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