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”