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”