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”