Friday, December 15, 2006

Eastern Writing

Eastern Writing

Eastern writing has always amused and bemused us. The profundity of the insights provokes wonder and the lyricism of the English prose used charms the reader. Thus the writings of Kahlil Gibran, Rabindranath Tagore and some others are considered excellent works…literature that bring out eastern sensitivity and as well as an ingenuity in the use of the English language.

Most eastern writing is spiritual and quasi religious and reflects a worldview that seems esoteric to the uninitiate. It is about cryptic spiritual beliefs and ethnocentric mores, largely unfamiliar to the western mind but precisely because of this they find them immensely intriguing.

I sometimes wonder if it was the language or the thought or both that make eastern literature admirable. The dilemma is whether the language used by these Eastern writers may be regarded as quaint but lyrical rather than literary. The translations of the original thought into English prose sometimes end up as awkward expressions but find acceptance in creative license. Because they are wrapped in an aura of mysticism and enchanting ambiguity the expressions come out seemingly exquisite and romantic but on further scrutiny the quaintness of it emerges; but a quaintness with a naïf charm. But then who is to argue against appreciation. What may be quaint to some would be great literature to others.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Serendipity in a second hand book store

Yesterday I was in a BookSale outlet in Goldcrest doing my usual browsing. After having gone through the children’s books situated at the end of the first gondola, I went to the paperback novels just below the rack where the coffee table books were arrayed. It was a routine movement that I have done tens of times before. I always started from the end of the first gondola working my way through the other end, which was occupied by the cookbooks. After the culinary section I would turn right from the corner and stay over for a while going through the non-fiction paperbacks. At the upper rack of the paperbacks were technical books on computers, economics, child-rearing, useful stuff to some but completely irrelevant to me. What is conspicuously absent are the current best selling authors. Instead, you would have a smattering of old best sellers most of which the younger browsers would not be acquainted with.

From there another short stretch then you turn right again and be at eye level with more coffee table books. I stopped buying coffee table books because they were no longer at bargain prices. Despite the yellowed pages and the torn jackets of most the prices would range from five hundred to a few thousand pesos. My usual budget during this forage is about a hundred and fifty pesos. With this I could manage to buy three books on a lucky day.

Again like in the first display there were paperbacks and an assortment of short story anthologies like the New Writers from The south, literary reviews (I was hoping I could find old copies of the Literary Horizons, a selection of short stories and essays from the budding writers of the fifties and the sixties), and nonfiction on a wide range of subjects. This was at the other end of the gondola.

With that I would have covered the full length of the store. There are days that I would retrace the route taken and do another round of scavenging for the third or the fourth time.

If you have little time to spare don’t go to bargain books outlets. You have to be without time pressure. There is no semblance of order at all in the way they display their books. Except for the general headings such as children’s books, cookbooks, magazines after that you are on your own. After that lame attempt at order the whole place becomes a bedlam of authors, topics, genres and it would easily take you more than hour and a half to find a particular book that you were searching for, besides, you would probably not find what your were looking for. The books sold in this kind of store are discards, donations coming from libraries of schools, public libraries and from personal libraries whose owners have passed on and have left his collection to unappreciative heirs…but, prepare to be rewarded by a gem every now and then.

Finding something that you really like is a joyful experience. One should not come here with something specific in mind. You must allow yourself to be surprised by a find. My idea of a find is a combination of content and cost, a real value for money book.

It was one if those lucky days. I bought three items one of which was a New York Times collection of daily crosswords for thirty pesos, a back issue of The New Yorker with a short story by David Sedaris (my daughter’s favorite) for forty five pesos and a book on writing, specifically, a book on encouraging budding writers to keep at it…this was for less than a hundred. The book’s title was Wild Mind. When I picked it up from the lower shelves the attraction was not because it was about writing. In fact I thought it would be about the chronicles of a character with a mean streak, a hell’s angel’s odyssey or a pulp fiction type of story. The title was provocative enough for me to read the jacket copy and was glad to find out that it was one of those books which satisfied my criteria of substance and cost.

The book is all about the encouragement of budding writers. It is about letting go, about being unshackled from inhibitions and not to be hamstrung by grammar, spelling, punctuations and other conventions that impede the creative flow. Being an elderly novice and an off and on writer, this book could help me to be more persevering with the craft I am stumbling to master.

Book scavenging has a lot going for it. The satisfaction of buying literary treasures for a pittance is immensely fulfilling. The joy of just being around books, all sorts books brings inexplicable delight.

Inside the second hand bookstore the place can transform into an ancient, cramped and musty reading room. In a flash fantasy, from where you stand could espy an antiquity master leaning at the far end of the room in rapt attention to a monograph, while another, a famous university don, is perched on the gondola’s end leafing through a tattered paperback. At the first turn of the corner a renaissance great is rummaging at the lower tiers of shelves. Your favorite eccentric is seated on the floor unmindful of the illustrious crowd, absentmindedly tapping his pipe on the floor visibly amused of what he is reading. You couldn’t wish for a more congenial company.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Scratch Pad

The last time I wrote was months ago.
It must have been from sheer laziness that I neglected to pick up the pen again to populate white space with black streaks, curves and dots. They may remain as such…meaningless splatters of black on white since there seems to be nothing to write about.
But I am following one writer’s advice of just to keep that writing hand moving and with the theory of a million monkeys typing all at the same time for thousands of millennia would by happenstance come up with something of literary value.
I do not expect to have the luck of a million monkeys today. I know that at the moment my mind is full of crap and nothing paper worthy would come out of my present train of thought. I should live life more so that I could restock my treasury of experiences, widen my knowledge, get better insight into things and into people. My self imposed reclusion is taking its toll on my ability to project myself into other personalities and somehow stunts my imagination. My mind hasn’t been stimulated for quite a while that some atrophy might have set in.
Still I should keep at it. I must form this habit of moving my writing hands at all times. This could be likened to casting a gigantic seine into the ocean for it to gather all that it encounters on the seafloor and those pelagic aquatic life forms residing along the mid-water line. This indiscriminate harvest could lead to writing about things that I hardly know anything about. But since they got dragged up by this ravenous sea catchall they must be given thought and a few lines…only because they were there. Together with the marine detritus some rough gems may be resurrected from the ocean’s bounty. Some stray truths that could start the premise of a piece of writing or some highly individual character that could be developed into a fascinating story.

“Life is wonderful” is one truth that one could use as basis for a piece of writing whether fiction or non-fiction. But it should have a more specific sub premise otherwise it would be ineffective in setting one off to a writing start. Now, there could be hundreds of sub premises that one can generate from “life is wonderful”. Think of the blessings that you have benefited from since you saw light in this world and you will come up with something like “caring for the less fortunate is rewarded by good fortune” or “happiness comes to those who give happiness to others”. A basic truth like “war is hell” has been used by countless writers and yet they never cease to provide us with enjoyable literary renditions emanating from a generic observation. Again, this is because one can get to more specific sub premises of which there are countless numbers of. “Avenging the cruel death of a beloved in the hands of the enemy never appeased the soul” or “the lives of the innocent wasted at wartime is an ignominy that will visit us in peace time” make for interesting story development.
We could go on and on with observations on life and the hundreds of sub premises that can emanate from them. The observations are as they purport to be… mere observations and not incontestable facts but they are most real to some and truisms to those who experienced their reality no matter how fleeting. But these are mere suppositions to those who just learned them as an outsider looking in. There is nothing wrong with that. One could make a statement about life from pure vicarious experience. Any person can, in fact, manufacture their own basic premises without having to validate it by real experience. It is not possible for any one person to experience every conceivable emotion, event, fame or shame. The writer must hypothesize, make a supposition, create scenarios and develop interesting personalities and then converge them into a literary form

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What's a guy to do?

When I was nearing retirement, I read some articles on how to prepare for such a state. There were a lot of practical suggestions such as keeping one foot still on the trade that one was in prior to retirement…a gradual moving away from a lifelong routine. It makes sense to do this. One might find oneself feeling totally inadequate when into a completely alien territory that one has no known competence on. It could be very depressing. Some of the doable endeavors that presented themselves were to be a figurehead president of a research company which some former colleagues were planning to set up. Others were consultancy with a handful of companies, teach market research in the university, write teaching modules and do seminars. I dismissed each one thinking that I may not be able to stand the pressure no matter how small they were. I do not need the tensions and the pressures that go with the acceptance of any of these responsibilities.
My health was not ideal by the time I reached retirement age. I have had diabetes for more than fifteen years and was already on regular insulin shots and just a few years back my ticker was largely constricted and they had to perform an angioplasty procedure to repair the blocked arteries. All my diseases are stress related.
The wild and wooly badlands of advertising in the sixties, the pressure of managing brands in highly competitive fast moving consumer goods markets plus the rigors of running and satisfying the sales and profit targets of an American multinational company for more than a decade have exacted their toll on my health. With some amount of braggadocio I have said that earning the next million is not worth it. However, this could be very true with the high cost of medical care these days.
So, moneymaking activities have been ruled out.
A suggestion that I liked best was on farming. I had fantasies about living off the land. You know, the joy of growing things with your manure dirtied hands. Small time farming, an orchard and some vegetable patches to take care of would be heavenly. I had the notion that I could be a good handyman and it would be nice to take up woodcraft as something to do while the vegetables are growing and the trees are waiting for the next fruiting season. I was bent on doing all these. In a trip to the US I bought a few small power tools and had a craft table made with a work platform. I had to move on to the next suggestion when my wife declared that she was not a farm girl and have no intentions of becoming one now.
In addition to all these, it was suggested to have some cerebral pursuits. This was, also, to my liking. I would have a lot time in my hands to revisit all the novels and poems I read during my college days.
I took stock of the books that I had in my possession. I found out that I have not bought any new fiction except for a few of the more recent books of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorites. All the rest of fiction books on the shelves were from what I acquired when I was in my twenties. My shelves were teeming with management books, books on marketing and research, psychology and a few inspirational pieces and how tos.
I now frequent second hand bookstores in search of favorite and familiar authors during my college years. These authors have now been replaced in the best sellers list by the young contemporary writers. I have been often rewarded by this browsing habit. Hemingway is hardly known to the younger readers, and so with Herman Hesse, Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Welty, Asimov, DH Lawrence, CS Lewis, Updike, Arthur C Clarke, Mccullers and other great writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The prices that they tag on to these precious literary works are absurdly low and insulting to the authors. I shouldn’t complain. I have managed to restore my library with the works of these fine authors for a pittance.
Just revisiting old favorites and reading other works of my admired authors is all that I do now. Idleness is not so bad after all. I get all the excitement that I need from the restocked treasury of experiences in my library.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Preface (bio)

My reason for putting down on paper my memoirs would not be any different from most who write their autobiographies. The fear that with the onset of old age one will begin to forget. So, I now must hurry.

If life can be represented on a cyclorama where all things that have happened in our stay on earth are flashed on like a collage, the best of us would have spectacular and gigantic layouts with brilliant and vibrant colors splashed and splattered like a Pollock canvas while others would be framed in small spaces with less colors…even monochromatic for some. Regardless of the dimensions, strokes and play of colors each person’s layout is a unique composition unto itself, not to be judged by anyone or by any convention. The writing of memoirs is an attempt to preserve this composition, an abstract self-portrait, as it were.

There is a sense of urgency here…a race against the dimming of the light. Remembrance of things past become more difficult as your mental faculties become less able to recapture the lucidity of the images, the resonance of the names, the heat of emotions and the bouquet of tender moments. The first few things that go into oblivion are names and faces, then trivial slices of life and later on wholesale deletion of events and finally, in senility, all that is left is a blinding white cyclorama. Realizing that I am at the early stages of wear out and, that, faces and names quickly go, I tried to create a list of names of people I have ever encountered. Names are wonderful aide memoires. They trigger off a wide gamut of emotions ranging from love, respect and affection to loathing and disgust. Names evoke exciting times, fearsome events, loving moments and humorous encounters. My life story is Anyman’s. It does not have much drama, pathos and cannot account for heroic deeds and achievements of epic proportions that would be of interest to most…but no matter it is my story.

A measure of a full life would be in how motley the wayfarers’ crowd was who have traveled the same path at some time in one’s sojourn. There were some who strode with me briefly, and others much longer. Although parting at some junction to go to separate destinations, the chance encounters have made the journey much more interesting and enjoyable in some.
I have enjoyed the long strides taken with distinguished men as much as I did tramping along with common pedestrians and drifters.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pine Scented Memories

Cocoy's Christmas Tree in the Paco house.
Memories of Christmases past would be a nice thing to write about. I am trying to search my mind for past images of Christmas mornings as a young boy who still believed in Santa Claus. I remember during my childhood we always had a Christmas tree where we used to hang our socks filled with hopeful letters to Santa Claus, telling him how good we’ve been and what we would like for Christmas. I would hang my sock in a branch that was at eye level…the most conspicuous place in the tree.

Our tree was a Baguio Pine that one could buy only during the Yuletide season. They have long since stopped cutting down the trees because conservationists were afraid that after a while the cutters will make extinct this pine species because of indiscriminate cutting. Lately the threat of its extinction is posed, not by Christmas commerce but by the numerous squatters in Baguio City. They have cut down the trees in the hills near the city as clearings for their hovels. I hope something is done to stem this increasing urban blight.
The Baguio Pine has a scent which one associates with Christmas and the pine needles are so much greener and thicker than the foliage of the Agojo Pine, a species found in the lowlands.

The buying of the tree was an event that I looked forward to. I would tag along with my older brother, Tito, to go to a vacant lot in the corner of
Governor Forbes Street where a big open truck would be unloading cut branches of Baguio Pine to sell as fresh Christmas trees. We would select a medium sized one and one that would have the best conical shape. To get the best looking tree one had to go there early otherwise what would be left of the lot would be the scraggly ones and the ones whose branches were just nailed together. Bringing home the tree was also a pleasure. My brother would put on his shoulder the heavy lower part of the tree while I would hold on to the top part walking behind my brother to prevent the tree from swishing. I would proudly march in the tiny eskinita where we live and enjoying all the while the nice comments of our neighbors, especially the kids as we passed them on the way home.

Angge's Christmas tree

My older brothers would do a bit of carpentry work to put together the base for propping up the tree. The base would then be covered with
Christmas wrapping making it look like a big gift box.

Christmas with neighborhood kids. The Dullanos and Sevillas

My sisters would bring out the tree decorations from out of the storage, dust them and start hanging them on the branches. There was a wide assortment of decorative materials. Plastic Christmas balls colored metallic red, green and blue, angels grouped together as a choir, funny looking thin Santas made out of pipe stem cleaners, bells of different sizes, plastic reindeers and metallic ribbons wound around the tree. The last to be done were the Christmas lights. My elder brothers were in charge of checking all the light bulbs, the wiring, replacing burned out bulbs and connecting two sets of Christmas lights together before stringing them up in the branches.

Now what would Christmas be without snow? A final touch is added on the sagged branches, weighed down by reindeers, colored balls, thin Santas etc…lumpy wads of cotton sparsely spread on the pine needles looking like a collection of snow flurries precariously resting on heavily laden branches.

Capping the activity was topping the tree with a big tinsel star, a privilege given to the youngest sibling, Angge, who was four at that time.
My brother , Dado, would put on a new stylus in the RCA phonograph and play Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. We would all take a step backward for a full view of our creation and looking at each other with smiles of approval and feeling good about the familial handiwork.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Oh Those Marvelous Machines!

I was about to complete an exercise of about 700 hundred words on the morning’s activities when suddenly the computer cable got detached when my wife accidentally nudged the connecting cable of the transformer. A whole hour’s work bit the dust, gone forever, because the reserve power source no longer worked, one of the many things that no longer worked with my old laptop.

My laptop is a handover from my working days. I have become so attached to this contraption because I spent more intimate hours with it than anybody that I have had the chance to be with, except for my wife, of course. Half my working hours were spent with my lap top doing analyses, reports, writing memos to the staff, doing local and international correspondences and on needed breaks, an occasional computer game. There was never a day that I didn’t have my laptop in tow. It has been a constant companion in client presentations, conferences and workshops and even when on holidays. The demand s of an international business required us to be on call for 24 hours inclusive of weekends and holidays.

This efficient electronic assistant has relegated my secretary into a social scheduler and coffee provider. A noble partner and factotum it has survived the rigors of being the laptop of a hardworking slave to the millstone. Even after my retirement it continued to serve me faithfully.

Expectedly, some of my geriatric quirks have rubbed off on her and sometimes she even has outdone my cantankerousness and obstinacy. I feel she has earned and deserved the privilege to be this way having been battered and abused repeatedly by an insensitive despot.

My laptop was not my first automaton true love. I was, in my younger days, enamored to an olive skinned beauty whose pulchritude can only be paralleled by its namesake during those days; I speak of my Monroe calculator, an engineering wonder at that time.

As a brand assistant in a multinational concern during the late sixties I was equipped with this machine so that we could do endless computations of product mix costing alternatives, meticulous budget trials for support activities, marketing plans and doing validations of market volume and value estimates.

Though without the sanctity of marriage, I was a live-in partner of this beauty. I can still feel the sensual pleasure derived from caressing the smooth keys on the board and delight at the tinkle at the end of each forward and backward stroke of the crank. This was a love affair that did not last for long. Our Marketing Director at that time was a very numerate person who did mental computations and came up with results faster than anyone of us even with our Monroes in hand. He would chide us about how slow we were despite our mechanical aid. He would say “look chum we haven’t got all day”, these said with a matching thump on the table with his fist.

Some of us made use of the slide rule. Although you could quickly come up with approximations, most of the time this was not good enough because oftentimes precision was required. Margin computations need to have at least a modicum of accuracy and so too are the weighing of alternative costs of different product formulations.

I found the solution to this problem in a book that I chanced upon at the National Book Store. The book’s title was the Trachtenberg Method of Speed Math, a system of computation that could make you breeze through computational challenges without paper in hand and without any sort of mechanical aid. The method required the setting aside of the rules of arithmetic that has already been ingrained in you ever since you stepped into a school room and the replacement of this by a completely new set of procedures and rules. Trachtenberg devised this method while in the concentration camp of the Nazis during World War II. To keep his sanity he mentally composed the new system and scribbled notes using bits of charcoal and paper scraps that he hid in the interstices of the stonewalls of the prison camp.

Those days were my days of struggle and any opportunity of impressing the gods that be were pursued assiduously to gain some positive attention to one’s self. I persevered with the book and pored through it with a fine sifter making sure not to miss any little detail. It took months but at the end of the effort I emerged confident with my new found skills. I made sure that this will not go unnoticed and even tried to outgun a visibly impressed boss.

I have long forgotten and lost this skill through unuse. Not long after this the handheld electronic calculator arrived in the scene and anybody but anybody could do speed calculations with no sweat at all. The skill that I acquired was really doomed to obsolescence. A little later the personal computers came along with programs that could do simultaneous calculations of near infinite umbers, this among other task ameliorating capabilities. All these smart new fangled inventions must have made Trachtenberg turn in his grave.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Saigon Visitors

It’s a new day. I woke up a little before six in the morning, my usual wake up time. I’m a bit excited because my daughter and grandson will be arriving from Saigon today.

I went to the water dispenser and placed the coffee mug on the hot water tap and pressed the button while letting the water touch my index finger to find out if the water is hot enough. My wife turns off the hot and cold water switch at night to save on electricity. She must have forgotten to do so last night. I overfilled the mug because I could not see well in the morning light the water level in the mug. The hot water reached the rim of the mug and overflowed. I went to the kitchen sink to throw out some of the excess water and went to the cupboard to get a sachet of sugar free three-in-one coffee. I think it was the last sachet and took a mental note to buy a box when I come down to Manila to fetch Lyn and David at the airport.

After fixing coffee I instinctively went to my laptop to plug the cable on the wall socket just below the end of the molave table. The west end of the molave dining table has become my writing place. I have two laptops on the table. My old one is used for typing my manuscripts while the other one is used mainly for playing a Texas Hold’em game. This laptop is owned by my son E. It is in a worst condition than mine. Half of the keyboard does not work.

My computer takes time to get electrically engaged. Once plugged you have to wait about five minutes for the connection to heat up, then you can push the opening button and wait for it to start. It seldom starts at the first click. Normally you have to try five to ten times before you could get the connection. I was lucky this morning to get it in two.

I must have forgotten my closing statement in yesterday’s writing.
After some frustrating starts at my writing exercise I swore to give it all up. I take back what I wrote. This is not a futile exercise. It is good to force oneself to write. Once the inertia of non-writing sets it would be difficult to shake it off.. What could start off as gibberish begins to take on a meaningful shape and you continue with more comfort seeing that what comes out on the page are not useless and inane word splatters.

I have missed my grandson David even if it was just a little less than two months ago since he was here last. I missed him each time I had Dustin with me as we looked for beetles beneath rotting logs in the garden, as we fed the carps in the pond and as we sat in the bamboo floor of the Balinese hut exchanging stories. Dustin would suddenly perk up as he espied dragonflies hovering over the pond and alighting on the reeds. He would disturb the pond surface by throwing a pebble on the pond skaters as they darted and glided looking like ice skaters.

I would miss David some more when Dustin starts to cuddle up and whisper in my ears that he would like to have a tree house which he and David will use as secret headquarters. The tree house would be an off limits place to those above ten years old and to young girls especially Nicole, their next door neighbor in Bansalangin Street. Dustin even went to the extent of drawing an elaborate plan of an eight storey tree house, a plan which his dad, an architect, would be proud of. I would if I could grant him this wish except that the trees I have in my lot are no more than four years old and are not big enough to support a tree house, much less, an eight storey tree house. I know that in a few years Dustin would lose interest in a tree house as he pursues new interests. It would have been worth the expense. Creating a moment of joy for my grandson is worth all the treasures in the world.

I have heard good news about David’s standing out in the British International School in Saigon with his straight “A” grades. His grades in all subjects were outstanding. What’s more, he has finally subdued an earlier nemesis, the math monster. However he still remains to be a joker and a prankster in school. He easily breaks into laughter with the slightest provocation. I guess his teachers just overlook his impishness because he does well in scholastic work.

My father who was an actuary, God rest his soul, would probably have a smile on his face because an offspring has taken up from him a proficiency in numbers. This is a facet that is newly revealed by David. His forte prior to this was communications because of his prodigious expression skills.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Rediscovering Walden Pond

I came across a picture book of subjects close to Henry David Thoreau’s heart. These were his personal articles of faith that he has so passionately written about…the simple life, communion with nature at its pristine state, common people trudging through life, the exuberance of mere existence and the cry against government impositions.

The stirring prose of Thoreau juxtaposed with these strong and insistent images creates an indelible mental stain and a grating in the chest. Such a strong visceral impact stays on indefinitely and one is set to musing.

“Masses of men living in quiet desperation…”, is depicted graphically by a monotonic image of tired old men carrying their lunch boxes to a work site. You could almost feel the pain on the calluses of dragged feet through the gravel and share the blankness of the weary mien on their inert faces. Is there a balm for despair?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A morning with D

I remember holding Dustin's arms as we went down the steep rocky steps leading to the carp pond and the Balinese hut on stilts in the middle of the water. Dustin at seven didn’t seem strong enough to negotiate the long and uneven steps of the garden at the back of the house.

Always enthusiastic, he was excited and clung to me with both hands as we descended along the flower-lined narrow winding path. Laughing all the while, he scattered a crowd of feasting butterflies as we passed them. They were quickly back alit on their colorful floral banquet seemingly unresentful of a little child’s intrusion.

Earlier I promised to show him how to create fire with a magnifying glass. It was a cloudy morning and I couldn’t demonstrate building a fire without sunlight. We sat at the edge of the hut and fed the carps with bread leftovers from breakfast. It was a pleasure to watch the carps glide in schools coming out from under the hut as they jostled each other in frenzied fighting for a bite of the bread scraps. There were several big ones, three of which were Kois. The others, mid sized and tiny ones, were ordinary carps which one can buy from a pet shop for a few pesos each.

We gave names to the big and identifiable carps. The most resplendent of them all was a big Koi whose golden scales were vividly outlined on its back side. We named him Prince because of this regal bearing and the brilliant and well defined scales draped on his back looked like a noble’s cape. The two other Kois were Goldie and Long John Silver. Then there was Moby Junior (so named because he looked like the big carp who died when he swam himself into a plastic bag looking for tasty morsels…sometimes they have humanlike traits), Paleface, a fat holdout from the first batch of carps, Blondie and Big Joe Black which I need not describe because their names are descriptive enough of their appearances. There was a small one whom Distin named Scarface because of a distinctive orange slash below the eyes on both sides.

I told Dustin to watch out for the two janitor fish that I introduced to the pond about a year ago. A few days ago I caught glimpse of one of them. It was about the length of Prince but had a wider girth. It grew fast in the pond because there were a lot of pond trash and detritus, which was a lot food for just the two of them.

Janitor fish are bottom dwellers and you seldom see them swimming around. Even in aquariums they tend to attach themselves to the glass wall and move only when prodded by a stick. Although I have only seen one of them from the time I threw them in the pond I gave names to both of them. One was named Johnny and the other Thor. Dustin found the names amusing.

A fluttering dragonfly that alighted on the reeds distracted Dustin’s attention. Soon other dragonflies joined in. There was a big green dragonfly, and then a pair of maroon colored ones hovered on the side of the waterfalls.

The sun came peering out of a momentary opening in the sky. I knew that we would have the sun rays only briefly so I told Dustin to gather up dry leaves, preferably thin dried bamboo leaves because they tend to ignite better than the thick leaves of the other plants. With a clump of dried bamboo leaves by his side I told him to focus the magnifying glass by positioning it where it will give the brightest light on the dry leaves. He was fascinated by the smoke that came out of the blackened portion of a dry leaf as it spread to other leaves in the clump. “Wow, that’s cool! I wish David was here. He would be happy to see this”. David is his cousin who is about his age and with whom he shared all the things that seven year olds have…toys, experiences, stories as well as secrets.

The sun hid itself again behind the thick clouds. We lost the sunshine but we already had a fire going. It burned for a while… searing a bond between a child and his grandfather. “Let’s do this again this afternoon, Lolo”. I said yes and promised to try another way of building a fire using wooden sticks.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Fish Tale (fiction)

I went down from the car to get to the doorbell button that jutted out on the mossy cement wall by the gate. It was almost two in the morning and the December dry cool felt nice on my arm as I reached out to press the mushroom like protrusion from the wall.

From the gate I could see a funeral wake across the street. I didn’t sound the car horn out of respect to the mourners keeping vigil. I could see quite a few people chatting by the makeshift benches that lined the side of the road. There were two mahjong tables keeping everyone awake with the clatter of the tiles as they were tumbled and stirred before walling. At the other end of the house’s frontage a tent was set up to shelter about a dozen somber looking sakla players from the cold December air.

It was already early Sunday morning and it must have been the last night of the vigil to have so many people around even at such a late hour. A slight breeze was blowing and a black streamer tied between two trees, with San Ignacio Funeral Homes printed on it, billowed like a swollen sail as if from Charon’s boat catching a favorable wind, ferrying the soul of the deceased across the waters to the other life.

As I waited for somebody to open the gate I could hear voices from within.
“Were they just waiting for me? But it’s not even two yet”, I thought.
We were going fishing in Nasugbu and we planned on moving out by half past two to have time to pass by the wet market in Pasay where we could buy live bait. Live bait was freshly caught shrimps available only at that early hour, shrimps about an inch and a half in length and still with a lot of jumping liveliness in them…surefire attractions to talakitoks and lapulapus. These were neatly placed in layers of wet cloth, which were then stowed in a polystyrene cooler box to keep them alive longer.

The gate was hesitantly opened by a half-awake and surly looking servant girl who seemed annoyed by the arrival of a visitor at such an unholy hour. She took a quick look at me to check if I was one of the expected visitors then rudely swung the gate slamming it on the side of the driveway’s wall. I drove into the compound and parked between two cars at the end of the driveway. I entered the open front door of the house and was met by Joe.

“We are waiting for Art. He just phoned and said that he will be here in five minutes. Late as always. Fix yourself a cup of coffee. It’s at the small table by the fridge”.

Joe, the oldest guy in the group in whose house we all agreed to meet spoke, as if reassuring me that I was not the last to arrive. Joe is a great guy. He used to be my boss in the brand group until I got promoted to a position in marketing services. I also knew that he liked me.

Even before we got into fishing we used to go out a lot with our families to out of town excursions. One memorable trip was in Hundred Islands in Lingayen, Pangasinan where we stayed overnight in one of the islands. His brother in law, Mark and his family were with us. The kids were happily engaged in all sorts of play on the beach while the wives were chatting under big umbrellas all the while keeping watch on the kids. On a dare from Mark we did a quarter of a mile swim from our island to the one called the Cathedral, so called because it had a cave, a big hollow that had a dome resembling vaulted cathedral ceilings.

One thing we had in common was our having swum competitively in college for our individual schools. Mark was the bemedalled one while Joe and I were just good enough to make it to the school team. With this proclivity towards aquatic sports we naturally gravitated to deep-sea fishing.

Mark was on the terrace by the coffee table busily snelling hooks and placing them in a plastic tube.

“Well, I have snelled enough hooks to last the trip. I don’t want to be caught again without these at ready like the last time.”

It takes at least five minutes to fix a hook on the leader line. In the last trip, Mark couldn’t forgive himself for being unprepared when a school of talakitoks was in a feeding frenzy snatching everything that was thrown in.

“I could have brought in three times more than what I caught”.

He looked up recognizing my presence.

“O Ted I didn’t see you get in. I thought you were Joe. I’m so excited about this trip…Ben and some friends went last week to the island off Maligaya beach and trolled for tanigue and you know what? They were able to reel in a stray marlin in a school of tanigue.”

“Don’t believe everything Ben says. He always has a fish tale to tell. Besides, Ben and his group are not really that interested in fishing. They have been using fishing as an excuse to their wives so that they can get out on weekends with their chicks”, said Joe.

Ben was Joe’s older brother who now and then joined the us in these fishing trips. He didn’t condone his older brother’s playing around and would repudiate him in righteous indignation each time he got wind of Ben’s latest escapades.

“Well, it seems to be a well combined diversion, fishing and womanizing…Parehong malansa.” I remarked just to make light the situation as I noticed Joe’s cheeks begin to redden. Just the thought of his brother's indscretions made him sore.

The sound of a car horn was heard outside the gate and we all started to arrange our packs. Mine was made up of fishing equipment and sandwiches that were dutifully prepared by my wife who woke up early to make them.

“Okay guys let’s go. Art will wake up the whole neighborhood before too long. If we run out of live shrimps to buy in the market you know who to blame”, said Joe who was a bit miffed at Art’s tardiness.

He and Art were never really that friendly with each other after Ateneo gave Lasalle a drubbing in their last basketball encounter. Art, an overzealous and obstreperous Atenean outdid himself in jeering Joe for almost a week after the game. These guys really take school loyalties seriously. Joe just kept his cool although you could almost feel the steam hissing out of every pore of his pasty skin. This happened in the UAAP championships last year and Joe is one to harbor ill feelings on long stretches. Anyway, even without that incident an almost innate animosity existed between these two schools and the incident made even more entrenched this antagonism that Joe Mendoza had on Art Cruces.

After getting our live bait from the Pasay Public Market in Libertad we proceeded towards Roxas Boulevard, a beautiful stretch by Manila Bay leading to the coastal road, the entry point to the province of Cavite. It was a nice drive in early morning. This was just before the morning traffic buildup and we went through the towns Paranaque and Las Pinas without much difficulty because all the intersections of the major commercial streets were still empty of vehicles except for a few parked jeepneys.

In no time we were wending our way through the zigzagging mountain road of Tagaytay as the first gleam of sunrise began to create silhouettes of the mountain line and continued to spread on the lake’s surface like a luminous blue film. We rode in Joe’s car. It was a ten-year old Toyota sedan which despite its worn appearance was a dependable conveyance. Joe had a newer car but that was for going to the office and for socials. The Toyota was for roughing it up and for trips that would surely leave the car dirtied with sticky mud and fishy smell.

“Pare, you could really tell a Lasallite’s car. There is always that patch of slimy green grime on the carpet and the earthy redolence of Robin Hood’s unwashed ballet tights”.

Joe, who was driving just ignored the smart-alecky remark from Art who was looking pleased from what he thought was a witty and nifty swipe at the arch foe. He knew that the guys from Taft Avenue were never that adroit at quick repartees and he could still make another one without fear of a comeback from Joe but thought it prudent not to pursue the urge.

He noticed Joe’s ears turn red and his face puffed as if about to have an apoplexy. Joe was seething as he drove on through the Azucarera de Don Pedro sugar mills and refinery. He almost sideswiped a parked truck laden with sugar cane but instead grazed a stray dog that was sent scurrying over the mounds of ashy remains of burnt cane alongside the railroad ties. As if vicariously getting even with the mangy dog he slowed down and seemed to have recovered his poise and equanimity to everyone’s relief.

Getting even. That must have felt good even if it was just on a wretched mangy dog. For a moment the hapless cur must have personified all the evils in the world, Hitler, Idi Amin, Manson, Art Cruces, Ateneans, etc and got its just deserts.

It was still dark when we reached the hut of Mang Turing the fisherman whom we have made arrangements to rent a banca for the day’s expedition. We had a package deal that included his services as boatman and guide to fishing spots together with breakfast. We had instructed him to prepare a breakfast made up of “sinaing”, which is "tulingan" steamed overnight in slow fire until the whole fish including the bones become soft. This was a popular fare in the fishing towns of Southern Tagalog. We ate this with plain rice, egg fried sunny side up together with a cup of strong “barako”coffee. “Barako”coffee is strong stuff. Drinking it brings about a palpable thumping in your chest that can keep you awake all day.

We all got down from the car and did stretching exercises to regain circulation of the poor muscles that were a bit achy after being squeezed, sat on for two hours and made taut by Joe’s irascible driving. We had a quick but good breakfast. The fishing spot would be at least forty minutes away and we needed to get there before it gets light to take advantage of the early morning feeding habit of the “talakitok”.

There are as many fish tales as there are myths in fishing. Some of these which Mang Turing would stake his reputation on were…the best time to go after "talakitok" is between light and dark, sharks can smell blood from a mile away, "lapu-lapu" help each other disentangle lines, eels are vengeful, and then some really fantastic ones… night luminescence at sea are submerged UFOs, mermaids lead astray fishermen to their lairs, a fiery sky means a storm is brewing, and St. Elmo’s fire warns fishermen to proceed no further. Myths about feeding habits of fish are the most told in fishing lore. I don’t mind the spuriousness of these. In fact half believing these stories adds to the adventure of fishing.

Mang Turing, the fisherman, was a lightly built man who must have been in his mid forties although he looked ten years older. Men whose livelihood exposed them to the natural harshness of sea and sun make them age faster than those who work in the sheltered air-conditioned offices in the city. Mang Turing was swarthy in complexion, with skin that looked tough and as hard as tooled leather. His slight appearance, wiry frame and the tightly woven sinews of his thin arms and legs belied an amazing strength.

He gathered the things he would need for the fishing trip and led us to the boat. There was a red plastic container, a recycled Shell lubricant bottle, which contained two liters of gasoline, a loop of mooring rope made of abaca, a hand reel with a thick nylon line and a mean looking gaff, which though, rusted had a newly honed sharp point that gleamed even with just the faint light coming from a struck match.

When we got to the boat he helped as board and by himself pushed the boat towards deeper water, hastily climbed aboard and with the help of a long bamboo pole punted the boat away from the shore. You could still see the flickering lights of the "basnigs" from a distance as they hurried home after a night’s work at sea. It is difficult to tell the distance by the light of the boats. Mang Turing said that it probably would still be more than an hour before these boats would reach shore.

“Why don’t you guys start fixing up your gear before we reach the fishing ground.”

Mark was the most eager and was egging everyone to ready up. He had spread his snelled hooks in front of him. His fishing rod was already assembled and he was now threading the nylon through the series of loops of the rod. We followed suit.

I noticed Joe’s nylon lines were a bit heavier than what one would normally put in an open reel to catch "talakitok", "bisugo" or even l"apu-lapu", fish that would not exceed a kilo in weight.

Art notice this too and remarked, “The trouble with you Lasallites is your retarded sense of sportsmanship. You seem to have forgotten that we are here for the sport. I wouldn’t go to all the trouble and the expense if all I wanted was fish. The essence of the sport is to show your skill in reeling in fish that is so much heavier than your line.”

Art was right and he knew it and this encouraged him to carry on further. “Pare naman, give the poor fish a sporting chance. Just like in the UAAP…no sportsmanship”.

“Now what has the UAAP got to do with fishing?” I protested almost in a shout.
Art couldn’t be stopped as he continued with his ranting.
“And another thing, what’s the name of that guy? That team official? The one who hit the Arwind Santos on the head after losing a game to FEU? What a rotten sneak! If it were not for video replay he would have gotten away with it. Now isn’t that typical Lasallite behavior?”

Joe lit a cigarette from a match and hissed the first puff towards the matchstick to put it out while Art was making his defamatory remarks. In the dim light I couldn’t see clearly their facial expressions. It was easy to imagine the arrogant facial mien of Art while I speculated that Joe must have again been seething in silent rage like the smoldering cinders of his lit cigarette that glowed maleficently in the dimness of dusk. Mark didn’t seem to be perturbed by all the noise Art was making. He was busy preparing his gear.

It was early light when we got to the fishing spot. Mang Turing, with his knowledge of triangulation, was unerring in pinpointing the exact location of the sunken Japanese battleship, now, a haven for all sorts of fish who have taken residence in the wreckage.

Art had long stopped talking. He probably became apprehensive of Joe’s reticence and sensed that he might have gotten under his skin much more than he intended to.

The sea was beautiful, as it lay still in the morning calm. Tiny ripples stretched widely into the open sea looked like a pointillist canvas as it shimmered in the first light. The "basnig" flotilla was behind us now,, receding from view as they blurred and became a part of the shoreline. In front of us, in the distance, was Fortune Island, an ominous looking promontory that jutted out rudely from the serene watery spread. The waters surrounding the island are notorious for vicious sharks and fisher folks knew well to avoid the place. Our fishing spot was still some distance from the dreaded waters although underneath us the teeming variety of fish, occasionally attract stray sharks to feed.

Mark was the first to cast. He attached a heavy lead at the end of his line and allowed the line to sink as far as it can get in order to have a gauge of the distance from the boat to the sea floor or the top part of the wreck. He reeled in and announced to all that the depth was approximately thirty meters.

We had fished for about half an hour. Mark’s eagerness was rewarded by two good-sized "lapulapu " while I was on my third snagged line. I had a bite but was not quick enough to yank the line. This gave the fish a chance to lodge himself in the many crevices of the wreck. Both Art and Joe were not having any success either. Then Mang Turing suddenly jerked his handline and started to haul in his line steadily but with much exertion.

“There’s a big beautiful fish at the end of that line”, shouted Art.

Mang Turing grimaced as pulled the hundred pound line. My attention shifted to my own line when it tautened and the end of my rod dipped. I felt the struggle of what could be a magnificent creature at the end of my line and I started to reel in slowly, taking care not snap the ten-pound line I was using.

“Whaa!” hollered Mark who almost fell to his side as a violent jerk on his line made him lose his balance. Mark knew that the vigorous tugging in his line meant that he, too, had a big one.

I knew that Mang Turing’s catch must really be gigantic judging from the effort he exerted as he pulled in his line. But for a while I forgot all about him for I was rapt in my own struggle to bring in my fish.

I could hear Mang Turing telling Joe to get the ready to gaff the fish when he hoists it up. “Oowww!” I heard Art’s pained shout… then Joe saying “Sorry, Pare, I missed”.

It seemed that in the excitement of bringing in the fish, Joe who was ready with the gaff, swung widely at the fish as Mang Turing brought it up above the level of the boat. He missed and nicked Art in the forearm causing it to bleed profusely. It was just a gash but Art was a bleeder and the small towel that he dabbed on the wound to stem the bleeding was soaked. Mark had a first aid kit in his pack. He cleaned up Art’s wound with alcohol and dressed the wound with cotton wrapped in gauze then used medical plaster to hold the dressing together. The blood soaked towel lay there on the floor spreading like red dye on a small puddle at the bottom of the boat.

The big fish turned out to be a young shark, a mako, about four feet in length. It got away when the barb straightened out from the full weight of the shark above water.

Joe said he was sorry immediately after missing the fish with the gaff and hitting Art instead, but that was all he said. There was no show of concern or the usual remorseful and solicitous behavior after causing an accident. Art didn’t make a comment but busied himself attending to his wound.

I didn’t actually see what happened as I was too engrossed with my bite. All I heard was Art’s howl when he was hit and Joe’s apology. When I turned I saw Art clutching his left forearm and Mang Turing whose back was turned was watching the runaway fish disappear in the depths. Mark, like me was similarly concentrated with dealing with the fish at the end of our lines.

We soon forgot about the nasty incident. Towards mid afternoon the fish
Began to bite. We were having a grand time reeling in "talalitoks", "bisugos" and "lapulapus". This was a great spot and I took a mental note to return to it in our next fishing trip.

We knew that we were in the company of sharks from the time Mang Turing has struck the one that got away. The sharks were snatching our catch before we could reel them in. It was frustrating to feel the sudden slackening of the line and seeing just the fish head emerging to the surface at the end of the line. We changed to heavier lines, not to catch sharks but to reel in the hooked fish quickly before the sharks bite them off. Even Art changed to heavier lines despite his disparaging remarks about the unsportsmanlike use of heavier lines that he rebuked Joe for favoring. It was as if he had forgiven Joe for the accident.

“Joe had the right idea…heavier lines are right for this situation” and Joe just nodded to acknowledge Art’s compliment.

We have had enough of fishing for the day. Our coolers were filled with catch and our baits were no longer live and were about used up. It was days end. The sea was starting to get choppy and we needed to get to shore before it got dark.

Mang Turing prepared for our departure from the fishing ground. He pulled in the anchor. Joe helped by arranging the mooring ropes into a neat loop as Mang Turing hauled them in. He then went to the stern of the boat to get the plastic receptacle containing gasoline and brought it to the center of the boat where the motor was. He took off the cap of the plastic bottle and placed the opened bottle on top of the looped abaca rope and then uncapped the engine’s gas tank. The opened plastic bottle was sitting unsteadily on the looped rope when suddenly Joe tripped on the end part of the rope that was attached to the anchor. This caused the plastic bottle to tip over and spill about a third of its contents on the looped rope. Mang Turing was quick to put upright the plastic bottle and saved enough of the gasoline contents to take us to shore. The boat reeked of the strong gasoline smell. Mang Turing told us to stay at the front half of the boat so that we won’t be downwind once the boat goes forward.

Joe stayed with Mang Turing at the middle of the boat while Mark, Art and myself stayed in the forward section. We were just about fifteen minutes from were we left when Mang Turing went forward to fix the piece of tire rubber at the front tip of the boat which seemed to have loosened its wrap on the wooden prow. He returned quickly to his post to tend the steering pole. There was a strong gust of wind coming from shore.

The salty spray on my face and the rushing sound of the wind made me oblivious of what was behind me. Joe had moved forward now to where I was as if trying to tell me something when Mang Turing shouted “Fire! Fire! The boat is on fire.” The spilled gasoline on the abaca rope and wooden floor and sidings made the fire rage quickly. The fire was already consuming the engine housing and had quickly spread to the rear section of the boat. There was only a rusted tin can that can be used to douse the fire. The water splashed on the fire from the tin can was so meager and Mang Turing soon gave up the effort. The fire was now eating up the engine’s housing and soon it will reach the gas tank. We were all huddled at the front causing the boat to dip forward.

Joe was first to jump into the water. Then Mang Turing told everyone to jump out because there will be an explosion soon. As I hit the water I could see Joe and Mark start swimming towards shore. Mang Turing was still floating around and like a captain of a ship viewing the fiery scene thinking of ways to save the boat.

The last time I saw Art he was bobbing with the waves about ten meters away from where I was. Before jumping out of the boat I saw him throwing out the contents of his cooler. He probably had the good sense to make a floater out of the polystyrene icebox. I looked at the shore and guessed that it would be more than two kilometers away. I wasn’t as confident as Mark and Joe who instinctively went for the shore the moment they touched water. I knew my stamina has been eroded by a two pack a day smoking habit and I just might not be able to make it.

Whoomph!! A loud blast came from about twenty meters from where I was. I went under water to avoid getting hit by the shrapnel like dispersion of the debris. When I surfaced I was in the middle of a collection of flotsam. There were pieces of wood, plastic shards, fish parts and odd bits coming from our baggage. Not too far away I could see a head moving towards a long bamboo pole, a remnant of the outrigger which detached itself from the boat in the explosion. It was Mang Turing. I yelled at him and I was glad when he acknowledged seeing me by shouting back. I swam towards the bamboo pole and clung on. I couldn’t find any traces of Art but I concluded that he can survive this in his makeshift lifesaver.

As we paddled towards shore the sky was aglow with a resplendent sunset. The scattered clouds above the horizon were made more distinct by a fiery red backdrop.

“It will be a stormy night”, muttered Mang Turing.

We reached shore after a two-hour effort paddling with one arm while the other clung to the bamboo pole. Mark and Joe got to shore half an hour ahead of us with their steady swimming pace. They had dry clothing on and were seated in front Mang Turing’s hut together with the barangay captain and barrio councilmen. The police have been notified and would arrive soon with an ambulance to take us where they could administer first aid.

We phoned home and told our families about the incident. I told my wife that I will be staying a while to wait for news about Art. Mark and Joe had the same thing in mind. Outside Mang Turing’s hut there was a heavy rain that persisted for more than two hours. I told everyone to keep up hope because I saw Art afloat with his makeshift lifesaver.

The heavy rains didn’t help in shoring up our optimism. Late in the night Mang Turing, half trying to make conversation, offered the notion of aliens’ succor from UFOs in the Batangas waters or the possibility of mermaids coming to his rescue and nursing him until he was able to get to shore by himself. The "barako" coffee was truly a solace in a cold and stormy night.

The following day the body of Art was recovered. It was badly mangled, obviously from a shark attack.

It was a dark dawn after a stormy night. In the glare of his Coleman lamp a shoreline fisherman saw a body floating amidst the flotsam of our boat’s wreckage brought in by the tide.

After hearing the news we ran towards the beach where we saw a group of early risers milling around an inert form. The body was laid on the sand half-covered in plastic. It was difficult to look at Art’s body fixedly. His left arm was almost severed from a pale but bruised torso that had turned bluish green. His face was undamaged but had a bewildered look with mouth agape and eyes opened wide as if in dreadful terror.

As I took off my glance from the mutilated carcass I noticed Joe walking away from the huddle, walking past Mang Turing’s hut and to his parked Toyota. Not one of us bothered to call him back, not even Mark, his brother in law. Only Mang Turing, with a knowing look uttered “He has a lot to think about”.

Joe drove away. Away without looking back.