Saturday, April 30, 2016

Defying thorns

PICTURE a book you covet. A forest of thorns surrounds it. You must hack a path through the forest. Get in, get out.

Read the book with—it is hoped—both eyes.

That is not a fairy tale. It is a story familiar to any person who lives in the country and reads books. Or hopes to do so, despite the rapacious thorns that covet human eyes.

One evening in school, I took a break from checking students’ manuscripts to borrow books from our library. The books were recent donations by the author, a visiting professor.

When a fellow teacher saw the immaculate edges of the books, with the purple stamp of ownership, he choked before whispering in awe: “Are those new books from the library?”

Public funds for library acquisitions have nudged up a bit since I was an undergraduate rallying with other students for more government subsidy for education. A poster we painted showed a plane dropping books on the populace. Blind to the visual irony, I did not wonder which was more merciful: to be hit by a falling book or die ignorant.

Three decades after those agitprop years, I think public school libraries need more than airdropped books. According to an online reference, the library of the future may already abandon the old-fashioned moniker of “library” for the “Loop,” a title in keeping with its digital resources, multimedia stations, and robots to retrieve rare or less read references from some underground labyrinth.

For now, public school teachers and students will have to get by “with a little help from (our) friends,” as The Beatles song goes. Alumni and institutions donate. Are librarians disseminating information about new acquisitions to a generation that may no longer be into traditional reading? Can teachers revive index cards to require the “cut-and-paste” generation to read, reread, synthesize, write, and rewrite? Robots tracking books seem less surreal, in comparison.

Donations, though, are not roses without thorns. One book can hardly suffice for a class. Libraries have traditionally solved the problem by putting the book on reserve.

The other traditional solution is to photocopy books. In a state university, the photocopiers operated by every department serve as satellite libraries, where student traffic to order photocopies of the weekly readings assigned by professors shifts from moderate to heavy, specially with the approach of final exams.

The thorns that came with the rose was underscored last Apr. 23. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) commemorates World Book and Copyright Day on Apr. 23, which traditionally involves a gift of a rose for every book sold.

The Unesco campaign to promote literacy is not just about empowering people. It also counters intolerance and hatred.

Yet, the Xerox culture of our campuses disrespects the rights of authors and publishers. My fellow teachers who invest in their personal library and purchase online defy a fate worse than death when they claim their package from the Cebu City central postal office.

Surly workers, fees without official receipts, and hours of wading through dust, malarial mosquitoes, and perhaps a vintage bomb or two to find a packet of books—to read in this country is to defy the thorns.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 1, 2016 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cebu by night

A PERSONAL emergency brought me to face a side of Cebu that I rarely encounter. For nine-to-five drones, the daily reality is the wall of heat that hits one on the streets, which are clogged with vehicles seemingly leading to the same direction.

When we rushed to Cebu City two hours before midnight, a drizzle left the streets into a slick, shiny state. The scene reminded me of toy cars running by remote on the plastic platform our boys played with when they were still at an age riveted to repetitious patterns.

The illusion dispelled when we entered uptown Cebu City. The yellow coin of a moon hung over black moving masses that spilled out of a well-known watering hole.

The slang is inadequate for the scene I witnessed personally for the first time. In the literal sense, it is a pool where animals regularly visit for a drink.

Colloquially, a watering hole is a “social gathering place”. I didn’t have such an affable reaction, perhaps because I imagine that, with an actual watering hole, the animals slake their thirst according to a system that dictates a species approaches the water when its natural predators are not nearby. Otherwise, no drinking will take place; only slaughter and feeding.
Do the city authorities see what I see: incidents waiting to happen or spiking the spread of sexually transmitted infections?

When I was a schoolgirl in the 1970s to 1980s, I saw the same area transformed from an affluent family’s residence, its high walls enclosing rolling, perfectly clipped emerald lawns and backyards where the only things stirring were lines of laundry swaying in the breeze into an uptown high-rise for a department store whose glass-encased display of rosaries in semi-precious stones seemed unspeakably decadent to our starched Catholic conscience.

When I was a schoolgirl, a risky adventure meant slipping past the school’s security guards during dismissal to purchase at a nearby bookstore a romance paperback my teachers dismissed as having no literary merit whatsoever.

Scenes from the watering hole I passed that night made those school excursions bleached and pale. Does youth always seek to scale the heights of the forbidden? Yet, there seems to be a world of differences between dallying with execrable writing and going into the deep with drugs, violence and HIV/Aids.

In the emergency room (ER) of a nearby private hospital, I waited with a stranger who told me about a bottle thrown by a drunk foreigner during a bar performance. The bottle shattered but in slightly fewer pieces than the man who threw it.

His mauling came not just at the hands of the bar bouncers but also of strangers who were less motivated by righteousness than from an amoral curiosity about the many ways the human body can leak fluids under unrelenting violence.

According to this stranger, who works for a firm that mixes and plays music—or what passes as music—in these places, the exhausted mob later dumped the broken body near some trash cans. Only when the morning shift heard the man groan did they act: the signs of life meant a hospital, not funeral services, was needed.

The usual ER parade of broken bodies saw night pass into dawn and morning. I cannot recall a warmer welcome I gave when I greeted a young day and the wall of heat slamming into eyes that will not forget its brush with Cebu by night.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 24, 2016 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, April 16, 2016


MORE than a line is needed to connect two points.

Blame it on the heat, which dissuades us from leaving our homes for the outdoors unless the consequences of not doing so are dire enough.

Or on rage, which displaces the discourse that should be taking place face-to-face and online as the election approaches.

Actual or polemic, the heat serves a purpose: we draw back, evaluate. How we deal with the heat tells us something about ourselves.

Over the past weeks, for three occasions, I crossed over from my building to the Performing Arts Hall, venue for three forums.

Even in the heat, the stroll required physical exertion that paled with that expended by workers contracted to tear up and rebuild the city’s streets. Yet, every time, the walk had a disproportionately rewarding effect on me.

Crossing over is more difficult in the world of ideas than in the physical world. The closer one works with ideas, the greater the risk of ending with a closed mind.

The trap is sprung after roaming in innumerable rooms, we settle for the one room we enter to escape from the rest of the world. Then we lock ourselves in and throw away the key to be sure we are beyond the threat of ever wanting to leave the sanctuary of our beliefs.

Ironically, the new media that brings down walls and penetrates borders also feeds an atavistic instinct for self-defense. Freedom is frightening. We want our chains. We “like” only those we think are like us; we “unlike” those that betray this assumption.

So the challenge to “Free your mind”—the theme of this year’s “Mass Communication Days” at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu—seemed self-flagellating, a typical academic exercise in futility.

Fortunately, these past two weeks were bookended by speakers who showed why communication is the antidote to the disruptions that split apart and set society adrift.

Last Apr. 8, Jiggy and Marnie Manicad walked the audience through the art of storytelling, from the perspectives of traditional television journalism and the brave new world of media content creation.

The UP Cebu forum was a continuation of the “Jiggy Manicad TV Lectures,” a free series conducted by the couple in public and private schools all over the country. Alumni of UP Los BaƱos and UP Diliman, respectively, Jiggy and Marnie continue to pay forward, professionally and personally.

In his Apr. 12 interactive talk on “War and Media Studies,” Prof. Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya peeled away— text by text, image by image—the layers by which mainstream media constructs and feeds Islamophobia.

By talking about his actual experiences as a journalist witnessing the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and Libya during the NATO bombing campaign and meticulous reading of media coverage, the UP Cebu visiting professor showed how Islamophobia, not Islam, is the demon lurking behind every act of terrorism.

Sun.Star Cebu editor-in-chief Isolde D. Amante closed the last forum on Apr. 14. She pleaded convincingly for “The Case for Journalism” by pointing out how, despite shifting technologies and vogues in business models, the act of witnessing and truth-telling remains timeless.

Freed from all fears, including resistance to self-examination, the communicator is well-adapted to the media landscape, crossing over to worlds and ideas once feared as alien and alienating.

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 17, 2016 edition of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Fire sale

CAN a room have a spirit?

Waiting to consult my professor in his office, I looked around: the framed ancient magazine covers, towers of books that leaned from all corners of the room, the smudged pane of the window he would later open so his cigarette smoke could drift out while the ancient air-conditioning unit wheezed along.

I learned more about poetics in that single visit than from the readings I made the night before. One semester in graduate class, I brought a thesis proposal on media self-regulation to a class handled by a recognized master of Filipino literature in English.

The professor emeritus was too kind to turn me away from the class I took as an elective. I could feel, though, that the jargon and concerns of journalism stood out—grimy and plain as newsprint—in a class where young writers discussed creative works in progress: poetry, novels, a suite of plays.

The differences disappeared when I waited in the professor’s office. Little more than a cubicle with a door, the room bore more than an imprint of the person that occupied it for decades. I do not know if he had worked on drafts of his poems in that room or edited his landmark anthologies at that desk.

If the room bore more than traces of a reading and writing life, it must have been because of the stories overheard by this room. My professor had a habit of reaching out for a nearby volume, reading from it to illustrate his point, and then—the Muses smiled—passing on to me the journals of poetry.

On the morning of Apr. 1, I heard about the dawn fire that gutted the Bulwagang Rizal (Rizal Hall) at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman campus. The inferno destroyed the offices and faculty rooms of two colleges.

A day later, fire also razed two college buildings and the chapel in the Manila campus of the University of the East (UE).

No casualties were reported in the two incidents. Classrooms can be constructed; equipment, replaced.

In contrast, the psychic loss was felt to be “incalculable” by UP Diliman teachers, unable to save manuscripts, notes, books and other collections.

Four publishing houses recently launched the “Sagip-Guro (Save a teacher) Campaign” to benefit the 267 members of the UP Diliman faculty affected by the Bulwagang Rizal fire.

This consortium of Philippine presses encourages individuals and companies to purchase and donate books to the teachers of their choice.

According to the UP Diliman Information Office, the UP Press and the De La Salle University Press will give a 75-percent discount to all titles from Apr. 6 to Nov. 29.

For titles published in 2009 and the previous years, the Anvil Publishing Inc. will give an 80-percent discount; titles from 2010 to the present are discounted by 20 percent.

UP Diliman and UE faculty affected by the campus fires are entitled to a free book published by the Ateneo de Manila Press. All of their titles are also discounted by 50 percent from Apr. 18 to Apr. 29.

In this land of termites, mildew and fire of unknown origins, impermanence shadows knowledge.

Yet, in the life of the mind, only one thing ensures that nothing is lost and something is created: passing on knowledge to the next generation of students who may mentor another generation.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 10, 2016 issue of the “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column

Saturday, April 02, 2016


A CLASSMATE from college and I ran into each other. I was walking to get a ride; she, too, must have been going somewhere.

She asked me what I was doing. I replied: teaching again. We chatted a bit and moved on.

Days after that chance meeting, her question lingers. What did she want to know? With my mind on unfinished tasks, I had described my day job. Doesn’t work, like the weather, occupy the hours?

Today, when I woke up to the sound of the question breathing nearby, I realized I had answered my classmate but not myself.

What do I do? In the interval of the 30 or so years since I turned my back on youth, as I chased what I thought I wanted, while I acquired and accumulated and aspired and cut my losses and drifted and lost my way and found something like it and did the countless things I don’t remember even as I’m doing what it took me to be there that afternoon, walking to the place where I usually wait for a ride until this stranger in the mall looked back at me with eyes I remembered from a classroom where we waited for the last few minutes before we could be officially excused to leave the professor who would not be showing up again that afternoon.
I read.

I read not because I do this better than anything else. I read because when I follow the thread of a tale, I’m brought to a place where—hours, weeks, a breath later—I emerge, created anew.

From the moment I am awake, I read to wake myself up. I read until the coffee shop crew goes around for final orders and guards check if I have not been grafted to the bench. I read until someone in the family shouts through the bathroom door to ask if I have not flushed myself.

Despite the constraints imposed by all this bullheaded reading, I do take pauses: to go to work, to eat and use the toilet as it was designed for. And though I’ve not done this for a long time, I recently sat down to take part in conversations about reading and its other half, writing.

The University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu Arts and Humanities Cluster held the 2016 Tagik Landasan Creative Writing Workshop. For two days, panelists, fellows and participants turned to concerns grappling and grappled by those who live for the stories.

Whether just starting or writing for years, the obsessed are the same; they seek to find how a few tools—a word, an image, a narrative—can transform an intensely personal act of the imagination into a form that not just distills the human experience but mimics the ageless aspiration to connect.

When I stepped out from the cool shadowed interiors of the workshop venue on the final day, I could still hear echoes of UP Cebu student fellow Jae Mari Magdadaro reading her poem, “Buak (Broken).”

A child witnesses how infidelity breaks apart her parents in the opening line, “Bildong buak nga gibukotan og abog”. The workshop conversations surfaced many ways of reading and interpreting the poem.

For many, honing the writing means returning again and again to the reading. For this listener, Jae’s line was a counter-flow.

As a shard retains the power to cut beneath the dust, so can a lifetime of reading lead to a piercing realization of the missing beloved: writing.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in the April 3, 2016 issue of the Sun.Star Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”