april knight

It was in 2014, at the peak of the Virgin Islands General Election, when I received the worst trolling to a story I wrote — the worst, because it’s the last thing any journalist wants to hear.

At the center of the article was the possibility of a gubernatorial runoff, which the controversial hand-count of the ballots was slowly proving imminent. One reader, clearly a supporter of one ticket, took issue with the headline, saying it was misleading and should have been phrased differently. I was “desperate,” he wrote, to make it appear as if the other candidate had a chance. Like most local media, he said, I delivered biased, partisan news.

I was horrified. I felt that the accusation was unfair and knew it was patently untrue. So I did what I was supposed to do: I brought it to the attention of my editors and publisher, asking if we should indeed make any changes to the disputed headline. After some deliberation, it was decided that the headline stays, and so does the reader’s comment. I was also advised to grow hurricane-proof skin because that won’t be the last acerbic comment I get from anyone, unfounded or not.

Then I hear about this other local “news” website that blocked readers and stripped them of commenting privileges when they called out the site’s inaccuracies and factual errors.

Cue my graduate journalism professor: Should news outfits allow online comments? Should we allow readers to comment away unfettered? Should we be using words like “unfettered” at all?

Such questions, in fact, became moot a long time ago, when the Internet was born and ended the era of a mass media controlled by a few.

Like any product released to the public, news stories are not exempt from critique. Consumers of news have in fact been critiquing the whole time. The only difference is, in more traditional platforms — newspapers, radio, television — the means of expressing such critiques are limited — by airtime, by word limit on a page, by clout or influence. The average person watching news on TV can’t just react on-air, and the most a reader can do is send a letter to the editor or write an opinion piece, hoping it gets published.

Which is why the Internet is a wonderful thing. This increasingly digital world is breaking down walls and leveling the playing field, making consumers producers at the same time, on a platform that is (literally) virtually available to everyone. Gone are the days of tossing our products out into the void without much regard for what consumers think. Nowadays, not only are consumers able to respond to news; the power and prevalence of the Internet are such that users can be makers of news.

In “The World is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lists historical turning points that flattened the world, events that reduced power distances and chipped away at the usual barriers — class, politics, religion. For those of us in the business of information, the Internet just demolished the barrier of privileged access to means of reaching the masses. The fact that any online content with a public URL can be shared, embedded, and yes, riddled with unsolicited comments, makes an illusion out of any choice we think we have on the matter.

For better or worse, comments on online content are unstoppable.

But going back even further, is this not what journalists do — inform and stimulate conversation on issues that impact many? We report with as much accuracy, as much objectivity as our humanity allows, so people are armed with information that they may need, for whatever cause they may be fighting. As a journalist, I hope I have the grace to remember why people’s review of what I write — from the glowing to the scathing — are a major end of the journalistic enterprise, and when I get comments that drive me up a wall, I hope I have the wisdom to realize that reaction is better than apathy.

I hope I don’t have to swallow my own idealism too often, too. Sheesh.

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Cover Photo: Ted Nasmith‘s “Tuor Reaches the Hidden City of Gondolin.” Nasmith is the official Tolkien illustrator. © Ted Nasmith, all rights reserved.

 

When the last installment of “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novel hit the theaters in December, fans of the Middle Earth movies turned their  eyes toward the third most popular material from the Tolkien canon: “The Silmarillion.”

And for good reason. Though little known to the masses, “The Silmarillion” is considered by many Tolkien scholars as the father of high fantasy’s best work, easily topping “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” If Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy however, is any indication of Silmarillion’s treatment in film, a movie adaptation could be a very bad idea indeed.

One reason is the book’s complexity. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, in the foreword of the 2001 Houghton Mifflin edition, described the book as “a large narrative structure” that became “so complex, so pervasive, and many layered that a final and definitive version seemed unattainable.”

Jackson, therefore, cannot simply split the “Silmarillion” into sections, a technique that somewhat worked with “The Hobbit” because there was a clear set of protagonists (i.e. Bilbo BagginsGandalf and the dwarves of Erebor) and a clear goal: reclaim the Lonely Mountain. All around these elements are a scattering of clearly supporting characters shored up by often-altered backstories. The plot line is reasonably straight, and fairly segment-able.

The style of “The Silmarillion,” is ages away from the Rings or Hobbit books. In almost biblical fashion, the entire narrative is the rich unfolding of a culture, the story of the world, Ëa, told from creation and spanning the ages to the Third Age when Frodo Baggins‘ fleeting quest began and ended. The Lord of the Rings timeline is but a footnote, a few pages at the very end.

Ted Nasmith's

Ted Nasmith’s “Fingolfin Leads the Host Across the Helcaraxë.”

The book’s sweeping timeline also poses a problem. Reading “The Silmarillion” feels like whizzing through history, the images alternating rapidly in your mind’s eye because of the almost matter-of-fact yet elevated telling of events seamlessly melding from one to the next.

The book itself consists of several sections, from the Ainulindalë, which recounts the creation of the steward gods Ainur, to the descent of the Ainur to earth in the Valaquenta, to the Silmarillion proper that contains several chapters on the entire history of elves and men, and finally, to the Third Age, in which Frodo Baggins’ travails, toward Mount Doom, detailed in three long films, were featured in a single paragraph.

To further complicate things, the stories sometimes fold back on themselves, as if reminding the reader of the significance of a particular event by recounting a previously told incident, sometimes to the point of digressing.

Thus, short of a film consisting largely of fast cut montages all throughout, there’s no way of faithfully telling the “Silmarillion” story without taking out large tracts of the Middle Earth history, an option unpopular among at least the more conservative subset of Tolkien fans.

Finally, there’s the Silmarillion’s plethora of characters. From cover to cover, there are at least 225 notable names, each with individual backstories, and majority of whom have two or three other names actively used in later references.

Ted Nasmith's

Ted Nasmith’s “Luthien.”

There are characters who do stand out. The love story of Beren One-Hand of Men and the elven princess Luthién Tinuviel is central to the entire Middle Earth legendarium. Fire-spirited Fëanor of the Noldorin elves and his quest to possess the Silmarils would also be great material for a film about a tragic hero whose obsession — the Silmarils, the prized jewels containing the last light from the trees of Valinor — is a centerpiece of the narrative. Then there’s Turin Turambar, who lived in strife and, by deceit of Glaurung the dragon, ended up marrying his own sister and taking his own life.

But these individual stories are like threads woven inextricably into the fabric of the Middle earth legend. And while it’s tempting to extract specific story lines — say, focus on just Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar — much of these stories will lose their depth, if not lack sense altogether, without the rest of the epic.

“The Silmarillion” is not meant for film. The timeline spans ages, there are too many central characters making it impossible to pin down a few to spin the movie around. There is no simple goal, no throne to fight over, only a consistently complicated and pervasive battle between light and darkness.

And while for many people, a “Silmarillion” movie could be their only portal to Tolkien’s epic saga, any such attempt would surely mean altering the very nature of Tolkien’s seminal work, and as much as many Tolkien fans, including this writer, want to see Middle Earth again in visual form, some things are too beautifully made, they’re better left alone.

Below is a fan-made “Silmarillion” trailer.

     In honor of all the good that was done amid the horror of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

 

     The deadliest storm in history hit the Philippines on the eve of my sister’s birthday. One year ago, Marian Abigail, who was turning 11, was chatting with my mother on her tablet, describing the crack of thunder that heralded the coming storm.

     My mother was in Brownsville, Texas, more than 8,000 miles away. I was even farther, stationed as a reporter in the U.S. Virgin Islands, literally on the other side of the world.

     “Nay, indi kami dri ma iwan ah (Mom, we’re going to be fine),” my sister said.

     My mother, unassuaged, told her to stay close to her father and head for higher ground. That was when the power lines went down, and what followed was by far the longest day of our lives.

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A NOAA image of Supertyphoon Haiyan as it made landfall. The city of Tacloban lies directly under the eye.

     When I first saw a satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan, I remember thinking, That can’t be right. All I could see was a massive, angry whirl of reds and greens over a region of Southeast Asia, and peeking under the whirling canopy was a familiar piece of landform.

     Wait, I realized in horror, That’s the Philippines.

     There was enough media coverage of the typhoon to keep the more than 10 million overseas Filipinos updated. CNN and most other networks provided live coverage. Weather channels tracked the storm’s northwest path across the hemisphere. We saw images of Tacloban City, now alien and unrecognizable, that bore the brunt of Haiyan’s rampage.

     But none of the news networks told us what we desperately needed to know: how our loved ones were.

     On the morning after the storm surge, mom and I tried to make contact with our scattered family one by one. Some were in Manila, some in Roxas, a small city in the the Visayas, and some, including my sister and my father, in Dumalag, an even smaller town one hour outside Roxas City.

     We tried cellphones, landlines, texting — all in vain. A communication vacuum blanketed the entire province.

     In desperation, I turned to the only way to ask for help from as many people as possible: a Facebook status update.

     Posting “HELP” on Facebook felt very much like running wild on the streets, begging strangers for aid. But a growing fear that my loved ones may have been lost in the deluge threw composure out the window.  On Nov. 9, at 11:49 a.m. EST (close to midnight in the Philippines), my Facebook status update was a plea for information, followed by the names of all my family members.

One year ago, after Supertyphoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, I posted this plea for help on Facebook. The response was overwhelming.

One year ago, after Supertyphoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, I posted this plea for help on Facebook. The response was overwhelming.

    Three minutes later, Epi Oquendo, a kindergarten classmate I had not spoken to in 20 years, sent a message saying her folks in San Jose, a tiny barangay in Dumalag, were alright. She did not have news of my sister.

     At 1:40 p.m, Bem Forteza, a high school classmate, sent a private message saying there was cellphone reception near the old bridge.

     At 3 p.m., Bisell Ann, an old churchmate, commented on my status, saying she could have her sister Lalaine, check on my father and sister. Lalaine’s phone was working, apparently.

     At 5:57 p.m., my brother Archelle, checking in to say his family was fine, saw Biselle’s comment, asked for Lalaine’s cellphone number, and called her with directions to my sister’s location.

     This trend went on for hours: friends and cousins and distant relatives posting updates, tagging each other on the most remotely relevant information about families and homes.

     It turned out we weren’t the only ones. Days after the storm, my news feed was a stream of panic, anxiety and cautious hope. A Kuwait-based Filipino was looking for his father, a fisherman last seen with his boat near the shore. An overseas Filipina was searching for her parents and three children in storm-battered Leyte province. My high school classmate Erik Villan could not contact his family, nor get on a plane from Manila to Roxas because there were no flights.

     For days after Haiyan swept across the nation, Facebook became a virtual bulletin board, a lost-and-found corner for overseas Filipinos desperate to know their families were safe.

      The responses were overwhelming, and incredibly pertinent. My cousin Lexie Villar, whose smartphone was still working, traveled half of Capiz province, taking pictures of streets, landmarks, and homes, and uploading them one after another. Updates from the Philippine Information Agency were shared from wall to wall. A video taken by someone who drove around one town after the storm with a camera went viral.

     It mattered little that majority of the posts had nothing to do with our families. Every piece of information we received  — photos of the  town plaza or a familiar street, instant messages, descriptive emails —  lifted the blackout bit by bit. Like pieces of a horrific jigsaw puzzle, details began falling into place, skewed but nonetheless present.

     The long wait was eased by my people’s signature humor. In our search for family members, one of my old friends said:

     “Ga hinibi lng kodi kagina sa Manila… teh mayo kay na tawgan ko sila naghim os buot ko…bisan wla na kmi balay… hehehehe (I was crying here in Manila. Good thing I was able to contact them; I feel better. Even though our house is gone. Hehehehe.)

      Then he used the word “keri,” a Filipino colloquialism that’s difficult to translate, and one I’ve almost forgotten. I believe it came from the English word “carry,” used in contexts of moving forward in spite of obstacles, as in carrying on.

     “Basi ma contact ko naman karun dai nanay.. eh pa check ko sila didto..eh ping taka di dayun.. ang importanti wla casualties nga natabo… ang mga balay lng wla na.. KERY dyapon ah. Hahahah (I might be able to contact my mom…I’ll have them check on your folks then I’ll ping you…What’s important is there are no casualties…Just the houses gone… But still, keri. Hahahah).

      And that pretty much summed up how many of us felt.

     Two days after the storm, I knew that every member of my family was safe. Thanks to Lexie’s photo updates, I even knew which parts of the ceiling still remain in my childhood home, and that only half of my aunt’s roof had collapsed.

     It truly was the longest day of our lives, and for those who still haven’t found answers, that day stretches on.

    But on that dark day, this virtual world was inundated by waves of something other than randomness and irrelevance. On social media, I found comfort in the words of friends, awe of the Filipino’s indomitable strength, and profound pride that even at the height of worry for his own circumstance, the Filipino’s bayanihan spirit, the communal unity we frequently tout as a national value, remained intact.

Cover photo courtesy of Ging Green. 

Note: After the storm, I’ve received unsolicited help from Virgin Islanders with big hearts. The $1,100.00 raised went toward buying school supplies for children in a devastated rural elementary school.

     I regret I did not get to know Lola Mansing, my fraternal grandmother, very well. She recently passed away, but I can’t even remember what she and Lolo Tibô looked like. For most of my life, my mum had been separated from my dad, rest his soul, and somehow that meant my brother Archelle and I rarely saw our fraternal relatives. The last visit I remember, I was but four or five.

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

     The Fales lived in Buntog, the part of Dumalag that lies in the path of the old railroad. Up until the early 1970s, under the Marcos regime, the “Burban” and the “Diesel” made stops there as they chugged across the Western Visayan provinces.

     Uncle Benjie said he used to take the trains to nearby Passi to buy pineapples. The busy railroad infused Buntog with life and energy, my mother recalled, making it the most prosperous barangay in Dumalag.

     Then the trains stopped running.

     It’s been decades now since the railroad ceased operations. The trains are long gone, along with much of Buntog’s former bustle. But the tracks stayed intact, and they were put to good use by Filipino ingenuity.

My drawing of the 'biring' from memory. October 27, 2014.

My drawing of the ‘biring’ from memory. October 27, 2014.

Buntog residents built small vehicles — called biring — designed to traverse the train tracks. Made almost entirely out of wood or bamboo, a biring was nothing more than two crude benches on top of a five-foot-square platform. The whole contraption sat on metal wheels not unlike those of trains.

     Passengers got on the biring from the main road, right across Erning’s batchoy place. As soon as a biring had enough passengers, a lone driver would push the vehicle along the tracks, aided by a pole and the laws of physics.

     Needless to say I loved riding the biring. I remember hurtling through the tracks — no walls, no seatbelts, just the wind whipping my hair, rushing coolly against my face. The countryside whizzed past in a blur of greens. I could feel the wheels grinding against metal under my feet, the rhythmic tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak as they hit the places where the metal tracks joined. The grinding would die down to a whine as we slowed to drop off a passenger, and I would grab my seat against the change in inertia, careful not to lurch forward or get thrown off.

     There was only one track, which meant we were on a collision course with any biring headed in the opposite direction. In such cases, one biring would have to relent: its passengers would get off and the more muscular folks would help the driver lift the whole thing off the track, then lift it back on again once the other biring had safely passed.

     My grandparents’ house stood just off the tracks. I remember walking across a small rice paddy behind mom and several uncles, grabbing my brother’s shirt so I didn’t fall off the narrow, elevated mud trail.  On the other side was a familiar two-story structure made of concrete and wood.

     The living room was at ground level, with some wooden stairs rising from the center of the room to a square hole cut into the second story floor.

     Lolo and lola gave me my first grown-up drink in that room — a type of wine made from coconut flowers called tuba — that my mother would never have allowed under normal circumstances. It came out of a piece of bamboo that was cleaned out and turned into a receptacle.

     I liked tuba; it was sweet and tart and deliciously forbidden.

     Chickens roamed the backyard. They must have had other poultry and livestock, but I don’t remember. My grandparents told me I could chase the chickens, and I could keep whatever I caught. In hindsight, I think it was a ploy to get rid of me so the grown-ups could talk, but hey, I had a blast chasing yellow chicks while fending off angry mother hens.

     My Papa Pedro, who’s actually my uncle, owned a biring, and he’d treat us to the best joy rides. The tracks were elevated where they cut through rice paddies. In some areas, the packed earth had crumbled, leaving the tracks hanging over thin air in a slight dip. It made a perfect makeshift roller coaster track, and that’s exactly what we did. My mom, who was stuck with the grown-ups, would have been sufficiently freaked if she saw us riding the biring at warp speed across that dip, screaming our lungs out.

    My mother now tells me I’d forgotten the best bits: crossing a deep stream on a bridge made of nothing but two bamboo poles latched together, splashing on the banks of that stream when it’s swollen and muddied by rain, and riding the biring splayed on the floor because there were no benches. She said my grandfather took me to ride his carabaos — water buffalos — and that my grandmother affectionately called me Nene Apple, and my brother Nonoy Cheche.

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

So even though I didn’t know Lola Mansing, she left me some solid, rocking memories. Through her, I remember how our Buntog family always made us feel welcome and loved. If we could have that much fun with them on a brief visit, I wouldn’t mind riding the biring express to their houses again someday.

Cover photo courtesy of Rudyard Florida.

    Puerto Rico stole my heart. However briefly, Jae and I were transported to a different world, and every minute that we spent there reminded us of it.

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Espresso with a kick at Caficultura, a small street-side coffeeshop on the corner of Calle San Francisco and Calle O’Donnell.

    Old San Juan was a pleasant assault on the senses — the crisp, rapid Spanish erupting from its jovial people, the strong aroma of coffee and mallorcas wafting from open-air cafes on street corners, and the humid air barely urged to motion by the warm breezes that snake through the close-set colonial buildings.

    The city’s architecture is, I exaggerate not, a feat of historic preservation. Calle de la Fortaleza literally took my breath away, and for a few seconds I forgot we were supposed to be looking for our hotel. The streets are cobblestone, and in some areas, so polished by foot traffic that the blue stone shines strangely metallic.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

    Along major streets, buildings up to seven stories loom close on each side; I felt almost claustrophobic as Jae and I walked between two colorful walls extending to the horizon, one building’s facade distinguishable from the next only by the alternating pastels and the subtler variations in design.

    Churches, museums and the graceful remains of castles long-dead lay casually throughout the city.

Old San Juan 21

Quaint terraces.

    Quaint terraces — sometimes of wrought iron, sometimes of wood — overhang the already narrow streets, often dripping green aerial plants. I loved peeking out of our fourth-floor hotel window and seeing a baby playing on the porch straight across the street, so close I could reach out and give him back his toy. I loved looking at the patterned floors of the terraces and getting glimpses of home life through the louvres of doors and windows.

    Anthropologist Ricardo Alegria opposed the destruction of historic structures, urging politicians to make sure that any new construction within the old city uses Spanish colonial motifs. The city retains its old-world charm that now acts as a magnet for tourists.

El Morro at sunset.

El Morro at sunset.

     El Castillo San Felipe del Morro was a sight to behold, perched on a low hill jutting out onto the ocean. Its walls are thick and ancient, worn by the centuries but still watchful and defiant. The interior is a maze of rooms, tunnels and levels on a massive scale. During the day, it’s a warm ochre between the sky and rolling green grounds; at sunset, it’s a dark silhouette against a golden sky.

   

Kite-flying at El Morro.

Kite-flying at El Morro.

The forbidding fortress is now somewhat softened by families picnicking or flying kites on the surrounding field. Jae and I spent some hours there launching our own kites into the air, eating helado, or just watching humanity happen all around us. At El Morro, every day was Sunday.

    On the actual Sunday, Jae braved the busy Puerto Rican thoroughfares (they drive on the right!) to drive to El Yunque, the famed bosque nacional one hour out of the metro, to get his nature immersion. We drove through the dense tropical rainforest all the way to the top of the mountain to take in the trails, the waterfalls, and the panoramic views. Jae was ecstatic; apparently old buildings only worked on me. He said we were going back just for El Yunque.

    If you managed to get this far, thank you for reading through. I hope that the photographs somewhat share what Jae and I have experienced on this anniversary trip, this wonderful place and its gracious, big-hearted people. There are truly beautiful places in the world, and after my homes — the Philippines and the Virgin Islands — Puerto Rico ranks high on this girl’s list.

 

I was nominated by my friend and co-worker Garry Anthony back in August to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and I happily accepted. My dear father-in-law has been kicking ALS’s a** for years. It’s an honor to be able to do this for him, and for other fighting the battle. Go #TeamJerome!

Here’s to raised awareness and more research funding. To donate, please go to www.ALSA.org.

#lougehrigsdisease #als #icebucketchallenge #frickingcold