Saturday, March 24, 2018

Imagineering men

HAVING survived the longest week of our lives as graduate students, the four of us sat down for the first time that day to catch up with breathing and ostensibly enter nirvana by way of pasta.

We ended up talking about men.

How we love our men in theory.

Graduate life is bizarre. You cover the walls of your room with dead men’s thoughts. You wake up because all these men inside your head will not stop talking and arguing.

You wonder why you cannot hear women’s voices; they probably were conscripted into armies to serve non-stop so that the great men could think, write, and publish in peace.

So, in keeping with this bizarreness, the four of us celebrated by going over the men who give us misery without measure.

Strictly speaking, L. loves Donna Haraway, who asserts that cyborgs and prosthetics offer avenues for transcending men. Off the top of her head, though, L. can map out the discourses of power, down to the tiniest capillaries, commandeered, of course, by men.

Even if she’s up to the challenge of “slaying” him through a countertheory, T. is loyalty personified with Stuart Hall, who wrote that there was more than one way to encode and decode.

We didn’t know how to react when N. blurted out, while puttanesca and carbonara exchanged places, that she and Hall actually go back to her undergraduate and master’s days.

Could we share idols? Since we shared cheese cake and sans rival afterwards, we apparently could.

Mention J├╝rgen Habermas and L. and T. will automatically dart moony-eyed glances my way. This grandfatherly version of a chisel-jawed Kirk Douglas reappraised Marxism by being a proponent of the public sphere and communicative action.

How many men believe in “communication”? Habermas is a gem in a world of machos who curse, joke, and grunt, in that order.

When the last crumb of cake was taken—in the company of friends, your appetite can show up, without apologies—we gathered our bags and books, preparing to go back home to our real others: husbands, sons, daughters, and sisters.

For while we imagine circumnavigating systems of thought with these staggering, stupefying minds, this is merely a mnemonic aid to prop up memory or stimulate the fatigued will to assert one more time.

The imaginary comforts because it cannot impose. You can close a book. You cannot disappoint the son who waits for you to come home and tell him a story. You cannot NOT color with your daughter the drawing she makes hours away from the deadline of a paper.

Or sense the silence inside your man and not keep the rushing words at bay.

To imagineer is to soar and then touch ground.

( 09173226131)

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

The wilding

TINY yellow flowers carpeting the road. Glossy purple and green balls of caimito that drip sweet juice down one’s chin and leave one’s gums and lips caked afterwards in an odd telltale stiffness.

No one needs to tell me summer is here.

The traditional two months of release from school means that, even after I have long outgrown childhood, March still brings on a great restlessness, which the first rain in May only dampens.

I can see this same restiveness in nature. Leaves leaving trees in a great exodus, scattered into all directions by a wayward wind. Even the riotous grass withers and withdraws beneath the earth to a place I cannot behold.

This going away makes me wonder why I am still here.

This leave-taking is what reading becomes for me.

Reading looks such a placid, quiet preoccupation. Except for the flipping of a page, a reader is an enraptured creature, appearing to sleep with eyes wide open. The lips may just so slightly move, mumbling an incantation unheard or just breathing, keeping the reader barely connected with this world.

Inside, the reader is a savage, thumbing her nose at boring life and its petty fetters, escaping through the window of a scholar’s office to run wild and free, from roof to roof in the mythical Jordan College in the Oxford created by Philip Pullman and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie in the graphic novel adaptation of the controversial “children’s” classic, “The Golden Compass”.

This is the first novel in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s mistrust for organized religion bars these books from getting within shouting distance of schools’ required reading lists.
His thesis—a troublemaker will save the world—will not endear the trilogy to parents who regard books as pacifiers for unruly imaginations and tools to churn out exemplars and leaders.

But if you can relate to the child Lyra Belacqua shouting “Long live savages!” after running away from a lesson on experimental theology, if you have ever yearned to hid behind bookcases to spy and eavesdrop, you will find yourself at home in a tale where beasts, witches, and daemons in animal form are less deceptive than scientists, theologians, and religious authorities.

Offering not just deviations but disruptions, fantasy and science fiction compose my idea of perfect narratives. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon says my favorite lines in the graphic novel:

“Are you mad? Why are you always imagining things?”

Uttered by a talking animal in a make-believe university of great learning, the lines are found in two small panels on page 3. As a counterpoint for all the insanity organizing our world, has the imaginary been couched in terms more casual, insidious, and heartbreaking?

( 0917 3226131)

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018


I OWN four pairs of eyeglasses. Two for reading, two for viewing. Two pairs are quite old, bought in and brought from Cebu.

The two recent pairs of glasses, as well as the newer lenses of the older pairs, were bought from Dr. Nella Sarabia when I started my studies last year.

During my visits to Sarabia Opticals, I got more than an eye check-up. Dr. Sarabia told the stories behind her family’s collection of antique optometrist equipment and vintage cameras, the storytelling imbuing the artifacts with myth-making powers.

The storyteller herself seemed to have stepped out of myth, silver-maned yet ageless, silver-tongued yet gifted in listening.

On the optometry shop’s walls were enlarged prints of sepia photographs of Zapatista rebels and women revolutionaries she brought from living in Mexico as a student and then as wife and mother. These launched our digressions about parenting and rebellion, art and meaning, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

While I was choosing the frames, Dr. Sarabia flexed the temples to show how the horizontal arms holding the glasses to the face were pliable as bamboo. In geometry, curvature refers to the degree a line deviates from a plane.

Deviations upset plans and structures. For someone like me, prone to falling asleep while reading library tomes, flexible eyeglasses are, pardon the pun, eye-popping.

These past semesters, the new frames bear up despite falling off, being dropped, slipping under bodies and backpacks, and being slept on.

Last Thursday morning, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Shopping Center (SC) went up in flames. Destroyed in the two-hour fire were 48 shops, including Stall 39, Sarabia Opticals.

As reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the SC was the fifth UP Diliman campus structure to go up in flames within a span of eight years. Three of these were academic buildings—the Alumni Center, the UP Faculty Center, and the Institute of Chemistry Building. The fourth structure was the Casaa canteen.

The losses to the community cannot be measured in terms of the material. As with the other landmarks, the SC fire disrupted a web of relationships involving those who, in salient and unheralded ways, make academic life possible, endurable: the photocopier and binding operators who asked at times about one’s studies; the food, school supplies, and souvenir sellers we turned to for treats after surviving one trial after another; and the ladies who made “free” and “clean” compatible realities in the SC toilets.

Taking shortcuts with the natural rhythm, farmers sometimes start fires to clear the land and return the soil’s fecundity. Will this digression hold true now? The smell of smoke overwhelms.

( 0917 3226131)

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

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Lies, alternates, and metaphors

“THIS is a work of fiction.”

Found on the flyleaf of novels, this line may change the way I will tell stories to my future grandchildren.

With their fathers, I opened tales spun out of make-believe with, “Once upon a time…”

My grandchildren will be born in a post-truth world. To exist with “alternative facts,” will disclaimers be needed, even for timeless rituals like bedtime storytelling?

Last week, I was downloading ebook versions of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels after having an online chat with a former mentor about the “Left Hand of Darkness”.

A national chain of bookstores stocks Le Guin in the section for children and young adults: “Catwings” and “A Wrinkle in Time”. I have a feeling that Le Guin would not look down her fastidious needle of a nose to be classified this way (many children are more critical and discerning than many adults).

Published in 1969, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is at home in this post-truth world. In the universe called The Ekumen, where gender is neither of two boxes to be ticked neatly (“male” or “female”) but fluid (“male" and “female”), the narrator Genly Ai begins the tale: “I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

On Feb. 2, 2017, Le Guin wrote a letter to the editor of “The Oregonian” in reaction to another letter that “compares a politician's claim to tell ‘alternative facts’ to the inventions of science fiction”.

“The comparison won't work,” she wrote.  “We fiction writers make up stuff… We may call some of it 'alternative history’ or ‘an alternate universe,’ but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are ‘alternative facts’.”

Le Guin was most likely referring to U.S. Counselor to President Trump Kellyanne Conway, who referred to White House falsehoods as “alternative facts”.

In their lexicography, politicians use “alternative facts” when sidestepping from truth. Splicing “fake news” requires greater sleight of mind; one can tell the truth but still be faking if this version disagrees with the official view.

"The test of a fact is that it simply is so - it has no ‘alternative’,” Le Guin wrote in 2017.

“A novelist’s business is lying,” she wrote in the 1969 Introduction of “The Left Hand of Darkness”. “All fiction is metaphor.”

A metaphor for what? She answers her own question: “If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel.”

“In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible,” wrote Le Guin in 2017. The late author, who passed away in January 2018, was making a fine point, and I don’t mean it metaphorically.

( 0917 3226131)

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