Saturday, December 18, 2010

Eat, memory*

MY niece, Aurora, is a force of nature. We waited a long time for her but when she finally came, you could say there was a lot of surprise on both sides.

Just before Rory turned six months old, my sister’s family came home so our youngest member could meet her Cebuano side.

Approaching the airport, our generally nearsighted horde already spotted the wee creature propped against my sister’s belly.

Look at those eyes: hungry and angry. She’s one of us, another appetite, we chorused and closed in.

A few minutes into our home-cooked “salu-salo (meal),” we were horrified, dismayed, shaken to the core. Rory could not take any solid until she was back in Australia. This would be a few weeks later, when she turned exactly six months old.

I don’t know what medical mumbo-jumbo a New South Wales general practitioner spooned into my sister, but she would not budge beyond giving a few drops of boiled mineral water to the wee one we planned to induct at that holiest of holy, the dining table.

Naturally, we stooped at nothing. Bribery: “Why don’t we take care of Rory while you address this 24-egg yolk leche flan?” Watery humor: “It’s not as if we expect a baby (sniff) to gnaw the whole lechon (snort)”. Machiavellian logic: “Don’t tell the doctor. Don’t see him so you won’t lie. Get rid of that quack”. Political correctness: “That culturally insensitive ignoramus does not know what Philippine law says about infant abuse during reunions. How can we culturally indoctrinate someone whose taste buds know only your milk?”

We only desisted from all-out aggression when my sister finally cried while nursing Rory. My poor sister’s fat tears plopped on that innocent, giving probably her first taste of the salty—still, a very pale imitation of the 7 levels of nirvana attainable by way of “pusit (dried squid)” and “danggit (dried fish)”.

By the time they flew back, we conceded but remained hopeful. Rory stuck to her pure diet of mother’s milk, but her eyes followed our hand-to-mouth existence and her pudgy fingers would snap off an imaginary crispy “panit (lechon skin)” to plop this inside her tiny mouth, pretend-chewing.

Long his reach may be, but Dr. Frankenstein cannot deny family.

It’s been four years since Aurora’s first visit and our first brush with reverse First World deprivation-Third Word bounty. Every year, she looks like my sister, who looks like my mother. Or not.

Like battle-scarred veterans, our family can plow through “lechon,” “bam-i,” “lumpia” “kaldereta,” and ”manggang hilaw” and “uyap.” Rory and older sister Nana have a mystifying, mystical attachment to pasta. Spaghetti, that cloying children’s party classic, mere merienda staple, has encroached on our irreproachably pure (okay, Filipino-Chinese-Spanish) meals.

I long to initiate my nieces to the trick of deconstructing an “alpiler (safety pin)” to spear and pull out “aninikad,” “sa-ang” and “bongkawil”—my sister’s favorite shellfish—but I postpone the day I have to convince them that eating these will not turn them into alien life forms. For now, “lukot” is “sea spaghetti “ without the seafood (one day, I might elaborate how these green noodle-like strings come from the “donsol (dolphin),” more specifically, which orifice).

I am content to celebrate our differences. On the phone, Rory can spare only a second to listen to my Filipino English before she switches to her Aussie-accented singing. I’m hopeless at untangling all those brawny vowels but when she does her Karen Carpenter medley, I hum along.

Though Rory is still uncharacteristically tiny, she recently brought “ensaimada” to her class Christmas party. She came as a fairy, wand, wings and all, but dived into those ensaimadas, unrefrigerated, half-melting, snout first. As girls, my sister and I raced to be the first to wipe out an ensaimada, licking clean the dusting of sugar and margarine melting on our nose and chin.

You can take the family out of the country, but you can’t take the eating out of the family.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 19, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Letter to the fishes of Balili

PETS are very good to their humans.

Anyone who lives with a dog will not argue. Sloppy, sticky and abiding, doglove is the secret to world peace, if only we could find a way to translate this to human-for-human terms.

The felines are not far behind. Even if its innate unshakeable dignity dictates that a cat permits its human only one pat throughout its entire nine lives, we humans accept without knowing why we let these creatures walk in and out of our lives. And back again.

I’ve lived, too, with goats, all kinds of birds, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, rats, cockroaches, ants, centipedes, mosquitoes and so on. At any time, there’s a host of creatures sharing our space without demanding human affection, just tolerance or indifference guaranteeing coexistence.

A pet that’s wrapped around itself, shutting out everything, oblivious even to the human that’s waiting on it hand and mouth—that sounds more like human, rather than non-human, behavior to me.

Then my son brought home a pair of fishes.

Tiny and transparent except for a glint of gold on its scales, the fishes were bought at his school’s Christmas fair. Each was as small as the nail on my little finger. When they didn’t grow overnight into shark size, my son lost interest. That’s how I became an aqua-mom.

How is it to live with fish?

At the start, their size stirred up a panic of protectiveness. Purchased at P15, the pair quickly racked up more costs and serious commitment. To set up a conducive world inside their fish bowl, I walked up to a pet store clerk and walked away feeling like I was the clueless, irresponsible participant of an unplanned birth.

Rushing home in time to see the fishes rush to the surface of the water, the tiny mouths puckered into desperate Os to gulp air, I felt the surge from plugging the pump that aids their breathing inside the bowl. Life lesson: never underestimate the capacity of about 10 centimeters of scales and flesh to teach nurturing and responsibility.

Later, size issues became an impediment to bonding. A fish face has no expression that can be interpreted by humans. Try magnifying an expressionless countenance that’s about the size of a fingernail cutting, and you’ll have an idea how the nature of fish-sitting concentrates most, if not all, of the emotions on one party.

In a droll mood, dogs roll their eyes when their humans act queer. Even a cat, whose triangular visage is fixed in a permanent moue of disdain, will close their eyes from the pleasure of a nape tug or an ear scratch.

But a fish is a fish is a fish. Our two fellows don’t even glance at the faces ballooning behind the glass. My guess is that even if coal ash were dumped inside the bowl, their expressions before this action and later, after they’re floating on the surface, will not vastly differ. Death erases the need for facial subtleties.

And then there’s the absence of sound. Living with pets means one is attuned to the sounds they make, of hunger, warning, anger, fear, pain, joy. Scientists say, contrary to common thinking, fish communicate by sound. They squeak, quack, click, growl and hiss—all on a higher frequency their humans cannot hear.

I’ve told my hopeful son to forget the idea I’m buying an underwater microphone to catch what the fishes are saying, about or against us. Living with fish means, more or less, a one-sided relationship built on thought balloons: to keep a semblance of communication, the more articulate or expressive party fills with his or her thoughts the balloons representing the views of the silent or silenced party.

On late nights or early mornings, when all I hear is the vibration of the fish bowl pump, errant thoughts sometimes pause my writing or reading, like the dance-like darting the fishes make, often after we’ve changed the water or sprinkled flakes:

When you have the power of life and death over creatures incapable of speaking, do you fill in the silence or try harder to listen?


* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 12, 2010 issue of the Sunday “Matamata” column

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Merry “tawilis” and happy “tamban”

MY holiday began early when I received this gift bin. In a season replete with generosity, this group of companies stands out for its consistent patronage of locally made products and reuse of materials.

Made from recycled newspapers, the bin was braided by local community groups. The weaving can compete with the best works of artisans of South America and Africa, whose weavework is so magical, it can keep in or out liquids despite the use only of organic, porous materials.

Granted, we are fortunate not to have to transport water in a locally made vessel after walking for miles to draw from a remote water source. Yet, affluent or not, we are interconnected. This argues for using especially the holidays as an opportunity for sharing “ethical gifts”.

Consume consciously; consume with conscience. While past Christmas gift packs contained meaningful mementoes—such as “kasing (wooden top)” and “takyan” that brought to mind the childhood games of old, which were fun, inexpensive and not harmful to player and environment—this year’s bin contained food products made by people’s organizations in areas where the companies are located.

A fish lover, I was drawn to the “tawilis” in corn oil. This was produced by the Family Farm School, a Batangas association of youths, families and professionals that partners with the Research and Development Center of the Department of Science and Technology.

Buying a bottle of sardines contributes to the group’s livelihood project, which aims, among other things, to educate rural youth.

It has been recently reported that ham, a major feature of the traditional Christmas feast, may be more expensive this year. Care for “tawilis”?

Before you look down your nose, “tawilis” is only found in the Philippines, specifically in only one lake in Luzon, Taal Lake. “Sardinella tawilis” used to thrive in the Balayan Bay until a major eruption in the 18th century sealed off Taal Lake from Balayan Bay. Over the centuries, the marine waters turned completely fresh, making “tawilis” the only member of the Clupeidae family to exist entirely in freshwater.

For those with less snobbish tastebuds, “tawilis” is related to the other clupeids, more familiar to Cebuanos as “tamban” or “tuloy”.

It can be the cheapest fish in the wet market at P35 a kilo. In December, when food prices normally go up, the “tamban” schools are populous; thus, the price dips. To enjoy “tamban,” you can broil, fry, stew in vinegar or cook in oil. The thick and omnipresent scales work best during charbroiling because these keep the fish meat tender and juicy. Freshly caught “tamban” is so oily, the Omega 3-rich droplets will drip and make the coals sizzle, a “sizzling” dish that will not make your pocket or diet erupt in flames.

Another jar contained gourmet “tuyô.” Though daunting in name, the dish turned out to be another familiar. Dried herring flakes in vinegar and oil is, translated, “tinabal”. It is comfort food that must be consumed with extreme prejudice, swimming in oil , spices and salt and requiring avalanches of piping hot rice to douse and tame.

Herring is known to Cebuanos as “malangsi” or “mangsi”. It resembles “bolinao” but with scales. In Badian and Alegria, fishermen evolved the Sabi net, a combination of the purse seine, bag net and beach seine, to catch this fish.

After tasting the gourmet “tuyô,” I remembered my late aunt’s “bacalao”. Until she passed away, my aunt’s table was famous in the family. One dish that was never served during feasts but given to her relatives during Holy Week was “bacalao”.

In place of the required but imported cod, lapu-lapu or any large premium fish was substituted. Deboned, skinned, salted, dried, desalted, flaked, boiled, fried, simmered—only past generations could invent and go through all that slaving in the kitchen just to go around the rule of fasting and abstinence.

Never a stickler for tradition, religious or otherwise, my mother loves “bacalao”. For my mother, my aunt made “bacalao,” a Lenten shortcut, into a celebration of Advent.

My aunt has moved to the kitchen in the sky. Unlike Lake Taal’s overfished and vanishing “tawilis” or “biyâ”, “mangsi” and “tamban” still thrive. Yet, our growing population unduly taxes the sea, necessitating the concept of eco-markets. Fishermen must not only abide by the law but buyers, too, must not feed the demand for illegally caught fish, undersized fish and overfished species.

In the midst of merriment, consume consciously; consume with conscience.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 5, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 27, 2010

To friend or unfriend

TO be poor used to be unfortunate.

Now to be friendless is the new unfortunate.

That’s the fate threatening Facebook if it does not “unfriend” coal.

The leading social networking site, which drew 500 million members by July 2010, attracts through features that include how to “friend” or “unfriend” contacts.

According to the New York Times’ Kate Ross in its Nov. 4, 2010 issue, environmental advocate Greenpeace International has attracted 600,000 supporters since it launched in February 2010 “The So Coal Network” campaign to get Facebook to “Unfriend Coal”.

Greenpeace targets Facebook for choosing to run its data center in Prineville, Oregon with power generated by PacificCorp, a company whose fuel mix for its generators is derived from 10 percent each of hydro and renewable energy, about 20 percent of natural gas, and 58 percent of coal power.

The Greenpeace campaign includes an animated, two-minute long video uploaded on Youtube.

“Facebook: Unfriend Coal” is narrated by a tart, smart kid whose stick drawings and quirky pronunciation of the name of Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg (“Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg”) thinly disguises the derision and ringing challenge hurled by a seasoned eco-warrior.

According to her, the story begins when a “clever” boy named Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg, who was shut out of Harvard social circles for being a nerd, invented Facebook, which invented “lots of friends”—actually 500 million friends on Facebook “so no one could bully him”.

Portraying Facebook as a computer that copies and pastes the faces of people on a monitor, the child later shows how Marrrk’s creation becomes a jolly blue giant relaxing in a “box where pictures are stored”. The giant relies on “special food called elektrisity”.

Electricity can be created through a “good way,” such as “making cheeky clouds with lips blow windmills round and round”.

Instead of using renewable kinetic wind energy, though, “silly Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg” chose “dirty old coal”.

What’s coal? That’s a loaded question to ask Capitol and Cebu environmental groups, antagonists confronting each other over Baliligate and power issues, not all coal-related.

The preternaturally wise underaged narrator of the Greenpeace video says coal is made from “rotten dinosaur food,” which, when burned, “dirties the air and makes our world hotter (the world becomes an instant desert), meltier (ice cap disappears under a clueless polar bear) and floodier (people in boats fish out other people and pets from the rising waters)”.

The video’s climax has poor Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg, with his pants blown away by wind energy, quivering between the black wiles of coal and the jolly blue giant and the cheeky clouds blowing the winds of change for energy generation and consumption.

Will Marrrk friend or unfriend coal?

More important, will we? The New York Times article quotes Environmental Protection Agency findings that “data centers now account for 1.5 percent of all electricity consumption in the U.S.".

By 2020, data centers’ carbon emissions will quadruple to 680 million tons per year. That’s more than the consumption of the aviation industry of the U.S. By 2020, Facebook’s electricity consumption will be more than the current electricity consumption of Brazil, Canada, France and Germany combined.

After converting to the New Technology, we comfort ourselves with the thought that by going paperless, we’re greener. “Think before you print!”

Yet, we are also part of an efficiency-mad sector that is “increasingly thirsty for energy”. Will we settle for “dirty fuels” and dream on in our paperless worlds?

In its online campaign, accessible through coalfacebook, the international non-government organization (NGOs) presses a five-point plan for Facebook and other data centers, which includes phasing out coal and choosing entirely clean, renewable energy sources.

“I know which one I would choose,” confidently declares the young storyteller/warrior of the Greenpeace video. ““If you let your friends down, you let yourself down.”

Now leaving “poor Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg” to make up his mind, I wonder how the question will be answered by Capitol and Cebu NGOs: to friend or unfriend coal?

And will their answers tell us who their friends are?

( 09173226131)

* To be published by Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 28, 2010 issue of the Sunday column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here comes the titan

I RECEIVED a letter.

When my son handed to me the long white envelope along with the newspapers he picked up from the newsroom, I guessed by the sloping handwriting on the envelope that it was neither an invitation nor a machine-regurgitated notification asking to be disregarded in case of irrelevance.

I eyed the letter askance.

Among journalists, a white envelope is portentous. It may hold a press release, a presscon invitation, cash, gift certificates or a bullet. The first two are work necessities; the third and fourth, traps; and the last, an early retirement plan.

My face must have betrayed this quick review of options because my son asked if he could open the envelope. I broke the seal and after reading, passed to him the four handwritten sheets of plain paper.

Journalism is a tough profession in a tough turf. It’s a mantra I repeat to justify the skepticism and suspicion, questioning and probing, checking and cross-checking that goes before committing to print a fact, inference or opinion.

Yet, a decade or so of this information-sifting has ruined me for the unalloyed pleasure of receiving and reading a letter.

The letter was written by a reader reacting to something I wrote. In my experience, readers who disagreed with my articles always fired away a chain of SMSs or emails to express their scorching assessment of my sanity, soul or lack of both. Only one paused long enough to first post a reaction in her blog before sending me a link.

The letter-writers, though, are invariably—there is no equivalent for this in journalese— nice.

What is it about writing a letter that makes the pleasure mutual, for both sender and recipient?

First, the penmanship is no small source of delight. I don’t mean only narcissists write by hand for the reflected pleasure of admiring their every curve and curlicue.

One’s handwriting is sole and revealing. Rounded and generous or spiky and impatient, a penmanship lets slip a writer’s true state, if his words won’t. While sustaining me through years of writing and rewriting, my editor made her critiques in the form of a letter written in her inimitable hand, recalling the teachers of old who trained with a gimlet eye so many young hands holding a pencil. When I failed to meet too many deadlines, my editor—you guessed it—sent me an email.

In newsrooms, editors encourage readers to email reactions or contributions. Yet some editors will personally encode or have an encoder convert into soft copy a handwritten letter. Sometimes the content justifies the time and effort. I’m sentimental about the journey that makes a thought transform a blank sheet of paper that finds its way into an envelope passed from hand to hand, or from postal bin to postman’s bag, finally resting beside the workstation of an editor in a publication that may send these words out across the globe.

So why not just email? Why be picky about form if substance is the essence?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team have been working for 15 months to unify email, instant messaging, text messaging and the social network into one “social inbox”.

The new message system that’s known as “Project Titan” is not intended to end the dominion of the email giants: Microsoft’s Hotmail, with its 361 million users; Yahoo! Mail’s 273 million users; and Google Gmail’s 193 million users. I’m not an email killer, clarified Zuckerberg.

According to Mike Swift’s article in the San Jose Mercury News, Facebook’s coming Titan just wants to free people to communicate, without the bother of choosing IM, SMS or email.

I can just taste the flavor of conversations in a future dominated by Facebook or even journalism. Reply now! Hit a button before you even finish a thought. Doubt first; verify later.

Before the titan takes over, I’m rereading the sheaf this reader wrote by hand.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 21, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Age of Twitter*

BEFORE Twitter came along, a “twitter” meant either a bird chirping or, in imitation of a chirrup, people tittering over something that’s agitating them.

By late 2009, when Twitter became the third most popular social networking site, next to Facebook and Windows Live Profile, a Tweet, which is a message of not more than 140 characters that you encode and send through the Internet, does not just have the capacity to stir up a sender’s circle of friends but a limitless public that the sender may not have known was out there.

In 2009, the market research firm, Pear Analytics, studied 2,000 Tweets sent from the United States. Pear researchers found that Tweets about news content and spam were identical at four percent each. Self-promotion represented six percent; Tweets with pass-along value, nine percent. Thirty-eight percent of the Tweets was conversational.

The most number of Tweets, representing 40 percent, was classified by the Pear researchers as “pointless babble”.

According to Wikipedia, social networking researcher Dana Boyd argued with Pear Analytics’ interpretation. “Pointless babble,” according to Boyd, is more meaningful when viewed in terms of Internet socialization.

She claimed that through “social grooming” and “peripheral awareness,” Netizens find out what other people whose “co-presence is not viable” are thinking or doing, as well as let others know what they are up to.

“Only connect!” exhorted E. M. Forster in “Howards End”.

Though the novelist was writing about class and gender differences in turn-of-the-20th-century England, his classic phrase captures the eternal chasm bedeviling humans. “Only connect!” is less a prescription than a challenge in the Age of Computers, where not just co-presence but intimacy and empathy are at risk.

Like many Twitter users expressing a random or candid thought, Maria Carmen “Mai “ Mislang Tweeted about what she claimed to be Vietnam’s bad wine, lack of handsome men, and dangerous streets.

Unfortunately, Mislang is the speechwriter of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III. Worse, the assistant secretary for communications was part of the Philippine delegation when she sent those Tweets about her hosts.

While Mislang apologized and the Palace vowed to come up with guidelines for staff using the social media, the traffic of comments on the blogosphere and even traditional media show that an online indiscretion, no matter how brief, lives a long, long time.

Briton Paul J. Chambers was fired from two jobs and remains unemployed after he was convicted of “sending a ‘menacing message’ over a public telecommunications network under the Communications Act of 2003,” reported

His crime? He Tweeted that he would blow up an airport after a snowstorm led to the cancellation of his flight. He was on his way to Ireland to meet for the first time a woman he befriended online.

An airport manager searching online for materials about the airport read and reported Chambers’ message. Chambers was arrested, interrogated for eight hours, and fined $4,800. The judge who convicted him deplored the irresponsibility of his Tweet in the “present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports.”

Chambers is unrepentant. A Twitter regular who sent 14,000 Tweets in the 11 months before his Tweet to “(blow) the airport sky high!”, Chambers told the judge that Tweeting was just like “bantering” with friends.

Many Tweeters and bloggers have rallied behind Chambers. They claim he is a victim of Britain’s “erosion of civil liberties,” particularly free speech.

They accuse law enforcers of not understanding and knowing how to respond to the “anarchic culture” of social media. One person asked if adding “lol” (which means, in Internet parlance, “laugh out loud”) after a satirical comment will shield a person from possible prosecution.

Was the question serious or mock-serious? First, connect.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 14, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Brothers only in a rent-free world*

HOW do you kill news coverage?

Raise the rent of a journalist’s office.

A press association covering the United Nations (UN) said that if the international organization charges the media rent for their headquarters, the news coverage will become a trickle and the UN will be “just another international organization that only makes headlines when bedbugs are found there.”

According to a report filed by the Inter Press Service’s (IPS) Thalif Deen, the United Nations Correspondents’ Association (Unca) protested that even a “symbolic rent” will “drive most members of the press out of the United Nations”.

The Unca represents 200 full-time members of the UN press corps. For the past 60 years, the UN press corps occupied rent-free offices in the UN Secretariat headquarters in New York.

While the Unca said that the UN press is “not here on a free ride,” it said that rent would be an “unjustifiable expenditure given the severe financial stress” of the industry.

According to the Unca letter sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the “severe financial stress” cited by the press corps includes the salaries for reporters covering the UN full-time, equipment and infrastructure for multimedia global broadcast.

The UN press corps also complained that after the $1.8-billion renovation of the NY headquarters, the offices for media will be narrower and open—features they view as detrimental for “serious journalist work”.

The Unca wants their offices to be “closed, soundproofed, adequately wired and adequately sized”—and still rent-free.

I remember the sound of children singing as October drew to a close. Students of a nearby preschool, they were singing songs from other lands, as well as those about brotherhood and peace.

In the Philippines and other nations, UN Day and UN Week are observed in many schools during October.

Remembering that young chorus after reading the IPS report, I wonder how minutiae like rent will affect the singing.

In a world leery of good intentions, the UN endures—because, if we believe the Unca, the body hosts journalists that never blink in covering this beat in exchange for free rent.

As a news consumer, I’m at a quandary deciding which is more alarming: that the UN’s good press was influenced by favors to the media, or that without this preferential treatment for journalists, the UN beat is not fit covering unless hit by a minor disaster, like bedbugs piercing diplomatic immunity?

According to the IPS report, the journalists that may have to vacate offices they can no longer afford will be going home to developing nations. These are reporters writing for either domestic news agencies or dailies published in the Third World.

I’m not privy to the “severe financial stress” of running a multimedia outfit from NY and transmitting to the world. Surely, a media company won’t enter this arena equipped only with cojones.

Or is that a Third World affliction to be graceless about giving up what used to come for free?

UN officials say that collecting rent from journalists was proposed because of the “tens of millions of dollars” spent to rent outside office space for UN staffers displaced by the UN correspondents.

The Fourth Estate is important, affirms the UN. However, in commercial market terms, the freedom to cover and report cannot be subsidized forever.

Focused on the unhappy journalists, the IPS report is not as forthcoming about the other side. Are UN executives just unhappy about the lost income or the sparse gains bought by the rent subsidies?

Completing this triad of discontent is the public. Reading the IPS report alters for me the singing that always caps my October.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 7, 2010 issue of the “Matamata”, a Sunday column

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plants vs. zombies

IT’S better than “FernGully” and “Avatar,” even “Plants vs. Zombies,” a cute video game that pits a homeowner and his plants against a marauding horde of the uncute undead.

Mainly because it’s better than these ecologically inspired media, the message is ambiguous and disquieting.

In Surigao del Sur, the Mamanwa and Manobo tribes oppose the Ventura Timber Corp. (VTC), which has been granted an Integrated Forest Management Agreement (Ifma) to manage their ancestral domain. This is based on an Oct. 19, 2010 Business Mirror article written by correspondent Bong D. Fabe.

The website of the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) defines an Ifma as a “production sharing contract” entered by the DENR and a partner.

The Mamanwa and Manobo tribes claim the logging firm failed to secure their Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), invalidating the Ifma.

Republic Act 8371, also known as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1998, requires a company to first secure a tribe’s FPIC before it can develop an ancestral domain.

While an Ifma grants a company the “exclusive right to develop, manage, protect and utilize” the covered forest land and resources, the VTC is focused on marking and cutting trees, paying little regard for forest management and protection.

If the Surigao tribal drama were a movie and directors Bill Kroyer of “FernGully” or James Cameron of “Avatar” were at the helm, this would be the cue for the noble savage to save the forest from the attack of the killer acronyms.

Yet, although the tribes have lodged a legal protest and petitioned the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the DENR, the VTC’s Ifma has yet to be cancelled. Granted on Feb. 12, 2010, the Ifma grants VTC power over more than 7,000 hectares of forest land in three towns of Surigao del Sur and two towns of Agusan del Nore.

The indigenous communities elevated their cause to a higher court, that of the spirits and their ancestors.

As the Business Mirror reported, the Manobo tribe’s chieftain and “babaylan” (spiritual leader) performed the “pangapog” to invoke their ancestors and Magbabaya (God) to direct the felled trees to fall on VTC workers and their machines to fall into ravines. Business Mirror reported that a tribal member working with the VTC had to be hospitalized after a falling tree branch pierced his back.

In another ritual, a pig slaughtered as offering to the spirits and Magbabaya did not bleed. The injured worker also reportedly did not bleed when the branch protruded from his side. Both incidents were interpreted by a Manobo “hawudon (leader)” as a message that the spirits and Magbabaya did not want the ancestral domain to be encroached on and the trees cut for timber.

To the urbanized, these tribal appeals hint of the naïve and superstitious. Unlike the VTC, which relied on the Charlie Co. of the 36th Infantry Battalion to disperse the peacefully protesting tribal members, the Mamanwa and Manobo tribes may expect a fair hearing only in another court, where the laws and authorities favor the ancestral and communal over the acquisitive and destructive.

Among some residents of Barangay Matutinao in Badian, there endures the belief in “Talangban,” a city of supernatural beings residing in Kawasan Falls. Looking for this legendary city, S. said she met old men with beards that hung down like skirts, pythons and black dogs , who offered to take her there if she accepted a cigar and other gifts. S. said she refused to eat, drink or smoke anything because she wanted only to visit Talangban but be able to return home.

For indigenous peoples, that choice of coming home may be as mythical as a city ruled by fairies and the dead.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 31, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Romantic and reptilian*

LOVE does not just move everyone, from presidents to birds. It is the impetus for research and experiments in an emerging new science.

When a State University of New York researcher of the science of love cross-pollinated his ideas with a pain scientist at the Stanford University, the result was a neuroscience study that found evidence that romantic love may relieve physical pain like a drug, minus the side effects.

According to an article by Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times, the academics tested Stanford campus volunteers who were chosen because they were in the first nine months of a relationship—conducive to being “still in the throes of romantic passion”.

The experiments showed that when the subjects’ left hands were heated to a point causing a moderate or high degree of pain, looking at the photograph of the beloved “distracted” the subjects from feeling the pain by about 36-45 percent for moderate pain, and 12-13 percent for the high pain.

This was the same level of distraction achieved when the subjects were given a mental task, such as thinking of all sports that didn’t involve a ball. However, a photograph of an attractive peer had no effect on the subjects, who felt the full pain of their heated palms.

When the researchers scanned the subjects’ brains with a functional MRI, they saw a further differentiation of effects. When the subjects were engaged in a mental task, the MRI showed that the subjects used the higher, thinking parts of their brain.

When the photo of a loved one was shown, the involvement ignited the “reptilian” regions, the so-called “more primitive reward centers” related to “urges and cravings that are also implicated in addictions”.

Stanford’s pain scientist, Dr. Sean Mackey, said that the results suggest harnessing the influence of a loved one to relieve pain without drug-induced side effects. He said he might not yet recommend a passionate love affair every six months, but he might consider this therapy for curing people withdrawing from addictions, like smoking.

Is it only sexual love that’s effective as a painkiller? Given the background of the study volunteers, what if the sexual love is long past the exciting first phase of the chase and the conquest, when love is now struggling to outrun, uh, demanding kids, runaway careers and multiplying chins?

Foremost, the Stanford study of love tantalizes with its correlation of the romantic with the reptilian. On the day of the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the Agence France-Presse reported that a London court found a Saudi prince guilty of murdering his male servant after a Valentine’s Day celebration.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) caught the prince assaulting his servant during two incidents in a London hotel elevator. Sexually explicit photos of the servant were also found in the prince’s cell phone. Prosecutors said that the injuries of the Saudi victim include bite marks on both cheeks, indicating a “sexual element” to the killing.

More painful than the sadism is the victim’s subservience to his perpetrator. In the CCTV video uploaded on Youtube and news websites, the victim does not try to escape after the perpetrator first steps out of the elevator. When the doors slide open again, the prince steps back in the elevator and resumes to pummel and slap the victim, who seems to be about his abuser’s height and size but who puts up no defense. When the perpetrator steps out again, the victim meekly follows.

The court considered reports that the servant endured years of “slavery” and abuse at the hands of the prince. “The victim was so worn down by the violence that he let Saud (the prince) kill him without a fight,” the AFP report quotes London prosecutors.

Love hurts, we all wail before loving again. But when love releases reptilian urges and addictive cravings that end in self-destruction, love chills.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” Sunday column on Oct. 24, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bayong and the city

THE SKIES opened on the day I brought books for my students to take home for sembreak reading. Since the route to school involves two jeepney rides, the early morning downpour tested my ability to lug a purse, an umbrella and two big bags of books.

Fortunately, I’m a buyot creature. The buyot is the Cebuano version of the bayong, a native bag used by women in the past to transport anything to and fro the farm and market. Men punch holes in the bayong to convert this into a traveling compartment for game cocks.

Today, the buyot has been repositioned as a “green bag”. Aside from using leaves, vines and other natural, biodegradable components, the tote can be reused. Contemporary versions are made from recycled juice packs, tarpaulin, streamers and other discarded materials.

My favorite totes are made of cloth. When a used merchandise seller took over the formerly chic Gaw department store that met its demise in the Colon of the 1990s, I bought my first canvas totes there for P10-P25. Before Cebu City Hall started collecting taxes from the Carbon used goods sellers, these totes were dumped anywhere, freely associating with Lifesaver-colored, tortured-looking pantylets and bras and once, snugly curled inside a teapot.

Though a lifetime of carrying books makes my totes look like dried strips of meat, their sturdiness and dependability count high if their looks don’t. A reused grocery bag can very well haul one’s stuff, but the clear plastic renders one too transparent to fellow travelers. (I’ve had to disappoint jeepney neighbors, who, after straightening up necks made stiff from reading the spine titles of books I’m carrying, ask hopefully if I’m in the book-lending business.)

The modern buyot also has another edge: zippers. Much as I admire jeepney drivers for nurturing readers among their passengers by way of a Sun.Star Superbalita inserted above their rearview mirror, I dislike remembering to get back my copy of the daily that’s been borrowed by a fellow passenger only after I disembark. For reasons yet to be pinned down by a market analyst or hypnosis expert, a Superbalita copy glimpsed inside a jeepney, whether tucked near the dashboard or peeking out from an open, unzippered tote, is fair game for passengers who have to be up-to-date with “Laysho” or “From Junquera with love”.

Last Oct. 11, 2010, the buyot showed signs that it may yet become not just a many-splendored thing for commuters but also a “national bag”. Local groups observing Global Work Party Day singled out the native bag as one of the viable solutions to combat climate change.

A week ago, the Cebu Chapter of the Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) launched their own “unified” version of a green bag made of recycled plastic bottles. PRA-Cebu Chapter members said they will give incentives to customers who reuse their green bags when they shop or patronize shops.

In 2009, the Department of Trade and Industry launched a campaign to promote the bayong among consumers and entrepreneurs. The agency noted the livelihood opportunities in supplying the global market with alternatives to replace plastic bags. Artists and even students in Home Economics classes are encouraged to reinvent the “national bag”.

Last September, Pampanga Representative Aurelio Gonzales Jr. introduced Resolution 783 in the House of Representatives. House Resolution 783 provides for the phase-out of plastic bags as packing materials of goods sold from sari-sari stores to bigger establishments.

Plastic bags comprise half of the garbage, equivalent to about 300,000 kilos, recovered during coastal cleanup operations in 2009, according to the Department of Environment and National Resources. Plastic represents 15 percent of Metro Manila’s solid waste.

According to a report, switching from plastic to bayong may keep down the country’s 390 parts per million (ppm) current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the safe upper limit of 350 ppm.

Whether it’s to prevent one’s books or newspaper from being read to bits during a traffic lull or to safeguard our planet, the buyot is The Bag to be seen toting around. 0917-3226131

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 17, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Unfinished quest

THE QUEST is heroism distilled.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been tagged by friends to come up with a list of 15 books I read “that will always stick with me”.

Stickiness, as defined by the tagging rules, means the first 15 books to be remembered within 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes lapsed, I realized that my list, if it ever was going to be done at all, was going to be different.

Some titles naturally figured in the list because every rereading is nearly like the first time of discovery. When the sharks first hit the marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” always stuns and saddens decades after I first read the novel in college.

Although the impact is partially due to the wily technique of inserting the unexpected at a paragraph’s closing rather than its opening, where it would be more predictable and less shocking, the storytelling is as powerful as the currents that test the old Cuban fisherman Santiago, battling with the sea and mortality.

In this list of mine, hardly 15 yet, some books had to be dredged up, like striking faces seen quickly and lost in a crowd, and remembered again. I have read two out of three of the Cormac McCarthy novels making up The Border Trilogy. I have yet to see the “architecture” of romanticism and desolation, which the novels, taken as a whole, are supposed to set up.

Yet, meeting 16-year-old Billy, as he returns to Mexico the she-wolf he rescues and loses in “The Crossing,” the second volume in the trilogy, and encountering him three years later in “The Cities of the Plain,” the final volume, where he finds and loses a friend, I wonder if the missing first novel reinforces or contests the storyteller’s claim that, without desolation, all love is suspect.

In working to finish my list of 15, I recognize one theme uniting the disparate members of this incomplete company. The stories that find their way beneath the skin are all centered on quests.

Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is a trilogy that follows two friends—Lyra and Will—making their way between parallel worlds, intertwined consciousness (humans and dæmons) and three novels: “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”.

Bought in a school sale for my children, the volumes have been read and reread by the same fan at home. Pullman’s tale turns inside-out the Creation story of Adam and Eve: while Lyra is as deceitful and manipulative as Eve, the first stereotyped female, she and Will use Knowledge to destroy the fabrications of organized religion. Caveat: this trilogy will upset Narnians and expose anti-Potter critics as far from being wide readers, if at all.

Set in a less ambiguous but as magical stage—the Third Age of Middle-earth—“The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite of all heroic quests.

While Pullman’s wordplay is keen and tensile, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s prose can be earnest and bland as a grade school student’s effort to write “moral” poetry. Yet, perhaps because I discovered “The Fellowship of the Ring” first and then “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” when I was barely a year out of this school level, I am more forgiving about the starkness of Tolkien’s vision of good and evil (fair Elves and pure-hearted Hobbits versus power-hungry Wizards and deformed Orcs).

Why do these fictional quests enthrall? There is a goal that seems unreachable but turns out to be attainable. There is an unlikely hero (or heroine) who surprises not just the reader but even himself (or herself). There is a tale that, after much unraveling and unwinding, returns home.

In the real world, not all quests have these three elements, specially the third.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 10, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Naked lunches

ASIDE from a bed, the most intimate thing one can share with another is a meal.

Filipinos bond over food. Unashamedly, colleagues scrutinize each other’s lunch. We sample each other’s hastily packed breakfast or the remnants of a family feast or the unclassifiable weekend experiment.

We masticate failed affairs, office power struggles, jokes/politics and the state of our health as carefully as the P20 fried fish, P8 rice, P6 banana and P6 mongo soup the street vendor handed over the gate to us.

Working lunches may be a modern necessity—or inefficiency, depending on one’s experience. In the multicultural organization I worked with in the 1980s, technical meetings usually extended till 2 p.m. We, Filipinos, did not complain but the expatriates noticed that between 11 a.m. till adjournment, our participation quite drastically faded.

So sandwiches were served. The reception rose a little higher than glum. An expat married to a Filipina suggested a “regular” lunch, meaning rice, viands and softdrinks.

However, this scheme was also scrapped due to the overwhelmingly enthusiastic local response. The business of having lunch—involving much passing to and fro of plates, pairing of mismatched cutlery, the collective frenzy for meat, asking for sawsawan (sauce)—took over the official business at hand.

Work productivity improved when we decided to break at noon and resume an hour after everyone ate lunch. A consultant was driven to ask, though, why few of us sat at the conference table with them, with most preferring to return to our nooks or cram in the pantry.

I said that we wanted a break from speaking in English. A more candid answer should have been: talking about work messed up the food as it was going down; you could not eat with the boss because the boss was sometimes the main entrée in these lunches; and who could lean over and tell an expat: say, can I have some of those greens?

When one eats in company, there are three things to savor: the food, the company of others, your own. Is there some of that tough beef stuck in my smile? Do my lips betray the squid cooked in inky broth? After a good meal, my friends and I burp musically in three voices, lean back and puff with our toothpicks, wiggle our tongues to dislodge and swallow the last clinging holdouts. So what? We still share lunch.

Lunch tastes best when the company transports me to the familiar and the homely be-as-you-are. Precisely because of these ordinary but intimate associations, lunch can be sacrosanct grounds that permit few transgressions.

As part of a couple, I don’t have a habit of lunching out with any male friend. College chums would rather email or post on my Facebook wall rather than wait for me to confirm a lunch date only after telling my spouse, sons, mother, companions at home, sundry relatives and dog (with whom I share Wednesday and Friday lunch regularly).

As a contributor to this space and as a freelancer, I tell my editors the clients I lunch with. Editors are an anal-retentive lot. They have to be to spot bias that’s caused either by external parties corrupting a journalist or a journalist self-censoring to slant an article to favor or cover up on a client.

As a Catholic, I’m more than a bit bugged why Carlos Celdran recently disrupted mass at the Manila Cathedral to protest the clergy’s opposition to contraception. The popular tour guide regularly distributes condoms and birth-control pills to the poor. I, too, think that reproductive health information should be made available to couples. Staging a stunt during mass, which represents both a shared meal and a memorial sacrifice, will close no chasms that’s yawning between the state and the clergy.

Lunch? Best taken without agenda.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 3, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Journalists, ugly and true

CHOOSING is easy when the range is limited to the good and the bad.

Instead of comforting, though, the undeniability of this logic chaffed when I recently had to make a choice between John McPhee’s “Encounters with the Archdruid” and Stephen Glass’s “The Fabulist”.

I was in this secondhand bookstore, looking for a weekend treat that would not cost more than P151 (that’s all the change I had left; with payday still a week away, I didn’t want to break up the lone bill left in my wallet).

McPhee is a writer I’ve stalked longest, next only to Joseph Mitchell.

But while Mitchell died in 1996, McPhee, at 79, feels there are still topics to write about. His early books of the 1960s and 70s often turn up in bargain bins, perhaps because someone committed enough to pursue his personal curiosity into months, even years, of studying and writing about obscure folks going about their uncommon business—harvesting orange juice, fly-fishing, basketball, floorwalking, foraging for wild edibles, making birch-bark canoes, tending the lawn at Wimbledon, for samplers—would be out of place in the shelves groaning under bestsellers.

For the rigor of his note-taking and immersion in his subjects, McPhee deserves to be called, as he was extolled by one reviewer, “a reporter’s reporter”.

Yet, for the respect he pays to words and the gusto of his storytelling, what comes to mind is not journalism of the cut-and-dried variety but something more enduring, like literature. Here’s McPhee estimating the depth of a river where he’s dragging a canoe: “There were times, in holes, when I was up to my armpits, but that could not be called dramatic. Among armpits on this planet, mine do not imply great depth."

Coming upon “Encounters with the Archdruid,” one of four books McPhee devoted to “geology” (the arena now called “ecology”), should have instantly concluded at the cashier and my riding off to the sunset, delirious, with my sixth McPhee.

Alas, I dawdled at a shelf holding the hardbounds and found, at perfect eye level, the insidious, nefarious Glass.

Since about five years ago, every writing class I’ve handled gets acquainted with Stephen Glass before they wrestle with news leads and angles.

Thanks to the 2003 film dramatization, “Shattered Glass,” these future journalists get quickly drawn in, then repelled and, against themselves, become fascinated with the unraveling of Glass. (McPhee, on the other hand, glazes my students’ eyes after the first dozen pages; one condensed New Yorker article ran to 30 or so pages.)

In the late 1990s, Glass, a gifted, fast-rising American reporter and editor, was exposed for committing serial fraud. Of 41 articles he wrote for The New Republic, a prestigious magazine read by Washington and the Oval Office, Glass invented quotes, sources, institutions and issues in 27 of those articles. He denied and denied those fabrications until in 2003, when the ex-journalist published a “biographical novel.”

“The Fabulist” is the title of Glass’s novel. This was the copy I was staring at. I had only seen the book previously in a “60 Minutes” interview, when Glass apologized for faking journalism and plugged his book.

“A spectacular crash, I’ve learned, is the quickest way to incredible accomplishment.” So begins a tale that tantalizes in its allusions to answers Glass refused to give in real life.

Why did he do it? (Stephen Aaron Glass, the novel’s protagonist, perfects the “takedown article” but has to lie and invent to stay ahead of newsroom rivals.)

Does he exemplify the excesses of journalism? (Other journalists are more ruthless in stalking Stephen Aaron after he’s fired.)

Is there life for a journalist after a crisis of credibility? (He gets a new girlfriend, moves into a new apartment, and rediscovers Judaism.)

Is he sorry? (A believable degree of atonement is hard to stumble across when one is rapidly scanning a mint copy with still stiff, crisp pages. In the end, I just reread the line that opens “The Fabulist”.)

Maybe bad guys attract Hollywood. Owing to the exigency of my wallet’s contents, I went home with the writer who, without being a fabulist, elevated armpits into the heavenly.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 26, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The reader

TODAY, local journalists observe a weeklong commemoration of press freedom.

Thirty-eight years ago, Ferdinand Marcos placed the country under martial law and scuttled all forms of liberty.

Such Sept. 21 associations put the spotlight on the journalist.

This year, though, my thoughts are on the other player, less visible but more vital: the reader.

The term, “reader,” limits. The generic “audience” encompasses better the target of all forms of messages.

Yet, with technology and the Internet changing the way we communicate, the concept of “audience,” slouching like a group of people passively receiving and reacting to media content, seems antediluvian.

Contemporary communication is all about the counterflow. Audiences now text, blog, tweet and network through Facebook and other sites. While before, the mass media and some institutions like the state shaped the public agenda, the traditional media now pick up issues first raised and later whipped up to critical mass by Netizens.

Although intrigued by citizens adept at and assertive in using the new communication tools, I am keeping my eyes on the reader.

Yes, that’s right: this is the person who picks up a paper or book or can of meat and deciphers word, sentences or symbols for meaning.

In rarefied circles like the academe, reading may be convoluted and competitive: “I’m reading women’s studies at the University of the Philippines” is not equated with the same gravitas as “I am reading the label to find out this corned beef’s sodium content”.

But in daily usage, language is liberated from pedantic neuroses. English, the language used by four billion people—representing two-thirds of the planet, claims—has a variety of expressions to accommodate all kinds, as well as levels, of reading.

My copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, for instance, lists these words when one is reading parts only of something: “dip into” and “flick/leaf/browse through”. If one’s reading quickly, “scan” and “skim” will do. Or if carefully, “pore over” and “scrutinize”.

What the British bemoan as “plowing through” is, more or less, the same as an American’s “wading through”. Both expressions stand for the act of reading something long and boring, or “plough through,” if one prefers standard English.

To those who think this is petty puffery, I’d like to know how they think one can fill out forms without knowing how to read? Or write one’s name or find an address or read a lover’s poem and find out if it’s been copied?

Reading takes up time, specially since reading usually begets rereading.

Don’t begrudge reading the hours and reflection demanded. What activity other than reading yields a more invaluable bumper crop: perseverance to ferret out meaning, patience to listen to another without butting in, and perspective to discover how one’s views are better when buffed against the thoughts of others, whether like or unlike-minded?

Last year, I listened to Randy David recall how it was when martial law (ML) was imposed in the country: teachers, students, writers and activists raced to burn and get rid of their books and other writings before they were arrested and taken away.

Though aged seven when ML was declared, I felt my own throat gag, imagining hundreds of toilets all over the country jamming under the weight of ashes flushed in the haste of fear.

This time, it may be better. In Sun.Star Superbalita’s Sept. 17 issue are photos showing politicians reading stories to school children and a company donating books to Sawang Calero Elementary School. According to a Sept. 15 “Neighborhood” article in Sun.Star Cebu, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a private commercial bank are distributing 500,000 books to grade two pupils in public schools in Central Visayas.

In another “Neighborhood” article, published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 17 issue, Quota International of Metro Cebu launched a drive to collect books for children with special needs in six public Special Education Centers in Cebu City. On Sept. 24-26, Tsinelas Association Inc. will hold its third “Their Books” sale in an uptown mall to raise funds to keep children in school.

How apt: from a 38-year-old memory of ashes uncoiling from the bowels of history, these tales of renewal for any reader to relish and reread.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 19, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bug off

Entrap, search and destroy. Saturation drive. Hotspots.

The language betrays what’s now out of the public’s affections: mosquitoes.

According to a Sept. 10, 2010 article published in Sun.Star Cebu, Cebu barangays’ anti-dengue drives run the gamut from issuing citation tickets to those caught dumping trash to terminating bugs with extreme prejudice.

About 100 personnel and volunteers beefed up a police team that, armed with brooms and dustpans, assaulted and flushed out dengue carriers from a suspected hideout in Camputhaw.

Midwives in Naga City, a dengue hot spot, lure with an “ovi trap,” a black-painted can with a piece of wood sticking out to entice mosquitoes to lay eggs.

It’s no overkill since, according to the Sun.Star Cebu report, the Cebu City Health Department has recorded 12 deaths from dengue this year, with 1,424 cases reported in Cebu City alone from Jan. 1 to Sept. 8.

Yet, as suggested in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a classic on strategy and conflict, one courts victory by knowing the enemy.

Who is the mosquito?

According to an article by Russell McLendon, “Are mosquitoes becoming more dangerous?” (, global warming and international travel have spread mosquito-borne diseases beyond the warm and humid climes their carriers were once limited to.

Secondly, while pesticides force the mosquitoes into exile for decades, the mosquito-borne virus returns with a vengeance, more resistant and more virulent with every renewed attack.

Three things seem to control mosquito numbers: the density of people, amount of rainfall, and length of summer.

Because the Earth’s surface is getting “warmer and weirder,” mosquito bonanzas are sure to follow warmer temperature, elevated humidity, and heavy precipitation.

While the dengue-spreading Aedes aegypti does not live in mid-latitude regions, scientists predict that shifting climates will eventually spread this mosquito and its deadly package. This prediction is based on studies of the Wyeomia smithii, a mosquito that eventually reached North America after taking off during the last ice age and following the worldwide flow of rising temperatures.

Climate change has brought upon the season of “endless summer”. This means “more mosquito time,” writes McLendon. Mosquitoes take advantage of longer days to reproduce and hibernate. Capitalizing on global warming, the Wyeomia smithii now delays its dormancy to adjust to late winters. Mosquitoes learn as fast as they breed; they can make these crucial life-cycle adaptations within five years.

As we all know, standing water makes for a mosquito-friendly habitat. Global warming, though, is making rainfalls more violent, storms more extreme and erratic. Congested settlements and denuded forests take care of the floods. The result? A boom in mosquito breeding.

Humans’ main problem, though, is not a few mosquitoes, says the US Department of Agriculture’s Mosquito and Fly Research Unit.

It’s the humans that are really moving the viruses around the world. A person who catches dengue fever has a seven-day incubation period. That’s time enough for a person to visit several places, get bitten by local mosquitoes, and infect these potential carriers before falling sick and getting “de-bugged”.

In tracking the path of bugs and men, Sun Tzu’s advice applies: “Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 12, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Your books

MY late father disliked being the cynosure of attention.

Towards the end of his life, he largely succeeded in staying undetected by reducing his human contact to the absolutely necessary: his family, his barber, and the newsprint faces and radio voices whose commentaries he respected.

One day, though, he broke this self-imposed rule of inconspicuousness.

An ambulance entered our cul-de-sac and the stopped at the end, before my father’s gate. Neighbors came out of their houses, expecting the worst.

The driver and the orderly filed inside our house. Our next-door neighbor later told me that she felt something was odd when she saw the figures in white. I told her it must have been the silence: my father’s radio was, for once, not blaring out some anti-corruption tirade.

When the ambulance staff came out, they were bearing not my father but his books.

When my father decided that he was too old to operate and too tired to teach, he contacted his former students at the government hospital that he served for more than three decades. So it was scheduled that, on its return trip, the ambulance would pick up the books my father decided to donate to the medical staff.

In my father’s house, where I read everything—all the Erle Stanley Gardners and the Harold Robbins—those medical books were the only ones I kept aloof of.

Those tomes accompanied us in the blue dawn when we studied at the dining table, I for class, my father for surgery or a lecture. Although he must have read these references countless times, the pages kept their razor edges and released a dry, antiseptic odor.

In depicting the unlovely nakedness underneath, the books cut like a scalpel newly slipped out of its sheath. Living with such unlovely companions, my father understandably saw persons as a macabre map of decay three, six, nine hours after infection.

Who could live with such literature, I wondered, repelled and attracted by the transparent color-coded plates that liberated a woman of her smile, skin, muscles, viscera and bones? Perhaps this literature’s real purpose is not merely to transform the aspirant into a specialist of all that can be weighed, labeled, coded. Could it be that these books shroud the vision to ignore trifles—like emotions, memories, the soul?—that cannot be laid out on a colored plate?

I stood aside and watched the men until they took out the last volumes. While those books passed out of our lives, my father did not come out.

That day, with its memory of how my father wrenched his books from him, is my reason for supporting “Their Books,” conducted on its third year by the Tsinelas Association Inc.

Tsinelas is a non-government organization that helps children in Cebu City and towns do what they can’t or only with difficulty: stay in school, read a book, have art materials to paint a dream.

I believe in the Tsinelas goals. I like even better their volunteers. Even without anyone running for public office, Tsinelas raises funds to keep children learning. This perfect heart-and-mind tandem made Tsinelas a 2009 awardee as one of the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations of the Philippines (TAYO), according to

On Sept. 24-26, as part of the Cebu Press Freedom Week celebration, Tsinelas will hold “Their Books”. On the booksale’s third year, Tsinelas continues to accept books donated by writers, artists, politicians and any believer willing to put “their books” in others’ hands to raise funds for children.

If you can’t part with your collection, drop by “Their Books”. I won’t as I don’t trust myself in case I come upon a book that used to be on my shelf. I’m Papang’s daughter but never had the stomach to contemplate an amputated limb.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sep. 5, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Sunday, August 29, 2010


UNTIL he started shooting the hostages, the man was a seven o’clock news joke.

He was a cop but a disgraced one, condemned for extortion and stripped of all his retirement benefits.

He wanted to be reinstated and to get the authorities’ attention, held hostage foreigners who wanted to see the best that this country could offer.

He was a certified creation of our times—a newsmaker who shot to primetime notoriety and as quickly fizzled to give way to the regular soaps that were displaced by breaking coverage—someone who stepped out from the crowd of nameless others, someone many of us had never heard of, someone we might have met and passed on the street, meriting no comment.

Yet, because he had a gun, because he hated, and because he shot and killed at least eight innocent and unarmed strangers, and terrorized the other survivors—we know his name.

Some of us might even recall that by mid-morning on the day of the incident, the initial reports already identified the armed assailant.

His name didn’t stick then. We could blame how that Monday seemed to cram more than the usual Mondays.

But when the first reports cut in on the predictable flow of our morning, we stationed ourselves before the nearest TV set in our living room, the office conference room, an electronics arcade in the mall, the corner store selling phone load.

We got busy doing what humans do better than other species: be curious about other humans.

We didn’t just want to know how the story would end. We felt more keenly our vantage point by witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

After the incident, we pitched in with all the talk about self-restraint: how the dead man lacked it, how the news media lacked it, how the Hong Kong citizens lacked it.

But during those hours when we kept our TV watch, did we step back and ask ourselves, in between the commercials, bathroom break and channel-switching: should I see this? Should the man with the gun also see this on the bus monitor?

We pointed fingers at journalists after the carnage. Who was at the other end of that accusing finger, being fed more images and information that was needed or understood?

When we first saw the police attempt to get into custody the hostage-taker’s brother, we were pulled in. Everyone was shouting. We were shouting, guessing what was going on, letting our emotions follow the source of the loudest whining. What a story! We were in the story! We were the news!

But when the first deadly eruption broke the silence in the darkened bus, we drew back to the safety of our couches. Silenced, we mumbled about letting the authorities handle the situation. We watched. And wondered when they would resume regular broadcasting.

What did this extreme sport of TV-watching accomplish? Saturate us with information. We became experts and concluded.

This was the extent of our certainty: the man was guilty.

Of murdering the innocent. Of exposing the ill-preparedness of our authorities and the media to deal with a crisis. Of subjecting our nation to the world’s condemnation and ridicule. Of jeopardizing the gains of tourism, our recently defended democracy, the stability of our society.

Did we reexamine who else was reduced to a limp form hanging from the broken glass of a bus door?

Why is it so easy to get hold of a gun in this country?

When does our access to information endanger life?

Why, in the age of instantaneous transmission, are we communicating less?

Why are we blind to the nameless victims of injustice before it’s too late?

If we missed these questions, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. The police asked the TV crews to turn off their lights during the negotiations. Visibility was poor.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 29, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Madonna of one peso

NANAY tends a small store underneath a skywalk.

When I’m waiting for a jeepney ride in the morning, I see her already arranging the banana leaf-wrapped puto maya she sells to early risers.

In the afternoon, if I’m not yet running late, I stop and buy whatever she’s selling. Usually, it’s fried bananas. If she happens to be in the midst of frying a batch, she’ll finish a few pieces and wrap these without rolling the bananas in sugar.

I’ve never said anything about my preference but she must have seen me choose the ones less coated with the sweet grains.

At other times, when I’m in a hurry, I just look out for her when we drive past her stall. Whether it’s the peak of lunch or the crawling hours before afternoon dismissal at the nearby schools, the familiar white-haired figure is often relating with someone.

To be sure, she’s also selling. But to see how she treats each person—whether it’s a child buying one of her mini-meatballs, sold for P2, or mini-ngohiong, sold for P1, or a worker choosing a bananacue, which, at P7 per stick, is the costliest of her goods—I hardly think of Nanay as engaging in “only business.”

She sees each person. She waits for the public school students to pick this or that bola-bola after handing them a plastic bag to wrap around their hand. She listens to the small ones’ stories, making me once think they are probably her neighbors. (If that were the case, she knows a lot of her neighbors’ kids, quite a feat in this highly urbanized city.)

Once, I was too early for the bananas and decided to try what was left in Nanay’s basket.

While I played dodge-‘em with other pedestrians in the sidewalk, I munched ngohiong and bola-bola. At least, they were not made of meat. Being tiny, they disappeared quickly. But I wished for my favorite bowl of lomi to wash away the oily aftertaste.

Then school broke for noon and three girls materialized beside me. Each one received a plastic bag from Nanay. Two chose ngohiong. The third girl took her time before settling for ngohiong, too.

Nanay squirted what looked like banana ketchup into the bags the girls held out. I noticed the baon of rice one of them placed on the table. Nanay carefully knotted each bag before giving it to the girls.

Balik sa skywalk (go back up the skywalk),” she reminded them.

Salamat, ‘nay, sa sabaw (thanks for the soup).”

Where else can your peso get more?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 22, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Die, Shorty

Or maybe I should rephrase the title of this piece to the more positive: “How to live longer when born short”.

Before the reader continues, I should say a line or two of warning: I am warming up to write for a health blog in need of about 300 words weekly on wellness.

No one recruited me. I suspect only my sister believes I can get away with writing about exercise and stuff.

When she had a brainstorm this week at her train station, she called to say her friend, who’s married to the blogger, needs someone to cobble words to simplify the scientific breakthroughs in the Web to extend our common lot.

I read sci fi; I don’t touch science. I feel well because I don’t see any doctor who’ll give me a second opinion.

Yet, since I made my sister miss her train and used up 36 minutes of her international call allowance just thinking about reasons why I can’t chirp about wellness, I committed to “give it a try” before she clicked off.

Why not wellness?

Am I not Asian? Don’t a lot of Eastern beliefs say this life is overrated anyway and we should look beyond the present and its petty desires?

Well, I’m Third World, too, and need the income. I connected to the Internet and encountered, instead of Enlightenment, a study made by Finnish scientists, who found that “short people are 50 percent more likely than tall people to die prematurely of heart disease.”

The review of three million people was published in the European Heart Journal, according to Next to advanced age, obesity and high cholesterol levels, short stature puts one at risk of a sudden coronary exit.

I immediately googled to convert my fully-stretched-out five feet into meters, and found out that, after multiplying by 0.3048, I am 1.524 meters. This definitely lumps me in the study’s categories of shortness: less than 1.53 meters for women, 1.65 meters for men.

Was that my old ticker skipping a beat? Feeling light-headed, I yearned for a sweaty can of chilled Coke but got instead a glass of water, distilled, no ice, as folk wisdom asserts a cold shock after a bad shock is too many shocks. I don’t want to jump from endangered to extinct before I can make good on my promise to my sister.

As a disciple of wellness, I must seek the silver lining behind this rude medical fact.

Scientists are debating one theory that holds that shorter people have smaller coronary arteries. Apparently, size matters when poor nutrition and other incidents clog arteries early in life.

So now I’m thrice oppressed: I’m born short, with weight issues, and living in Cebu, where eating well—make that feasting—is a daily accident. Perhaps in my next life, I will be born with a proboscis and a cast-iron resistance to “lechon,” “kinuposan,” “chicharon carajay,” “pinabutok,” “humba,” “lao-lao” and “tuslob-buwa”.

Acceptance is key. So I choked down the whining that was rising with my bile and concentrated on penetrating my inner confusion to find the bloody silver lining: “Short people should not be worried (as) height is only one factor… People… can control their weight (and) lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking and exercise,” pointed out the University of Helsinki researchers.

That’s fine: I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t exercise.

After I write this, I found my breakthrough. When my sister calls me next month, I’m going to chirp how I found my inner unwellness by trying to be a wellness blogger. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 15, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Death of a moth

THE MOTHS are here.

The vines that twine around the trellis fronting our home are favorites of the human and feline occupants.

For most of the year, there’s shade and a coronet of flowers and birds, which the cats heartily approve of.

In summer, the caterpillars show up. The leaves disappear. There’s never a week when pieces of the laundry have to be washed again to remove the brown stains that bloom from the odd rain that tumbles from the bare ribs of the stripped vines.

The leaves return with the rain.

In the fecundity that springs like panic around us, no one remembers the caterpillars.

Then the moths show up.

They cling to the screen of doors and windows. They cluster like leaves, curled and tossed by the wind whistling these past days.

The moths like, best of all, the white-washed walls, where they are easy distractions for the cats.

Stepping over slashed and ragged corpses during rain-washed mornings, I’ve wondered how much fun it is to play with creatures that never fight back.

It is almost as mysterious as the moths’ preference for open, exposed surfaces that mark them for death so soon after they exit from a cocoon.

Then I read that moths are not drawn to the whiteness but something else about the walls.

When an imago steps out of the cocoon, it rests on the empty shell to wait for its wings to expand and strengthen.

If the cocoon has fallen to the ground, the imago looks for any vertical surface nearby, such as a wall or fence, for this necessary rest.

I wanted to share this information with my companions at home. They believe that moths are souls of loved ones dropping by for a visit.

One of them, Yaya, makes a rollcall of all our dead when she stops before the wall of moths. With the cats watching on, their tails flicking like a metronome, she waves her hands and raises her voice to get the moths lifting off. She does not want those claws disrespecting our relatives.

According to a guide for hand-raising these insects, butterflies and moths must not be disturbed after eclosion or emergence. If a moth prematurely ejects the meconium or liquid used to inflate its wings, it will be crippled for life.

Even after a few hours, the time needed to harden the wings, some moths still cannot fly far. When too heavy or too soft, wings are not of much use.

How do I tell this fact to someone who believes moths, reincarnations of souls, should not be playthings of, all things, cats?

Or that an imago lives and dies for only one thing: to reproduce another in its likeness?

Flight and sex. Death and metamorphosis. Perfection and death.

Only a moth’s wing to tell the difference.

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 8, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sins of the confessional

“I WAS misinterpreted.”

This, in a nutshell, was the defense made by a diocesan priest recently accused by a Catholic student of touching the strap of her bra while he heard her confession.

Last Jul. 30, Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil and Bernadette A. Parco reported that the accused priest said he only “tapped” the students on the back and “drew his face closer” to “whisper” his advice during the confession.

A reader who claims his daughter was one of the priest’s “unlucky victims” posted a comment to the Jul. 30 report uploaded in the Sun.Star Cebu website. Aside from denouncing the priest for being a “liar, liar, liar,” the reader wrote that his daughter was “terrified” and that he hopes that Church officials will not just transfer him to other locations, “as they always do, otherwise this maniac will do the same to other poor children.”

While church officials ask the media and the public not to “pre-empt” their ongoing investigation, they must also listen to public criticism, specially since this is directed at actions, or inaction, that are no different from those in the past.

Anyone drilled on the concept of penitence will seize on a pattern or repetition of lapses as alarming. To repeat an act either means one has not realized the mistake or feels no guilt about flouting what’s right again and again.

For instance, a priest’s act of tapping, rubbing or kneading a confessor’s back is not usual during confessions. However, this act figures in two allegations of priestly misconduct: the current case and the Nov. 2006 incident involving the Cebu Archdiocesan priest Fr. Benjamin Ejares.

Ejares was accused of touching the backs and arms of seven students of Abellana National High School during confessions made during a Christian life seminar conducted at the school’s grandstand on Nov. 14, 2006. In Oct. 2007, the Cebu City Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the lasciviousness complaint filed against Ejares, which was decried by the affected families, government officials and child rights advocates.

The church says there is proper conduct guiding priests during confession. Why did the accused priests rub the students’ backs? If a confessor needs to be consoled, a priest can use his voice or even silence to comfort. Touching a girl’s back may mean rubbing against the bra straps. Even if unintentional, the act is prone to misinterpretation.

If one was truly sensitive to the confessional, particularly in the context of clergy abuse controversies, isn’t it prudent for priests to observe distance, particularly the injunction, “keep your hands to yourself”?

More importantly, the recent charges of priestly misconduct put once more to the test, even in the eyes of the faithful, the church’s capacity to measure up to the same exacting standards it sets for persons and institutions.

The church has to show that it is accountable to the public, and that it cares for the innocent harmed by erring members. In 2006, the BBC released a documentary, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican,” that mentions a secret document, the “Crimen sollicitationis,” which means “the crime of soliciting” before, during and after the sacrament of penance.

The BBC documentary asserts that this 1962 document was used by the church to distance itself from accusations of homosexuality, pedophilia and zoophilia (sexual contact with animals). This code was enforced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for 20 years before he became the Pope.

Last Apr. 16, 2010, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reported the findings of an investigation made by the Associated Press (AP). Covering 21 countries in six continents, the AP found 30 cases of “’abusive’ priests shuffled around the globe,” with some ending up in the Philippines.

One seminarian convicted of sexual misconduct in Michigan was ordained a priest and served in a diocese in Bohol. The practice of transferring abusive priests is called the “geographical cure,” reported PDI.

Could this be an improvement on the old wives’ wisdom of including papaya in priestly diets for its libido-lowering effect?

Justice is preferred.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 1, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, July 24, 2010


WHEN I met Cecille the first time, she blended in with her batch: smart, confident, promising. (Real name withheld.)

I saw Cecille in another light when she, along with two other coeds, was a news source for an article about one-night stands.

For fact-checking, the writer submitted the names of his anonymous sources. I couldn’t associate the articulate and witty Cecille with the person so confused by self-doubt, she slept around because she thought nobody wanted more from her beyond that one night.

I asked the writer to probe why Cecille sabotaged all her relationships by equating every male’s interest in her with sex.

The answer came from Cecille herself: she said all men had to be like her father, a philanderer, but she wasn’t going to be like her mom, who acted blind to his infidelities and always took him back after his “whoring.”

I remembered Cecille again when I read about the proposal that Rep. Pablo Garcia (Cebu Province, 2nd district) will file again. If Garcia’s bill is approved, persons getting a church annulment will have this automatically recognized by the civil courts.

According to the July 24, 2010 article by Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil, the bill promises less cost and inconvenience to couples who want to go their separate ways. At present, it requires time, money and lawyers to process the separate annulment one has to secure from the Church and the State to be finally and truly free to remarry.

This view was countered by a judicial vicar who handles annulment cases in the Metropolitan Matrimonial Tribunal, which evaluates if a petition for nullity is valid. According to the same article, Fr. Raul Go cautioned that if the bill becomes a law, this may be abused by some parties as an alternative to divorce.

Annulment cases may increase, he warned.

According to a Feb. 11, 2008 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) found “alarming” the rise of petitions filed for annulment of marriage: 7,138 cases in 2006, 7,753 in 2008. Before 2006, the OSG noted that the number of annulment cases never exceeded 7,000.

The OSG attributed the trend to the relaxation of society’s attitude toward separated couples. On the other hand, the State urged the Church to help couples save their marriage because break-ups also scarred the innocent, the couple’s children.

The human desire for closure in relationships is far too complex to be grasped by institutions like religion and the State.

Cecille’s mother’s decision to keep their family intact was not without cost. Had her parents opted for separation or annulment, would this have nipped in Cecilia the same weakness she hated in her mother?

In 2006, Sun.Star Cebu published a three-part special report entitled “Going Solo”. As a member of that special report team, I interviewed multiple sources who went through the familiar tale of love-marriage- disillusion-dissolution (or not quite).

All my sources were women through no deliberate intention of mine. All experienced a form or combination of different forms of abuse: physical, sexual, financial, emotional, psychological.

Those who pushed on successfully with their petitions to nullify their marriage said they wanted the annulment to signify an empty, clean slate with which to begin anew even if they did not have a new lover or were uncertain if they could sufficiently trust themselves to fall into another commitment again.

As a child of parents who mutually decided to separate, I can say there is no empty, clean slate. As lovers, parents, sons, daughters, friends, we humans are a messy lot.

The only consolation, if it is one, is that we have a hand in writing our lives.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 25, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Yo, peasant!

Mr. Clean-cut & Earnest.

Taking over as male co-anchor of the “Wowowee” noontime show, Lucky Manzano was acceptable when he did not distract me from my lunch.

Though he does not create sparks like his actor-politician parents, Manzano is still less grating than its still-absent former host.

When interviewing the folks who are thrilled to compete in a game requiring them to guess a song’s title, Lucky seems less inclined to follow his female partners’ screech-and-shimmy approach to interviewing.

He sounds as if he seems interested in every sob story, in everyman’s or –woman’s old but unfading hope that dreams will eventually triumph over loss.
Or so it seemed until last Friday.

For this particular episode, the show featured entertainers who didn’t quite make it to the big time. One of the players was a Mandaue-based singer named Jan-Jan.

With Manzano and Mariel Rodriguez interviewing, Jan-Jan narrated how he often competed in local singing contests where all he brought home was canned sardines.

After more probing by Manzano, Jan-Jan admitted that these were consolation prizes when all he could cop was a fourth-place finish.

The relief was audible in Manzano when he expressed incredulity that any singer would compete if sardines in cans were all that was awaiting the grand prize winner.
Jan-Jan replied that a pack of canned goods was oftentimes all he brought home after a night of competition. When I heard this, I looked up from my plate of “piniritong isda” and “utan Bisaya”.

On the TV screen was a typical Wowowee spectacle: glitter and glam, toothy Lucky and slinky Mariel, and a squat, burly fellow way past his youth but with a curtain of hair half-draping his homely mug.

It was not for Lucky and Mariel that I wanted to leap to my feet and clap (I did not because I had just used my hands to detach the head from the fish for chewing).

Then it was the turn of Jan-Jan’s wife to give the regulatory message. The camera cut to a not-so-young-anymore woman standing among the studio audience. Her tresses were as long and jet-black as Jan-Jan’s, but she was definitely not a Mariel.

She told Jan-Jan how much she appreciated him, specially because of what they went through. When the camera cut to Lucky, Mr. Clean-cut & Earnest only interjected: My, she’s speaking in English!

Time on TV goes at such a clip that an audience shouldn’t have to decode a message for a possibility of meanings: a) You don’t look like the type to speak in English (i.e. mestizo enough, educated enough, rich enough, etc.), b) Are you trying to make us Tagalog-speakers look bad by speaking in English?, or c) It sure surprised me that you speak English; you look as if you just crawled out of a cave.

It’s highly possible that I only have these three interpretations to Manzano’s moments of incredulity because at about the same time that he exclaimed his wonder over Jan-Jan’s wife’s preference for the Queen’s language, the fish head I was masticating speared me something awful.

If I will forever remember this moment in TV game show history, it will be for, in the order of emphasis: a) Jan-Jan’s song (in English), which did not just “entertain” (his enunciation was flawless); 2) the dignity and self-possession of Jan-Jan’s wife, who calmly finished the rest of her message to her husband in English, despite Manzano’s putdown (in Tagalog); and 3) Manzano, who made me check online for synonyms to “peasant”: provincial, bumpkin, hillbilly, clean-cut & earnest.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 18, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Binay and my lola

WHEN we visited my lola the other night, she was repairing her wooden fan.

Lola was applying a bottle of glue to stick back the cloth that came loose from some of the wooden staves.

My cousin, glancing up from his laptop, offered to buy our grandmother a new fan.

Lola held up the repaired fan, now fully unfurled, and experimentally stirred the air with it.

If I forget this fan in church, it will still be good for the one who finds it, my grandmother mused aloud.

I looked down at the newspapers I was sifting. On the front page of the July 2, 2010 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) is a boxed story of Vice President Jejomar Binay on his first day at his rented office.

“His chair is too big; his office is a tad too small, too warm and too bare,” PDI’s Tarra Quismundo summarized Binay’s carping about the place he found too stark (“hubad na hubad”) and lacking of the “dignity commensurate to the occupant of the office.”

Complaining that he has no official residence or a permanent office, Binay is eyeing the Coconut Palace. In 1978, when then First Lady Imelda Marcos commissioned the mansion for Pope John Paul II, she said “Tahanang Pilipino (Filipino home)” will display different types of Philippine hardwood, coconut shell and a “specially engineered coco lumber” known as “Imelda Madera”.

When the pope came in 1981, he did not stay in the Coconut Palace, finding this strange in a country suffering from widespread poverty.

Today, the Coconut Palace is still grand enough to house dignitaries, serve as backdrop for society weddings, and apparently appease the injured feelings of the country’s 15th vice president.

During World War II, my grandmother, pregnant with my aunt, moved between two houses, one in Sibonga Poblacion and a mountain retreat to avoid Japanese soldiers. Even when the rain turned the mountain trails into red mush, my mother’s family was forced to evacuate frequently.

Unlike her younger brother, who loved to run up and down the trails, my mother, horrified to have red clay squelching between her toes, and an aunt, often driven to tears by hardship, rode the “balsa,” a wooden cart pulled by the carabao. My grandparents chose to walk during the entire journey. Lola was expecting to give birth any day.

Protocol affixes “The Honorable” to the vice president’s name for occupying the second highest executive position in our government. The 1987 Constitution puts the vice president as “first in the presidential line of succession. Upon the death, resignation, or removal by impeachment and subsequent conviction of the president, the vice president becomes the new president.”

In Binay’s words, he’s the “No. 2 man.”

During the war, my lolo was the only doctor for miles around. When he treated guerillas, the Japanese and their local puppets took umbrage. When he treated the “enemy,” the guerillas took issue. My lolo shrugged and said no one could tell him how to do his job: lessen pain, save lives.

Thus, it fell on Lola to smoothen the churning wake left by my lolo. Japanese officers frequented her table as they were drawn to the chorizo, tapa and other dried meats she hung from the rafters, visible from the windows. To keep the soldiers from eating everything they had, my grandmother showed them my mother and her younger brother, and mimed to them to leave something for her children.

Heavy with child, my grandmother was not scared the Japanese would harm her. She hid her sisters-in-law under dried banana trunks from soldiers. When she learned the Japanese interrogated Lolo, she sought them, armed only with her anger, her fear, and the unbearably swelling burden of my aunt, who still refused to leave that safe cocoon for a war-torn world.

In time, the “enemy” did not just eat in her kitchen and sleep in her veranda without guards or bayonets within reach. One officer cried in her presence, hugging my uncle in place of the child the war made him leave behind.

Many strangers, when they learn Lola is 91 years old, are overcome with awe. I am silenced by my grandmother remembering the tears of an enemy or repairing a fan anyone else would have thrown away.

Binay, too, reduces me to silence. Before June 30, the worst thing about Binay was that he is not Mar Roxas. Now, I think the worst is that Binay is Binay.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 11, 2010 issue of “Matamata”