Sunday, September 30, 2007


I've always been fascinated by America's passion with books. I had a chance to witness this again, at the National Book Festival held this weekend at the National Mall in Washington DC. It was a virtual Divisoria of books, scores of authors in their respective genres dissecting, discussing, discoursing their creations and what drives them to write.

What struck me most was the focus on children. It was obvious that Americans start their romance with literature early, and in a manner that appears to be fun and unobtrusive. Books become a tool not only of learning, but of creating, of flexing and ventilating the imagination, and in this way perhaps, reinforce the unlimited human genius.

But at the same time, the US book publishing industry is worried about the decline in output. Great Britain, not the United States, is the world's per capita leader in the publication of new books in any language.

The decrease was reportedly felt in general adult fiction and children's books -- the two dominant categories in the US. Religion, biography, history and technology were said to have suffered the biggest declines.

But you wouldn't know that's true from the huge crowd who trooped to the book festival. The average retail price of adult hardcover books is $27.55, adult book paperbacks about $14-$15.

"Books," Charles Eliot said, "are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers". A good book is indeed a welcome, comforting companion in all weather and moods, but most especially in times when we are alone.

Friday, September 21, 2007


There's something about the last quarter of the year that spells danger to President Arroyo.

Rumors of another coup, I hear, are circulating in Manila. I found the timing uncanny, almost predictable because it's been like that since PGMA was installed in the presidency via "EDSA-2" in what feels like a long, long, long time ago. The "ber-months" have always appeared perilous for her; whether this is just perception, I'm unsure. Didn't she announce in December 2003 that she would not be running in the May 2004 presidential elections? Wasn't it around this time in 2005 that she faced impeachment, only to be rescued by allies in the House of Representatives? It's as if the calendar itself was part of what she likes to label as a "conspiracy" to unseat her.

Anti-Arroyo conspirators -- real and imagined -- have always been busiest this time of the year. A friend, Boy Saycon, once explained this was all because of the country's weather. A campaign to oust a sitting president needed just the right pacing -- one year might be too long to keep the plot secret; three months would be too short to plan and prepare. They seemed to have settled for six months. And the reckoning begins at the end, not at the start.

This "template" was likely an offshoot of "EDSA-1" -- the February 1986 People Power revolt that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. To draw people out to the streets, conditions must be just right -- a popular cause, the promise of victory, and a cooperative weather. No rains, just enough sunshine, salubrious climes. It's no coincidence, Saycon argued, that both successful People Power revolts occurred in the first three months of the year when the weather is most supportive of mass actions in the streets.

President Arroyo appears scared of the shadows she's created, a foreboding of karma. It was about the same time in 2000 when a small circle of army and police generals started drawing a plan to hostage President Estrada and any general who sides with him -- to be galvanized within the next several weeks as the Singson expose rapidly upped the plot's tempo as well as the political temperature. The conspirators were egged on by the pillars of Philippine civil society -- many of whom would eventually regret their actions and try to reprise the process, this time against PGMA -- by assurances that the people would march out to the streets to support the putsch, offers of money and logistics, and the promise of acceptance if they were successful.

PGMA, then Vice President, was eventually apprised with the plan through a then-army major (I'd rather not mention his name, but he's PMA Class '74 -- some call them PGMA's "jedi" for their courage and innovations in the AFP, as well as their steadfast loyalty to her). Hence, she was "on it", contrary to assertions she only came aboard after the generals launched their uprising. Although she apparently had no say in the plot, she knew when it would start (reason she was conveniently near a Cebu convent when it happened), knew the generals involved, and probably had some knowledge of how it'd be done. That's why she's now afraid. She's seen how the generals can work against their Command-in-Chief, and she knows precisely what comes next.

So it's that time of the year again. PGMA may be a bit more alloyed by the experience of fighting off an impeachment and repeated challenges. She may be a personification of that old adage "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger". Her announcement in Baguio City in December 2003 that she wasn't running in the following year's polls was, her own detractors have admiited, a stroke of political genius. She was vulnerable, from Estrada forces, from the Left, from inertia within the military. She lulled her opponents with her proclamation and assurances, knowing that she had to make it through the summer, to the elections scheduled in May. And she did, she survived. Many criticize her "escalator policy" of promoting generals to top AFP and PNP posts -- but that's exactly how she keeps their loyalty.

As the months march on to the next year, President Arroyo will be hounded by danger -- if not in reality, then in her mind at least. It's that time of the year again. She may already be looking forward to summer, to the start of next year's rainy season.

Monday, September 17, 2007


We moved to the Southern Towers the other weekend.
It's a large, dynamic community made up of five
high-rise apartment buildings, featuring amenities
like two swimming pools, a gym, beauty parlor and mini-grocery
(nearest thing I've seen to a sari-sari store over here).
Moving meant leaving Arlington to try out historical Alexandria,
with its famed Old Town and large mansions
(some a drawback from the colonial and Civil War era).
The aroma of different kinds of food from the apartments is a sign of the community's rich cultural diversity.
Our balcony on the 12th floor offers a panorama of the "new" Alexandria,
as well as the cacophony of progress along the I-395 freeway below.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


'HOUSE 1' Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) best known for pop paintings based on advertisements and comic strips he made in the 1960s. House 1 exploits the illusionistic effects of a third dimension. At the Sculpture Garden, on the National Mall near the corner of 7th St. and Constitution Ave. NW

'CRIMINALS BEWARE' Vigilant eye keeps watch over this neighborhood, and a message where potential crooks could end up

'BUS STOP' Waiting for the bus can sometimes be an ordeal; they come on a schedule that are farther apart during weekends, which was when I snapped this picture. Nothing wrong with waiting in style and least until the garbage truck comes by and scoops up these trash left by the homeowner of the house behind.

'TYPEWRITER ERASER, SCALE X' Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen. This stainless steel and cement sculpture is also at display in the Sculpture Garden. Oldenburg makes monuments based on common objects (e.g. clothespin, scissors), challenging the notion that public monuments must commemorate historical figures or events.

'CAUTION: SEE-SAW' What could be more dangerous than kids playing? I found this street sign near a children's park in alerts motorists they are nearing a playground. There are over a hundred different kind of warning signs on the road. Test your knowledge.

'WHERE TO, WALTER REED DRIVE?' Do I go straight or make a turn? Navigating streets sometimes is a challenge, making a map or GPS essential for driving in American streets. I took this photo on an island intersection and still couldn't figure out the sign.

Friday, September 7, 2007


They say that truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget. I have so few of them, I'd have trouble forgetting even if I tried to.

But there was something special about my friend Bing Formento (in the photo, flanking "Tabako" as we affectionately called former President Fidel V. Ramos and DZRH commentator Rey Langit to his right). I just learned he bought a new restaurant called the Batter Beater Cafe in Las Vegas. As expected, it's a family affair -- Bing's life always revolved around his energetic wife Nora and their children, specially their only daughter May-May (last time I saw her, she was barely past a toddler; I was happy to learn she's gotten married and appeared pregnant in the pictures). That was something I always admired in Bing. Along with his deep belief in Divine destiny and a never-say-die, damn-the-torpedoes attitude to pursuing his life's goals.

I wasn't quite sure what was happening when my bosses at the Evening Star -- Ka Louie Beltran, Angel Sambo and Jun Varela -- first introduced me to Bing. I was told I was moving to the defense beat, after covering the "dead beats" of San Juan and Mandaluyung cities. But they were pairing me up with Bing. He was already a virtual media institution at Camp Aguinaldo, his was a household name, with his urgent, distinctive baritone. He was well known for his work with radio station DZRH, but Bing was just starting out in newspapers, and the Evening Star "trinity" wanted me to help him along.

He was an excellent news gatherer, I was told, but he needed help putting the ideas and information into the written word. That was my "secret mission", Angel directed, after pulling me aside after the introduction to Bing. It was the start of a happy, prolific and sometimes funny collaboration.

But Bing was generous, I quickly discovered, sometimes to a fault. And he was generous in almost all things.

He did not hide his sources as most veteran reporters working with young ambitious, upstarts are wont to do. We started work early and were cultivating our next day's stories just as the main pack of defense reporters were starting to write theirs for that day. The other reporters tended to devote their time to finding out what Bing was up to -- he became a virtual "beat" all his own.

I count myself lucky to have seen how he worked his sources. Bing was a good listener, he tried to get a grasp of the issues -- sometimes failing miserably -- but more than anything else, he "felt" for the people he dealt with. He suffered with the oppressed and was infuriated with the oppressors. His voice, more than anything else, betrayed his emotions. During the 1989 coup d'etat, when Camp Aguinaldo was being bombed by rebel artillery, he virtually invented a Pilipino word -- "tumilampon" (actually he meant to say "tumilapon") -- while describing blow-by-blow, live on DZRH, the sickening sight of shells exploding nearby. Sometimes, his rapid-fire reporting outraced his thoughts.

We were caught in a White Plains house by a bombing run by pro-government "Tora-Tora" planes. It was my baptism of fire, the first time I've been caught in the middle of actual combat. We were trying to get an interview with Col. Romilino Gojo, the mutinous commander of the 4th Marine Battalion who was holed up in the house. We got separated for awhile as I sought shelter behind bed cushions in a den. Bing had a wry smile, as he ordered, "halika na, alis na tayo!" But just as we reached the dining room, a rocket hit the swimming pool directly outside. I didn't even have time to hit the floor, stunned by the blast. Water was pouring out a nearby stainless-steel water tank punctured in a hundred places by shrapnel. The room was dark from the smoke, the stench of cordite penetrating the senses. We made our escape hitching a ride on a truck rushing mutineers wounded in the bombardment to the nearby Quirino Labor Hospital. When we finally reached safety, we tried to check out each other if we were wounded too. I think he was pleasantly amused to see I didn't piss in my pants. (Bing did get wounded during that coup -- he took a shrapnel on his ass when rebel planes hit the police headquarters in Camp Crame, something that got a lot of ribbing from our fellow reporters)

Another time, he was interviewing former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile on the phone but airing it live over DZRH, about the flow of the putsch. Enrile made himself very scarce throughout the tumult because of suspicions he was involved in the attempted power-grab. It was a scoop, an exclusive for DZRH as well as the Evening Star. The battle around Camp Aguinaldo was still raging, the outcome uncertain for the protagonists. As the interview was winding down, Bing interjected a question that threw everyone at the Camp Aguinaldo press "dug-out" in stitches. "Sir," he told Enrile, "ilang longganisa ang gusto niyo?"

The "longganisa" or pork sausage was Bing's and Nora's side business. He would keep reminding me that the secret to a good "longganisa" is garlic, the more the better. And you cook it in water until the water dries out and the sausage is cooked in its own oil, crunchy crisp. I was delighted to see that included in the Batter Beater Cafe menu was Bing's trademark "longganisa" -- prepared in the favorite Pinoy breakfast package of "longsilog" ("longganisa" with fried rice and egg).

Bing was forced to flee the country after both sides suspected him of aiding the other. He was labeled "forward observer", because his relentless live reporting had apparently helped zero rebel artillery on their intended targets. Until that time, very few of us knew the term "bracketing" -- a hit-and-miss technique artillerymen used to home in on targets over the horizon. Bing was accused of doing it deliberately. I knew how absurd that was, but such was the paranoia after the 1989 coup was crushed, some say, out of sheer luck. We parted ways when, the late Betty Go-Belmonte, publisher of the Philippine Star, transferred me to the flagship publication. I felt bad leaving the newspaper's "poor cousin", the Evening Star. A few weeks later, she closed the afternoon paper and I was one of the few who found ourselves still with a job. She was really an angel to me.

We kind'a lost track of each other for awhile. I knew he made it to San Francisco with his family. Even there, Bing proved to be a reliable friend. He took a troubled aunt under his wing, although I knew they were hard up themselves. He applied for asylum, citing the death threats he was receiving and persecution from people he once counted as friends. But Bing is a living epitome of the adage, "you can't put a good man down". With his gung-ho spirit, I soon heard that he had opened his own restaurant and was actively practicing one of his many passions -- spreading God's words.

His was a strange faith. Anchored on the Bible, he also preached the need for "good karma". But he also sometimes cited the Koran. It all knit nicely in the spirit of the "golden rule" for the man from Djanggas.

Yes, Bing is one of a kind, as far as I'm concerned. I may not have told nor shown him this, but he is a friend, true and dear. He had humble beginnings, but was either so lucky or so brilliant to reach the pedestal he is in now. He's told me stories of his past that, at times, I found incredible. The tales were too rich, so full of drama. Many I found out later, were true. But I still thought, he couldn't have experienced all that. Or maybe he did. But then again, he's a good friend.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


"And see the peaceful trees extend their myriad leaves in leisured dance—they bear the weight of sky and cloud upon the fountain of their veins."
Kathleen Raine, Envoi

"Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants...becomes a nearly perfect test of our being in right temper of mind and way of life"

John Ruskin, 1819-1900, Modern Painters VI

"Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come"
Chinese proverb

"A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit."
Elton Trueblood (1900-1994)

"Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of God. So let us celebrate the struggle!"
- Swami Sivanada