Saturday, December 28, 2019


THE VERB for my year in 2019 is “share”. I hope to make “reflect” my choice in the coming 2020.

The digital portal leaves nothing unchanged, not even a Luddite like me. A Luddite is a technophobe in contemporary times. The term was first used for early 19th-century British workers protesting their displacement by labor-saving industrial machines and shortcuts in safety procedures.

According to a Mar. 2011 “Smithsonian Magazine” article by Richard Conniff, Ned Ludd was an apprentice in Leicester who, after he was reprimanded for producing shoddy textile on a weaving machine, chose to bludgeon the equipment.

From this act of rebellion was born a mythical leader known as Captain, General or King Ludd, who supposedly rallied workers clashing with capitalists and government troops to protest against machines causing widespread poverty and hunger among working families.

What does a more than 200-year-old failed protest have to do with my choice of Verb of the Year, an idiosyncratic practice I intend to shape the next 365 days?

As Conniff points out, Luddism endures because it symbolizes less a romanticized ideal of pretechnological life than an inducement to reflect on technology’s effects. From Thomas Carlyle’s essay in 1829 on the mechanical age, Conniff quotes how technology causes a “mighty change” in our “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”

Instead of content or the “message,” circulation is the real driver of online dissemination. Political and media theorist Jodi Dean argues that only the “addition to the pool” matters in communicative capitalism, with everything else being “irrelevant”: what it is all about, who sends it, who responds.

In the digital stream of data commodities, ready to be harvested and traded, the electronic act of “sharing” captures the hardening of minds and hearts. Do I recall the messages liked and shared in the year that was? In the neverending streaming, swiping and clicking replaces the human reflexes of pausing and reflecting.

Ironically, in the age where everyone leaves digital cookies for tracking and tracing, the extent and depth of digital engagement is a somber, anemic harvest.

So my choice to focus on the analog stems from this frustration that the ephemerality of digital engagement is embedded in my failure to sift, reflect, and write—activities that come spontaneously with the predigital activities of experiencing, relating face-to-face, even turning a physical page in a physical book and writing by hand in a journal.

Unlike “share,” “verb” is a word not yet co-opted by or transliterated in the digital platform. So is “reflect”.

Photo source:

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 29, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 21, 2019


This is a true story: a traveler picked up two postcards, about 100 years old. The seller at the flea market in Mallorca advertised the postcards’ messages as being written in Esperanto.

The traveler contacted JM, a friend, who consulted the Language Log, a website frequented by language geeks. Began by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum of the University of Pennsylvania, the Language Log has built an online community of lovers of language, puzzles, and irreverence.

Many readers speculated whether the postcard sender was writing in one of the organic languages existing around 1912-1913, when the postcards were mailed from Mallorca.

According to Ethnologue, a “research center for language intelligence,” there are 7,111 “living languages” spoken around the globe in 2019. Yet, about 40 percent of these languages are “endangered,” with less than a thousand persons still speaking in these tongues.

In the online “communal cipher-solving” of the Mallorca mystery postcards, what I found riveting was the seriousness with which many readers of Language Log pondered the postcard writer’s possible use of conlang, jargon for “constructed languages”.

One does not have to be a linguist or a polyglot to invent language. Two persons can create a code so that no one else can read the endearments written in an open postcard.

Few though can surpass J. R. R. Tolkien, the “godfather of modern conlangs,” according to a essay posted by Nicole Chardenet of Yappn, an “enhanced machine translation company”.

Tolkien created “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as the narrative backdrop for the Middle Earth languages he created for 63 of his 81 years in this world. An example is the conlang of Elvish, which emerged from Primitive Quendain and branched off to Common Eldarin, Quendain, Goldogrin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, and Avarin.

Tolkien argued that this absence of myths to explain its origin made the conlang Esperanto “far deader than ancient unused languages”. Esperanto (meaning "one who hopes") was created in the 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist who desired a language to unify his community where Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies”.

Zamenhof wrote a book of Esperanto grammar, translated works in Esperanto, and created original works of Esperanto in prose and poetry. Today, Esperanto is spoken by two million persons around the globe, the most widely spoken modern conlang uniting a stateless, diasporic community.

Languages are fragile, dying when no one speaks the tongue and thriving among those who love words, dream in it. Natural or constructed, language exists for the same end: to communicate.

Photo source: Language Log

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 22, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 14, 2019


A CHARACTER whose surname sounds like the conjunction “or” is bound to be invisible. Just as a reader ponders alternatives but disregards that which connects—“coffee or tea,” “you or me”—George Orr is bland to the point of inoffensively blending with the background.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” Orr is caught illegally exceeding his personal allotment of medicine to buy dream suppressants.

Fortunately, borrowing someone’s Pharm Card is a misdemeanor akin to loaning books in someone else’s name. The state sends him to a dream specialist to rechannel.

Dr. Haber, assigned to the Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment of the oneirophobe (a patient afraid to dream), initially suspects that drugs addled Orr’s brains as the poor man does not even distinguish between good or bad dreams.

“I dreamed something, and it came true,” confesses Orr.

In Orr, Le Guin inverts the concept of alterity—the state of being other or different—from something feared or distrusted into something approaching perfection. Haber learns that Orr is truthful in claiming that his dreaming not only changes the present but backtracks interminably to alter the past to seamlessly blend with the “improved” present.

In the altered new reality, no one remembers the “bad old days”. Orr’s dreams wipe everything and create the slate anew: time, history, memories.

A man of science, Haber sees the opportunities in Orr’s power to do good without relying on evolution or choice.

Under a state-sanctioned experiment, Orr is directed by Haber to dream into reality for Orr a nicer apartment and a better job; for his shrink, a research directorship and unlimited funds to study how dreaming can be retooled for a better society.

The only fly in the ointment greasing the slippery road to perfection is the meek, conflicted Orr. The purpose of a life is not to “run things” for a “better world,” grapples Orr. “What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field.”

After Orr dreams six billion people out of existence by configuring a plague in the past to explain the sudden silence of the streets, unsnarling of traffic, end of starvation, abundance of apartments, and the general improvement of the quality of air, Orr cries for the murders he has committed.

Is it murder if these people were erased by a dream as numbers are on a slate? Haber shrugs and toasts a “better” world.

In someone’s utopia, someone else bears the costs. Le Guin, in an essay introducing another novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” disagrees that science fiction has a “depressing” view of the future: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 15, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Light trip

IF you should buy a book, let it be Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”.

For the price of a book, you will get 20 stories, which is the number of chapters in this novel. Through this novel, you gain entry to two strange new lands: the planets Gethen and the Ekumen, about 20 years away from Gethen through timejumping on board a ship speeding “almost as fast as starlight between the stars” to ease intergalactic commuting a bit.

Reader, even before you finish reading the first line in the novel, you will recognize a third terrain: our world.

First published in 1969, the novel opens with a character uttering, “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” As Le Guin observes in her introduction, “A novelist’s business is lying… Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

The 20 stories arranged as chapters break away from the convention of storytelling that sequences narration in chronology, as recounted by one narrator. As we have been amply warned by the novelist, Reader, do not stick to one storyteller, one version.

The “one story” is told as a mishmash of different ways of storytelling (report, myth, journal entry, field notes, play for a traveling troupe, soliloquy, Q-&-A) in the voices of many storytellers (known, unknown, living, dead, speculatively divine).

All these accounts confuse. Can a story continue if the listeners are lost? Le Guin knows the human weakness for stories and the way we circumvent confusion: we choose what to believe.

Take sex, for instance. Gethenians sexually mature every cycle of 28 days or so; during the period of estrus (“kemmer” in Gethen), a person chooses the gender most dominant in its hormones at that period. The kemmering partner adjusts and takes on the complementary gender. Thus, it happens that in Gethen, “the mother of several children may be the father of several more”.

For a society preoccupied with sex for only a few days per cycle, the Ekumen’s fixed genders and lack of choice in sexuality affront the norm. Finding distasteful a lifetime of “permanent kemmer,” the Gethenians regard one so afflicted as a “pervert”.

Can Gethen be convinced to open itself to the Ekumen? Despite telling differences, there are many commonalities. In any dimension, the sole engine that keeps politicians running is personal interest: “His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”

Love, betrayal, alienation, belief—only the terrain of Le Guin’s world-building is strange. After you close the novel and blink in reality, the light cast by the imaginary will help you see better: fiction and truth are often partners in kemmer.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 8, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Stacks of sin

EDEN would be banal without the snake. The library, with its hermetic quiet, watchful librarians, and bookish air of order and sanity, inspired my first transgressions.

The library card in my grade school years permitted two books to be taken out for two weeks. I could read a novel overnight, exams be damned.

My dilemma was waiting for books I coveted to be returned. Every card owner could renew for one more week. And borrowing privileges fell only on one weekday per grade level.

Once, the library acquired a series on the lives of saints. Each book narrated in luminous text and illustration the ordinary life and extraordinary sacrifices of a girl who later became a saint.

Borrowing the books about Saints Agatha and Bertille, I stashed St. Monica behind references on science, which I couldn’t imagine anyone giving up their bedtime for. A week later, I felt around the hollow space behind the tomes. The patroness of musicians had evaporated behind rocks and minerals!

Librarian friends told me years later how shelving work is usually split among books that are returned to the circulation desk, left after use on the tables, and squirreled away behind other books in other sections. Blind then to the irony of violating honesty and fairness with a saint’s storybook, I imagined ecclesiastical music playing sorrowfully while I turned out science in search of St. Monica.

This youthful transgression surfaced while I read Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”. When the Los Angeles Public Library opened in a modern edifice on July 15, 1926, criminality shot up among the staid stacks:

“At the end of the year, library security reported they had apprehended 57 ‘mutilators of books’; 105 people who had written in books; 73 who engaged in general bad behavior; 23 forgers; 8 people who were caught hiding books; and 10 who had switched their books’ due dates.”

Of the offenders, 63 were prosecuted while “six were ‘judged to have diseased brains’ and sent for psychiatric treatment.”

Criminality wasn’t the only weed sprouting among the stacks. Orlean writes that when this library first opened in January 1873, the rules were “schoolmarmish and scoldy”: no reading of “too many novels” lest one become a “fiction fiend;” books judged to be “dubious,” “trashy,” “ill-written” or “flabby” were excluded; no woman or child was allowed inside the library; and “ladies” went to a special room to read only magazines.

Despite this chronicle of misses, Orlean captures why a library is transformative as reading: ambling along, one can chance unexpectedly, if not always pleasantly, on oneself.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 1, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 23, 2019


THE PLANNER I chose for next year disconcerts. It marches the months in a row before inserting the weekly pages. The journal plots 2020 but begins in December 2019.

Then I remember why I liked this journal, its simple lay-out, almost bare except for fine lines and grey print. I am seduced by all that expanse of unmarked paper inviting contact with a pen’s nib or the gossamer brush of daydreams.

Yet, choosing a planner these days has become a chore. Do you need one for goals, exploration or inspiration? Will it be a-page-a-day, a weekly spread, monthly, five years, or a lifetime?

The word “planner” itself is a giveaway. Do I “plan” each day, let alone 365 days? While I live with some intentionality, productivity is a grid that I chafe at rather than welcome.

Perhaps this mindset has something to do with my start in keeping a journal. In grade school, my father passed on to me the diary given away by pharmaceutical companies. I could doodle in it and buy with my savings a book instead of a sketch pad, he suggested.

Later, my maternal grandmother gave me the journal a bank gave at yearend to clients.

How would I fill all those pages? Nothing much happens to a seven-year-old.

I did not know then the effect paper has on imagination. I tore out and cut up the medical ads inserted in the journals. Purple intestines, blue hearts, and rainbow organs became paper mosaics. I drew cartoons in the readymade panels of the corporate diary.

And I experimented with my handwriting, trying and discarding attempts to copy my classmates’ admirable cursives before settling down with the scrawl that is no one else’s but mine.

Even though I compose now with a keyboard, I think there is no better way than holding a pen and letting it flow on paper to hear myself better.

Keeping a journal is like taking a walk. Why one does, where one goes are minutiae; what matters is keeping the conversation running.

The bead of ink from the ballpoint becomes a trickle, a gush, then a slipstream widening into a channel where the unknown tempts and daunts.

Ever the good listener, paper receives everything unspooled by the pen, absorbs confidences, makes omissions palpable, nudging the voice to move on to the next recall, coax the lurking insight, claim the orphaned memory at the fringes of self-conceit.

In these digital times, when each is hell-bent on talking to all, writing to oneself, an attentive, thoughtful audience of one is not just another analog anachronism, not a trend in communicating in bullet form, not a selfie in long form. If we cannot hear ourselves, who can?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 24, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 16, 2019


AN IDEAL of a house is the true villain in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 2018 Netflix series inspired by the novel.

Both novel and series are set in a fictional haunted house owned by the Hills, whose long history is marred by insanity, cruelty, murder, suicide, and other tragedies. These morbid associations grew in time to contaminate the mansion with a reputation veering into the morbid and supernatural.

Jackson wrote about an investigator of the paranormal tapping two women and the young heir of the mansion to live in the house and record the phenomena for a research to be published in a scholarly journal.

In the Mike Flanagan-directed Netflix series, the “ghost hunters” are replaced by the Crain couple and their five children, who are renovating the Hill mansion to sell for a profit so that the Crains can build their “dream house”.

Seemingly Hill House of the murky shadows and murkier malice is responsible for the chain of calamities.

Yet, the mansion is not half as “diseased” as the golden ideal of the perfect house that sinks its roots and ensnares the Crains into not just staying on in the mansion that summer but also never escaping the phantoms even after the survivors have aged and transferred.

In a ham-handed way, the Netflix series puts across the ideal of perfection as the most dangerous delusion. It is Jackson, though, who has the voice that rivets.

The most vulnerable in the team studying Hill House is Eleanor Vance. At 32, she is looking for a place of her own. She took care of a demanding mother until the latter died. She hates her only sister and her family. She has no friends, no job, no prospects.

Accepting the invitation to be a research assistant, Eleanor sets off on a journey to Hill House, full of anticipation: “… I am going, I am going, I have finally taken a step.”

This is a poignant line, specially if one suspects the Eleanor/Nellie of the book and the series as mirroring the insecurities Jackson faced in real life. Daughter of a mother who never saw her as measuring up to standards and wife of a lesser writer who controlled her earnings and forced her to listen to his accounts of his infidelities, Jackson had a nervous breakdown but recovered. She was writing a novel when she had a heart attack in her sleep. She was 48.

The line that opens and closes “The Haunting of Hill House” endures as the most chilling ever written about a haunted house: “… whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Written long before an age almost painfully aware that kindness to oneself is the key to wellness and mental health, that line is the most haunting written by Jackson.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 17, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The taming

WHEN I remember the eunuch cats of Bonifacio High Street, I realize we can still be drawn to the very things that upset us.

The first cat was lolling on a makeshift platform used by men working on the landscaping. It was a tom, as big as a dollhouse.

Yet, it allowed me to scratch its exposed stomach, an inverted yolk, white in the middle and yellowish at the outer ring.

On our way to a bookstore to pick up my books, my son and I had started from the Burgos Circle where there seemed to be more dogs than humans taking in the sun that Monday morning.

The dogs of Burgos Park are cosseted and urbane. They have no fear of humans.

These pets are as close to the otherworldly and the exotic in my world.

Where I grew up, the barbed wires enclosing the house we rented was ineffectual for keeping our menagerie of nine or so dogs safe in a neighborhood where any dog was free meat fueling several rounds of drink and feral singing.

After our guard dogs went the way of the ten little Indians in the nursery rhyme (“… and then there were none”), my father finally decided to keep small dogs who slept with us, locked away from the world with teeth, to borrow an image from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”.

The cats that suddenly showed up in our home were thin, fierce survivors who waited and waited, moving in to finish the meals only when the dogs napped or were shut in for the night. They melted away in a blink but it wasn’t long before I convinced my father to bring home a kitten from a cousin’s cat’s litter.

There is no lack for cats that no one wants. When I was younger, I brought home abandoned kittens: in my knapsack from school, in a shopping bag someone left on the side of a busy road, where I plunked into my shirt the mewling blind creatures that poured out like tomatoes about to be squashed into red paste.

The world jokes about steaming cats into buns. Feral survivors nurse on this mean teat. Most of the strays we feed at home never lose their wariness. In this country, a housebroken cat is often a dead one.

The Bonifacio High Street tom, complacent and suave, was odd as ferals go. We entered another promenade that hosted, years back, a community of cats. After a five-star hotel opened nearby, the cats were relocated, like absurd Third World artifacts.

I found just two strays napping on the benches that day. Neutered, enormous, and slack from human benevolence. Ignoring the signs that warned people about feeding and petting the cats, I scratched between two pointy pairs of ears, two furbellies.

A cat rolls on the ground and exposes its belly to a human it trusts. My prayer is that those cats will live not to regret this.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 10, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Dog’s life

THE DOGGY lives I observed at the Burgos Park are enviable. I am a human on a park bench, wondering what great acts of compassion I must do to be reincarnated as a Yorkshire Terrier, a Samoyed or a Bichon Frise living a condo-park-pet spa existence.

Four hours after midnight, I woke up on a working Monday and was on the road in an attempt to cut down a two- or three-hour commute from the outskirts of Metro Manila. Bleary-eyed, I waited for the Bonifacio High Street shops to open at 11 a.m. so I could pick up the books I reserved.

I felt far from frisky, worlds apart from the rarefied plane bearing these beautiful creatures.

Yet, what struck me most that I am in an enclave that hardly resembles the Philippines was not this green oasis circled by the signposts of Western prosperity but the insouciant sociability of the dogs.

They are unlike the dogs I have been used to, commuting around urban centers and even living in gated communities for decades. There are two kinds of dogs in the country: the dogs that are part of families and those that are on their own.

I know the barely human specimens that have an instrumental regard for the family AsPin (asong Pinoy), chaining a dog and leaving it behind for weeks as if it were a burglar alarm with fur.

Most Pinoys, though, love their dogs. They may not afford vet services to spay, neuter or regularly check their pets. But the Pinoys I respect give their AsPins these minimum needs: sustenance, shelter, and family.

The dogs of Burgos Park gave me pause, though. Like humans, dogs enjoy meeting other dogs. A walk means opportunities to explore with their noses, roll in the grass, and carry out no. 1 (pee) and no. 2 (poo) as nature demands. The dogs’ caregivers and walkers picked and bagged their waste, keeping that park habitable for the humans and other dogs sharing the space.

These dogs’ existence had other trimmings, too. The perks—the humane leashes of extendable length that allowed a dog to wander to their doggy heart’s desire without being separated from their humans, the knit sweaters, bright socks, and treats randomly given for acts of obedience or state of cuteness—made a dog’s life definitely better.

It showed in the animals’ coat and the spring of their walk, the alacrity with which they accepted and did not shirk from strange hands petting them. While watching the uniformed guard of a snow-white Akita obligingly snap dogfies with the smart phones of enamored ladies and gents, I spotted a little cat cross the street. A motorist slowed down to let the stray cross without accident.

In Burgos Park, fractal humanity—which deals out cruelty as often as kindness—is at bay.

[Photo source: YouTube]

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s November 3, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Magic circle

THE LITTLE cat crossing 29th Street looked it was about to go under a silver SUV when the vehicle slowed down. The cat reached the curb, unperturbed.

One cannot simply unsee roadkill. I still remember riding with my father and sister to school. In the 1970s, Mango Avenue in Cebu at 6 a.m. was a placid unspooling ribbon of asphalt outside the St. Theresa’s College.

And then a public utility jeepney roared down the opposite lane and hit a pack of dogs sniffing around on the street. One dog rolled in the gutter, a red banner tailing its hind legs, the keening more unendurable than the sight, still indelible all these decades.

Last Monday, the driver in the silver SUV was not speeding despite the morning rush. She or he slowed down, observing a rule observed by many motorists at the Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig, Manila to give way to the pedestrian. Even the four-legged ones.

The older son and I were sitting on a park bench at the Burgos Circle when the little cat crossed the street. The park is named after the patriot José Burgos, who, with fellow priests Mariano Gomez and Jacinto Zamora formed the Gomburza trio that died for espousing the equality of Indios and Spaniards during the Spanish Period.

Although members of the religious elite, they saw the discrimination of Filipinos, including the native clergy, and challenged the authorities to conduct reforms. In a mock trial, where their own lawyers testified against them, the priests were found guilty of stirring an uprising of workers at the Cavite Naval Yard. They died by garrote at the Bagumbayan, now the Luneta Park.

Against such history, is the Burgos Circle simply an enclave of the privileged? It IS surrounded by the headquarters of multinational firms, condominiums, and international chains of cafes and bars.

Yet, it is not only the moneyed or privileged benefitting from the Burgos Circle. Beneath its center island, the Burgos Park, is a retarding basin. Constructed at the initial phase of the BGC development, the P60-million retarding basin stores run-off during heavy rain, directing the floodwater to the creeks that empty into the Manila Bay.

The Burgos Park retarding basin is only one of two existing in Metro Manila, credited by the Department of Public Works and Highways as preventing the flooding of the EDSA and the Kalayaan Ave.

The Gomburza died proving that one can overcome the blinders imposed by class and privilege to fight for a just cause that benefits not only the people born sharing one’s circumstances and biases. One day in a park named after the patriot Burgos, I reflected how the Gomburza legacy lives on in our times.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 27, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 19, 2019


SHE thought of herself as a washi housewife. Washi is the fancy paper favored by hobbyists decorating their journals in the YouTube videos she had been watching frequently.

In these scrapbooks, the washi is often just a strip holding down the corner of a cute cut-out. Sometimes, the hobbyist will stick a washi in a bare spot in the page, relieving it with the tape’s wash of color or delicate tracery.

In the Japanese pop culture of “kawaii,” washi tape, no matter how cute, stays at the periphery. Marginalia, she thought, applying it to herself.

If she didn’t live with him, she would be an absentee housewife. She knows she would rather read books than prepare meals and clean the place. Not that she minds the washing after meals. There is something inarguable and preordained about sluicing dirty dishes with water, soaping and rinsing, and drying them.

After she replaces the clean dishes in the racks, she takes a whiff of the plates’ sparkling expectancy, their readiness to be called again for the next meal, the subsequent dousing and purging.

When the cat gave birth last Tuesday, she counted it a blessing that he was gone the next day for a business trip. The cat was a stray that once brought her kittens and stayed. She gave birth to another litter but nested it elsewhere. She never saw that brood.

The thread of mewling she first heard while she was lost reading and trying to extricate herself from a writer arguing about sex, gender, and desire.

When she followed that keening to the box she had discarded after unpacking it of groceries, when she peered in and found the cat panting and the sleek, wet thing lying between her sopping hind legs, she panicked.

Her children were grown. Menopause was a thoughtless guest who promised to come but so far, had stayed away. Giving birth was hardly on her reading list, but she did what she thought the cat needed based on what she remembered from long ago: a bowl of water and food.

And an umbrella. It was near noon when the second thing slipped out and the third. When the cat finally emerged to drink the bowl dry, she took a break herself, feeling she had taken part in the cat and kittens’ passage.

The first evening she didn’t sleep well. After supper, many homeowners let their dogs out to run and pee. From the upstairs window, she watched the dogs bark and chase up and down their street, her fear coming and going with their baying.

At first light, she moved the box with the kittens to the kitchen where the grills prevented anything bigger than a cat from entering. The cat, clean and well-groomed again, re-entered the box. She stood outside, sleeplessness sluicing out all dreams of sparkling plates.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 20, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 12, 2019


I SUSPECT every neighborhood harbors a crazy cat person or two. In my street, that’s me.

It is hard to hold the labels at bay for persons who not only love cats but will fight for them. Doesn’t “crazy” apply when a neighbor’s Chow wanders into our yard and zooms in on the pellets left out for the street cats and I growl and spit until the interloper backtracks with puffy tail tucked in between its puffy hind legs?

In the eyes of homeowners living next to the crazy cat person, the label is more than justified. One day, our neighbor asked me who I had been arguing with the other night.

The husband was away on a trip so I wondered if I had been talking aloud again with my dissertation. Then I remembered Whitey showing up while I was washing dishes.

Whitey is the alpha tom cat in my street. He is not one of the regular feral cats who stop and dine at our place. Whenever I spot his still white figure at the porch, I feel, from his unblinking ochre stare, that he only deigns to check out our hut under his vassalage. It is only lately that he growls at me but always from a distance.

The night he turned up, I was shocked by the bleeding spots on his head. Did someone try to scalp you, Cat? I asked.

Whitey yowled, a yammer that reminded me of bolts, screws, and nails jumbling inside that once unsullied, still handsome head. I listened and replied: Well, I hope you took away something of their own, too.

To my neighbor, I explained that I asked Whitey why he had suddenly gone bald. And the cat told me it was none of my business.

It is no surprise that I have the shortest of chats with humans and longer ones with cats.

To homeowners who only see cats as unending messes to clean up after and drive off, the neighbor who feeds and shelters cats is part of the problem. Unlike with dogs, those paragons of domesticity, guarding one’s home and community cannot be delegated to such mercurial creatures.

I agree. Cats are good for crazies. When a cat sees you, it sees what is lurking behind that façade of ordinariness and respectability. Between the person tethered to routine for sanity and the free soul that comes and goes when it wills, there is a connection that can only be traversed by pussyfooting.

Or by Bing Crosby. Famous for warbling the classic “White Christmas,” he said, “Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’.”

My favorite of his holiday songs is “Christmas is A-comin’,” which has these lines: “When I’m feeling blue, when I’m feeling low/ I start to think about the happiest man I know/… If you haven’t got a friendly cat may God bless you!”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 14, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Note to a detainee

I AM awful with my biases. For instance, I think dogs are virtue incarnate and cats are all wiles.

Every night, brushing my teeth before going to bed, I hear the clinking of the chained dog of our neighbor. I have never seen this dog. I have seen the other dogs owned by our neighbor but not this particular dog.

Yet, this unseen dog is more real to me as a character than the other dogs I sometimes see chasing each other or dozing in our neighbor’s porch. When I was gingerly brushing the sore gums cushioning a wisdom tooth the dentist had scraped until all my toes and more had curled from the tension, I talked to the dog in my head, soothing it as it dragged its chain from one spot to another in that cramped space beyond our kitchen windows.

Who would put a dog in chains to guard a washing machine, a clothesline, and a family of birds that raise a racket every morning in their nest beneath the eaves? The neighbor we share a wall with.

Sometimes, I tell the dog his is not such a tough job. He could be sniffing for hot meat or banned drugs without any hope of retiring on a government pension. He could be dodging mean cretins on meaner streets. He could be padding around in nappies, tutus or some such indignity.

Every time, that softly chinking chain always overpowers the alibis I line up in the kitchen window like imaginary biscuits I toss down to the dog I cannot see but I can hear. I think all dogs should be free to run, explore with their nose, roll in the dirt, and make those disgusting mini-pools with their lolling tongues.

My sister’s late dog had very short legs. Whatever the season, my sister woke early to carry out Sonny because her bladder became full to bursting overnight but she could not run fast enough to reach the backdoor without accident.

I never asked my sister why she didn’t let Sonny just sleep in the garden. Or why she and her daughters take Angel, the dog that came after Sonny, to the park to sniff and meet other dogs.

Rescued and fostered for a while with a family that kept other dogs, Angel had to adjust to being the only dog when she joined my sister and her daughters. She buried bones all over my sister’s lawn, hiding her hoard from imaginary rivals.

Perhaps missing the other dogs she burrowed with in her foster home, Angel slept on the pile of still warm, spun-dried clothes my sister spent her Sunday afternoon folding. When you name after an angel a dog that comes to you with unknown baggage, you have a bottomless store of optimism that all dogs go to heaven.

Meanwhile, hang in there, comrade beyond the wall.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 6, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 28, 2019


“IT is a good thing that time is a light, because so much of life is mumbling shadows and the future is just silence and darkness.”

It was an odd thing to hold after the recent weeks: a book left for me by a friend who came for a visit and went home again to Peru. I did not expect to come home until my mother fell sick. I did not expect my friend nor his book, which opens with the quoted line.

I realize again how many things happen that we did not expect. Would we use all our powers to avoid something that we know now happened if we had such powers?

For answers, I found myself reading Paul Theroux’s memoir of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”.

Naipaul is a better writer but I prefer Theroux as a human. Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction surfaced the alienation of the colonized subject from the native culture. For these “suppressed histories” of colonial displacement, he was awarded the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Naipaul is difficult to read because while inimitable in the craft, he saw the Global South in terms of the imperialist lens of the “Third World,” a messy soup of maladies and burgeoning catastrophes. On paper and in life, Naipaul was as abusive to women as he was of Third World “victims”.

Theroux is a peripatetic American, writing about ordinary lives in Argentina (“The Old Patagonian Express”) and China (“Riding the Iron Rooster”) without sweeping judgment or fake compassion.

Writers are notoriously quick to give and take offense. So a “literary friendship,” specially when it spans 30 years and five continents, fascinates. As the book blurb goes, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” is a “double portrait of the writing life” told by Theroux of the “beginning, middle, and end” of that “most fragile of alliances” with Vidia, as Naipaul was called.

Reading the book at my mother’s hospital bedside, I see parallels in the passions moving our lives. Pathology, the study of disease, is rooted in “pathologia,” which for the ancient Greeks meant the “study of passions”.

Achromobacter xylosoxidans. When the infectious disease consultant first pronounced the culprit causing my mother’s infection, I found myself watching her mouth and imagined I was a contestant at a spelling bee. How does one spell a word that one cannot imagine?

I turned to online medical journals but came no closer to understanding this unexpected stranger. And then I opened Theroux’s pathology of friendship: “… you hardly know the oddness of life until you have lived a little. Then you get it. You are older, looking back…

“I see it all clearly. I remember everything.” The path of disease is the path of our passions anger fear regret love.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 29, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 21, 2019


IN my imagination, the world will not end in cold or fire but dust.

Nearly each day, I cross a bridge to go to the city to visit my 80-year-old mother. The sun has yet to rise when I cross the bridge; the disc’s ascent is at its highest when I return by that bridge.

One day, the sun wasn’t there. Or it was lurking in the haze that originated from Indonesian wildfires and spread by the Southwest monsoon, reported Wenilyn B. Sabalo in SunStar Cebu last Sept. 19.

The greyish sky blanketing the cityscape didn’t merit even a blink from me until my mother took a sudden chill while undergoing dialysis.

A long-time diabetic prone to fluid overload that causes respiratory difficulties, Mama recently began hemodialysis (HD) to reduce the excess fluids accumulating in her lungs. One moment we were chatting while she was being prepped for her HD session; in less than an hour, she vomited twice and required emergency measures to improve her access to oxygen.

As phrased by medical jargon, “respiratory system disorders” are “standard complications” in “end-stage renal disease” patients undergoing hemodialysis.

For personal protection, a mask, particularly the N95 facemask, is prescribed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect the wearer from liquid, dust, and other airborne contaminants.

N95 refers to the industry-tested capacity of a respirator or facemask to filter out “at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles,” according to the U.S. FDA.

Masks became newsworthy after the Department of Health suggested its use for the protection of “toddlers, the elderly, those with allergies, and those with respiratory illnesses” in the haze covering parts of Metro Cebu, reported SunStar Cebu.

The daily also reported that the Environmental Management Bureau 7 recently conducted the particulate matter (PM) 2.5 test, which found “unhealthy” levels in Metro Cebu of the dust “particle measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter or about three percent the diameter of a human hair”.

What can be more vital than breathing? Communication.

Mama and many of her HD “classmates” wear masks, haze or no haze. Yet, my talkative mother often lowers her mask when she chats with us, doctors, nurses, and orderlies. She singlehandedly breaks the FDA injunction that facemasks should have “very close facial fit” to achieve “very efficient filtration of airborne particles”.

Isolation and silence are the steep cost of infection-control.

Yet, in the subdued, energy-sapping atmosphere of the renal center, where the whirring of machines interposes more often than the human voice, my mother’s voice is a silver thread illuminating each moment, haze or no haze.


( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 22, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 14, 2019


AND then there was one.

In stories about quests, going to the mountain focused on the solitary self. It did not matter how many persons made the journey or if the traveler went with a guide.

Only the individual goes to the mountain. Only a person returns from it.

Or perhaps I misread the tales. One person enters the mountain; another emerges from it.

After about an hour, our group recently crisscrossed from the Poblacion of Dalaguete to sitio Talayong in the town of Alegria, a journey that connects the southeastern to the southwestern side of Cebu, the coast to the uplands, the known to the unknown.

We had dinner at a roadside eatery that had changed its menu and setting over the decades but still had a guard/receptionist who missed a tooth or two but not an opportunity to chortle while explaining the difference between plain chopsuey and Sun Yat-sen chopsuey (answer: the ham bits that gave away a taint of decadence in the vegetarian mishmash).

It had begun to drizzle when we began the ascent, the wind and the rains whipping and shaking the canopies of the tallest sentinels that towered above the dark, watching mass looming above us by the time we mounted to about 600 meters above sea level.

After we made the crossing, we debated the wisdom of choosing the Mantalongon route to reach our host. The husband, an old hand in these mountain ranges, preferred crossing Nug-as in Alcoy to Lepanto, Alegria, but caution prevailed over adventure as we would make the journey at night.

Our host said that the sparsely dispersed households lull travelers until they are approached by strangers along the Nug-as route for handouts. Nightfall, said our host, is not a good time to refuse strangers who will remember and make sure you remember as well that refusal when you lose your way and have to double back on the road.

In these times, few mountains remain virgin territories, unreached by motorcycles. A single-lighted Cyclops transporting a returning resident disgorged by a late bus from the city sometimes breaks the fog-wreathed stillness and silence.

Aside from droning invasions of the “habal-habal (passenger motorcycle),” clusters of the cone-shaped “bukag (basket),” woven from unbreakable rattan to hold as much as 100 kilos of lettuce, pechay or sayote balanced on the forehead and back of a farmer, huddle by the dark roadside like jaded commuters awaiting the trucks of middlemen that dawn brings.

I was beginning to think the old tales had to be rewritten when I saw the first kachubong dripping silver in the crosshairs of the car lights. Flute-shaped bells of the mountain, the flowers toll a note for this traveler: never does the same person return.

[Photo: Roy S. Tabada]

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 15, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Queer peaks

BRIBES for the ferryman of the dead.

The obol is the coin the ancient Greeks placed on the eyes and the mouth of the dead to keep them dead.

I thought of Charon’s obol when, during a recent mammography, laboratory technicians taped metal discs on my nipples, my first experience as a mammogram veteran since I started taking this annual procedure to monitor a lump in my breast discovered more than four years ago.

The procedure entails the positioning of one breast at a time between two plates, which compress and take an image used for screening for or diagnosing possible cancer. Since one breast mass had been aspirated years ago and required the regular monitoring, I have become a veteran at donning on a robe that opens in front to make it easy for the mammo technician to take one breast at a time and position this on the plate like a slab of meat I might consider buying and grinding for all-lean-meat patties to munch on while binge-watching horror movies at home.

This particular hospital, though, followed different protocols from the other one where I usually had the mammograph. Instead of a dour technician who splashed alcohol on her hands after positioning each tit (shudder my udders, could have been her mantra), two young women gently coached me to moving this way or that so each breast could have her best angle taken for the radiologist to read and interpret.

“You are so courageous,” praised one of the nice ladies. So unlike the other woman who wept copiously, observed her colleague. I wondered why the lady was reduced to tears when the plates clamped with a grinding sound like teeth gnashing as I screamed and forgot to ask the question.

To endure previous mammos, I taught myself to think of language. Take “abreast”. The word means “side by side and facing the same way”.

Human breasts are attached from birth like twins that yet grow estranged. Has one breast ever looked at the other to comment on the weather or the putrid state of politics? Yet ours is a culture that ogles breasts obsessively when these are cut off and displayed like specimens or pop trophies.

The mammogram room then is a disguised confessional. It is not pain that I flinch from but the discomforts of self-examination. Charon ferries the boat that takes souls to the underworld. His obol provides the soul sustenance for the journey, as well as prevents it from rejoining the living.

The pleasant ladies forgot to remove the discs taped on my nipples. I peeled away the tape to rejoin the living, feeling I had left behind two strangers holding Charon’s coin.

[Photo source:]

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 8, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 24, 2019


THE GARDEN, at first, was a shortcut, a quicker way to reach the cashier, the labs, the blood bank squirreled behind the bleakest of alleys.

Then I noticed that few took this path: the nurses with their color-coded trays of pills and paraphernalia, the residents in billowing white like avian escapees, the caregivers clutching little grey slips, anxious lest the prescriptions flutter away like the flimsiest of hopes.

For the minute or so it took to saunter through the garden, I avoided the hushed bright corridors where a consultant whispered to stone-faced relatives about a metal heart valve, the shroud on the gurney creaking on its way down to the morgue.

Moving through the hospital maze, I know the corridors by smell more than sight, the odors of disinfection layering over the stream of maladies, an olfactory map to the mysteries of the human body and its infinite ways of disintegration.

This theatricality cultured in hospitals is muted in the garden where life is not tracked by medical doses or accompanied by the clicks and electronic murmurs of life-extending machines. It is reassuring to find the sap at its riotous, its most fecund, flowers hypnotizing butterflies, bees ravishing pollen-sticky stamens, this old soul drunk on sunshine, breeze, the fuzz of grass as unruly as morning-after love.

Certainly the nuns had more pious intentions in creating this oasis. As with plants, we grow more assuredly towards the light when we are firm in our moorings.

To see the connections not just of this organ to that, to dwell on the consequences of desires on mortality, to see in suffering and tribulation the profoundest confirmation of the indestructible and the eternal—our science has yet to catch up with the ancients.

When the Spanish colonizers reached our shores in the 16th century, nutmeg was among the “first drugs” discovered, wrote the priest-scholar Ignacio Francisco Alcina.

Nutmeg trees bled sap like blood; hence, their repute as “blood trees” warding off illness. Much prized was a variety called “doghan” because the natives believed its sap was blood.

Alcina enumerated at least 11 local words rooted in “dugo (blood),” including “dugoon” (the monthly cycle of women), “nakadugo” (blood flowing through the male or female genital), “dinugo” (bleed to death), and “hinugo” (penalty for extracting another’s blood).

The tiny red blossoms in the garden I escape to have no scent. Remembering the tubes coding my mother’s blood (red clamp for the stream leaving her body and blue for the returning flow, she explains), I repeat my own mantra: red blood for oxygenated; purple for deoxygenated. Red now is the new favorite.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 25, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 17, 2019


THE JACKFRUIT turned out to be a changeling. For days, the bulbous green object lay in a box, where the husband had heaved it since Sunday after we bought fruits from a roadside stall in Batangas.

The avocados were naturally ripened, their seed giving a muted knocking when the fruits were shaken. We could already taste those creamy, healthy meals.

The jackfruit, though, made the husband hesitate. Both of us had always eaten the yellow, fragrant fruits already peeled and pithed. The farmer advised sticking a piece of bamboo into one end of the fruit; she said the impalement hastens the ripening.

Long after the avocados were mashed and consumed, the jackfruit went undisturbed under the table. Just when we thought it was a dud, the house was suddenly enveloped in a fragrance that grew stronger each day.

I had ignored the farmer’s advice, thinking that I was not hungry enough to ram a stick into that thick green rind. Yet, the ingratiatingly sweet scent emanating from the now yellow jackfruit had a peremptory presence that led me to clear the table after one breakfast.

Over newspaper sheets I rolled the heavy fruit. On a saucer, I poured edible oil, rubbing this on my hands and knife. Our longtime yaya advised that the oil will keep off most of the sticky sap. Before ringing off, Yaya said: “Pagbantay (be careful).”

As a child, I squatted on the ground as Yaya and companions shucked the “nangka (jackfruit)” in the dirty kitchen. The smell of wet newspapers mingled with that of kerosene; over these layers hung that penetrating perfume, sticky as the white filaments clutching the yellow flesh I was swallowing as fast as I could chew.

In the greed fed by the peeled nangka, it never occurred that what I desired is something the living tree finds extraneous. The jackfruit animating such merienda staples as “turon” and “benignit” is merely the aril, the sweet yellow flesh coating the seeds, the small kidney-shaped achenes.

Boiled jackfruit seeds are bland; some throw these away. Until I took apart a jackfruit, I never realized how, with everything in its nature—rind, core, and sap—the jackfruit resists all attempts to expose the achenes. In my oiled, slippery hands, I turned away the knife’s edge and sawed outwards after earlier attempts nearly impaled the knife on my stomach.

By nightfall, with a large portion of the jackfruit still uncarved and unshucked, the taste and smell of the aril filled me with revulsion. The achenes—the jackfruit “seed” that is actually the “fruit containing the seed”—I stored.

Aches and cuts yielded such a harvest, as insight follows the stripping down of language, as truth confronts after delusion.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the SunStar Cebu’s August 11, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


Hello, Death, old friend.

Will I recognize You when You come again? Fourteen years ago, as the family sat down in Papang’s hospital room for a silent supper, the flat line on the monitor announced itself like a hive of bees drawn to a riot of flowers.

In the electric distraction of extreme medical measures reviving his body, Papang slipped away with You and went home.

How else can I explain that in the same minute the Code Blue team was ramming a tube down the trachea to open an airway, neighbors spotted his figure pacing outside the house and his longtime companion saw a dark shadow going around the magnetic blue 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, older than I, his first child, by a year and arguably his first baby?

Death, You trickster.

Or were You hiding behind Papang’s feet, which splayed like the open wings of a resting moth, framing the imperturbable green of the flat line punctuating his 81 years?

A few nights ago, while washing dinner dishes in Silang, Cavite, I opened the door after hearing a strange meowing. Instead of one of the feral cats lounging around our place, an empty porch awaited. The brown moth was already resting against the ceiling when I went back to finish clearing the table.

In folklore, moths are harbingers of death, war, and disaster. The last two are anomalies but death, I disagree, is far from being a stranger. As a child waking up from afternoon siesta in the cavernous room of my great grandparents’ house, I cried shrilly to find myself alone and she would come running.

While dusty motes drifted in the shifting shafts of afternoon light, I dreamt of You, sniffed at the sweetly odorous mustiness of my great grandparents’ room across ours, where I imagined my great grandfather drowned in his sleep, where the pickled ham of my great grandmother’s amputated leg brooded, not far from the dirty kitchen where the turtles wept as they boiled.

Yet, whenever Mama entered the room, You stepped back. When she slipped me on her lap in the dentist’s chair, when I followed her voice and smile to emerge from motherhood’s anaesthetized dreams, You always deferred. Death is the terminus except where love is concerned.

The brown moth slipping in that night may have been You, up to Your usual confounding tricks. Except it wasn’t a moth, resting with open wings. Like hands folded in prayer, those wings marked the brown creature as a butterfly.

In my late grandmother’s garden, butterflies preened like orchids. The visitor that night was dun and modest but I listened and heard my mother’s labored breathing on the phone, the voices of my dead across the void: death is the terminus except where love is concerned.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 18, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Street wars

WHEN it starts to rain inside the bus, times are really tough.

Cold on the trail of Cebuano newspapers published during the American colonial era, I dive these days into the longest, dirtiest river snaking through Metro Manila: Edsa.

The Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (Edsa) is a major thoroughfare that has been compared during traffic gridlocks, by sharp-eyed netizens, to a world titlist’s shimmering sinuous scarlet gown when the highway is turgid with the red taillights of vehicles paralyzed by the curse of neverending rush hour.

When the monsoon gods unleash the sky’s torrents, Edsa transforms into an urban river, awash in flash floods, dead cats, and detritus floating straight out of the most putrescent phantasm conjured in Third World porn.

I can only wish then I were a crocodile, river denizen of power who can inure itself by merely closing those primeval lids and reducing the horrors of the present into the toothless myths of the past.

In reality, I am only one of Edsa’s minions, a public commuter whose magic extends only to the unfurling of an umbrella while riding a bus whose ceiling started to drip steadily in one of the recent downpours. My companion covered her head with a fuchsia shawl while my umbrella, already drenched from use, trickled more tears of dust, rust, and the unthinkable on our heads.

Yet, I cannot complain. When technocrats announce the orange alert for dangerous levels of rainfall—Stay home! Stay safe! —that is when the streets are at their cleanest. Rains flush clear streets and sidewalks of most of the peddlers, vendors, and beggars that require extraordinary measures like an Isko Moreno for “street clearing”.

The current darling of the press, Moreno’s claim to political will was sealed by blitzkrieg operations moving out the hardiest vendors occupying Divisoria, Recto Avenue, and other enclaves notorious for sidewalk and street “squatters”.

The rains, pitiless as politicians rushing to hurl ordinance, bandwagon, and all at encroaching members of the informal economy, lacks a political agenda to reach for higher political offices by interpreting public service with social blinders, stopping short of offering relocation and sustainable space-sharing alternatives to vendors, as much part of the public as the bourgeoisie and businessmen claiming right of way for their cars and delivery trucks.

If politicians swam regularly in asphalt rivers with the folks peddling boiled peanuts, corn and bananas, foot socks, umbrellas, phone SIM cards, and “sari-sari,” they will not mistake the call that unites us all: to survive.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s August 4, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The placid ones

THE BIBLICAL injunction to let sleeping dogs lie does not count on Udo, the family aspin (“asong Pinoy”).

When he first arrived about a decade ago, we lined a small box with the younger son’s unwashed shirt in an attempt to quiet him. He was given away from a litter of pups born from an unsupervised coupling between a Labrador and one of the local bitches.

During the drive from the dog farm in the south of Cebu to our home in the city, the black ball of fur ate and sniffled from my son’s lap. Except for the whites in his eyes, he was black all over. Black muzzle, black paws, black pools of misery reproaching those who tore him away from his mother’s side.

That was probably what made the superstitious stay away from him. All that presentiment of darkness.

Or perhaps it was just the noise that he made that first night. A low prolonged thread of keening that dogged and found us wherever we tried to escape in our small home. Thunder, rain, the dark, and sleeping alone made Udo notch his wailing even higher, seemingly beyond human endurance.

When he finally quietened down, we discovered he had overlong ears that flapped, twisted, and upended when he became engrossed: wolfing down pan de sal, chewing shoes, and sitting down with us for meals even though limbs and tail untidily spilled from chairs too quickly outgrown.

The puppy that once kept the whole household awake has become sedate in his senior years. Each time I come home, I find his long dark shadow almost always stretched on the floor, beside my chair.

He still rouses a shadow of the old friskiness when he hears the breakfast rustling of the bag containing hot pan de sal. But even before night has fallen, Udo is a dark comma curled beside our bed, sometimes snoring but no longer yipping puppy dreams.

One thing remains unchanged: a keen hearing in those silken socklike ears. Deep in sleep, he will suddenly leap up and bark in a frenzy when he hears what he alone can hear: someone familiar approaching our home and pushing, predictably minutes after he sounds off the alert, the rusty gate we have never been able to oil properly.

A dog they say ages seven times faster than humans. I doubt that. The disorder that makes one sleep longer than usual afflicts not just aging pets.

Every day, I take in the news. I follow the killings that take place daily, the bodies that go unremarked.

Occasionally, an odd detail catches the eye, a body swinging from the bridge greeting early risers. Or a child catching a bullet like a common cold.

The proverb to let sleeping dogs lie means to let things be. Rise only for the ones you love. That is what the family aspin does while I prefer the long sleep.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 28, 2019 edition of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Put to bed

ONCE upon a time, to “put to bed” in publishing meant to make content ready for printing.

That expression may fade away, in the wake of digital-led revolutions overtaking print. Recently, major academic publisher Pearson announced it will update more frequently the digital rather than the physical versions of its 1,500 academic titles.

A company official said this “digital tipping point” responds to the preference of the “Netflix and Spotify generation… to rent not own” their textbooks, reported the BBC.

Digital books are easier on the pocket and on the shoulders. Few students want to invest in an imported academic reference in paper format, which can command four or five figures in pesos. Students prefer to download free PDF copies of books or share e-copies within their networks.

Given the time it takes to write a book, submit to a publisher, review, and finally print and distribute the title, it makes more sense to consult journals, many of which are already on digital portals, rather than physical books for the latest in research. Digital books also have other add-ons not found in print, such as assessments for feedback, videos for a more interactive immersion into the subject, and other links.

A hybrid approach works best for now, with students using the resources at hand and making their own innovations. Borrowing physical books from the library but avoiding extra weight in their knapsacks, many students take photos of needed pages, an act of virtual self-service that is an advance from paying a vendor for photocopies.

When a reference I needed was not yet ready for circulation, I made the most of the room-use rights given by the librarian by taking photos of the pages with the smart phone I am still learning to use.

A linear manner of comprehension, nurtured by a lifetime of reading paper books, means I read from start to finish, turning a page from the right to the left side of the spread, and then flipping back the pages to reread. Add to these the marking of passages, jotting on the book’s margins, sticking of notes in the pages, and writing in a notebook with ruled lines.

These traditional survival skills are displaced in the flurry of scrolling, swiping, and metalink-clicking involved in ebook-reading. Persevering in reading the images of pages in a smart phone screen or an electronic tablet, I effectively put myself “to bed.”

Soft snores hardly herald a revolution. It will do for now as I cling for life to the coat- tails of the digital juggernaut.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 21, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Absent ones

WE are only as good as the way we treat the others we view as “lower” than us.

The Golden Rule is often interpreted as espousing the principle of reciprocity: treat others the way we want to be treated.

Yet, reciprocity implies a relationship between equals, as between person to person. The lens with which we “other” the sentient beings we judge to be essentially “different” from us—such as animals— does not only shift the planes that put us on unequal footing but also severs any link connecting us to them.

Nonviolence then, more than reciprocity, demands that we cause no harm, not even when we condescend to “be kind to animals”

In this altered state I left the Bohol Enchanted Zoological and Botanical Garden in the Poblacion of Bilar. I have visited enough zoos in this country to associate the experience with trepidation but cannot also resist the flutter of hope anticipating that the next animal “sanctuary” will turn out to be closer to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

V., our driver and guide, informed us that the facility was recently opened and is monitored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The animals—civets, owls, lizards, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, butterflies, rabbits, guinea pigs, and a crocodile fish—are placed in enclosures that would have blended in the sprawling landscape of lush trees and brightly hued flowers and bushes were it not for two distractions: the cages and their disgruntled occupants.

Every enclosure has a marker of information worth reading. The Cebuano interjection of “ay, kagwang!,” expressing displeasure or insult, refers to the Philippine flying lemur or Philippine colugo. Feeding and sleeping high up in the trees, the lemur is the object of many human misconceptions, mistaken for the mythical “aswang,” which preys on the unborn, perhaps because it hunts by night and sleeps by day, with upright head.

Ensconced in high branches, the facility’s two lemurs, unreachable and invisible in their resemblance to shriveled jackfruits, may have been the most fortunate of the inmates. The “cutest” attracting the most attention from us—the sleeping civets and the tarsiers, both nocturnal and arboreal—were curled and perched where they were within our importunate attention and pitiless smart phones.

Standing apart from the cage of tarsiers and the photo-frenzy, I noticed a forlorn pool. There was no marker, just fallen leaves, mossy pebbles, and two brown sticks. Or water snakes. Or maybe not.

To survive, animals shut us out. Or must learn to.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 14, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 06, 2019


HOW many types of “friendly” are out there?

Crisscrossing Manila and Cebu, I picked up a new word: “checkpoint friendly”. I had to Google to understand why airport inspection personnel have shifted their interest from my clothing to my gadgets.

A laptop can hide a bomb, confirms the search. The Transportation Security Administration advises that carrying laptops in a “checkpoint friendly bag” with a “butterfly style, tri fold style, or sleeve style” speeds up the airport checking process.

Just when I choose shoes that are easy to slip on and refrain from using a belt, airport security personnel no longer demand that I remove my jacket, shoes, and belt before undergoing the electronic and manual checks.

Recently, I had to take out a laptop and notebook from a tote and put these in separate trays. On another occasion, the person manning the scanner and a colleague discussed lengthily the image of the same tote before the latter requested me to open the bag and remove for closer inspection two pouches containing the gadgets’ accessories.

Peering at my purple MacBook Air power cord, the officer asked me what it was. Irony is the last thing I expect from the bureaucracy. I answered: my friend crocheted this for me, referring to the yarn in shifting shades of purple that Y. devoted her weekend to in covering the white-coated loops.

Both men looked back at me. Crochet hooks or knitting needles? I wondered suddenly, seeing Y. work with her hands: driving motorcycles, cleaning them, painting, cleaning her brushes, crocheting…

Then I remembered that Y. loops and ties the yarn by hand. She joked then I was so obsessed with keeping my year-old cord white and clean, she would make it easier when I reentered the university as a graduate student.

Indeed, in the library where other students’ cords of white and black are snaking on the floor, mine is the only purple serpent. An undergraduate once asked me where I purchased my cord. Because this was a library and not an airport and I was facing a fellow admirer of art and not security authorities, I smiled and remembered Y.’s hands and their movements as she sent me off with waves of purple.

“they taught me different is wrong,” Ani DiFranco sings in her poem, “My IQ”. In the airport, I took another look again inside my bag and saw the notebooks and pens I bought as gifts to encourage two friends to write.

“'cause silence/ is violence/ in women and poor people,” writes DiFranco in the same poem. “'cause every tool is a weapon -/ if you hold it right.”

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 7, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Discomfort women

WE never see her. For many students at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the restaurants at the Ang Bahay ng Alumni are too pricey for gobbled down meals. This hub, though, becomes a favorite when folks are celebrating a reunion, the turning in of the final paper or just one’s grip on day-to-day sanity.

Rushing past her, many of us hardly glance. Distractions are not just of the intimate, academic or ruminative kinds; the Bahay ng Alumni is just one node in the campus network of art and history.

The whole school is a people’s museum, where any citizen can freely enter and gaze at the works of National Artists and creatives sans titles. In this treasury, it is understandable to overlook the “Alma Mater,” the 1996 sculpture of a woman offering a wreath to visitors entering the lobby of The Home of the Alumni.

Created by National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva in homage to UP, the “Alma Mater” is frequently left out in online posts extolling the bounteous legacy in Diliman. It was only during the fifth year of my studies that I spared her a moment of curiosity—who is she?— when my friend M. and I asked a security guard to take our photo at the lobby.

Both of us are inept at taking a selfie but we looked around for a hallmark for our reunion, perennially postponed by the disruptions afflicting working women who are also wives and mothers.

That shot of our beaming beneath the bronze woman was shared by M. on social media, but my scrutiny of the “Alma Mater” only came six months after the taking of the photo I have mentally captioned as “Tulo ka Babaye (three women)”.

I was in the cemetery in Cebu, visiting my father, when a family friend stopped to chat. He beamed when he said their youngest child recently graduated.

Son, he told this child in Cebuano, as your mother and I don’t have a daughter and you have no job yet, I will use you as a daughter. Please wash the dishes.

T. and his wife put all their sons through college from what they earned in “maintaining” the graves of several families in the cemetery. T. is no stranger to manual labor nor to the cooperation needed for partners to raise a family. Yet, why would he put a gender to housework with no pay or recompense?

Abueva’s works invite a meditation to break expectations, from the iconic “Risen/Dead Christ” at the Parish of Holy Sacrifice in UPD to the quietly subversive “Alma Mater”. The term in Latin literally means “generous mother” or someone who nourishes.

Those invisibles behind countless hot meals, ironed clothes, and enlightened minds are gendered by social edict. Can we finally see her only when she breaks out of these comfort zones?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 30, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 22, 2019

No problem

CLIMBING presents no problem to Tigre, a marmalade stray whose favorite perch is the topmost shelf in the kitchen. On it is a still shiny pan, which the cat likes as a pillow when he slinks in for a midmorning nap.

When I rinse a cup, I automatically look up. The fallout, either from a dislodged pan or an oversleeping feline, would be hard to explain in a pithy epitaph.

Tigr considers all these as nonsense. Many a time, those lambent sulfurous orbs are trained on me just as I look up. Excuse me, is this your fur drifting in my tea? An answering yawn, if I am lucky, is all I get.

I accept that being alone is a condition for writing. And thinking often means talking to oneself because some ideas have to be hung out like clothes on a washline that have a lot of flapping around to do before they can be worn.

Still, it is no small comfort to seek out Tigr when the writing stutters. For him, there is no problem. When he scrubs our ankles with his madly purring visage, the husband asks aloud if he has picked up an ear infection and I wait with trepidation for my ankles to get nibbled.

The problem with humans is that to be human is not to be without a problem.

Tigr reminds me of John Puruntong, the beloved character played by Dolphy in the Ading Fernando-created sitcom, “John en Marsha,” which dominated Philippine television from the 1970s to the 1990s. John was television’s version of Juan dela Cruz who slept, too, on a dented pot, curled every night on a hard narrow bench in the family shanty.

John is loved by his family: Marsha, Nida Blanca’s jewel of a wife, who never nagged or envied the neighbors; daughter Shirley, spunky but loving, played by Maricel Soriano; and Dolphy’s son Rolly Quizon, who played reel son Rolly.

Marsha’s sinfully rich mother, Doña Delilah Jones, ruins the domestic harmony, constantly hectoring her son-in-law with the catchphrase, “Kaya ikaw, John, magsumikap ka (keep striving).”

Does John bite the bullet or bite off his monster MIL’s head? He does neither. Every weekly episode finds John browbeaten by Doña Delilah, who orders her maid, the screechy-voiced Matutina, to sweep the bills off the floor of her mansion and offers these to solve John’s problems.

John does not accept the money because he understands that the lack of money is a false problem. In portraying the Filipino who, with peace of mind, can sleep on a pillow of aluminum, Ading Fernando and Dolphy captured the nature of a conundrum, problematized by Plato and Martin Heidegger.

A problem does not merely counter “doxa” or common sense, writes Audrey Wasser. “In perplexing, problems disrupt our worn-out stories.”

Or, purrs Tigre, “no problem”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 23, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, June 15, 2019


TO READ is to be moved.

Yet, surveying the books remaining at home that have survived purges and “Hunger Games” (as a former student called those occasions when I gave away books to classes), two categories emerge, going by appearance: obelisks and sponge cakes.

Like cakes whipped from eggs and butter, these novels, comics, and illustrated books are soft all over, from cover to spine and page edges, obviously not just read but much reread. Sponge cakes open by habit to pages marked by pen and striking fancy, frowzy and matey from familiarity.

The obelisks are studies in dignity at first dusting, with nary a crease or dent. On second glance, I feel the pathos of holding a book I have barely read or even opened.

Read for instruction and rarely for pleasure, obelisks are untouched by obsession. I travel or ruminate in the toilet with sponge cakes; I require a table and a good light to open an obelisk’s pages and make notes. I take a sponge cake to bed; an obelisk puts me to sleep.

Physically moving books to outwit termites with a gusto for paper, I assembled the obelisks on a table, where they eyed me reproachfully like overaged babies still trapped in too tight christening suits.

Many of the obelisks are Filipiniana, a number on Cebuano studies. Nearly two decades ago, after editing an article written by Dr. Resil B. Mojares for the “Cebu Journalism and Journalists,” a magazine published during the Cebu Press Freedom Week, I left the newsroom and crossed over to the Cebuano Studies Center, then located at the P. del Rosario St. campus of the University of San Carlos.

I found his book, “Cebuano Literature,” continued reading his treatise on the symbiosis of Cebuano literature and journalism, and bought a copy of my own. Mojares was honored as a National Artist in 2018. His “pioneering work” surveying Cebuano writers and their milieu is now out of print, according to Dr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu, current Center director.

“There is an urgent need for enlarging the present critical awareness of vernacular literature in the Philippines,” writes Mojares. “… the Filipino, by virtue of an education weighted in favor of the assimilation of western culture, has found himself alienated from his native literature.”

Bought in 2002, my copy opened to a yellowed brochure of the San Carlos Publications; an official receipt for P65, the cost of a paperback copy in 2002; and a postcard of a central Kuala Lumpur bookshop discovered by S., guided by her inimitable nose for reading.

A deep lateral crease mars the face of the Father of Cebuano Letters, Vicente Sotto, on the cover of my copy. Even in 2002, despite my unknowing, reading about the Cebuano already moved me.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the June 16, 2019 issue of the SunStar Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”