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”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017


THIS snake didn’t make it to the new year.

On the morning of the last day of the old year, I came upon several loops of black while wading in the low-tide pools along the coast in Badian.

The coils of what first resembled a discarded rubber tube had several flies hovering around one end, which used to be the head until someone or something took it off. About to touch the sinuous pile, I was sharply commanded by the husband to “leave it alone”.

Why? I walked away, curious. What had happened to the sea snake? Was it trapped in the shallows when the sea receded? Did one of the dogs roaming the shore come upon it? Why take away only the head?

These questions may not have bothered the hovering flies at all.

Yearends give birth to rituals. There’s more than a core of superstition in the attempt to look back and probe.

What for?

The desire to get away, even for a few days, moves our family strongest at the close of the year. For 360 or so days, we pursue different paths. Before the cycle ends and the next 365 days begin, we agree to disconnect and retreat for some quiet.

Anyone who knows the sea will disagree: the sea is anything but quiet.

Because the second to the last day of this year coincided with high tide, the susurrous sea was drowned out by the families that turned out to enjoy Jose Rizal’s birth anniversary.

The very young are awake even when dawn is still a lavender mantle in the horizon. They are joined by the very old. Those representing two extremes—farthest and closest to mortality—know better than to waste a day.

Our rooms overlooked a wide sandbar, where children played games from way before technology imposed an embargo on childhood. Shrieks and laughter pierced the air as I watched the children scamper on the sand, playing “tubig-tubig,” Japanese game, and a convoluted game of tag-the-It.

When the waves breached the farthermost ring of corals and rocks and the sea rushed in, the children were ready.

Mothers have no equal as watchers but fathers create the most fun for children. Naturally upholstered with generous bellies, fathers—with several youngsters hanging on to their biceps—
leaped and met the waves, a most inelegant sight but perhaps the most puissant of memories enduring past childhood.

When the sea began its retreat, the cycle was mirrored on humans. First, the young were cradled or dragged, protesting, for a rinse and the tearful ride home. Only the strongest and the most tested of swimmers stayed to test the depths.

As the human universe retracted, the sea reasserted itself. It has never been quiet. It is never quiet. Whistles, murmurs, creaks, crashes, rustles, lisps, pops. I gingerly picked my way, during ebbtide, among rocks, corals, and seaweed.

This breakwater looked like a wasteland. True, there were too many discarded liquor bottles to count. But the corals, like underwater cacti, were reviving with the inflow of the tides.

Between the crevices were sea urchin, each spiny creature a universe unto itself. Even in the driest pocket lurked a sense of waiting for the waters to return and restore life, color, surge.

Except for the dead sea snake. It was now food for the gods.

( 09173226131/

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 1, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”