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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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Saturday, May 15, 2021

entry arrow8:47 PM | The 8th

Lookit what the boyfie surprised me with for our 8th anniversary staycation! A chocolate cake complete with drawings of our two cats, Mouschi and Pusheen! I’m in love.

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Friday, May 14, 2021

entry arrow7:02 PM | My Pandemic Cat

Mouschi was a grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there. He was quick to the ways of the streets, and his sense of curiosity was as strong as his appetite. He was not really mine, but he came to my life sneakily, without warning, from off Aldecoa Drive one quiet May day in 2020—and claimed me as his.

This is the way of many cats: one minute you’ve managed to live life without one of these furry, meowing creatures by your side, and the next minute the only shopping you do at the grocery store is for the cans of wet food they’ve come to expect as their privilege of bestowing you, their human, the right to [sometimes] pet them.

I didn’t even see him the first day he made my dwelling his property. It was the third month of lockdown in Dumaguete, and like most people, I subsisted on long lonely days without company in the solitary quiet of my small apartment, and on what was left of my canned food after that dash of panic-buying in late March. My pantry was all kinds of sardines, corned beef, meat loaves, and the like—which by May outgrew their welcome with my palate. I had grown to actively disdain them.

“Be thankful you have food,” my boyfriend—whom I haven’t seen in about eight weeks—texted me when I complained. “So many families can’t even eat two proper meals these days.”

Of course, he was right.

But I looked at the clump of corned beef before me, and I shuddered.

I did eat—but I knew most of it would end up in the trash. Until I heard the meowing of kittens outside my door. When I peered outside, there were four kittens scrambling about in my patio, their teeny meows a sudden endearing interlude to my lockdown boredom. They must be hungry, I thought—and then I spied their mother cat coming for them. She was a thin white cat with a black triangle on her head—and for some reason, she reminded me of all the cats I had before—a menagerie of kitties with the names of Minggay, Mingky, Louie, Blackie, and more recently a Pusheen. I love cats. I’m a Leo, and on good days I think myself a cat in many aspects of my personality. When I love someone deep enough, I meow at them. I like that cats exist in that negotiation of relationship where they prefer being let alone but can be needy enough at times to commander your attention by rubbing themselves against your legs, or taking charge of whatever contraption you’re tinkling with [a laptop, a piano, a notebook]. I like that cats disdain [and positively ignore] overt displays of getting their attention, preferring instead the simple act of you blinking at them very slowly. They’re low maintenance, most of the time.

But I’ve also resolved not to have pets anymore—at my age, I felt I was done with being Noah, having had a lifetime of caring for just as many dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, a rabbit, several aquariums of fish, white mice, and once, a cage of lovebirds. I thought the commitment to their welfare was something I felt I could no longer afford to have in my increasingly busy existence—the veterinary necessities, the feeding, the housekeeping.

And so when I saw this white mother cat and her hungry kittens, I felt conflicted with the sudden stirrings of creature love inside me. I went, “Awwww…” and proceeded to feed them with what was left of my corned beef.

But the white cat hissed and snarled, and while it did eat what I was proffering, it was all done in a dance of mistrust and fear. She would advance, then back away, hissing. She was clearly hungry and needed the food I was giving—but to hell with my displays of friendliness. I was not to be trusted. She hissed like there was no tomorrow.

And then, out of the blue, in swept into the patio this grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there. It sidled up to me, rubbed itself against my legs, and ate the corned beef. But the cat was also surprisingly not greedy—he went over to the white cat and the four kittens and guided them over to where the food was.

“You’re such a gentlepuss,” I told him.

He blinked at me.

“Is she your wife?” I asked him.

He blinked at me.

“You’re adorable,” I said.

He blinked at me.

And from then on, the grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there was always there in my patio, every lunchtime, every dinnertime, meowing to signal its presence, always alone. When I ran out of canned foods to feed him, I did a quick grocery run to Lee Super Plaza to buy him cat food.

And eventually from the patio, he found himself indoors, made himself king of my apartment, snoozed on what became his favorite floormat—and when it was time to go out [to urinate, to defecate, to mate], he’d meow at me, his soulful eyes looking straight into my soul, and I’d know exactly what he wanted. Science says cats learn to do a specific register of meowing to communicate with their humans—every meowing is tailored, and humans eventually learn to pick up their specific meanings. I’m hungry. I want to go out. You’re hurting me. I need you to rub my belly. I’m ignoring you right now—go away. And when this happened, I knew that this grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there has claimed me.

I named him Mouschi because I was watching The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) around the time he came to me. In that George Stevens’ film adaptation of the real-life travails of this Jewish girl during World War II, there was one fraught scene where, in the tiny attic she hid out in with her family, they all had to freeze in deadly quiet in order not to attract the prying eyes [and ears] of the Nazi soldiers searching the floor below them for human contraband like her. Any false move, any tiny sound could lead to their discovery—sending them all to certain death. And while in that frozen state, their cat—Mouschi—was heedless in his command of the room, his movement here and there a perfect contrast to the still humans, his occasional bumping into things a source of extreme tension for the scene.

“What a cat,” I said then.

When I beheld this grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there, I always said, “What a cat,” and then: “I’ll name you Mouschi.”

It felt perfect. The cramp lockdown of the Frank family in that tiny Dutch attic felt like a reflection of our cramp lockdown in the midst of a pandemic. The enemy for both was kind of a specter: the Gestapo, who could appear any moment, and the coronavirus, which might be invisible, but could strike you anytime. And the Franks and their friends hid for 25 months in their secret annex before being discovered by the Gestapo, while I was already going crazy with my third month of lockdown.

The grey cat with sparse spots of white here and there had to be named “Mouschi.”

“I bet he leads a double life,” my boyfriend told me. “I bet he goes to another house where his name is Gloria.”

“Well, with me he’s Mouschi, and I guess he’s my cat now.”

I bought him a collar—to tell the world someone’s looking after this cat. I bought him his favorite wet food—Whiskas’ Ocean Fish flavor. I allowed him his freedom to go in—he loved naps—and to get out whenever he wanted. And in turn, he gave me lockdown company.

I didn’t think I needed it, until sometimes, when he’d meow to get out, I’d turn to Mouschi, and say, “Please stay. I don’t want to be alone.” And he’d stay.

He hasn’t been home for a few weeks now. Throughout the spread of the pandemic year, Mouschi was always there to greet us when we came home. He knew the sound of my boyfriend’s car, and would come rushing to us the nights we went home late. Sometimes he’d disappear for a day or two, but he’d always come home, his meowing immense, his appetite intact.

But he hasn’t been home for a few weeks now.

Is he lost? Is he hurt in a ditch somewhere? (He came home once filthy to the bone, obviously a case of him falling into a ditch. When I bathed him, his resistance to the gushing water was meek; he knew he needed the bath.) Is his other family who probably calls him Gloria keeping him to themselves? Is he … dead? We speculate endlessly, but we know the answer is probably not forthcoming.

And so we can only mourn for our missing cat.

He came to my life without preamble, I think to keep me company all throughout those tumultuous pandemic months filled with the demons of anxiety and loneliness. He disappeared exactly a year later—hopefully to give the gifts he gave me to someone else who probably needed them now.

Mouschi the Street Cat really wasn’t mine, and wasn’t mine to keep. But what I’ll keep is gratefulness for his gracious feline company when I needed it without realizing it was a lifeline I didn’t know I could have.

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entry arrow1:16 PM | Writing to Live with PEN

THIS IS HAPPENING TOMORROW! I'll be part of Free the Word!, PEN International’s roaming event series of contemporary literature from around the world. The Free the Word! team works with PEN Centres, festivals, and book fairs to develop an international network of literary events, with each event rooted in its local culture, but international in outlook.

To register and attend, PEN members should kindly email philippinepen2021@gmail.com with the subject “ALL IN.” The general public may watch the event live on May 15, Saturday at 2 PM at the FB pages of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, CCP Intertextual Division, or Philippine Center of International PEN.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 72.

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Saturday, May 08, 2021

entry arrow3:23 PM | To Be a Better Man

I’ve been working on my mental health more decisively of late, and crucial to it is counselling [really trying my best to book an appointment, which is haaaard] and four realizations from last week’s ruminations: [1] that I really need to get up each day, and get out of the house, even with insomniac nights, [2] that despite my anxieties, the world will not end [a piece of wisdom from the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown], [3] that if I take stock of things I’ve done now instead of worrying about what’s undone, I’d actually be happily surprised with what I’ve accomplished, and [4] that considering the first three, to always end each day in gratitude. One step at a time, baby.

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Friday, May 07, 2021

entry arrow9:00 AM | On Uncommon Kindness

I’ve been thinking more and more about kindness recently, perhaps because of the spate of community pantries mushrooming all over the country. In Dumaguete, several soon took root in the neighborhoods of Bantayan [two of them] and Piapi—at least as far as I know specifically—and I’m sure there are or have been more. This has been such an amazing phenomenon, an example of the good kind of virality, and I believed it when people started saying something like, “Kindness is revolutionary.”

Kindness is also contagious.

It certainly felt that way. The community pantry revolution was unprecedented and unplanned—and all it took was the smallest of gestures by an individual, a local furniture designer, who felt frustrated by the almost willful inaction by the government in providing for the most basic of relief to its neediest of citizens in our prolonged pandemic season. Ana Patricia Non took out a tiny bamboo cart along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, accepted and gave out in-kind donations [usually grocery items], and unknowingly launched a revolution.

Not to say there has been no government help—the ayuda of the rolling Bayanihan programs are there, if meager, but because it is government, the process is necessarily bureaucratic. Most certainly, when you are dying of hunger, it will almost be an impossibility to submit yourself to process, to paper works, to patience waiting in long lines.

Community pantries are a band-aid effort—it does not change the inherent unfairness and inequality of the system—but nonetheless they are very necessary, because they are able to cut through the bullshit, and because they are answerable only to their grassroots origins, they are spared from the opportunistic shenanigans of politicians and the profit-motivated magnanimity of corporations.

Community pantries are the embodiment of kindness, something that has been magnified in the pandemic. There’s a new term for this: “caremongering,” which is solidarity and mutual help turned into concrete community action.

A friend of mine, Lea Sicat Reyes, recently recounted this story: “I brought Dad to Ace Hospital for his routine ECG test. I was worried, given his heart history and his age, to bring him to the hospital amid the pandemic, but it had to be done. As soon as we reached Ace, I asked Dad to wait in the car so I could then go to the laboratory to secure a spot in the queue. When I got to the lab, there were already around four people waiting for their turn.

“I requested the kuya before me to save my spot when it was almost Dad’s turn so I could run back to the parking lot where Dad was waiting in the car. I explained that Dad was 78 years old and had cardiovascular co-morbidities so I wanted to avoid unnecessarily exposing him to the steady traffic of people going in and out of the hospital.

Kuya agreed, and I thanked him. I sat on one of the steel benches in the intent to wait for Dad’s turn. From a short distance, I observed the four talk to each other. The lady who was first in the line came up to me and said that they agreed that my Dad could go first.

“Of course, I initially refused the offer knowing that they had been waiting a lot longer than I did, but they insisted. I truly appreciate how four strangers extended such kindness to me and my Dad. Wherever [and whoever] they are, I pray that God will return such kindness and generosity a hundredfold.”


I remember too my boyfriend and his mother who took care of me when I had mild COVID last December—because they didn’t have to, but I was alone in my apartment and needed help in my daily straining for survival, at least during the long quarantine.


I remember going on a grocery run last June, and a tricycle driver gave me a free ride from the deserted downtown to my apartment, groceries in tow.


Non is kind to the core, I’m sure of that. But people are generally not kind, to be honest. They are however performatively kind—usually when there is an audience involved and pictorials and pubmats can be splashed on social media—but nonetheless they are often enough. I won’t begrudge it. Real and performative kindness are still aberrations to the system we all live in, which is low-key cruel and unkind. I feel that way all the time when an email gets circulated at work, asking for abono for someone who’s sick or dying. Charity tugs at the heart—but I’m also thinking, “These colleagues wouldn’t have to submit themselves to begging in the first place if they were properly paid.”

I’m not sure I’m being cynical. You could call me a Hobbesian—but even Thomas Hobbes wasn’t entirely pessimistic when he famously wrote that our natural condition was “solitary, poor, [and] nasty brutish.” [Nor was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his philosophical opposite who countered that human nature is essentially good, entirely optimistic either.]

Robin Douglass, a senior lecturer in political theory at King’s College London, once clarified: “As it happens, Hobbes didn’t really think that we’re naturally evil. His point, rather, is that we’re not hardwired to live together in large scale political societies. We’re not naturally political animals like bees or ants, who instinctively cooperate and work together for the common good. Instead, we’re naturally self-interested and look out for ourselves first and foremost. We care about our reputation, as well as our material wellbeing, and our desire for social standing drives us into conflict as much as competition over scarce resources.

“If we want to live together peacefully, Hobbes argued, we must submit ourselves to an authoritative body with the power to enforce laws and resolve conflicts. Hobbes called this the ‘sovereign’. As long as the sovereign preserves peace then we shouldn’t question or challenge its legitimacy, for that way leads back to the state of nature, the worst possible place we could find ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether we personally agree with the sovereign’s decisions. Politics is characterized by disagreement and if we think that our own political or religious convictions are more important than peaceful coexistence then those convictions are the problem, not the answer.”

Hobbes was a witness to the unbelievable horrors of a civil war, which informed his worldview, but to dismiss his ideas as “bleak” is to not see that he actually saw lasting peace as a possible achievement, but one that was rare and fragile. And one that’s subject to an authority that promises and actively works for that peace.

But wasn’t that also why in 2016, sixteen million voted overwhelmingly for a possible sovereign who promised “change is coming,” gave short deadlines to its promises [“six months,” “one year”]—but is now found unashamedly wanting?

Douglass continues: “On the Hobbesian analysis, an authoritative political state is the answer to the problem of our naturally self-interested and competitive nature. [But] Rousseau viewed things differently and instead argued that we are only self-interested and competitive now because of the way that modern societies have developed. He thought that in pre-agricultural societies—he took travellers’ reports of indigenous American peoples as his model—humans could live a peaceful and fulfilling life, bound together by communal sentiments which kept our competitive and egoistic desires in check.

“For Rousseau, everything started to go wrong once humans perfected the arts of agriculture and industry, which eventually led to unprecedented levels of private property, economic interdependence, and inequality. Inequality breeds social division. Where societies had once been united by strong social bonds, the escalation of inequality soon turned us into ruthless competitors for status and domination. The flipside to Rousseau’s belief in natural goodness is that it is political and social institutions that make us evil, as we now are… Rousseau thought that once human nature has been corrupted the chances for redemption are vanishingly slight. In his own day, he held out little hope for the most advanced commercial states in Europe and, although he never witnessed the onset of industrial capitalism, it’s safe to say that it would have only confirmed his worst fears about inequality. The sting in the tale of Rousseau’s analysis is that, even if Hobbes was wrong about human nature, modern society is Hobbesian to the core and there’s now no turning back.”

And that’s the catch: the inherent goodness Rousseau highlighted is a kind of original state to which there really is no turning back to. We are ensnared into a system—call it late capitalism, if you want—and we are forever corrupted.

Unkindness runs in our veins [Hobbes] and in our systems [Rousseau], that to be kind truly is revolutionary.

But we need kindness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in Essays: First Series (1841), declared: “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth. “The effect of the indulgence of this human affection is a certain cordial exhilaration. In poetry and in common speech, the emotions of benevolence and complacency which are felt towards others are likened to the material effects of fire; so swift, or much more swift, more active, more cheering, are these fine inward irradiations. From the highest degree of passionate love to the lowest degree of good-will, they make the sweetness of life.”

He continues with this declaration emphasizing why kindness helps: “Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.”

In the past year, one thing we have seen all over the world is that kindness can prevail even in difficult times. Remember when people came together to sing on balconies in Italy? Kindness. Remember when people willingly shared their talents online last year to stave off the deadly boredom of the lockdown? Kindness.

This kindness didn’t start with the current pandemic. You could go all Rousseau and say it was always there in people. What is true is that the pandemic, ironically, has given us a space to see kindness modeled, which has given us permission to be compassionate. To borrow an observation made by the University of Edinburgh: “What was hidden and unremarked upon is being noticed as an essential part of our existence, enabling us as a society to keep faith in the future and to believe that we can get through this.”

The psychologist Paul Gilbert once suggested that compassion can become a driver of change, and that compassionate action often involves individual acts of courage: to support people in distress, to stand up for the oppressed, or to challenge authority when the wrong course has been taken. The community pantry revolution checks all these.

Compassion can also lead to an increased sense of well-being, no matter if this altruistic behavior is expressed through volunteering, charitable donations, or acts of kindness to people we do or do not know personally. In fact, studies have shown that engaging in “prosocial behaviours” when interacting with strangers or acquaintances can lead to better overall mental health. The Canadian psychologist Jennifer Stellar says that compassion—along with gratitude and awe—allows us to look outside our own personal needs to focus on someone or something else: “I think the idea is that the self, the ego, can be noisy—it can be negative. It can be self-deprecating, so sometimes we need a little break.” The act of helping others then can be a welcome distraction from the strains of the pandemic.

Another study showed that kindness is really beneficial to people, especially if they are struggling. They become more motivated to address their own problems after being offered the opportunity to help others struggling with the same issue. They experience a much-needed boost in confidence.

It’s perhaps all biochemistry: all oxytocin, which acts as antidote to cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin helps lower our blood pressure, and reduces inflammation and free radicals in our cardiovascular system, which causes tissue damage and ageing.

Given that, how do we exactly “do” or cultivate kindness then?

Model kindness, that’s one.

Encourage kindness, that’s another— to get involved and supporting your local communities like how Ana Patricia Non did it.

Notice kindness, that’s another— to recognize and validate when you notice people being kind and supportive.

Cut some slack is another— to understand that everyone is experiencing the effects of the pandemic differently, so we must offer support instead and be more understanding.

And finally: be kind to yourself—to cut your own self some slack. How? By not expecting perfection, and aiming just for “good enough.” This is my own hard lesson.

I only realized this a few days ago myself.

Like love, to be kind to oneself is perhaps the greatest gift of all in our prolonged pandemic season.

I wrote in my journal then: “I should be more gentle with myself. I should stop beating myself down for not ‘doing enough.’ I only just realized I’ve actually accomplished quite a lot this past week: I wrote two major essays and one art review, finished phase 1 of a project, sent out a book manuscript, proofread a short story due for publication in a major magazine, prepped a re-publication of another book in time for its 10th anniversary, and managed a very busy month for three entities in my social media management sideline. All these on top of battling crippling anxiety attacks and depression. I should be more gentle with myself, for my mental health’s sake.”

It’s difficult to do—but be kind, anyway. To others, to your self.

Art by Experience Life

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Thursday, May 06, 2021

entry arrow2:51 PM | The Four Faces of Our Current Woes

You know how it is when things sometimes frighten us that our reflex is to laugh out loud, perhaps in an ironic attempt to keep the demons at bay? I have just seen the first important theatrical experience of our long pandemic season—and I found myself laughing in that painful, silent way when you try to keep your chortles in quiet mode.

Not because the play is funny, although there are certainly deft comic touches here and there, but because what you are seeing is so reflective of our everyday horrors, elevated to such absurdity, that the only way to process all that it presents is to recoil, then to reconsider, and finally to discharge a nervous chuckle or two. Catharsis is the end goal of Fighting the Invisible, opening on May 7, Friday at 7 PM at the Sidlakang Negros Village Function Hall, with another performance slated on May 8, Saturday. And catharsis is probably what we all need right now.

That said, it is quite vital that we see the play now, because the present—replete with lives on hold, on bankruptcy, on nervous bravery, or on the verge of lockdown madness—is its terrible, perfect currency. But while it does deal with contemporary travails in excruciating details, this is certainly not a realist play. In borrowing its staging from a wide variety of inspirations—from mime to Noh, from shadow play to Kuttiyatam—somehow the material feels elevated to a kind of modern mythology.

You can tell you are not seeing a regular play by how it opens: in the dimness of its performing space, four face-masked, white-faced figures congregate in the middle, all in a hush, all in a kind of trance, all attracted individually to low-key music, singular to them, which soon turn out to be varied, personalized ringtones from cellphones. Each clutches their own device like a leech, like how we all do in reality; each bump into each other; each regard the other with mistrust, and distance. And then they scurry to their specific spots onstage—with nary a dialogue—and the play begins.

That opening performance spiel in abstraction clues us in to how to embrace the play: everything is stylized, everything is pushed to a performative strangeness, and everything is metaphorical.

That could spell disaster in lesser hands. Often there is nothing as off-putting as material that spoon-feeds you earnestly with meaningful didacticism, especially when done in the bent of realism. But D Salag Collective, a new Dumaguete theatre company whose first full-length presentation is this play, is not a collective of “lesser hands.” Leading the group is Hope Tinambacan, the Hopia frontman, Bell Tower Project visionary, and YATTA stalwart, whose recent training at the Intercultural Theatre Institute [ITI] in Singapore—one of the most rigorous theatre programs in the world—has allowed him to shape, in collaboration with his fellow artists, a play that is beautifully performed, informed by Asian traditions of theatricality, with a gut punch for insights. Together with Nikki Cimafranca, Benjie Kitay, and Karen Silva, all co-directors, co-stars, and co-writers, and aided by a one-man stage crew, D Salag Collective invites us to consider carefully our current woes.

They do that by splintering the story into four vignettes that still somehow feel like parts of an organic whole, threaded together by a kind of a guide [played by Benjie Kitay] who fills the interludes with an earnest, audience-participatory yielding for time. Time eventually becomes one of the invisible antagonists of the play, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The coronavirus, too, is another one of the titular invisible antagonists—and Kitay’s guide also represents that, courtesy of a globular headdress that looks very much like the virus, with pencils, pens, cellphones, rulers, etc. in place of its spikes. That small piece of production design alone underlines so much what Fighting the Invisible wants to tackle.

In the first vignette, a man in a black raincoat [played by Tinambacan] struts around in weariness, opening his garb to reveal assorted items—socks, cellphones, teddy bears, etc.—all price-tagged for sale. To a haunting guitar accompaniment, he mimes again and again the concerns and desperations of the present, a feel of temperature and heartbeat, a demonstration of dwindling resources, punctuated regularly with a plaintive plea, “Ayaw pud tawon, Lord.”

In the second vignette, a figure in a tent [played by Cimafranca], shadowplays our daily anxiety-ridden ritual of waking up to the pandemic, presaged by a sigh, “Kanus-a pa ni mahuman?” We see his silhouette go through getting up, dressing up, all the while mumbling one horrifying pandemic statistic after another. When he comes out of the tent, the revelation is both a surprise and a reckoning.

In the third vignette, a woman in an apron equipped with cleaning paraphernalia [played by Silva] goes about household chores—but in donning an office jacket over that apron, we get the slap of the farce: how our personal and professional lives have blurred in the lockdown, and how that uneasy blurring, Zoom meetings, and the still constant demands by our economic overlords to produce, produce, and produce eventually lead to breakdowns of our body, sanity, and spirit.

In the last vignette, our guide is joined by the three others [who provide both musical accompaniment and reflective Greek chorus] in a wrenching portrayal of anguished mental health wrought by the pandemic. This is my favorite vignette, because raw and real. There is something to be said about Kitay’s frenetic eyes as he rails against pandemic time that is both deliriously slow and excruciatingly fast at the same time: “Dili puwede mo pas-pas!” To which the chorus replies: “Unsay adlaw karon / Asa ko paingon? / Unsa akong unahon… / Kapa! Gakapa! / Kape! / Bugnaw nang kape. / Gabii pa man ni…” The anxiety is real.

It all feels so strong, and moving—because the play allows us to be somehow seen.

This is not the first play Dumaguete has seen since the pandemic started. Last 26 November 2020, Artista Sillimaniana put on an intimate, health protocol-following staging of Karen Schiff’s Breakfast with Willy, starring Malka Shaver and Andrew Alvarez, and directed by Hannah Catacutan. It was a small comedy set in a grocery store, and its mirth and high jinx were what we needed in the dark depths of that uncertain year. A full year on, and with the end of the pandemic [hopefully] in sight, it’s time for our artists to take stock of our fragile recent past and still surging present, refracting our collective experience into a mirror of truth.

Cringe, laugh, cry—these are the measures of the catharsis we need. Fighting the Invisible paves the way.

Fighting the Invisible is slated on May 7, Friday and May 8, Saturday at 7 PM at the Sidlakang Negros Village Function Hall. Reserve a seat now at the D Salag Collective FB page. The production is limited to 40 seats per show. Safety protocols will be followed. A talkback session will follow after the show.

Photos by Renz Torres

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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 71.


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Sunday, May 02, 2021

entry arrow5:32 AM | I Should Be More Gentle with Myself

I should be more gentle with myself. I should stop beating myself down for not “doing enough. I only just realized I’ve actually accomplished quite a lot this past week. Wrote two major essays and one art review, finished phase 1 of a project, sent out a book manuscript, proofread a short story due for publication in a major magazine, prepped a re-publication of another book in time for its 10th anniversary, and managed a very busy week for three entities in my social media management sideline. All these on top of battling crippling anxiety attacks and depression. I should be more gentle with myself, for my mental health’s sake

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Friday, April 30, 2021

entry arrow3:55 AM | Panilongon is in the Heart

I have a fascination for “first contact” stories in history. I often imagine these clashes of civilizations in the context of that moment in time—probably an ordinary day, the sun out in the sky, the breeze gentle and cool, the waves breaking on the surf in the usual music of water upon sand. And then suddenly: that first sight of the foreign. The ordinariness of the day belying the momentous repercussions rippling from that point of contact.

In my fiction, I tend to lean towards the fantastical to underline that point of contact. I once wrote, in a short story titled “A Strange Map of Time,” about Miguel López de Legazpi’s men arriving in our island of Buglas in a reconnaissance mission from their anchor off Bohol, and speculated about the fate of their Bornean pilot Tuasan, who would be recorded missing in that venture to the wilds of Buglas. I had him hurling far into the future of Negros Island after a shamanistic ritual, reborn as a sentient child to witness the ravages of the future, and then tasked to find his way back to 1565 to warn the natives of what’s to come with the arrival of the white man. (The story won the inaugural Neil Gaiman Prize, and is collected in my second book Heartbreak & Magic.)

I’m currently writing another story, this one based on an earlier Spanish expedition than Legazpi’s—the 1543 exploits of Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who named Mindanao “Caesarea Karoli” for Spain’s King Charles who was also the Holy Roman Emperor, and the smaller islands to the north as “Felipinas,” after the prince who would become King Philip II. The latter would prove to be more fateful—the name stuck. But I imagined that naming as being akin to magic, which brings about a curse uttered by a babaylan, which sets into motion the various tragedies in King Philip’s life—including the defeat of the Armada and his eventual death by cancer.

You could say that my speculative reimagining of the Spanish excursions to our shores is my own form of post-colonial revenge in fiction—in both cases having our shamans fight a long-game of comeuppance upon those who dared yoke us into 300 years of colonization.

But I’ve never written about that first real contact [at least with the Spanish] in 1521—Magellan, Elcano, and their men, in what is now being celebrated as the first circumnavigation of the world.

Perhaps someday I will.

But for now, there’s the fact of the Quincentennial of that fateful voyage and the commemorating we are doing in this slice of 2021. This year, the country commemorates the 500th anniversary of the victory at Mactan, the Philippine part in the first circumnavigation of the world, and other related events—collectively known as the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines, mandated by Executive Order No. 55, s. 2018, which created the National Quincentennial Committee [NQC] for this purpose.

The National Quincentennial Committee is spearheading the 500th anniversary of the Philippine part in that first circumnavigation of the world [from 16 March to 28 October 2021], while the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines leads the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines. And only last April 27, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the victory of Lapulapu over Magellan in Mactan.

What I like about the way we’ve gone about the commemoration is the Filipino branding, away from the focus on the European, and giving a spotlight instead on local perspectives.

The NQC explains: “The celebration espouses a Filipino-centric point of view of the first circumnavigation of the world, underscoring the magnanimity, compassion, and humanity of our ancestors in helping the starving crew of the first circumnavigators—the Armada de Maluco, a.k.a., the Magellan-Elcano expedition—that traversed the Pacific Ocean, and the courage and bravery of the warriors in Mactan that inspired the heroes and martyrs who founded the Filipino nation and the generations thereafter. / While Lapulapu and our ancestors in 1521 were not Filipinos, we, the Filipinos, are their descendants. Although they existed long before the birth of the Filipino nation in 1898, our pre-colonial ancestors are worthy of remembrance. Thus, we celebrate their ideals, sacrifices, struggles. They are the source of our inspiration. By assimilating them into our national imagination, we are rescuing them from oblivion and colonial prejudices.”

This focus on the local has earned plaudits. Kate Fullagar and Kristie Patricia Flannery, historians at the Australian Catholic University, wrote a few days ago for The Conversation: “European history books celebrate the expedition as a three-year Spanish-led voyage, carrying 270 men on five ships. But Filipino commemorations remind audiences that Magellan died halfway through the expedition in the Philippines and that only one ship with just 18 survivors limped home to Seville. / In particular, Filipinos remember how Lapulapu, the datu of the island of Mactan, inspired a force of Indigenous warriors to defeat Magellan’s crew—and the Spanish threat to their sovereignty—on 27 April 1521.”

They continue: “The Filipino commemorations show what an Indigenous-centred government approach to imperial history in the Pacific can look like. They also sit in stark contrast to the exhibitions, reenactments and publications that marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Australia and New Zealand in recent years.”

On May 4, Negros itself becomes part of that Quincentennial narrative. The island enters Spanish historical records, via expedition chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, as “Panilongon.”

According to Pigafetta, Samar [written as Zamal] was the first land mass sighted by the explorers on the dawn of 16 March 1521, since their fleet’s departure from Guam on 9 March 1521. This was followed by either anchorage or pass-by in several points: Suluan, Homonhon, Gibusong, Hinunangan in Southern Leyte, Limasawa, Leyte, Canigao, Baybay, Gatighan, Ponson off Cebu, Poro, Ticobon, Cebu [Zzubu] where the first Christian baptism took place, and Mactan where Magellan died. They then fled to Bohol where the ship Concepcion was burned off the shore.

From the NQC: “After the Concepcion was burned down, the remaining ships sailed in the southwest direction, toward Sulu Sea. According to Pigafetta, they followed the coastline of the Island of Panilongon and described the inhabitants to be ‘as black as the people of Ethiopia.’ Francisco Albo, one of the pilots, also referred to the island as Panilongon in his log and located it west of the Cape of Cebu [i.e., Santander, Cebu]. Various scholars identified this place-name as the present-day Negros. The belief that Panilongon is Panglao, Bohol today has been disputed because according to William Allan Reed, ‘...so far there is no evidence that Negritos exist in Cebu, Bohol, Samar, and Leyte.’”

After passing by Panilongon, the rest of the expedition went to Kipit in Zamboanga del Norte, Mapun in Tawi-Tawi, Palawan, Tagusao, Balacbac, Cape Palawan, Sulu, Tagima [Basilan], Cawit, Subanin, Manalipa, Maguindanao [Cotabato], Benaian [Kamanga], Batulaki, Candighar [Balut], and finally Saragani, then on to the Moluccas.

In commemoration of that sighting and identification of Panilongon, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, together with the City Government of Dumaguete, will be unveiling a historical marker at the Rizal Boulevard on May 4.

This is a much-needed act of remembrance of an important point in our past, something not often told in the general narrative of our history. The 1521 arrival of the Spaniards to our island is part of a crucial turning point in our country’s destiny—for better or for worse. And recognizing this touch point makes us in Negros Oriental feel very much part of the tapestry of the history we probably once thought we were only a peripheral part of. The Panilongon episode of that fateful journey five hundred years ago is important, and commemorating it is crucial.

How? I guess it allows us to have a future with full knowledge of this historical episode. This marker becomes a vessel for future generations to understand where we came from, what we have become, and what we still strive to be.

Because remembrance of history is what truly equips us with how we can deal with destiny. Only when we properly appreciate and acknowledge our history can we truly shape, for good, the destiny of our nation.

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Thursday, April 29, 2021

entry arrow9:09 PM | Cartographies of Innermost Worlds in Uncertain Times

Something of a bombshell has landed in the Dumaguete art scene at the tail-end of April 2021: a group exhibition titled Introspection has opened at the Dakong Balay Gallery, which runs until May 22nd—and there is nothing else to feel about it except surprise, excitement, and an unexpected stirring affection by the scale and curatorial vision of the entire enterprise.

The exhibit is, in a word, “revolutionary”—which is a bold claim to make, but I am talking at least in the mold with which we have often entertained art exhibitions in culture-jaded Dumaguete. I did not expect to be moved. But most of all, it feels “revolutionary” in the stylistic tightness weaving the collection, the likes of which I had not seen for quite so long I actually have no recollection of a precursor.

What am I trying to say?

Let me parse my description carefully: Introspection is an exhibition gathering together seventeen young and up-and-coming visual artists from all over Dumaguete, and instead of the usual hodgepodge of works we’ve come to expect from most group exhibitions [which has its own delights], the artists have come to an unexpected unity of style—abstraction—and presentation, down to the size and orientation of their canvasses—bold, big, and embracing in their 5 x 4 ft. glory.

The result is an exhibit that feels very much like a break from a kind of staleness—perhaps my own sigh of relief from what has predominated Dumaguete art of late. It brings to mind the two schools of fine art that have come to define local visual arts: there’s the Foundation University group, which leans towards the representational, and there’s the Silliman University group, which tilts heavily towards the conceptual. The fact that Introspection is neither is a jolt I did not know I needed.

As an introduction to the works of younger artists about to make their mark on the art world, this show is a calling card like no other. Put in the word “promising,” and that seals the deal for what feels like a debut of a mindful and energetic collective—although I’m not entirely sure if we can call this a movement. Abstract art has been around for more than a hundred years, and much of Introspection culls actively from that rich history, from the impressionistic to the surreal, from the cubist to the fauvist, from Dada to suprematism. But then again, I’m not sure Introspection is meant to be about breaking new ground, and I’m not sure this is a herald of what type of art we can expect from the exhibiting artists from now on. What it feels to be about is just a singular reach for a specific artistic expression shared by many—and in the words of their collective exhibit statement, “in the hopes of creating a space for experimentation, surprise, and self-reflection.”

Nonetheless, it has the spark of the new—and I feel that the awe of my own personal reception of the show is equal to the reception that greeted groundbreaking survey shows: from the first impressionist exhibition in a gallery on Rue du Capucines in Paris in 1874, to the post-impressionists show in Grafton Galleries in London in 1910; from the Armory exhibit on Lexington Avenue, New York in 1913, which became the definitive survey of abstract art, to the London International Surrealist Exhibition in New Burlington Galleries in 1936; and from the New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, which gave the first survey of American pop art, to the Information exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970, which was the first critical survey of American conceptual art. These shows, in retrospect, were revolutions in contemporary art because they fielded a break from the expected. In that spirit, Introspection fits the bill.

And perhaps, it is also a show we need right now in Dumaguete, given the fraught times we live in—and can serve as both reflection and escape.

In my childhood, I learned to escape to art in two very specific ways. One of my grade school teachers, Mr. Corsino, taught mathematics, science, dance, and art—which was a fantastic combination of disciplines, now that I think of it in retrospect—and would sometimes put a variety of squiggles on the board and challenge us to make something of them. I remember being always a quick volunteer, and off I’d go to the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to wrestle with the chaos of lines and shapes before me, and made of them a rendering of a familiar world: a cow outside a barn, or a boy taunting a snake with a stick, or a woman who lived in a giant shoe.

There was always a feeling of relish when I finished my drawings, a sense of triumph in the fact that I was given a puzzle and made of it a thorough representational scene others couldn’t see before. I’ve always thought of that art exercise as wringing logic out of the chaotic—a purely mental one, with the satisfaction being of the cerebral sort.

Nothing could be more the opposite when, as a child, I’d sit in a quiet corner of school or home and contemplate in a vague way the forlornness I often felt. Alone, pen in hand and notebook in front of me, I’d just let myself go—making lines upon lines like the eddies of a river, or circles upon concentric circles, or boxes upon boxes with shaded corners, with absolutely no goal of creating something recognizable, except this freehand doodling to approximate a feel, a state of mind, even a tacit acknowledgment of the kinetic swirls of hand with a pen. There was always something emotionally satisfying in all of that, in the way I rendered line, shape, and repetition—which, while abstract, felt like a surefooted map into the subconscious I could only skim.

This is how abstraction should be approached—as portal to the unsaid, as invitation to someone else’s emotional landscape, and as Rorschach test to our own internal wranglings—and never, for the most part, as works with easy meanings. One simply cannot just go to the artist behind the work, and ask, “What does it mean?”—although no one’s prohibited from doing that. Abstraction often works best by forcing us to rely on our own interpretative devices, to behold the work and then to interrogate closely what inner responses we have to the work. Which is why I am grateful for the embracing large canvas the artists of Introspection collectively settled for: standing in front of these large paintings, the viewer who deigns to look closer and with meaningfulness cannot help but be embraced by the work, and get lost in their sea of shapes and lines and color. Whatever psychological connection we make invariably becomes the meaning. This is the Rorschach test of the enterprise.

Still, the works are also specific expressions by artists responding to the call laid out in the show’s title. In their statement, the show is very much an internal mirror to the horrors and vagaries of our uncertain realities: “The recent pandemic has given us the time to evaluate our own priorities and emotions. As artists, we are presented with an outlet that not only helps us release emotions but also allows us to critically examine ourselves.”

“These works hope to create a space for the viewers to self-reflect,” the statement continues. “To create an environment for introspection. Almost as if it’s a mirror; what they do not understand, they create meaning for. Most times, the way we perceive art has a lot to do with what we feel when we view it. We project our experiences and emotions onto the work, and eventually, it starts to look the way we want to see it.”

Sarah Jean Ruales’ “Isolation”

And what do they see? In Sarah Jean Ruales’ “Isolation,” we feel the prolonged insulation of our quarantine in the blue blurriness of the work—“blue” for mood, and “blurriness” for the days melting into each other—with the one solid constant a shape that looks like a TV set, our constant companion to our isolated days.

In Jomir Tabudlong’s “Trial and Error,” life under the new normal becomes a mishmash of things that defy connection. In Mariana Varela’s “Nocturnal Panic,” a portrait of what feels like an insomniac woman is riddled with shards of color and shapes that induce the panic of its title. In Cil Flores’ “Emotional Transitions,” the psychological bearings we strive for are snaky and elusive. Moshi Dokyo’s “Amor Fati,” which is Latin for “love of one’s fate,” encapsulates surrender—see the solid shapes in yellow and orange giving way to an explosion of devil-may-care green.

Jomir Tabudlong’s “Trial and Error“

Mariana Varela’s “Nocturnal Panic”

Cil Flores’ “Emotional Transitions”

Moshi Dokyo’s “Amor Fati”

The withering primacy of our mental states is echoed in the wispiness of Gerabelle Rae’s “A Thousand Smokey Dreams,” in the frailty of Rey Labarento’s exquisite “Kaleidoscope Journey,” in the fragmentation of Rovan Caballes’ “Tranquil” [which is a melted Mondrian, if you ask me], and in the nightmare of Jude Millares’ “25.”

Gerabelle Rae’s “A Thousand Smokey Dreams”

Rey Labarento’s “Kaleidoscope Journey”

Rovan Caballes’ “Tranquil”

Jude Millares’ “25”

The works pose questions without claiming answers. Is Dyna Quilnet’s “You II” a statement in diptych of the then and now? Is Daniel Vincent’s “DARNA” a kaleidoscope of the fruitlessness in our current search for heroes? In giving us a rain of multi-colored pebbles in a sea of dark blue, is Jia’s “Lilly” a signal for hope? Is Florenz Dionisio’s “Last Supper,” a jazzified rendition of the religious scene, a commentary on the futility of faith?

Dyna Quilnet’s “You II”

Daniel Vincent’s “DARNA”

Jia’s “Lilly”

Florenz Dionisio’s “Last Supper”

I responded the most to three works of astonishing beauty. There’s Totem Saa’s “Mental Construct,” which is a fauvist nightmare of a mindscape built to resemble a city—and its muscular and architectural horrors feel very much like a portrait of my own head. I felt seen.

Totem Saa’s “Mental Construct”

There’s Faye Mandi’s “when lines give you lemons,” which is a deceptively simple work composed of lines in a spectrum—its rainbow assemblage imposing a certain symmetry on the work without detracting from its basic force and vigor. It is the most hopeful of the bunch, providing a much needed anchor of that kind of optimism given our times.

Faye Mandi’s “when lines give you lemons”

On the opposite end of this optimism is “LISO [The Dark Night of the Soul]” by Dyck Cediño—who exhibits under the name Deadlocks. His work is a stark painting in black and white that feels like a narrative of lost souls enticed by a menacing moon of free-floating mystery, which feels like a corrective to whatever optimism we have mustered in surviving these times.

Dyck Cediño’s “LISO [The Dark Night of the Soul”

I think of these abstract paintings by these 17 talented artists as maps to our psychological strivings in this long pandemic season. Mirrors such as these works help in the articulation of what we feel but cannot say. Abstraction is the perfect mirror. To quote Paul Klee in his diary entry in 1915: “The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.”

This is not a happy world.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

entry arrow9:00 PM | I'm Still Here.


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entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 70.


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Thursday, April 22, 2021

entry arrow10:50 PM | Panilongon, 1521

A juxtaposition of Pigafetta's isolated sketches of the Philippine islands visited by Magellan's ships in 1521. We are #16 and highlighted in yellow: Panilongon [Panilonghon], the ancient name of Negros Island. [In some historical sources, we are also Buglas.]

On May 4, there will be an unveiling of a historical marker at the Rizal Boulevard.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 69.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

entry arrow7:50 PM | Claveria-ized

This is Governor General Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, the one responsible for the Hispanization of most of our surnames in the Philippines, courtesy of the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos, implemented by the Claveria Decree of 1849. It imposed control on the population via naming, thus erasing the native conventions of naming.

But the catalogue also contained pre-approved "native names" for families to choose from. I searched for my obviously non-Spanish surname to see if it's there, and the closest I could find was "Casocoy," which makes me wonder: Did my Boholano ancestors get their name from the catalogue? And did they eventually misspell it with a "T" over the ensuing decades?

You can find the catalogue here.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

entry arrow2:21 PM | Missing People

I miss people, my friends, and sometimes I just want to cry. But at the same time I’m anxious over the idea of meeting with them. It’s a strange twist in our lingering pandemic mindset.

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entry arrow1:28 PM | A Facebook Conversation

DDS: I don't know about you, but for me, this government is very satisfactory. They may not be the best in terms of pandemic response, but I'll surely give them 90% or above in terms of other areas. Kudos!

[Posts this photo.]

Me: But this is not even a government project. This is an ABS-CBN Foundation project, through the Kapit Bisig Para sa Ilog Pasig campaign. And ABS-CBN was shut down by this government. [Source here.]

DDS: Kudus [sic] still for the government.

And that, my dear, is DDS mentality. Grasping for the fake. Insulated from facts. No use arguing with them. 

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entry arrow9:00 AM | The KRI Decade

In September 2010, roughly ten years ago, KRI opened along Silliman Avenue with Ritchie Armogenia as its chef and visionary, and with its establishment came a kind of Dumaguete dining that was leaps beyond what came before. There were, of course, other earlier pioneers in the local food scene—chief among them the Fuenteses behind Lab-as—but you could make an argument that a distinct approach to local restaurateuring was honed when KRI appeared on the scene and then perfected in the ten years that followed.

That decade saw KRI grow from a tiny “neighborhood restaurant”—which was how it tagged itself then—to one which soon needed expanding to handle more tables, to handle more specialties, and to handle the growing attention not just of Dumagueteños, but also the growing interests of national food magazine editors, as well as tourists whose guidebooks inform them that when it came to Dumaguete dining, the place to go was K-R-I.

Its success became a model for other restaurants to follow—or if not that, at least provided the energetic impetus with which to brand Dumaguete as an emerging culinary hub in the country. From Adamo to Sobremesa, from Green Chef to Si Señor, from Sinati to Cafe Alima [both sadly gone], most of what we know as Dumaguete dining now owes something to KRI. If anything, it prepared our palette to demand more sophisticated fare—and here we are, in a current dining landscape that is as vast as it is diverse.

I wasn’t there when KRI opened. I was somewhere else on the other side of the world, but every time I’d open my Facebook back in those latter months of 2010, my friends back home in Dumaguete were crowing about nothing else except KRI. There was the matter of prices: nothing on the menu was priced above P99—which was good news for notoriously cheap and very discriminating Dumagueteños. “The goal,” Ritchie told me then, “was to make good food available and affordable to everyone, especially the student market here in Dumaguete. Healthy options need not put a burden in our budgets, and we have all been there, being students eating on a budget.”

He had just arrived home from an extended stay in the U.S. then. After studying culinary arts at the Colorado Institute of Arts, and after stints at Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago (he also trained briefly under Chef Thanawat Bates in 2008 as part of the James Beard Foundation in New York), he had returned to his hometown to try to make his mark in local cuisine.

His initial effort, which we loved, was Likha, a tapas bar at South Seas Resort, which is now The Henry. But together with his cousin Kris Zubiri, his sister Kit, his father Rene, and his wife Iris, he launched KRI—which became an instant success. What they offered was the fusion cuisine that Ritchie had already become known for, but always working with local ingredients and adding a twist to them.

My first favorite dish from KRI was the Negrense Fried Rice, which was comfort food fried rice with tiny bits of carrot, plus some scallions and chorizo, topped with pork belly and then a sunny-side-up egg. It had a texture I found tender and enticing, the taste of the pork somehow lending a surprising softness by the yolky juice that covered the dish. There were other favorites: the sambal chicken with stir-fried vegetables, the herb-crusted chicken breast with lemon caper beurre blanc, the spicy shrimp (sautéed with chili, garlic, and tomatoes) and the marinated tofu, and the oven-braised pork baby back ribs with San Miguel Beer barbecue sauce. And then there was the pad thai—perhaps the best one could find in the city then—and the KRI burger with Swiss cheese and the turkey on ciabatta and the barbecued pulled pork. So many delectable memories.

KRI closed its Silliman Avenue doors shortly before it turned ten, and shortly before the pandemic. But it’s not gone, not entirely. All our favorite dishes are now served under the banner of Esturya along Hibbard Avenue.

What follows is my interview with Ritchie Armogenia at Esturya sometime in September 2020. It has been condensed and edited from hours of transcript.

What made you go from Likha to KRI in 2010?
There was a shift in our hotel business in South Seas. Because of the status of the property, I was forced to do something, an alternative. I thought of another restaurant. Likha only did tapas. And drinks. Nothing heavy. I thought that maybe it was time to give fine dining a try. I thought, let’s do rice—lunch and dinner and snacks. We were just tapping on the student market at that time.

One of the things that I remember from the old KRI was that nothing was above ninety-nine pesos!
[Laughs] Yes! True! I think I just wanted to try. We didn’t want to make the prices too high because we were, like, the new guys in town. Who will be dining out at P150, P180? That was a lot of money at that time! Even until now, P200 is still a lot of money for locals. I thought, okay, let’s give them smaller portions lang. What’s worth the P99? But the place was packed. We were noted for our P99 ribs at that time!

What do you remember to be your best-selling items in the menu?
There was the General Tso’s [chicken]. I think also the burger, the sandwiches, and the salads. The tuna wraps became one of the classics. I must tell you that Likha was an experiment for me. The breakthrough was KRI. Until now, I’m still analyzing what made it work. I think Dumaguete still goes back to comfort food like how the other restaurants are doing it with rice, but I think portion-wise, I will always stick to small. I don’t really want big portions yet because I want everybody to try a bit of everything.

I’ve been theorizing that KRI jumpstarted a decade of good Dumaguete food and good casual fine dining. I thought KRI really influenced how other restaurants have come to position themselves, or how they cook their food, or to open up following your style. Did you ever feel like you were kind of a pioneer for the Dumaguete food scene?
I think probably just in the influencing of new flavors. There were already so many restaurants when I started. Mamia’s was already there. Don Atilano was already there.

KRI was different. In fact, if you remember, some older restaurants reconfigured themselves after your success.
It happens when you’re new and trendy. Adamo, right now, is the trend.

But you were the precursor for Adamo. You could say you paved the way for the likes of Adamo.
I love what Edison Manuel is doing with Adamo. We also have our younger chefs like Gabby Del Prado of Gabby’s Bistro, who has done his share towards Dumaguete dining. His stuff is his own style. Then there’s Sande Fuentes of Lab-as! Sande is still the classic guide for Dumaguete food. And now we also have so many good restaurants in Dauin. Back in 2010, there was no dining in Dauin then.

So you never felt you were groundbreaking for Dumaguete?
No. I think the people were just ready for something new in 2010. It’s just a matter of what—and when—to start something, to slowly introduce culinary innovation instead of something pakalit, which Dumagueteños do not like.

Can you trace for us your development at KRI over the past ten years?
When we started, the menu was mostly catered for students and foreigners equally. But eventually we evolved to catering mostly to foreigners because at one point, those were the strongest customers we were getting. Not too many Filipinos! It made me think, there is a trend here. And then that was when Dumaguete was becoming noted for diving. And tourists like to eat healthy—so we evolved by not just focusing on the taste but also on the nutritional value. Also in the process, like how to blanche the vegetables properly, how to do cooking techniques like roasting, braising, stewing, poaching, frying with respect to the ingredients and how to use them properly also. I’ve mostly learned to balance Western and Eastern flavors, so both sides can appreciate.

What have been the challenges?
“Consistency.” Consistency with my crew, and to make sure they’re able to operate with or without me. Of course, pricing for Dumaguete is a challenge. Sometimes it goes up, then steady, steady for a long time. Before, when people from Manila would come here, they’d be asking, “Why are you charging this low?” I’m like “You don’t know Dumaguete!” This is Dumaguete! And now that this pandemic’s going on, I’ll also be like, “Should I compromise with the quality?” It’s hard. It’s hard because I can’t serve you something I cannot be proud of.

Is running Esturya during the pandemic your biggest challenge right now?
Yes, yes. This is my biggest challenge so far because I know I cannot cut corners. For example, I made stock the other day. I had a bunch of bones. I don’t know how many kilos. So I made chicken stock. I started with a big pot. Six hours, eight hours, reduce it, reduce it pa gyud the next day… Two-day, three-day process to make up the final product—which the customers don’t see, but I “see” it everyday because I want that flavor to explode and to make the dish interesting. Not like, uy, chicken stock ra ‘to, gibutangan ra og Knorr cubes. Or something like that. Our hamburger patties, even our sauces, we make them all with love. We don’t cut corners, even with the pandemic…

And maintaining the machines is a challenge. At this time, I can no longer expect a mechanic to come in from Cebu because of the lockdown. We have ovens and other things to maintain. Who will maintain them? Lisud siya. But at the same time, I’ve learned to become my own mechanic, I just call Manila and ask the company, “What should I do with this in our oven?” So now I understand what to do. And in a way it’s also a blessing.

You do all kinds of other responsibilities, too—consulting, making menus for other family restaurants, catering, etc. How do you manage to juggle all these?
Throughout the years I was in America, I was working under pressure and was always multi-tasking. It was a normal thing for me, so I’m used to the stress. But now, with the pandemic, all of these things have stopped—then I try to get busy, but I’m trying hard to figure out how I did things before. I think it’s consistency again. Everyday, I get busy, with only a few days for relaxation. But now nga taas kaayo ang pahuway, lisud siya. I have to keep myself motivated physically, mentally. To keep myself and my crew going, everyday, because I tell them let’s work like it’s going to be busy, you know? And then I always tell them: it doesn’t matter. Slow day or busy day, you need to perform the best. Because once we compromise, then that’s the start. Relaxed na siya. And where’s the drive? Dili na sila driven. And this kind of business is stressful, especially if you have a family, because I also have domestic duties. It’s not just like I’m working all day and I’m staying in the restaurant. If I wasn’t married, maybe I’ll be in the restaurant 24/7.

Why did you give up on the Silliman Avenue space for KRI?
Because of the dining capacity, we couldn’t cope with it anymore. The dining room at the back was too big. I needed to be efficient, I needed to cut costs, especially right now in order to survive the next few months. That was a nice place though.

Did you ever think you would last for ten years after opening KRI?
Time goes by so fast. The restaurant scene in Dumaguete goes up and down. The tourist crowd—the foreigners, the Koreans, and the Chinese coming—helped. Most places were packed because of them.

And then the pandemic happened.
The tourists are gone. The students are gone. We’re relying on local patrons now. Kita ra gyud.

What have you learned so far from losing your two main clienteles, and this new reliance on local patrons?
The people of Dumaguete love and want comfort food. Sometimes the pizza is a big draw, but it’s Italian. Most locals prefer what they know—rice dishes, you know? The staple, the regular—that’s what makes them happy. This may be the best time to open a Filipino restaurant.

What do you think will happen to the Dumaguete food scene in 2021?
We will still be trying to survive—but there are also new restaurants opening. But I doubt if the mall will open with even more stalls. That depends even more on rental. Rental is a big factor. If you own the place, then of course you can survive. But if you’re renting and your landlord won’t adjust the rent then it will be difficult.

We’re just trying to learn and to do the best that we can at this time. I don’t know. I can’t say what can happen. It depends on certain factors. But again, I ask that question: “Why are we doing this anyway?” And it’s because we love to serve good food, and we want to help Dumaguete out. It’s like when people come, we have something to offer. We appreciate the food that is well-made.

But I think we’re still blessed in Dumaguete. I think we’re still in a good position right now. Let’s count more of our blessings right now. Of course, we’re helping out our employees as well. I didn’t lay off anybody. Bahala’g daghan mi basta, we’ll just make them work na lang. Ipuli-puli ra. But we never know. If we go back to ECQ, I’m ready. I’ve learned from the first ECQ, so I’m ready.

When you say you are ready, what does it mean?
I will still open. Then I will make sure we’ll be efficient this time. We’re ready. We’re ready to survive this.

A pandemic is a weird way to celebrate your tenth anniversary.
I know. I wanted to do one more party in KRI to say, “This is our last day for KRI!” I wanted to do a special menu—. The pandemic has made me really appreciate everything though. I’ve become appreciative of whatever comes, be it a good day or a bad day. As long as my staff, and everyone, is healthy, that’s still the best of everything.

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Friday, April 16, 2021

entry arrow6:45 PM | Writing to Live

In a recent [2 April 2021] issue of South China Morning Post, I came across an article by Kylie Knott where she had written about a Hong Kong teenager who had ran far away from all that she knew in a forceful bid for one last fling with adventure before planning to end her life.

The details had me riveted.

Marsha Jean was 18 when she fled a dark experience in Hong Kong in 2016 and flew to Australia on a one-way ticket, intent on exploring its west coast, spend all her money—and then end her life. She felt only that she was flailing in life. She was certain she had no future, and she was beset with feelings she was lacking in confidence and was afraid of everything.

But “running away” soon showed her a world that was friendlier than she had imagined, and gradually she eased into the life of a nomad. In the subsequent years, she traveled to more than forty countries, working on temporary jobs on the side in the places she found herself in, hitchhiking when she could, opening herself to the generosity and friendliness of strangers, and grappling with challenges when she found them. In 2018, when she was 21 and still on the road, she spontaneously bought a bicycle and decided to cycle across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan along the legendary Pamir Highway—although she barely knew how to bike.

What she would eventually learn that saved her life was that in embracing the world—no matter how fearfully in the beginning—she found that it was not at all a “big bad place.” Today, Knott writes, “Jean has embraced the slow travel philosophy, a way of seeing the world that emphasizes the connection to local people and culture.”

To live, Jean runs away and explores the world.

It also helped that she held both British and Australian passports, which made “travelling and working a lot easier.”

* * *

One of my favorite movies in 2020 is Chloe Zhao’s radiant Nomadland, which stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman in late middle age who finds herself in a tight spot which requires nothing short of upheaval. She has just lost her husband. She has just lost her job as well, as the company she has worked for all her life has shut down. And because the company also owns the house she lives in, she finds herself suddenly homeless.

In his graceful [7 November 2020] review of the film for the New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane sums up the inciting drama of the story this way: “One of the things we learn from the films of Chloé Zhao is this: bad luck is the stuff that happens before a story begins.”

And so it does: in the opening scenes of Nomadland, Fern has already faced all the gauntlets we’ve already enumerated—and has stoically set out to roam the off-beaten tracks of America, joining other economically displaced people like her in an existence of long roads and seasonal employment [in this case, working the warehouses of Amazon.com].

But in untethering herself from all that she has known, she finds a home in the world—albeit one that is untraditional, one that is lived out in the wilderness and under an often harsh sky, one that embraces grueling uncertainty.

To live, Fern wanders the fierce sadness of the badlands.

It also helps that she has a van, which she has named “Vanguard,” and which serves as home and access to mobility.

* * *

Most of us don’t have the kind of passport that can whisk us away so easily to “runaway land,” where newness of place can be a portal for finding ourselves and the correlative of reinvention. Most of us also don’t have a van that can ensure mobility when needed, when all seems lost. But still, the idea of just running away and letting go feels increasingly compelling for some of us, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the upheavals it has wrought, most of them coming as a shock, rattling foundations we thought were firm.

There are those of us who have lost loved ones.

There are those of us who lost employment.

There are those of us who have lost that old sense of sure footing, and many are tortured by mental health struggles the lockdown has unleashed to their full ensnarement. In my case, it’s a general feeling of paralyzing helplessness, an anxiety that came in cycles. I found myself insomniac, and grinding my teeth. In January, I also began losing my hair from the stress—I’d wake up to clumps of hair on my bed, I’d find them on the floor, in the bathroom drainage. [It stopped in March, inexplicably as it had began.]

In the middle of 2020, I decided to become more vocal with my own struggles, writing about them on Facebook and in columns such as this—hoping to do three things: [1] to normalize the conversation on mental health to help rid it of its historical and cultural stigma, and provide a voice for those who struggle with it in secret; [2] to give myself a form of articulating my own demons, hoping to tame them; and [3] to live.

I don’t have a van like Fern, and I don’t have a good passport like Jean—but I can write, and somehow it occurred to me that writing could be its own form of escape and survival.

I’ve written so many essays to chronicle my state of mind, my wish for hopefulness. But sometimes, I’d turn to poetry, too, and in one of my darkest episodes last year, I wrote one I titled “Suicide Note”:

      I started paying attention
      when I began envying the dead.
      Their obituaries read like brochures
      to loftier oases the living damned
      Have no map for. But the dead
      will not spill their secrets.
      Their stillness say, “Stay.”

      We’ve lived the inverted hours,
      beheld sun that does not shine.
      In a ravaged world,
      There’s empty dullness devoid
      of ache that reminds us of living.

      One day I’ll know what stillness is:
      Like quenching secret cistern water
      My thirst will find in the void.
      I’ve paid my dues in pain,
      I will be ready.

Writing that poem, no matter how painful it proved to be, kept the darkness at bay. I lived. Much later, I’d write another poem, this one more hopeful, titled “Bird”:

      When I’m able to fly away,
      I’ll think of this, gladly, as the time
      Gravity embraced me, made my wings
      Inert. There was pain from
      All my broken dreams of soaring.
      The sutures of no flight
      Defined what must be endured.
      It kept me alive, I think, that torment.
      It kept my eyes open, and I saw
      The comforting constancy of blueness,
      and the promise of horizons to come.
      The ground with which I wallowed
      Was calendar and infirmary.
      To tentatively spread my shy wings,
      I only really needed reminders of sky.

Someday—and here I write from a place of flickering life even when I still struggle on—I know all these will make sense. And what I’ve written to chronicle all these, I hope, will be my roadmap to ultimately living for real.

Image courtesy of ComFreak via Pixabay

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich