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