Saturday, February 27, 2010


NOT all booksellers are created equal.

Years ago, my grandmother came home, empty-handed, from New York. She could not find a copy of a book I implored her to find, Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer.”

It seemed she trailed behind clerks in two bookstores, peering up and down interminable shelves. Didion was a no-show in the “Religious” section, where my grandmother was invariably led.

Until now, when I discover a bookseller, I give it the Didion test.

Not just in New York but some bookstores in Cebu, Dumaguete, Bacolod, Manila, Bangkok and Chiang Mai did not know what to do with her.

“A Book of Common Prayer,” a novel about an American mother searching for a daughter she loses to Marxism and history in Central America, is almost always shelved under the categories of “Religious,” “Spiritual,” and, once, as “New Age”.

My desire to come upon emporiums of books is partially fueled by the dream of encountering in some shelf categorized as “Christian,” “Travel” or “Health” Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her New Journalism essays on shooting LSD and the alternative lifestyle in San Francisco.

One weekend granted me this wish, sort of.

Head down and quickly losing oxygen, I was running through a pile when I found “A Book of Common Prayer” sandwiched among some New Testaments and devotionals.

The honor of making it to my personal record belongs to Les Trésors de La Belle Aurore Bookshop.

I’ve had my eye on this bookstore since last year. The sight of a glass display of book covers was so shocking, it got my mind off the usually heavy and trying traffic along Hernan Cortes St.

I grew up in nearby Barangay Tipolo. Some of my memory cells are still suffused with the reek of wet manure (from the two poultries located in the neighborhood), rotting fish guts (courtesy of the fish canneries) and the desperation wafting from the picket lines of striking workers (our homes jostled with factories and warehouses).

On the day we dropped by, there was among the trade books displayed on the show window a yellowing but still mint copy of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” written by Ernesto Guevarra after a journey he and a friend took across South America. The memoir is hard to find; it is coveted by those who know how that travel later transformed the man the world would come to know as the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevarra.

In this city, one can find other bookstores with better inventories, certainly better filing. But I doubt if you will find a more memorable ambience, within and outside the shop.

My husband, who buys my books usually during business trips, engaged Edmond, the assistant at La Belle Aurore, about the system of filing and finding authors. From him we learn only the science fiction titles are alphabetized. If you cannot find parking space or require a database to simplify a search, first call Edmond.

But if you are superstitious like me, if you believe you are meant to find the book that finds you, you won’t begrudge losing track of time at La Belle Aurore. There is a wooden ladder you can climb to read the titles ranged along the ceiling. The wood creaks under your feet while you discover several Sartres, a few fat Hemingways, Gordimers, Booker Prize awardees, Dahls and several titles devoted to mapping the inner landscape of Middle Earth and its creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The door squeaks from time to time. The chimes are lovely to hear until you notice nobody has stepped inside, at least no one you can see. Edmond assures us it is just a quirk of the door lock. The sheathed vintage piano, half-covered by volumes, has been tuned but awaits someone to take time off from browsing.

In my old neighborhood, I saw how it’s not just possible but quite easy to spend one’s life just waking to the chime of the Bundy clock, lying down only to wake anew. To find this place of books, this retreat in such a place, where a young, clean-cut Che Guevarra looks out to a spot that’s seen workers clash with scabs and factory security for a raise of a few pesos is to be handed a morsel that even Didion, clear- and dry-eyed journalist that she is, might lovingly spear.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 28, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Better than fiction

IN the pilot episode of a TV drama series, a doctor helps his wife deliver their baby in an emergency. The baby girl turns out to be healthy.

Before the doctor can relax, his wife bears down again. It’s not just the entry of a twin daughter that’s unexpected.

She is aqueous in form, assuming flesh only when she’s immersed in water.

By some coincidence, I finished “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” a novel written by Kim Edwards, less than a month before the “Agua Bendita” series premiered.

The ABS-CBN soap drama is based on a serialized comics story created by Rod Santiago and published in Liwayway in the 1980s. Edwards’ novel was printed by Penguin Books in 2005.

In Santiago’s comics story, the “Agua Bendita” soap drama and the Edwards novel, the fathers make the same instinctive response to their other child: without telling their wife, the fathers give away the “abnormal” infant to another female assisting the emergency birthing.

In the Filipino “komiks” novel and the TV series, the faithful family yaya, or helper, shares the secret of the father because she, too, is shocked by the child’s strangeness but also compassionate about the child’s chances of being accepted by a “normal” world.

In “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” the doctor’s clinic assistant, a nurse named Caroline, puts her career and life off kilter when she decides not to put the child Phoebe in an institution but raises her as her own.

In Edwards’ novel, though, the other child’s curse is not to be born liquid, blue and transparent. Unlike her healthy twin brother, Phoebe has Down Syndrome.

Readers may be struck speechless, even offended, with a father who rejects his own because of an unfortunate perception that to have Down Syndrome is to be marked for deformity and premature death.

In the “teleserye,” the father/doctor may be forgiven; his other daughter is a freak of nature, a child of water, a “tiyanak (cursed baby),” according to local lore.

Here, Edwards towers over Santiago and the “Agua Bendita” scriptwriters in making her readers understand the complexities faced by persons with disability, as well as the families mixed up in their love and acceptance of them.

“The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is set in the 1960s, not just decades but mindsets away from our more enlightened times.

In 2002, Proclamation No. 157 declared February “National Down Syndrome Consciousness Month” in the country.

This is a far cry from Kentucky in 1965 when even medical specialists perceived Down Syndrome as a curse foretold.

When Caroline rushes to an emergency room Phoebe, who’s gasping from a bee sting allergy, the attending nurse does not immediately assist but questions Caroline’s attempt to save Phoebe’s life. The nurse hints that the greater mercy is to “ease” Phoebe from a life fraught with uncertainties.

Do such monsters exist only in fiction? In an interview, Edwards revealed that her novel stemmed from a true story told by her Presbyterian pastor. A man found out late in life that he had a brother born with Down Syndrome. This brother was placed in an institution, where he died. His existence was kept a secret from the family, even from his mother.

Years ago, I knew a couple living outside the country. When the wife had a late pregnancy, she underwent amniocentesis, the extraction of amniotic fluid to detect the extra chromosome, the so-called 21st chromosome causing Trisomy 21, also known as Down or Down’s Syndrome.

The doctors confirmed the couple’s fear. Did they want to terminate a pregnancy that was certain to cost inconvenience, specially for working spouses who had other children and were coping with a fast-paced society?

Caroline later tells Phoebe’s father: “You missed a lot of heartache, sure. But… you missed a lot of joy.”

Or in the words of the ABS-CBN scriptwriters: "Ang pusong nagmamahal ng totoo walang pinipiling anyo at pagkatao (a heart that loves truly doesn’t choose).”

My favorite, though, comes from the mother who was better than the medical specialists in interpreting the significance of the 21st chromosome: “Extra love.”

I thought then my friend was foretelling the long days and longer nights of coping with her son’s heart problems and learning delay, just for starters.

I forgot love is a two-way street.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 21, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The comic artist

CAN anything be more surreal than hearing the government announce it will enforce fairness during this campaign season?

The past nights, I caught TV reports showing mobilized teams of youths grab and tear campaign materials declared illegal by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Newspapers and websites also carried photos of election officers and their brigades “liberating” city walls and other public spaces.

Such scenes of the government making its presence felt—or actually biting, not just barking—were reported as being undertaken simultaneously all over the country as the Friday deadline to removing the illegal campaign materials drew close, then closer.

And passed.

I walked to the corner the morning after the Feb. 12 deadline. Before I reached the highway seller of “puto maya,” Manny V., set off by his trademark orange, beamed four times down at me.

The sun wasn’t high up in the sky yet. Compared to the past days, there was a cool, teasing wind.

There was no sight of the teams indefatigably toiling in the heat and the dust to enforce fairness for all.

Perhaps beating their self-imposed deadline on fairness pooped them?

Because I started to feel a bit as if I were walking in a dream, suspended between photo ops and street reality, I skipped the “puto maya” and turned home.

On the Internet, I found out that there actually exists a regulation governing election campaigning fairness (bureaucracies being sinkholes for triple compound nouns and other oddities).

Comelec Resolution 8758 requires candidates to put up their advertisements on common poster areas like plazas, markets, and barangay centers.

Anyone violating this campaign rule can be punished with “imprisonment from one to six years, disenfranchisement, and disqualification from holding public office.”

That sounded excessively harsh for inflicting one’s toothsome mug on long-suffering voters until I read that no one has yet been punished. No violator has, in fact, been caught.

The Comelec, however, remains optimistic that, “It’s not too late to start.”

By this, I think they mean they can still convince themselves, if not the public, of their will to extract fair behavior from all involved in this national racket called the election.

The Comelec is so intense about doing the right thing, it will not wait but send out its own task force to remove the illegal posters and streamers, rather than demand the culprits clean up their own trash.

Since the big-time campaign bosses have not given any sign they believe such an agency as the Comelec exists, the Comelec will prove its own existence anyway.

They will go around cities and “document” violations. They will deluge their legal department with these reports of violations.

They will issue “friendly warnings” to candidates.

They will not, however, monitor public broadcast and surf the Internet to check how fairness rules are being rewritten there.

And, yes, they are still upholding the same slapstick routine: ““If you see something, please report it to us.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 14, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Listening to the dark

A BUSY night in the barbershop. Suddenly, the lights go out.

One of the hapless ones still getting a haircut is our 16-year-old son.

His prom is a week away. One part of his head is razor-tamed and slick; the rest, jagged and bristling, looks like the planet’s last threshold of biodiversity.

Even in the dark, I can sense my son is not happy to be introduced to Cebu’s “rotating brownouts”.

Someone predicts lugubriously that tonight’s brownout will last longer than yesterday’s record, three hours.

The men try to bring to life the shop’s generator set. I gather it has as many moods as a diva.

When emergency lights flicker back, Natan switches on the shaver. The thing shrieks tremendously. It cuts exactly four and a half strands of my son’s thick hair, and conks out.

Now it’s not only my son but also his barber whose fuse is about to blow. The other customers walk away, content to still have a full head of hair, or just a head period.

The lights go out. La Diva, the generator, takes centerstage as more men gather around it. Someone suggests adding more gasoline, lighting a match, and torching the sulky thing.

When the emergency light goes back on, the other barbers shout above the generator’s din to suggest it would be quicker if Natan cut Carlos’ hair in the dark; our barber must just disappear as soon as the lights go back.

Will this season of rotating brownouts leave a lasting impression on the state of humor, not to mention business, industry and the stuff we store in our refrigerators?

Will this wipe out the market of electric shavers and power clippers? Resurrect the demand for hand-operated scissors and razors, as well as whetstones, leather strops and the services of the men sharpening blades while riding the stationary bikes stationed along downtown sidewalks?

Although the barber shop is the only lighted place in the street, it’s not the busiest. Next to the sidewalks, where everyone seems to be congregating, the street vendors are doing brisk business selling “puso” (rice wrapped in woven leaf) and barbecue.

Aside from the indisputable virtues of a hot, filling and cheap meal, these street favorites have another edge when one is eating only by the light of a candle or the moon: these are self-contained.

Anything can fall into, or wriggle out of, a bowl of soup. In its sooty suit, “sinugbang isda” is hard to distinguish from an extra-large cockroach that collapsed for a nap among the charbroiled fish.

Even though the tiny slices of pork look more like these were painted on the bamboo skewers and “puso” is transported in the city while hanging precariously from the back of a motorcycle or squeezed between the driver’s crotch and thighs, I would still opt for BBQ and “hanging rice” for street dining in this season of rotating brownouts.

Perhaps because I am not 16 and looking forward to the prom, I am not just tolerant but appreciative of these scheduled bouts of darkness.

I remember when the brownouts of my childhood were called blackouts in my teen years. These were exercises in perseverance, lasting sometimes the whole night till dawn.

My teacher then told our class that when only a section of the city had no electricity, it was considered a brownout. A blackout covered a significantly larger area.

Towards the end of the Marcos rule, when blackouts seemed appropriate backdrops for a dictatorship that was on its last legs, my father said that there was no blackout darker than the insides of the brains of Marcos sycophants and apologists.

In the present, less fraught with shadows but not entirely free of ambiguities, brownouts have become a compound noun.

Does affixing “rotating” make brownouts less of an inconvenience? Compared to the more precise technical term of “automatic load dropping,” rotating brownouts sounds like a technical version of musical chairs.

But when one realizes that the brownouts are rotated because the power generated is not enough to meet actual demands, there’s a message for us all.

And it’s not just directed at those charged with power distribution.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 7, 2010 issue of “Matamata”