Friday, May 15, 2015

Share or snare

BENEVOLENCE demands scrutiny by the giver as well as the recipient. When we moved to a smaller house, my late father finally parted with part of our library.

A government doctor for decades, he gave his medical books to the public hospital he once served. He tasked me to give our collection of magazines, some dating back to the 1950s, to the public elementary school across our home.

Losing patience with my dallying—old “Life” magazines and “Reader’s Digest” messed up my timetable—my father asked the teachers to cart away the whole tottering tower.

The following day, school kids trooped back to our home. Even before I saw the titles of the returned magazines, I knew.

The house we were vacating belonged to an uncle and aunt, who left behind their magazine collection. The aunt was a Spiegel-and-Sears housewife: she collected catalogues of dress patterns and mail-order clothes.

As keen, the uncle collected “Confidential,” “Esquire,” “Spy,” “Hush” and other magazines whose covers featured ladies not interested in sewing or ironing as their taste for clothes was limited to tiny triangles and dangerous cones poised to fire like missiles. Papang called these magazines “art,” but I doubt the teachers were into this kind of drawing lessons.

Before giving away books, I double-check what’s left between the covers and what’s written on the pages. A test I flunked from too much novel-reading is hardly a keepsake I want to leave behind for the next reader.

Despite its perils and pitfalls, sharing books is saner than the alternative. You make space for more books. Other readers discover new titles and authors. In this country, hoarding only benefits termites.

According to its 2,300-year-old history, books came to be printed on paper because of a snub on benevolence. “(H)istorically the book is the product of a monopoly,” writes Ben H. Bagdikian in “The New Media Monopoly”.

He narrates that the “greatest library in the world” during the second century B.C. was the 700,000 scrolls of Alexandria. Ptolemy V of Egypt was understandably proud of his library, which recorded everything known then of civilization on reeds harvested from the Nile River and then flattened into scrolls.

When Eumenes II, king of Pergamum (now Turkey), tried to import reeds from Nile to set up his library, “Ptolemy V was affronted by the upstart and declared a monopoly on Nile River reeds”.

Not to be foiled by this obstructionism, Eumenes II used animal skin. Hide is bulky to store as a scroll so the king’s scribes sewed together the skin to make a hinge. “The book was born,” writes Bagdikian.

Testifying to the spirit of the king of Pergamum (from whence “parchment” traces its origin), the book is what digital natives refer to as a “random access medium”. A scroll must be unrolled to the part desired by the reader. Thanks to Eumenes II, books on paper can be “opened at once to any desired section”.

Who ended up with the greatest library? Bagdikian writes that, after Cleopatra gave away the Alexandrian library to “one of her favorite lovers,” Marc Anthony, Ptolemy V’s beloved scrolls were burned by Christian conquerors eager to obliterate the pagans. There are worse fates than being snubbed by benevolence.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 10, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Green lessons

UNFORGETTABLE were the fingers of a Japanese tomato farmer. I saw a television feature about this fellow who raised a difficult variety of tomatoes, which were well worth the trouble. His customers lined up to buy his tomatoes, a peerless blend of sweet and sour.

The farmer picked his tomatoes by hand, choosing only those that were the right shade of red. As a result, the two fingers he used to pinch off the fruit at the stem were permanently green-hued.

I was awed. How did I measure up against this man in the passion he brought every day to his work? He and his wife even converted their living room to a kind of holding area for his tomatoes.

Standing in a corner of their roadside stall like a Buddha in bandana and farming togs, the farmer listened to customers so he could raise better tomatoes. That’s how he learned to cultivate his second crop.

This is a tomato that’s cheaper but as nutritious. The farmer talked to a woman with a malady, which was aided if she ate tomatoes. Unfortunately, the farmer’s bestselling variety was beyond her means except as an indulgence. So he researched and went to grow the other tomato.

This part of the farmer’s story taught me how diligence is even better than passion when learning something.

Recently, I gave the husband cuttings from our oregano to share with officemates who wanted to raise this at home. The herb is good for relieving cough and flavoring jackfruit soup. We chose the broad-leafed variety over the Italian one preferred for cooking because we needed more the leaves’ pungent smell, which drives away mosquitoes.

Oregano is easy to grow, even by someone whose fingers know a keyboard more intimately than garden soil. Two months after we transplanted tender, pale green clusters at the height of the rainy season, the oregano had deepened to an emerald green and was as tall as a toddler.

And seemingly as willful. Another two months later, the tallest, thickest stalks swayed and fell to the ground. The herb quickly adapted, growing secondary roots along the stems that snaked on the ground.

Crawled it did. One morning, we opened the main door and pushed against oregano tendrils that crept overnight to the carport. The sons joked about the “genetically modified oregano (GMO),” vaguely menacing mutants compared to the prim, orderly buds bordering my grandmother’s garden.

To cut oregano for the husband’s officemates, I gave up the shears and used a knife to “saw” through thick, gnarled and convoluted stems. In the windless afternoon, the fur-like leaves left a rasping sensation, like tiny knives being whetted on my skin.

The thing was a survivor. Magnificent and monstrous, its undergrowth was a serpentine knot of yellowing, even black and rotting limbs that became green and pliant where the sun reached it. It spat on co-existence; not just mosquito but grass passed to nothingness underneath it.

In the end, I relied on what I knew of editing to manage the oregano. Hack off the trivial. Spare no mercy for the redundant. Remove the ornamental that’s disconnected from substance. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

I may not earn yet my green fingers. But the GMO that lives in our garden knows now for sure: editors have the last say.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 3, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


WEEKENDS find these shops a roadside draw. “Surplus” is the invariable sign posted outside what seems to be an overflowing family garage, except there is just one too many bicycle, cabinet or washing machine for an ordinary household to have discarded, even with conspicuous consumption.

According to one entrepreneur, a “surplus shop” differs from a “U.K.” store, euphemism for “ukay-ukay” or “wagwag,” the bargain-priced jumble of used clothes, bags and other items sold on sidewalks and in markets.

Surplus shops claim to be faithful to the economic sense: factory overruns or unsold items coming from Japan, Korea, U.S., Australia and other affluent nations where presumably too many things are produced beyond the capacity of locals to absorb.

Shop regulars know “surplus” is closer to “unwanted” than “unsold”. A pristine clay teapot reveals a “pre-loved” strainer that must have steeped hundreds of tea leaves in boiling water for cuppa after cuppa. A three-door refrigerator is as enormous as the early computers; the low price should alarm anyone with even little energy sense.

Browse long enough and trigger some curiosity. Why do the ads emphasize the same countries? From Cebu to Cavite, I have yet to come upon a shop that sold surplus from a Southeast Asian neighbor. Is it because goods that are Asian in provenance are usually handmade and come in limited quantity; thus, ending up as big-ticket items in boutiques and travel shops? Or is there no such thing as surplus in the Third World?

Was it an old textbook or a morality tale that pointed out that only the rich have surplus while the poor are destined to live off the surplus fallen from the tables of the rich? Or do surplus shops just play on the old colonial mentality that makes us prefer to pay Third World prices for goods coming from a First World nation, even if the label traces its assembly to China or Mexico?

Entering with a baggage of political economy won’t lead you to a surplus find. Browse with the gods of serendipity. Wait for that nudge from the pair of bookend owls or that jug with the curious jade finish. Rescuing what could have ended up in a landfill is enough justification.

On the other hand, it’s deceptive to view surplus stores as converting one country’s dilemma with surfeit into a windfall for another. I once took home three baseballs, two to use as bookends and one as a chew toy for the family dog. My purchases hardly diminished the shop’s mountain of baseballs, which towered over slightly smaller mounds of bowling balls and golf balls. Would there ever be any use for this ill-assorted batch? If these instead were basketballs, no surplus would exist for long in this basketball-loving country.

Or convert a warehouse full of First World discarded non-essentials—answering machines, golf clubs, one-armed waving cat figurines—into rice grains, clothes or books. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing for people in need of sustenance, warmth, and inspiration? Translating “surplus” to mean “abundance” should apply to source and recipient in an ideal world.

In this one, beggars can’t be choosers. So when in surplus shops, just browse. You might be able to take home a bicycle that no one wanted in Sydney but could make a difference in our carbon monoxide-choked streets.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 26, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Inside heritage

A CLUSTER of mangoes ripening outside the window greets our morning. The fruits are within reach. If I hold out my hand, it would be like plucking pale suns.

Vigan in Ilocos Sur does not disappoint tourists. From March to May, peak time for travel, finding rooms to fit a modest budget may be a challenge around and near Plaza Burgos.

It’s worthwhile, though, to stay within the area. A few steps away is Calle Crisologo, stocked with all the handicrafts and local delicacies to satisfy the serious tourist, who must haul back home “pasalubong (souvenirs)” for families and friends to show they’ve traveled nine hours from Metro Manila to reach this far in Ilocos Sur.

In Plaza Burgos is the 441-year-old St. Paul’s Cathedral, open to sightseers from morning till night. There are rosaries, icons and other religious items for sale under the high vaulted ceilings. For the social media generation, there are unlimited opportunities for selfies in posing with Spanish-era relics and paintings.

Ringing the plaza are all the familiar comforts offered by the major fast food outlets. One’s favorite “halo-halo” may no longer be available near closing time (from lack of shaved ice or ingredients) but the crews’ willingness to serve customers way past nine-thirty says much about Vigan, positioning itself as a heritage destination but willing to adapt to the demands of a market in search of novelty but expecting all the creature comforts of metros.

After you’ve given shopping and sightseeing a rest, you might want to slow down and watch the other side of Vigan. Strolling down Calle Crisologo at dinner will not always mean nearly walking into the pictorial of Chavit Singson sharing the spotlight with a parakeet (no, the bird didn’t answer to the name of “Manny”).

If you show more interest beyond asking for the “last price,” “Abel Iloco” sellers will talk about the century-old tradition of hand-weaving that produces the fabric, which gets softer, thicker and heavier with use and washing.

And yes, the St. Paul’s Cathedral fills with parishioners who are not posing for selfies. Hearing an entire mass in Ilocano, which I don’t understand, is an unusual communion, the incomprehensible somehow inexplicably palpable.

Like other places that rely on heritage as a tourism come-on, Vigan has food and culture as staples. Aside from “bagnet,” Ilocos “empanada,” Vigan longganiza, and “Abel Iloco,” the city’s attraction is in its old houses, converted into inns.

We stayed in one such place, constructed in 1840. Staying in a place that’s like a museum is not for everyone. Two husky men checking in before us asked a staff member if there was a resident “multo (ghost)” and answered their own question. The heavy ornate furniture and floor and staircase made of narra slabs made me feel like an interloper, with less right to be there than any being hovering unseen in the corridors.

But old houses have their charm. Walls are thick, as if more than a century ago, the residents knew already to build a barrier to keep out the incessant buzzing of tricycles. Gardens are lush but retain their individuality, every creeper and blossom a throwback to days when windows were wide and unbarred, inviting one to take a look outside. Smell the flowers. Pick a fruit. Value what’s passing and gone too soon.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 19, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

One and only

EAT less carbs, warns everyone from endocrinologists to cardiologists and nephrologists. Do we? Or are you still eating rice with “pansit (noodles)”?

My classmate Dem and I belong to the Pinoy population that remains happily not weaned from rice. When we caught up over a meal, Dem and I ended with culinary confusions because it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner.

His pan de sal paired with chips mystified Dem. My Italian-sounding dish swam in the classic Pinoy flavors of oily and salty. But our talk meandered off to rice, for many Pinoys, the one and only.

The year 2004 was the International Year of Rice. “Rice is life” is not just development mantra. The millions living in developing countries depend on rice for 27 percent of their energy and 20 percent of their dietary protein, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Dem and I ordered whole-grain bread because of the benefits of fiber. So why did we dwell wistfully on rice, fluffy, white and stripped off its high-fiber layer of bran, oils, vitamins and minerals?

How many anecdotes about healthy bran and quinoa can you summon? I have none. On the other hand, I can recount from experience eating-out fads that involve rice: “kinamot (eating with hands),” rice with free soup or gravy, and “unli rice”.

Our rice habits define our conformity with and rebellion against culture. Even to please his girlfriend, Dem won’t stop eating rice and pansit. Our other classmate Mark once asked me if his Cebuano hosts, by serving him seven pieces of “puso (hanging rice),” liked or disliked him.

The puzzle’s answer lies in geography, not numbers. Cebu City sellers make small, hard puso. Those in Badian, Carcar and Danao not just make theirs as large as a giant’s fist; they’re soft and fragrant from “tapul,” a purple-hued grain. To verify my answer, Mark should visit Cebu again.

A more complex puzzle concerns genetically modified rice. Last Apr. 8, Bill Gates was spotted in Los BaƱos, Laguna. Officials would not confirm or deny that the world’s richest man visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

According to Rappler, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is IRRI’s biggest philanthropic sponsor. It funnels $18 million annually to IRRI’s food and nutrition security programs, which seeks to come up with climate change-ready varieties that can adjust to drought or survive under water for more than two weeks.

Due to its experiments with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), IRRI clashes with environmentalists and farmers. In the eye of a controversy is Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain higher amounts of Vitamin A, the lack of which weakens the immune system and causes blindness and death.

After passing IRRI field tests, Golden Rice may be available commercially by 2016, reported the Agence France-Presse in Nov. 2013. Those opposing Golden Rice say the GMO conflicts with the Philippines’ goal of creating a niche in the export of organic or specialty rice. Aside from threatening biodiversity, Golden Rice’s claimed benefits to human health are also questioned.

How informed are we about GMOs? For a public that’s just torn whether to eat a cup of rice or half, fried or steamed, the motto, “rice is life,” should resonate more as an issue affecting life and death.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 12, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”