Sunday, December 14, 2014

New Look for breakfast

MY idea of the Filipino breakfast is someone else’s. I’ve lost track of the times I lost track of my thoughts because the aroma of someone’s breakfast wafted by.

Recently, when I took out my purse for the second collection, the husband viewed me with some concern. Are you alright? he asked. Did the priest’s homily move aside the boulder of your objections about second collections?

I started to hiss—my issue is with the church’s lack of accounting, not the frequency of its mass collections per se—when there it was again, the ambrosial whiff of salted dried fish turning brown and crunchy in a pan of sputtering artery-clogging, stone-forming oil. What was the point I wanted to make? Ahh, the Filipino breakfast.

Even if I were to be strapped immobile and my eyes taped wide open ala “A Clockwork Orange” before a looped recording of my gastroenterologist, holding up a plate of Filipino breakfast with one gloved hand and a scalpel with the other, while reciting, “fried or sliced?,” I cannot repress what comes instinctively after the first whiff of someone’s Filipino breakfast: that tango of salt and oil automatically clicking a six-burner stove under the old belly, churning up the gastric juices, inflaming memories of golden feasts at the breakfast table of childhood, also known as the days of paradise before school started and brought all that nonsense about eating a balanced meal of go, grow and glow foods.

Let me be clear, though, that by “Filipino breakfast,” I do not refer to the pale facsimile hotels offer as an alternative to continental or American breakfast. These hotel versions do involve an orgy of frying but their choices—“tocino” with eggs, “daing” with eggs, “longganiza” with eggs, corned beef with eggs—do not move me.

To be sure the upscale Filipino breakfast’s combination of salt, oil and preservatives can still kill a horse or comfort a Pinoy. But the Filipino breakfast my heart (and the rest of my insides) craves for has to be the home-cooked one that attempts to tiptoe past my nostrils (and fails magnificently, of course).

This is the Filipino breakfast cooked by construction workers at their worksite, the salted fish in their pods of scales rolled around on glowing embers under the pot of rice, the clinging ash blown off but leaving a tinge of acridness, because, notwithstanding the cancer scare, the Filipino male will never be caught packing a frying pan and buying a tube of edible oil when he leaves home. This is the Filipino breakfast cooked for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a.m. and p.m. merienda or at any time the person wearing pajamas all day at home wants to pair stale rice with something filling. This is the Filipino breakfast that is never announced to the neighborhood (ever heard the folks next door holler, “let’s fry ‘buwad’ for dinner, dear”?) but everyone within sniffing distance is instantly alerted about anyhow.

So it is not a minor misfortune that where the husband and I live, no one has heard of a Filipino breakfast. This can happen only if: a) one has lived overseas for too long, the mere idea of frying “buwad” inside one’s dwelling may trip off sensitive pollution monitors; or b) one cannot cook. I belong to the latter. I have mightily strained my nostrils during my walks around the neighborhood, but I might as well be in Middle Earth where a Pinoy has yet to set foot on.

So imagine the scene when the husband and I walk in a deserted roadside diner for a late, late dinner. I order the P60-meal only because someone has written on the whiteboard “daing (new look)”. I think for P60, I will go for even a Zen version of “breakfast-all-day” just to quell the brewing rebellion in my gut.

When the Bicol lad served our meals, I smelled before I saw my Filipino breakfast: three butterfly slivers of crispy eat-from-head-to-tail New Look, the Bicolano cousin of the Cebuano “danggit”. It came with a runny-yolk sunny sideup, the Tagalog requisite of sliced ripe tomato, the all-Filipino mound of garlic rice, and Bicolano scimitars of red chillies in a saucer of vinegar that was just calling out to the New Look.

Before dinner came, I was planning yearend medical checks. But like I said, the Filipino breakfast has a way of derailing thoughts. What doctor?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 14, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, December 08, 2014


THE WIND takes me to places. The home of this farmer was reached after hours of walking. In wet, miserable weather, it seemed the house was on the fringes of the world. At some point, one came to doubt one’s sanity. It was insane to come so far; it was insane to turn back. Only by this reasoning did it make sense to continue.

When I entered the house for the first time, it had a floor made entirely of old, thick dark wood. The planks were worn smooth, looked cold but felt warm. Not only feet but bodies rolling around made the floor of the farmer’s home. Without being bidden, I lay down and stretched out sodden, half-frozen legs molded in boots of mud.

No other welcome rivals the boon that awaited sojourners in that farmer’s home on the fringes of the world. Yet, with the nearest neighbor a mountain range or two away and strangers unlikely to drop by in its forbidding remoteness, how did the farmer know how to be such a gracious host?

“Mi casa, su casa” does not come to mind when you prowl today’s home depots. In the age of do-it-yourself (DIY), it’s all about the self: self-improvement, self-reliance, self-protection. These days, they pipe in Christmas songs for background music. But it might as well be the evening news or lifestyle channel features played as ambient sound to keep up with the aspirational messages being shouted from the shelves and counters for the DIY home.

Certain fixtures were common in the homes of my elders. A turntable and a piano were not just displayed; these were used to entertain at a time when entertainment was communal, not a solitary pursuit. Aunts and cousins who played a repertoire of a song or two put in many hours for piano lessons and practice.

Then, I hardly appreciated why playtime had to be sacrificed to perfect a song that player and audience pretended to enjoy. Now, when I see families plugged to their individual gadgets during outings, I can hear echoes of the tinkling of family recitals. How can anything so amateurish be missed?

Homemakers of the past did not deserve the tag if they were without a sewing machine. As a child, my siesta was punctuated with the whirring that came from a sewing machine pedaled by the foot of aunts whose life calling was to keep the family stocked with pajamas, layettes, pillow cases and dust covers.

Just the other day, a shop selling “modern antiques” had a display of side tables decorated with a sewing machine minus the foot pedal. In a future I will never get to see, will they also sell closed-circuit television (CCTV) as wall d├ęcor or conversation pieces about the self-exterminating lifespans of gadgetry?

I watched myself on a shop CCTV. A salesman asked me if I wanted to see “other models”. Is there a CCTV that also offers makeovers?

There is one feature, though, that I appreciate about modern homes: their diminishing dimensions.

A tiny home is not just easier to clean. When friends visited, our dining table with just two benches started a conversation. We didn’t opt for chairs to save space, said the husband. Sit beside me, our friend told her husband. Missing me so soon, joked her husband. I remember my grandmother having the same long table, the same benches, commented our friend. In rural areas, mealtimes are still communal affairs, I said. Benches sit more, said the husband. Chairs demarcate: space as private property, he added. Anything to keep the wife close by, joked our friend’s husband.

And if you happen to eat alone, a bench can be converted into a couch, said the husband. Share your plate? coaxed our friend’s husband. Home is what you make it to be.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 7, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Sharing space

THE MOTH bats its wings against the pane of glass. I cup my hands around the dirty grey ribbon of its futile striving. The tiny creature settles on a finger. I move my hands to an opening in the window. When it feels the breeze, the moth leaves the finger and escapes.

We have recently moved in this house. It feels empty, full of old and new things that stand around like actors, waiting for blocking directions. There is little room to maneuver among the memories that fill a house you have lived in. Every pockmark on the wall, every pile of books piled helter-skelter in a corner is just waiting to ensnare you into the past.

No such risk in this house. A dwelling acquired in middle-age is different from the one that welcomed babies and watched them saunter away as adults. At this point in life, you may have felt the twinges of mortality and tire of possessions that crowd you in. So a house that feels empty may just be the place to find some space and quiet.

But I could be wrong. Before the first day was over, the husband and I noticed we were not quite alone. The only humans perhaps but not the only ones sharing space. The birds were the first, the noisiest, and the nosiest to announce this.

A tiny fellow swinging on the wire I first mistook for a speck in the sky until I traced the deep-throated bullhorn calls to it. I have tried to pacify the fellow by reading aloud from Robert Lowell’s “Notebook 1967-68”. But I think neither unrhymed sonnets nor twentieth-century Americana will calm down the General, although he does me the courtesy of letting me finish my recital before commencing another of his commands.

So every day or moment we find ourselves paying more attention. There are enormous ants to rescue from the drains, moths to save from death by befuddlement before a pane of glass, millipedes that wander from the yard to the living room, oblivious to door and slipper. A jumping spider led me on a merry chase in and out of the egg tray, I wondering if the fellow came with the refrigerator or if this was just a webspinner with a yen for the polar.

And the tomcats, of course. A squalling from the yard made me abandon the washing one night. Instead of a murder scene, I saw two white geisha faces turned to me, masks of guilelessness undone by twitching tails. A policy prohibits homeowners from letting pets wander on the streets: dogs, chicken, cattle or Komodo dragon. Cats live by no rules. Or at least, the rules governing us.

When the husband joked about the extraordinary activity of the local wildlife to the village association president, the man recommended pest extermination services. I wonder what the General will pronounce if apprised about the president’s ideas. As a movie suggested, aliens landing in our planet should be subjugated and colonized before they apply these ideas on us. What if we turn out to be the aliens?

Cleaning the yard, I came upon so much detritus: food wrappers, tin cans, twine, paper, rusting nails, cigarette butts, cigarette cartons, a child’s slipper, bits of faux crystal left from an earring, wedges of cement-reinforced plywood, faded shards that, when pulled, turn out to be entrails of plastic buried in the bowels of the earth, Styrofoam decomposing like toxic hail.

Guess who lives here? Clues: Likes plastic and synthetics a lot. Discards a lot. Cares that it is turning its home into a garbage pit, not a lot.

One argument is that other forms of life are opportunists living off our existence. The colony of ants stockpiling the grains of rice that fall from our tables. The birds, cats and rats made fat by the overflowing garbage bins.

We civilize wild life. We ease the old jungle rule for our fellow animals, from the island monkeys who snatch from tourists anything that dangles and is mistaken as food to the whale sharks that fishermen feed so they stay nearshore to delight the tourists.

Perhaps it is this version of sharing space that the General, impervious to poetry, rails against.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 30, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Bird drop

SO that is the sound a bird makes when it drops from the sky.

The husband and I were eating at a roadside diner that stood out by its lonesome in the strip of joints that was always full, lively and loud during the weekend exodus.

The diner served fry-ups, a teenager’s dream of ordering breakfast 24 hours a day. The place should be full except, in the past few weeks we’ve been eating here, we’ve seen only one other couple and a gentleman frequent the place, other than us.

Considering that the diner sold the same mass-friendly poison available nearby, it was a mystery why the place was ignored. Perhaps it was because a mall was being erected in front of it. Or that business was so sleepy, a gentleman in an ancient knitted hat requested the staff to play a cassette tape of the deathless anthem, “Born Free,” while we waited for our omelets to be served.

This is a generation that has no memory of Elsa the Lion. Or of cassette tapes, for that matter. Still, the little diner struggles. It printed its name on a tarpaulin gilded with lights, and mounted this on a metal ribcage in an attempt to rival the monstrous girders of the mall rising from the mud. In the evening, the diner’s tarp looks like a bejeweled kite left forgotten in the sky.

Perhaps the nighttime navigator thought so, too, before it rammed into the tarp tower and crashed a few meters from our table. When the explosion came, I thought, “rock,” and continued with my dinner. The husband went to the black mass on the ground and said, “Bird. Or once was.”

A few minutes later, he checked again, noting that the bird was now on its feet. I didn’t want to see a poor bloodied creature so soon after I finished my meal. But curiosity later won.

Not only was the bird seemingly unscathed, it bore an uncanny resemblance to Danny DeVito, the American actor who personified everything creepy and pitiful in his role as the Penguin, arch-foe of Batman. Its body was a black ball of feathers perched on a pair of stilt-like legs. Its beak curved like a scimitar, and was as effective in keeping me at bay.

The bird gazed back at us somberly.

The husband explained that the bird must be dazed, after hitting the tarpaulin or the frame. Remembering the sound I thought was made by an inanimate object, I winced.

Do you want to take it home? he asked. I took another look at the beak. Do birds fare better in captivity? This fellow is a traveller. Despite that nasty fall, I thought he might still prefer an unfettered sky to a cage.

Two workers walking home heard my next question, “What bird is this?”

“Tikling,” answered one. In Cebuano, the word means “skinny”. I looked at the two men, wondering at the coincidence that would gather the four of us and the feathered one, far away from our homes.

It was the men who raised the idea again of catching the bird. The husband stepped towards the bird, and it hopped away. The men lunged at the bird; there was a swirl of feathers as it inched away at the critical moment, still not making any sound. I could see on the husband’s face that he now didn’t want the bird caught. The situation had changed. We were no longer two plotting against one, believing ourselves as rescuers. We humans outnumbered the bird; we became a pack, conniving, intent at running down a prey.

When the men grew impatient and gave chase, the bird hopped, made tentative flaps, and flew away. The men laughed and walked on. The husband got in the car, and I followed, as silent. We outnumbered the bird; it had outsmarted us. This one, at least, got away.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 23, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”