Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dumaguete resolutions

FEW things are as fraught as the close of one year and the start of another. That must be why people make new year’s resolutions, create a lot of noise and do their best not to spend money on the first day of the year.

Changes make us jittery. Repeating some practices reassures us we’re ready for the unknown.

Or maybe once we create a program, it takes too much effort to step away from it.

For our family, the program is to spend the end of the year and wake up to a new one in Dumaguete.

Since the boys were this high, we travel as a family. Now that they’re teenagers, it takes some rescheduling but we still take trips together. Having a family is more fun in the Philippines: you can be with your children a little longer than possible.

We’ve reached some parts of Visayas and Luzon; Mindanao is still the great dream.

But Dumaguete is special. It’s a city I fairly know from walking. I like to sit by the boulevard and watch the fast craft leave for or return from Siquijor, whose outline I can see on a fair or overcast day.

I often bring a book or a notebook I plan to open under the century-old trees; I never do because the early morning or afternoon promenade is much too interesting: the families, the dogs and their human halves, young lovers, old friends, students, public debaters, vendors, musicians, missionaries, Their Solitary Highnesses, the cats.

There was a time when the shops in Dumaguete closed on Sunday. Families were either at church or at home. Walking the near deserted streets, it felt like we had an entire city to ourselves. We learned to invent our meals for Sundays.

At the start of this year, I found a lump on my left breast while taking a shower in Dumaguete. While waiting for the boats to leave port, I sat on the boulevard and made two resolutions I thought were fairly easy to accomplish: see a doctor and the barber.

A doctor decodes the language of your body in layman’s terms. That’s important for making a plan beyond a day, if you’re lucky.

Conventional health care is a jargon-littered field, mined with unexpected consequences and expenses. It helps when a doctor does not speak in codes, as if wellness were encrypted in some secret language known only within a brotherhood, which excludes the patient.

The year 2013 is known as the year of the selfie. Instead of selfies, ultrasound images of the internal structures of my breasts are saved in my filebook. They’re not for posting on Facebook although the most recent ones, viewed in a clinic in Cebu City, took me back to the bench under the dripping trees of Dumaguete at the start of this year.

Doctor: (Pointing to the mammogram and sonomammogram images) Those whitish areas? They’re not as dense as they used to be.

Me: (Thinking of fog dissipating with the noontime sun in Lepanto, Alegria or streaks of creamer in black coffee being stirred) Is that good or bad?

Doctor: Let’s just say I’ll see you same time next year.

Like a doctor, a barber is a specialist. At least, ours is. He’s cut the boys’ hair since they were this high. Now that they’re teenagers and are ferocious about their hairstyle eccentricities as they are about their privacy, the barber still gives me the same dose when I sit on his chair: same trim, same stories, same political commentary.

Why did I think of that barber’s cut when I had the first inkling of mortality? It must be because he often makes this comment while cutting my hair:

Barber: (Sighing mournfully) Each time I see you, I see more white than black.

Me: At least, it’s only hair.

Barber: (Sighing louder) True. Imagine if I could see your soul.

Me: Then you wouldn’t be a barber. You’d be an embalmer.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 29, 2013 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Best gift

BOOKS make good presents. The lines are shorter to bookstore cashiers. That is no mean virtue to extol in this period of frantic gift-buying.

In a made-in-Hong Kong movie I saw on cable television, a desperate student fended off his best friend-who-turned-into-a-semi-vampire by inserting a medical tome just as the BFWTIASV was about to plunge his elongated incisor into the former’s carotid artery.

Moral of the story: don’t throw away unread books. They are effective for impressing dates and suppressing vampires.

(Wait: why was the BFWTIASV not a full vampire, i.e., ready for maximum blood extraction with a pair of fangs? After four days of sleeplessly waiting for the rerun, I was able to see the movie from the start. Two medical students rent a room in a complex that’s abandoned because a room full of vampires had drained all the other occupants of precious human fluids. In one encounter in the stairwell (low-rent = no elevators), the lady vampire was only able to pull down the pants of one of the students before he noticed, even in his lust-addled state, that his date had too long a pair of incisors. While he was scrambling to get away, the vampire bit him in his posterior, which explains his half-vampirized state (i.e., one fang, not two).)
(Wait, wait: why was the BFWTIASV trying to bite the neck of his male boardmate when every Dracula fan knows the genre runs on strict heteronormal lines (i.e., no gender-bending, please, so a female vampire should feed only on a male victim and vice versa)? Since I have to sleep and write a thesis (not in that strict order), I’ve not been able yet to catch a second rerun so I can solve this plot glitch. I promise to write another column to explain the homosexual undertones that surely drove poor Bram Stoker to attempt to rise from the crypt paid for by “Dracula” sales.)

If you give a book as a present, you spare the recipient the plot twists and turns that form the territory of Hong Kong movies (aired on Philippine cable TV). A book with an incomprehensible plot can be alleviated by turning back the pages. If still too dense after eighth rereading, read again paragraph 3 of this column.

If you give a book, you protect eyesight. It’s not just because TV sets, computer monitors and tablet screens emit bad rays that make people more excited for more gadgets! More ads! More power and world annihilation!

A book in hand means a person will not have to photocopy, read “Look Inside!” excerpts or wait for the novel to become public domain.

Have you tried to read a book that’s been “powder-copied” and passed from one reader to another? The words literally disappear. You end up memorizing sections highlighted according to some faintly human intelligence. Readable pages are torn. Inserted are dismal quizzes belonging to people who scored higher than you because they got the “powder-copied” book when it was still 75 percent whole.

So give a book.

There are books to fit all readers. Usually, people complain they don’t know which book to give unless they ask the recipient for a wish list of 100 or so possible titles.

When you choose a book, surprise the person. Choose a genre that strays a bit from the recipient’s well-trodden path. A bookseller once told me that very few buyers enter his bookstore to pick out a new author.

So take the plunge for your recipient because everyone secretly enjoys learning at someone else’s expense.

You can always borrow the copy after it’s been read. Truly, there’s a book for all readers.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 22, 2013 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, December 15, 2013


THE BEST thing about this season is the season.

The nip of the night lingers long after the sun is up. It stays darker longer. So even though one wakes early from habit, one remains in bed a little longer, listening to the world outside, dark, still and waiting.

Or am I just confused, waiting for something when something may just be waiting for me?

During a recent road trip, I learned how different creatures wait differently.

Just a little after midnight, the husband and I travelled far north. Once the city is behind, the landscape flattens and widens.

About 60 kms north of Manila is the Candaba Swamp and Bird Sanctuary. This is located in the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), which is listed in the Ramsar international list of important wetlands for conservation.

Just driving past the Candaba Swamp is already instructive. The birds soaring over the trees, mangroves and deserted open spaces (informal settlers were relocated, according to are not the trapped shadows that peck on sidewalks or divebomb cats or churchgoers.

Nearly 200 hectares of wetland attract the great travellers, as well as native species. At their peak, from November to March, the avian visitors of Candaba number 5,000, some crisscrossing Japan, Siberia and New Zealand.

I cannot tell the “rare” Pied Avocet from the “endangered” Philippine Duck. I do know the Chinese Egret. It is awkward in flight, its snowy wings laboring hard to lift the ungainly torso. Even in mid-flight, it always seems on the brink of being pulled back to earth.

But if other birds have their aerial pirouettes and arabesques, the Chinese Egret wears lightly its solitude as if it were just another tier of feathers.

It is a “threatened” species, according to Threats come from the reclamation of tidal mudflats, estuaries and islands, the collection of its eggs and plumes, and the intrusion of photographers in its habitat.

The Candaba swamp perhaps reminds the Chinese Egret of home but it is also found in paddy fields and near airport runways. I have yet to see Chinese egrets in a flock. It is not a noisy communitarian. Occasionally, it will perch on a feeding carabao, a slender white obelisk, contrasting with but not contradicting that hulk of strength and fortitude.

We rarely see a bird in extremis so we take it for granted that they will always be part of the landscape without imposing on it. The expression, “to eat like a bird,” refers to a sparing existence.

When the sun is not even a presence, just a lightening in the horizon, a streak of lavender separating dark sky and even darker earth, the birds of Candaba take to the air. When they take wing, you can see how much morning means to a creature that may not have expected to live out the night.

No other messenger is as eloquent in arguing for passion.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Dec. 15, 2013 issue of "Matamata," the Sunday editorial-page column


DIVISORIA or Baclaran? A television news program challenged two of its reporters to prove which one offered better, cheaper buys for Christmas gift-giving.

The angle isn’t new. Yet I found the segment interesting because of the reporters taking the “challenge” to make the best use of P500.

Instead of the usual ladies, two male reporters competed in impressing their news anchor in the studio (as well as the TV audience) with the loot of their shopping at Divisoria and Baclaran.

The Divisoria reporter showed about a dozen items. With each purchase, he named the member of his family that would be its recipient.

Among the clothes and accessories was a clutch of rosaries made of wooden and colorful beads, costing P5 each. This is the type that features only one decade and is worn as a bracelet. It made an impression on me that he called the rosary a “praiselet”.

The Baclaran reporter did not seem to think much of his colleague’s shopping. He had fewer items. He was quick, though, to defend their “superior” quality. He also said he chose each item for a specific newsroom colleague with a “special need”.

He waved a cute face towel that he got for only P50, half the price of its mall counterpart. Since he knew the news anchor was “too busy” to shop, he said he picked a towel she could use for wiping her face.

The camera caught the anchor making faces. In all her decades in the profession, this broadcaster is known for her ageless complexion. Was she flexing facial muscles fried by studio lights or demonstrating what she thought of the male reporter’s “thoughtfulness”?

From experience, I could have told the two men that gift-giving is a minefield. Be as personal with intimates. However, when one is not very close to someone, choose something useful and stay safe.

An “extra-strong” deodorant or a packet of slimming tea seethes with undertones. Better give a mug, which only reveals the giver’s lack of imagination, not a death wish.

At all cost, preserve peace this season.

With each year, I think Christmas would be better without gift-giving. No stress, no six-months-before pre-Christmas strategy planning and execution. No hurt feelings, no disappointment, no fasting when the January bills come.

Instead of buying, why don’t we give something we no longer use to someone who will appreciate it? (Think “Ang hindi na ginagamit… (Ibigay) mo na!)

Among friends, our novels get recycled this way. I’m wondering when a book of mine will come back to me, with new scribbled marginalia or a love letter left in the pages. At least with old paperbacks, you are absolutely safe from selfies and twerks.

Why cannot we give anything but those bought from a mass merchant? Like, for instance, something made from scraps or pulled out from imagination. (How many people in my circle would appreciate a poem from me? Or even forgive me for attempting one?)

This is wishful thinking, of course. Christmas wish lists will always be with us. The challenge is to make the gift resonate with everything that no language is articulate enough to put into words.

The Divisoria reporter may have chosen the rosary bracelets for their friendly price. These beads I see on many wrists.

My friend Ibiang gave me a bracelet with pale-colored beads, made in the workshop of Quezon potter Ugu Bigyan. You could say we go a long way back, from the days when protesting meant more than just signing an online signature campaign.

Will the Divisoria reporter give away the “praiselets” as aguinaldo to his godchildren? Will he take the time to go through each bead with them? My late father gave my sister and I our first rosaries. We mumbled, stumbled and raced to see who could finish first reciting a decade.

Today, when I pray the rosary, I remember my father, who curbed his impatience through the silence imposed by reciting five decades. May all our gifts resonate beyond the giving this season.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Dec. 8, 2013 issue of "Matamata," Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Black Friday

BLACK Friday in the United States (US) is anything but dreary, an aunt told me as a prelude to her story about the single lens reflex professional camera she got for less than half the regular price.

In the US, the Friday after Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 28 this year), is called “Black Friday”.

Ushering in the season for Christmas shopping, Black Friday is promoted through sales spectacles, which, according to Wikipedia, attract aggressive crowds, assaults, shootings and trampling of shoppers by throngs of people rushing to get the best deal before supplies run out.

I was agog over the aunt’s tale of how she camped on the sidewalk with a hundred other New Yorkers on Thanksgiving night so when the stores opened the day after, she got her hands on the toy of her dreams at a marked-down price any self-respecting Cebuano (read: “tihik” or thrifty/stingy) could brag about.

The aunt and I have the family posterior. Because I got carried away by her recounting of how she used her head, elbow and nails to move the crowds out of the way when the store opened, I forgot to ask her how useful (if ever) is our inherited prominence in clearing away opposition.

I might have used the tip in dealing with last Friday’s multiple obstacle course.

Nov. 29 required traveling to and fro Intramuros, the walled city, seat of power during the Spanish colonial times.

A day bookended by history is not just a diversion from academia but, as my teachers like to say, evidence that there is life after clearing away distractions.

I was aware that Nov. 29 is a Friday. A newsroom advice for public relations officers is to refrain from organizing an event on a Friday. The start of the weekend seems to be everyone’s favorite for scheduling events. Yet, it means one competes with more rivals to get the attention of editors, reporters and photographers, specially in the lifestyle beat.

To turn the screw a bit more, Nov. 29 is a Friday that’s a mere 26 days away from Christmas. Shopping is said to be the Filipino’s favorite preoccupation.

In Manila, shopping is serious, next only to breathing and commuting, in no particular order. By mid-November, when bonuses and yearend windfalls are released, if there is no sane reason to leave home, stay put in Manila. This is how to avoid the hordes or prevent yourself from turning into another barbarian.

Such aversion to shopping (“It’s more fun in the Philippines…”) is questionable in a Filipino. As a hypochondriac gains security from a self-mounted pharmacopoeia, we do our American colonial past justice by surrounding ourselves with malls and arcades.

But no mall—even with its obsessively self-flushing toilets (and eternally renewing toilet paper)— has the attractions of Divisoria. This is the grand dame that spawns her prodigious progeny: bazaars, street vendors, “biyaheras” (Filipinos who shop abroad and resell here), sellers (not to be confused with the international variety) and mall/bazaar crossbreeds (unlike regular mall locators, these mutants are found in areas with lighter traffic, lower rent and a liberal policy of encouraging haggling and wholesale discounts).

Months before Christmas, every commuter and motorist learns to respect the moods of Divisoria. When she yawns, she inhales the flow of traffic, even as far as provinces outside of Metro Manila. Only God can foretell what will happen if she coughs.

On hindsight, it was downright silly of me to expect I could slip out of Intramuros before Friday’s afternoon rush hour. At 3 p.m., my editor and I prowled for a taxi to take us back to Makati and the airport. Two hours later, we found a taxi whose driver was insane enough to take us. (Or perhaps he was sane, just terrorized by possibly two insane women who leaped into his taxi, stubbornly dropped their posteriors and locked the doors of his taxi, without giving him a chance to reject their destinations and drive away.)

Another two hours and we got out of the rational-defeating hysteria of downtown to the refined chaos of uptown. Is the season of Black Fridays due to the old historical snub that Divisoria suffered from Intramuros, where non-Christianized Chinese were forbidden to trade and live so they had to set up in Binondo, which includes present-day Divisoria?

Just before my tired old self hit the bed on Saturday dawn, I remembered the third curse haunting Nov. 29: payday. Never, as my teachers say, turn your back on history.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 1, 2013 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What I want for Christmas

TO go home.
To be home.
To find home wherever I will be.
To find everyone back home.
To still have a home.
To escape home.
To eat.
To eat without worrying when the next meal will be.
To drink.
To drink something clean.
To be clean.
To clean up.
To be dry.
To stay dry.
To comfort my children when it rains.
To look at the sea without fear.
To be scared and laugh afterwards for being scared.
To not be alone.
To be alone.
To tell someone.
To get away from the cameras and media surge.
To not see the dead.
To not smell the dead.
To find my dead.
To bury my dead.
To seek amends with the dead.
To get aid.
To not depend on relief.
To have a boat, tools, a means to face tomorrow.
To fish again.
To not always be in a line, waiting.
To start.
To return.

(This list was compiled after listening for 13 days to the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda interviewed by Filipino and foreign journalists, and 34 days before Christmas and the world’s longest yuletide celebration.)

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 24, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


DAY 5 after Typhoon Yolanda, the clotheslines were up.

As of this writing, a week after Yolanda’s storm surge left Leyte, Samar, the northern part of Cebu and other places in ruin, many problems continue to make the aftermath of the storm as challenging as the uprising of the sea.

We could dwell on these problems and lose sight of the most important: the survivors’ will to live.

I first heard a CNN reporter close his report that life in Tacloban was moving on, five days after Yolanda and with no sight yet of relief goods reaching survivors.

His narration was direct and matter-of-fact. There was no attempt to squeeze every ounce of emotion. He just said that after the rains fell on a city where few had shelter, he saw clothes being hung out to dry.

As the camera panned and caught in passing the few pieces of clothing hanging on a clothesline that tossed and swung above a sea of debris, I was filled with wonder.

Filipinos are meticulous about personal hygiene. In a disaster, where just finding water to drink is a challenge, the act of using a spot of rain to clean up is a shout to the rest of us: I am here and I am moving on.

Awash from Day Zero in horrific images—first destruction, then death and misery, begging, looting, the mass exodus to leave what the media now call ghost cities or towns—we view the residents left or fleeing Leyte and Samar with pity.

Yet pity is only an emotion reserved for those unable to help themselves.

As the residents of Bohol and Cebu picked up the pieces after the Oct. 15 earthquake, residents of Leyte and Samar have shown they are shaken but determined to keep their stake in the land of the living.

While considerable airtime has dwelled on the looting, there are reports of local businessmen giving away food stocks to their fellow residents. One entrepreneur said that he no longer had anything to feed his hogs.

Yet, he could very well have slaughtered his pigs and sold the pork at exorbitant prices. Or taken his cue from another entrepreneur who shot two men dead because he suspected them of wanting to steal from his auto warehouse.

Yet, of the choices open for profit or self-protection, these survivors, victims themselves of the calamity, chose to help neighbors.

In the place of calamity survivors, would I have done the same? If family members were struck down or unaccounted for, if I lost all I owned, if I had nothing to my name, if corpses surrounded me, if I did not know what to do first in the paucity of choices facing me, would I have the presence of mind to see a downpour as not another trial but an opportunity to clean up and face another day?

That is why I believe we should match the great dignity and strength of the stricken residents of Cebu, Bohol, Leyte and Samar by doing all that we can.

There will be time enough for inquisitions and audits. It is important that the national and local governments listen to media criticism and continue their duties, intent on efficiency and accountability.

Long after the foreign media pack up to chase a bigger disaster in another part of the world, Filipino journalists will continue to show to us what still has to be done: reach communities that have yet to articulate their needs to media or government, protect children orphaned by the disaster from human traffickers and other exploiters, assist tent cities or settlements in Cebu and Manila set up for those who have left disaster zones, volunteer as wet nurses to breastfeed infants in evacuation centers to fight hunger, malnutrition and diarrhea, listen to those who have lost loved ones or, worse, do not yet know what has happened to them.

There’s enough work to keep us occupied even when the national and local media move on to other assignments. Every person keeping house knows this: there’s no end to laundry work.

Wash, dry, use, wash. For as long as the clothesline holds, “way problema”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 17, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Disaster preparedness

THE RULE that it is easier to deal with a deprivation than a loss applied in our family when typhoon Yolanda hit the country.

On Friday morning, the older son called from Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu. He used the landline, which was miraculously working.

In Mactan, electricity was cut early in the morning. Power was later cut off in Cebu City after he made the call.

The loss of power was expected. However, the disconnection from the Internet, even if temporary, created anxiety in my sons, both of whom belong to the generation that regards their mobile phones and the wifi as their technological extensions for information and socialization.

Cebuanos benefited from the barrage of typhoon advisories disseminated by the government and media. Our household stocked on the necessities, like food and water. My yaya trimmed the plants and trees surrounding our house, and tied down those that might sway and snap off in the wind. Our roof was recently checked for holes and leaks.

Yet, another basic—information—was compromised when power was disconnected for the next two days, as it was first advised. There are three mobile phones in our household but no spare batteries. We have a radio that’s only used when I’m around. My teenagers probably do not know what AM stations are. Their world is in their mobile phones.

Deprived of the means to recharge, that world became rather precarious during the Friday blackout.

The older son called me in Manila to check the path of Yolanda in the country. He was irked when I fell asleep while praying the rosary and went online only two hours after he first made the request for information.

While my impulse was to check TV reports, my son directed me first to Twitter and then to Facebook, when I told him I forgot my username and password in Twitter as I have never Tweeted. His impatience was palpable across the rather erratic phone connection as he directed me to look for the DOST_pagasa page.

When I finally found the latest Severe Weather Bulletin, I found out to my dismay and my son’s consternation that I could barely read maps or scientific jargon.

Son: Do you know where Cebu is?
Me: This map has no labels.
Son (groans or perhaps wind howls): Did you even pass Geography?

When I was a child, storms were communions in mystery. We only used candlelight to eat and clean up after meals. I remember sitting or lying in the dark with my sister and father, listening to the wind and the rain and the night as if these were august personages deciding the fate of the world.

My father asked us to pray silently and solitarily, fingering the beads of our rosaries until the storm passed or we fell asleep. Once, when I won a silent but fierce toe-wrestling contest, my sister smiled or perhaps giggled. In the dark came my father’s reprimand. Perhaps my father could see like a cat. Or like a good parent, he didn’t require sight to sense that when my sister misbehaved, I instigated.

Storms seem different now. They are still mysteries but knowable. We can control our reactions to storms to save lives, harvest crops, secure property, rescue and direct assistance. For as long as we have information, we can take on the gods.

The deprivation of power that was a precautionary safeguard with Yolanda’s entry, and the later loss of power and communication as the typhoon exited reveal how we are made vulnerable.

As I write this, friends and strangers still have to hear word from loved ones cut off in Tacloban, Ormoc and other parts of Leyte. Listening to the emotional reports and testimonies of veteran journalists and news teams, who risked their life and lost their equipment while covering the areas suffering the worst of Yolanda, I remember my late father’s peculiarity.

He bought a newspaper daily and never switched off his radio. But during a storm, he chose the dark. Reading by candlelight was bad for the eyes. He also claimed that sitting in the dark made him realize that his favorite radio commentators were a bunch of deaf old men who couldn’t wait for the other person to finish speaking.

Only praying the rosary was worth doing on a stormy night, he said. Only God was about. Whether you prayed or fell asleep, He still heard you.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 10, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

House with personality

CAN a house be like a human body and be inhabited by a soul in much the same way an hermit crab moves ina discarded shell and in no time, turns the shell into not just its domain but an essential part of the whole, the hard shell acting as armor and camouflage for the hidden secret self?

Baguio got me into thinking about houses.

I’ve visited this city in the north of Luzon a few times. I haven’t explored it as a tourist. Either work or the weather kept me indoors. Although the city seems smaller and more cohesive than most, I have yet to walk around and get to know it beyond the jars of ube jam and strawberry preserves we go up Mines View for.

My inattentiveness was tested when the older son recently asked me to point out the “White House” in the settlements hugging a mountain slope, along with the city’s other famous residents: its pine trees.

Which one, I asked, peering at a distance not obscured by fog, for once.

The son repeated the gleanings he got from the Internet about Baguio ranking high as the world’s most haunted places. Among the sites where many met gruesome deaths during World War II, the “White House” stood out.

A check with the Internet yielded many articles and blogs about the residence formerly owned by the Laperal clan, whose members met mortal ends, adjective to be stressed, according to the Internet mash of local history and urban legend.

The accounts include a YouTube uploading of a TV network’s “investigation” of the paranormal occurrences in house no. 14 along Leonard Wood Road. The video clip’s climax—the audible whisper of a female voice declaring “we are here” in an empty bedroom where the close-circuit TV fell off several times and had to be adjusted by a crew member, made progressively hesitant to go back in the house during the evening stakeout–generates spirited online debate as to whether it was indeed a recording of paranormal forces or the voice-over of a famous broadcast veteran.

The White House stories are entertaining, the right stuff for Halloween storytelling.

Answering the older son’s question—which one is it?—was a different matter.

According to reports, the White House is open to the public. Artworks made of bamboo are exhibited in the former living room. The house and its interiors are well-preserved heritage, harking to not just the architecture popular during the 1930s but also to endurance that withstood the 1990 earthquake.

The mention of bamboo art instantly made me see a white-painted structure that stood by the road. On my first visit to Baguio, I spotted a few tourists entering this house. The advertised bamboo art exhibit seemed promising; however, we were on our way to an appointment and could not stop.

In consequent trips, we often drove past the bamboo art museum on our way to other places. Compared to other attractions along the winding drive up Baguio, sightseers seldom gathered here. No selfie-aficionado was ever spotted specially in the evenings, even though the bamboo art museum is a brisk walk away from an always crowded branch of Glen 50’s Diner.

Perhaps even for the Scooby-Doo crowd, burgers and milkshakes don’t go down well with this house, with its many windows and air of perpetual watching. Long before I read about its history/myths, I found the former Laperal House to be like one of those “tupig” roadside sellers who wave at motorists to stop and sample this Ilokano delicacy of sticky rice and coconut.

Seekers always find what they seek, whether it is wartime tragedy, evidence of the occult, or well-preserved architectural traditions. As a formerly disinterested visitor who has passed the White House of Baguio and heard its calling, I am certain of only one thing: what’s found in this dwelling is not as sweet as an Ilokano rice cake.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 3, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

How to peel a pomelo*

AFTER watching my tentative cut into a pomelo, the uncle took away the knife before I could mangle our dessert.

Slice off the head (knife thuds). Then the “puwet (bottom)”. (Thud.)

I was going to ask how he can tell one from the other since the pomelo looks just like a lumpy ball to me.

His knife was already moving so I just answered my own question. (The “puwet” is bigger than the head. Look again at that pomelo.)

The uncle made downward slashes around the thick yellowing rind. The ring of equidistant gashes transformed the fruit into the kind of bangle that expands and contracts because of the elastic holding it together. Then I realized:

The quickest and neatest way to peel a pomelo is to husk it like a coconut.

I grew around coconuts. An image flashed of how one gripped and pulled away sections of the husk until the inner fruit was glimpsed. When the uncle turned over the peeled pomelo, I only had to pull off the spongy membrane around the sections encasing the translucent pink flesh.

The pomelos that ended on my plate were always ready to eat. I grew up in the city. The uncle was born in the countryside. Seventy years later, he also ends up in the city. The countryside he carries with him everywhere.

Whenever the uncle stops me from proceeding on an impractical route—like hacking at a pomelo in my impatience for something sweet—I wonder which makes all the difference: the sum of years one has lived or the years that mark character.

I would never dream of asking the uncle. “Kalokohan (foolishness)” is his way of dismissing anything that does not improve a bit how things are done, like politics and religion.

A few nights ago, we listened to a TV report about the Bohol mayor who turned away aid for his earthquake-hit constituents. The donors he accused of not using proper channels for their assistance then explained how they would be violating rules if their aid were to be coursed through politicians.

The following night, it was the same mayor and the same aid officials. But from talking about food packs, they now pursued “politics” and “development”. I waited if the earthquake-hit residents would appear and speak out about the aid no one was giving them, but the newscast ended with the anchors chatting about a 60-year-old man’s love for his 16-year-old sweetheart that quite a number of people were set on forbidding.

The night after, the mayor returned. The aid officials were replaced by other officials. The mayor was still resisting for reasons I lost interest in following. But he seemed to enjoy his sudden ill-fame, this irascible white-haired autocrat, perhaps the only thing in the town left unshaken by the earthquake.

In Bicol, the uncle’s hometown, the pomelo is called “lucban”. Cebuanos call it “boongon.” The version in Carcar is “takoy.” It is pale like a pearl, unlike the salmon-pinkness of the variety in Davao.

The uncle recommends dipping pomelo in salt and pepper. I find myself using salt only when the pomelo disappoints.

How can one tell if a pomelo is sweet or dry or, worst, bitter? All pomelos look alike, I complained to the uncle. The rind is the problem. It is too thick and hides the real state of the fruit beneath. If one knew how to read pomelos by their exterior, it would save one from making a bad buy.

You cannot do anything with a pomelo’s rind but remove it, said the uncle, his voice implying that he thought it was foolish to expect more from things created to be contrary, like pomelos and politicos.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 27, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Reading crowds

WHAT is Eid’l Adha? I made a note to Google this last Tuesday, a task that got lost after an 8 a.m. chat with my younger son abruptly ended with much shouting and barking in the background.

Minutes later, my older son called about the earthquake.

Thus began a chain that strings these past days into accounts and images that burn memory. Oct. 15, 2013 marked us.

Then I remembered the task left undone. I Googled Eid’l Adha.

It is one of the two major feasts of Islam. On the Feast of Sacrifice, Muslims honor the obedience of Ibrahim (or Abraham, according to the Christian and Jewish traditions) to God by sacrificing his own son. As he was about to kill Ishmael (Ismail or Ismael), an angel appeared and gave him a ram to take his son’s place.

This year, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos recommended that Eid’l Adha be observed on Oct. 15.

This choice made all the difference for residents in Visayas, specially Bohol and Cebu. Following the TV reports and footages of schools, churches, markets and other buildings leveled to the ground during the earthquake and aftershocks, I find it impossible to be unemotional.

If it had been a regular Tuesday, more people would have died or been injured. What prevented more tragedies was a little-understood feast observed by believers of a much misunderstood religion.

Also known as Eid al-Adha or Eid-ul-Adha, the feast gathers families and communities in “qurbani,” the sacrificing of livestock to symbolize the ram that Ibrahim offered in place of his son. Some families eat a third of the sacrificed “udhiya,” share a third with friends, and donate the rest to the poor. Others give money to enable the poor to have a meat-based meal.

What took place in Bohol was far different. Three days after the Oct. 15 earthquake, it was apparent that a lack of system and resources hobbles the rescue and succor urgently needed by Boholanos.

The extensive damage to roads and bridges and the remoteness of villages frustrate rescue teams and volunteers bringing aid. But also rearing its ugly head is the politics and corruption that many victims and local officials blame as being responsible for the rationing and siphoning of necessities needed by survivors.

Compare the footages of Boholanos scrambling over a few bags of provision or reduced to eating rice and “kamay (brown sugar)” with the documentation of the mass of people choking Metro Manila during the Oct. 14 medical and charity mission sponsored by the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).

Conducted in five sites, the “evangelical mission” snarled traffic from morning till evening, as well as caused the whole-day suspension of classes and afternoon work in the courts. Some businesses even closed.

For its critics, the INC event was slammed as a “show of force” to demonstrate the sect’s clout with politicians, a charge that INC officials denied.

While commuters and motorists ranted on social media and TV, the footages of people at the INC mission sites told a different story.

Several fainted and were carried away on stretchers. To enjoy free dental and medical services, people “lined up” although, viewed from above, there were no queues, just a sea of heads. Many in the crowd were women, children and the elderly of Manila and nearby provinces.

Cameras caught the triumph and jubilation of people walking away with “relief packs” and “goodwill bags”. In a metropolis swarming with wealth, progress and power, the expression created by an armful of grains and canned goods is a rebuke.

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” asks Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in an essay. She says that even if subaltern individuals attempt to speak “outside the lines” laid down by institutions, we cannot hear them because we do not recognize their language.

“The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard,” adds Ella Shohat.

Yet, in every evacuation center, community devastated by war and calamity, even mighty metropolises, the crowds gather: do we need an interpreter to hear them?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 20, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Inches of rain

Listen, my friend, for I am about to tell a story to chill the blood. Three of us were in a well-lighted room, waiting for our companions when the rain crashed down around us.

Instantly, our moods changed. The day had begun sunny. A light breeze toying with the trees put one in a contemplative mood. The campus was quiet. Term was ending and most were already done with final exams.

The professor had prepared vegetarian noodles for evening snacks. That night’s presentation of final papers would be the last hurdle before we, too, closed the sem.

The deafening arrival of rain seemed like someone had crashed into the pantry. It wasn’t just my imagination because after a few minutes, rivulets were coursing down the walls. Pools grew around our feet. With or without an invitation, the rain was going to sit in our class.

The professor, who lived for four years in England, commented that was what she missed in the land of “filthy” weather, the full orchestra accompanying a tropical storm.

We listened to the cymbals, snare drums, bass drums, tambourines, maracas and gongs rocking above our heads, battering the windows and dripping rivers into what I considered until then the best-appointed room in this state-funded college.

Following the professor’s remark that English squalls could be tamed with a stout umbrella and a stiff upper lip, I sincerely wished that the storms passing through this country preferred castanets rather than the full ensemble of percussion instruments.

According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), some 19 tropical cyclones or storms enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in a year. About six to nine make landfall.

There is an online petition to rename typhoons after those plundering the country. I can understand the need not to forget. But in light of the destruction storms leave behind, I am all for christening these God-made storms after diffident, inoffensive personalities.

Like a band that took delight in assaulting the audience with their forsaken singing, the rain played its racket for 5 then 10 minutes. After 15 minutes of undiminished downpour, the three of us whipped out our mobile phones, a dead giveaway of nervousness.

Two of my classmates texted they were at a transport hub. That’s less than five minutes away had amphibian jeepneys been invented. Since it had been raining for more than half an hour and it was also the first shift of the evening rush hours, the bidding wars for taxis must already be underway.

People queue up for taxis, even during rush hour. But when the first raindrop plops wetly on the asphalt, civilization is thrown out of the window. The denomination of bills waved in front of taxi drivers is set by one’s degree of desperation to get out before the floodwaters rise and push up the bids for taxi rides.

I noticed then the basic phone models of my companions. Both lost their smartphones to pickpockets who operate whatever the weather but thrive best in crowds made panicky by rainfall. Reaching for his iPhone to tweet an update to his TV network, the classmate only found the smear of gel left by the thief in his empty skinny jeans pocket.

A few weeks after she returned to the country, the professor’s open tote eased her iPhone to a keen-eyed jeepney pickpocket. Now, she flicks on and off her basic phone’s torchlight to replace her once obsessing over the content streamed in by her late lamented smartphone.

These coping mechanisms, like posing in one’s most disheveled flood-soaked self for the souvenir shot to cap the semester, cannot make the rain go away (or the flashfloods or water-borne disease or mean streets with their volcanic surplus of road rage and predators).

But if such a reflex delays the inevitable descent into the road to hell, lined with a couple of inches of rainfall, I’m for it.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 13, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 07, 2013

Graveyard of books

I CAN tell the history of downtown Cebu by the bookstores that have come and gone.

In the 1970s, my mother bought my first Nancy Drew mystery novels and a few classics from Paul’s Bookstore. This was located near Junquera St., a short walk from the original branch of a well-known funeral parlor.

My memory of this brightly it bookstore is suffused with the cloying odor of rotting wreaths and the steaming smell of horse manure scraped on the streets by passing vehicles. In those days, horse-drawn “tartanilya” clip-clopped past the funeral parlor, the biggest of its kind in the city.

Paul’s Bookstore closed without my knowing. It left me with a lifelong habit of taking a deep breath when I step inside a bookstore or open a book for the first time. Anticipating escape is, first, an olfactory reflex with me.

My father passed on to me nearly all his books. In a rare mood, he brought my sister and I to Alemar’s Bookstore at the corner of P. del Rosario and Junquera Sts. In the 1980s, this high-ceilinged store was full of fiction. Limited to buy only one title at every visit, my sister and I became specialists at browsing.

In the mid-1980s, I noticed when Alemar’s fortunes dwindled as its fiction was replaced by textbooks, probably more dependable in sales, and later by knickknacks until it finally closed.

In the 1990s, my college allowance and earnings from the odd magazine article only entitled me to “free browsing” of the covers of the imported titles carried by the Oriental Book Store, across Alemar’s, and the Filipiniana coffeetable books at Bookmark, along Osmeña Blvd.

Before and ebooks, books for sale were wrapped tightly, perhaps to keep away deranged browsers who obsessed over the first and last pages but never bought a copy. Now that mall-based booksellers have relaxed browsing rules, some book-borne forms of insanity may also be on the wane.

Oriental and Bookmark were good for fantasizing or playing hide-and-seek (a newsroom colleague often hid a coveted literary title behind academic tomes in the Oriental bookshelves). Bargain bin aficionados had only one temple to burn their precious pesos: the old Music House in Colon St.

It was originally housed beside a creek that stank but never quite drove away the seekers. Perhaps once upon a time, the LPs and 45 rpms did outnumber the books and magazines. When I knew it in the 1980s, the browsers outnumbered the old books, old records, old clothes, old furniture, and old thingamajigs. It’s a wonder we didn’t fall through the old wooden floor and poisoned ourselves in the polluted creek.

After a fire, the store resurfaced nearby under a different name I’ve never been able to remember. Heavy wooden furniture dominated the space, and the mini-towers of bestsellers were faded echoes of those days when a Dumaguete poetess took a six-hour land-trip to the old Music House and went home with bragging rights at finding not one but two novels of South American magic realism for less than P50.

Last summer, the outlet-that-used-to-be-the-Music-House had a “closing-out sale” streamer. I don’t know which was sadder, the passage of another bookstore into memory or the cabinets and tables that blocked the storefront.

Yet real mourning I reserved for the Old San Francisco Bookstore, which gave a new spin to P. del Rosario as a pick-up street in the decade beginning 2000. Across the strip where pimps and their girls hailed cars, the store stocked on literature that would have felt at home in libraries. Despite that earnest air, it had a lot in common with the crazy shabbiness of the old Music House: namely, that every kind of reader could find a book or books in the pile.

When I learned that the Junquera branch of La Belle Aurore Bookshop was closing this October, I wondered again why so many bookstores sink downtown.

Facebook (FB) and the rest of the social network keep an online community of readers plugged to the traffic of traditional books in La Belle Aurore, Hungry Bookaholics,, and other sellers. I found a P50 copy of Kate Atkinson’s “Emotionally Weird” by scrutinizing an FB photo of bargain books, where it was nearly obscured by several titles of “Advent and Christmas”.

Yet trawling the Net for titles is not the same as walking in a book shop, taking a deep breath before diving into depths you hope will not have a bottom. If the abominable fate of downtown booksellers does not improve, such an exploration will become, for Netizens, simply one for the books.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the Oct. 6, 2013 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Monday, September 30, 2013

15-minute Project

REMEMBER when misbehavior in class meant writing 100 times on the blackboard or on a sheet of paper a promise never to repeat the offense?

I wonder if it was the shame of being disgraced or the disgust arising from repeatedly confronting the mistake that made this punishment effective.

I know that I never missed doing my homework again AND never forgot to write all my assignments in a notebook to help me remember. The latter accounted for the former omission.

This grade school lesson was the rare time when writing created such self-loathing. It took some time for me to finish the task. I did not dare allow my penmanship to lapse into illegibility. I believed my teacher was capable of making me repeat the sentences, as well as adding one more phrase or sentence citing crappy handwriting to add to the sins I had sworn to expunge.

At the time, I just wanted to write the 100th period so I could dash off to the carport and escape having to explain to my father why I was delayed. In retrospect, the act of writing and rewriting felt like condensing the maddening drip of water that creates the millennia of damage left behind by erosion.

This childhood brush with crime and punishment resurrects my intention to require my students to keep a journal when I return to teaching.

All of us must have experienced keeping a journal: jotting down in a notebook that is read later by the student and the teacher. In the humanities, the exercise is effective for drawing out the reflections of students, specially those who are cowed by more articulate classmates or large classes.

Keeping a notebook has other uses. Taking down notes is a valuable skill for those aspiring to be journalists. Listening, summarizing and isolating key points are professional “tricks” that can be honed with the humble notebook.

And then there’s doodling or sketching, which has saved the sanity of those awaiting the enlightenment of intellectual breakthroughs or class dismissal.

But it is the act of composing in a notebook that I would like to bring back to undergraduate classrooms. Initially, my students found the exercise “cute,” meaning they were only humoring me because the exercise could obviously be done more efficiently with a computer.

Yet, when applied to different classes and schools (University of the Philippines Cebu and St. Theresa’s College), just 15 minutes of freewriting produced not just paragraphs but pages, even from perennial protesters who said they “did not know what to write”.

While much of the material produced from freewriting is raw and needs rewriting, the exercise is useful. Teachers glimpse each student’s voice, style and quirks—their writing signature. Students realize that writing for 15 minutes is more productive than “waiting for inspiration” or “getting in the mood” to write.

Best of all, 15 minutes alone with an ordinary notebook unplugs us from the Internet. It’s a break to make us recognize in ourselves all the classic symptoms of digital dependence: “copy and paste” derivativeness or criminal lack of creativity and originality, obsession with image and spectacle over text and substance, and truncated attention.

In my experience, the best notebooks are the ones recycled from previous classes. Denuded of used pages and softened from handling or neglect, these notebooks are unassuming and don’t angle for attention. They focus on the elements needed for writing: blank pages and the writer.

Computers and the Internet have been a boon for writers. The Web gives us access to data we never had before. Information comes in many forms, not just words but images, graphics, and video. Going online makes it possible to interact and get instant feedback from strangers.

Yet, this digital cornucopia tends to drown out a crucial conversation: the one we hold inside our heads. Fifteen minutes alone with an old, recycled notebook should make us pay attention to one chat we cannot afford to miss.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Sept. 29, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Saturday, September 21, 2013


“Wa jud ko magtuo…”

I don’t know whose disbelief was greater, mine or hers. Last weekend, I received a text message from a former student, Eunice Borlasa.

One of the perks of teaching is remaining friends with one’s students long after they’ve left the campus. But I was unprepared for Eunice’s update: she was now teaching at a public high school in Camotes Island.

In the nearly 30 years I’ve been lecturing and then teaching at the University of the Philippines Cebu, I’ve seen the shift in choices that swept away our graduates to trendy and well-paying careers in communication.

Quite a number enter the program, passionate to become a journalist. Television still remains undimmed in beckoning the young.

Yet, the stress, risks, and perceived lack of security of deadline-beaters is not as alluring when undergraduates reach their senior year and corporations and call centers pay court. Freelancing in new media and creative work is on the upswing.

Teaching? It isn’t unpopular but it’s also not hot. Being an English tutor to foreigners plumps up many undergraduates’ ascetic allowances. However, in the panorama of choices opened by a college degree, teaching is perhaps a speck, a micro-dot.

Even Eunice, with parents and an older sister who are public school teachers, segued after college to GMA Cebu and then Sugbo TV. She considered taking Education units at the Cebu Normal University as “lingaw-lingaw (pastime),” and passing the Licensure Exam for Teachers as “suway-suway (trial)”.

Yet, why not Education? As Mass Com undergraduates, Eunice and partner Donna Loayon introduced blogging to the campus-based Niños Foundation in 2009. The tandem could have just treated the project to help a group come up with a blog as another class requirement.

Eunice and Donna believed in the group’s advocacy to help street children and saw the potentials of new media in converting others to this cause. Midway in the semester, the Niños were blogging on their own. Their blog is still updated up to now.

Stubbornness sheathed by a mild, non-confrontational demeanor. That was Eunice then.

That’s still Eunice. Her Facebook journal portrays the idyllic life in Poro, part of the Camotes Islands, once known as the “Lost Horizon of the South”.

Among her photos and posts of rusting anchors, drowsing kittens and bonding moments are glimpses of the life of a young person whose meandering has led her to share classrooms with more than 100 grade 7 and third year students of her alma mater, Luciano B. Rama Sr. Memorial National High School.

On Jan. 28, 2013, Eunice posted a close-up photo of three sets of ruled paper covered with her round-shaped handwriting: lesson plans approved by a supervisor. Eunice observed that all the rewriting that went into the “3 LPs” could produce a book.

The pace inside classrooms may differ from that of newsrooms. Yet, the discipline of learning and imparting information energizes both. Immediately after she was hired in July, Eunice relied on her college notes to train students competing in the Department of Education-organized press conference.

Her college degree prepared her to handle English 7 but not her other specialization, Chemistry. In June, she posted that she was seriously studying again Chem (“magtoun nako'g tinud-anay).

It is not enough for her to understand a subject. She wants to simplify a subject so that everyone in class understands before she moves on to the next topic.

“Never give up on anybody. Miracles happen every day,” she quoted H. Jackson Brown, Jr. in a June 27 post.

Love for natural science is not high on the virtues of Mass Com majors. But studying AND preparing LPs on Chem reminds Eunice that, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

Another perk of teaching is having teacher and student swap places. It’s a privilege to take life lessons from Eunice, who, for her Facebook cover photo, posted the image of an anchor (“angkla”) buried in the sands of Camotes Island.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 22, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial page column

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dream of readers

I CAN’T wait for classes to be over this week so I can check out the 34th Manila International Book Fair.

Antsy since Sept. 11, the opening day, to go to the fair, I Googled and got an overhead view of one of the exhibit halls.

People reduced to brightly hued sequins are poring beside drunkenly leaning topiaries of books: a vision of Filipinos as a nation of readers.

It’s a discordant image if replayed against a typical moment in a school library.

Less than a month away is “hell week,” undergraduates’ term for five days of final exams. The closer we come to ending the semester, the more religious or superstitious some get about learning: tables are actually occupied by the readers, not the sleepers or the social networkers.

On “low demand” days, the library is a near empty cathedral, surrounded by phalanxes of the articles of its faith, minus the believers. The hush of our libraries stems from the absence of bodies, not the depths of inquiry and reflection.

What can induce more Filipinos to read?

Perhaps the answer may not be found in campus libraries, where the fear of failure is a major prop for the overarching reason of its existence: learning.

When one is directed to read, the material, no matter how peerless and edifying, curdles desire from the first glimpse of the title. The regimen of reading prescribed in classrooms usually ends in transforming what is intuitive and natural into complicated and rigorous, like learning how to breathe step by step.

Can new media promote a variant of reading? Outside of the college library, I see young people in corridors, gazebos, canteens, jeepneys, the MRT. They seem to be reading. What they read, though, is not conventional books but a mix of text, images, and even sounds.

Perhaps the form and content of what passes as online reading is less important than the user interface (UI) that makes the machine both a synthetic and a natural extension of the human.

UI, which is Internet jargon for “user-friendly,” captures the malleability of new media and the Internet to suit not just the human but every human with all the tics and quirks staking out individuality. Online, I am who I am. I can even become others.

Isn’t this at the bottom of a lifetime of reading, learning, and actualization: self-control? I read what I want; thus, I can be.

Deflating this pipe dream of an online-engineered nation of readers was a recent interlude during a mammoth sale of a national chain of bookstores. To become a reader in this country is to fit a certain mold.

First prerequisite: fluency in English. Outside of the academic press, bookstores cater nearly exclusively to fiction and non-fiction in English. It is our national language, if we shed all claims to a prehispanic authenticity or pretensions of supra-regional solidarity.

Facility with the global lingua is our lifeline to survival. Will there ever be a generation that will not export Filipino workers to all corners of the globe?

Will the K to 12 program that is now resurrecting mother tongues at the primary level raise a generation of readers that will write AND read the Filipino Novel in Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Waray-Waray, and other Filipino languages? Filipiniana, a mere section in this national chain of bookstores, is still dominated by Filipinos writing in English.

Second prerequisite: technologically equipped public education. In our college are four units of wifi-connected public computers. Any student can use this for free, provided one can find a unit not shared by a gaggle of classmates or monopolized by a student lost in Internet space.

The sea of privately owned netbooks, smartphones and tablets in this college turns these few public computers into an island of access. Until reading becomes democratized, the playgrounds of learning and becoming will be limited to the classes of privilege.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 15, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Tibak, noon at ngayon

FOR a martial law baby, it was a bit overwhelming.

One minute, I got a text from a stranger, asking me to check my inbox. The texter was also the sender of the email, whose subject read: “Mayette, let's tell PNoy to require all public officials to take public transit at least once a month!”

I don’t know Dinna Louise C. Dayao but I got her drift: “The only way our government officials will understand the plight of commuters is if they themselves take public transit regularly.”

I clicked on her link,, and signed the petition, along with 5,670 others, as of this writing.

Ms. Dayao of Manila, the “petition organizer,” emailed that it would take only “30 seconds” to sign the petition. I took longer than that. I read and reread the petition. Checked the articles related to it. Viewed a video. Googled the subject, including Ms. Dayao and

I commute from Parañaque in the south to Quezon City in the north, approximately three hours on not so rush rush-hours, one way, for the past 17 months. But I still had to check.

Maybe I had time on my hands. Maybe it was a bit disorienting for a martial law baby. Being a “tibak (aktibista or activist)” during the dictatorship years was not just messy, tiresome, inconvenient, frustrating. It meant lives derailed, lost.

Compared to that, online activism is a picnic, a description that’s striking because that’s also how the news media described the Million People March to Luneta last Aug. 26: a “massive ‘pocket picnic’ get together” to protest against the pork barrel scam.

For this college activist who had to override paternal opprobrium, boycott classes, shake the unshakeable apathy of “burgis (bourgeois)” classmates, and plan contingency measures in case of violent dispersals of street rallies, gave instant, painless access so that I (and 5,670 others) called no less than the president’s attention to give reality lessons to blind and callous bureaucrats.

Right after I signed the petition, sent a thank-you message with an invitation to share the petition on Facebook with friends. It even considerately showed me a formatted email, complete with my name as petitioner, which I could forward with a click to my social network. combines two compelling features of participatory democracy: anyone can start a petition and numbers have strength. This is according to another follow-up email from founder Ben Rattray.

My classmate, Dems, sent me links to other campaigns launched on Drawing 826 supporters as of this writing, petitioner Dominique Francesca Marie Banaag of Manila wants a local fast food giant to “add more spaghetti sauce and hotdogs”.

“Because having more pasta and less sauce is just plain disappointing” is the tersely worded petition.

Petitioning the president of the United States is Brendan Glenwright of Utica, MI, who is calling for a ban on monosodium glutamate. So far, there are 202 who signed up, none from PH that I can see.

Online activism is here to stay, not only because it eases one’s social conscience with a click of the mouse or a wave of the hand activating an intuitive touchscreen. The Internet can gather the numbers.

Can it teach endurance, which Marcos and his minions (hardly resembling the cute critters of today) drilled into tibaks of the past?

When Dems, girlfriend Maggie, classmate Candeze and best friend Mark turned up in Luneta last National Heroes’ Day, they saw a crowd where the Doc Martens stood out even despite the mud, recalled Candeze. It’s a British brand of boots sold only in upscale malls.

Street veteran Diosa was more scathing. Sidelined in Luneta with her group that advocates for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, she said many of those in the crowd last Aug. 26 still have to realize that advocacy demands more than Facebook likes.

Three days after her first text and email, Ms. Dayao emailed to report that our 5,631-signed petition had Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino now commuting. To challenge PNoy and other officials to do the same, she invited me to take a photo or video capturing my commuting pains and email, Facebook or Tweet these with the hashtag #camyourcommute.

It’s a brave new world. Now, let’s see if I can raise the digital rebel while surviving in the streets of Manila.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 8, 2013 issue of the editorial page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to catch a writer

THANK the deity for email.

Nicholette Jeanne Legaspi is a senior Linguistics and Literature major at the University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu City.

I am on my third semester of graduate course work at the state university at Quezon City.

Our stars may not have been destined to meet except that Nicholette has an assignment to finish by tonight. And she knows how to email.

When I first read the subject of Nicholette’s Aug. 27 email, I wondered if I was about to be scammed.

“Hello Mrs. Tabada! I’m a friend of Carlos” put a serious brake in my inbox checking. Will the writer ask me to send dollars to bail out my older son, stuck in the depths of the Iguazu Rainforest after losing his wallet and mobile phone while researching on the digital literacy of the Tapuya tribe?

Fortunately, I remembered my son and his best friend were most likely cramming for a long exam on law and finance at their library, and my possession of dollars was as tenuous as connectivity in the rainforest.

The still unknown but far from colorless Nicholette had my attention, though. In the digital black hole that is a Gmail inbox, the subject of an email must be worded for impact.

The challenge of the email writer then shifts to sustaining the suspense after the double-click that opens the email. Nicholette used 10 paragraphs before popping the request to conduct an interview by email for a feature she was writing for her journalism class.

Now, 10 paragraphs is tricky. For the preoccupied, 10 paragraphs is a love letter or a death sentence or both.

Yet, unusual for a young writer, Nicholette wrote 10 short paragraphs.

I am more used to writers of her generation composing for the digital screen, not the printed page: a smokescreen of unedited text, generous misspelling, endangered punctuation, prolific emoticons. And the nefarious infiltrating LOL.

To come upon a writer who respects the period and restores balance of thought and space through the order of paragraphs is, I confess, my weakness.

And that was how I conceded and Nicholette of the 10-paragraph preamble sent me a second email of the promised 15 questions.

Except that each question had a set of two or three follow-up questions. Preceded by a coy hyphen, each follow-up inquiry was as heart-tugging as baby piranhas trailing after their mother appetites.

While interviewing by email substitutes very well for sources beyond the traditional face-to-face contact, an email is easy to ignore. So free the piranhas one at a time in order not to scare away the prey, er, interviewee.

Or, like Nicholette, tame the piranhas. First, set a reasonable deadline. Questions require one to reflect and answer. Heck, some questions take a lifetime to answer.

Second, take an interest in your questions and the answers these will draw. An interview succeeds when it becomes more than a Q-and-A and turns into a conversation between persons.

Simply repeating the questions jotted on the board when the assignment was handed out invites answers as dry as chalkdust.

Nicholette posed questions that did not just show she researched on the subject. She wanted gaps filled, puzzles pieced together:

“Do you ever feel pressured about keeping up a certain reputation of your writing self?”

“How does your life in Manila affect your Cebuano writing identity?”

When USC professor Frances Serenio set Nicholette and her classmates on a task to interview local journalists, she may have expected the professionals to give a tip or two to those still aspiring to dedicate their pens.

Thanks to email and a Nicholette way of asking questions, the nub’s on me.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 1, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reading water

WHEN a lethargic sun appeared after five days of rain, the birds came out, scolding.

One flock swirled around, black check marks brushed against a leaden sky. Another group, white on their tail tips, swung from the electric cables.

I’ve been watching these birds from the kitchen window. They are noisy like children but wise in other ways. No birdsong ever wakes me when I leave home, the streets sunny, and arrive in another city, an hour or so later, rainwater gurgling in the gutters like some ancient creature loosed from the abyss.

How do birds know what they know?

Yet, we, too, are creatures of the monsoon.

It is my second year in this metropolis. Sprawling, brawling, and sleepless, this city becomes a mere toy subject to the caprices of the monsoons that hit the country from July to August.

With such a regular but unwelcome visitor, I expect communities have a repertoire of responses for surviving days and nights of having more water than one knows what to do with.

In some ways, the efforts of scientists, local governments, and journalists are showing fruit. While it cannot yet be said that many citizens have become amateur meteorologists, we exhibit a behavior that helped our ancestors survive when they first settled along coasts and river banks: we watch the water and teach ourselves to read its ways.

We tap technology, particularly the news media, to monitor the level of water rising in or overflowing from rivers, lakes, and creeks. We take note of high tides that exacerbate flashfloods. We read as yet unseen but familiar outcomes from rising water levels in dams, their dreaded opening and anticipated closing. We watch the eerie stillness of water cities rising overnight or after a few hours of rainfall transform what used to be cavernous underpasses and distant skyways.

Even the mini-tempest contained within a city gutter speaks volumes of what connects affluent well-paved districts to the overcrowded illegal settlements clinging to easements and choking canals and natural waterways that, unblocked, would have released a surfeit of water to the sea, where it can do no damage.

Many things as well get lost in translation.

A pool of water is an invitation for children to swim. No matter how murky, deep or dangerous, floods are a boon for inner city children, starved of amusements that should not threaten their health or endanger their lives. Why has the sight of city kids frolicking among floating waste never inspired public or private funds to be poured for public pools or more public parks?

Yet, what mystifies me most about monsoons is not the torrential rains but our response to it. Then and now, rescuers and journalists are exasperated by the stubbornness of some people to resist being evacuated.

One reporter even coined “self-evacuation,” a redundancy that nevertheless captures the novelty of residents voluntarily leaving home and property before rising water levels put them at greatest risk or the government sends troops and trucks to “strongly persuade” them to save themselves.

“Kalmado sila dahil sanay na raw sila (they are calm as they are used to this)” was commented by a reporter for more than one community or group of late evacuees. Some residents cling to their second floors or roofs, their faith unshaken by repeated warnings that these are no havens if the rains continue or dams are opened.

Drivers in stranded trucks slept, waiting for flooded streets to go back to normal. More than one government executive said that after the floodwaters subside, evacuees will return “home”: the unpredictable, unsettled life beside riverbanks or under bridges.

To be unsettled is preferred to being resettled. “Walang buhay doon (there’s no life there)” is a judgment passed by many who refuse to be moved to faraway places the government argues are high, dry, and safe.

We are a people of the monsoon, inured to all disasters but the curse of losing our home.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Aug. 25, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, "Matamata"

Monday, August 19, 2013

Viral vs. electric

THE HUSBAND and I walk in a boutique in a mall to check out luggage.

It is a Sunday so we are in our Sunday best: faded shirt and jeans and old sandals. A suitcase catches his eye and he asks the sales lady for the price. I stay at the side because luggage is as exciting to me as screwdrivers.

Checking my cell phone, I see I missed a call from my older son. I am jolted when the sales duo trills out a duet to greet a couple who just walks in. When the salesman gets something from a cabinet I am standing in front of, I move out and call my son outside the boutique.

My husband joins me later. I ask him how much the suitcase cost. “P27,000.” Wow, I think. You can buy a lot of boxes with that cash, and even stuff those with groceries.

After we stroll a bit, I remark, “They were rude to us back there.” I list the slights: ignoring us but greeting the other couple, not excusing himself to open a cabinet behind me. “All because we didn’t look as if we could afford their glorified packing boxes,” I fume.

“A pretty accurate reading of us” is all the husband says and takes my hand.

This incident would have just remained as an extended rant shared with my sons if not for Oprah Winfrey. Oprah—who earned $77 million in the year that ended in June, according to Forbes—reported that she was unable to examine a crocodile handbag worth nearly $40,000 because the sales staff thought she couldn’t afford it.

This took place in Switzerland. If an unrecognized Oprah without bling and entourage was rebuffed, a media mogul connecting the snub with racism made the Oprah handbag incident go viral. Apologies quickly came from the shop owner and the Swiss government.

But as it is on the Internet, the issue morphed. The shop owner accused Oprah of overreacting like a scorned diva. Journalists are careful to report that Oprah disclosed the handbag incident while promoting a film she stars in.

An animal welfare group now crusades against Oprah, an animal rights advocate, for supporting the exotic leather industry that tortures crocodiles and threatens the species. Oprah herself has apologized for the undue stir created over the “Switzerland bag flap”.

Before someone else joins what the Washington Post calls a “media brouhaha,” let me quote Oprah on why the tiff over the bag upset her: “You should be able to go in a store looking like whatever you look like and say ‘I’d like to see this.’ That didn’t happen.”

This cry was made by the person heading this year’s list of most powerful celebrities, her fifth time in the no. 1 slot. In their annual “fame matrix,” Forbes considers celebrity standing on the basis of earnings, ubiquity and influence in multimedia networks, including social media.

“So it’s not really about ‘sales discrimination’ but the tenuousness of power,” asks the husband after I recap the news about Oprah.

We’re going home. It’s rush hour in this metropolis of unending rush hours. I am about to launch a tirade about powerful women still being judged according to how they are packaged when the husband takes my hand.

In the virtual world, fame sparks the viral. In the mundane, just connect.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 18, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Monday, August 12, 2013

Electronic dreams

WHEN I’m home, buying groceries is one of the chores I share with my older son Carlos.

There’s a gap of 28 years between us. It’s most obvious in the way we tackle this chore we dislike but accept.

We both come up with lists.

I write my list at the back of old receipts, ATM slips, cut-up calendar pages, and writing drafts. I keep the list in the book I am reading, and take it out when I remember something or the household supply runs out.

Carlos keeps his list in his tablet.

Having two lists should make our grocery trips a breeze. But as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.

We fight over whose list should be the “official” guide for our buying. Carlos claims my list requires a penmanship translator at least, a shrink at most. I don’t find any joy in an electronic list I cannot cross out, item by item, with a red pen I wield like a turbolaser cutting down another domestic invader raiding my days.

Once, trying to be the adult, I said we could both use our lists. This shocked my son, the idea that two adults of sound health and full abilities would squander their time on a task that’s not even saving the planet.

In the end, Carlos won by posting about our War of the Lists on Facebook. Those of you who sided with him (yessss, including the traitors who were born in my decade and rightfully occupy with me the same side of the Digital Divide) did not tyrannize me into sharing your standpoint by the sheer force of your overwhelming, unassailable Likes.

My capitulation came with the realization that a grocery list converted into a micro essay is infinitely superior to one that will only line a landfill.

I remember this battle waged last summer when I had to recently write a paper for class. To expound on the theory of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas that journalism can create a public sphere, I reflected on how anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and the desire to communicate is changing how we relay things and relate to each other in the brave borderless world online.

Don’t know how to write? You can take a photo, make an illustration, or upload a video you made. In the age of Tweets, running only for 140 characters, Carlos says my usual paragraph-long comment is the equivalent of a medieval unrolling of the scroll and the throat-clearing preamble that precedes a royal pronouncement that the world is actually flat.

Don’t know what to write about? I find there’s an online community that can watch cats watch themselves for hours and hours. I love artists who blog, as well as writers who knit and paint with a palette that captures a moment just before it vanishes between seeing and unseeing. Online, anything goes, even wrong speling.

Can’t get anyone to publish what you wrote? Start a blog, which is free. Start a blog for every passion. Write for yourself. Write for a reader of one if that makes you hear yourself and see yourself better.

Conversely, you can also express yourself by making a sex video or leaking someone else’s. In the playroom of Web 2.0, no pendulum is more wicked than user-generated content.

According to Habermas, the modern paradox is whether persons set free to become themselves by modern communication can penetrate the fog of self-indulgence and find an affinity with others.

Can we stop thinking of ourselves, monitor powerful institutions, and act for the greater good? Can social media surface informed and critical opinion?

Or will we just end up like Alice, excessively watching our holes, coveting the shape-shifting white rabbit of technology, and trivializing our pursuits?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 11, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 03, 2013


NOT all creatures are created equal.

The coffee grounds the husband brought back from a café gave me an idea to fertilize jackfruit trees growing outside the uncle’s bedroom.

These dregs from brewed coffee will fertilize the ground and waft a nice scent for the 70-year-old grandfather of my nieces, who unrepentantly drinks his coffee black twice a day.

No, better save the “langka” tree that’s dying in front of the house, decided the uncle.

I found the tree. Someone had hacked it at the base.

The canopy was still lush. Yet, perhaps of its gaping scar, the tree has yet to bear fruit. The Bicol-born uncle likes to cook jackfruit with coconut milk and black “labahita”.

I started setting aside kitchen waste to fertilize the tree. Fruit peel, seeds, and vegetable scraps placed in our small garden in Cebu makes the thin soil richer and plants grow better without smelling unpleasant and upsetting the neighbors.

Every day, I left peel and seeds from mango, rambutan, avocado, vegetable scraps, and eggshells. I hope it will be good for the “langka” tree, as well as for a relative who wants to relive his childhood in a homecooked dish.

Besides, this means less trash to be collected for the landfill.

Then one morning, I saw a note nailed at the base of the tree. Why do some treat a living tree as a message board?

I read the note: “Lost: PET CAT. Please return to…” Below the appeal and contact information was a photograph of a black and white cat with a collar.

Cats are great wanderers. Polygamous, too. Cats have been walking in and out of my life. I think they take it for granted that their humans will always react intelligently when they show up: skip the questions and have a meal ready.

Some pets, though, never come home.

Like trees, animals face hazards in the city. The greatest threat comes from those who exploit people’s desire for pets.

Recently, nearly 150 birds were abandoned at Magallanes St. in Cebu City. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) took the birds for safekeeping.

Even in a colorless police report, the names of the rescued birds conjure paradise: African lovebirds, hanging parakeets, golden finches, coleto birds, tarictic hornbills, crows and lories.

The news photos and videos are harsh: beating against tiny prisons, frantic wings, bold feathers and small bodies swirl in the mayhem created by an impersonal malice.

Something scared away those who would have profited from selling the birds at P300 a pair.

For other animals, rescue comes too late. The illegal trade of “exotic” animals is a news staple. Blue-naped parrots and mynas go for P3,000 to P5,000 a bird. Someone was given only P100 to feed birds for a week. Nothing personal, just business.

Even before they can be sold to local buyers or smuggled out of the country, the animals die from hunger, stress, maltreatment. Early this July, a DENR team raided a house in Tondo. Only 14 forest turtles were still alive. Carcasses of dozens of endangered animals littered the place. The mynas, parrots and crocodiles were reportedly killed to stop them from making noise. The more “valuable” Palawan bearcats, leopard cats and otter must have been first to be sold.

The treatment of animals as commodities extends to the usual animals sold as pets or stolen from a family to become another family’s pet. With authorities either too busy or too indifferent to care about the “small fry,” it remains to be a personal obligation for us to be ethical in acquiring pets.

Many abused or abandoned animals wait to be adopted from the city pound, animal shelters, and animal welfare organizations. Yet, I see more and more of these handmade posters asking for a lost pet to be returned.

The missing cat looks like a lot of the black-and-whites exploring the neighborhood. But the collar on its neck reminds me that one family can describe with certainty if this cat is a white one with black spots or a black cat with white spots. For its owners, every pet is singular.

I walked away from the uncle’s “langka” tree, thinking how the impersonal and indifferent is king in this jungle.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 4, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 27, 2013

When time is ripe

THE BOY knew a lot about choosing fruits.

Before leaving Pangasinan, the husband and I stopped by a wet market to find if the fruits were better and cheaper than in Metro Manila.

More used to supermarkets, I trailed after him, the better judge of goods and the better negotiator.

For me, one banana is as good as another banana. We cruised among the front-row sellers before he judged that Parañaque-sold bananas cheaper by P3. None of the bananas he inspected had rounded ends, a sign of maturity (“guwang”).

Why is “guwang” a virtue for bananas but not “gurang” for people? I asked, eyeing with interest some packs of garlic-flavored chichacorn.

He said that if a fruit was picked when it was mature, it tasted differently from one that was picked before its time. Some prematurely picked (“linghod”) fruits never even ripen or cannot be eaten.

After haggling and settling with a vendor for three bags of chichacorn, I hurried to where the husband and a young vendor seemed to be shaking and listening to emerald green avocados.

If “guwang,” you should hear the seed rattling inside the avocado, the husband explained.

I picked up and shook one oval fruit, thinking it was like a maracas without a handle. The seed rolled inside that green leather-like case.

After weighing and bagging avocados, the young vendor picked mangoes from a basket. The husband had apparently remembered his appointments and my afternoon class because Selecting Fruits 101 was over and he was just waiting to pay.

Tall but slight in frame, the young man took to heart the husband’s instruction to select the best. He picked, discarded and bagged mangoes after looking at the point where the fruit’s stem had been.

Though I yearned to ask aloud why one listens to avocados but examines the rear end of a mango, I could only watch in silence as they closed the deal. In the ride back to Metro Manila, I asked the husband why he chose to buy from this vendor and not from the others.

The boy offered a good price, he said. He has an honest face.

I remember how, after weighing our purchases, the young man added one free fruit inside the bag. Although he did not shake or examine the butt anymore of the “pakapin,” I noticed that the fruit he gave us in good will was as smooth and plump as the ones we paid for. He did not give something that would just have been thrown away.

At this time of the year, the north of Luzon is a tapestry of emerald green rice fields stretching as interminably as the eye can roam.

Modern highways unroll past scenery of idyll so classic, they resemble stereotypes of bucolic paradise: tiny human figures bent in planting rice, carabao and farmer plowing the fields, shingles of water bearing green stubble that prefigure the fat golden promise of future yield.

I arrived too early for class. The campus bears the visible preparations made for the University of the Philippines (UP) College Admission Test (Upcat).

Conducted in UP campuses by next weekend, the Upcat is the first hurdle to be faced by thousands of high school seniors, as well as their families. The aspiration to have a UP education has as much to do with the rising cost of college education as the prestige of studying in the highest-ranked Philippine university included in the 2013 Top 300 Asian universities list of the London-based education and career network Quacquarelli Symonds.

Our society values education. College will secure your future, I tell any young person.

Yet, remembering a young man “reading” fruits through hearing and sight and a landscape so unchanged in beauty and iniquity, I wonder when, for many, the time will be ripe through education in this country.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 28, 2013 issue of the editorial page Sunday column, “Matamata”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Raised on rice

WHEN the price of rice shot up, I felt the pinch more keenly than the weekly stings of oil price adjustments.

As a commuter in Metro Manila, I’m still cocooned by the steady rate of fares. The rice-and-vegetable set was the usual P35 at the Kapampangan-run canteen where I ate breakfast at UP Diliman the other day.

Yet I’m anticipating the expected when we return to the market this weekend. Regular milled rice increased by P2 per kilo in Cebu and Metro Manila, reported Elias O. Baquero in Sun.Star Cebu last July 16, 2013.

The authorities say the price fluctuations are typical of the lean season from July to September. They will go after those who hoard and profit.

If I am sensitive to the current uncertainty, it is because rice is my comfort food.
I like my rice “pughad,” soft but dry, each grain standing out from, not merging with its neighbor. I can put away leftovers of unknown vintage and dubious provenance for as long as I have rice.

For nine months, my merienda was “dukot,” the grains that harden into the shape of the bottom of the pot when the rice has been left to cook a little too long.

This crust of hardened rice is fed usually to the family aspin (“asong Pinoy”). Boiled in water and sugar, “dukot” becomes “tinughong,” a hot, sweet drink to break the interlude between lunch and dinner.

But I preferred to drench my “dukot” in the “una (broth)” of the “inun-unan,” fish cooked in vinegar and reheated so many times, the soup becomes murky from fish juice and fish brains. This afternoon snack was my shortcut to the C-section delivery of a 10-pounder son.

When I went around the uplands in Central Visayas, I realized that I’ve always eaten like a peasant: shoveling down mounds of milled corn with pinches of viand for flavor.

Eating more carbohydrates means not going hungry for a longer time, a necessity among those who cannot afford to eat light and eat frequently.

In the uplands, for the first time, I discovered the novelty of rice as “pusô (cooked
in a packet made from woven coconut fronds)” eaten with corn grits as a treat, usually when one went to the weekly “tabo (market)“.

The countryside taught me never to take rice for granted. To leave a clean plate was a reminder I did not need. One did not pick at one’s food because people were starving in China or India. People are starving here.

So every grain of rice is precious. Rice that accidentally ends on the floor is swept and thrown outdoors for birds or chickens to peck. One does not step on rice to avoid “gaba (misfortune)”.

When one eats with one’s hands, one spreads the fingers like a claw, taps the plate once or twice to loosen the rice stuck between fingers, and scoops to finish the remaining grains. Nothing is wasted.

By contrast, in the dining courts of malls, a lot of rice is left on plates. In the surfeit of food and drinks, one cup of rice is too much to finish. Or people feel they are truly on a diet when they just poke at their rice.

During fiesta in May, my yaya’s family makes a thousand “pusô.” Each “binaki (frog-like)” and “kasing-kasing (heart-like)” packet of rice is bigger and more solid than a grown man’s fist. One “pusô” can take down a man-sized appetite.

According to Yaya, cooking rice for feasts is tricky. The “pusô” does not just prevent the overcooking of rice into “dukot” that cannot be served to guests. “Pusô” is also dandy as “bring-house” provisions with which to send off your guests, many of whom walked a long distance to join your fiesta.

Plain and bland, rice is the palette that sets off to perfection all flavors but one. I once thought rice taken with anything sweet could only be for desert.

My uncle, Bicol-born, said that his grandparents subsisted by pouring “dalisay,” the first strain of pure “gata (coconut milk)” squeezed from grated coconut, no water added, on newly cooked rice. Rock salt completed the meal.

Recently, this uncle, a capable cook, served a platter of sirloin steaks for lunch. After putting away the slabs, my uncle, an Australian immigrant, leaned back and sighed for mashed potato.

I wished for the usual half cup. Nothing can be more “dalisay” than this.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 21, 2013 issue of the editorial page Sunday column, “Matamata”