Saturday, August 12, 2017

My way

GOING back to school in one’s 50s is like returning to kindergarten: at the end of the day, the senior student monopolizes the dinner conversation with “I did this” and “I did that”.

That’s a thought expressed by N., who's my classmate in two courses this semester. We sat across each other in our first class. By our next class, we were seated beside each other, swapping notes about our reading assignments.

Our classmates, who could be our sons and daughters, prefer e-books they can store in their phones and read while commuting. N. and I are old-school; we prefer to photocopy, highlight pages, and make longhand notes in notebooks that don’t require batteries.

N.'s children point out that one can also digitally mark pages, minus a sore back from lugging around all that paper. My boys—a husband and sons who speed around the information highway—rebuke me for holding back from technology.

N.’s rejoinder says it best: Let me do it my way.

I would be glossing over if I left the impression that the freedom to pursue my way is what alone distinguishes the two cycles of kindergarten.

A word of German origin, “kindergarten” literally means “children’s garden”.

The promised Eden of exploration and discovery was, I discovered when I was five, a terrifying place. I had to find a voice to get the teacher to give me permission for the toilet or plead with a classmate to return my pencil.

That voice never seemed to be around when terrors rattled the gates of my five-year-old mind.

At 51, being able to say what I want no longer seems as important as knowing what I want even if others doubt that I do.

I remember a terrifying first meeting with two poets. Both are decades my junior. My classmate has published a book of poetry; my teacher is awaiting his seventh.

In contrast, I wrote my last poem for the Silliman Writers Workshop perhaps three decades ago. The last poem I read, liked, and reread was three years ago.

Had I done the math, I would have fled that classroom as if all the wraiths of bards, from classical to free verse, were yapping at my heels.

Yet, I stayed in my seat for easily the most uncomfortable and illuminating discussion in nearly half a century of learning in classrooms: why writing poetry is the most useless activity, and why in this uselessness lies its greatest use for society.

There’s nothing quite like youth and its prodigious gifts of energy and self-regard.

But before the sap dries, one should put all one’s heart, soul, and strength into replenishing the well of one’s ignorance. The more we learn, the more we unlearn.

Or, as N. said: Let me do it my way.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 13, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Closed encounters

IN Cebu, the bus exists largely as a figment of contention. In the labyrinth that is Manila, the bus rumbles out of the discourse and into the realm of the banal and inescapable days of our lives.

Traveling by bus used to be about romancing the countryside. As a young community worker, I learned a few tricks from traveling by land around Cebu and Central Visayas.

Bus tip #1: backpack it.

The terminal is where life begins. Come early and your ticket will still come with a seat.

Bus tip #3: watch life go past. In Dalaguete, the scenes outside the window replayed when the bus, like a car pool, came back for a regular passenger, who had been taking a bath.

In the city of queues, I arrived at the bus half an hour before it left. In the seat of dreams, one can nap or watch the movie on board to dilute reality with a bit of make-believe.

While my seat mates juggled dinner and smartphone monologues, I watched the night’s feature on “Cinebakbakan”.

Like me, Raymond Bagatsing travels from the province to the big city. His cousin introduces Serafin to Sarge (Tonton Gutierrez), who gives him a job and more guns than seems necessary to man the gate of a shack in the middle of nowhere.

Though naive, Serafin is not too slow to catch on that Sarge actually leads a kidnapping ring. When Sarge goes amok, Serafin tries to out-Adam Adam: return to the Eden where he was expelled.

The movie is full of stereotypes (chain-smoking journalists) and peculiarities (Serafin gets in the pool of mud with his carabao and gives it a back massage). Yet, when the bus vents gushed water instead of freezing air, I was the last to leave my seat for the safety of the aisle.

In the melee of corporate drones cussing like fish vendors, a barking driver, and the ticket collector passing around one sodden rag to stanch the shower on board, I followed Serafin’s changing fortunes: he emerges from the margin to assume a dead man’s fearsome reputation, marries a woman later possessed by an evil spirit, dupes a kidnapped child into regarding him as the father, and finally unburdens to a journalist who smokes more than takes notes.

Movies on buses are kitschy or pornographic. “Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion” is neither. I waited for the closing credits to reveal the director.

And got instead the opening scene of “True Lies,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, art is dead in the city. A bus is not a cinematheque.

But would it have hurt if deadened commuters went home that night, realizing that the movie we all got drenched for was the first one directed by Lavrente Indico “Lav” Diaz? Probably not. Bus tip #4.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 6, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The big picture

MARTIAL law makes many people feel safe. Often left out in the assertion is a question: safe from whom?

In the late 1980s, on my first job, I travelled by land to Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental. I was hired by a consultancy firm hired by a government agency that had World Bank funding to solve poverty.

An invisible speck in the entire bureaucracy, I was tasked to ask farmers about a comic book on land tenure.

Being young, I missed out on the joke and saw only the final report as the Holy Grail of a quest that took me from Alegria in the south of Cebu to San Miguel in Bohol.

In the bus from Dumaguete to Sta. Catalina, it rained hard. My bag floated in the greasy pool that collected the rain dripping from the bus roof. I hugged the comic books in their plastic bag, and worried what I would do without clean clothes for the coming week.

The thought that I would have to revert to the field worker’s strategy of using underwear “side A-side B” distracted me from the camouflage helicopters that hovered over Sta. Catalina, one or two at a time but all the time.

During the motorcycle ride to the upland site office, I asked the driver about the torn bark and hole gouged out by bullets in a tree.

An encounter, he said. Ambush? I asked. Farmers, he said. So what did they fire with: produce? I asked, still peeved about the rain and my sodden bag.

The site office was located beside a military detachment, but it was indistinguishable where one ended and the other began. The same barbed wires connected the margins. When lights went off at curfew, I listened to the distant popping sounds.

Christmas in May, I thought before falling asleep.

Field workers were instructed not to get involved with our neighbors on either side of the spectrum. Yet, we slept near and drove around with one side. Did we feel safer? I thought I did.

Interviews went like a breeze in Sta. Catalina. Above the farms, helicopters crisscrossed like green-bellied flies.

The farmers and I watched the circling choppers more than we discussed the comics. Like strange antennae, the long prows of M16 barrels and muzzles protruded from the sides of the Sta. Catalina “flies”.

The gunner stationed at the open sides of choppers is an “innovation” learned from the Vietnam War, according to a U.S. Army documentary, “The Big Picture”.

Inviting young Americans to train as “shotgun riders,” the 1967 documentary shows instructors sitting beside the open doors as if they were “on (their) front porch,” coaching young men to fire M16s at 450 rounds a minute, with one reminder: “Don’t get carried away while firing; it’s important to conserve ammunition.”

In Sta. Catalina, I finally caught on.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 30, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ear to the ground

WHAT is “the situation on the ground”?

Today is the 60th day martial law was imposed by President Duterte in Mindanao.

Last May 23, the President reacted swiftly to the Maute Group’s occupation of Marawi City.

As commander-in-chief, the President can suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or impose martial law “in case of invasion or rebellion,” based on Section 18, Article VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

However, the 1987 Constitution is more specific than the 1935 version, which President Ferdinand Marcos used as the basis for passing Proclamation 1081 and putting the country for the first time under martial law.

As amended by the 1986 Constitutional Commission created by President Corazon Aquino, the 1987 Constitution imposes a limit on martial law: no more than 60 days.

Today is the deadline. Will martial law be lifted or extended?

Two weeks ago, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez proposed a five-year extension of martial law.

The 1987 Constitution permits the Congress to extend martial law if “the invasion or rebellion persists and public safety requires it”.

Yesterday, the two houses of Congress were expected to hold a special session to decide on the President’s request for extension of martial law in Mindanao. (Update: During the joint session on July 22, the Senate and the House voted to extend martial law until December 31: 261 for, 18 against.)

Sixty days ago, the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf terrorists torched Marawi; robbed, raped, and killed civilians; and tried to create a “province of the Middle East-based Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in Southeast Asia.”

The deadline to suppress the rebellion has lapsed many times. Yesterday, the military again said it expected to retake Marawi “in a few more days.”

But lawlessness and the IS threat are apparently still serious enough for the military. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said martial law will prevent some 700 jihadists from entering the country.

Despite its jingoistic rhetoric, the military says something that must be repeated: what is the “situation on the ground”?

Yesterday, in Iligan City, Tindeg Maranao (Stand Up Maranao) gathered some 100 evacuees to oppose the extension of martial law.

It is an opening salvo for the July 24 protests being organized by civil society groups around the country. On this day, a day after the 60-day deadline of martial law in Mindanao lapses, President Duterte will deliver his State of the Nation Address.

The evacuees call for an end to martial law and the end of military airstrikes in Marawi City.

On July 24, some 260,000 evacuees vow to return to Marawi City. “We will go home!”

What is the “situation on the ground”?

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in the July 23, 2017 issue of SunStar Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Paper cuts

WHEN you write, you make an incision. You make a cut and think you know what follows.

Sometimes, the writing surprises. The sliver opens and a stranger looks out. You cannot look away. You can. You want to. You don’t want to.

Writing is pain. It should come with the standard warning for danger zones: DO NOT ENTER.

I should have said this when I was invited by the “Tug-ani,” the official student publication of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu.

Michelle Grace Cabrales, a Business Management student who’s the current Tug-ani EIC, and her team invited writers to discuss the craft and make a critique of articles submitted by the participants.

I chose covering human trafficking to jumpstart the talk on features, which two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jon Franklin likens to “news of the emotions”.

Students of UP and the University of San Carlos showed up for the Friday talk, which included fellow teacher and writer Joanalyn Gabales and our resident cat, Walter Stefano.

Our small group discussed after my talk our reactions to four articles written by “Tug-ani" writers. Claire Michaela Obejas, a Psychology major who wrote one of the articles, asked how one knew which voice to follow when a writer found herself shifting from one point of view to another in the course of writing an article.

During the workshop, my response addressed the question as a technical one involving planning and publication: on an assignment, a writer discussed with the editor the desired format, angle, length, and deadline.

If contributing an article, a writer has better chances of publishing if he or she scopes out the targeted section, the ratio of text to graphics, and the targeted audience.

Yet, Claire’s question went beyond the challenges of deadline and market. Striking out beyond the safe harbor of information and “verifiable” truth, a writer can wander without noticing into the quagmire of memory, introspection, and self-conflict.

When one finally notices the water rising, what act of self-preservation does one choose: retreating back to the shallows or going into the deep?

In a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai, a journalist and a secretary discover that their spouses are having an affair.

“In the Mood for Love” is set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, which Wong depicts as a claustrophobic prison of cramped apartments, nosy neighbors, and double standards.

Albeit betrayed, the protagonists do not want to betray their spouses. Or think they don’t.

Not even his profession in dealing with truth saves the man from self-deception.

Beyond the tidy rules of grammar, writers learn that paper cuts are the deepest, “the most unkindest cut of all”.

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 16, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

( 0917 3226131)

Saturday, July 08, 2017

In the dark

In the dark

NIGHTMARES happen. Last Friday, I was working late at the office when the power went out.

The tinkling of the piano that had been soothing on Spotify a moment ago now turned sinister. The glare emitted from the laptop screen cast long shadows on the walls.

I was alone in the office, the entire second floor. Or so, I hoped.

I cleared away papers while straining my ears for any sound. When I did hear something, I was brushing my teeth.

Investigating the open door to our office, the evening shift guard heard the unmistakable sounds of choking.

The squeaking of the door he pushed open made me almost swallow the toothpaste, as well as the toothbrush.

Catastrophe averted, I moved to the lobby, lit by the stretch of Gorordo Ave. that was crawling with cars.

Students from the nearby night high school walked in counterflow to the stalled vehicles.

In the resurrected debate over the bus rapid transit (BRT) versus the light rail transit (LRT), the right of pedestrians has been sideswept again.

Many people walk home when getting a ride entails a long wait. Walking is free.

I walk because I need the exercise. Many a dog performs a public service by dragging its overweight owner for a walk.

The sidewalks fronting the campus must be among the most pedestrian-friendly in the country because of the ancient acacias.

What can be more magnificent than the crown of a century-old tree? What is more vulnerable?

The most harebrained scheme I read about was a proposal to implement an LRT-MRT system to “complement” the BRT for Cebu.

A transportation official said that the LRT-MRT railways will be set up on an elevated platform and not interfere with the BRT traffic below.

I wonder again if our planners ever commute like we citizens do. Nothing but carbon emissions and urban blight thrive under the LRT-MRT in Metro Manila.

Wary of the predators prowling under the belly of the public transport system that has so far not delivered the masses from Edsa hell, commuters like me choose mall transit points.

“From the frying pan to the fire” comes to mind when malls go on weekend sales, and the metropolis descends into a different kind of madness.

Last Friday, as traffic crawled, the sidewalks of Gorordo Ave. became lanes dedicated to those who have nothing but the power to walk.

When I shifted my glance slightly, I saw how the sidewalks disappeared under the press of street commerce. Across these nightly transformations is the barangay hall.

Why do I not wonder if some form of power failure keeps our officials, and by extension public service, perpetually in the dark?

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 9, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 01, 2017


THE CALL time to assemble prior to marching was ignored by Batch 2017. That could be predicted.

What could not be foretold were the thoughts that wandered as I dutifully stood at the imaginary head of the imaginary queue, followed by the first student to lead (still imaginary), in alphabetical order, the graduating class of “iskolar ng bayan”.

What awaits these young people beyond the march that was about to start (imaginary again), after the moment the university would pronounce them as graduates and alumni?

The question darted and ducked as I gave up all appearances of duty to pose for photos with these gilded young people, familiar enough as my students these past years, but strange and daunting, too, with a way of gazing back and talking about the future that their former selves could never pull off in the nail-biting days before the official list of graduates was released.

Then I spotted on the ground, beside someone’s fallen hankie, yellow-green blossoms that resemble, had these still been aloft our heads, clusters of sea stars drifting in an unseen current.

Unlike the iconic sunflowers that have been biologically engineered to bloom in time for graduation at the Diliman campus, the ilang-ilang tree in the Lahug campus goes generally ignored.

Some of us remember that the tree was already there when we were undergraduates. We ignored it, too, preferring the nearby “tambis” tree, prolific and easy enough to climb for its juicy fruits in summer.

Then a former janitor made a morning rite of picking the fallen ilang-ilang and placing a blossom on each desk in the faculty room. A male colleague joked that it was so “awkward” to receive flowers from another man.

I remember giving him the look. “Then can I have yours,” I said and scooped the brown gnarled litter from his desk to mine. It was unnecessary as the perfume of one ilang-ilang blossom can permeate a whole room, let alone a tiny brain.

Even now, when it is increasingly a challenge to stoop for the blossoms the wind has shaken free from the branches, I gather ilang-ilang to take back to my desk, press between pages, or bring to meetings.

Unlike flamboyant orchids, the ilang-ilang blossom is found more often on the ground, never as corsages. Its journey from air to ground is short and fraught.

When still green, the blossoms blend with the carabao grass carpeting the ground. Trodden, ran over, crushed, perhaps merely being severed from the tree starts the quick descent from yellow to brown, the inevitable decay.

Seneca wrote, “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars”. As the ilang-ilang tree drizzled earthbound stars over yet another batch of graduates, I thought the reverse is also true.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 2, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Coming home

WHEN one comes home, the time one has been away is measured by changes.

Many things vie to catch my eye: the cleaned and buffed Crucified Christ, the crown of thorns catching the glint of dying sun and dripping bronze blood; the light grey coating of molds dusting the carved Ifugao couple bearing harvest offerings; and the rubber slippers bearing the shape and weight of my soles I hunt for and find among his shoes.

Grey fuzz coats even the female figure’s soles, created with a few flicks of the knife.

I pick up and return the couple on the shelf, which displays couple figurines collected from various places. From Indonesia to the Philippines and Vietnam, these pairs invoke harmony in the union, as evidenced by the male and the female figures mirroring the same actions.

Only the Ifugao couple is different. Though having the same bald heads and dangling wooden earrings, the man stands astride while the woman kneels. In the store, the sight of her bare soles stopped me until I noticed that even while kneeling, her head is nearly at the same level as his.

The most telling changes are not found in objects but the living. It rains nearly every day now, but the rains came too late for the pepper. The leaves are shrunk and wrinkled, like crepe cut-outs of green framing the red and orange pods that respond to the rain like impertinent little boys’ penises.

I search for the oregano that once grew as high as my waist. The kamuning is lush but subdued; no fireflies and no full moon mean that, during this short visit, I will not experience the white kamuning blossoms perfuming the nights.

The bamboo remains a presence but has become a stranger. From being a few clumps of straggly stems, there is a marching row of bamboo that the husband’s onslaught of pruning has disciplined into a vertical mat of green.

My mornings used to begin before the bamboo that unpredictably broke ground or shot for the sky overnight. After the fog crept away and before the sun broke over Laguna de Bay, clusters of dew turned the stems into arcs of diamonds refracting light.

Birds once nested in this recalcitrant, unkempt growth. A wisp of bamboo spurred avian lovemaking, its pliability ending often with the bird on top slipping off and falling before instincts kicked in and the inept lover flew back and tried again.

Standing before this tidy, tame wall of bamboo, I hear no bird-song, no liquid rustling. Coming home, I notice how, while I was away, change came and made itself at home.

( 0917 3226131/

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 25, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Father and daughters

FOUR o’clock in the afternoon still brings my father home to me.

When he was working, he organized his work meticulously—from running a surgery department to teaching medicine—so that at 4:30 p.m., his blue Beetle was always parked outside our high school, just a few minutes after dismissal.

My father’s predictability enabled me to estimate that, except on days when I had to clean the classroom, I had just enough time to run to the library, borrow a book (that I searched for and reserved during lunch), and find my sister before we went to our father.

It was a fast rule that we should all be home before the Angelus.

Though simple enough for my father, this rule made it a challenge to survive high school without going to the meetings, practices, PTA assemblies, charity concerts, and myriad activities held after classes ended.

The germ of writing must have been activated from the number of excuse letters I drafted for my father’s signing to explain his Angelus rule to school administrators. Fortunately, they were nuns.

Even when I became a coed in a state university, I preferred the routine of going home with my father and sister. He still waited for her outside my alma mater at the usual place and time.

Then I discovered that a bakeshop at the corner where I alighted from the jeepney to walk to my father’s Beetle served hot bread at around 4:30 p.m.

Despite the loss of some molars, Papang enjoyed the steaming, crunchy crust, and I welcomed, for the first time, having a parent whose predictability of habits made loving a simple and daily pleasure.

The first crack in my adolescence came when a classmate tried to start a habit of walking home with me.

Since we both had to count centavos, we didn’t mind chatting while walking from the state university to the bakeshop at the corner, a little over a kilometer. However, I was adamant about parting ways at the bakery.

What would my father think if I brought back this boy along with a bag of hot Elorde?

At first, my friend took the four o’clock routine as a joke. Then he got hurt, upset, annoyed.

I also became sorry that this boy wouldn’t go away if I gave him an excuse letter. Perhaps I did grow more than a little fond of listening to such a well-read creature.

But there was no space for him in that four o’clock zone, which I shared only with my father, hot bread, my sister, and the family Beetle.

With his trademark sarcasm, my former classmate might ask me today if my father has turned every merienda with hot bread into a fraught encounter with cold memories.

However, I have sons and he has daughters. He can best answer the question: why do fathers spoil their daughters for other men?

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 18, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Love and oblivion

AT Santiago Bay, Camotes, the dogs live the life.

Low tide leaves a wide expanse of fine sand, enjoyed by early morning strollers, selfie worshippers, and dogs.

Recently in Camotes, I got to know the mutts very well. They are Asong Pinoy (Aspin), lean and even bony, with rough coats from living outdoor and eating scraps.

But the dogs have a contagious zest for island life. In an excess of brio, one puppy leaped up and pawed every stranger as if reunited with a long-absent mistress.

The ones napping on the shore were gradually isolated into isles by the incoming tide. When the water finally lapped too close, a dog snapped awake and plopped down on a drier spot.

While going through the motions of winding up the semester, I took minute breaks from theses defense by holding out my right leg, which bore the silvery shadow of a nail scratch from an Aspin encounter.

To crisscross the borderless sliver separating wideawakeness from oblivion: I envy the dogs.

During the last thesis defense of the semester, I glimpsed why, despite our kinship with the canine, we are fated to search for but never find this refuge.

Judelyn Felicilda is one of the strongest-willed young women that I have worked with. Before this month is over, she will don the Sablay, the official garment worn to culminate one’s journey in our university.

For Judhai, the years of searching for knowledge ended on the streets, where she engaged commercial sex workers (CSWs) who are men who have sex with other men (MSM) and transgender women (TG).

Last June 8, Judhai presented a video that seeks to convince CSWs to use a condom in every transaction as a protection from the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (Aids).

Judhai’s video rests on testimonies why, even among hardened professionals, love becomes the knife we turn against ourselves.

According to her, CSWs fall into two types. The professionals offer sex for pay. For the non-professionals, “harvat (gay lingo for “harvest,” meaning the need to earn) determines whether money exchanges hands.

Yet, some CSWs admit that “harvat” can be set aside for an attractive partner who looks clean (healthy and non-infectious).

However, when the CSW is in love with the partner, “modnoc (condom)” is never used.

Over the years, the rise of cases has been accompanied by the rise and fall of monikers for persons living with HIV/Aids: “Gset,” “shitsu,” “posit,” and “josh”.

These euphemisms may be attempts to blunt the cut of living with Ida (Aids).

As Judhai suggests, teaching CSWs the skills for condom negotiation can zero in on ways on how to cope with love.

Who among us is immune to it anyway?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 11, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, June 05, 2017

Spirit diving

I EXPECTED least but got a baptism when I recently swam in the underground waters of two caves in Camotes Island.

A dedicated armchair tourist, I still somehow ended up in caves, from the wartime bunkers in Alegria, south of Cebu to the trans-water caves, with a few running for 2-km stretches, in Trang An, Vietnam.

Caves exert a powerful hold. From World War II survivors in Alegria, I learned how upland caves aided their escape from the Japanese Imperial Army and town collaborators.

Almost a quarter of a century after, survivors recalled vividly how the caves held water they took care not to spoil with human waste. Inside these caves, entire clans lived and wove mats of river reeds for extra warmth and barter while under siege.

Yet in caves, too, repose our primal fears. When the husband had me sit closest to the prow of the boat, he kidded that he only wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall off while we were part of a group exploring the Underground River of Palawan.

Inducted in 2012 as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, the now-renamed Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park has one other thing, aside from stalactites and stalagmites inducing awe, that it has in common with other sites of natural heritage: tourists.

As tour operators and communities co-exist in uneasy compromise to manage traffic and the inevitable degradation, tourists of all persuasions—including newly-weds having their pictorial while balanced on a bamboo boat outside the trans-water grottoes of Trang An—dispel superstitions enshrouding caves.

Only some.

Perhaps because entering a cave involves descending and leaving a realm where light and air are taken for granted, caves bring to mind entering a crypt and never being able to leave it, like Persephone hostaged by Hades in the bowels of the underworld.

Bukilat Cave on Poro, Camotes is ideal for families. It has seven “windows” or natural ceiling apertures to let in light dappling the cool brackish pool, and serving as natural spotlight for selfie poses and Facebook memories.

High tide raises the level of the underground waters of the Amazing Island Cave in San Francisco, Camotes. A life vest and buddies helped me hurdle for the first time being dunked in the water to go past a low ceiling, competing for thin air in a cavern overcrowded with tourists, and kicking around like a day-old tadpole in waters about 9-ft deep.

Later, while drinking my fill of the sky above the sea in Mangodlong, I realized why swimming in caves draws and repels: as life throws a curve, caverns deprive us of our comforts and conceits, forcing us to claw inside and reach for that which we never knew existed just to break through.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 4, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 27, 2017


ON my first visit to Camotes, I count it as a blessing that I ate at the house of a resident.

Having breakfast at the ancestral home of the Borlasa clan in Poro, I was fortunate to not only break fast with colleagues who have become friends, I escaped the tourist handicap of seeing a new place as being created for the express purpose of amusing me.

Jiji, who once sat in my classes as an undergraduate and now teaches at the same state university, recalls spending summer with cousins who homed in from many parts of Visayas and Mindanao.

The home of her grandparents may have been transferred to above the street after a truck veered off and rammed into it, but it still retains many reminders of those endless summers of reunion.

If by some quirk of fate, the Borlasa home in Poro will lose all its material connections to the past, there’s still Jiji’s aunt.

Josefa “Pipay,” 82, does not only give obvious cues about how Jiji will look when she breaches her 80’s. Aunt and niece share, beyond a puckish humor and a direct but inoffensive way of speaking, a sense of place.

When the expression, “take root,” is used, it often refers to how something germinates, flourishes, takes hold.

Over the course of four days, I’ve seen how Camotes takes root in people, no matter how dissimilar they are.

Perhaps due to an economy that has remained agrarian and maritime, the two generations of Borlasas reflect how the people of Camotes are segregated between the native-born who never leave like Josefa, and those like Jiji who live and work elsewhere but never fail to go home.

Yet even among her sons and daughters who cannot escape the diaspora, the hold of Camotes on their sensibilities implies a complexity lying below its pastoral and placid charms.

Wrapped around the island is a thick belt of mature, verdant mangroves that serves as a natural buffer for disaster.

This resource so vital for marine ecology and disaster preparedness co-exists with the beach resorts, caves, and other hangouts in Santiago and Mangodlong.

Yet, more than political will prioritizes sustainability over present gains.

The community decides and participates, down to the “barangay,” ”sitio,” and “purok”.

A dialect named Porohanon is still spoken fluently despite the influx of Cebuano and English. Traced to migrants from Bohol and Leyte, Porohanon fascinates: “Nikuligi na l’at an puza (the child is crying again).”

A nylon sack, that’s reused after storing rice to holding trash, hangs outside every home in Camotes. It speaks volumes to visitors, perhaps not in Porohanon but of the ethos of interdependence: my home is your home. Treat it as you do your own.

( / 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 28, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”)

Saturday, May 20, 2017


A LUNCHBREAK encounter brought my attention to a book my fellow teachers were holding close to their chest.

One more copy will wend its way to a friend in Australia, which, for once, was viewed as backward: its bookstores had yet to display copies of the Penguin Classic edition of Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic”.

My friends’ expressions telegraphed the quiet exultation of having finally nabbed Nick, whose birth centennial was last May 4.

The new media has irretrievably changed why we read and how we read, but working daily with teachers and students, I confirm that technology leaves untouched an older, enduring obsession for books.

For knowledge workers, books are necessities. Yet, the books that occupy permanent, though cramped, space in our hearts and minds are the ones that open doors and windows to an imagined life.

I have no functional use for a black-bound book with tarnished gold-edged pages, picked up in a store of secondhand books.

Published in Amsterdam in 1905, “Het Boek der Psalmen” has all its pages covered in musical notes and Dutch lyrics, which I cannot read.

On the flyleaf of this hymnal is written the name of Minnie De Zeeuw. Handwritten under her name is March 27, 1908, Minnie’s 12th birthday.

I cannot imagine a 12-year-old plotting to get her hands on a hymnal, even in 1908. Yet, when I turn slowly the brittle pages, I can conjure up Minnie and her book of psalms.

That is perhaps why I keep between the pages of this 112-year-old book a handwritten letter my grandfather wrote to my father from his hometown in Magting, Mambajao on July 2, 1971.

Unfolding this letter, sandwiched between the indecipherable, I resurrect the man who was a dry cheek pressed against my sweating, flushed ones when his visits interrupted my playing.

In a June 17, 2016 interview by CNN Philippines, Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor explained the decision to include Joaquin in its roster of the world’s classics.

“The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life,” she said.

Between the pages of a book, up close and personal, has never been about absolute solitude.

Forty-six years separate now and the time my grandfather penned that letter. In that interim, four of the persons mentioned in the letter are dead, including my grandfather and father.

I will never be able to ask the questions raised from reading the domestic minutiae unraveled by the upright penmanship in blue-black ink: Did Lolo Tatay live to see the house he was constructing in two months? Were three of his teeth pulled out the following week, as planned?

I will never know but I can imagine.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 21, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My favorite Mocha

THERE’S a graduating senior behind every Mocha Uson.

When I saw the face of my colleague emerging from the faculty room toilet, I guessed we were out of water again.

It was much worse.

Mocha Uson was not just appointed as assistant communication secretary last May 9, her salary grade level makes her capable of earning as much as a chancellor, the highest official in a constituent university within the University of the Philippines (UP) system.

How entitled is Mocha Uson to our taxes in the war against misinformation?

Nearly everybody I asked has a derisive opinion about Ms. Uson. This was long before she jumped into the rarefied company of those classed between SG 27 and SG 29, which has a base pay ranging from P87,000 to P106,000 a month.

Yet, whenever I probed about Ms. Uson, I received a stock response so vexatious, I had to search online to name this logical fallacy. Circular definitions use the term being defined in the definition.

For instance: “Who is Mocha?”

Circular definition: “She’s behind Mocha Girls.”

So I remember the answer that stood out because it was informed by several sources of information and a critical consciousness.

Graduating seniors Andrea So and Mary Louise Guerra were, like many others, upset by the blogger during the 2016 elections. However, they convinced their thesis panel to let them analyze why this former sex-advice blogger became a social media influencer engaging more citizens than the most respected news outlets.

The students reviewed the blogger’s posts and generated comments, including comments to comments. To double-check their biases, the students interviewed key informants.

Before this month ends, a research panel will decide if Drea and Louise have succeeded through their scholarship to prove what every Mocha hater has already prejudged as being virtually impossible: that the “Queen of Fake News in the Philippines” can teach us a thing or two about truth.

Some Mocha assertions have become classic, overshadowing even the notoriety of her exertions in shorts and bra. Answering back critics of extrajudicial killings, she posted a photo of a raped victim and challenged human rights activists for remaining silent. It turned out that the crime took place in Brazil.

Yet, it is through these “alternative” facts that this generation receives incomparable instruction. Assistant Communications Secretary Mocha Uson rallying for the “strengthening (of) social media through the help of true members of the DDS (Die-Hard Duterte Supporters)” will be more viral than a dry lecture about fact-checking.

Even with clothes on, Mocha will turn out to be just as revealing.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 14, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 06, 2017


THE image was upside-down.

A seminar my class recently coordinated was delayed when the image projected on the screen was inverted.

Desiring to orient stakeholders about human trafficking, the students invited speakers to discuss programs that could help trafficked victims move on.

During the lull, I spoke with a speaker representing the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). He was interested to promote their training programs.

Aside from including materials and a certification of completion, the trainings are free. Residents can also register at their barangay, and the agency will conduct the training on-site, making it more accessible.

Recalling the SunStar Cebu special report series, published last Mar. 3-6, about the rehabilitation of those who surrendered under Project Tokhang, I asked the speaker if Tesda was training drug surrenderers to consider options that did not include peddling illegal drugs.

The speaker said that the reluctance of the Department of Health to certify that they were psychologically stable barred drug surrenderers from certain trainings.

Would you conduct a training in automotive servicing or hairdressing with cosmetology if you feared the screwdriver or scissor in the drug dependent’s hand? he asked.

His candid comment surfaced again amidst the celebration over the passers of the 2016 Philippine Bar Exams.

Not only was the passing rate of 59.06 percent among the highest in recent years, the Bar topnotchers were graduates of schools outside of Metro Manila.

Among the most stirring stories were accomplishments made by ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges: juggling law studies with work, a family, past failures, advanced age, poor health.

Emerging consistently in these tales was the person’s sense of self-worth.

Belief in oneself trumps being born into wealth, having innate brilliance, or developing self-discipline.

How is self-esteem developed? Over the decades, I’ve often wondered how adversity has different effects on different people.

The slightest pressure can pull a person under. And unimaginable obstacles make others soar higher.

Remembering the comment of the Tesda representative, I’ve wondered if I had paid equal attention, too, to the outliers on both ends of the spectrum: the ones who are brilliant, and the ones who are not. The ones who succeed, the ones who don’t.

It only takes a slip of the tongue to pronounce “paso” two different ways. Put the accent on the second syllable, the word means “march,” a metaphor for graduation, a transition prized by every student and parent.

Fix the accent on the first syllable, and the word means “burn”.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 7, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 29, 2017


THE FLOWER turned out to be a fruit.

Visiting temples in Hanoi, the older son and I saw several times clumps of these yellow flowers occupying the central place for offerings.

Dedicated to Buddhism or Confucius, the temples drew steady streams of tourists and devotees. So as not to be the archetypal boorish foreigner, I restrained my curiosity until I had a chance to ask Wang, the young man guiding us around Hoa Lu.

The ancient capital of Hanoi has several 10th- and 11th-century temples in a citadel surrounded by limestone mountains and rice fields. In the Temple of Lê Đại Hành, Wang corrected my misconceptions about the citrus-colored “flowers”.

The Buddha’s Hand is a fruit but is not eaten, he explained. Favored as a temple offering, the fruit’s yellow extensions resemble cupped fingers and suggest the hands of the Buddha folded in prayer.

The Buddha’s Hand stands out in the sea of offerings laid out before venerated icons because it is the least ostentatious. Everything else glints and competes for attention.

Art saturates the Vietnamese landscape, from its temples to sidewalks. During stopovers, tourists stepping off buses for refreshments or “happy rooms (toilets)” watch as disabled women turn out paintings that are painstakingly made from stitches rather than brush strokes.

Just as unforgettable as those rooms full of women sewers creating handmade art is their silence. One question lingers: where are the women in Vietnamese history?

In the Temple of Lê Đại Hành at Hoa Lu, I finally came face-to-face with the gilded figure of Dương Vân Nga. After two days of looking up at Confucius, Ho Chi Minh and a host of heroes and sages—all males—it was a relief at first to behold the serene visage of a woman, all but missing in the interstices of Vietnamese history.

Vietnam’s only empress of two dynasties survived the vicissitudes of power through the oldest way women negotiated with men: sex.

Vân Nga married the first emperor of the Đinh Dynasty, and then married the general who plotted his downfall; deposed her son, the child-king; and replaced his rule with his own, the Early Lê Dynasty.

Bestowed a new title by her second emperor, the “Bright Empress of Great Victory” was reviled by Confucian scholars and historians for acts of frailty that violated the strict code of Confucian ethics. She endures today as a popular character in plays and novels.

The temple Vân Nga shares with her second emperor (a stone’s throw from the temple of her first) had few visitors on the day of our visit. It was an opportunity for me to bombard our guide with questions.

As well as to note that the Two-Time Empress was missing a bowl of Buddha’s Hand.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 30, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 22, 2017


WHAT would I carry for more than 1,400 miles?

A book, a letter, I guess. In Hanoi, we packed mementoes for family and friends. The lone souvenir that could not fit in our bags was a Mu Coi, the Vietnam pith helmet.

Copied from French colonizers by the Viet Minh and still worn by civilians, the hat, covered in jungle-green cloth, just lacks replica brain matter and bone to complete the kitsch.

Virtually the last thing I would carry for even a mile, the Mu Coi I cradled from the Nội Bài International Airport to the Mactan-Cebu International Airport.

In lounges, I placed the package on its own seat. It seemed that a head, not a hat, was outlined against the flimsy plastic.

In Singapore, the hat slid out of sight in the overhead bin. The plane steward leaped out of my way when I yelped and rushed back to retrieve it.

When the hat finally reached our friend, he admitted he wanted only a baseball cap with the red star, a souvenir that blankets the sidewalks of Hanoi in the thousands.

One of the oldest in Southeast Asia, the 4,000-year-old Vietnamese culture is diverse, complex and fascinating. Paradoxically, war seems to be at the center.

Colleagues—rational and skeptical—remembered crying at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

On April 30, 1975, when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to or was liberated by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Vietnam War left about 58,000 American soldiers dead and 304,000 injured.

The Vietnam War is said to be the “only war the Americans lost”. The South Vietnamese, allies of the U.S., took the brunt of the Americans’ defeat: about four million dead or wounded, including 1.3 million civilians, in South Vietnam alone.

Even in the face of ignorance, historical amnesia, or the ashes of Cold War polarities, the relatively less macabre Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is a remembrance of the human cost of aggression, whatever the cause.

Hanoi today is a far cry from war-time Vietnam, which, covered by at least 21 million bomb craters, looked like the moon. As Bella sautéed cat fish caught from the once “bomb-saturated” Red River—historians estimate American war planes dropped twice as many bombs in Vietnam as they did during World War II—she told us about her grandmother’s collection of frying pans.

Interrupting her automotive engineering studies overseas to take care of an ailing elder, Bella learned to cook from her mother, who learned from her own mother. Her grandmother’s generation made durable cooking implements from the planes that crashed in the countryside, she said.

Our family, who enjoyed Bella’s dinner, agreed that the only response to destruction is creation.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 23, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Making room

CAN we make room for one more?

In Hanoi, our family recently experienced what must be a visitor’s first, lasting impression of Vietnam: this country seems to have more motorcycles than people.

Two young men who acted as our guides debunked the impression. According to Mike and then Wang, Hanoi has about 7.5-8 million residents and 5 million motorbikes.

Crossing the streets in Hanoi Old Quarter, the business and tourism hub of the Vietnam capital, I was disconcerted to see slight-framed ladies in short skirts and high heels steer their scooters with the granite-steady composure of road veterans.

Add older folks cycling at a timeless, unhurried pace and ambulant women wearing a non la (palm leaf conical hat) and balancing on a pole baskets filled with produce or food darting across the street or halting to haggle and sell.

The situation calls for pandemonium.

Strangely enough, I only witnessed one road accident during nearly a week’s stay in Hanoi. On the outskirts, in a nearly empty road, the parties stood around, viewing the motorcycle felled in front of a car with the equanimity of farmers waiting for a water buffalo to rise up from its mud bath.

Except probably for the newly arrived who nervously imagine their bum whisked off by a speed demon summoned by a foot stepping off the curb, a system of coexistence imposes order on Hanoi streets.

In timeless Asian tradition, owners park motorcycles on the sidewalks. Ladies (the Vietnamese must be the leanest, fittest Asians) singlehandedly arrange motorbikes so these lean in the same direction like artfully arranged salad greens.

The same ladies charge from 7,000 to 10,000 VND for 24-hour parking, said Mai, who parks for free in front of a stoop owned by a friend. The more expensive logos or better-looking bikes cost more.

Pocketing the parking fees are the stall owners, who include the sidewalks in their enterprise. For over 1,000 years, the Old Quarter streets are the bases of guilds.

Once known as “36 Old Streets,” the Old Quarter has expanded to cover an area as neatly organized as a department store, devoted to silk, silver, lacquerware, leather, coffee, noodles, seafood, and other merchandise hardly catering to tourists, such as tombstones and funeral wreaths.

Efficient albeit self-serving, entrepreneurs leave sidewalk space to draw in souvenir hunters or the hungry.

Squatting on a plastic stool while a grandmother grills pork and bread on the sidewalk, this tourist encounters across the street assault the gaze of Ho Chi Minh silkscreened on a mass-marketed T-shirt, reproachful and redolent of a time before the dream of socialism became dissipated in a cloud of coffee steam and motorbike fumes.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 16, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The good life

WHAT would Walter say to the fat cats of Singapore?

On the family’s first overseas journey, we stopped overnight at Singapore. I would have been content to explore again Changi Airport, the airport city, but the older son brooked no slacking or clinging to safe harbors.

I got plus points from him for collecting all the tourist information materials after clearing with the immigration. Sucking a candy—free also from the poor young man, too tired to do anything but express a soul-deep weariness with his entire body, one of the many processing all the foreigners streaming into this multicultural state—I scan the lushly printed guides and am convinced that I have done enough sightseeing and am ready for bed.

Bedtime, however, is not yet within sight in our itinerary. If one leaves from Cebu at 3 p.m., it’s 7 p.m. and still bright as midafternoon in Cebu when the plane touches down at the Changi Airport.

Having a long work day must be why Singaporeans tend to be brisk to the point of brusqueness. The driver of the coach ferrying us from the airport to the hotel in Tiong Bahru Road barks in a curious mix of Singlish and English.

I notice he restricts himself to the by now familiar body language of silence and strain when a Caucasian family comes on board. The older son, better travelled and more tolerant, observes that as Singlish, the local lingo, is spoken with a clipped, abrupt tone, their Singlish-accented English must come across as cold to foreigners.

Anywhere in the world, people remain the most exotic. I think of this as we drive up to our first view of the Gardens by the Bay.

Silhouetted against a velvet evening horizon, the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest, and Silver Garden are unlike the humble gardens back home. The coach drives by at 8:45 p.m., in time for the second scheduled switching on of the Garden Rhapsody, which displays the Supertrees, more architectural than horticultural marvels shooting 22 meters above the ground.

My glimpse of Singapore emphasizes more than anything the Otherness: streets and sidewalks washed clean of people. Tourist brochures with more information than one thinks one needs about Singapore; night-shift workers who release only the minimum data to keep transactions functional with the city’s transients.

Searching for dinner, we ended up by mistake at the back of the kitchens of a local hawker center. Two tabbies lolled, replete, on the pavement.

These street toms dragged bellies that scraped the ground. These ones never chased rats, if such deviants had a niche in this socially engineered city.

The cat in our campus, Walter, who keeps several human pets, might be keen to swap stories about the good life.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the April 9, 2017 issue of the SunStar Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 01, 2017


MY late maternal grandmother would probably say that the scandal entangling House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Davao del Norte Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr. only proves that men, like women, discover gardening with age.

Once, while we were discussing oregano in her garden, she observed that I was finally showing my age.

I confirm: after passing the first half of a century, I enjoy more time spent in the garden. I like to focus on the physical exertions demanded by weeding and pruning while leaving my mind free to appreciate quiet, the signs of life thrusting out, and the calming sense of decay and going back to earth.

The horticultural must also be on the minds of the congressmen, who, in the latest controversy, seem to be of the garden variety of politicians.

Although the issue initially focused on the graft charges filed with the Ombudsman by the Speaker against his former bosom buddy, the public’s attention has shifted to the catfight involving the congressmen and their women.

Both men no longer live with their wives. Their common-law partners or girlfriends accompany them publicly, including on official functions and social media posts.

Article 147 of the Family Code of the Philippines recognizes that many couples enter into a live-in arrangement, also known as a “common-law marriage”.

The Speaker has also admitted fathering several children out of wedlock.

He has dared critics to seek his disbarment, and expressed disbelief that anyone would raise his affairs as an ethical violation: “Come on! Who does not have a girlfriend?”

His incredulity must be genuine. By now, “telling the truth” must be accepted as “manly” and normal not just by womanizers but also by Filipinos used to the confessional rambling and sexist jokes of President Duterte.

In the code of machismo, men dominate by observing double standards: different sets of morality for men and women. In this macho binary, women are either for “casa (home)” or “calle (street)”.

The first kind washes his clothes and bears his children. The second promises pleasure, variety, and stature with his friends.

A Stanford paper cites a Mexican joke about a wife’s three prayers. “Lord, let my husband remain faithful,” prays the bright-eyed bride. “Lord, let me not discover his unfaithfulness,” prays the realistic wife. “Lord, let me not care,” she prays, finally, for sanity and peace.

For the Speaker and his ilk, I will not bend the deity’s ears. I prefer the clear sight of my late grandmother:

Just as women turn to gardening when their wombs go barren, some men collect orchids: the young and the beautiful to decorate and camouflage the stumps of what used to be trees.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 2, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fellowship of the bookcases

SIX of us gathered around a couple of tables.

Meet our fellowship. Cheking is the preternatural idealist. Farseeing, he is donating journalism books to the Cebu City Public Library (CCPL).

Three of us teach. I assume the others presume teachers know libraries the way priests in confessionals are intimate with every bared soul’s warp and stain.

Newsroom colleagues, Kent is yang to Cherry’s yin. In the duality of interconnectedness, yang is light. Kent will design the shelves to hold the books after the fellowship makes up its mind.

Until this miracle comes about, it is Cherry’s task to guide us out of the dark of confusion. In another life before editing, Cherry must have been a wartime general.

Stratagems should be Cherry Ann’s third name. Her three-page email summarizing shelving options for the Cebu Journalism and Journalists (CJJ) Books Project shames my skills in planning, writing, and housekeeping:

“The distance of the short beige cabinets from the tall gray cabinet on the left is 17 inches, and from the brown wooden cabinet on the right is 10-1/4 inches. This means if we put short cabinets that are wider than the cabinets now sitting there, these short cabinets may occupy a total width of up to 100 inches only.”

Other members in the fellowship include CCPL librarian Mrs. Rosario Chua. According to Cherry’s lean, no-word-no-nail-wasted Mar. 18 report, Mrs. Chua “nixed” the idea of purchasing bookcases with glass doors.

Open cabinets expose the books to air, she advised. Don’t let molds move in.

I have donated books to libraries and not once have I thought of the space that will hold them. A sentimentalist, I imagined the books would fly off the shelves and become bedtime companions or storytime staples.

So this old heart skipped several beats when I read Cherry’s report and saw the pictures of the library “abandoned” when the SunStar editorial team moved offices.

I remember when editors grudgingly walked away from their monitors to open and pore over the library’s dictionaries and maps. Dust made one editor sneeze her head off; she checked anyway.

Will journalists in the future ask a librarian for vertical files? Will a librarian still be around to be asked?

Like a good general who discards sentiment for tactics, Cherry suggested recycling the cabinets, for which she had to “step over some dead roaches” to measure.

As of this writing, our fellowship is mulling how to classify the books.

In an age when a smartphone holds hundreds of titles and scanning has displaced reading, this odd company heeds an ancient nesting instinct to provide for arguably the best human invention: books.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 26, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Into the light

THE “SATURDAY Special” was dinner fare my sister and I, growing up, memorized. The night before Sunday marketing, our household always ran out of food.

The quick and cheap solution to Saturday dinner was scrambled eggs and chorizo. The latter—ground meat stuffed into small balls tied from a coil of pork intestine—mesmerized and repelled.

Frying split the skin, releasing an oozing trail of pink-colored fat. When I saw my first salvaged victim, dumped outside a factory on the way to school, Saturday Special immediately came to mind.

It was hard to see the body, hogtied and bloated in decomposition, had been a person.

A similar problem afflicts the characters in F. H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. First released as a novella, the 2015 novel is set in 1997, when the bodies of young boys are found in Payatas.

As invisible as the alluded tautology—dumped in the mother of all dumps—is the possibility of a pattern behind the killings.

To prove or disprove this would require gathering and studying the evidence. This involves not just resources but the will to prioritize the investigation.

In Batacan’s corrupt and cynical Manila, the problem is: everyone sees but no one cares when the poorest of the poor die.

As metaphors, dumpsites have few rivals. Until a landslide of trash in Payatas killed more than 200 scavengers and left 300 missing in 2010, few Filipinos pondered how trash dumped heedlessly grew into a mountain.

Today, Payatas, Smokey Mountain in Tondo, and Inayawan in Cebu City not just overshadow the barangays where they are located. They have become “poverty porn symbols,” beloved of filmmakers and politicians.

The expression, “payat sa taas,” means the top soil is not fertile for planting crops. The new tillers of these forsaken places, scavengers know that only digging deep will bring to light the trash that can be sold for the day’s meal.

“To dig” is the key to salvation in “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. Reject blindness, expressed by a police official’s denial: “there are no serial killers in the Philippines… We’re too Catholic, too God-fearing, too fearful of scandal”.

To dig is also to peel away the pretensions of power. After a cleric defends the confidentiality surrounding Church investigations of priests accused of sexual abuse, a law enforcement official counters, “Is… (the) credibility (of the Church) built on what people don’t know, rather than what they do know?”

Just before gazing at another body found in Payatas, a priest prays: “Please, God, let the face remind me this used to be a human being.”

If we heed the disquiet, these times call for us to dig.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the March 19, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column of Sun.Star Cebu, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 11, 2017

No small miracle

I WISH there were more Jesuits like Father Gus Saenz.

First, he has a bookshelf I wouldn’t mind spending endless detention hours with: Asterix comics, glossy art books, and “DNA in the Courtroom” (although to be honest, I prefer “CSI” reruns: more Hollywood than science).

He has democratic, even “reprobate” taste in music: Gregorian chants and rock music, which he plays very loud while cutting up bodies.

When fellow priest and protégé Jeremy Lucero complains about R. E. M. blasting into their ears during an autopsy, Father Gus defends the rock band whose greatest hit is “Losing My Religion”: “Don’t knock it. It’s the closest either of us will ever get to sex.”

F. H. Batacan’s creation of a character with a complex inner and outer life is a good enough reason to rush to the nearest bookstore for “Smaller and Smaller Circles” before the copies disappear altogether.

The plain truth is that in this country, books written by Filipinos rarely share the gilded reprinting destinies of foreign bestsellers like the Harry Potter series and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

According to Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo in her University of the Philippines (UP) Press book, “Over a Cup of Ginger Tea: Conversations on the Literary Narratives of Filipino Women,” the first printing of English-language books written by Filipinos usually runs only to 1,000 copies.

It’s no small miracle that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” was reprinted four times since it was first published as a novella by the UP Press in 2002. The slim book became an underground favorite. Total number of copies reprinted by 2006: 6,000.

By then, the novella gathered the critics’ nods: the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1999; the Philippine National Book Award from the Manila Critics’ Circle in 2002; and the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2003.

 The copy I recently bought from a local bookstore is from the 2015 printing by independent New York publisher Soho Crime of “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the novel.

For three years, its author rewrote and expanded the novella from the original 155 pages into the novel’s 357 pages.

The author is Maria Felisa H. Batacan, who worked for 10 years with the Philippine intelligence community, before going into broadcast journalism and crime and mystery fiction writing. She was a fellow at the 1996 Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

Marketing a book through its cover, blurbs neatly summarize the F. H. Batacan behind “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. But blurbs cannot justly capture what makes this novel about a serial killer in 1997 resound to this day. (To be continued)

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 12, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Summer mysteries

CATCHING sight of the modest starbursts of yellow in our water apple tree, I realized that summer is here.

The tiny flowers with many stamens promise that the bell-shaped fruits will soon be out. I grew up thinking that the fruits saturated in pink verging on the red were the juiciest and sweetest.

The tree in our small garden, though, yields only the greenish white bells of the parent tree from which it was marcotted. Their pale jade wakes a memory of sourness, only to be dispelled when the first bite brings a watering, overflowing tart sweetness.

Like children and water apples, summers change. Of all the occupations I held, I stayed longest with teaching perhaps because it left me summers to enjoy.

Two months of freedom from school and routine challenged my sister and I to think of ways to rush sunrise into sunset. Long after we tired of eating, playing, quarrelling, and watching TV, the day was still far from over.

So I read. When I was finished with the books at home, I reread those I liked.

Then I got tired even with the ones I liked. So I wrote.

I discovered empty sheets in old notebooks, and converted these spaces into an impatient, furious confessional. Some stories I rewrote and reread to myself.

School interrupted. But there was always summer to look forward to.

Now, whenever I see summer’s flowers—white stars dotting the water apple tree, the dirty yellow carpet shed by trees growing on the wayside, orange flames engulfing fire trees—I think of the mysteries of reading and writing.

As a consequence of the shift to the August to May international academic calendar, the midyear term has affected summer.

Yet, it may take time for the rationale of improved competitiveness brought about by synchronization with the global community to seep in and transform summer, which, in this country, embraces not just climate but also culture and consciousness.

Recently, I saw on my table a story handwritten and illustrated on a ruled yellow sheet of paper. Its author is Athea, 9.

She loves to plant herbs with her two younger brothers. When she discovered how much herbs fetch in markets, she made up her mind to grow and sell them.

Athea and her brothers have mixed cement, sand, and water to help the carpenters building their home. She has also made up her mind to become an architect.

In a haste to grow up, Athea makes time to read Geronimo Stilton. She can only focus on her tablet for half an hour. Then she gets restless and looks for a sheet of paper and pencil.

Her tale of two friends and their floating pumpkin came from one such interval in Athea’s crammed, full life. And for her, summer—a lifetime of summers—has yet to begin.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 5, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 25, 2017


WHERE was I on Feb. 25 31 years ago?

Like any member of the genus Neotoma, I pride myself in being a passionate collector. The genuine packrats in the animal world, woodrats stockpile debris in their nests.

Over the years, I’ve kept many of my notebooks. These are the old-fashioned ones: paper bound by thread, spring or glue. I took notes, planned lectures, reflected, and doodled.

The notebooks are not valuable. First, I can barely read my penmanship. Most importantly, I cannot remember where I kept the hoard. What use is a record that cannot be found?

Yet, yesterday’s 31st anniversary of the Edsa People Power Revolution reminded me why I would rather not part with a notebook.

In my attitude towards writing, reading and recollecting, I perhaps share more affinity with war survivors than rodents.

Persons who endured extreme deprivation in World War II cannot seem to let go of their possessions.

What’s worthless for others may be insurance against hardship. Or is writing just memories made tangible and easier to retrieve?

By stirring up people to express different perspectives about an event in 1986, President Duterte has made People Power timely and relevant again, a brilliant stroke in resuscitating Filipinos’ dependably undependable sense of history.

The Malacañang pronouncement that Filipinos should not dwell in the past and the President’s decision to skip the low-key ceremony did not prevent people from engaging like no past spectacle at the Edsa Shrine has orchestrated.

Yesterday, I watched TV coverage of a small group of black-shirted protesters move in after another group moved away from the Edsa Shrine. Against tradition, the administration held the Edsa rite at the military headquarters in Quezon City.

People choose their memories. Most of the faces holding up the black banner of protest were born after the Philippine Revolution of 1986.

A day before the 31st Edsa Revolution anniversary, I participated in a Cebu seminar training the media and members of civil society on monitoring the judiciary. The seminar kit came in a black envelope.

A former student, now a lawyer with a civil society organization, stood out in her black T-shirt with words bringing back an era in what the great historian Renato Constantino called as our continuing past.

On Feb. 25, 2017, I started to hunt for 31-year-old notebooks.

There is an online game called “a reunion of friends”. One is asked to describe a first meeting with one word. In the intersecting circles of friends, there is an infinite variety of words to describe first meetings.

For Feb. 25, 1986, my word is “community”. What’s yours?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 26, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Once upon a mais

NOTHING is more at home in the Cebuano gut than bugas-mais (corn grits).

For lunch, we had goso (seaweed), fried fish, and rice-corn combo. Since we are island dwellers, the first two dishes are regular fare on our table.

The third dish is courtesy of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) team, which conducted a recent inquiry to determine the feasibility of promoting a combination of 70 percent rice and 30 percent corn throughout the UP system.

What struck me while I was organizing the FGD in Cebu was the general puzzled reactions: why combine rice and corn?

The Institute of Plant Breeding, Crop Science Cluster of the College of Agriculture of UPLB placed the rice-corn blend’s health benefits on the product label: the low glycemic index of corn promotes slow digestion, which in turn prevents the sudden rise in blood sugar, builds up stamina, and diminishes the craving for snacks.

Though helping diabetics, dieters, and the “figure-conscious,” corn grits lag behind rice. According to an article by Dr. Serlie Barroga-Jamias on, some people think that mais is only fit for the poor or livestock.

To promote this “food for champions,” the UPLB researchers produced, after several taste tests, a rice-corn blend that “tastes and looks like pure rice”.

Perhaps needed in Luzon, is this dietary sleight of hand required in Visayas and Mindanao, traditional corn-eaters?

During the 2008 rice crisis, the Cebu Province promoted sinanduloy, which combines rice with the cheaper and more nutritious kamote (sweet potato).

However, it will take more than the nation’s problems with rice production and importation to reduce Filipinos to the measures demanded by wartime deprivation.

Contemporary Cebuanos eat rice and corn separately. Cebu has no shortage of sellers, with buyers even choosing the milled size of the corn grits.

In wet markets, Numero Disesais (no. 16) costs P700 for a sack of about 48 kilos. That’s about P28 per kilo of corn grits while the Ganador variety of white, polished rice costs about P50. For budget-conscious Cebuanos, the P65 price of a kilo of rice-corn blend is steep.

However, after learning that friends in the south of Cebu now buy bugas-mais when they once planted corn for consumption, I realized that more than taste trends and market prices determine the future of corn-eating.

Climate change has made many Cebu farmers balk at investing in fertilizers and pesticides. Raising pigs and goats is quicker and more lucrative.

Coupled with “unlimited rice” and the fast food trend of exclusively serving polished rice, will bugas-mais eventually disappear from our tables and palates?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 19, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Love bytes

MANY young persons don’t know how to write a letter. I’ve read missives without a salutation or a complimentary close.

Rarely does a young letter writer find out the name of the person he or she is addressing. Or verify the spelling, the position, or the gender.

And the tone, the tone of the letters. Millennials write a letter as if it were just another SMS, Tweet or status post on Facebook.

A teacher drummed into our senior high school class that writing a letter is not first about getting what you want; it’s about letting the words reflect who you are, crucial when the person reading the letter has never met you.

All that seems like worlds ago.

According to “Heartbreaks and Healing,” a survey of 500 Filipinos recently conducted by the online shopping site Lazada, technology and new media mediate in the relationships of many Filipinos.

To break up with partners, 58 percent of Filipinos used their mobile phones; 34 percent did it in person; and 6.3 percent gave a handwritten letter.

More Filipinos (30 percent) chose to text and break up, compared to the 22 percent who called and the seven percent who resorted to instant messaging.

Perhaps technology spares more feelings. And trees, too. (I imagine I would try to write a “break-up” letter, crumple and throw aside, start with a fresh sheet, crumple again, and so forth. Or perhaps mistake a ream of paper as fresh tissue for a freshet of tears.)

The same Lazada survey (no data about scientific rigor) revealed that “online profiling” is standard to check out a potential partner.

Fifty-four percent of the respondents visited the social media page of a potential date, with 60 percent of these respondents losing interest in someone they liked before they stalked them online.

Ages ago, my generation used the “FLAMES” technique as an alternative to card-reading, matchmakers, and the personal network of relatives and friends one could rely on to spy on one’s obsession.

I wrote my name and the name of the boy, crossed out the common letters, and counted the remaining letters. If the last count landed on “F,” it meant the boy and I would remain friends; “L” meant “lover;” “A” for “acquaintance;” “M” for “marriage;” “E” for “enemy;” and “S” for “sweetheart”.

One could try a variation of nicknames to get the coveted “S” or avoid the dreaded “A”. In the corridors where nuns and teachers were omnipresent, we giggled that “L” came before “M”—a daring sequence we found romantic but too racy to aspire for.

In the age of instant connections and bloodless breakups, I wonder about social media’s substitute for the firing squad on Valentine’s Day. Technology shouldn’t be destiny.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 12, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Bartering news

IN the classroom, another way of verifying I’m generations older than my students is the newspaper in my tote.

My primary source of daily news is made of paper and ink.

No one else brings an old-fashioned newspaper unless I require it for class. Students check first smartphones or tablets for messages, chats and online discussions, which, for their generation, is The News.

Many young people treat the news found in traditional newspapers as DBEYR (don’t believe everything you read) or plain TMI (too much information).

When I recently asked students enrolling in “Introduction to Journalism” to study the issues of newspapers that recently redesigned their layout, I overheard comments that “it became smaller?” and “it doesn’t look anymore like a newspaper”.

One paper revealed its new design about four months ago; the other daily, last month. In this discussion, I must have sounded like an aggravated sphinx, impatient to answer its own riddles because it realizes the curse of the old is to remember what the young have no connection to.

Perhaps the apathy is not directed at journalism, only the traditional form in which it comes. My students say they enter our brick-and-mortar library only when teachers require them to read traditional books, not just Google websites, for their research.

Teaching writing to undergraduates for three decades, I’m fascinated by the lessons on reading and engagement I get in return. This is news literacy from the young but not newsless.

So recently, when social advocates discussed with me the cause they were championing, I had to disabuse them about my limited influence as a columnist and an editorial writer.

If last week’s column, “The snake, princess,” had 1,812 shares on Facebook within 24 hours, it was most certainly due to the clickbait subject: Ms. Universe and Snake Princess.

Could I replicate that online feat if I wrote about extrajudicial killings (EJK)?

These are challenging times when bloggers are dislodging journalists from the gaze of the public. Rather than look down our pens on social influencers, we should compete to engage the audience.

Central to communication is not just the sender or the message but also the receiver. Thus, we must pay more attention to the young and emerging and less on the “alingawngaw” or the noise of our generation’s judgment of Millennials.

During the Socio-Caravan Visayas held at the University of the Philippines Cebu last Feb. 3, Dr. Clarence M. Batan used this term to criticize the K to 12 system’s absence of a research-based foundation.

The word means hearsay or rumor. If anything, paper just means waste for Millennials. We cannot conclude that they are newsless.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s February 12, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The snake and the princess

BEAUTY contests open culture like a can opener.

I viewed recently a Facebook video showing the uncanny resemblance between Snake Princess and the Ms. Guam candidate for the 2017 Ms. Universe contest, Ms. Muñeka Joy Cruz Taisipic.

Ms. Taisipic is winsome. Yet, I might not have been able to single her out from the other contenders in the international beauty tilt if not for Medyo Maldito’s video.

Snake Princess and Medyo Maldito are social media influencers of Mugstoria, whose fame rests solidly on their viral memes about “hugot (love)” and Bisaya humor.

The video, “NAA SI SNAKE PRINCESS SA MS UNIVERSE !!!,” has 442,000 views, 2,790 shares, and about 228,000 reactions from Netizens.

According to the video’s top comments, Snake Princess—Mark Anthony Abucejo before she was discovered roaming the streets by Mugstoria founder Jonji Gonzales—is admired for making fans laugh.

Her online trademark is not just a “hugot” punchline but that tossing of her bangs, backed up by a melodramatic theme song.

In real life, fans say the Snake Princess is “buotan (pleasant)” and “hinagad (approachable)”. During a UP Cebu forum where Mugstoria was the guest, the Snake Princess, in casual dress and rubber slippers, made quite an impression with Iskolars ng Bayan, usually blasé about celebrities.

The Snake Princess may yet crack the culture industry of beauty contests, a feat unsuccessfully attempted by guardians of morality and women’s rights advocates.

A biological male, her online persona strikes fans as very “feminine”.

When she utters her lines in thick Bisaya–flavored English, she scores a point against the Filipino’s English snobbery. She advises the lovelorn, specially females, to love themselves first and never allow their partners to treat them like doormats.

If I were a Millennial, I would follow the Snake Princess, free to become who she wants to be.

Why would I want to be a poor young woman trapped in the archaic institution of the beauty pageant?

A beauty titlist must have the self-abnegation of a saint, the discipline of an athlete, and the mental preparedness of a journalist. Add a politician’s survival instincts, a diplomat’s reservoirs of good will, and a gymnast’s flexibility.

All these to become a spectacle, tottering in four-inch heels and posturing before gawkers mentally weighing them as cuts of meat. A beauty princess is resigned to have her past examined, her grammar corrected. Passing all these tests, she accepts that she cannot please everyone in the world/earth/universe.

A snake, able to shed off old skin and reinvent, seems to have a better time than any princess.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the January 29, 2017 issue of the Sun.Star Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Searching for the Bisaya

Size matters. Raymund E. Fernandez’s “Kamingaw” stands that truism on its head.

The book is a near perfect cube, a foot on each side. It’s awkward to read in bed or bring to the toilet.

When I sat down to first open the book given by my faculty room neighbor, I purposely sat down at the desk that abuts the area of Raymund, a former mentor and now fellow teacher at the state university.

The book jacket carries the subtitle: “An Impressionist Portrait of the Bisaya Painter Martino A. Abellana”.

Under that subtitle, any book would stagger. It is not just the lengthiness or the art jargon. It is also the insinuation of “Bisaya”.

As Ino Manalo writes in the foreword of the book published by the University of San Carlos Press, “The term may seem innocent at first until one realizes that it not only marks geography but also implies a positioning in art production on a national scale.”

An outsider may view “Bisaya” with dismay, regarding the label as a dismissal, not just an appraisal.

Born and raised in Cebu, I am drawn to the word, which pulls like a beacon. Who is the Bisaya? What is his or her place in the story of the Filipino?

Raymund is the guide for such a quest. At first browsing, “Kamingaw” satisfies the expectations of art patrons and coffee table book collectors.

Its photographs of Abellana’s paintings and sketches are numerous, lush, and diverse, encompassing the portraits of Cebu elite that secured his reputation and the less known but more tantalizing sketches of the artist’s family, his Art students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, and slices of Bisaya life.

When I covered the prominent and powerful of Cebu, I made one distinction to separate the old from the new rich: the former had a portrait by Abellana. Yet, the book’s most arresting photos, many of which came from the UP Cebu-funded catalogue compiled by Raymund and fellow teachers Cristina Martinez-Juan, Jovi Juan and Estela Ocampo-Fernandez, capture the profundity Abellana saw in the inconspicuous: an old man sitting on a box, a family knelt in prayer.

Raymund’s writing illuminates this discordance in Abellana’s subjects. Expecting to read art history or criticism, I pored over “Kamingaw” because it is personal and intimate on several levels: as a documentation on how pre- and post-war Cebu molded an artist; as a memoir of a maestro’s influence on his students’ art and life beyond the classroom; as a meditation on the artist caught in the crosshairs of society and mortality.

“Bisaya,” whether under the brush of Abellana or the pen of Raymund, is a beacon to probe the dark with.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 22, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Back to the cave

LAST Friday, the 13th, redefined deadlines even for the most jaded.

At 4 p.m., the newsroom texted to remind columnists to submit their pieces early. It wasn’t just the Sinulog weekend but also the paper’s new, compact template that pushed deadlines.

Then, in the VHire queue, an SMS in my phone at past 7 p.m. announced that, as “part of security measures during the Sinulog Festival,” signals will be blocked during the weekend, making call, text, and mobile data unavailable in metro Cebu.

When I arrived home near 9 p.m., phone and wifi services were already suspended. I didn’t have to tax my imagination, visualizing the panic this weekend: no ATM withdrawals, no mobile connections, no surfing, no ranting except to those physically nearby.

The impact of last Friday the 13th sank in when I sat down to write near midnight. Beside the computer were writing companions from way back: a dictionary, a thesaurus, and newspapers—all in paper form, not digital.

Going unplugged is anomalous even though I impose this on myself as a ritual purging, a psychic detoxification, an airing of the rooms inside my head.

In my 18 years or so of deadline writing, the Internet is the abiding presence that transforms solitude into a claustrophobic company of three: writer, Muse, and World Wide Web.

Eighteen years ago, this threesome already bemused me. I’m still uncertain whether being in this crowd is boon or bane.

In the company of the new media, I feel like I’m parading around in the emperor’s new clothes. When my editor instructed me to have my photo taken for the redesign, I posed for the camera self-consciously, wondering how the way I looked influenced how readers of the digital age would read what I wrote.

The insecurities mounted when the paper’s new template came out last Monday. The reduced news hole means tighter writing. Can I choose the words? Can I go for depth with the minimum of text?

Last Friday the 13th clinched it. Not being able to email means I will have to save this piece in a USB, commute to the newsroom before the Sinulog chokes the streets, and pray that there is no policy against downloading a file using a gadget that may infiltrate the newsroom system with malware.

Eighteen years ago, when I first wrote for a newspaper, beating the deadline meant hauling husband, toddler son and floppy diskette to turn over the column to my editor.

Who could have predicted that the threat of terrorism would bring back the good old pre-digital age? If you’re reading this piece today, it means I’ve found my way in the darkness of the cave to read the writing on the wall.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 15, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


YEARS ago, when I had a problem with watery eyes, the examining doctor gave me a choice: an expensive eye solution or a quick exercise to rest eyes strained from staring too long at a computer screen.

I chose the exercise: roll the eyes and stare off at the distance before returning to screen-gazing.

This prescription for dry eyes was a Eureka! moment I try to extend to other spheres.

For instance, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to become empty. On my computer, there’s a wastebasket icon that fills up with the files I want to trash. I click the icon of overflowing e-trash. There’s a sound of crumpling paper and Eureka! the wastebasket becomes “empty”.

Not so with people. On road trips, I watch people watching the road. They’re not traveling. They’re not waiting for anyone. But for all the seeming inactivity, they don’t strike me as empty.

According to an online dictionary, “eureka” expresses the joy of discovery. The exclamation originates from the early seventeenth-century Greek word, “heureka” for “I have found it!”

Archimedes reportedly uttered “eureka” when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold.

For the contemporary person, I hazard that the value of emptiness is more than its weight in gold. Emptiness doesn’t refer here to a lack of meaning or purpose. It’s the mathematical equivalent of having no members or elements inside.

Remember walking inside a room before it contained anything? Imagine being in a room so cluttered and then Eureka! being surrounded by nothing. In human terms, there is no equivalent for the computer function to instantaneously “empty” the self.

However, imagine the possibilities for creating if one could empty oneself at will. For reinvention, healing, erasing, starting anew. Or just for escaping. The moment one gains consciousness is part of a continuum of endless but diminishing discoveries.

In a Nov. 4, 2016 article in The New York Times International Edition, I found one artist’s attempt to empty. Ed Ruscha, 78, paints “the micro and the macro,” according to the director of the Gagosian Gallery in London, where 15 new works of Ruscha were displayed.

Against paintings of skies and mountains, dust and discarded wood are words painted in diminishing order. Ruscha uses a typeface he created: Boy Scout Utility Modern.

For all their randomness, the words resemble the disjointed parts of a message sent intermittently. For instance, the work “Silence With Wrinkles” has this word sequence: “Silence” is printed boldest, followed by, in diminishing order, “Roomtone,” “Whisper,” “Commotion,” and other illegible words.

For the prices his works command (a 1963 painting commanded $30.4 million in a Christie’s auction in November 2014), the artist lives in Los Angeles and drives to a cabin in the California desert every week or so to attend to “‘events of plain living’—fixing a faucet, feeding a bird, watering a neglected tree.”

The Gagosian director explained the philosophical preoccupation of the latest Ruscha works as an offshoot of maturity: “He’s also getting older, so he’s starting to think about bigger issues.”

I like better Ruscha’s explanation for his desert retreats: “I like the no-change part of the desert.”

These buttons hit Eureka: a dripping faucet answering the conundrum of time, bird-feeding to locate our place in the universe, and a dying tree as a meditation on mortality.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 8, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”