Saturday, February 28, 2009


A RECENT visit to a favorite secondhand shop downtown delivered these rewards: 10 dark-as-soot fingers and 11 copies of “The Economist.”

Known in the 1980s as the Music House, the shop has long moved from its old location beside the creek running past Jakosalem St. to somewhere down V. Gullas.

While the fumes rising from the poison gagging the creek never stopped diehard readers and cheapskates from rooting for books among the vintage LPs and 45 rpms in the old Music House, the current address is a definite step or two up the ladder of mobility.

But don’t crane your neck for any latte. This is Colon, where the establishments still don’t believe in pretentious airs, just selling: bowls of batchoy (ordinary, special with one egg, or superspecial with still one egg but two yolks for the price of one), lotto dreams, religious articles, and meat to fit all budgets.

As far as I can remember, the secondhand shop, whose new name I have never been able to retain, draws only committed browsers, with the occasional buyer. (Since some of my students have searched in vain for a store displaying used books, tramping up and down V. Gullas St. enough times to warrant being mistaken for streetwalkers, I am tipping you off that the books cannot be seen from the street. You have to go past hulking narra furniture and faded china heirlooms before you catch a whiff of the paperbacks. As they say in the secondhand business, looks always deceive.)

On the day I dropped by, the competition was thin: just a couple of romance hunters and two men who cornered the piles of “Times” and “Newsweek” of past decades. One of them had planted his shoeless self in front of the “Economist” batches so while waiting, I orbited with Venusian adventurers among the scifi piles for an hour or two.

Weirdness is not a category in reading, one of the reasons why I find it so comforting. Some like to read about star ships; some think they are star ships. My companions did not think shoes and a bath were necessary for browsing; I seek “The Economist” for its “Obituary” section, tales about dead people, featuring the most alive writing I’ve seen in any news medium.

The shop derives many of its “The Economist” issues, oftentimes mummy-sealed in its plastic cover, from a subscriber who probably needs the magazine to weigh down his other mail or dress up his waiting room. I don’t want to say anything more because I benefit from his inattention. A new issue at a bookstore commands nearly P300; stale by a few months or a couple of years, the shop’s copies sell for P10, P2 more than the dog-eared “Time” and “Newsweek” that students and hobos favor.

For the P2 difference, you get much fewer photos and drawings and more grey columns of text—wit so mordant, one laughs and then checks to see if any body part has been pierced by the sarcasm; writing so vibrant, the lean lines still pulse quicksilver, their insights bluish and discernible, you expect the sentences to shiver and swim away before your eyes.

“The Economist” does not believe in bylines. Even in the “Obituary,” where the craft reaches a pinnacle that keeps up with expectations for each issue’s final section, as well as a finale tackling terminal transitions, there are still no writing credits, no distractions, just the writing.

Of Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and closet Nazi, the magazine wrote: “a diplomat with a selective memory.” When two grandes dames of New York society passed away in 2007, signaling the end of two different streams of philanthropy, the magazine commented: “Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley, who died within a few days of each other, gave millions of dollars away. And their similarities ended there.”

Far from a snob, the “Obituary” distills lives of passion, considering politicians and celebrities the equals of a western clothing tailor, Gaelic musician or gardener (Christopher Lloyd, wrote “The Economist,” was an “iconoclastic English gardener” who “believed that plants should go their own way in gardens. If a yellow spike of mullein decided to grow in a clump of bright pink phlox, he welcomed it. (‘Hurrah for vulgarity!’, as he wrote once.)”

In the present, distinctions do exist, with not writing but agenda and budgets creating media events and the pseudo news story.

That explains the enduring attraction of this secondhand bookshop, where there are always readers to tend the fire of writing, with or without a bath.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column, published on March 1, 2009

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Over the top

MY SONS’ school just concluded English Week. One of the activities was a book fair.

Now on his second year of purchasing the Geronimo Stilton series, my 10-year-old son casually threw in, along with a suggestion for new titles, a request for permission to purchase a Beyblade.

I was stumped: what was a rebooted, heavily accessorized “kasing,” or spinning top, doing in a book fair? The “Beiburedo” hogged the toy market in mid-2000 when Hasbro, a giant toy company second only to Mattel, was granted a license by a Japanese firm, Takara, to market the toy internationally. The craze for the toy coincided with the release of a TV series pegged on Beyblade showdowns and much later, publication of a comic book series.

Marketing directed at kids (and obviously, their parents, whose purchasing power is the seam of gold connecting all childish desires) intrigues me. Though I dutifully staked out toy stores for the originals and then roamed the deepest recesses of Carbon market and Manalili for their less ridiculously priced imitations, I drew the line at buying accessories like the Beystadium, which looks like our dented wash basin but costs 15 times as much.

According to my son, Beyblade metal fights are held in this Beystadium, with the victor declared after he succeeding in knocking out the loser’s Beyblade from this arena. Though fascinated by Japanese pop culture and American marketing—the latest zeitgeist of neo imperialism—I believe the Filipino “kasing” can more than match this Japanese/American import.

Then a non-government organization gave me a “kasing,” along with “takyan” and other traditional toys, one Christmas. When I brandished this find to my son, he just turned over several times the plain wooden top, as puzzled as I was when I fingered tentatively my first Beyblade and its original four-part blade system, later upgraded to five.

Uncertainly, he untwirled and then retwirled the coil of twine wrapped around the top’s protruding nail. Under several layers of grime and day-old scabs, my cousins and I sweated during long summer days, trying to perfect how to wrap the “tail,” as well as how to “sight,” angle, throw and release the “kasing,” determined to make our top carved from indestructible “kamagong” (ironwood) into a giant killer, not a wimp.

For Juan and his friends, classic launching and spin-winning rests on a power Turbo Winder and clutch lock system, which taps a bewildering arcana of mechanics and engineering I would not have guessed in six-year-olds.

When he asked permission last Monday to buy a Beyblade version (“only P10, Mom”) from the book fair, I looked for my classic “kasing” and couldn’t resurrect it. My guess is the top rests in some toy purgatory, where my kamagong yoyo and prize-winning jackstones should also be.

So hubby and I fixed an afternoon date with my sons at the school book fair. Only one out of four exhibitors sold toys. The bulk of the students were sitting on the floor, leafing through books. Among them was my son, brushing up on the latest misadventure of G. Stilton, publisher of The Rodent’s Gazette, best-selling paper in New Mouse City.

An hour later, we settled amicably. Aside from Geronimo’s illustrated tales, my sons promised to read three classic fantasies, with illustrations limited only to the cover and back. On our way out, I sidestepped the Beyblade my ten-year-old negotiator threw under my feet. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 22, 2009 issue

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mixed up love

ON the last day of the writing workshop, P. left me his copy of British short stories.

Among his instructions was: be assiduous in reading and writing, and stay away from the TV.

A sober banker by day, P. kept a deranged pace of writing and rewriting in the long lonely hours after work until it was time to brush his teeth and shake out his banker self for another day.

This was several years ago and I don’t know if P. is still at it, mixing up his sane and insane sides.

But long before I got his book, I’ve been P.’s fellow acolyte. When the sanity gets too much, I take down this world, carefully folding along the old lines before shoving all that emptiness in a drawer I keep at the back of my mind.

In its place, I put up a reality that may or may not exist, depending on the ravings of imagination, either the writer’s or mine or both.

That, in two paragraphs, is the place of fiction in the life of someone who makes a living by writing and teaching about writing.

I’ve followed P.’s imperial instructions to the letter except, ironically, for the immutable, which he reserved for the last: avoid technology.

For P., harried for hours to count and recount other people’s money, the television set waiting in his parents’ living room was the very embodiment of Wiles Distracting a Young Writer to His Doom. Cold and inert as waiting malice, the colored Sony pounced on P. the moment he stumbled home.

Unlike P., I am not under the sway of our four-year-old Panasonic.

But I have my own Fall to confess.

My unraveling began, as the street parliamentarians chant, with the state’s lopsided subsidy for education. Anyone who wants to get this generation to read more should not look for an ally in publicly funded libraries. These are cemeteries where history is laid to rest. Or, if the librarian is not looking, where the flames of romance are fanned through the bad reading and bad imitation of bad poetry.

Yet requiring class readings of my selections seemed uncomfortably close to mandating reading. Giving away titles from my collection, I may have occupied my students’ school breaks and travel lulls, but just weaning and separating myself from old companions left yawning spaces of emptiness, not to mention niggling unease over marginalia jotted beside a phrase or a passage.

Then I discovered the Net. Not only did it sidestep the Third World piracy of photocopying publications, save forests and look askance at the inbred pettiness of government requisitioning, the Internet was actually cool for the young.

As many of my students are blogging and networking, no push but a mere tap is required to get them to read online. At a click of the mouse, budding journalists gained entry to the archives of, with its eight pages of the life and letters of Orianna Fallaci and her unconventional brand of journalism and demagoguery.

Not even the great Italian agitator herself could have inveigled a young person to finish eight printed pages of unrelieved text. Nor could the student’s penurious teacher part with P400 for a monthly copy of The New Yorker for later classroom photocopying.

But the online article is the Great Leveler. And anyone with a really restless mouse can click on nearby links: a meditation on Obama, subway porn prose and fiction.

It’s not fiction with a capital F, according to P. It’s literature without the carnality of paper, its weight, texture, smells.

With the online non-linear pattern of reading, I wonder how many young people discover fiction in the glut of celebrities and virtual pals. Or if they do stumble, do they stick it out with these works of the imagined life?

How will P. view my Fall? Will he denounce this treacherous selling out to Technology? As soon as I finish reading Andrea Barrett’s reflections on tying up scientific inquiry with literary journalism (, I’ll Google, Gmail or maybe leave a comment on P.’s Facebook. 09173226131

* First published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 15, 2009 issue

Sunday, February 08, 2009


I WENT back to Sibonga this week.

The last time I was there, the pier was not yet finished; Ferdinand Marcos was recruiting schoolgirls to regreen the countryside; and there was a shark making swimmers disappear off Sibonga’s unfinished pier.

Let me scratch out those lines and begin again.

The last time I was at Sibonga was over a week ago. On my way to the southeast, I turned the curve, speeded past old houses and the 140-year-old church of the Nuestra SeƱora del Pilar de Zaragoza, and, due to a sharp vision of pork lard-laced torta, got off at Chitang’s in the next stop, Argao.

Perhaps it’s the same with other travelers. On our way to somewhere, we pass by Sibonga.

As disappearing acts go, Sibonga doesn’t do a bad job at all.

If you’re coming from Cebu City, the town crops up after a sharp curve in the highway. So the plaza peels away with the rest of the landscape before you realize, oh, that’s Sibonga outside my window, and count the minutes till you can be in Argao for torta, suncake, tostados (kind of cookie) and tableya (dark chocolate from roasted cacao).

Hurtling back to the city, you again notice Sibonga, still drowsing by the roadside, catching the last light of the day. Oh good, you perk up, Carcar in a few minutes and some chicharon de carajay (deep-fried pork skin garlanded with fat) or lechon with inagos (meat dripping) from the market.

Sibonga has no such gastronomic wiles.

But it does have that pier.

In the 1970s, I was a schoolgirl, out on an excursion to reforest the hills of Sibonga with her classmates and teachers. But the stony ground broke my spade and the ipil-ipil saplings were wilting, early victims of New Society propaganda.

So, after lunch, I escaped to the pier, expecting to see the shark that my mother said had pulled many swimmers to a watery grave.

My friends and I only saw a narrow cemented walkway that extended less than half a kilometer to the sea. There was no quay, no stall, not even a boat. A few men were standing around at the pier end. They were hard at work doing nothing. They didn’t even spare us a glance when we ran to catch our bus.

Over the years, most piers I’ve seen look like the finger a town crooks to beckon ships or points to command merchants to dock and trade.

But I’ve never forgotten the pier that ended in a pile of lichen-covered rocks. Thin and narrow, it reminded me of a finger raised to make a point and then paused in mid-air, its tip nibbled by the owner, concentrating to recall the thought inspiring the original move.

Thirty years later, I stood on the same shore.

By the quay, a rusty, listing ship was receiving sacks unloaded by a crane. The old men were gone but groups from the local high school were drifting towards the pier end. A few motorbikes hummed past them.

I watch this crowd watch the crane unload the sacks.

If not for the crabs skittering on the rocks below me, I would have gone on to count how many sacks a crane can move at one time, or how long one cycle of loading and unloading sacks can mesmerize an audience.

But the crabs were very distracting, armored Machiavellis spotting my schemes even before a thought formed in my head.

When the trisikad driver drew up beside me, I knew exactly what he was doing: watching me watch the crowd watch the ship’s loading.

To insert some variety, I asked him what the sacks were. Dolomite from Dalaguete, he said before launching a calm, bitter tirade against the town dads for doing nothing to invite industries. He also blamed his town mates for blocking business interests that would have employed Sibonganons in manufacturing cement and ceramic plates.

Even just one factory producing rubber slippers is better than this, my fellow watcher said, pursing his lips to point to the pier. There were no more sacks to load and the people were walking away. When I inhaled, I smelled only brine and perhaps the ageless cunning of the crabs.

An ancient one, large, green and mossy, sidled up the wet rocks. I asked my fellow watcher if there was truly a shark that ravaged swimmers in the ‘70s.

It’s still doing it, was the answer. Some months back, a group took a dip at the pier’s head. One of them failed to bob back to the surface. When they found the boy, he was covered all over with fish scales.

The shark spat him out? I was mystified by the manner of death. When men disappeared while fishing in the shallows, the locals blamed the “pahak nga iho,” the shark whose tail was half missing.

After the last student left, the trisikad driver drove away. Then I walked back to work. When I glanced back, the pier was just waiting. 09173226131

* First published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 8, 2009 issue