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”