Saturday, January 31, 2015

Slow reading

MY 75-year-old mother was in tears. She closed the Jonathan Kellerman novel, “Blood Test,” sighing “nindot gyud kaayo ni nga libro, day (this is such a good book)”.

I picked up reading from my parents. Newspapers, magazines, comic books, “komiks,” novels, bible—I cannot remember when reading didn’t take place at home. It was the only thing that bugged us about having only one toilet; just when one had to go, someone was always flipping pages inside. “Just one more (chapter), okay?”

When Mama came to live with us, I confirmed that old habits die hard indeed. Even with bifocals, my mother spends less than a week to finish a 500-page novel. Her typical day is packed: she takes her meals and diabetes medication; she watches her favorite TV shows; she walks to the phone and calls to ask about her 96-year-old mother.

But when a book grabs hold of Mama, she doesn’t let go. I don’t even have to look up from my writing to check out the bent white head, only listen to the rustle of paper.

Ma and I read books and catch up with news the old-fashioned way: we cling to paper. The disappearance of newsboys and their armload of newspapers saddens us. And while I’ve given in and started compiling an e-library that will not take up costly space when I travel, I will take only a paper book to bed. Aside from being hefty and cumbersome, tablets don’t go well with a flashlight which, I believe, is a must for stories read until the wee hours.

Anyone can be forgiven for thinking “slow reading” is an odd phrase to apply to this habit of gobbling paperbacks. Yet, that is the exact name given to the movement that “seeks a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans,” reported “The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)” last Sept. 16, 2014.

Slow reading parties in the United States have one thing in common with the Slow Reading Club in Wellington, New Zealand: for an hour or so, folks switch off their phones, settle down in a chair, and read a book in silence. The WSJ reported that some digital natives use e-readers and tablets but switch off the wifi or put their gadgets on airplane mode to pause the flood of emails and online distractions.

But for hard-liners, only an old-fashioned book made of paper will do as a cure for this digital tragedy: being unable to finish reading a book.

Researchers established that screens change the way we read: from a linear, left-to-right movement that aided comprehension to the F-shaped scanning that takes in the top line of text but halts midway for the next lines in a downward rush to go to the bottom, which, say academics, is good for getting the gist without deeply understanding the text.

Throw in links and multimedia presentations, and you have today’s phenomenon of people carrying hundreds of e-books without finishing one or a dozen.

The same WSJ article also cited other studies showing how reading slowed down memory loss in the elderly; and how literary fiction makes readers understand other people better, crucial for relationships. Slow readers cite other benefits: concentrating more and reducing stress.

So when Ma wept because her novel had ended, I did the only possible thing: picked up the copy and cracked the spine myself.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s February 1, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Seeking Peter Pan

FAITH was not the only beneficiary during the recent papal visit. The news media did quite well in the scramble to follow every step taken by the well-loved pontiff in Manila and Tacloban during the historic four-day visit.

Every day, after the novena mass at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, I looked for a copy of Sun.Star Cebu and the Philippine Daily Newspaper. In our household, my 75-year-old mother and I have to get our hands on the paper edition of these dailies.

Unlike my teenage sons and husband, who are true digital natives, trawling the Net for updates leaves us in a state of digital vertigo. The paper edition also makes a good keepsake, dog-eared pages, smudged thumbprints and all.

Yet, it was during the daily scouring for the papers that I noticed for the first time how newsboys have become scarce. The figure I remember spotting loitering at every stoplight and street corner or weaving agilely among idling motorists, hawking a pancake pile of “hot, just off the press” papers, was now nowhere to be seen downtown.

I walked three blocks to find a sidewalk newsstand. The grandmother sold me the national broadsheet for only P4 more than the cover price. I wondered if it was because she still had several copies of the dailies and it was mid-afternoon already.

During the Saturday procession that culminated the Sto. Niño novena, I walked down Jones and Gen. Maxilom Avenues before I came upon, as twilight fell, a small roadside store with a few dailies.

Exasperated by my sidewalk stalking, the older son pointed out the vendors selling peanuts, hats, fans, and bottled water due to demand. I must be the only person in a million looking for a newspaper in the middle of a solemn procession, he griped.

Yet, more than the scarcity of the dailies on the streets, the absence of newsboys is a telling sign of the times.

After my street search, I discovered that the newsboy mascot is no longer in this paper’s masthead. In the paper edition, the image of an actual sculpture of the Sun.Star newsboy is found on the first page of the opinion-editorial section.

Would someone belonging to my teenage sons’ generation recognize this kid, in his several-sizes-too-big shirt, a pile of newspapers clutched to his side, mouth frozen in his street patter to sell dailies as hot as pan de sal?

When I was a news intern, newsboys—the term shrugged off age, applied to grandfathers and grandsons—converged like pigeons outside the printers, sorting papers before hitting the streets early in the day.

During the waning days of the Marcos dictatorship, a newsboy carrying the alternative papers was a sign that democracy was far from tottering; it took courage to carry newspapers the authorities confiscated.

My poet and blogger friend Myke recalled that reading the newspapers he sold for school allowance ignited his love for words. It would be sentimentality to deduce from the absence of newsboys the end of child labor.

In J. M. Barrie’s tale, Peter Pan led a team of Lost Boys, who ended in Neverland after they fell off their prams while their nannies were looking away. As the digital versions outrace the paper editions of newspapers, what do boys now sell on the streets?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 25, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata

Saturday, January 17, 2015

“Great soul”

THE EVIDENCE is incontrovertible. The past two days in the Philippines (as of this writing) proved that no living world leader can match Pope Francis as a master communicator.

It is not only the flood of images that convinces: the thousands of people lining the route taken by the Pope day by day; the forest of lights from mobile phone and tablet screens that spring up to preserve the papal blessing; the unprecedented decision of national media, particularly the television networks, to devote hours of coverage and valuable air time.

In the digital age, images trump words any time. In fact, images are the messages. We have a lifetime of images to replay when, after the five-day visit of the Pope is over, we will reexamine the memories left by the man that has gracefully inserted himself in our affections.

Many of these images were minutiae magnified by mass media, such as the country’s first glimpse of the pope through the window of his plane, which also revealed the pope as eager as a boy to peek at the estimated millions celebrating his arrival. “Welcome home,” the greeting opening the Jan. 16 meeting with families in a Pasay mall, didn’t seem like a hyperbole or an inaccuracy for the pope who, in his first visit to the country, acted like an OFW returning to family.

In the digital traffic, images, though powerful, have short lifespans. But Pope Francis, as with other great souls like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, has a special quality that imbues ordinary objects and passing instances with meaning, transforming these into symbols and signs.

Take the papal skullcap that has become an iconic motif in the papal sojourn in the country. A gust of wind blew away the white cap when Pope Francis was about to disembark. Losing this official emblem did not faze the man, who held the crowd’s heart and mind with the upraised palm of his hand and an untiring smile that suffused the darkness cloaking the masses waiting for hours.

During the meeting with families, the pope donned the cap made for him by a matriarch, to whom he gave his own skullcap. It was a gesture breathtaking in its humanity, demonstrating the humility of acceptance and of giving back. This family possesses what may become a sacred relic when the pope will “surely” become a saint, excitably predicted the priest commenting in a TV network’s coverage.

Pope Francis has such power to transform. When he hugs and kisses infants and children, we sigh and cry, ignoring that we are watching on TV and forgetting the nauseating memories of politicians doing the same crowd-pleasing antics to woo voters.

The pope inspires. Watching the hundreds of thousands that wait for hours but stay disciplined for a second’s glimpse of the pope, we are awed by the man’s ability to bring out the best in people. Game enough for selfies, the pope has asked that instead of his image splashed on tarpaulins, Jesus, Mary, and the saints should be the focus. Effortlessly popular, he is not afraid to fall out with the crowd.

So we agree. The Pope is not a rock star. To honor someone whose public acts are seamless with his private values, we look no farther than the image etched on the silver cross he wears, a man leading a flock of sheep: Pope Francis, shepherd.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 18, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

People of the curtains

IN our tropical country, curtains should be anachronistic. A stroll around neighborhoods, though, will have well-dressed windows showcasing what must be a Filipino homeowner’s favorite accessory.

One takes out the special china, silver and glass for fiestas and holidays. Yet many a homemaker’s pride cannot countenance anything but spanking new curtains peeking from windows to announce to all that, if a family had not yet surpassed the neighbors, it was getting there.

For a particular generation, the expense and bother of changing curtains was, like wearing Sunday’s best, a sign of not just pride in oneself but respect for company.

Yet, the value placed by one generation on social acceptance is perceived as froth and air by another generation. Why put one’s best foot forward if, in reality, you possess two left feet? In this light, the stiffly new, bright-because-as-yet-unwashed curtains seem to try too hard to aspire through ostentation and facile rivalry.

A similar rent in the Pinoy’s religious and cultural fabric can be seen as the country prepares for Pope Francis’s visit next week. Papal visits to the country, predominantly and rabidly Roman Catholic, are illuminating. When Pope Paul VI visited in November 1970, I was only five years old, too young to remember that he spoke for peace in a world torn apart by the Vietnam War.

During the February 1981 first visit of Pope Saint John Paul II, I was 16 and blinded after standing for hours in high noon along the Mandaue highway. When the popemobile rolled into view, it was not the whiteness of the papal vestments that blinded me but the unearthly beauty of the “Maganda” of the conjugal dictatorship slowly strangling the country then in their iron fist, First Lady Imelda Marcos.

White was the motif of the 1981 papal visit: the white terno of Madam Marcos, the white paint of the shanty roofs under the Mactan bridge, the white of the walls the Marcoses put up to hide the poor of Metro Manila from the papal gaze.

To complete the country’s whitewashing, martial law was lifted, exactly a month before Pope Saint John Paul II arrived to the Marcos version of a Filipino Eden: no scavengers, no detainees, no human rights victims.

With old specters hovering over us, I hear the curtain rending again. A church official has asked the faithful to bring candles and images of the Sto. Niño to the Jan. 18 grand mass Pope Francis will concelebrate with 2,500 priests and 200 bishops at Luneta Park, which coincides with the feast of the Sto. Niño.

Can faith be choreographed? The sea of humanity surging around the Sto. Nino de Cebu is not buffeted by rehearsed passion. Only stone can be unmoved by the fervor of hundreds of open palms waving at the Holy Infant image. Many fathers carry small children on their shoulders as the grand procession snakes for hours.

To replicate this Cebuano expression of belief in order to stage a papal spectacle in Luneta is to orchestrate just that: a rehearsal with props of resin, stone and wood.

We, the people, the majority composing the church, should take our cue from Pope Francis, whose papal insignia and motto is “Miserando atque eligendo (lowly but chosen)”.

Mercy and compassion is the theme of the Pope’s pastoral visit. It’s not about changing curtains.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 11, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 03, 2015

“Matamata”: First day*

TO every creature except people, the eve of a new year must be a cataclysm. On the last day of the old year, the birds were absent. It was a cold day but not much colder than other days. When one is used to waking up at birdsong, the silence of a birdless dawn penetrates sleep even before one is released from the clasp of a dream.

The march of hours reclaimed our waking. For some people, there is a disheveled household to put into order after the indulgences of the recent holiday. For many others, the order of the day is to prepare anew for a fresh round of indulgences to usher in another year.

According to the Internet, New Year’s Day is “probably the world’s most celebrated public holiday”.

The counting of the first of January as the start of a year is a practice began with the Georgian and Julian calendars. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches mark January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Catholics also celebrate this as a Holy Day of Obligation for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

The celebration of New Year, though, has older roots. January is so named after the Romans’ dedication of the first day of the year to the god Janus, patron of “gates, doors, beginnings”. The pagan deity bears two faces: one facing forward, the other backward.

In his homily on the 31st of December, a bishop emeritus urged the faithful to carry out just two things on New Year’s Eve: “Thank you, I am sorry for what has been and will be.”

From the bedroom window, our family watched as a second multicolored lake of spectacle exploded over Laguna de Bay at the stroke of midnight on the first of January 2015. The cities on the rim of the largest lake east of Metro Manila are populous and nearly all prosperous.

As the intervals in between explosions shortened and finally disappeared as midnight came and went, it was difficult to imagine the cold, extravagant flashes synchronizing with gratitude or humility. The explosions lasted for nearly an hour, a fiery display of wealth or the hubris underlying the burning of millions of pesos to banish human fears.

Confronted with darkness and uncertainty, humanity seeks the reassurance of light. Our race after all harnessed fire, which all other creatures shun as destroyer.

Not Jesus or Mary but Janus, the two-faced deity, lurks in the rituals we keep faith with every New Year’s eve. It is he who presides over transitions, which can signify beginnings or endings, life or death, passages that put the present in the continuum of past and future.

In this modern age of disbelief, we relegate Janus the god to the janitor, menial cleaner of all passageways. The ancient Romans had no less than the King of Sacred Rites tending the ceremonies of Janus.

For the Romans were like us, subject to superstitions. They had to stay on the good side of Janus, god of chaos. Janus or Ianus, derived from the word “hiantem” or “hiare,” means also to “be open”. Because every new year can be a blessing or an omen, we resort to the old reliable we have harnessed since the dawn of time: fire.

The animals know better. Long after the fumes of New Year’s fireworks have dissipated, no bird will risk passage. Fire is the enemy. Or perhaps birdlore is just spared of superstitions.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 4, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column


THE ANNOUNCEMENT was not welcome but not unexpected.

The plane we were expecting would be delayed because of the air traffic in Manila. There was a collective sigh before passengers went back to staring at their gadget screens or the soundless movie on the airport television screens.

The woman seated to my left observed that she never imagined she would live long enough to find the skies also jammed with airplanes. This wartime image of aircraft pockmarking the heavens jolted me away from watching a Filipino-Australian tot playing with his Australian father.

The sky above the tarmac was clear. No sign of the unimaginable. I murmured to my fellow traveller that changes always surprise. To myself, I wondered if we were just more sensitive about the delays because we were caught in between: in between destinations, in between Christmas and New Year, in between the old and new years.

The lady’s observation about sky jams echoed when we were waiting later in NAIA 3 behind 10 other aircraft to find our berth in the NAIA 4 terminal. The delay had stretched to nearly three hours. The tot who had been screaming in play at the pre-departure lounge in Cebu was now screaming in anger, protesting perhaps the extended incarceration that adults were relieving by checking their gadgets or lining up for the toilet.

“In-between” tries everyone, even children with their unlimited verve for discovery and self-absorption. The days sandwiched between holidays are especially taxing. After bemoaning the deadlines and work pressure hounding us in the year that was, the in-between at yearend reminds us there is such a thing as a surfeit of holidays. Who can eat, shop and indulge without limit? We even need to get away from the ones we love, the sentiments of the season seemingly enforcing and prolonging the proximity that has become abrasive.

In a way, I am glad of two habits that help me get along with this in-between time. One is the newspaper assignment to encapsulate the year’s best, worst and most bizarre stories. The newsroom emails a list of stories editors have chosen as events or personalities shaping the year that was.

The task of synthesizing the year has come to serve as a yearly retreat. Human memory is imperfect, like a device that has always its disk full. Remembrance is aided but also hobbled by sentiment. We remember what we experience; all else, even the epochal, are mere echoes of thunder in some distant sky.

We live though in the age of media. And media love lists. They now call these “bullets”: textual highlighting rendered as visual staccato that capture and pin down attention, our vulnerability in this digital age. When we pick up a newspaper or surf the Net, do we seek what we read or do we read what is handed to us as the “most read,” “most searched,” or “most liked”? Reading, specially online, resembles less and less what I knew it to be. To read these days is to feed or to graze.

The second activity I welcome at yearend is to shift journals. They call these “planners” nowadays. It is a telling choice as life, to some extent, requires scheduling, reconciling commitments, minimizing conflicts in appointments. We plan our days. Do we examine them?

I prefer the word, “journal,” because it is closer to my use for a diary. The daybook or daytimer is a personal record of a day’s events. The same word applies to a newspaper or a magazine, which preserves what a media conglomerate pays attention to, records.

The journals I keep are made of paper, thread or glue. In this in-between time, I write by hand the notes I want to transfer from the old journal. Yet the new journal is not an extension of the old. Looking at the mostly empty pages, I realize I can change what has been. More than 365 pages, a new journal means 365 second chances.

In between destinations, the tot in the airport chased the ball his father whacked with his grandmother’s cane. His amusement quickly wore off when the ball rolled out of his reach. Then he caught on and started grabbing the cane. Give the boy time to catch up with the man. In-betweens bedevil us but our days would meander without them.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 28, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column

Purple grace

THE husband and I felt a little sheepish when we turned up for the first of the nine-day dawn masses preceding Christmas, and the church gates were not yet open. We looked around, hoping to see other early birds.

No one was as eager to prematurely leave their beds. We started feeling foolish. Then, as the fog cleared, we saw familiar figures: the “puto bumbong” sellers.

A middle-aged woman, an older woman who could be her mother or sister, and a girl who could be her daughter or younger sister sold this delicacy on weekends from a small table outside the church gates.

A nearby mall has food vendors and a native restaurant selling the same thing. But the husband and I favor the trio selling outside the church. Their puto bumbong is to be experienced.

It is a joy to watch the three women. Their routine: the woman heats the “lansungan (native steamer), stuffs the protruding “bumbong (bamboo tube)” with the brownish purple “pirurutong” sticky rice, and prods out later with a metal chopstick four purple rolls that she lines up to make one steaming cake.

She passes on the rice cake to the older woman, who applies margarine and grated coconut. This lady pushes the white, yellow and purple cake in its bed of banana leaf to the girl, who sprinkles muscovado (unrefined sugar from sugar cane juice) before wrapping close the banana leaf. The girl accepts the P40 payment for each puto bumbong with muscovado.

Once, when we came too early for a Saturday mass, we looked for something to eat and chanced upon the puto bumbong seller. The woman was alone then. The garish yellow of the margarine turned me off, and I bought only one puto bumbong for the husband. I later regretted my choice of cotton candy when I ended up eating more than half of the puto bumbong I bought for him.

I expected the puto bumbong to be cloying in its three-layered coat of margarine, coconut and sugar. But in my first bite of puto bumbong, no single flavor stood out. There was a hint of coconut milkiness, a bit of margarine saltiness. Overwhelming was the warmth and smoothness of the “kakanin,” which explains why this native delicacy rivals the homily as the greater draw for “simbang gabi” in these parts.

The taste is hardly the best about this puto bumbong. When I bought that first one, I was the lady’s sole customer as it was still too early for the Saturday afternoon mass. On Sundays, when churchgoers mill around due to the series of masses, the wait for the puto bumbong can be long as a customer usually orders several pieces to take home.

But whether you are alone or waiting in line, the routine is the same. The steaming of the rice flour is quick but it must burn the woman’s hands to shake one bumbong after another to slide out the purple rolls. The older woman arranges the rolls so these form a pleasing symmetry before she bastes them with yellow and white. The sprinkling of grated coco is generous, falling on the glistening purple stickiness like snowflakes. Warming its casing of banana leaf, the puto bumbong emits a comforting aroma that goes well with the nip of air at this elevation.

We may be all strangers standing around, waiting for our orders to be served, but it seems as if we have gone back to being children, standing wide-eyed in the family kitchen, anticipating some ritual to be over so we can hav

And wise as he is, the priest who celebrated the first of the dawn masses in this parish, pointed out in his homily that as the soul is nourished at mass, the flesh, too, must have its reward, even if some waiting is entailed as purple is steamed for what must be on earth the closest to heavenly reward.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 21, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column