Running after a Big Bag Wolf

‘Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate’

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HAVE YOU ever been to a novel place where you felt like you want to stay there forever?

That is exactly what I experienced when I arrived at the World Trade Center in Pasay City more than a week ago to chase the first ever Big Bad Wolf event in the country.

It’s the brainchild of BookXcess leads Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, whose main mission is to extend the doors of opportunity to book readers and book lovers who normally couldn’t afford to buy one.

As soon as I stepped foot on the entrance of the building at around one in the morning, a pleasant aroma greeted me which emanated from the smorgasbord of books stationed per category across the 2-hectare floor area of the venue. The chill in my body was something I’ve never experienced before from the throngs of book sales I had been to.

“This one is different,” I said to myself. “A glimpse of heaven.”

I can still recall how my eyes glowed like the sun when I saw the sea of people walking and running and pushing their carts with the same exhilaration I’ve been curbing inside for days leading to opening day. I even thought for a moment that I was in an airport when I saw that some of the shoppers were carrying large bags and boxes, as if they’re going to travel to a remote destination or roam around the world.

The mood was convivial. Pop songs encompassed the enclosed space. The ushers wore their best smiles and first-rate patience. A stranger handed me his own basket. I unhurriedly checked the piles of titles from the right wing of the entryway to the section close to the center.

I read the texts written on the back covers. I smelled them. Secretly. Memoirs. Novels. Non-fiction.

I bought a total of 8 books for about P1,800: Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, David J. Linden’s Touch, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Scott Christianson’s 100 Documents that Changed the World, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A LionDivisadero, and a winner of the Booker Prize, The English Patient.

While the books being sold at the Big Bad Wolf are “remaindered” and launched about 6 months or one year ago (which is why they are priced 60% to 80% lower than in regular bookstores), I still can’t help but feel sorry for the scarce presence of Filipino literature in this mammoth book sale.

As I was about to pay at the cashier, I thought: “Would it be possible to see Filipino authors’ works being sold and showcased at a colossal and noteworthy affair like this someday? Will they be received the same way as J.K. Rowling and R.R. Martin?”

Truth be told, most of the of books I currently have were written by foreign authors. While I read F.H. Batacan, Bob Ong, Laurel Fantauzzo, and Miguel Syjuco, my ignorance on the content, tone, voice and structure of the worlds created by National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Cirilo F. Bautista and the others is undeniable. I was in high school when I first heard of their names because we were required to read snippets of their artistry in our Filipino class. But when we graduated, and with no quizzes to take, time passed by, and I forgot about them.

When you visit a branch of the Phlippines’ biggest bookstore these days, the themes of their top selling local books revolve around these 3: how to fall in love, how to move on, and how to be loved by your crush. These are the thin, self-help, mind-numbing books that can leave one to ask: “Hanggang dito na lang ba tayo (Is this all we’re capable of)?

The day after I watched his interview with Boy Abunda for National Arts Month, I swiftly searched for copies of National Artist Virgilio Almario’s poem collections in a luxurious mall just a couple of kilometers away from our home. I was appalled that I did not find any trace of his genius; instead I saw Leavs, Faudets, and Kaurs taking over the shelves.

In the face of globalization, English is considered as the most valuable means of communication. As Filipinos, we take pride in our level of proficiency in this language. But with it comes the growing practice of degrading our roots and creativity, and the maltreatment of Filipino poems, essays, and novels, labelling them as corny, subpar, and insignificant. We have so many writers and creators who are discouraged by the feedback they receive from the people around them. There’s no money in writing. It’s useless. You’ll just be a slave all your life. Don’t waste your time in nonsense. Art is dead.

Jose Rizal once said: “On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

Literature and the arts are the soul and heart of a country. They help us unravel some of the unspoken, subdued, and hidden truths around us so that we may understand ourselves better and be introduced to the richness of our history, which will fuel us to act, reevaluate our views, or change our course if the situation demands for it.

If we do not embrace our own gifts and treasures, and if we forget who we are, we may end up cruising on a highway with no direction or maps as references, and unknowingly get into a collision with our fellow travellers.

Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate. I am convinced that we’re still searching for that spark of transcendence, of the drive to take another sound, earnest look at our dying local publishing industry.

We have to change our mindset that the works of foreign authors are innately superior and finer and more magnificent than what we can produce. We have to debunk the colonial mentality that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, or else we’ll live in an endless search for our identity.

Not everyone can declare that they ran after a Big Bad Wolf at one in the morning on a Saturday. With all the courage I have, I did, and I hope you do, too. Forever.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 24, 2018.)

Photo credit: http://www.bigbadwolfbooks.com

Mayon volcano and its remains in memory

‘As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously.’

WHENEVER I see Mayon volcano in the news these days because of its eruption, I don’t just see ashes and smoke compulsively kissing the sky or lava flowing down its slope. I don’t just sense the fear, pain, or panic of its surrounding residents. It also reminds me of my eldest brother.

In May of last year, the day after one of my sisters got married in Daet, Camarines Norte, I, together with my eldest brother Kuya Oni, his wife and two kids, and my youngest brother Ronnel went on a journey to transform the Google images in our heads into a real one of Mayon, one of the nominees for 2008 New 7 Wonders of Nature located in Albay in the Bicol region about 500 kilometers south of Manila.

I can still clearly remember how I jumped from one humongous rock to another in my attempt to capture the quintessential shot of its perfect cone as Kazuo Ishiguro’s captivating words in his book, The Remains of the Day, flashed in my memory: “What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but a planned adventure to witness with our own eyes Mayon’s grandiosity. Spending time with our kuya – an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Qatar – is unpredictable. Sometimes, it would take two or 3 years before we see each other again.

“Who would like to join us tomorrow?” Kuya Oni asked the other members of my family. “Let’s finalize it tonight.”

“Where are we going?” I asked him with excitement.

“To Mayon, Ben,” he answered. “Prepare your things, we’ll leave early in the morning.”

“At last, we’ll see the ‘perfect cone’!” I said.

This conversation may just be a mundane for you. But not for us.

When my father died about a couple of decades ago, Kuya had to mature fast and help my mother in taking care of the family. He was still in college then and I was 9. I was oblivious to the encumbrance that had been swiftly heaped on his shoulders. I thought my father would return someday, that he just had to rest for a while. But after months passed by, little by little, the reality of his death dawned on me.

Kuya was a force of nature, a stratovolcano like Mayon if you will, with his periodic eruptions. In his attempt to discipline us, he imposed his own version of martial law at home. Don’t play outside when it’s already dark or when it’s raining. Take a nap in the afternoon after school. Don’t get into a fight with your siblings. No noise or chitchat. Buy me this and that. When I call out your name, run and stand in front of me.

When you’re a child and you’re forced to stay inside the house while your playmates are enjoying basketball or you hear them giggling and shouting at the top of their lungs under the pouring rain, you question everything even though you’re frightened. Why is he doing this to us?

We didn’t talk that much. He was preoccupied with a lot of things: work, relationship, friends. Looking back, I couldn’t recall a time he divulged his true self or his softer side to me. Rather, there was a wall I couldn’t get through. But as I grew older, I understood why he was like that.

He had to project a strong image for us or else we could have broken down. We needed a source of inspiration, courage, and strength and he provided all that. He finished his degree on time and he is continuously developing himself as a professional in a foreign land. In college, he was considered as one of the outstanding students in his electrical engineering class. The back cover of his thesis is scribbled with praises on how well he handled himself with his peers, professors, and yes, even admirers. He achieved a lot despite the financial challenges he had to face.

During our trip to Mayon, while driving, he made jokes about the distinct smell which emanated from the rows of carabao poop at the side of the road. Like a TV announcer, he gave a blow-by-blow update on the remaining time before we reached our destination. We screamed when we had a first look of the cone-shaped land formation at the right side of our car as we cruised the highway. But seconds later, to our dismay, the vision disappeared as clouds devoured the volcano.

As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously. I saw him smile while he carried his daughter and I smiled back at them. It was then that it occurred to me how much he has changed in his ways, actions, and temper. I sensed calmness, peace, and serenity in his eyes. Time and distance indubitably help us transform ourselves for the better.

While Mayon continues to spew multi-storey plumes of smoke and ash and hurl pyroclastic material down its slopes, I don’t just see its wrath. What it reminds me more than anything is that one crisp afternoon in May of last year. It was that peculiar, tranquil moment when I, together with my eldest kuya, stared at Mayon with a sense of hope that someday, if given a chance, we’ll go on another adventure together, share stories of triumphs and failures, and invigorate the sleeping strands between us hanging above the vast ocean or the incalculable, free-flowing molten lava.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 3, 2018.)

Grappling Rappler

‘The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services?’

IT’S FRIDAY and the company where I was working was on dress down. I chose to wear a pair of jeans and a black shirt. But as I was riding the northbound MRT-3 train, I looked around and wondered if there were other passengers wearing the same colour of shirt as I do. There were few of them and I sensed that they were also curious. Yes, curious if my wearing black is a form of support on the Black Friday Protest for Freedom action organised by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The NUJP earlier severely criticized the Securites and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decision revoking the registration of the leading news website Rappler. 

In their website, it’s indicated that Rappler comes from the root words “rap” (to discuss) and “ripple” (to make waves). Without a doubt, they are making waves these days not of stories of various personalities they cover, or of news reports about other entities, but the legality of their existence. When the SEC and Rappler issue broke, I sulked. I couldn’t believe that such incident can happen to one of the media organisations I look up to. Some of the most respected, prominent, and award-winning journalists and writers I know work for or are connected with Rappler. Maria Ressa. Marites Vitug. Chay Hofileña. Glenda Gloria. Patricia Evangelista. 

The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services? 

While the SEC decision was not final and executory, with the political climate the Philippines has, the possibility for the case to reach the halls of the Supreme Court is not startling. But online forums and the comments section have been filled with opinions. For them, Rappler has reached its final destination.

“Maria Ressa is wearing a victim’s cloak” a netizen commented. “In need of attention just like the previous president.” Some of my Facebook friends also despised Rappler for their alleged violation. Suddenly, constitutional experts rose on the occasion. They are doomed, one added. But did they first read the 21-page decision of the SEC before expressing their thoughts online? Did they examine the facts before judging those who side and believe in Rappler as ‘Yellowtards’ and fools?

I’ve seen it before and I am seeing it again. In our attempt to simplify things, we resort to one-liners, labels, and generalizations. These do not accomplish anything but create more divisions. 

In his book Blink, renowned journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”

When Rappler published my opinion piece about the subpar MRT-3 train services, some of the commenters were quick to assume that I was a paid writer whose objective was to discredit the actions of the government in addressing the transport system issue. They even judged me as just another Rappler writer who doesn’t see the good in the current administration, its achievements. Without conducting a simple Google search or patiently reading the whole piece, they came up with their own conclusions. These are classic examples of false and uninformed accusations online. 

Because the truth is I care about my country. We write because we believe that something can be done, that there’s still hope, and that those in power didn’t fully shut their ears to listen to another point of view, to fresh perspectives. For a democracy to work, there should be checks and balances and the media play a valuable role in guarding and being the platform for people to practice their right to speech and expression. Yes, they put their lives, their principles on the line. 

With everything’s that’s going on, it’s easy to be swayed by the popular, the majority opinion. Some choose to stay silent because of fear and inconvenience. If indeed Rappler intentionally committed grave contraventions against the provisions of the constitution and that they should be held liable, let the courts decide about it. If they published malicious articles beyond the ethical standards of journalism, which are meant to degrade or disparage a public official and put him or her in bad light, file cases. Let’s recognise the proper forums backed by existing laws and give emphasis on due process. 

Opposing opinions can coexist without us losing our humanity in the process with respect. It can be done without grappling the pens and the mouths of our fellowmen who cry for truth, freedom and justice whether we agree with them or not. Because in the end, while we are busy figuring out how others are different from us with all their ideals and perspectives, we forget to listen, to read, to research, and ultimately, to convince ourselves that in times like this, it’s best to pause and pray for our country with a black shirt on or whatever colour we believe we represent. 

The buried giant embodied in our trains

‘Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal… We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.’

IT WAS a blistering hot afternoon when my northbound Metro Rail Transit (MRT3) train stopped at the Santolan station longer than usual. It’s around 2:40 pm. I was on my way to work. The crowd was not that thick.

After 6 minutes, an announcement was made. I did not understand the message because of the static noise coming out of the speaker. Anxious, I closed the book I was reading. It was a holiday because of the ASEAN Summit 2017.

The train doors remained open. I looked outside to know what’s going on. Not again, I said. A few seconds later, the train’s door closed but I still wondered what had happened.

Accident

Later that day, I heard two of my colleagues talk about news on MRT3. After hearing the details, to my horror, I realized that the delay of the train operations earlier that day was not because of another glitch or a technical problem, but because of a serious accident at the MRT3 Ayala station.

Around 2:30 pm. Woman. 24. Fainted. Fell on the railway tracks. Severed right arm. Cut near her armpit.

I was shocked. I couldn’t utter a word.

At that moment, I remembered another appalling MRT3 incident that occurred in March this year. I was also on my way to work and about to get into the entrance to buy a ticket when I observed that the train was not moving. It was stuck. The entrance had been blocked. Lines of passengers were nowhere to be found. Confusion and chaos were evident.

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the passengers who was forced to get off the train earlier that afternoon, “Sir, what happened?” He responded, “A man jumped onto the rails.”

Why do such incidents keep on happening?

In a 2013 ABS-CBN report, Pinky Webb wrote: “MRT general manager Al Vitangcol said they initially planned to put up screen doors only in 3 MRT stations, namely Taft Avenue, Shaw Boulevard, and North Avenue, by the end of the year…However, because of the recent incident, they will eventually construct the platform screen doors in all 13 stations of the MRT.”

Four years later, not a single station has been installed with a protective barrier.

How many lives have to be lost for the MRT management and the government to seriously act on this? How many more limbs or arms should be injured for those in power to act on commuters’ safety?

Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal.

We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.

The buried giant

I understand that there’s no shortcut in getting funds for platform screen doors or other security and safety upgrades for our trains. But, isn’t it just a matter of prioritization, political will, and accountability?

It has been said that the transport system of a country is a reliable barometer of its advancement, growth, and prosperity. We should aim to be a model of efficient and safe transport systems and services like our other neighbors in Southeast Asia.

But while waiting for that time to come, I hope that we don’t forget our frustrations and challenge those in power to make a difference for the future of our country and for the prevention of suicide attempts and accidents involving our trains.

As what Kazuo Ishiguro write in The Buried Giant, which I was holding inside the train at the Santolan station: “For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

Let’s all recognize and courageously face our society’s buried giants one mist at a time.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com, IMHO, Opinion, on the 16th of November, 2017.)

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)

Sleepless

I rejoice whenever it rains. But everything changed when one night, on my way home from work, I saw how children and women and men sleep next to each other. Their beds? None. They slept on soft drink boxes with no roof to cover them on the sidewalk while public and private vehicles passed by. Headlights exposed their fine details. Stray dogs and cats searched for food on the pile of garbage just few feet away while they’re dreaming. I then asked myself: Where are they going to stay if it started to rain? The Catholic church near their neighborhood’s closed. It haunted me inside out.

I rejoice whenever it rains until last night.

The Protest

It’s perfectly legal to get angry, to raise your clenched fist, to shout and to have your thoughts made known to those holding the highest positions in the government. With everything that’s going on, it is a natural reaction, a civilized attempt to express. But it’s scarier I believe if the voices of those who care have been shut, the doors and windows to understanding closed, and hope gone. I wonder if the Philippines will one day wake up on an atmosphere of pure hate, hurt, and heresy. Yes, I still wonder because at 4 A.M. my mind wanted to believe that we can get over these humps. I hope that fear will never triumph against the truth… I hope.