Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ghost story

THERE’S nothing quite like the sun filling up one’s room to make even a mass murderer believe in starting anew.

Waking up awhile ago, I had this eureka moment. Today is the 29th day I have been eating slaughtered pigs.

If she could hear me, my mother would consider my choice of adjective a bit self-indulgent. Right now, she and I are glumly sharing a slice of tuna ham, she to clean up her act before her January check-up and I, to sop up the trail of lard revealing my crimes.

But if I were to strictly follow the code of standards binding all journalists to unalloyed truth, I should even further point out that my mother and I have not desisted at all from our rampage of the past days.

After all, this tuna, once a free citizen swimming in God’s glinting sea, was tricked and captured, drowned in flavored brine, and processed beyond recognition to land on our plate, a greaseless peace offering for my mother’s doctor’s late lamented diet instructions and in my case, my remorseless mass-murdering sensibilities.

Why does the placatory taste always like sawdust?

Let me make that into freshly shaved sawdust, garlanded with curls of premeditation and a sprig of malice. For I do admit that months before the December countdown even began, I already hid behind four layers of tomes my boys’ much-watched copy of Babe: The Movie.

Is there anything more seriously skewered than my schizophrenia? One moment, I am vigorously wiping at my leaking tear ducts while cheering on the porker-who-wouldn’t-fit, saved from being turned into a cured leg of ham by a phenomenal gift of empathy and shepherding abilities.

The next moment, I am offering my plate to a man with a knife, following my explicit instructions to break off ribs, scoop out some lemongrass-scented stomach, and carve out triangles of skin and fat-marbled meat from a victim who never knew me or entertained a single evil thought against my family.

(About to leave the lechon table, I spot a long-missed cousin and make small talk, guessing how many so-and-so months to breed a specimen that will fetch so-and-so thousands during the merry spitting months. All the while, the subject of our conversation can do nothing but bite its scorched tongue, stuffed halfway down its throat by a holiday apple.)

Perhaps like that of the bludgeoner Raskolnikov in Dostoyevksy’s Crime and Punishment, clogged consciences deliver the noisiest, most useless soliloquies. Or is the holiday chitchat just too loud for me to hear the erratic skipping of my overworked heart?

I am inclined to blame the hallucination-inducing lures of lemongrass and star anise (the secret ingredients of centuries of lechon makers) for somehow dulling my sense of outrage. It was not the pricking of conscience but curiosity that made me take careful count of the pale carcasses awaiting their turn at the charcoal pit of this popular lechon maker along Basak Road in Lapu-Lapu. The day before Christmas topped the mark: 30 of Those-Formerly-Known-As-Pigs ready for delivery by noon, with another 40 ready for demolition by 4 p.m. (In contrast, business was slow for the lechon maker’s next-door neighbor, a funeral parlor.)

In contrast, scores of freezers in many groceries in the city had a marked vacuum where used to be the legs of ham and balls of extenders-disguised-as-ham. With all these unavenged souls floating around, will the balance in the cosmos somehow not be upset?

I had my answer when I woke up today. There will always be a morning after to greet even mass murderers. We are One is the cosmic justice restoring balance.

I have no choice but to listen when it is my 42-year-old knees speaking with a twinge here, and an ache there, almost as if phantom snouts were nibbling, unseen. 09173226131

*Publish in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 30, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bite-sized grace

CHRISTMAS is that time in the city when your longest and deepest conversations are with the strangers you are marooned with inside a traffic-stalled jeepney or while shuffling along the inevitable queues that hiss and sprout from this hydra-headed season.

As the resident errand specialist in our household, I have learned that a book is most useful in a queue: I gnash fewer teeth when I lose myself in chapters.

There is one tiny flaw to this principle, though. It is nearly impossible to have a Zen moment when one is trapped in a low-ceilinged “comfort” room jammed with ladies, often with tykes, whose body wastes are screaming for immediate release.

Running a close second to this apocalyptic scenario is waiting in an ATM line when the bank employees suddenly draw the blinds and lock the ATM door from the inside, without giving any explanation at all to the folks queuing in the softly drizzling twilight.

Shock, confusion, dismay, anger, one or two expostulations of genuine worker’s angst—a mishmash of emotions runs up and down, electrifying the line where I, admittedly, immediately count and find that I am the 7th person anticipating to step over the threshold and walk away with my yearend bonus or pay.

Seventh is not so bad, I console myself. It’s the seventh day in the week, when one meets up with one’s God who, as usual, extends His usual credit line for another disastrous run of self-indulgence.

Then, lapsed Catholic that I am, I figuratively slap my forehead and groan: Sunday is first day of the week; the seventh falls on a Saturday, when twin writing deadlines fall. Since newsrooms at crunch time resemble more the blood-soaked temples of ritual human sacrifice than the solemn and serene sacrament celebrating the Christ’s Passion, I instantly feel every muscle tense, every instinct kick in to respond to that locked ATM door.

Flight or fight? Looking around, I see indications that my queue companions have also turned feral and rabid. Someone from inside the bank parts the blinds to take a peek, perhaps wondering when we will start to uproot and snap like twigs overpriced lampposts, hurl cars through the windows, and launch People Power 4, the Holiday Edition.

Then I notice the white, splotched with red, neck of the man before me. A Caucasian, I almost groan. Any minute now, this neo imperialist will turn and launch, spittle and all, into a tirade about Third World banks and trash economies.

To my horror, those black-clad Hell’s Angel’s shoulders do swivel around to face head-on my unspoken xenophobia. The red-faced devil stares down, deep, deep into the pit where I cringe and am 50-percent away from completing a faint.

Somewhere under that red-haired bristling bush obscuring his mouth, a smile breaks: this is the fourth ATM I’ve tried this afternoon. And I thought I was lucky to come upon the shortest line in the city. But I guess, I just don’t have any luck, eh, mate?

Strangers—kind, humorous, concerned—are sometimes what’s best about this city. A jeepney can just be a mere box where a clutch of people are temporarily forced to keep company to reach destinations.

But the unexpected happening—a sleek brand-new car being clamped and towed away—stirs up my fellow passengers. A young man chortles that the rich owner will have a rude surprise. But the women titter like roosting birds: poor fellow! A mother holding bags of groceries hopes it was the owner, not the driver, who made the parking violation.

Two elderly women in old-fashioned dresses discuss why the owner was not allowed another chance “kay Pasko man (because it’s Christmas).” One of them worries if the owner knows where to claim his vehicle. A plump girl, cracking boiled peanuts, predicts the owner may never find it again.

Though initially preoccupied with being late, I say that the owner will be traced through the car’s license plate. This greatly pleases the ladies in dresses. The car is so shiny, says one. Her companion pats her knee. After hearing mass at the Basilica, she says, “palitan nato ug inganang trak-trak si Armand (let’s buy him a toy truck that looks exactly like that).”

The best thing about Christmas is being home. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 23, 2007 issue

And a merry PJX-924 to you

THE BEST gift I received from a work acquaintance this year is a calculator.

It's grey and no bigger than my hand. It has large, clearly labeled buttons, the most important being the ones that say “ON” and “OFF.”

Best of all, it makes no sound.

In the age of greeting and conversing automated teller machines, a gadget that goes about its work with quiet efficiency is my favorite technology.

I still remember the discovery I made during an early morning study. While reading in our deserted faculty room, which has a grand tradition of being peculiar, if not haunted, I heard strange sounds ping-ing from nowhere.

The crazed outbursts made me want to ricochet, too, off the walls. A desperate check behind a divider, however, did not turn up a phantom gamer. A colleague was doing sums. Her choice of weapon: a calculator of the yodeling variety.

In fairness, marketing geniuses have toned down technology. The chances of coming upon a gadget that screams for your attention in the mall are now reduced to nil. Clicks and murmurs have taken over the pings. Matte retro dulls the screaming silvers and black braggadocio of old. In looks and in sound, technology taps a deep vein of minimalism.

It figures: the features of devices have to be refined to a whisper as, with today's runaway price tags, there's no room for another shock.

If you have tried techno shopping, you may be familiar with that vacuum of absolute silence created from the second you nonchalantly flip over a softly gleaming device and come upon your moment of truth, the minute your hoarded mathematical knowhow kicks in and you are finally able to make sense of the forest of zeros and commas that critically precede, not follow, the decimal point.

Deep, deep hush.

If the price chokes, the natural reflex should be to gag, remove the obstruction, and resume normal respiration. But when it finally sinks in that I have to mutate into some kind of feline with a thousand lifetimes, or keep a lifestyle of a particularly dexterous cat burglar, just to afford even one set of those cold, brilliant zeros, I've learned to put mind over matter, and gag and cough anywhere else except around that treasure of ingenuity in toned-down luxe finish.

Fortunately, just as the Lent of fasting and abstinence purges the soul of the first half of the year's excesses, Christmas with its sharp tinsel glitter is excruciatingly good at pricking vain ambitions still lingering at the end of the year.

Some never learn, though. As I have three boys (one husband, two sons) with a love for the newfangled, I always find myself cramming for the holidays, scanning brochures and entering stores that tax already my grasp of technological English.

For instance, why are gadgets always named using acronyms? Why use, for instance, DR-BT21G, a ponderous soup of alphabet and numbers for what looks like a thin coil with earmuffs?

Even if this is shorter and more hip to write on a tag than “streetstyle Bluetooth stereo headphones,” doesn't an unpronounceable acronym make customers pause an inordinately dangerous time to ponder the imponderables: how is DR-BT21G an improvement over, say, the earlier model, CQ-AS20F? Or what if I decide to wait for the new and improved version of ES-CU22H to be released so I can now afford the slightly older and thus slightly marked down DR-BT21G?

When my eyes roll back and I am one breath away from frothing in the mouth, my boys know well enough to pull me away from a showcase of the brave new future.

It figures: devices and gadgets are toned down to a suave whisper as more than ample acoustics are provided by the screaming wreck being dragged from the scene of crime. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 16, 2007 issue


LAST night, I woke up with a start. My phone chimed. Someone sent a message, asking where he could find a certain magazine in Cebu.

I squinted at the clock; it was going to be midnight in a couple of minutes.

I did not know the message sender. Was he a he or a she? Was it a work acquaintance whose number I had not saved in my mobile phonebook? I thought of the notebook where I jot down my contacts, except, at near midnight, the world of work is so distant, exactly dead in the middle of the other side of a black hole.

Who could be in extremis at this time of the night for a mere sheaf of glossy paper and photos?

But remembering that these sheets once carried multi-awarded investigative reports urged me to sit up on the bench, where I had fallen asleep after coming home late.

Belatedly, I realized I could have just imagined my phone’s chime and was actually long asleep when the message was sent. I checked and found out that the message was received near 9 p.m.

Instead of reassuring though, the knowledge unsettled me. What if this person was a visitor on a rare trip to Cebu, and, just a few minutes before mall closing time, he or she was desperately trying to find a particular magazine issue before his or her flight, a future trip to Cebu as unimaginable as world peace?

One is made porous by one’s obsessions. Belatedly, too, I realized I was reacting as if I were not the recipient but the message sender, as if it was I about to depart, empty-handed; I, sleepless and waiting for a stranger to advise a way out of the quandary of being separated and isolated from that which is sought.

Although this requires several paragraphs to describe, in real time, there was only a short interval between my waking and sitting up on the bench, and keying in my replies.

Several messages later, my phone was silent again. I had explained to the stranger that the magazine had gone online for some time, but it was reportedly printing out a special yearender issue. I ran over the gamut of possibilities, from conducting a needle-in-the-haystack check of bookstores and magazine vendors located in malls to, as a last resort, emailing the magazine’s editor in chief in Manila for local outlets of distribution.

As we changed roles—my message sender turned recipient while I switched from the stunned-awake to search strategist and mapmaker—I was no closer to understanding the search as when I was first quizzed about the whereabouts of the magazine.

Reconnoitering many personalities on assignment or even for personal curiosity, I realize that, at the level of human intimacy, touching base requires one to only listen, not probe with a lot of bristling questions.

Why did the search preoccupy the stranger? So what if it did? Technology now makes it possible for us to connect one point to another. I hope the stranger eventually finds an issue of the magazine, just as I hope the resurrected magazine finds readers worth the courage and commitment of putting out stories exposing the pathologies of our national dementia.

But sleepless at past midnight, I was in no mood for imagining webs. Any preschooler can draw a line to connect points.

Feeling a familiar parchedness, I reached for a nearby pile and pulled out a book. When wide awake past bedtime, read the questions to sleep. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 9, 2007 issue

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Dear Bru,

Help! Is there a Bumblebee still left standing in a toy store shelf in New South Wales?

I’ve given up hope new stocks will ever arrive from Manila. I suspect there’s a conspiracy of parents keeping watch on all their ports. The chance of any shipment of these yellow-colored robotshifters arriving soon in Cebu—and ending the panic of all parents besieged by nine-year-old fans of the Transformers—is only slightly better than any hope of a silent night on Christmas eve (unless you’re in Davao).

Of course, I am hyperbolic. Life in this country is slightly enlarged beyond truth and reasonableness. So I am not exaggerating that I am considering flying so many
miles out to buy a toy Juan might outgrow during the two-week Christmas break, despite the fact that I cannot even buy a spot on a bunk on economy class in a slow boat from Pier 1 to Talibon. For how many times have I watched that Transformers DVD until my son was reasonably convinced I could recognize, even blindfolded, a yellow alien masquerading as a Camaro?

Really, I’ve lost all appetite for boring reality.

Since we’re on this subject, do you remember the scene when Optimus Prime and Megatron, grappling in their death clinch, fly into and through a downtown highrise?

“That’s wicked!” howls my son every time that grand battle flashes on screen. I, too, watch, gape-mouthed, my shock as undiminished on our 77th rerun as on the 7th.

Is it a good or a bad thing when children remember nothing of 9/11? That ordinary working day in New York when two planes from out of the sky, beyond belief, rammed into the World Trade Center. While people lost lives, innocence, faith, the boys and I were in bed. They were telling me how their day went. In the dark of their room, I listened, just glad that homework was done, the hostilities over.

You know that expression, “beyond belief?” Among other things, 9/11 relegated this to the recycle bin, to borrow some computerese from Carlos. Really, is anything ever “beyond belief”?

In 2007, Hollywood released the Transformers film. Apparently, movie executives judged that, based on preview reactions of test audiences, it was now okay to put on screen a grand battle reminiscent of that unbelievable day in 2001, except of course, this time, it’s not ideologies, geopolitics, humanity warring against itself but just two leviathans of the Decepticons and Autobots, races from somewhere deep in space.

“It’s just a movie, Mom,” as Juan would say, exasperated again that mothers are so without imagination. “Those are autonomous robotic organisms, not people.”

Did I copy Juan’s shrug when I saw the photo of the Marcoses emblazoned on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s lifestyle section last Nov. 22, 2007? Though the years have added a few more chins on Imelda, the smiles of the Iron Butterfly and her children, Bongbong, Irene and Imee, look genuine, far from robotic.

In their place, I would be as sparkling. Though the 21-year-old news photos are grainy, there is no mistaking their long faces when they cowered on the balcony of Malacañang, the late dictator making his last stand just before fleeing the country.

For the first time in my 20 years, I didn’t go home that night. Many students and teachers kept vigil in Lahug, a scene replicated in many campuses across the nation and the people-clogged streets of Manila. We pooled money to buy batteries for the few radio sets that transmitted Radio Veritas’ coverage of People Power.

Warming some of our mats were day-old copies of opposition papers, including the Inquirer. People boycotted the crony papers for printing news manufactured by Malacañang. Like a few that were not afraid to print the truth, the Inquirer was scarce on the streets.

Now, 21 years later, the same paper fawns over Imee’s birthday party. The Marcoses have cause to smile. After all, they are even better than Lazarus. They were never dead at all; they don’t stink. The son is a member of the House of Representatives.

But I am digressing. When you have cornered a Bumblebee, do not let it out of your sight. So I can relieve you of the unbearable tension of possible suicide attacks from other parents, do secure a roundtrip eticket for me to and fro New South Wales. I will reimburse you as soon as I get my yearend bonus from newspapering and teaching (this is unreal because this is an email from the Philippines, remember?).

Your loving sister 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 2 issue

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The odd couple

AND MY bet for the best artist award goes to Sun.Star Cebu photographer Allan Defensor.

On assignment, Defensor trained his camera on the nativity painting outside the New Cinema Theatre in Colon St. My guess is that he routinely took several shots for his editors to choose from and then moved on to his next assignment.

But among Defensor’s images is the indelible one selected by central newsroom editors for the Nov. 22 front-page Sun.Star feature about the controversial creche that has hogged media for the past days and caused Catholic Church officials to sputter words of displeasure, even the “blasphemy” word.

Blasphemy, defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "a sin against the virtue of religion,” ranked in the Dark Ages as the worst of sins.

Because blasphemy “outweighs murder” (St. Thomas Aquinas), the Church dictated in medieval canon law the worst possible forms of purging men of piety could invent for the impure. Offenders were burnt at the stake, had their foreheads branded with the letter “B,” their tongues pierced or pulled out, and their heads cut off.

Fortunately for my newsroom colleague, other photojournalists and even the unknown New Cinema Theatre painter, we are no longer in the age of the burning bishops.

Unlike other media images that focused on the painting’s odd couple—President Gloria Arroyo and impeached-and-pardoned former president Joseph Estrada—Defensor’s photo included the urban background: the marquee shrieking “Sex Drive,” the downtown traffic and pedestrians oblivious to the beatific smile bestowing peace and reconciliation (see another Defensor shot published last Nov. 23).

Aside from the Church’s censure, people’s reactions to the painting included both amusement with the parody of peace and disagreement with the choice of models. As the Decalogue-quoting monsignor pointed out, no one in his right senses will ever see Mary Immaculate in that Malicious Mole, or see Joseph, whose honor forbade him from deserting a woman not bearing his son, in his Filipino namesake, whose curdled visage does not only jump out from the Colon painting but every recent news photograph that has him cockily claiming he was pardoned because he was never corrupt in the first place and will even run to give Filipinos hope for a credible opposition bet for the next president.


But unlike my elders in the Church (they haven’t cancelled my membership yet, I hope) I find Defensor’s photograph worth more than a hundred features and commentaries on the message of that long-ago birth in the manger. The most poignant and moving detail in the nativity story is the world’s rejection of His coming, presaging our crucifixion and denial of Him today.

However, the traditional Nativity scene—the babe in the cradle, the people kneeling, even the ox and the ass—are artistic conventions that have been, over the years, refined by the Church and given the iconic power of symbols. A mother will instinctively put a newborn next to her breast to nurse and warm it. Before joint parenting, a man will likely snore away, oblivious to the fruit of his loins bawling away (that is, perhaps, why he married its mother).

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), the threat of the Protestants forced the 16th-17th century Catholic Church to muster every weapon in its spiritual arsenal to keep its captured souls and win others. During the Counter-Reformation (or Catholic Revival), the Council of Trent “simplified” the Nativity tableau to emphasize the “terrestrial trinity” of the Infant Savior and his earthly parents, representing the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

By the 16th century, some creative liberties of artists of that time (the midwives, other animals, even the bathing of the infant) were removed for contradicting dogma. For instance, theologians positioned the infant in a cradle-like container to foreshadow the altar and the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice during Holy Eucharist.

Recently, I learned from Fr. Stephen Cuyos, MSC that the iconic image of the Madonna and Child has the viewer perceiving the infant as always being on Mary’s right when to do so, a right-handed woman will have to carry a child on her less used and weaker left arm, an awkward and risky act. This artistic rendition was theologically necessary then because the Italians considered the left side as sinister (the Latin sinister means the “left side” or “unlucky”).

On a less reverent level, Defensor’s photograph reminds me of my full backing for the Church’s stance on procreation (ironically endorsed by the porn movie’s title) but rejection of its opposition to population control. If the only outcome of procreation would be to inflict on this world a lot of Glorias and Eraps, I would even endorse castration.

For outside of the Church’s control, truth and images are the oddest of couples, only approximating reality, at most revealing the beholder’s biases. The crucifix heaving on a pop star’s cleavage reminds me of a different Madonna. Even if the halo was the convention for divinity, beloved by Michelangelo and Titian, several constellations of halos surrounding certain powerful figures of the Church will not change my mind about their fealty to Christ’s call for the Church of the Poor.

Why is the Defensor photograph better than the most sentimental rendition of the manger scene? The photo is more honest.

That first Christmas eve exposed not the poverty in the manger, but the poverty without. It shows how hollow and empty is a faith sustained only by appearances. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 25, 2007 issue

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Celestial class

Dear God: I am a mother with two sons. How can I make sure that they will not run amok when they discover sex?

Dear Mother: Let them become priests.

Dear God: I mean no disrespect, Lord, but have you been reading the papers? One man of God—begging your pardon again, Lord—toyed with the baby bra straps of teenagers while they were confessing to him.

Dear Mother: I should ask you the same question, Woman. The priest in that case was cleared.

Dear God: Pardon, Lord! Your mercy is truly infinite and Your love, all-embracing—

Dear Mother: No, no, no (celestial light impatiently flickers) It was not I who pardoned the goat. According to the Cebu City Prosecutor’s Office, touching confessors’ body parts is just all in a day’s work for someone that’s “not ordinary,” in other words: an “alter ego of Jesus Christ.”

Dear God: Oh… where do I line up my sons, Lord?

As an ordinary, grubby member of the flock and a woman at that, I stumble along life’s pathways, the paved, the all-weather and the spiritual. The knowledge that there are extra-ordinary human beings that don’t stub their toes or dent their souls, no matter what rut their material bodies end up in, should inspire me to repent, do good, be holy. Perhaps, in my next life, I will be destined, too, for sinless blessedness by an accident of gender and vocation.

My envy, though, blocks me from moving up to first class. I cannot lie, steal, kill, glance at another man that is not my husband without committing sin in my heart. I do not have priestly immunity. I am just a child of the dark while priests acting lascivious and lewd in broad daylight “require an unreasonable overstretching of one’s imagination,” says the law.

Understandably, I have not been too charitable in my thoughts to Fr. Benedicto Zozobrado Ejares, the Roman Catholic priest cleared of charges of lascivious acts last Nov. 14 by the Cebu City Prosecutor’s Office.

Yesterday, Sun.Star Cebu’s Karlon N. Rama reported that a psychologist report found the five teenagers traumatized by their encounter with Fr. Ejares. Their suffering had effects similar to that undergone “by victims of poisoning or those who have witnessed classmates die.”

I do not know if the psychologist’s report will reopen the case. I am even less hopeful that the girls will look at any man of the cloth again without recalling certain swines in sheep’s clothing.

So that the faithful will not be prone to mixed metaphors and daylight nightmares, I suggest that the Church reviews its screening process for seminarians.

To ensure that the alter egos of Jesus are actually as perfect as they are cracked up to be, the Church can, on top of applying the usual psychological testing protocols, send out its emissaries to an applicant’s home, school, even the local sari-sari hangout. Possible line of questioning:

To the next-door neighbor: Did you ever see Mr. Alter Ego steal glances at your daughter’s undies while you were hanging these on the clothesline?

To the sari-sari owner: How long is his credit list for beer, cigarettes, Trust condom? Does he pay his debts?

To the fellow lodger: What name does JC Jr. mumble in his sleep? How many names? How often are the names changed? Opposite sex, same sex, undefined?

To his teachers: Do his essays show an overweening sense of self? Does his writing reveal some confusion with nouns and pronouns, for instance, mistaking “I” for “God”?

To the college yearbook photographer: Did he specify refracted rays and halo for his portrait? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 18 issue

Studies in disaster

SCHOOL came back with a vengeance last week.

Last Wednesday, I was at my work station when I felt myself pushed and pulled, hard, twice, from behind. A practical joker, I guessed.

But I didn’t see anyone behind me, only the shocked face of my colleague. While officemates buzzed about the intensity-four earthquake tremors, I got in touch with my husband, whose office is located in a high-rise. Then at an uptown mall, he had not noticed anything unusual

I wondered about my sons. In their campus, the preschool, elementary and high school classrooms are found on the second up to the fifth levels of newly constructed buildings. But reasoning that the school authorities must have set in motion the standard drill for evacuation, I decided not to send a text message.

I felt a cold finger down my spine when, meeting up with my sons at the end of the day, I learned that there was no evacuation, no action taken at all by school authorities when tremors hit a few minutes after noon.

My younger son told me he was having lunch in the ground level of their canteen while his elder was rehearsing for a culminating activity in his fourth-level classroom. The latter said that he and his classmates even whooped up, fascinated by the sudden but brief vibrations.

Yet, the school’s inaction niggled. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvolcs) traced the epicenter of the Nov. 7 earthquake to an area bounded by Anda and Jagna in Bohol. In Cebu, the tremors ranged from intensity 3 in Lapu-Lapu to intensity 4 in the Banilad area. According to Philvolcs, only quakes with a higher intensity, from 6 up, can cause damage or destruction.

At the same time, seismic specialists say that people in high-rise buildings feel the tremors more, even if the intensity is lower than the critical level. Shouldn’t school authorities then have a disaster preparedness plan, whether for fires, quakes or any emergency that requires students and all personnel to file out of a building quickly and in an orderly manner?

Such a plan should include putting up labels that mark where the exits are or the nearest and shortest route for leaving a building. Using a building five days a week may lull one to the false complacency of familiarity, the presumption that people will know where to go.

But many post-disaster videos show that panic and the absence of any evacuation plan can turn even wide stairwells into death traps, people trampling on the ones who stumble and fall, bodies piling up and preventing escape.

Schools need to be ready for anything, anytime. In the aftermath of the Finland school shooting incident last Nov. 7 (the same day as the earthquake hitting Bohol and some parts of Cebu), police experts are debating the decision of the headmistress to direct students to stay in their classrooms when another student began his shooting spree at Jokela High School in Tuusula, Helsinki.

The headmistress died, as well as seven students and the shooter. Ten other people were injured in the ensuing panic to escape. One teacher followed the directive to keep his students in the classroom but later told them to escape through the windows when he saw the shooter walking down the corridor and firing at doors.

School shootings, specially the tragedies at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, have raised questions about campuses’ security precautions and readiness to deal with disaster.

Unlike the Virginia Tech loner, the Finnish teen gunman had no criminal record or reputation other than being “one of the boys.” Finland, unlike the US, has rare incidents of deadly shootings, the last one occurring in 1989.

But, as last Nov. 7 illustrated, schools have to be ready for anything, anytime. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 11 issue

Sunday, November 04, 2007

No plain Jane

IN Creative Writing class last semester, one of my students was ribbed by her classmates for being a Janeite.

Unknown to them, I was pleased to come upon another member of the sisterhood. A Janeite is a keen follower of the early 19th century English writer Jane Austen.

Strictly speaking, my sister and I discovered Austen by way of Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the unabashed 2001 tribute to the tug and pull between Elizabeth Bennett and Mark Darcy, protagonists of Austen’s famous romance, “Pride and Prejudice.”

After my sister ferreted out a copy of the 1995 BBC TV serial, starring an “incandescent” (a favorite Austen praise) Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and brooding Colin Firth as Mark Darcy (a role he recreated in “Bridget Jones” and its sequel), the DVD set has crossed oceans from down under to be ensconced in our rack of frequently watched movies, much to the chagrin of my two sons who don’t think it is the height of suspense to watch damsels crumpling after the tragic reading of yet another note.

For there are undoubtedly readers—all husbands and sons, I hazard—that consider Jane Austen as a tireless spinster writing about tiresome romances, minus the bursting bodices.

Fortunately, the British film industry has not tired of this writer, hailed by some as only next in greatness to William Shakespeare. The 2007 movie, “Becoming Jane,” is cause for celebration among Janeites (and perhaps gloom, for long-suffering male members of their households).

Starring Anne Hathaway as a “pre-fame Jane Austen” and James McAvoy as Thomas Lefroy, the movie is a dramatization of an early flirtation between Austen and Lefroy, who, in real life, became a Lord High Justice of Ireland. Although their romance is nipped in the bud, Lefroy is portrayed as Austen’s inspiration for sketching the heroic outline of Mark Darcy.

“Becoming Jane” has met mixed reviews. The website Rotten Tomatoes has given it an approval rating of only 58 percent. Even if one refuses to nitpick about Hathaway’s British accent (an inevitable fate for American actors portraying English heroines, as Renee Zelwegger learned in the making of “Bridget Jones”), the movie is less than forthcoming about its plot’s speculations beyond proven facts.

For instance, the movie implies that Lefroy named his eldest daughter, Jane Christmas, after Austen. Scholars dispute this sentimentality as he could have very well named her after his mother-in-law, Lady Jane Paul. A private correspondence also cited by Wikipedia quotes Lefroy as referring to his affection for Austen as a “boyish love.”

Upon her death, though, Lefroy traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects. He later bought at an auction a publisher’s rejection letter of “First Impression,” the original title of an early version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

“Becoming Jane” succeeds in stirring renewed interest in Austen. Like other literary figures who became popular, she, too, has her anti-Janeite following. Charlotte Bronte dismissed her as middle-brow: “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound… What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores…”

Any library without a volume of Austen, declared Mark Twain, whetting the keen blade of his irony, was “a good library… Even if it contains no other book."

Yet, despite the confines her age and society placed on her potentials as a writer, Austen wrote six novels that continue to be read decades after her death at 41 from a complication of tuberculosis. Her nondescript start as a writer inspires anyone trying to make the writing matter. Aside from publishers’ rejections, she infamously misspelled one of her juvenile works, “Love and Freindship.”

With only 26 years of exposure to provincial society and intimate family life, Austen proved, as Hathaway declares so passionately in “Becoming Jane,” the towering power of the imagination, the one true thing that recommends any writer to readers of all persuasions. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 4, 2007 issue


IT WAS in a honkytonky shade of pink. When, at the end of a school year, it was stamped all over with “Returned” in virulent screaming purple, I was over the moon. When one became two or even three cards consumed in high school—a time I flunked with genius regularity daily quizzes but knew almost every title in the Literature and History sections, not to mention the Life and National Geographic files—I figured I could die young and be happy for as long as the Great Library in the Sky would renew my card.

In years of reading, teaching and writing, I’ve stayed in many libraries far longer than the mortal duration of a dozen celebrated marriages summed up and then multiplied by infinity.

I’ve dozed in a couple of libraries, got lost among what has been described as the most extensive collection in Southeast Asia. As a student, I endured the effluvium from a nearby urinal when I had to sit daily in the only remaining vacant section in a library the size of one classroom and a half. As a teacher, I’m horrified by students who crow that they have never stepped inside the library, not even to photocopy someone’s notes or get end-of-term clearance.

I cannot believe anyone can miss the point, planted like book-crammed shelves before them: libraries are among this life’s graces.

And of all the ones I’ve known, I am sentimental about the first to put a library card in my hand. One Friday afternoon, in second grade at St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu, my class was brought to explore the library. I found then my favorite subject.

Today, interactive learning is the pedagogical fashion. During those endless afternoons at the library, I discovered nothing can be more stimulating than books. From grades two to three, I was drawn to illustrations. I came to embrace paragraphs and chapters later as one comes to accept the kid brother trailing after one’s best friend, only to find that the twerp is even cooler than the friend.

Starting at the age of eight, I squirreled away finds behind the stolid encyclopedia tomes, hoping no one would borrow these before I could. When, a week later, I checked and found my stash had been reshelved, I was fired up to hunt again for a “good read.”

The search for a book better than the one just finished is the culprit behind lifelong squinting and neck ache, acquired from systematically going up and down the shelves, with one’s head angled awkwardly. The “good read” is an elusive, maddening beloved.

The STC main library of my time was more than up to this sweet torture. When I ran through all the available Carolyn Keene titles, from Nancy Drew to Dana Girls, I dawdled around Louisa May Alcott before all that cloying virtue made me jittery. Then, in lieu of mitosis and frog dissection, I swung around with Tarzan of the Apes and other interplanetary explorers created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Even though I hardly saw in campus any boy of my age, I signed out with my library card and brought home John Carter of Mars, Carson Napier of Venus and David Innes of Pellucidar. Much later, I discovered J. R. R. Tolkien, D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov.

Coming upon Lolita, 12, and her Humbert Humbert, 37, made me question the way I saw the nuns running my school. After I read the opening lines of Nabokov (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul."), I decided then the nuns were not strict and uptight. Or they had not read everything in the library.

Even now, when I sign out references using my library card, I get the same rush. The card is now in a sedate shade of ecru. But I haven’t given up hope. One day, while researching on civic journalism, I might run smack again into Lord Greystoke, swinging from tree to tree in his birthday suit, or poor, lost, besotted Humbert Humbert, who taught me: each to his own delirium. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 28, 2007 issue

Sunday, October 21, 2007


THE MALL attacks last Oct. 19 reveal our new vulnerabilities.

Last Friday, I left my workplace, pleased to finally get back in the open. But in the jeepney, I inwardly kicked myself when I saw the slow-moving traffic leading to an uptown mall. Selecting the place for a rendezvous was not a bright decision as a mall-wide weekend sale was just kicking off.

However, this mall had the nearest Vhire terminal, convenient for the person I was seeing, so there was nothing to do but queue up behind the lines, first of motorists, then later of pedestrians. Weekends, as well as major marketing events, funnel many Cebuanos to the malls.

Taking a shortcut to the atrium, I met newsroom colleagues setting up for a pictorial. Alex, the newsroom’s chief photographer, explained that there was a last-minute shift in photographer assignments due to the standoff at a Mactan mall, shut down for alleged violations by Lapu-Lapu City Mayor Arturo Radaza.

Our groceries! I groaned for the second time, before remembering that we had just shopped a day ago at a grocery located at the same Mactan mall. Though my reaction is irrational (we are within driving distance of at least three other malls), any modern neurotic can sympathize. Locked in by timetables, we nurture habits, shaving off minutes from errands and hoarding time by, for instance, getting groceries at the one store where we know a can of milk costs P5 less than in uptown places or where the check-out counters have an unbeaten lightning record of efficiency in scanning, swiping and bagging.

At home, we swallowed our dinner, washed down with TV reportage of not just the Marina Mall closure but also the explosion at Glorietta 2, which killed eight and injured scores of victims. Like its Cebu counterpart, the latter mall had also the usual weekend crowd, swollen by a mall-wide sale.

At 7 p.m., surfing for Glorietta, I got, among the first 10 websites in a Google search, three reports on the 2003 stakeout at Glorietta by 300 soldier-rebels. At 8 p.m., as my mother was wrapping up our phone chat, she mentioned my choice of this uptown mall for fetching a friend.

I groaned, not for the last time that day. I’m sure, behind her solicitous inquiries, Ma was just repressing an outburst: whatever were you thinking? You’re in the media. Don’t you know better than to choose a mall after what happened in Mactan and Glorietta?

Less than five years ago, I got the surprise of my life when, at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College, a batch of sophomores tried to beg off from a feature writing assignment that required them to report about shopping in Colon. What do we ride, 04B or 04C jeepney? Pwede Ayala na lang, Ma’am?

Medora, another student, stuck out, primarily because of her mall-going habits. Asked about Oscar Lewis’ treatises about poverty, I suggested that Meds check out a Lewis title or two in a bargain bin at an uptown mall. The campus activist, a regular fixture in street rallies, told me she hadn’t been inside a mall for years.

I’m not betting there are two Medoras out there. It’s more likely that I have several clones who, like me, can’t afford to even windowshop and trawl for brands but enjoy every mall’s centralized cool atmosphere, bright lighting, clean restrooms, civilized queues at adjacent Vhire and jeepney terminals.

Malls, sprawling networks of interconnected retailing units, have taken root in suburban life. No longer just about shopping, the mall is touted as the next evolutionary step in living. While downtown is the bombed out remains of a former civilization—a place now lost to pickpockets and lack of parking—the mall is the modern walled city, impervious to petty crime, weather change, last season’s trends.

But apparently not all that impervious. Last Friday showed that every mall, thrumming with the masses, is an open wrist under the knife of opportunism. 09173226131

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Science of happiness

A RESEARCH official was unhappy with the results of a recent study on what makes Filipinos happy.

According to an Oct. 10, 2007 Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) report, the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) released a Happiness Index, which had 167 Filipinos ranking family, health and religion/spiritual work as the top three sources of happiness.

The NSCB secretary general releasing the report was none too happy though. According to the PDI report, the official was “incredulous” that other factors did not fare better. Sex life, for instance, was just no. 14 while politics figured last at no. 17.

His speculation was that the respondents may have been just “too shy to reveal their true feelings” about the national obsession with sex and politics.

Given how every government tic and blunder causes rippling waves of discontent among the populace, it mystifies that public resources and work hours would be spent measuring such a scarce quality as happiness. Shouldn’t the state care more to monitor the levels of toxins poisoning Filipinos?

A check with Internet sources reveals, fortunately, that happiness studies are quite in vogue, not pursued only by the terminally wasteful and marginally productive.

According to a BBC report, the science of happiness is undertaken precisely because the feeling is too vague. Thus, the best brains have tried to pin down this emotion.

Mike Rudin, series producer of “The Happiness Formula,” a six-part series BBC aired in 2006, writes that measurement techniques range from the social scientists’ straightforward method of asking a person, “are you happy?” to “ecological momentary assessments” using handheld computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

One adviser to the British prime minister even speculated that PDA data may be used soon for assessing the extent governments make their public happy. Will being bleeped and asked to answer a 20-point questionnaire on happiness not just predispose one to anxiety and impatience, observable among executives diagnosed with Blackberry Syndrome?

The BBC also reports that surveys with large respondents show that happy people live longer than depressed ones. While heavy smoking shaves off six years from a smoker’s lifespan, an American psychologist cites records showing that a disgruntled lot kicked the bucket nine years before a control group with a sunny disposition.

The BBC report was not clear though if among the disgruntled were smokers forced to stop cold turkey while the happy survivors counted among them a few blissfully puffing away till the end of their lives.

PDI also reported the Philippines ranks in the “middle range” of the World Database of Happiness Index (WDHI). This means that a Filipino is approximately as happy as a native in India, Iran, Poland and South Korea. Denmark currently tops the WDHI.

The WDHI may raise the assumption that prosperity is a cause behind happiness. Not so, says many happiness researchers.

While pleasure from the material quickly wears off, the happiness from relationships is deeper and lasts longer, even granting natural immunization from certain microbes. According to BBC, one British economist calculated that one needs only “extra cash amounting to £50,000” to make up for not having friends.

Then again, it is unclear how long £50,000 can last.

Assuming it works, marriage creates enough happiness to prolong a man’s life by seven years, a woman’s by four, says the BBC report. On the other hand, the loss of a good spouse causes serious setbacks.

According to positive psychologists, happiness can be found by seeking meaning in something “bigger than oneself.” Happiness scientists say meaning can be found in spirituality and challenging goals, but left out sex and politics. 09173226131

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Mirror, mirror

THE PRICE of freedom is steep. Few can be more familiar with that burden than media workers.

Recently, two events pushed again to the forefront the conundrum faced by media: how responsible are we in using our vast resources for information and persuasion?

Last Friday, ABC Studios and producers of “Desperate Housewives” apologized for the anti-Filipino remarks made by the Teri Hatcher character in the show.

Certain demands though—such as banning the series from Philippine free and cable TV, editing the controversial scene of Hatcher to correct online viewing, and requiring a future episode to air a retraction or correction of the offending sentiments—seem melodramatic and excessive.

More encouraging is the realization that, contrary to the popular bias that the Boob Tube caters only to the shallow and the apathetic, today’s media audience can be critical, vigilant and assertive.

In particular, the Oct. 5, 2007 report of the Philippine Daily Inquirer singled out the “political muscle” of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in protesting derogatory articles. OFWs blogged to condemn columnist Malu Fernandez for mocking overseas Filipinos in her People Asia article. Fernandez later apologized and resigned.

Lest we get swept away in American-bashing and self-righteous finger-pointing, the “Desperate Housewives” faux pas should make us reflect on our own cultural sensitivity and awareness of and respect for diversity.

Local sitcoms also pick on minorities’ quirks and other stereotypes for a few laughs. We are quick to bristle when other nationalities stereotype Pinoys as domestic helpers or sex workers. However, we ride along when local actors exaggerate the Bisaya’s “hard” pronunciation, the Tagalog’s imperialistic posture, the Chinese-Filipino’s dishonesty, the Indian’s usury, as well as countless jokes at the expense of physical disfigurement (the short, the fat, the dark-skinned, the dwarf).

The public’s deafening silence to these local lapses should be cause for worry. Either few of us are watching these shows and patronizing local entertainment or many of us agree with the stereotypes and enjoy the minority-bashing.

Closer home, ABS-CBN’s termination of a reporter, camera man and driver involved in the airing of tampered news footage has set off reverberations. Many viewers and media colleagues are taking up the cudgels for the axed workers, arguing that the network’s punishment was “too harsh” and that another chance should be given, considering their years of service with the network, deprivation of livelihood, and consequences to their families.

A dismissed media worker truly faces extreme odds to find again employment within the same industry. “Reinvention” may force one to seek work with former competitors or rivals, go freelance, or do public relations work for clients—if the axed media worker can get such jobs.

For the reputation of members of the media is just as fragile as those of the public figures and private citizens they cover. Sometimes, one thinks that a media worker’s credibility is even more tenuous. The knowledge, skills, news instinct and reputation for credibility acquired painstakingly in the field or at the desk over the years can all be lost with one human lapse in judgment.

That is the cross of those who take on the task of holding up a mirror to society. We in the media must be able to look at our own faces without flinching, as well as accept the reality that some errors don’t go away after we run a simple erratum. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 7, 2007 issue

Saturday, September 29, 2007


GIDGET finally did the unmentionable. She also found a way to hide the remains.

Fat, in her forties and unable to find other work, Gidget stomped inside the newsroom.

Or she wishes she could: wrench the glass door from its hinges, decapitate the City Hall source that kept her standing, furiously writing notes while he dictated beside the busy photocopying machine on the crowded ground floor while eddying customers jostled her forward and backward, the machine operator pushing against her, too, leaving his ink-stained paws on the last good blouse that disguised her middle-aged spread.

Gidget went to the pantry. No one looked up from their PCs. Perhaps they would spare her a look of pity had they known she was already two hours late in submitting a non-existent story (after confiding in her, the source crumpled his coffee cup and told her that everything was off the record because his boss would find out where she got the story if it ever came out).

She looked around for a clean cup. She would need coffee before and after tonight’s aquarium session, bawled out again for missing deadliness.

She saw only a mug without a handle. The brown coffee stain ringing the inside ceramic made her speculate if a human being, deprived suddenly of a head, would also have a ring marking the level of the blood remaining inside the body.

Nonsense, Gidget chided herself as she rinsed the mug. All those severed tubes—veins, arteries, carotid jugular mumbojumbo—would be spurting fluids all around if she had taken a chainsaw to the smug bastard instead of meekly closing her notebook and saying she would find other sources to verify the tip thank you very much for trusting me with your confidence…

Afterwards, Gidget remembers nothing except that she is sitting at her desk, flipping through a strange notebook. She looks at the wall clock. She reads on the board the hourly deadlines for the different pages of tomorrow’s edition. It’s more or less an hour since she rinsed that cup, longing for coffee or a story, any reprieve from the day’s mess.

How did this notebook get into her hands? She stops rifling through the pages. It’s not hers. The notebook she had with her at City Hall that afternoon was nearly full, its pages bloated with several inserted documents.

She puts down the green-covered journal to press down the throbbing in her temples. Someone will cut off my neck for messing up his deadline, she groans. She must have picked up the notebook when she stopped by to place a call from somebody’s desk—except that she doesn’t remember anything after rinsing the mug.

When she starts to scan the pages, she recognizes the handwriting. It’s hers. The same pudgy vowels, familiar half-crossed t’s and sprawled m’s.

But the name on the notebook is different: Manolo Figueroa. A question about this Manolo Figueroa is not even half-formed in her mind when the newsroom assistant pops in his head: Oy, Manolo! Editor P. wants to see you in 10 minutes. Bring your story or your excuse.

For the first time, she notices the strange male reflected in the glass divider surrounding her cubicle. What is this? The stranger looks back with Gidget’s eyes.

Gidget/Manolo stands up, panic rising like vomit. Nobody looks up from his PC. S/he slowly sits down again. S/he opens the notebook. S/he reads the notes written about a murder committed at City Hall that afternoon, when a reporter named Gidget A. turned amok and cut off the real head of a department head near the first-floor photo copier. She also castrated a man identified later to be the machine operator.

If she were Gidget, she would now be facing ruin and jail, not just midlife crisis, s/he thought.

On the other hand, if s/he decided to be this Manolo Figueroa, s/he faced nothing worse than a story to finish in 10 minutes. And since s/he knew what drove the reporter to commit such crimes in full view of City Hall’s horrified tax payers, not to mention pack of reporters, s/he did not even have to interview the perpetrator because s/he was the perpetrator and even now, could still cross back and forth as Gidget, simmering in her red rage while washing the coffee mug minus the handle, and as Manolo, pressed with only ten, no eight, minutes before facing the boss inside his aquarium, “with a story or an excuse.”

S/he thought for a moment. Then Manolo Figueroa began encoding his story because the lines between reality and psychosis may blur, but never a deadline. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 30, 2007 issue

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I am not a sex guru

FOR the first time in my life, I understand Manny Pacquiao.

After the boxer recently became a columnist, he has had to parry worse hits from any Mexican ring foe when even fans doubted he was writing the columns attributed to him.

I’ve never been able to sit through a fight, but I winced from similar punches after I accepted the invitation of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) to join the Sept. 18 forum on “Sex and the Journalist.”

I had an inkling of the theme’s suggestiveness when my student asked me, in a rather quizzical tone, when and where would be the forum where I would be discussing my sex life.

I’d like to think her face registered utter relief when I clarified that the discussion, one of the activities lined up for Cebu Press Freedom Week, sought to probe how media covered the topic of human sexuality, not sexual calisthenics.

Yet my student was not alone in this misperception. My editors ribbed me, one asking if my “erudition” on marital dishonesty stemmed from personal experience.

Two former classmates I met after the forum asked me how “that sex thing” went. But before I could arrange my thoughts, my college chums bombarded me with many solicitous questions about my present state, fearing perhaps that I had either become a Cebuana Deep Throat (of the Happy Hooker/Xaviera Hollander, not Watergate, fame) or was about to launch a new career as local sex guru.

I know, Manny. Believe me, I know.

When I showed up early at the forum, I met one of my idols, Dr. Margarita Holmes, whose honest, smart and humorous discussion of sexuality in her newspaper columns in the 90s opened my eyes to a way of thinking and feeling about sex that was not a patchwork of uptight upbringing, repressed education, romantic myth and pornographic excursion.

Though married for 15 years and having two sons, I still found myself scratching my head when Margie asked me for the Cebuano word for “sexuality”.

When Fr. Fidel Orendain, a co-panelist, arrived, we found ourselves swapping a few terms—“panghilawas,” “iyot,” “kayat,” “ger-ger”—that left us Cebuanos feeling dissatisfied. Not only do the terms refer only to the sexual act, not sexuality—which the Vatican defines as the “intimate nucleus of a person,” not just the biological function and reproductive system—three of the terms that immediately came to my mind are part of street slang, used certainly for negotiating commerce on the streets and brothels but never mentioned in front of children or parents.

Although I have no formal, deep grasp of Bisaya, it still struck me that I could only fall back on the crudeness of slang to answer Margie.

For language is everything. Language does not only communicate information and ideas but it reveals attitude and predispositions.

For my sharing on print journalism’s coverage of sexuality in the forum, I had reviewed my paper’s archives and Internet sources. I decided to stress that print journalists can redeem their sensationalism of sex by rescuing reportage and journalese or reporting jargon from sexism and stereotyping, as well as conducting explanatory reports to probe and inform the public on crucial issues like adolescent reproductive health, sexually transmitted infections and even the rights of solo parents.

But Margie’s one question undid me. Why does “sex” conjure only the randy (full of sexual desire) and salacious (extreme interest in sex)?

I was titillated but also instructed after reading Margie’s columns and listening to “Verboten,” the popular radio program of broadcaster and educator Dr. Filemon Alberca, also a co-panelist in the KBP forum. Like Margie, lambasted for corrupting the young in the 90s, Alberca was tainted by his program’s association with the forbidden and the prohibited in the 80s.

Yet, sandwiched by Margie and Dr. Alberca during the Sept. 18 forum, I recalled the “life-lesson” I absorbed from these two sex gurus.

It is not the clinical psychologists, journalists or moral guardians that should have the last say on sex. Only a person fully alive to his or her being—that “intimate nucleus”—can be the true guru. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 23, 2007 issue

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Way of the dodo

LAST Thursday, I asked my journalism class at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College for volunteers to answer a few questions about the Sandiganbayan’s rules on media’s coverage of their decision on former President Joseph Estrada’s plunder and perjury charges.

Of the nearly two dozen students that took down my questions, I got back only four replies. Rachel Mae Sarmiento, 18, believes that the media should be allowed to cover the reading of the verdict because of the people’s “right to know.”

At the same time, she speculates that the anti-graft court rules may have been passed to prevent the media from “exploiting too much” the former president’s reversal of fortune.

Rachel’s classmate, 18-year-old Arianne Jenille Manzo, believes the Sandiganbayan was right in curtailing coverage. Unrestrained reportage, she fears, might stir up again the “people power culture” that has at times become a “democratic deficit.”

But these Mass Communication sophomores agreed with their other classmates, Frances Claire “Chezka” Peñalosa and Lucille Wagas, that they have no choice but to trust the media.

“Most of the time, I should (trust the media) since they are the only ones who give information about current events. If not them, who else?” rhetorically shrugs Jenille, also reasoning out that any “average reasonable person” will know enough to “filter and scrutinize what the issues are rather than believing what the idiot box could be feeding the audience.”

Lucille is bleaker about democracy’s guardians. Some mediamen, she contends, “exaggerate stories” and “pick out information from rumors just to make their articles sizzle.”

Even media rivalry reflects for this 17-year-old that, though there may be journalists who “labor… to serve the masses,” many are just driven to “sell their stories” and “build a reputation in the journalistic world.”

Realizing that the press has feet of clay, do they see themselves in a newsroom someday? Rachel’s interested because deadline-chasing gives a whiff of adventure, which always “keeps the adrenaline pumping.”

She qualifies though that she may just be keen for “journalism on the lighter side,” meaning assignments that require “a lot of travel” and “meeting other people.”

Best friend Chezka draws a smiley beside her emphatic, “I DON’T SEE myself as a journalist… but I’m still open to possibilities.” Asked to choose between the national and local media, she picks out the latter for “practicing press freedom.”

Jenille concurs, singling out the local media’s expose of the overpriced lampposts purchased for the Asean Summit held in Cebu.

Lucille though has the last say. The social use of the media is they’re “like trained K9 dogs. They have the knack for sniffing out bombs.”

Actually, after the classroom had emptied and I was through noting their candid answers, what I had in mind were not German Shepherds but dodos as not unlikely mascots when the local tri-media usher in Press Freedom Week on Sept. 16.

A flightless bird that once lived in Mauritius, the dodo is the archetype of all things extinct because the last specimens died out during the late 17th century.

Yet, before its extinction made it literary to observe an obsolete thing was “as dead as a dodo,” the living bird languished under a black reputation.

According to Wikipedia, its name is said to be derived from “dodaars”
(meaning "plump-arse") because of its ungainly behind and waddle. It is also the Dutch that called the dodo the “walghvogel” ("loathsome bird" or "nauseating fowl") because it was exceedingly bad to taste, let alone eat.

Unlike the dodo though, the Cebu press is spirited and feisty.

But remembering the many colleagues that have moved out of the newsroom—from death, burnout, career shifts—I wonder where can be found the new blood to infuse a profession where no one gives the journalist a bonus for signing up and taking on the lonely task of upholding democracy.

More unsettling is the thought that, while I was discussing how to make leads sing or organize inverted news pyramids, my future journalists were checking out my past and speculating about the future of one of the last dodos. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 16, 2007 issue

Death meets deadlines

DEATH may be the great equalizer, but there’s nothing like a passing away to set apart the journalist from the rest of humanity.

In a life dictated by scoops and deadlines, an untimely death, or a close brush with it, is a major setback, a potential debacle. A colleague’s equanimity was rocked when a Hollywood actor’s hospitalization was later revealed as caused by a suicide attempt. In another case, a celebrated singer passed away just when the pages were about to be sent to the printer.

Only a timely look at breaking stories on the Web saved the editor from keeling over herself from shock had she missed those “milestones,” journalese for anything requiring the top fold of the paper, bold headlines and high-resolution photos.

When such catastrophes are sidestepped, that’s when you’ll hear angels mentioned in the same breath as deadlines.

The practice of preparing a “tribute” for an ailing notable anticipated to kick the bucket anytime soon (or preferably, just before the paper is put to bed) must seem like a ghastly, not to mention ghoulish, practice for those who sleep well and are not kept perpetually bug-eyed from drinking three-in-one coffee or thinking of pages to fill.

Of all the journalistic quirks, this unconfirmed anecdote remains a favorite for revealing the extent of desensitization from walking daily in an information mine field. Looking for his assistant to retrieve a file, an editor was told that she had taken the day off to attend to her mother’s wake. “What is she doing there?” the harassed newsroom executive was reportedly heard to grumble.

But just like life, death gives the front-row journalist an unexpected view of mortality, writing and remembrance.

The number of website views, visits and hits may now sum up a late person’s prominence, but it is often the small and telling detail that captures the public’s lasting impression of a news personality.

No two people could have been more unalike in life than broadcaster Nenita “Inday Nita” Cortes-Daluz and “opera superstar” Luciano Pavarotti.

Yet, when both recently passed away, the Cebu opposition stalwart and the Italian opera singer deserved the muted but genuine tribute of being referred to as “The Voice.”

Inday Nita was remembered as using her soothing, maternal tones to rally a people to denounce a dictatorship and human rights abuses. Pavarotti’s “vibrant high C’s and ebullient showmanship” was hailed for making possible high-brow opera’s crossover coup with the masses.

Perhaps more than the obituaries, the coverage of enforced or involuntary disappearances reveals media’s soul, if ink-stained.

In a profession hostaged to the ceaseless scrambling for minutiae, often to keep the trivial but sensational in the public eye and media consumption habits, the sustained coverage of the search for missing activist Jonas Burgos is anomalous.

After the initial alert on his disappearance, the trail has since then become cold. The developments are uneventful, mired in petitions for habeas corpus and quashing of subpoenas. The photo of the missing son of the press freedom icon Jose Burgos has been so often used, it blurs the line between visual cliché and pop image.

Yet, it is because of the plodding press that Jonas and mother Edita burn into a consciousness that would otherwise be focused only on the Piolos, Britneys and Aguileras of the world. The bespectacled, calm-faced Editha lends an articulateness to the struggle of other women searching for sons and husbands, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who refuse any form of reparation or compensation as they insist that the regime "took them away alive so we want them back alive."

It is doubtful if young Cebuanos know the Redemptorist priest, Fr. Rudy Romano. In 1985, witnesses saw the priest dragged from his motorcycle by military intelligence operatives. He remains missing.

In the Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons (, there is a tombstone and a flickering candle dedicated for “Romano, Rudy.” What media remember, let no one forget. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 9, 2007 issue

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Back to the future

TO FOLLOW the trajectory of Lisa Nowak's career is like reading a Philip K. Dick novel.

Dick is the science-fiction icon whose novels were set in a futuristic Armageddon. He pitted cyborgs against humans, using artificial forms of life to expose the artificiality of the humans' decaying moral and social order.

Nowak is the former astronaut whose employment was terminated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) a month after she was charged for assaulting and trying to kidnap a romantic rival last Feb. 5, 2007.

Nowak, a US naval officer who logged over 1,500 hours of flight in over 30 different aircraft to obtain the rank of captain, was also a mission specialist in robotics. On board the Space Shuttle launched in July 2006, she operated its robotic arms, as well as those of the International Space Station.

If one were to apply tabloid captions to her case, Nowak's crime of passion made her run the gamut “from robot expert to robot captive” after she recently appealed to a court to remove her electronic monitoring ankle bracelet while she awaits trial for charges.

Last August, Nowak complained that wearing the bracelet was “expensive, bulky and uncomfortable.” She said her ankle was chaffed by the bracelet, which also got “in the way of her military boot laces,” according to an Associated Press report.

The bracelet monitors the movements of the US naval officer whose parole prevents her from going to some states, including Florida, where her rival lives, or to Virginia, where her former boyfriend resides.

The judge who ruled to grant Nowak's plea cited her behavior, which was “well enough” for the past seven months.

Apparently though, not everyone agrees. Colleen Shipman, the woman Nowak allegedly attacked, has petitioned a court to keep the bracelet on Nowak's ankle. Shipman says she still fears Nowak who is accused of disguising herself (even wearing adult diapers to rule out restroom stops) last February to stalk Shipman, harass her in her car, and, when she rolled down the car window, pepper-spray her rival.

Online news sites also report that many Americans found the court's temporary removal of Nowak's bracelet as “too lenient.” Nowak's lawyer has said his client recently lost 15 percent of her body weight. She is diagnosed for “major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia and 'brief psychotic disorder'.”

In her 44 years, this is the former astronaut's first recorded brush with violence, as well as her first criminal charges. In January 2007, Nowak separated from her husband after getting involved with a fellow astronaut, who later cooled off in their affair and took up with Shipman. According to Nasa records, extramarital affairs trouble many astronaut marriages.

Aside from Nowak, Paris Hilton, some rapists and other convicted US criminals on parole, the electronic bracelets are mandated accessories for aliens in eight US cities. According to, the Department of Homeland Security experiment requires aliens without any criminal record to wear the electronic monitors 24 hours a day.

The bracelets are supposed to discourage the aliens from "absconding" or going into hiding to avoid deportation. But according to the Vera Institute of Justice Report on Community Supervision, a three-year pilot program in New York City, phone calls and personal reminders were more cost- effective and almost doubled the compliance of immigrants to court rulings. No electronic bracelets were used in the program.

In his 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Dick wrote of a society hunting down to “retire” androids that rebelled against “forced retirement” by posing as humans. Made into the 1980s classic “Blade Runner,” the novel explored Dick's “concepts of persecution based on narrow distinctions,” notes Wikipedia.

The US trend in electronic bracelets brings on a feeling of reverse déjà vu, as well as chilling new meanings for “distinction-based persecution.” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 2, 2007 issue

Sunday, August 26, 2007


IMAGINE that you are not where you are right now.

That instead of leafing through these pages and watching lines colors faces streak and blur you are somewhere else perhaps under the dripping leaves the morning just beginning to stir under the mist of last night’s rain or is it dream of rain the early figures bent to their destinations moving past blind to the trees blind to the patch of green diminished but not hidden by the high rises avenues shuttered houses dingy washing pressing against the restraining wall keeping something in or pushing something out it’s not a question that bothers three women out early dancing or still seized by last night’s fit traces still lingering in the leaves that drip drip one of them is past her prime but you cannot see wrinkles gray hair sloughing off cells from this far the trees make it too dark to tell it’s the dancing that gleams the dancing and the way a young neck snaps back tossing a laugh can one dance to the music of laughing these three seem to or don’t seem to mind if they dance to a tune beyond the hearing of eyes still weighed down by the march of Mondays tuesdayswednesdaysthursdays this edifice looks on bemused it knows that week and the week before that and the one that will follow it is just a building then unfeeling block just stone ingress egress except last night’s rain washed away dust tedium hours all that remains is the bright new morning framed by trees and softened by mist the building no longer steel and stone just a silhouette against the sky washed clear as marbles whose red blues yellows is a song of colors jigging with the women pining to join the running flipping boys why do the young wake early when there is no need for them to do so school teachers regiments hours and hours away a virtual lifetime held at bay it’s not an inner alarm that gets the young out early on a day when they don’t have to it’s life’s juice coursing responding to the promise of the day punctuated by slim young forms curling like commas uncurling to become exclamations that don’t crush leaf blade just skim like gust of breeze bending the overgrown grass this way and that two small boulders workmen may have left behind not part of some grand landscape scheme no disciple of the new aesthetic but the boys recognize and circle the stones reenact an ancient ritual recognizing these as promontories from which to launch the morning’s promise the tallest of them hitches long shorts or short pajamas revealing knobby knees and shins and still hairless haunches betraying no muscle of impending years just a quiver of excitement shouts challenges as boy backs up and the others cheer jeer egg him on to quit talking and an arrow is released from a bow he is launched one foot leaping on the rock and the rest of him goes up in the hair arches flips hangs and the breath is unfrozen and the moment passes boy pajamas limbs slip slide roll on the wet grass a grin the only answer the only challenge needed for the rest to follow and it’s like the world stands on its head and it is not sky that rains but grass raining a comma of boys curling flipping walking on air to be received none too gently by the blue earth vaporizing falling again the world one explosion of boys the trees look on without comment knowing how each moment shrill laugh boisterous shout brings them closer to who they will become men bent to their destinations walking past not seeing two boulders nearly obscured by grass unruly and growing wild except under the shadow of the trees drip drip dripping 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 26, 2007 issue

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Doll wars

EARLY this year, I dropped by a mall to get a doll, and was shellshocked by the epic struggle to find the Perfect Princess.

Even though my budget drastically whittled down the options, there still seemed an entire universe of pliable ladies simpering to be rescued if I could fork over anything from P99.75 to P499.75.

Being a mother of boys had spared me from even glancing at this merchandise. As godmother and aunt, I've generally stuck to giving books and shirts, ducking behind the rationale that kids are always wearing out their clothes but should be wearing out more storybooks.

But this one time was different. From the south, a three-year-old girl came with her mother and uncle for a free operation to begin repairing her cleft palate. On this first visit to the city, the little girl had not stopped crying or fussing into the night.

So, wanting to redeem her trip from the memory of examining doctors, the hospital smell, heat and noise, I paced up and down toy shelves, trying to decide which vinyl smile could make a child in tears hold out her arms.

But just a few minutes of scrutiny made me wonder if dolls did a lot of comforting.

Deceptively frothy, doll displays are disguised arenas for a showdown between warring standards of girl identity. On one hand is the ideal of gentility, represented by that 1950s icon, Barbie by Mattel Inc. In the opposing camp, pouting their bee-stung lips and flashing their hooded eyes, are the Bratz dolls of MGA Entertainment.

For a fashion doll introduced in 1959, Barbie forced many girls to live up to her impeccable standards. She confused me then, even as she still intimidates me, whistlebait waistline, price tag and all.

When my mother was fed up with my hellraising and urged me to “act like a lady,” I instinctively tiptoed, mimicking my Barbies. Despite the loss of most of their clothes and some of their hair, my blonde Barbie and half-brunette, half-bald Barbie had, aside from perfect gams, perpetually arched heels.

While the stuffed dolls slumped over their tea, the Barbies never slouched and never lost their regal bearing, thanks to those unbending vinyl knees. It was only after I saw a cousin's Barbie collection, perfectly preserved behind a glass cabinet, that I realized the point behind this perpetual tiptoeing: Barbie's feet were arched to fit high heels. (For a time, I really believed tiptoeing curbed inner demons.)

If she was hard on us girls, Barbie was merciless on herself. She is the most altered doll pre-Botox and other body modifications. According to wikipedia, her breasts were first to be altered after parents expressed unhappiness over her “distinct” chest. In 1971, Barbie's eyes were adjusted to look forward, in keeping with a modern gal. (The original model cast a demure sideways glance.)

According to the same online reference, Slumber Party Barbie came out in 1965 with a pink bathroom scale fixed at 110 lbs. and a dieting book that advised, “don't eat.” In 1997, Barbie was given a waistline that would put a stop to any anorexic fantasy after Finnish researchers revealed that Barbie's proportions lacked the “17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate.”

Contrasting with Barbie's neuroses is the Bratz babes' “attitude.” Though given lineages, names and skin tones that are multicultural, representative and inclusive, their political correctness stops with the excessive commercialism and overt sexuality.

Luckily, my budget saved me from having to seek out a toystore shrink to just work through my confusion if it is proper to give a child a premature Perfection Complex (via Barbie) or a Materialism Fetish (via any of the heavily accessorized Bratz babes).

Two days after giving my locally made Dream Princess, I asked our friend how her daughter was sleeping. No more tantrums, no crying to sleep, she reported: my little girl now sleeps like an angel, one arm around the clear plastic box containing a child's fantasy in pink tulle, complete with bendable knees and arms. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 19, 2007 issue

Just do 8

I've been tagged by Solang (

Here are the rules for “8 facts”:

• In the “8 facts,” you share 8 things that your readers don’t know about you. At the end, you tag 8 other bloggers to keep the fun going. Each blogger must post these rules first.
• Each blogger starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
• At the end of the post, a blogger needs to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
• Don’t forget to leave them a comment they’re tagged, and to ask them to read your blog.

WRITE eight facts that your readers don’t know about you.

This was my task after fellow newsroom denizen Solang tagged me and seven other bloggers. In the “8 Facts,” a blogger “tags” eight people by sending this post of “eight random facts/habits about themselves” to their friends’ blogs and asking them to tag eight others.

After Solang’s tag, I visited her blog and the seven others, read their “8 facts,” and thoroughly enjoyed discovering new bloggers, as well as some facets I never knew about close friends and long-time colleagues.

But I still hadn’t written my own list. In a few hours, it will be exactly a week since I received Solang’s post. I feel spooked by my attempts to create what should be a very short list. It feels somehow like I’m writing before a mirror (realizing later that this is one thing I could include in the list and—deep sigh—worry then about just seven more facts.)

So, after several false starts and a severe writing hangover, I’ve decided to “just do 8” and beg the reader’s forgiveness for inflicting these on her:

I like to write facing a wall. I need to forget where I am to start and finish anything. I can shut out the world if the deadline has really been severely trespassed, putting my life (or my editor’s sanity) in extreme jeopardy. But I still prefer not to write facing a door, a window, or a mirror. I’ve been told that someday someone might just stab me in the back. I’ll take the chance, rather than have someone walk in and catch me talking to myself (or dozing when I’m supposed to be at work).

I like to finish writing a piece before taking a break. I take a sandwich for lunch, as well as bring my water bottle so I don’t have to line up at the carenderia and go back to find an unfinished draft has curdled, fizzled or, worse, refused to take up again with me until we come to a neat end. Since doctors though have told me that I will someday own a kidney stone as large as a mountain from holding in my bladder too frequently, I have modified this rule: with the cooperation of my bodily fluids, I will not leave a paragraph midstream.

I watch my back when prepositions and idioms are around. I never trust these two-timing shapeshifters. Fortunately, there is Google.

I always overwrite. I believe there is a newsroom malady akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): bombarded by deadlines, writer defers writing until the 13th hour, then panics, then gets too much data or data for somebody else’s assignment, and writes a piece that needs to be lynched and mauled before it will fit the available news space. Guess what? I don’t have PTSD. (I know my special reports editor is reading this.)

I write best when not writing: smelling books, just doing nothing, or reading some poor sod write about writing. Sometimes story angles and opening sentences occur when the mind is unguarded and left open. I know this from experience. (I’m not saying this only for the benefit of my editors.)

I plan the first line. Where closing lines come from though is one of life’s mysteries. The “clincher” is best not analyzed but, like silences and orgasms, just fervently appreciated.

I don’t like editing at all. I only edit because my newsroom pays slightly more to its editors.

I like writing.

Here’s my tagged 8:

Elisabeth P. Baumgart (
Fr. Stephen Cuyos (
Carlos Q. Tabada (
Jeneen R. Garcia (
Joy Sosoban (
Jianna Karla K. Olayvar (
mustAveabag (
Omar Dumdum ( 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 12, 2007 issue

Fellow beasties

MEDIA is a “feral beast” that “hunts in packs.”

The parting words of the British ex-prime minister Tony Blair got a boxed commentary in the June 16 issue of “The Economist.”

The weekly news magazine paid him the back-handed compliment of being an excellent communicator—“with an unerring knack for finding the right words to provoke the coverage he wanted” and “whose administration will always be synonymous with spin.”

The man who knew media too well argued that the press was fragmented by too much competition for the attention span of an audience hungry only for “scandal, gossip and disgust.”

In one of his last speeches before handing over power to Gordon Brown last June 27, Blair cited media’s blind spots: “the mingling of fact and opinion; a failure to reflect ambiguity and to provide balanced criticism; and the elevation of sensation and controversy above straight reporting.”

Such negativism, he argued, sapped the “country’s confidence and self-belief.”

The parting of ways between pillow companions is often marked by a lot of acrimony. Blair is neither the first nor will he be the last public official to be indiscreet about a relationship that once served him well when he was in power, and needed the media to stay in power.

If he chose to come clean on his way out of office, it may be that he wants to redeem his years of manipulating the public through the press. Especially as he no longer needs this press to woo public opinion or water down criticism.

That is a train of reasoning that can make any beast grin wolfishly.

Like many prominent news sources, Blair is conveniently blind to his role in media excesses. What The Economist concedes about media’s relationship with its audience—“They feed them accordingly, often ignominiously”—can very well apply for the unholy alliance between some media and some news sources.

Oversensitivity to criticism and primordial political survival are the chief reasons why these news sources select which reporter or news outlet to give their side to or to leave out in the cold. Thick-skinned journalists are understandably unmoved by an official outcry railing against “news distortion” and “lack of balance” because they suspect the undiluted crocodile tears being shed for the people’s right to know may just be politicalese for “your criticism is hurting us” or “just slant it to our side.”

Blair’s metaphor of the press as a “feral beast” also leaves out, conveniently for him and other spin masters, their attempts to turn or domesticate this wild thing. What you can’t silence, you can corrupt. What you can’t buy, you can feed pap or scraps or dancing footage.

If one pauses to read, listen or view carefully the media, one only has to be alert to the publicity-seeking posturing, lack of transparency in public deals, self-interested crusades, and telltale inaction and silence on crucial public concerns to be wary about the wild packs circling the public and just bidding its time.

And, yes, the media might be running with the pack. But it never hunts alone. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 5 issue

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Who killed reading?

MY college chum Ibiang was aghast. “What do you mean my godson does not read Harry Potter?”

Ibiang—bless her ink-stained soul— is the only godparent who gives my son Carlos books.

It might be because she reads. Or that she expects any child of mine to read. Or that, like me, she remembers the terrible days when one ran out of books to read and had to make small talk with a boy.

Then again, Ibiang rarely sees her godson and does not know Carlos slips into the virtual world when he can, not by way of flipping open a book but plugging the power cord of his PC.

The last time I was in Manila, Ibiang once more rescued my Tagalog-challenged self. Before my flight, she asked me for her godson’s favorite book character. “Scooby-Doo?” I said, sheepishly.

Cool and rational Ibiang did a superwoman act of controlling her impulse to shriek at the idea that any “kinugos” (godson) of hers worshipped a talking dog in a TV cartoon series. Yet, with the same methodical planning that helped her stage lightning protests defying the no-permit, no-rally policy, she led me in ransacking the shelves of a national bookstore chain before she was finally satisfied that a couple of Scooby-Doo novels were “suitable for his reading age.”

Peeping at the pages, I commented, weakly: “But it doesn’t have enough pictures.” Before I could damage more our old friendship, she packed me off for my flight.

More than five years have passed. Things have become worse, I grimly report to my friend. I have scattered my six volumes of Potter books in strategic places around the house so when my sons open the fridge door or pull out a shirt, a copy will just fall down and knock some sense into their heads.

Once, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” fell on Carlos after I cunningly insinuated this near his gadgets. “Why should we read when we can watch the movie?” shrugged my teenager. Up to this writing, “The Half-Blood Prince”—the second top seller in book history, selling nine million copies in its first day of release—anchors and keeps his sheaves of photocopied assignments from falling on his favorite companion, the computer and modem.

About an eighth of me is now resigned that my sons do not belong to the hordes that devoured 11 million copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” in the first 24 hours of its release.

But manipulation and mothers share more than the first letter. I waged last summer a campaign to get my Nancy Drew collection into the hands of my sons.

I itched to ask Ibiang how my campaign fared with the Manila bookstores’ promotional blitz for “Deathly Hallows.” The countdown activities of one bookstore alone included a Muggle Magic digital contest, Harry Potter Book Club Discussions, Triwizard Tournament for most exhaustive Harry IQ, Kiddie Quidditch Game, and Hunt for Missing Horcruxes.

On the other hand, my Nancy had a hairdo that never altered its curling-iron appearance over the decades, held hands with admirer Ned Nickerson without removing her gloves, and was the reason why, from fourth grade to the middle of sixth grade, I went home with the seat of my panties an unrecognizable shade of charcoal. When I was solving a mystery with Carolyn Keene’s heroine, I paid no heed where I squatted in my school skirt.

Indeed, during the summer break, the boys read a dozen of my Nancy Drews. But they snickered about her “sporty maroon roadster.” And Juan wondered if Nancy’s “boyish” pal George was, like Tinky Winky in Teletubbies, “gay.”

Then last June, the movie “Nancy Drew” transferred her from small-town River Heights to Prada-wearing Hollywood High School. Emma Roberts’ Nancy wore a plaid skirt that actually stops short a few inches above her knees, I overheard the boys discuss. “Can we check soon if the DVD is available?” is an inevitability I can see coming, as well as decades of cobweb and dust descending like the final shroud over my Nancy and Harry.

In our heyday, Ibiang and I went up against a dictator and a couple of dummies. When I sought her out recently, my friend had to do drastic first aid for a heart-sick soul who lived to tell about Technology’s Rout of Reading. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 29, 2007 issue