Personal Experiences, Social Issues

My Christmas Wishlist

1. November has started and before we knew it, it is Christmas already. Christmas, in a Christian and capitalist society like the Philippines, is one of the most anticipated holidays – if not the most anticipated – of the year.  So TV newscasts, for the whole year the monger of stories about politicians bickering over issues of National Interest and the networks’ contract stars falling in and out of Love, have also appointed themselves as purveyor of Christmas gift ideas, providing Really Useful Information on where to buy the cheapest China-made toys to give our children – Christmas, after all, is for children, right? –  and trinkets to decorate our homes with.

2. Many people in my Facebook network – also known as “friends” – have also started doing some purveying of gift ideas themselves in the form of Christmas wish lists. These so-called wishlists are lists of items which the list writer would really love to receive on Christmas. Each item often comes with a picture and a concise definition similar to those in an Avon catalog,  the items ranging from a Maybelline lipstick to a Nikon digital camera. So if someone is thinking of giving you a gift this Christmas, he or she need not go to so much trouble asking your friends for information in secret. He or she only has to see that list on your Facebook account. Come to think of it, a wishlist saves peoples’ time, so you are even doing your possible gift-givers a favor.

3. Moreover, it saves you, the list writer and eventual gift-receiver, the disappointment of unwrapping yet another Good Morning face towel, the 127th since the office Christmas party.

4. There is something unsettling with this. I find wish lists a little too functional. It strips the practice of gift-giving of its emotional context, reducing it into nothing more than an act of exchange of objects among people.  And much of what we do gains value because of the emotional context within which this act is carried out.

5. I have always believed that the charm of a gift lies on the knowledge that it was given to you despite you not asking for it. If you ask for it or pester people for it, it becomes something else. Perhaps a reward, a payment, or  a bribe. But not a gift.

6.  When I was younger, on school Christmas parties, our teachers would require everyone in the class to bring in gifts, to be raffled off later. Not a few children went home disheartened, having received a Good Morning face towel, a comb, a water bottle, or anything as functional and that is not a toy.  Even then, I would stress myself out lamenting silently the forcedness and fakeness of this classroom gift exchange.

7. This, along with telling children to put on their best selves the whole year so they could expect a gift from Santa Claus on Christmas, though well-meaning, has unintended ethically unsavory effects. It reinforces the materialistic value system of a hyper-consumerist society. It means that you become happy by possessing things, rather than nurturing relationships.

8.  Because Christmas is originally a Christian ritual, let me get an example from Christian mythology. Christians believe that before Jesus, humanity was so fucked up that they are better off as kindling for the fires of hell, whatever that is. Yet God, taking a cue from Willie Revillame, was so generous that he gave them a savior still – who was no less than his son, his only begotten son at that.  And that act of godly generosity is what is supposedly celebrated when people give gifts at Christmas.

9. Perhaps gift-giving is simply that, an exchange of objects among people, nothing more. You give gifts to your parents, the people who fed and clothed you, the first people to tell the lie about you being handsome and talented. You give gifts to your lover for the sex and the respite from the butt-of-jokes status of being single. But let’s pretend. Let’s pretend we don’t have an inkling on what the persons we sit next to or sleep beside with want this Christmas, but we don’t ask them upfront, so we instead turn to their other friends for that precious information, cautioning them all the while not to tell anything about it to our beloved. Let’s pretend that we, as the beloved now, never got wind of our lover’s info-fishing expedition, and at Christmas, when they finally hand us the Gift, we remove the pretty glossy paper with poinsettia prints ever so slowly, savoring each delicious second of anticipation. Let’s pretend that we give and receive gifts out of that beautiful feeling that wells from some mysterious place within us, otherwise called love.

10. Having said all these, I am now bracing myself for the sight of an empty stocking on Christmas morning.

Books, Personal Experiences

Can we just stop and read awhile?

I’ve been often asked how I’ve come to love reading so much. I got this question most frequently when I was in high school, but I would sometimes be asked the same thing in college. The most practical answer I’ve come up with is – the least sentimental and the least philosophical – it’s a behavior nurtured since childhood.

I was raised in a household of books. If there is anything I appreciate about my packrat mother and grandmother, it’s the collection of books we’ve amassed over the years. Textbooks from my sister and my elementary years,  my uncles’ hardbound reference books on architecture and graphic design, stacks of Reader’s Digest from the 1970s, their pages brown  and brittle with age.  Though no one in the family studied law, we also have a sizable collection of law books, leatherbound and emblazoned with gold-lettering. These were originally owned  by a neighbor which was a family of lawyers, who, perhaps wanting to make space for newer, more updated law books, threw them in the subdivision dump site, a piece of land which was just beside our house. My grandmother, lover of the unloved, salvaged them from the dump and gave them shelter in our home library.

Many of the Reader’s Digests had pages scribbled over with overlapping orbits in blue ink. My mother says the culprit was a three-year-old psychopath let loose with a blue ballpoint pen. That psychopath is supposed to be me.

With books filling every nook and cranny of our house, it stands to reason then that I would grow up a voracious reader. Then again, and this really puzzles me, why am I the only reader in the family? It turns out, as I’ve realized now, that my mother and grandmother’s penchant for saving books is not so much out of love of reading as out of compulsion to indiscriminately gather things, nothing more. Now my mother would pick a book from my own collection now – novels, creative writing textbooks, poetry and essay anthologies – and ask, “How much?” Because I can’t possibly remember book prices, I’ve learned to answer that with, “I got it from the second-hand shop,” which was what the majority of my books really are.

Readers in the Philippines have always been regarded like unicorns.  Love of reading is, unfortunately, not a widespread cultural trait. Train passengers would rather plug their ears with earphones or occupy their hands pushing buttons on their mobile phones than read a newspaper.  Even an author of paperback romance, which is enjoying much readership in the country now, would never be a Danielle Steele.

Readers in the Philippines have always been regarded like unicorns.  Love of reading is, unfortunately, not a widespread cultural trait.

What exactly is love of reading, anyway? How does one know whether someone is bibliophilic or not? At its most basic, a bibliophile is someone who can’t not read, who feels a gaping hole inside him when a day goes by without him opening a book. Not because the final exams are underway, but simply because it feels good.

Various theories have been put forth to explain our apathetic attitude towards books, the most common being economics. Someone from a third world country like ours would rather buy  rice than buy a second hand novel, which, based on current rates, can be as much as three kilos of rice.

I recently came across this article on Filipino’s communication styles published on the UP Forum (Filipino Culture and Access to Information, Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta, UP Forum, May-June 2011).  A professor was quoted as saying that Filipinos are not a reflective people.  Florangel Rosario Braid, the professor, observes that we tend to prefer the trivial to the significant.

This statement sheds much light on the issue at hand. The very act of reading is an act of reflection. You stop and take a seat with the book in your hand, with nothing but the author’s thought and your own in your mind. If done the right way, soon you start digging deep into yourself, asking questions, challenging your existing biases.  And this is something that many Filipinos are averse to doing. We would rather ask esteemed people in our community – a parent, a teacher, a priest– about something we know little about than read up on them,  says another professor, Benjamina Paula Flor, in the same article. Probably because it is safer that way. We’d rather not look behind the surface of things than plumb their depths because doing so would inevitably expose their uglier side. We prefer the status quo. This is why the most vocal people I know, unafraid to speak their minds, are also well-read ones. Is it all those centuries of colonization, those centuries  of conditioning to always shut one’s mouth and accept the existing order of things?

Sometimes, I wonder whether Filipinos would ever give reading the love it deserves.  Given the encroachment of the Internet and the supposed perils it brings to people’s attention span and Filipinos’ infamy as passionate social media users, will we ever muster the attention to read something lengthier than a 140-character gibber from a celebrity? I hope we do so, because we are missing a lot.

Personal Experiences, Social Issues


CJ Corona is emotional

IMAGE SOURCE Kevin dela Cruz for Abante Online

Para akong asong nakarinig ng kaluskos nang marinig ang balita tungkol kay Chief Justice Corona ilang araw na rin ang nakararaan. Naging emosyonal daw ang punong mahistrado sa harap ng kanyang mga taga-suporta na nagdaos ng rally sa harap ng gusali ng Supreme Court. Hindi naman talaga ako mahilig manood ng balita sa TV at hindi ko sinusubaybayan ang proceedings ng impeachment trial sa senado, pero noong hapong iyon, nang naging laman ng mga balita ang emosyonal na mahistrado, palipat-lipat ako ng channel.

Hindi, hindi ako gaanong interesadong makita ang punong mahistrado, isa sa pinakamakakapangyarihang tao sa pamahalaan, ang malabathalang tagapagbigay ng hatol, na nagiging emosyonal. Mas interesado ako sa headline ng mga newscasts. Ewan ko kung nag-usap-usap ba ang mga writers sa iba’t-ibang istasyon at nagkaisa silang isang salita lang ang gamitin upang ilarawan si CJ Corona, dahil halos lahat yata ng headlines sa lahat ng istasyon, ganito ang sinasabi: CJ Corona, naging emosyonal sa harap ng mga taga-suporta. Katulad nito.

Ang ipinagtataka ko, sa dami ng maaring salitang gamitin, bakit emosyonal pa ang napiling gamitin ng mga newscast writers. Bakit hindi na lang “naiyak” o “napaluha”? Iyon naman talaga ang nangyari kay Corona, at may mga video na magpapatunay dito.

Hindi ito ang unang beses na narinig kong gamitin sa mga newscasts ang salitang emosyonal. Madalas, naririnig ko ito sa tuwing may bagyo, baha, landslide, sunog, o kahit anong sakuna. “Naging emosyonal si Aling Bebang habang ikinukuwento ang pagkawala ng kanyang limang-taong-gulang na anak nang bumaha nang matindi.” (Ang mga salitang water world at kalunos-lunos ang top 2 at 3 sa mga pinakamadalas gamiting salita sa mga balitang sakuna) Syempre, naririnig ko rin ito kapag may isang artistang nakipagbreak sa kanyang boyfriend o girlfriend. “KC, emosyonal sa interview ni Boy Abunda.”

Maraming uri ng emosyon, at sa pagsulat ng balita, kailangang tiyak at accurate ang facts. Sa paglalarawan ng damdamin,wala nang mas lalabo pa sa salitang emosyonal. Anong emosyon ba talaga ang tinutukoy ng emosyonal? Saya, lungkot, pighati, galit, o deadma?

Personal Experiences, Social Issues

The Joys of Stupidphone


I have a phone. I do. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. It’s actually a hand-me-down from my mom. I’ve long forgotten its exact model name but it is definitely not a Blackberry,  a Samsung Galaxy nor an iPhone, those smart and sexy phones that my friends carry with them and that fit entirely on their whole palms and do everything. My phone can’t do everything. I can’t take a picture with it. I can’t store and play songs with it, much less record my own voice. I can’t open my email, Facebook and Twitter accounts from it. I can’t cook rice with it. It can only send and receive text messages and calls. And, at 5:30 in the morning, ring like an alarm clock. It also has major battery issues: The battery won’t fit anymore in the slot at the back and keeps falling off, so I have to insert a small piece of wadded-up paper to hold the battery in place. I know, it is in a bad– no, terrible — shape. The back cover keeps falling off as well, so I have taken to bolting it to the whole phone with a rubber band. I actually have coined a name for it: the stupidphone. Of course, I dare not say it in its presence lest it comes alive and hurls itself on my face.

Like a mother with an ugly baby, I have come to appreciate my stupidphone in spite of what it is and because of what it is. I brandish it in public, taking pride in it as a rare and ancient tool of communication, like the ram’s horn used by tribal communities in the olden times to signal the coming of invaders. That’s one reason. I’ve listed here the rest:

1. It is cheap.Very cheap. I don’t have to pay a telecom 3000 pesos a month and a phone seller 1000 pesos a month for two years for the handset. I only pay at most P30 for the prepaid cellphone load which lasts for as long as a couple of weeks.

2. It keeps vanity at bay. It keeps me from the compulsion to take a picture of the latest four pieces of kwek-kwek I ate, skewered on a stick,  the cup of taho I drank this morning, my pimple, myself in a planking position, my face in my cutest pout, and post them on Facebook. Come to think of it, it also saves me from committing a social faux pas – just imagine how my Starbucks-drinking friends would react if they know I’m drinking the lowly taho.

3. It is safe. I don’t have to worry about punctured eardrums and swollen thumbs and knuckles.

4. It gives me peace of mind. I’m spared from the tweet war between a celebrity cosmetic surgeon and her lover.

5. It frees both of my hands. While riding a train, I need to firmly hold a book as big as Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat or Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.

Personal Experiences

Old Notebooks


I am learning how to write again – that is, to draw by hand those slant lines, curves and loops linked together that, well, aren’t merely lines but lines that mean something.

I often find myself now picking up a pen and scribbling on whichever sheet of paper is at hand: a line from a poem, a song, a dialogue in a novel, sometimes even the text on the labels of canned goods. It is compulsive writing.

This writing fever was triggered recently when I sorted my old notebooks from elementary and high school. The notebooks are a visual record of how my handwriting evolved from scratches done by an angry chicken to a graceful, filigree-like cursive letters, then to neat, uniform, almost mechanical block letters.

My handwriting on my high school notebooks can easily be mistaken as done with a stencil that architects use on blueprints of buildings.

Then it struck me: I don’t write like that anymore. What happened to me?

Much of the writing I do now is done on my laptop. The little writing I do by hand is my notes I scrawl during class lectures. Anyone who would look at them would say their writer was probably in a hurry or confused.

I learned to write when I was six, the summer before I went to kindergarten. My mother taught me. I didn’t have a hard time. Writing was much like drawing, which I was good at.

Halfway through the year, I amused my kindergarten teacher when I showed her my notes written in cursive script. I had been teaching myself.  I wouldn’t get any formal lesson on cursive script until a year later.

It was in Grade Two when I realized that my handwriting should look beautiful. My handwriting then was not particularly ugly; I had classmates who did worse.  I probably had lots of time in my hands and my wandering mind, having nothing to do, tripped on handwriting, picked it up, and was soon tinkering with it.

I used my mother’s handwriting as my model.  I would copy the list of names on her notebook, the people who had borrowed money from her, my mother being a 5-6 moneylender. Soon, I could copy her signature as well. My classmates and teachers started to notice, and not a few times did I receive the comment, “Your handwriting look like a girl’s.”

Throughout the years, I was always on the lookout for people who had beautiful handwriting.

I would borrow a classmate’s notebook or collect papers with a teacher’s handwritten comments on it, and copy the way they made their slants, curves, loops and how they link them all together. Some dotted their i’s with a small circle, some with a small slant, like an accent. Some drew their a’s with a handle over the loop, like a fruit with a stem; some prefer the simpler, handle-less a’s. Some drew their g’s with two loops, the one on top having a small line peeking out from the side; some choose the single-looped g, a hook in the place of the previous g’s lower loop, like teardrop with a ladle underneath to catch it.

In elementary and high school, notebooks were among the major requirements.  At the end of every grading period – more or less every two months – teachers would collect the students’ notebooks and grade them. One got a high grade if he or she was able to copy every lecture that the teacher wrote on the blackboard; it was not only until in college when lecture came to mean the professors’ reminiscences and rants. As with everything, presentation mattered, so notes that are neatly written and laid out merited higher grades.

I was always at the top of my class then and was determined to stay on top, so I diligently worked on every requirement in class, including the notebooks. To keep my notebooks neat, I wrote my notes first on scratch papers, before transferring them on my notebooks. Often, I would stay up late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, transferring my notes on my notebooks.

I even adorned the covers of my notebooks with, say, collages, and drew illustrations inside. For instance, during my sophomore year, a frog laid spread-eagled inside my Biology notebook, its body cut open to display its muscles.  Primates and hairy naked men marched on one page to show the evolution of humans. A fruit-like orb sat in another page, a portion of it sliced off, revealing smaller orbs and spirals – the parts of a cell.  On my English notebook, I drew comic strips of people talking using the perfect tenses, or with gerunds sprinkled all over their speech.

In my senior year, I made a masterpiece out of my Filipino notebook. I drew intricately detailed scenes from El Filibusterismo. I faithfully followed the description on the novel of Simoun’s pieces of jewelry and annotated each piece with its respective history. On a page stood an Old Manila two-floor building, with red globular Chinese lanterns hanging in front, my rendition of Quiroga’s bazaar. A carnival scene took up two pages, a frieze of stalls selling curios, ladies in ball gowns and gentlemen in coattails, and children running around, carrying lanterns.

When my teacher returned my notebook after checking it, I saw a note in red ink inside: “You did more than what was required of you. Congratulations.”

After four years of sleepless nights of transferring notes and drawing frogs in full spread-eagled glory, I finally graduated that year. I was the valedictorian.

When I entered college, I resolved to leave my competitive streak behind. Life at the UP Diliman is easier: no professor requires his or her student to submit their notebooks. Essays and research papers are done on computers. Book pages, and sometimes, even entire books, are photocopied. My notebooks have become jungles of ink scrawl, my desperate attempts to capture every professor’s reminiscences and rants. The carnival people have gone home, leaving nothing but trash.

One time, I was in a library, scrawling down notes from a book. I had a classmate with me. He said, “That’s painful.”

“What?” I asked.

“What you’re doing. You’re writing the wrong way,” he said. “You shouldn’t put the pressure on your fingers.  It should be on your arms.”

He was right. It was painful.

Now, I am trying to write again, with my classmates’ instructions in mind. I’ve also done some Internet research on the subject and many sources confirm what he said. And it works: with the pressure on my arm instead of my fingers, my hand moves over the page, freely, painlessly.

I am also keeping a notebook where I transfer some of my essays and short stories which I originally wrote with a computer. Writing long pieces by hand, even when a computer is available, is not exactly the most efficient way of doing things. But, in this case, efficiency is not my goal.   I want to build again that strong connection between me and my writing, that deep feeling of communion with my work, when I could almost hear my ideas surging from my head down through my arms, hands and pen, until it finally reaches paper.

A calligraphy expert says that good handwriting should also be spacious, the curves and loops widely open. So the word ‘jogger’ written in cursive script must look like eggplants hanging from a vine, with the open loops of the j and the g.

My handwriting in my high school notebooks, though neat, is cramped. The words are too small and the letters set too close to each other, like children huddled close to each other, afraid to drift away in the vast white space surrounding them.

I remember that, in high school, I would often stop in the middle of writing to rub my hand. It was painful all along. And I realized that only now.

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