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”