fact that I cannot even buy a spot on a bunk on economy class in a slow boat from Pier 1 to Talibon. For how many times have I watched that Transformers DVD until my son was reasonably convinced I could recognize, even blindfolded, a yellow alien masquerading as a Camaro?

Really, I’ve lost all appetite for boring reality.

Since we’re on this subject, do you remember the scene when Optimus Prime and Megatron, grappling in their death clinch, fly into and through a downtown highrise?

“That’s wicked!” howls my son every time that grand battle flashes on screen. I, too, watch, gape-mouthed, my shock as undiminished on our 77th rerun as on the 7th.

Is it a good or a bad thing when children remember nothing of 9/11? That ordinary working day in New York when two planes from out of the sky, beyond belief, rammed into the World Trade Center. While people lost lives, innocence, faith, the boys and I were in bed. They were telling me how their day went. In the dark of their room, I listened, just glad that homework was done, the hostilities over.

You know that expression, “beyond belief?” Among other things, 9/11 relegated this to the recycle bin, to borrow some computerese from Carlos. Really, is anything ever “beyond belief”?

In 2007, Hollywood released the Transformers film. Apparently, movie executives judged that, based on preview reactions of test audiences, it was now okay to put on screen a grand battle reminiscent of that unbelievable day in 2001, except of course, this time, it’s not ideologies, geopolitics, humanity warring against itself but just two leviathans of the Decepticons and Autobots, races from somewhere deep in space.

“It’s just a movie, Mom,” as Juan would say, exasperated again that mothers are so without imagination. “Those are autonomous robotic organisms, not people.”

Did I copy Juan’s shrug when I saw the photo of the Marcoses emblazoned on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s lifestyle section last Nov. 22, 2007? Though the years have added a few more chins on Imelda, the smiles of the Iron Butterfly and her children, Bongbong, Irene and Imee, look genuine, far from robotic.

In their place, I would be as sparkling. Though the 21-year-old news photos are grainy, there is no mistaking their long faces when they cowered on the balcony of MalacaƱang, the late dictator making his last stand just before fleeing the country.

For the first time in my 20 years, I didn’t go home that night. Many students and teachers kept vigil in Lahug, a scene replicated in many campuses across the nation and the people-clogged streets of Manila. We pooled money to buy batteries for the few radio sets that transmitted Radio Veritas’ coverage of People Power.

Warming some of our mats were day-old copies of opposition papers, including the Inquirer. People boycotted the crony papers for printing news manufactured by MalacaƱang. Like a few that were not afraid to print the truth, the Inquirer was scarce on the streets.

Now, 21 years later, the same paper fawns over Imee’s birthday party. The Marcoses have cause to smile. After all, they are even better than Lazarus. They were never dead at all; they don’t stink. The son is a member of the House of Representatives.

But I am digressing. When you have cornered a Bumblebee, do not let it out of your sight. So I can relieve you of the unbearable tension of possible suicide attacks from other parents, do secure a roundtrip eticket for me to and fro New South Wales. I will reimburse you as soon as I get my yearend bonus from newspapering and teaching (this is unreal because this is an email from the Philippines, remember?).

Your loving sister 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 2 issue