Saturday, December 29, 2018


THERE seems to be more vehicles on the old narrow city streets. More and bigger vehicles, as if the change wasn’t bad enough. I feel the resentment percolating until I realize I’m contributing to the transformation of the city, the one place I regard as home even though I was born in the island across.

The craziest thing I learned the past year in Manila was to cross Edsa Boulevard “patintero” style, all eight lanes or so during the late evening rush hours from school to home. So crossing the narrow city lanes here bustling with motorcycles and tricycles seems like child’s play.

Many of the motorcycle drivers still wear no helmets, but the tricycle drivers are still the most polite and considerate of pedestrians crossing wherever they want (even if the older but wider-bodied vehicles still make the trademark buzzing that is bound to be the last thing one hears before sleeping and after waking).

The best way to get around the city is to walk; the worst is to bring a car, which has to be parked. Dumaguete taught me to love walking, which was how I discovered that the Old San Francisco Bookstore, which was a favorite lunchtime rendezvous along P. del Rosario St. in Cebu City, had relocated to a private residence’s garage in Dumaguete. It’s no longer there now.

In the ongoing building boom, the presence of old haunts and disappearances of others reminds me of the variability of the value of impermanence. There are definitely more sights to explore, food to sample, and settings to create memories with on Instagram and Facebook.

Like traffic, queues now exist in Dumaguete, a place that once shut down in the Sundays of old and during Good Fridays and Black Saturdays. When I met my friend, Dumaguete-born, she drove us to Valencia, on the outskirts of the city. We were looking for coffee served in a place run by a couple that retired, cooked the food they served in a place full of books they read and vinyl LPs and 45rpms they still played and listened to.

Y. and I were disappointed. The sign outside the café said it was closed for the holidays. We made a longish trip for nothing.

Still, for someone like me still looking to glimpse that laidback soul of the old Dumaguete, it was good to know some folks still knew how to take a break and walk away from it all. May we all be as discerning and wise.

( 09173226131)

• First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 30, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Word of the year

THE OXFORD word of the year 2018 is “toxic”.

I read the announcement on the last working day of the year, writing to meet the deadline of the last final paper of the semester with a mind already leaden from medicine taken to fight a rising fever and trying to swallow glasses of water with a throat rasping from a hard dry cough.

So, yeah, I agree with the Oxford editors on the word choice.

It’s an interesting journey for an adjective that was first used in English during the 17th century. Meaning “poisonous,” “toxic” has its roots in medieval Latin, “toxicum (poison),” which emanates from the Greek “toxikon pharmakon (bow poison)”.

According to, the ancient Greeks smeared poison on their arrowheads. The poison ensured that a mere scratch from an arrow meant certain death.

However, it is not the Greek word for poison that leapt to Latin but the Greek word for bow, bringing along the same meaning associated with the lethal and deadly.

There is no explanation why this is so.

The Oxford editors’ reasons behind the selection of the adjective are aptly illustrated, though, by the metaphor of a poisoned bow. Bearing deep cultural significance, the word of the year reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year”.

In 2018, the editors noted a 45-percent increase in online searches of “toxic” on These are the top 10 collocates, or pairings of “toxic” with another word, arranged in order of diminishing frequency: chemicals, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae, and air.

From my sickbed, the poisoned bow shot off for two prominent destinations: traffic and the Internet.

After getting seriously sick twice the moment I am home from studying in Metro Manila, I treat urban traffic with utmost distrust. There are strains of violence lurking in daily battles of commuting. I am not just talking of the screaming, victimising, and aggressing that I witness in other people; I’m also talking of deep, hidden wells of anger and frustration I expose in myself in commuting to connect A to B.

The same goes for online connections. I’m not even referring to trolls, which I don’t engage with. Of course, in the swamp of the Internet, it’s hard to distinguish the trolls from everyone else. Negativity is to the Internet what smog is to Metro Manila, Cebu City, or any urban center.

The self-righteousness that pushes every driver to stay on course and not give up an inch on the highways is not different from the instinct to scroll, post, and engage. I guess the Greeks win the point over the Romans: more lethal than poison is a vector.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 23, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

True believers

THE QUICKEST fix for reading on demand is comfort reading.

I take a cue from Rappaccini’s daughter and find a cure in the poison itself. Thank you, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Fiction is comfort reading, the flip side of a pedant’s purposive reading, noble in intention but futile in its attempt to edify the plebeian creature who sneezes in the company of dissertations and never outgrows a liking for make-belief, illustrated, if you please.

Queuing recently at the college’s photocopying service, I waited for the ring-bound copies of my research drafts when a dignified gentleman placed on the counter an old portfolio with an extremely respectful air. He then conducted a dispassionate but probing interrogation of the machine operator on how “the books” would be treated in the process of coming up with the “facsimiles” preserving the “original works of art”.

Before he could wind up his cross-examination, the operator walked off in a huff. The gentleman turned to me, pursuing his suit that the covers of the copies must even then, “at least,” be reproduced as close to the original “in tooled leather with gilt letters”.

Curious to see the titles of “the books,” I glanced at his briefcase, which he held protectively, with both palms spread downward, as if the creatures it withheld were delicate and skittish at the least sign of the uncultured.

The stories are not inside, he said, intercepting my look. The truly worthwhile ones are all in the head, he said to no one, apparently disappointed in a world lacking imagination. When the operator gave my ring-bound manuscripts, spawns of sleep-deprived night and dawns, I did not immediately recognize these impostors.

Why do we care for fiction, for creatures who, no matter how seemingly real, can never be true?

“The mirror of fantasy” allows us a glimpse of what “fall(s) through the cracks,” wrote Neil Gaiman. Fiction is a mirror that shows us sometimes the “things we have seen so many times that we never see them at all, for the first time”.

Some journalists, after a habit of writing based on information that has carefully been verified with multiple sources, find they are immobilized by an appeal to write using the “imaginary”.

While I listened to the gentleman brood over the reproduction of “the books,” of whose existence he was the only one privy to, I was skeptical about his sanity.

Yet, for true believers, faith is not in the proof. It is in the narrator’s insistence to bring forth a story.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 16, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 08, 2018


I COULD say I write when it is still dark outside, too dark to see the weeds grown rampant, the lithe forms I imagine surging under cover to stake out and pounce on some small life the cats will toy with until it expires, a corpse they will pass and cross and ignore without twitching a tail in the stark morning’s judgment.

But I would be lying. I wake because every year’s ending, when the dark stretches longer and claims dominion over the light, shortens my rest and wakes me, unrested, wondering which work to resume, only to leave the question unanswered to confront the sun’s late ascent.

Though, with the light, comes many distractions. Below my window, spinning for days, a black spider ponders before moving one of her eight legs. It takes her a while to think, move, think, and move those needle-like legs, trembling in the wind that shakes the leaves of the plant she has chosen for weaving her web.

Yet, for all her ruminations, I can see the filaments of her gossamer musings shimmer in the light. When she settles under a leaf, I wonder at her seamless slipping from industry to quietude.

How can she wait? What else can beast or person do but endure waiting? In the still dark mornings, after my eyes open and slowly map out our bedroom from memory, I try to grasp something in my mind but it always slips away before I can trace its outlines.

These blue hours before light breaks like a seam in the horizon can be a strain. An acquaintance recently went home, complained he was tired, and went to bed. When his wife woke up, she found him lying on the floor, dead.

Not too long ago, a friend’s mother could not wake him up the morning after. I thought he would be in the office when we came back from a one-day holiday, reeling out another anecdote while we marked end-of-term papers. He was not.

That acquaintance had planned to drop by our home for an after-dinner chat. Our schedules didn’t match so we postponed. The beer could stay chilled in the fridge until he came, I thought. He will not.

There is a sleeping disorder that affects many people. In sleep apnea, there is an interval when one ceases to breathe. A sleep disorder specialist I interviewed showed me a room full of gadgets to diagnose and treat this condition, which can be life-threatening.

The specialist said that instead of surgery or an expensive gadget, a companion can sleep with you. Attuned to your breathing, she or he can shake you awake when you skip breathing.

In the still blue dawn, when I wake up, the thing that eludes, that escapes as soon as I start thinking about it, is the one thing I take for granted in the day’s distractions, in the fray: each breath I take.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 9, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 01, 2018


ON the eve of the 155th birth anniversary of the “Father of the Philippine Revolution,” I took Edsa lessons on history.

Last Nov. 29, I left the Diliman campus at 9 p.m.; I reached home at 2 a.m. on Nov. 30, the birthday of Andres Bonifacio and the reason behind the long weekend that turned commuting into a classic struggle.

The buses plying Edsa that night seemed to be the stuff of “hakot” dreams (practice of politicians to orchestrate “people power” through busloads of paid supporters).

Naturally, I listened to other people’s conversations as we were packed intimately like sardines in a can. “Ano ba meron (what’s up)?” asked a young female voice somewhere to the left behind me. “May sale sa Trinoma (is there a mall sale)?” responded the green-complexioned creature tapping the smart phone resting on my right arm.

Walking along Edsa lined thickly with commuters, I overheard haters of the usual suspects: ungrateful relatives, unappreciative bosses, and unfaithful Jade (why does no one ever curse the men these women are unfaithful with?).

It was nearly midnight as the second bus inched to BGC. My bus mates were outsourcing workers in a complicated relationship with their gadgets. As with the Edsa buses, which reduce passengers to stupor with a cocktail of soap drama, gag shows, and misogynist local movies, the BGC bus was completely silent until a man boarded on the next stop.

The fellow beside me glanced from his phone screen. Desultory chat about the “horrible” traffic. Long weekend coming up? asked the newcomer.

My seatmate confirmed: it’s a national holiday. National hero.

My eavesdropping self was elated: Finally! History remembered. This one even thinks Bonifacio the revolutionary deserves the honour that the American imperialists conferred on the reformist Rizal!
When the young men moved to the bus exits, my former seatmate added: Did you see his movie? Same guy promoting skin-whitening on Edsa!

I almost leapt out of the bus to chase that fellow: Which hero? What movie?

From a gigantic billboard in Ortigas, an actor smiles languorously at those who dream of bleached skin. The actor played Gregorio del Pilar, a hero of the Philippine-American War but certainly not the Supremo.

History documents that Bonifacio signed with his own blood a compact with fellow Katipuneros to liberate Filipinos from Spanish colonizers. He chose as his secret name, “Maypag-asa”.

“Hope” is a strange weapon to arm oneself with in a struggle against all odds.

Did Bonifacio foresee that, more than a century after the Philippine Revolution ended, we would have to summon this as we wage battle with historic amnesia and its champion, a giant Edsa billboard selling bleached dreams?

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 2, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 24, 2018


“THERE should be no better place in this country than UP for the expression of ideas without fear, without fear of violent retribution from one’s colleagues or from the State itself.”

This is according to lawyer Danilo L. Concepcion when he took office as the 21st president of the University of the Philippines (UP) on Sept. 20, 2017.

Concepcion’s investiture speech is particularly stirring in the context of his vision of leading the state university in “finding a common ground, a clearing,” which he defined as “a safe, free, and congenial space” within which UP constituents can “work productively to their full potential”.

Yet, recent events have revealed an unlit section in this “safe, free, and congenial space”.

Soon after the Nov. 18 anniversary of the Upsilon Sigma Phi—founded 100 years ago in UP Diliman and counting, among its more than 3,500 members-by-invitation-only, Ferdinand Marcos, Ninoy Aquino, and Concepcion himself—screenshots of Upsilonians’ private chats were leaked online.

#LonsiLeaks, as Netizens call it, shocks, angers, disgusts. Hatred and a particularly virulent strain of masculinity drunk on power and bent on domination and oppression run thickly through the language, the imagery, and imaginaries of the chat threads.

#LonsiLeaks solidifies a lingering disquiet. It is not just anxiety over lurking, imminent violence.

What unnerves is the general glazing over of the roots of violence. Whether it is fraternity-fuelled Othering, presidential jokes about ugly women-critics and lying journalist-critics, or the sex trafficking of women, men, and children, violence is rooted in inequalities of power, which objectify and erase people.

The intersections of human development, human rights, and human security are marginalized even in the the discourse of the search for UP leadership. The “qualifications” bruited about for academic administrators are “strategic thinking” and “resource generation”.

Only the call for “change” emanating from students, faculty, and other resistant constituents surfaces the tears and gaps in the veils of complacence and apathy dangerously disconnecting UP from Philippine society.

Concepcion must see that his administration’s vision of creating a “common ground, a clearing” for UP to chart a path towards “rationality” and “coherent wholeness of purpose” rests on appointing nominees Dr. Rolando B. Tolentino as UP Cebu chancellor and Dr. Maria Diosa Labiste as UP Diliman College of Mass Communication dean.

Scholars and activists, Tolentino and Labiste put people back into the visibility of development. We are parched for leaders who can lead the good fight, who are “makatao (for the people)”.

( 09173226131)

* First presented in SunStar Cebu’s November 25, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 17, 2018


WHEN my paper was rejected by a journal, what took the edge of the rebuff was the rebuff itself.

The rejection motivated because it ignited a new way of approaching the problem. All because the editor “engaged” with my writing.

In the age of virtual connections, doesn’t the verb “engage” have an antediluvian ring? Yet, even a dyad, facing each other, has to work with, not against, each other. Talking at the same time means no one is listening.

Each could pretend the other doesn’t exist. That only means the parties are not “engaging,” a Middle English word combining “in” and “gage,” the latter meaning, in French, “pledge” or “contract”.

A social contract honors the principles of engagement: dialogue, argumentation, even dissent. What makes a drawn-out, messy process valuable at the end is the participation of all parties, not just the privileging of a few dictating and imposing the terms of “engagement”.

Despite a century of student activism, some at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu conflate dissent with subversion. When students marched in October 2016 to demand a dialogue with then acting chancellor, lawyer Liza D. Corro, she and some members of the faculty locked the doors of the Performing Arts Hall (PAH) to prevent the activists from “storming in”.

The barricade made a parody of consultation: UP Cebu constituents were at the PAH to participate in the livestreaming of the search forum for the next UP president, yet our acting chancellor refused to face students protesting over facility rental fees imposed without consultation.

In the confusion of people appointing themselves the guardians of the PAH doors, an open backdoor allowed the students to slip in. They marched to the front; made their ear-splitting chants; jabbed with their fists; and walked out.

The acting chancellor might have appreciated that the protest was over in less than ten minutes. But she had slipped out after ordering me to message another teacher to face the protesters, many of whom were Mass Communication students.

On Nov. 29, after the UP Board of Regents’ votes are tallied, UP Cebu’s next chancellor shouldn’t even just focus on the activists, noisy though we may be.

Swathes of silence simmer in the university. To interpret these constituents’ silence as contentment with their lot is to close one’s mind to “endo,” “JO (job order),” and “agency-hiring,” variations of the same iniquity denying fellow workers the rights and benefits of regular employees.

Only in nominee Rolando B. Tolentino—teacher, activist, public intellectual— do I put my faith in leadership that will listen to the voices, clamorous, discordant, silenced. Listen and engage.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 18, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Soul search

THERE is more to the search for the next chancellor of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu than a contest between the incumbent, lawyer Liza D. Corro, and the challenger, professor Rolando B. Tolentino.

That is how a newspaper framed the “fight”.

The writer missed the story. When the storyteller misses, the story slips past and disappears.

A university is not a boxing ring. To be sure, there are passions seething or running rampant but these are details, not the story itself.

The story are the students. They are proof of life beyond the campus. The monks in the Dark Ages saw themselves as the keepers of enlightenment. They copied books by hand and preserved knowledge while the monastery walls kept the world, savage and cretinous, at bay.

Monks, no matter how learned, wither. Libraries, no matter how great, crumble. As it was in the Dark Ages and in every period thereafter, the world overruns enclaves of learning and unheedingly proceeds with its business.

So is the academe mere shadow on the wall of history? Covering priests squabbling over parish assignments and plum salaries, I wrote that a church of the poor should nip venality at its seminaries.

Two friends—a former seminarian and a former rector—observed that temptations begin in the seminary, where students watch the priests come to class with the latest car model or dangle a medallion that can serve as the cat’s saucer.

We covet what we see. We become disciples of our mentors. We practice what we learn.

Enrolling last August at UP Diliman, I swam in a raging current of students hoping to qualify for a slot. Free tuition in state colleges has spiked the desirability of UP.

Any of those private high school students I queued with have better chances than others of getting in UP. They are better fed, better educated, better supported. Even in UP, excellence is still a sieve privileging the privileged.

What do we give the young who swim against tremendous challenges? An overweening belief in the individual, entitled to reap the rewards of their striving?

Excellence alone will set UP for obsolescence. Only honor and excellence are UP’s true hallmarks, my teachers say. As I say, too, to my students.

The world is such that we in the academe must connect with the “barbarians” at the gates. We are them. By definition, the Middle English “university” traces its roots to the Latin “universitas,” meaning “the whole”.

As alumna, teacher, and student, I believe that UP Cebu should be led by professor Tolentino as its next chancellor. He can catch the tail of the story, steer UP Cebu to find its soul. All else is a march beyond the pale.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 11, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Sing the blues

PUKING because one mistook punch for plain fruit juice in a fellowship nearly missed because of a wretched inability to follow directions seems to be just a catalogue of misfortunes snowballing in one’s youth.

So I thought.

One summer decades ago, in a southern city for a workshop, I got lost, first wandering the streets and then finding the house of the writer hosting that evening’s fellowship.

I had no time to eat dinner so when I finally joined our workshop “family,” I thirstily downed several cups of a peach-coloured drink that was the only thing served, aside from copious writers’ talk.

Instantly, I felt warm breathless dizzy. Intending to splash water on my face in the toilet, I knelt before the toilet bowl, which became the repository of everything I could regurgitate, including unruly bits of poetry.

I didn’t end up a mess that night because P, a quiet fellow who worked in a bank and was an intense acolyte of James Baldwin off-work, read my face when I rejoined them.

Hailing a rattletrap tricycle, P whisked me back to the hostel. In his rush to go back, he left his paperback, which had well-thumbed pages of “Sonny’s Blues.” Understandably, this became my favorite of Baldwin’s works.

Yet, ignorance, not liquor, was my real nemesis. Fortunately, no one took advantage of my vulnerability then. I realized this after writing last Sunday’s column, focusing on a friend, raped after she had her first drink in the company of other writers.

The same column connected me with other friends who had their own brushes with sexual violence. This pattern emerges:

The person victimized is a woman. The predator is a male, always a senior in age, experience, and body of works who uses a gathering, such as a workshop, to take advantage of his status and influence to pursue a younger person.

As he is besotted, he assumes that the hapless focus of his self-delusions must also be besotted with him, even if she actively repulses his advances because he is married, repugnant, or both.

The women are overwhelmed, inarticulate, or, in one case, preyed upon by a man and a woman who meld their debauchery to take down their victim.

Language is faithful mimesis to reality: the abuser initiates the abuse. The victim is the object of the abuse; he or she does not “provoke” the violence.

One other feature connects these incidents of violence against women: the survivors tell their stories. To fight predators. To prevent victimization.

Abused for being poor, black, and gay, Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 4, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Beyond scandal

A FEW days ago, I cut two sprigs of bamboo from the grove in the garden, and stuck these in a bottle of water. This morning, the buds remain tightly rolled except instead of morning dew clinging to the spray, which now have a yellowish cast, there are three flies.

Strange fruits. The immobile globules drawing sustenance from the bamboo remind me of life coursing, unseen but resisting, in the stems that I will have to throw out in a day or two.

It is the morning I wake from my friend’s recounting of her rape by a fellow writer decades ago. Women’s advocates hail the reporting of rape, harassment, and other forms of sexual violence. More victims are coming out into the open; more are naming the nameless.

Have we finally succeeded in putting the survivors of sexual violence into the scope of visibility so we can no longer ignore and must do something about this crime?

Or are they just an exhibit, of which we, too, are part?

Remembering those drunken flies feasting on the dying bamboo, I wonder if journalism only normalizes sexual violence. The Oct. 24 sacking of the Philippine National Police Academy director over recent allegations of sexual abuse involving students and teachers may be framed as justice.

Is the latest sex scandal one because someone exposed the crime? Or because the crime involved mentors and students in an institution that trains future enforcers of rule and order?

Isn’t it more than a scandal to imagine how they will cope with the rest of their lives, those two plebes punished into performing oral sex on each other while watched by upperclassmen?

What about other lives cut by sexual violence that will never come out on newsprint or as soundbites? What about the certainty that those police trainees were not the only nor the last to be abused?

When a male friend recounted how, to enter college, he and four other young men stripped naked for examination in a common room, his feeling of debasement focused on the tip of the ruler with which he and the others were probed in all orifices.

The sexual orientations of the examiners did not even matter; the power that could normalize the personally abnormal by linking this with the socially desirable—abasement for education—marked him all these years.

Recounting the decades-old history with the male writer who raped her and the female writer who helped him carry this out, my friend said: “(The abuse) never leaves you. It is always there. This sharp memory. I still know his smell, his skin, his penis. I will not unknow it.”

Feeling a trespasser for “waking” these memories, I apologized. Her reply: “They are not memories. Write me well.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStarCebu’s October 28, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 20, 2018


THE MEMORIES came unbidden, released by a line I read for class.

The first took place when I was a teenager. For an X-ray requirement, I was removing my shirt and bra inside a government facility when the male technician suddenly returned to the room.

It was my first time. I was not given a lab gown. My father explained that during the procedure, no one would be allowed in the room except for the technician and I. X-rays were painless.

My father was right. It was over very quickly: the technician stood in front of me, snatched the shirt I was covering myself with, and took the X-ray.

I don’t remember if the technician was old or young, fat or thin. Some details remain sharp, though. I could not steady my fingers to refasten my bra even though the man stepped out as soon as the X-ray was taken. The room was chilly yet I burned, burned inside when the man looked down my chest.

We went home after the hospital. My father talked about something. We did not talk about what happened. After all, what can happen while one’s X-rays are taken?

Decades later, my son and I were going home after his grade school classes. When the van for hire stopped in front of our home, it was just my son, an elderly couple who lived in our village, and I who were left.

My son and I had to pass the husband, who was seated nearest the door. The avuncular fellow tilted his legs and helped my son down the van’s steps.

The man kept chatting with his wife, seated in front of us, when I followed with my bags and my son’s schoolbag. I felt his hands hold the seat of my pants and squeeze.

I dropped one of the bags in my hurry to get out of the van. Our neighbor did not look at me when he pulled the door shut and the van drove away.

Did it happen? I asked myself many times after the second incident. Today, more than a decade later, I can answer definitely. There are impressions that create a memory with the solidity beyond denial. The spread-out fingers covering and squeezing my buttocks are as real as the eyes that scoured my adolescent breasts, never even seen by my parents.

Why did I not call out the abuse? I never asked this question until a few days ago, when I read, stopped, and picked up reading again Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life”. Ahmed summoned the memories with the line used by women in self-flagellation: “if something happens, you have failed to prevent it”.

In a roundabout way, I found my answers: I was afraid my father would blame me. I was afraid I imagined the abuse. I was afraid of being vulnerable. I was afraid.

I am no longer afraid. This is my answer to the girl left in the X-ray room and the woman holding the bags. I am not afraid.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 21, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What sky brings

IT must be the angles of those legs, drawn as if by a child whose hand could not yet steady a crayon.

After I saw the Little Egrets recently flocking on the campus grounds, I now take a jeepney seat facing the grasslands across the University of the Philippines (UP) Press bookstore.

In the four years I’ve studied here, this was the first I’ve seen the Egretta garzetta congregate like starched white pillowcases blown helter-skelter off a line.

A full-time student, I spend the bulk of my days in the library. If someone pulled out the sky and replaced it with tarpaulin, I may not even notice.

A knapsack holding my laptop and books is my only incentive to take note of the sky. Walking once under heavily dripping trees, I looked up and wondered whether I should unfurl an umbrella when I spotted a flash of yellow in the dense green-black gloom of the canopy.

That was my first sight of Oriolus chinensis in the stand leading to the National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Department (Nismed) of UP Diliman.

The Black-naped Oriole is the Antulihaw to Visayans and the Kilyawan to Tagalogs.

Amado C. Bajarias Jr. in his “A Field Guide to Flight” quotes a proverb, “Wisdom begins… when one puts the right name to a thing.” Published by the Ateneo de Manila University in 2016, his book is subtitled “Identifying Birds on Three School Grounds”.

Bajarias, with lush illustrations from Oscar M. Figuracion Jr., guides even the amateur birdwatcher to the movement of the winged warblers and “skulkers” around three campuses: Ateneo de Manila University and Miriam College, both in the Loyola Heights District; and the UP campus in the Diliman district.

He considers as “the more (sic) important birding area” the UP Diliman, with its 493 hectares of grasslands, stands of acacia and fruit trees (with its insects, staple in bird diets), “even an agricultural field and a wetland”. Only the state university is also accessible to the public.

Known as Talabong in Visayan and Tagak in Tagalog, the Little Egret is one of the 29 families considered as “winter visitors,” according to the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines as cited by Bajarias. The Little Egret is a solitary forager but not shy, a fortunate adaptation because the grasslands the Talabong favor is along a busy route for Ikot jeepneys and cars.

Once slaughtered by milliners for the Aigrettes, the elegant plumes they sport during mating rituals, foraging Little Egrets remind me of ascetics bent over their prayer beads or academics drowsing over their books.

When the birds take wing, I see why they are God’s creatures: I catch a glimpse of the sky, the everlasting.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 14, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Happy endings

I WENT into a secondhand bookstore to get my mother a magazine of pictures showing the lovely frocks of actors attending a recent ball, but left it with a book about a barn of old, useless animals.

I was sidetracked by this personage encountered on the first page: “He was the color of old metal, broad-faced with thick whiskers and dark lines that ran from his nose to his forehead and down his back and sides. His coat was rumpled and slack, for all he was big. His paws were black, his tail was thick and ringed with black circles. It swelled out at the end like a fox’s brush. When he stood or sat, he rocked slightly from side to side like a punch-drunk fighter. He was stiff and walked low to the ground. His left ear hung down like a loose flap. He wasn’t old, but he looked beaten up.”

So I met Whittington, Alan Armstrong’s protagonist in the eponymous novel for young readers.

A “book for kids” is a misleading genre. True, there is a barn full of animals, all outtalking the humans.

From the standpoint of animals, a farm is hell on earth. One’s place in a barn is secured by the usefulness of either one’s existence or death: a horse must work and fowls mean either eggs or meat.

When two old racehorses are about to be sold as horsemeat, Bernie converted a tobacco shed that no longer held tobacco so he could keep the horses because he “just liked (horses)”.

So the shed becomes a sanctuary for Blackie, a lame hen who froze in the snow; Havey, a stray who turns out to be a “biter;” Whittington, thrown out by the parents of his master when he goes away to college; and other written-off pets.

Too many people like pets when they are novel and cute; for the pet, though, the connection is for life. As Aramis, the old gelding, explains to Whittington, “We’re helping Bernie raise his grandkids.”

The grandson Ben, a non-reader, is helped by his sister Abby every day at the barn. Lady, the barn matriarch, privately thinks ducks and other animals “had gotten along without reading,” but still organizes all the animals to support the children during the long, anxious reading lessons.

Rewarding Ben and Abby are the storytelling breaks by Whittington. This fanged and furred Scheherazade narrates how his nameless ancestor improves the fortunes of Dick Whittington, whose legendary struggles inspire Ben not to give up despite the bullying in school.

In “The Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade saves her life by telling stories. In “Whittington,” the redemptive power of stories starts with but goes beyond reading.

When Lady falls sick, Ben revives her with a story about herself: “Ben told about her encouraging his reading. ‘She taught me about taking charge of myself’.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 7, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Leche rising

A WRITING break gave me a rare chance to commute home before evening set in. I was climbing the steps of a footbridge that spanned Edsa when I heard something keening.

The sound was eerie, piercing even the cacophony from the traffic below. It jarred with the mellowing light of day.

The first time I heard this sound was during a rainy weekday evening, when a girl trying to board a bus at Philcoa, a terminal notorious for pickpockets as well as flashfloods, became another victim.

Since the jeepney I was riding slowed down to pick up passengers, I saw up close the girl, who dropped all her packages on the road, dissolve into incoherence, wailing “cellphonekocellphoneko” into the darkness.

Hearing that banshee howl again, I avoided looking around. More than the monster traffic that can splatter a human being or the flash floods that can overlap gutters in seconds, the special terror that Manila traffic holds for this transient Cebuano is urban violence.

As it turned out, I could not avoid her. By the time I noticed the commuters going down the ramp give her a wide berth, the woman bearing an infant was just a step above me.

“Lecheng buhay (cursed life),” she shrieked. In the second I saw the bald crown of the baby’s head over the women’s shoulder, I imagined its owner plunging down into the void over Quezon Ave., connected to the shrieks its mother flung like a venomous thread into the rush-hour turmoil.

Seeing a man walk down to them, the woman fell silent. I passed her and made my escape. Leche, I thought. Why curse milk?

On board the MRT, the late afternoon rush hour was peaking. Standing near my train’s exit was a better option than sitting down in the crush of bodies.

At Cubao, the doors slid open to let in more commuters. Nobody ever heeds that disembodied voice soothingly asking people to wait for the next train. Reason became transgression when the voice repeated with no trace of irony, “Give a seat for the elderly, the pregnant, the disabled”.

A woman whose torso is twisted like a screw stood with the rest of us. No taller than a child, she left a gap in the throng, angering commuters making for that vacant space. No one heeded those remonstrating there was a person standing in that space, urging people to stop pushing.

An elderly man before me snapped back at the woman behind. “Leche,” he punctuated the phrase that roared out from him. I closed my eyes just as the woman shrieked back, “Don’t shout at me, gago (fool)!”

When the cursing dwindled to a whine, I opened my eyes.

What a surprise. I was not in a pen, an arena where beasts are about to tear me apart.

The week had just started in the land of milk and honey.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 30, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Not just on paper

LOVE is physical, most of all love for a book. You know the signs of obsession: the desire, always keen, never stale, to open a new book and dip your nose into the fusion of odors rising from the crack of its pages, to run the balls of one’s fingers on the unevenly serrated pages, and more.

By now, you know I am talking of a book made of paper. In the age of ebooks, this love endures. Nothing replaces the sheer physicality of bodily contact with something that segues into imagining, reflecting, thinking.

Like all loves, this one, too, has its perils. This week my search for a book took me to one of the libraries, where I and then a succession of librarians realized that the anthology edited by Seyla Benhabib and others, “Feminist Contentions,” did not exist except in the virtual sense.

While a digital system keeps track of entire collections in all the libraries of the university, this particular collection was recently transferred from one building to another. According to a librarian, the book may have been “misplaced” during the relocation.

Another book I sought was also lost to history. My professor’s copy of “Gender Studies: Terms and Debates,” edited by Anne Cranny-Francis and others, went up in flames along with other irreplaceable collections in the destruction of the Bulwagang Rizal some years ago.

Pursuits drive obsessions. There are other libraries, friends with collections, friends who know other book lovers, secondhand bookstores, and, if all else fails, online sellers.

Paper may be a fragile vessel except in the estimation of those for whom its existence matters. Fire took away all that my professor collected over a lifetime of studies except for those she had turned over to the college photocopier for reproducing the reading packs in the courses she was teaching.

In the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Main Library is a collection that represents a collective resistance to amnesia. The Philippine Radical Papers were criticisms printed from the late sixties to the early seventies against the Marcos dictatorship.

Activists donated collections. Students, teachers, and library staff gave the manifestoes and leaflets collected during teach-ins and rallies. Underground organizations sent copies of newsletters.

Library tables became depositories for unknown others, who left behind materials, possession of which turned one into an enemy of the state and subject for arrest or worse during martial law. In 1998, the UP Press published a subject guide to the collection.

When the object of love cannot be physically possessed, what comes closest is anamnesis (remembrance).

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 23, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Felis politikos

FINALLY, I solved a mystery concerning this coterie of cats I run into every morning on my way to breakfast. Walking up the drive that leads to a cafeteria on campus, I see cats of all ages, colors, and sizes lined up along the driveway.

I have hailed one or two but receive no sign—not even an impassive blink from those glacial gem-like orbs—that I have been seen.

It is a strange thing. Cats and their humans have the oldest and most abiding form of bondage. For all that supercilious demeanor, a cat tolerates a human better than its fellow Felis catus.

Another cat is an ego as selfish as its own whereas a human does not just offer without being commanded slavish devotion but comes conveniently with a home, which a cat needs if it is to be distinct from its undomesticated cousins, the serval, the margay, and the other big cats.

Then when I was running late, I finally saw why the cats queued up like clockwork every morning.

I can still see the long diaphanous lavender scarf the woman wound twice around her neck before she took out a blue ice cream container from a black purse and began ladling out for every cat, who broke free from their feline formation for its long awaited breakfast of porridge.

And, of course, each cat dined on its own for as the woman in lavender must have known all too well, a cat socialises with humans but never with the competition.

Around this sprawling campus are many evidences of this étatization by cats. Borrowing the French word for the “state,” anthropologist James Ferguson coined a neologism for the “knotting/coagulation of power” that ends in an unholy trinity among the state, the local elite, and the people as subjects of power.

After I walked in from the monsoon rains to a freezing classroom smelling mightily of cat, I realized ours is a university run by people for cats. To be sure, there is no tail swinging and twitching from the seats of influence but why should a cat seek the burdens of office when already seemingly all of academia dote on them?

There is the guard on duty who makes a detailed inspection of the identification card required from every student entering the college. My knees almost buckle down from anxiety that my professor will not accept the paper requiring 50 journal citations because I am detained while my fuzzy photo goes under the guard’s gaze and runs the gamut of epistemological analysis from positivism to anti-positivism.

A sleek black-and-white body insinuates in and out of my legs. I look down on the desecuritization cat, proof that even a creature who pees on books does not need a badly taken mug shot to enter the building and claim the affections of the powers that be. 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 16, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Saturday, September 08, 2018

“Stretch pa more”

WALKING around campuses has enriched my vocabulary a word, a meaning at a time. At Diliman this week, tarpaulins announced a forum on disaster risk reduction.

The mouthful of English jargon translates into a single word in Filipino: “katatagan”.

I like how those upright strokes forming the consonants that precede the successive explosions of the first syllables resemble pillars before the final syllable descends and eases like an unfurling wave.

The late Rodolfo Cabonce’s Visayan translation also astonishes: “kamainat-inat”. The capability to spring back from hardship implies a backbone of suppleness not otherwise implied in a code of rigidity.

In class, my journalist professor observed that resilience has also been misused by the state or media to gloss over the people’s suffering. Runaway inflation? Street killings? Jokes degrading women? Smile: The Filipino is disaster-proof.

Rephrase “inat-inat” to the more current “stretch pa more”. As a girl, I played with rubber bands and garters.

In these competitions—whether to win my rival’s stack of multicoloured bands by flicking this the farthest or outjumping the competition in Chinese garter, raised by increments—I was testing my ability to spring back.

The sight of Jessie is familiar to those taking to the Oval in Diliman for morning exercise. I first met him while walking down the same slope he was walking up, balancing a pole that had a large can full of fresh “taho” on one end, and, in the other, bottles of soya milk.

I was looking for a poem in the mossy bricks in the path to keep my mind off my knapsack and the extra tote with library books for returning. From Jessie’s expression, I could tell his side of the slope was even more interesting than mine.

“Mabigat (heavy)?” I said to him as much as to myself. “Sakto lang (just right),” he said, smiling slightly.

Years ago, Dr. Madrileña de la Cerna was my editor in a project to compile the histories of Cebu towns and cities. A History class “terror” at UP Cebu, Ms. Madz never gave up while I brooded over my manuscript like a hen sitting on a nest of imaginary eggs.

It takes more than writing disasters to faze Ms. Madz. Since she shepherded me through the final “final” deadline, she handles thrice-weekly dialysis and recently, treatment for breast cancer while still being Ms. Madz: volunteering for Cebu culture, serving the community.

In Cabonce’s dictionary, “resignation” precedes “resilience”. In a poem, the best is saved for the last. The best is savouring steaming “taho” from someone whose day begins earlier than mine.

And learning from a teacher who inspires long after she left the classroom.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 11, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Many mothers

LANGUAGE preoccupies us even when we are swimming blind in its crosscurrents.

Our classmate M. made a discovery she declared to our group as we were leaving an evening class.

R., from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, has learned enough of Filipino to converse after more than a year of studies in Manila.

Often commuting with R., I confirm this: hearing R. address the driver or fellow passengers, I think she sounds much better than I do, born more than 52 years ago in Cebu and ratcheting more than four years in Manila.

Disciplined in her media studies, R. is modest about the acquisition of her language fluidity. She said she had to learn during her regular visits to the wet market for the vegetables and other ingredients she uses for the Indonesian dishes she cooks for her husband and daughter, as well as shares with us in class.

R. messages our Facebook group to clarify instructions of her daughter’s Filipino homework. She also asks us—L. is a native of Laguna, M. is from Iligan, and I am from Cebu—about Filipino customs as when church members here invited them to their wedding.

While my classmates and I use English in our Facebook conversations, English is far from being the “universal language” it is held up to be in the global village.

What connect us more are our shared existences as women, as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as schoolmates coping with commuting, domestic surprises, paper deadlines, “Walang Pasok” watches, and the unpredictable meter of life.

To capture our moments, these times, our hopes, we swap around a mix of Bahasa, Cebuano, Tagalog, and the variants of Englishes transformed beyond textbook notions of the “universal” and the “standard”.

In fact, to tap in shorthand our emotions on Facebook, we don’t even resort to words, just emojis and GIFs :-)

This porosity of language, as well as ironically its density, came to fore in two recent classes. In translation issues, seeking the appropriate word or phrase returned us not just to our mother tongues but the contexts which “mother” or nurture us.

Rendered in Ilocano, Ilonggo, formal or informal Bahasa, or Odiya, the language of Orissa, hometown of S., our Indian classmate, a simple strand of English can unravel into extended, complex skeins of syllables, sounds, and associations. Things are lost in translation, but also gained.

Discussing feminism and discourse, we learned language can become knots of power to silence and subjugate. Yet, just as a phrase can be turned or a word, substituted, power can also liberate the powerless to express.

Language. Not just one but many mothers “complexify” the human.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 3, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, ““Matamata”

Saturday, August 25, 2018


A “CHORUS of delirium”.

This phrase captures “wild excitement or ecstasy,” according to my computer’s built-in dictionary.

The same reference defines the verb “chorus” as the act of exclaiming the same thing at the same time by a group of people.

This built-in dictionary has never let me down but last week, I disagreed with its implication of a group erupting into concerted fits of instability, incoherence, wordless rapture.

I discovered Filipino dictionaries in this warehouse. And with sincere apologies to my computer’s built-in dictionary, I broke out into a “chorus of delirium” just on my lonesome.

In Cavite is an “outlet store” of a chain of bookstores. It used to have no air-conditioning system, a tic of irritation when for hours, one’s neck or even torso is tilted awkwardly to read the spines of hundreds of old books left unsold since Gutenberg’s invention.

Then someone perhaps remembered that readers are an excitable lot, prone to flights of fantasy or even a “chorus of delirium” when they come upon a much-loved or sought-after title. A cooling system was installed, perhaps to forestall the removal on stretchers of several seekers in an advanced state of shock from their finds, the heat, or both.

So I was sufficiently cooled when I dissolved into another biblirium (“biblion” in Greek means “book”). Paperbacks and hardcovers are sold at P50 each; if you get two, you shell out P75; if four, P125. The search for “one more” is an excuse that my husband takes with extreme prejudice.

The dictionaries, though, were going for P20!

Since I enrolled in a course on translation, I discovered that the English-Filipino dictionary is disappearing from booksellers’ shelves.

This may be another sign of our digitally remade lives. Aside from built-in computer dictionaries, Google and other digital references answer every search for a dictionary meaning, synonym or antonym.

Without cutting trees or breaking our backs, as the digital natives among my schoolmates would say.

But as with all books, dictionaries are more than what they seem. Spanish missionaries thrust into our country, repudiated by clime, ancient beliefs, and their own prejudice and inner demons, compiled the first dictionaries preserving our native tongues.

Scanning the Filipino dictionaries, I realized that many of the authors are/were school teachers whose love for words they sought to translate for younger minds, in need of a school reference that is small, light, and cheap. Hence, the “pocketable” dictionary.

Passion, rapture—not just wordless. Biblirium in a word.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 26, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Stories à la King

THE storyteller in my mother’s family is my grandaunt Juanita, whom I often visited during summer.

A teenager with an appetite, I wanted lunch to be over. Granduncle Crispin, after coming home for the lunch my grandaunt prepared, then fell asleep in front of the TV set, newspapers opened helter-skelter on his lap or feet, splayed on his chair with the extended leg rests.

When he reported back to work, I could now read the newspapers. During the interlude my granduncle listened to the TV and scanned the dailies, he went through one or two crossword puzzles just before dozing.

My granduncle never left a square in those puzzles blank, a challenge unanswered.

In contrast to my granduncle’s completely filled-in word puzzles, my grandaunts’ magazines had pages with holes. These women’s magazines had features about food, which she clipped and filed away religiously.

Fortunately, I was not keen on recipes; only in their end results. Though all their children had moved away, my grandaunt prepared elaborate dishes.

While she took an hour or more to make con tui—a pig’s foot she emptied of its meat and bones, which she turned into a mash and then stuffed back, sewing carefully the foot-turned-sock—I was her reluctant apprentice.

Privately, I felt she could just have fried the trotter and I would have obligingly gnawed it to the bone. But this would have deprived me of listening to my grandaunt dipping into her bottomless store of anecdotes.

So while I tried to perfectly dice carrots and chayote (my personal opinion was to just delete veggies) for Chicken à la King, Tita Niting told me about her girlhood in pre- and postwar Cebu.

Beyond mediocre as a kitchen apprentice, I remember the stories. After the war, Juanita decided she was going back to school.

Great grandmother Carmen thought too much education ruined a woman, who would just end up as a wife. So these two headstrong women butted heads, Carmen certain that the absence of transportation in those gasoline-rationing days would discourage Juanita.

Age trumped youth. My grandaunt married and learned more practical things, like unstuffing and stuffing a pig’s foot. At one point, Juanita’s shoes so pained her, she removed them and walked home after class.

Ignoring those feet—which, I believe, she would just have stuffed for sausages—my grandaunt attended class the next day. That is how she finished college.

For feminists or any person striving not to be silenced, “voice” resonates. To quote Luce Irigaray, finding your “voix (voice)” is discovering the “voie (way)”.

Beyond pigs and chickens, Juanita’s stories still light the way for me.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 19, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Just as sweet

AT exactly the juncture where four roads converged, the bare-chested motorist with flowing light-colored hair paused to take out a smart phone.

My husband peeled away from our group to elaborate on the directions from the phone app: the road on the upper right led to Osmeña Peak, the highest summit in Cebu and “hagkanan” (a place to kiss) for mountaineers; on the upper left, to Dalaguete, home of Mantalongon, the “vegetable basket” of Cebu and border of the eastern and western southern mountain ranges; the lower right to the highway market in Poblacion, Alegria, nearest the southern tip, jump-off for Dumaguete on the Negros province; and to the lower left, the Sangi market in Madridejos, gathering for bus travelers to or from the next town of Badian or Cebu City.

It is impossible to remain lost in this country.

When roads fork or destinations depart from maps, there is always a Filipino to give directions.

Often, we will do more than point you on your way. We will tell stories.

As the bare-chested foreigner roared off for Badian, the locks escaping from his helmet streaming behind like corn hair glinting in the sun, the older women in our group murmured, Hesus Hesus Hesus.

The married daughter of Ason mimicked her elders, piously covering her eyes with both hands but keeping the upper fingers splayed so we saw her eyes, glinting mischievously.

The joke used to be played by the late Maldo, Ason’s childless brother who raised Evelyn, who uses the peeping-tom gesture not really to mock the skimpily clad visitors who rent motorcycles to dip in the freezing Camba-is Falls of Guadalupe but to tease her elders, specially her 80-year-old mother, Ason, who still farms not just one plot but several others, scattered miles apart, near her crossing home in Tagaytay.

Tagaytay, Alegria is like many places in the country, at the crossing of place and time, between the set ways of farming and encroaching ecotourism, between the brief passages of mortals and the defiance of memories.

On the way to the Poblacion, my husband stops by his own “hagkanan,” the Tubod trickling the sweet spring waters that refuelled him on his walks as a younger man, crisscrossing the west and the east, when the top of Evelyn’s head barely reached his hip, when Maldo was still teasing his own mother, when the lilac-throated kachubongs still hung upside down like bells out drinking the whole night, and red-beaked black birds roosted in trees and squawked like a convocation of bats or uplanders choking on eyefuls of bare skin.

The waters are as sweet as ever, reported the husband.

Must be a goat fell at the Bukal source and drowned, I said as we continued on our descent.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 12, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Saturday, August 04, 2018


BIBIBI is a hand-crafted sake named by its maker Aki Ikeda after the “sound sunlight makes when hitting the water”.

Ikeda, her mother, and sister also produce in their sake brewery in Shikoku, Japan another sake that has won over the experts. Its name: Fufufu.

Since I read these lines in the February/March 2018 issue of “DestinAsian,” I have been thinking about the stories in sounds.

We attempt to render in words experiences captured by sounds. What if there is no sound? Can there really be none at all?

Ikeda’s wordplay lingers despite my having no experience with the Japanese language nor of sake nor of living in Shikoku, where, in a kelp factory converted into a brewery, three women and a “toji (master brewer)” make sake in winter with spring water harvested from the “flanks of Mount Hoshigajyo”.

I have seen, though, how sunlight bounces off water from watching the sea as a child, as a mother watching her sons lent for a moment to the sea’s embrace, as a watcher of waves returning, breaking apart, and departing again as another year turns the corner and disappears.

There is no limit to what we imagine.

At the start of this week, I walked with thousands of others to the Office of the University Registrar (OUR) at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. The acronym is incongruous for an edifice that reminds each person approaching the building of what divides us from those within.

The OUR processes the documents of all those seeking to enter the UP System. Last July 30 underscored the difference.

On the first day of general enrolment for all UPD students from undergraduate to graduate levels, private high school students in Metro Manila also “lined up” to submit their applications for the UP College Admission Test (UPCAT) to beat their batch deadline.

Hence, there were no lines to speak of outside the OUR. I walked on T. M. Kalaw Street, sharing this with other pedestrians and motorists, because the sidewalks circling the OUR were covered by mats, tents, and trash left by people squatting on the sidewalks.

The listlessness and silence prevailing in the sidewalks contrasted with the chaos swirling outside the gates of the OUR. No matter what one’s business was, the objective to get inside the building (or leave it) directed the energies of each person in that melee.

UP is a metaphor for survival. Despite the platitudes of equity in education, struggles are omnipresent in a system that pressures, sieves, privileges.

In the middle of a queue that was not a queue, I remembered “bibibi”. The sound of light meeting liquid turning fluid for this Cebuano, though, is “kuntahay”.


( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 5, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, July 29, 2018


THE OTHER night, I was covering with plastic a book about Van Gogh’s sunflowers when my godson mentioned the Facebook ranting over book buyers cutting in lines so that they could pay for their purchases.

I instantly recalled our experience with “jumpers” on the second to the last day of the same book exhibit. My son and I were pushing a cart following the demarcated route to the cashier when a girl jumped the queue to stand ahead of us.

Two of her girl friends then joined her, adding their books to her pile.

I could sense my older son’s hackles rising. The fellow following us said, loud enough for everyone to hear: That’s rude.

I looked at the girls but their eyes would not meet mine. The first jumper, though, had a slight smile, as if she had just passed a difficult hurdle and joined the Olympians.

I agree; she crossed the line separating those who follow rules and the ones who consider themselves beyond the pale.

Online civility, or the lack of it, has become a rising research interest, given the “cracks” exposed by the bullying and bashing on social media. In efforts to improve how digital netizens engage and interact, a word with fusty associations, “etiquette,” has been given a spin, “Netiquette”.

But scratch the surface of the neologism and we are back to basics. While the term “civility” wends its way increasingly in contemporary discourse, I prefer its older cousin: politeness.

To be polite is to be conscious of and respect people. Coming on time. Listening to a person before reacting. Going to the end of a queue and waiting for one’s turn.

Even though conventions accommodate the elderly or the disabled to grant them access to the start of the line without queueing up, many of those given this privilege still fall in line or excuse themselves before stepping in front of another person.

Connecting with other people seems to be what reading fiction is all about. Sympathy and its even more sensitive relation, empathy, circulate in the same circles as education, culture, and art.

Linear reading—which is reading from start to finish, the pattern usually associated with traditional books made of paper—teaches, at the very least, patience. One can, of course, jump ahead and read the end of the tale.

That would short-circuit the underestimated pleasure from delayed gratification.

Thus, the rearing of incivility and the other Gorgon’s head of entitlement was unexpected in an event where there seemed to be more books than people.

Stepping into someone’s shoes comes naturally when one reads. Unless, of course, one is simply buying, not reading, books.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 29, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Peach, Camembert, cakes. What do these have in common?

In Juzo Itami’s 1985 movie, “Tampopo,” these are the unlikely fields of conflict between a supermarket manager and an elderly woman. She slips in just before closing time, when the place seems to be deserted.

She picks up a ripe peach, presses it several times until juice spurts, and the chase begins.

In Itami’s “ramen Western,” there are many stories, all about food: a widow is mentored by a truck driver on how to make men drain their bowls of noodles to the last drop; a gangster and his moll use the most humdrum ingredients—egg yolk, a bowl of prawns—to redefine “appetite;” a man with a toothache gives a toddler his first taste of the forbidden: an ice cream cone.

Food connects us even if our attitudes towards food differ. This divergence is brought out in my favorite vignette in “Tampopo,” the supermarket encounter.

The episode disconnects from the main narrative to meander up and down the supermarket aisles where a mysterious old lady obsessively pokes food and plays hide-and-seek with the zealous manager, as equally bent on catching the food-molesting bandit.

Almost rendered as a silent movie, the tapping of the man’s leather shoes on the supermarket floor is like a code communicating his anticipation—and ours—as he uses his wits to finally catch the old lady in the act of reaching out for the next pastry to imprint with her thumb.

When he tags that marauding hand with a fly swatter, the grin that he flashes at her is that of a young boy finally catching her, a girl, in a childhood game of “tag”. Who has not, all sweaty and grimy, had this moment of triumph among friends on an endless summer day?

Yet, it is her I see even though the camera has taken his perspective, his sympathies. True, she is the prey, our suspicions matching the pursuing manager’s that she is up to no good.

She unwraps food, bruises fruit that can never be sold. She violates the rules of the oldest agora: if you damage the goods, you must buy it. Her stealthy behavior, her flight from him confirms her own knowledge of her guilt.

Yet, for all the conventions stacked against this bizarre old lady, I find myself empathizing: when was the last time I paid attention to what I touched? When was the last time I touched consciously?

Only a small twitch betrays the face of the veteran actress Izumi Hara as she presses two round mounds of cheese that are seemingly identical; only the second releases her pleasure.

In a life dominated by news headlines and CCTV videos, only art reconnects us to the ignored and forgotten.

( 0917 322611)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 22, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


IF a prostitute were mistaken for a politician, would he or she cry, “Foul”?

Or shrug off the slip as just hair-splitting?

The recent incident over a public official charged for misconduct stemmed when the official, a woman, verbally and physically assaulted hotel employees who mistook her for her male companion’s “escort”.

In the official’s own statements, the euphemism “escort” was replaced with the Cebuano slang for a sex worker, “pokpok”.

In street talk, the Cebuano word is often accompanied by or substituted with an index finger tapping a surface twice to mimic the sexual act of penetration.

While “escort” attempts to neutralize the negativity clinging to the world’s “oldest” profession, “pokpok” abandons the pretence. It is gutter talk, which, by treating the sex worker as an object to be penetrated, diminishes and degrades the person underneath the label.

In keeping with pejorative language, “pokpok” spares the customer, who completes the transaction. In the cultural superstructure, a line is drawn between the women deserving of respect and the rest.

I sensed this in the 1980s, when I was a young non-government worker traveling for the first time to Thailand with a co-worker. We were “escorting” a public school teacher, who wrote a prize-winning essay, to visit women’s groups in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

My co-worker was delayed from boarding by immigration officials. Since they were grilling her in Filipino, I rushed to assist and got roped in the laser-focus of their speculations, which, while no word ever surfaced, centered on their suspicions that we were workers joining the international flesh trade.

In the business class of the plane, the European flight crew gave us the same skewed regard. My co-worker and I hardly resembled “painted ladies”. Traveling from our rural assignments, we were simply dressed, carrying only backpacks. Perhaps we looked naive, ideal for a market always in need of fresh meat.

In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I realized that sex work was a far cry from the “Pretty Woman” fantasy spun by the escort played by Julia Roberts in the movie.

For one, her character had smooth arms, not marked by needle punctures. Needle-sharing was common among the intravenous drug shooters. The prerequisites for sex work: body orifices.

Some of the workers we met were still young enough to enjoy the keychains given away by AIDS advocates pushing the use of condoms. “Break glass in case of emergency” said the sticker encasing a tiny condom, which caused a lot of amusement among us girls.

Another glass ceiling still exists, segregating the women deserving of respect from the Others.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 15, 2018 issues of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Sunday, July 08, 2018


I AM sure Max Ehrmann, author of the “Desiderata,” did not have, when he wrote the line, “as perennial as grass,” the Frog Grass in mind.

About half a decade of weeding this patch of ground outside our home makes me conversant about the one quality landscaping vendors will never extol in this variety: timidity.

Bashfulness does not sit well with gardeners, a pathological batch forever competing with the wildness of Nature to create the homeowner’s dream of the perfect lawn: immaculate, docile, and uniform.

We chose the Frog Grass because, aside from its comical name, its broad-leafed viridescence made us think of walking, barefoot, on a balmy summer day, cushioned by a swathe of springy, spongy grass as comfortable as an old shift of cotton worn for lazy laidback days.

The rule of grass: the more laidback the grass, the more wrought up the gardener.

Every time I uncover a patch of Frog Grass, already turning yellow-green, languishing under a mini-forest of soft-stemmed lily-like parvenus swarming over a spot where I went, the previous week, into hand-to-hand mortal combat with a couple of tough, rough, serrated blades, I wonder why the Frog Grass did not advance in the space I cleared for it, with all ten nicks-, cuts-, and callous-medalled fingers.

Frog or mouse? I have asked this grass that takes self-effacement to such an ungrasslike level.

We are competitive; nature makes us so. When I turned to gardening as an antidote for a day of theorizing, thinking I needed something concrete and earthy, I wasn’t prepared for cutthroat survival more in keeping with cafeterias attacked by lunch hordes than a patch of green.

The only way to win against alien encroachments—bombardments of undigested seeds encased in stools dropped by passing birds, pods of fecundity shaken free from the spikelets trembling in the wind, the vampire roots biding time after fragile stems are decapitated of their pale pastel heads—is to go down to the roots.

Yet, after I had perfected the weeding by uprooting starbursts of weeds that curtailed the diffident spread of the Frog Grass, my friend C. told me that I must not only leave unharmed this garden eyesore but also boil and drink—roots, leaves, and all, except flowers—this “miracle grass”.

Known also as goose grass, the Paragis is traditionally used as infusion or poultice in Asia and Africa to cure a variety of maladies, although no medical authority vouches for its safety and efficacy.

Growing in empty lots and sidewalk cracks, the goose grass makes the familiar strange: can I accept the uncultivated? Can I live with diversity? Will I embrace the wild? Nothing mouse-like about this grass.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 8, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 30, 2018


I COUNT the days now. From years to months to weeks, the plan has finally come to shortening the gap by days or 24-hour cycles.

Soon, hours and minutes will measure how close I’ll be to Cebu.

This game helps to pass the time while I am a nomad by occupation, settling for now in Manila while work and the bulk of family are in Cebu.

I wonder if other migrants also keep track of time in increments or take recourse to phrases, such as “for now,” as if these were reassurances for the return journey. Plans can be charted; tickets, purchased.

The return, though, is mutable. While waiting to disembark at Mactan, I overheard a flight crew discussing plans for dinner. Any place, said someone, that does not require “crossing the bridge”.

We reside in Mactan, in the shadow of the bridges. Two bridges connect the cities of Lapu-Lapu and Mandaue. More often than not, these disconnect, being often locked down in traffic, with one bridge alternately serving as the “lesser evil” to the other, depending on the day of the week or the time of the day.

The stewardess must have been a frequent flyer to Cebu to speak like a native. Before Waze, Cebuanos referred to the “first bridge” or the “second bridge”.

“The bridge” is the generic term associated with hours of deadlock resulting in tentacles of snarled traffic trailing for kilometres on both sides of the islands. If you are rushing to catch your flight out of Cebu and encounter “the bridge,” there is no more memorable send-off.

To cushion my displacement, I read online about home. (A Google search of “traffic” and “Cebu" pulls out 9.7 million results in 0.64 seconds, still viewed as an odd pairing by someone who took lunch at home during the hour-and-a-half break in grade school during the 1970s.)

According to SunStar Cebu’s June 30 report by Razel V. Cuizon, the Regional Development Council-Visayas recently endorsed “priority projects” to “ease traffic in Metro Cebu”.

Urban experts identified a Mandaue-Lapu-Lapu Link Bridge, making this the fourth bridge as construction of the third, the Cebu-Cordova toll bridge, is underway.

An Urban Mass Rapid Transit (UMRT) system was also endorsed as part of the road and rail transport modes for 2050, when Cebu becomes a mega-city with a populace of over 5 million.

Nights when I cannot sleep, I pore over the Roadmap Study for Sustainable Urban Development in Metro Cebu. As a Cebuana, I don’t need the maps. I know my Cebu by heart.

Still, the order and clarity of computer-generated maps and plans comfort. Displacements—sons starting on their own; my coming home only to leave again—are “for now”. Cebu is “kanunay ania dinhi (always here)”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 1, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Watcher in the dark

I WATCH movies the first time to relax. I watch movies again to understand why I watch them.

After a friend roped me in this movie-listing chain game that’s been circulating online, I found the game turning into several directions.

First, in searching for movie posters that had to be posted online with the movie I chose each day for 10 days, I realized how a movie’s complicated storytelling techniques—like the folding and folding of the several layers that create that first bite of a perfectly flaky croissant—can be captured in an image or a detail freezing the story or an essence of the story that lingers in the viewer’s mind.

For there is the movie on the screen, and there is the other movie that will play and replay long after in the dark of the viewer’s mind.

In Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” the elaborate ritual concerning red lanterns in a rich man’s household dominates the movie but the detail that will not go away in my mind is the sound those tiny metal hammers make as a longtime servant massages the soles of the concubine the master chooses for the night.

In the first scene when the hammers make their castanet-like tapping, I am as curious as the Fourth Mistress about this part in a nocturnal routine. The explanation comes straightforward enough: she who is chosen for the night is privileged with this foot massage, which will make her perform better for the master.

That the foot massage is revealed in the movie as more than priming for sex—that it bestows on the chosen the whimsy to dictate the menu the “morning after,” that it wins for her status over the other mistresses and that household of servants for about 24 hours or until the next evening, that the contest for such “power,” viewed as paltry and mean by today’s standards, holds sway over the struggles, machinations, lives of four women—weaponizes those mallets and makes portentous those deceptively light tapping sounds.

Movies surprise us. And then they seem oddly familiar.

In my list of 10 favorite movies, “family” is the common thread, even in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” where a space crew fights a non-human creature that wants to lay its eggs inside humans as hosts.

The final match is reduced to an Amazon played by Sigourney Weaver and a creature that, notwithstanding a skull that resembles a dripping postcoital phallus, is unmistakably female.

We think of the maternal as tender and nurturing; what if the maternal is also voracious, predatory, amoral, and singleminded about sex, reproduction, survival of the fittest?

In other words: family values. “Alien” made me rethink my attitudes about procreation, woman as the Other, and, not the least, eggs hatching.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 24, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Picturing the pictures

WHY do I watch movies?

L., a friend with whom I share a love for comic books, recently nominated me to post a movie I like every day for 10 days. The instructions she reposted included “nominating” a person each day to create his or her own list of 10 movies.

Also: no explanations are needed; just post the movie poster.

As I write this, I am on the fourth day of carrying out what seems to have become a series of complications. First, searching for a movie poster turns out to require more time than choosing the movie.

My immediate choice for day 1 was Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”. There are at least three commercial movie posters, one of which was on the cover of the VCD I bought on regular price, without second thoughts, when I finally found a copy in the mall.

The movie is about longing, the unfulfilled desire that makes the best, the only possible love stories. (After consummation, everything goes downhill, which is true in fact and narrative arc.)

Lush and erotic, the American, Chinese, and Japanese movie posters, specially the ones showing Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung clinching, are misleading and predatory. The alluring cheongsam encasing Cheung in these posters are not cut from the same metaphor as the movie’s finger-hugging costumes engendering the tensile delicacy of the Hong Kong conventions of the 1960s that trap the couple.

I think the movie poster that preserves Wong Kar-wai’s elegy on the ghosting of love is a “fan poster” created by Janet Leigh, which I first read about in Adrian Curry’s article on

Leigh’s poster shows descending streaks of light and shade that still have the solidity of the walls of their adjoining apartments, which, like society, keep these two individuals close but never intimate.

Narrow door frames, thin walls that tremble with betrayal, constricting corridors, stairwells of darkness—Leigh’s “fan poster” captures the architectural details that, like the music, soak up the aches best whispered to a hole in the wall and smothered with earth.

A poster is created to promote the movie. If one likes a movie, the poster should be more than that.

The other movies I have chosen so far—“A Walk to Remember,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “The Road Home”—have posters that “competently” capture the movie plots.

Yet, as the late Anthony Bourdain pointed out, there should be no place for “competence” in storytelling.

Applying this rule means segregating the posters that aim to sell tickets from the ones that aspire to freeze “the pictures,” a term used in the past to refer to cinema, through one telling picture or image.

And I have not yet explained how I chose the 10 movies in 10 days.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 17, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Beings of the liquid

IN Truman Capote’s celebrated “In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences,” where the writing is so sublime, only an out-of-place punctuation would stand out, this passage still curls out at me:

“Among Garden City’s animals are two grey tomcats who are always together—thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the engine grills of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travellers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds—crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle.”

On 6 January 1960, while waiting for murder suspects Dick Hickok and Perry Smith to arrive for arraignment, Capote sketched the canny felines that survived the streets—and the birds who didn’t.

In life as in fiction, birds rarely make it. Not even in jokes. Do you know the chicken’s reason for crossing the path of the truck? To get to the other side of the street.

In Silang, Cavite, I have to live with birds. We live at the end of a street facing a row of trees. Our garden is frequently overgrown. You could say we moved in with the birds.

When I am pulling weeds, some birds, with brown scarfs thrown over their heads, soon settle on the ground and start breaking the quiet of the dawn, like neighbours discussing a certain nearby creature. If my mood is fine, I listen. If it is not, I still listen.

Birds are noisy individualists. I wish they would keep talking while swooping and flashing across the garden, just to give fair warning to those of us who don’t have spring running in their veins.

Unflagging, effervescent, chirpy. Then, once, I looked up from the weeds, startled to hear a cat mewling in the trees. It turned out to be an Antulihaw, gold-jacketed, black-striped, red-billed.

When the Black-naped Oriole makes its call, the lament gives me pause: What lies beneath that golden plumage?

One weekend, I came home to find a pile of feathers left by the cat. It was a clean kill, nothing left to draw even the scavenger ants.

I think of birds as creatures of light and liquid while all else is still somnolent and turgid. The cat kill said another thing: bone, feathers, precious little meat. We see only what we want to see.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 10, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Whodunit reloaded

WHEN a former president and a bestselling writer collaborate, it puts a new spin on the genre of the whodunit.

I came across an essay Craig Fehrman wrote for the “The New York Times International Edition”. On May 26-27, Fehrman revealed that Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s thriller, “The President is Missing,” will be published next month.

Before Bill became recently known as the husband of the woman who came closest to occupying the Oval Office, he was a president of the United States. For those with even more selective memories like mine, Bill’s public life is bookended by actually two women, Hillary and Monica.

Despite these unfond associations, I was curious to know he had co-written a book with, of all writers, James Patterson. Years ago, my older son and I took home one carload of thrillers given by a Korean War veteran who was making room in his apartment for more.

While we were shovelling books inside the family car, PL picked up one copy of a Patterson thriller (I forgot which one; there were several litters of them) and commented that much as he liked a whodunit, Patterson’s habit of “using” unknown writers to “partner” with left PL cold.

Not only did Patterson have first-mention, bigger-font billing on the book cover, the other writer must have written the whole book but received a smaller royalty and an even smaller byline, speculated PL.

I never had a chance to investigate PL’s snarky dismissal of Patterson because, in one of our regular marital reviews when the husband repeated the usual offer I cannot refuse (“those books or me”), I gave away nearly the entire PL hoard, including the cannibalistic Pattersons.

I now wish I had read one of those books so I can judge by next month, if, aside from settling for second-place, smaller-font mention, Patterson does get unplotted by Bill.
Fehrman, who is writing a book about books written by U.S. presidents, observed that “‘The President is Missing’ belongs to a long tradition of chief executives devouring thrillers, mysteries and detective stories.”

Devoted readers include Abraham Lincoln, who could quote passages from Edgar Allan Poe; Woodrow Wilson, “mystery writing’s defender in chief;” and Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, whose wives, I imagine, regularly raided their husband’s bedside stacks of thrillers.

Fehrman also uncovered that Franklin D. Roosevelt once devised a plot that resulted in a book written by several writers, including Erle Stanley Gardener. “The Times” reviewed the thriller as “one of the worst suspense novels ever written”.

Whether I would part with precious pesos for a book by carnivorous Patterson and philanderous Bill, only next month will tell.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 3, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 26, 2018


WELL, I kept my teeth.

If I were mathematically inclined, I would figure out the exact rate at which I shed hair, sleep, pacifist outlook, everything except teeth and extra pounds these past weeks that I have been counting words, pages, and references, which in graduate studies, translate to tokens for passage in a realm for which claustrophobia seems like an insect’s affectionate nuzzle.

On the day I submitted the final sheaf of papers, I walked out of the campus and hit three bookstores with only one thing in mind: read anything without a footnote or a citation in the APA format.

Readers who remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of Rappaccini’s daughter, a maiden raised on poison, know how the conceit ends: I bought more of the poison perhaps to test how much more I could take.

“The Devil in the Philippines” is not about contemporary strongmen. It is a translation of Isabelo de los Reyes’s “Ang Diablo sa Filipinas Ayon sa Nasasabi sa mga Casulatan Luma sa Kastila,” first serialized in 1886 in a Manila newspaper and then published in his first book, written when Isabelo was 23 years old.

In 2014, Anvil Publishing Inc. published “The Devil” to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of a “great Filipino and human being, ” according to Benedict Anderson, who, with Carlos Sardiña Galache and Ramon Guillermo, translated and annotated this edition.

Our heroes are all calcified. Yet, in “The Devil,” I re-view Don Belong, the “Father of Philippine Folklore Studies,” as a hero deserving of his own cult even though his writing was deflected away from himself and focused on subjects he thought Filipinos should be passionate about: prehistory that was not framed by the lens of colonizers; the essential narrative of the local and peripheral, which must not be equated with and be obliterated by the dominant discourse dictated by the Manila-centric; and most importantly, the lore of our ancestors that Spanish missionaries and our “educated” biases have downgraded as “superstitions”.

In spite of but also because of footnotes that run for a page or more, “The Devil” engrosses because of Don Belong’s tale of two men trying to get their hands on a magical book in a dead man’s renowned library, as well as the academic spadework and, heretically yes, the fun uniting the fellowship of, as described by Anderson, “three Filipinos, one Spaniard, one Indonesian, two Americans, and one happy old Irishman” solving the labyrinth to get to the nub of Don Belong’s tale of “demonio, demonito, and Diablo”.

As Don Belong recounts, God came with the conquistadores. So did the Devil.

Happily or unhappily for us, the Diablo has not yet decamped from our happy isles.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 27, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Color of silence

I SAT in a room with other graduate students being briefed about an exam we will be taking next month in a computer laboratory.

Frequently, the unasked is often more important than the initial salvo of questions fired. As it turned out, the most interesting question was asked before the meeting wrapped up.

It wasn’t even a question. A young man across me made a request: Can lab technicians be requested not to wash up while the exam was ongoing?

The graduate studies head replied he would make a note of it. My seatmate murmured that she blanked out when everyone’s laptop keys started exploding around her while she was still reading the exam instructions.

Having first typed my reports with the family’s humongous Underwood, I find the click-clacking of keys comforting. “Banging away” has a literary, not a sexual, allusion for me.

Used to a newsroom’s incessant sounds—phones ringing, TV blaring news, writers reading to themselves a draft—I find the academe’s preference for silence redolent of its ivory tower repute.

According to the Internet, Frederick Rothwell and Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton cautioned in their 1911 book, “H. L. Bergson’s Laughter,” that scholars must take time to listen to the barbarians: “Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings—he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.”

I was working in our college library, crammed but as silent as a place full of students making final term requirements can be, when a young man in the next table started wailing.

Some of us looked up. I thought his laptop crashed; he missed a deadline. The fellow walked out and entered the toilet, where he yelled even louder. He returned to his table, pale but more composed. Later, I learned that his friend broke up with him over the phone.

No way to sidestep disaster when it comes in pairs: dumped while writing a final paper. Silence, however, must still be observed.

White noise “can lull us to sleep by drowning out any background noise,” Meghan Neal wrote in a Feb. 16, 2016 article “The Atlantic” published about “The many colors of sound”.

Audio engineers, who decode the soundscape, say that when we hear all the frequencies audible to humans, the “sonic stew” is strangely soothing.

What we prize in academe—silence—also has a color. Representing a “spectral density of roughly zero power at every frequency,” silence is the opposite of “all frequencies at once” or white noise.

Writes Neal: “black is the color of silence.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 20, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”