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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

entry arrow2:08 AM | Christine’s Payag Sling and Other Reactions

The truth of the matter is, you can’t write about anything or anybody in Dumaguete without acknowledging the dangers inherent in proximity. The city is too small. We are all bound to bump into each other sooner or later. Which sometimes make for fearful—and perhaps even fearless—experiments in column-writing. The slightest negative depictions, if there are any, indeed carry, and can have the repercussions of tidal waves. Small towns invariably have the habit of magnifying mole hills. And for a lack of better things to do in a city so small, the best entertainment for everybody, of course, is gossip. “Did you read what so-and-so wrote about so-and-so?”

The inbox can easily become a battleground, of sorts. Years ago, in the eve of a local election, I gave some criticism and recommendations to shore up a hopeful future for the city—and one response I got was an incensed suggestion to go to Quezon Park and do my ranting there. I believe I was told to take a long walk on a short pier. And sometimes, there are even articles I write that don’t even see print at all. My editors would email me and say, “This is too dangerous, Ian. Let’s not print this.”

And so there are days when I just have to tell myself that I must have the courage of lions, the way I try to carry on writing about local stuff—but that’s only in a haphazard attempt to cushion myself against all possible recriminations, enough to carry me through another week. Dumagueteños, I know for sure now, are a notoriously wary bunch, and they have deep-seated suspicions against anybody who carries the tag of “journalist.” Write about any of them, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is this request: “Can I read the article first before publication?” which is, of course, a no-no for anybody worth his journalistic stripes. Which may be why I quit being one to become a teacher instead.

The thing is, in my columns, I like to champion things. But when there’s a fly in the sandwich, what do you do? You can’t simply ignore it, and continue chomping down on the fly-flavored food. Years ago, I learned to control my baser urges to do snark-writing. This was after a sorrowful incident where I happened to give a not-so-pleasant review of a show, and got perpetual hate from the organizers. So I told myself: “If something is bad, don’t write about it. Being ignored is worse than the bite of the harshest critic.”

This philosophy carried me through for years, which invariably led towards maudlin articles: too much championing makes you look like a schmuck. You become someone who’s only capable of so-called “praise-release.” And there’s nothing like the occasional snark to liven things up, to generate discussion. That’s one of the best goals of democracy, right?

The responses I got from my recent trips to the new restaurants in the city were certainly interesting. Some quibbled on the rankings—“This one does not deserve this rank,” or ”This one is better than that other one”—but really, rankings are arbitrary in nature. What’s more important is the fact that we do have some great new eating places in town: the article becomes an open invitation to sample their fare, and perhaps to patronize them if you liked what you ate. And taste, needless to say, differs from one person to the next. Circumstances also largely dictate one’s views on things. A reader who went by the name of Egao messaged me in my blog: “I heard that people haven’t been liking the food at Gabby’s Bistro: ‘Cajun chicken was dry,’ ‘adobo is typical,’ ‘meatballs were burned,’ ‘servings are tiny’ were among the complaints…” That’s quite unfortunate. But I can only judge from how the food tasted that day I first devoured them—and as far as I’m concerned, that meal I had was very, very good.

And what are the circumstances by which I visit these restaurants? In the perfect disguise of an ordinary customer just come in from the streets. No announcements. Just me, the menu, the waitress, and the food that finally arrives. Sometimes in small parties, too—where you can be sure the kitchen staff will be harried enough to even bother making tweaks on their food preparations.

Here’s a reaction that’s even more interesting. In my previous article on the high society of Dumaguete, an acquaintance of mine [who will remain unnamed because he has decided to keep his anonymity for this article] felt that he was the one who was anonymously finger-pointed by me as the “supposed” historian of Dumaguete. My original line was: “When did [a certain person] ever become a historian of Dumaguete?”

He wrote me an email, a very long one. I wrote back: “I hope you don’t mind if I publish this soon as a reaction column.” He replied: “[Okay] ra nako, but [please edit] the wrong word na sayop,” and then: “[Please] promise me [you] will [edit] it [for] me, [I] am [a] positive person always. I need [your] reply before [you] will publish this soon as a reaction column.” I replied back: “Unfortunately, as a matter of journalistic principle, we are not allowed to do that.” We are indeed discouraged to let pour subjects read our articles first before printing. Later, he emailed back: “Ayaw na lang, [thanks]. I will explain na lang my side in a lecture series in my school.” And my response was: “Well, it’s not as if I will be negative. I’ll just edit your letter and print it, that’s all. And having a lecture series is not really an equivalent of having what you say be read by newspaper readers. You will have to trust me on this.” I never got a reply to that.

The guy has the best intentions, needless to say—and he always seems to be in the middle of things whenever the local city government tries to put on a cultural show. That is good. According to him, Tatler’s Margie Enriquez asked him in Tanjay what type of historian he was, and our guy told her he was a “family and cultural historian due to [his] family background.” He went on to list down the exalted and hallowed names from an extended family that borders our idea of distinguished. Bueno familia. There are other things he wrote about where he attempted, by a stretch, to defend why he is a “cultural and family historian.” And I will not begrudge him that any more. He is who he says he is.

I hope he permits me, however, to explain where I’m coming from.

You see, I have realized, these days, that we are all increasingly living in a world where superficial labels often trump the meatiness of what comes after hard work. These days, people can come up to you and say, “I’m a model,” when in fact they’ve only done one T-shirt show in a small mall somewhere off downtown. I know some people who call themselves “poets,” when they haven’t written anything at all—but the fact that they habitually go to literary cafes and socialize with other writers and share in their angst-ridden philosophies of writing somehow makes them think they are, in fact, poets. There is something about the Internet Age where words are slowly losing their meaning, because they’re appropriated too much by too many to suit their own definitions of how things are.

Look, lately I’ve done considerable research and writing to come up with a history of the literary tradition of Silliman University. Does that make me a historian? No. But that makes me a history buff. And the people I interview who are brimming with oral information about things historical are not historians, either. They’re sources.

What makes a historian? For me, three things make a historian: training, output, and recognition from peers. Training: you first have to undergo the rigid academic discipline of history. That means going to school, learning from a mentor, going for higher studies. Output: you have to do countless hours of research, and then put out what you have learned in journals and books for the rest of the world to know the history you have uncovered. As they say, “Publish, or perish.” And finally, recognition from peers: other historians—especially those already distinguished in their fields—must recognize your own efforts, appreciate the vitality of your contributions, and call you a colleague.

When you don’t meet any of these, you are only a history buff. Which is not a bad thing, of course. There are countless history buffs who have contributed great things to the world. But let’s call all things in appropriate measure. Or else words will lose their meaning.

But, of course, my dear friend, if ever I’m wrong about where you stand, please take my sincerest apologies. Sometimes, though, when you write columns such as this, you will have to take a firm stand about what you believe in, or else why bother writing columns at all.

Sometimes, it pays though—especially if you live in a small city—to give harsh words meant for the most steadfast of friends and acquaintances. Days after my restaurant article came out, Nerisse Cabrera, a family friend, emailed to tell me that the odiferous waiter had long since gone. A few days after that, I went to Payag sa Likod, and there met the fabulous Christine Torres, its proprietor.

“Ian,” she said, “I read what you wrote about Payag.”

Mao ba?” I said, grinning sheepishly.

She only laughed heartily—and thanked me for writing about Payag.

That was one of the most enjoyable nights I had in recent memory. We talked, we laughed, we drank her Payag Sling, and became tipsy enough to enjoy the wee hours of the morning.

And that’s what I like about Dumaguete, most of all, as personified in Christine. Despite everything, we are an educated lot who knows how to distinguish between pure slander and harsh criticism. The true Dumagueteño knows how to take criticism, and make that the crux of a challenge to have an even better life, and an even better run of things.

So here’s a toast to Christine, and all that.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich