Sunday, January 28, 2007

Angels on cha-cha

THE Catholic Church would have us change the world by changing ourselves first.

The call for character change, as the Church’s version of “cha-cha” goes, is timely.

This early during election year, we need to take as many cold showers as possible.

The problem only with cold showers is that they douse the heat but sting you to overwakefulness: can people really change characters as they peel off the day’s shirt?

More than anyone else, the Church should know this.

Though rocked by controversies over sex abuses and lavish lifestyles of the clergy, Church leaders seem feeble and sluggish, loathe to adopt the changes it prescribes for others.

If the Church fails to cut an impressive figure as role model in the department of personal change, it is because they are one of us, if not always with us.

Were an angel to be placed among us, its blinding virtue would turn a little dingy, its wings somewhat frayed from brushing up against so much roughness.

How do angels deal with molting?

Our dilemma must be simpler. After all, in the hazards of our being human is our safeguard, too.

I remember the tale of my sculptor friend, Mons, and the angel he met.

Mons said the stranger turned up one day in his workshop, selling a used power grinder.

Mons remembers the stranger very well because he got the grinder very cheap.

And because the electric tool broke down a week after.

Mons knew neither the man’s name nor address. He doubted if the stranger even had a real name or permanent home.

He was resigned to entering that bad deal when the stranger turned up again. The man tried to convince Mons to invest in a treasure hunt for Yamashita’s gold.

Mons suspected another scam. But even if the treasure hunt was going to be for real, he had no money to invest.

He told the stranger so and went back to work. His welder was away and he was trying to meet his deadline.

In silence, the stranger watched Mons welding. Then he commented that the way my friend was joining the copper, Mons would never be able to finish it on time.

Half-peeved, half-desperate, Mons offered to pay him a day’s wage if he could do the work better.

The stranger did.

Mons was particularly impressed by his craftsmanship. The stranger worked cleanly although he was always looking over his shoulder, as if expecting cops to turn up and arrest him.

Mons met his deadline.

Paying the stranger his wage, Mons asked for his name.

“Angelo,” the creature said before disappearing again. 0917-3226131

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

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Qwerty sisterhood

WHENEVER a senior student digs up the thesis I made as an undergraduate, I lose no time crowing about this one feat: typing by myself all three drafts and four final copies.

Usually the young person looks blankly back at me.

And I am reminded once more how civilization marches inexorably towards obsolescence and forgetting.

There will come a generation that will be so deprived for not having seen, touched or heard that most trusty of a writer’s companions: the typewriter.

In my time, it was unheard of to approach a professor and explain that a research could not be passed because “the hard drive crashed,” “my diskette got infected by a virus,” or “an earthquake in Taiwan shook up the Internet.”

If any of us had been smart enough to think of those possibilities, our teacher would have sent us to the clinic for ingesting too many sci-fi novels.

As well as failed us for missing the assignment.

A typewriter did not claim to be a rival of the human brain. It did not store data, play music, demand peripherals other than the level surface of a table. It did not talk back. It knew when to be quiet. It did the waiting very well.

But when the writer felt ready, the typewriter gave many reassurances that it was ready to go the distance with her: the roller whirred when it took in the paper; the shift key gave a shot like a pedal being pushed when a finger typed the first letter that would, hopefully hours later, be a stream of words, even a deluge.

In high school, we practiced the proper placement of fingers to master the Qwerty arrangement of the keyboard.

Already discovering the joys of rebellion, I privately called the Qwerty Practices as Quirky and Pesky. Why didn’t the inventor just arrange the keys alphabetically and spare us the madness of having to type and retype “The quick brown fox …” without glancing down and making a mistake, to attain the expert typing speed of at least 100 words a minute?

As it turned out, there was method behind the madness. By experimenting in the 1860s, the inventor C. L. Sholes found a way to arrange the keys so that an expert typist didn’t end up entangling the typebars, or rods holding the letters or symbols, and jamming the typewriter.

Sholes, after studying a letter-pair frequency chart, kept on opposite sides of the keyboard those letters that were always coming in pairs, like “th.” As any couple knows, companionship requires intervals of safe distance and separations to avoid clashes.

Compared to a computer, a typewriter is simple and predictable.

It’s not to say it doesn’t hold surprises. The Qwerty order makes typing faster by actually making it slower. Each typebar has a letter or symbol placed upside down. But when the typebar swings up and hits the paper from underneath, the printed mark is clear, upright, incontrovertible.

Remembering her college days as a cub reporter and student balancing a semester’s load of 42 units for a double major in English and history, the museum curator Tonette PaƱares remembers that her portable Olympia rarely left her side.

Tonette’s Olympia hardly lived the sheltered life of the academe. In the halcyon days of campus activism, her typewriter accompanied her in immersion activities for the Students Catholic Action, monitored by the military as a leftist front during the First Quarter Storm.

When the Olympia wasn’t being used to teach catechism to workers in Labangon or teaching a mothers’ class in Barrio Luz, it was “resting” in the office of Sister Nieva.

The eldest of seven girls, Tonette always found the money had run out after she paid off the fees of her sisters. To take her tests, she deposited her Olympia with the nun, with the promise to settle her fees soon.

“I told Sr. Nieva I couldn’t let my younger sisters cry because they had no admission slip for taking the exam. My typewriter was the only valuable thing I owned so I left it with her as a guarantee for my debt,” she recalls.

“But when I remember how she respected my decisions as an adult and allowed me to type my assignments in her office when I still couldn’t redeem my typewriter, I realize now that the Olympia wasn’t after all the most valuable thing in my possession.”

I’ve yet to hear a laptop owner top that story. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 21, 2007 issue

Friday, January 12, 2007

Meat and piety

Television is not my favorite medium.

It’s a bias that got another stroking when I saw the ABS-CBN network’s recent coverage of the Black Nazarene fiesta.

The coverage was exceedingly long and varied. Although there were the familiar footages of heaving and sweating humanity, the network continued with its policy shift of requiring news readers to go out and research the news they reported.

In the heyday of Loren Legarda, Noli de Castro and Korina Sanchez, news anchors were pluperfect studio-based personalities. Their seamless delivery and power suits lent glamour to the news.

By some convoluted logic, personal charisma conferred news credibility. It was as if the news regurgitated by those perfect lips were not just perfect sound bites but readings taken from the Gospel According to TV.

Two years ago, ABS-CBN appointed Maria Ressa as the new head of the News and Current Affairs Group.

Aside from the axing of veteran reporters and producers, as well as a vice president for news, the appointment of Ressa raised expectations that there would be a drastic change in the overriding focus of ABS-CBN’s “TV Patrol” from popularity and ratings to news integrity AND ratings.

It was anticipated that her leadership would steer “TV Patrol” away from the body count—both the mangled and the nubile—and make it compete with GMA network’s “24 Oras.”

The GMA news program’s trademark of issue-driven special reports and enterprise reporting is not the least of the reasons why I regard this as The Other Network.

But being neither Kapamilya (as ABS-CBN diehards call themselves) nor Kapuso (pro-GMA), I regard the remote control as the only real props for penetrating the realities of TV news.

This gadget allows the viewer to change channels and choose the less toxic of TV news fare.

It’s naturally a mini tragedy when a weak battery in the remote control gets our household stuck in either of these two unendurables: the whining drone of GMA’s Mike Enriquez or the interminable plugging of another crass ABS-CBN reality show on primetime news.

However, ABS-CBN’s coverage of the Black Nazarene fiesta was promising enough to keep us from pushing buttons.

At first, the “special report” seemed stamped by the Ressa trademark of news readers undertaking “shoe-leather reporting.”

The term is coined for Mary McGrory, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. To write her 1974 award-winning columns on Watergate, McGrory was everywhere, from courtrooms to congressional hearings.

"I have to see, I have to hear. I'm primitive, I guess. I don't want anyone else doing my listening or watching for me,'' McGrory was quoted by Philip Gailey in his collection of her works.

But as the Black Nazarene special report progressed, it became apparent that, despite the perestroika of the Ressa era, the network is still in thrall to the lure of the meat.

In one feature, the camera tracks reporter Pinky Webb making her first attempt to get close enough to wipe the Nazarene icon.

The camera follows the bodacious reporter attracting a crowd of male followers in the streets. I’m thinking, “shampoo commercial.”

When she lunges to mount the carroza, the camera takes close-ups of her tight fuchsia shirt riding up on hips that are too generous for her waistband.

I’m thinking of the mini skirt-clad Bridget Jones sliding down a fireman’s pole to the waiting lens of her TV cameraman.

I’m also remembering Muslim cleric Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali’s comment on barely covered women, “The uncovered meat is the problem.”

I now know why a network that can locate bystanders with eerie resemblances to news personalities, from Manny Pacquiao to Vice President Noli de Castro, chose not to make a documentary of a day in the life of an actual devotee of the Black Nazarene.

Compared to Webb’s fuchsia shirt, that wouldn’t have made great TV. At its defining moments, television sometimes resembles least the news it’s supposed to purvey. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 14, 2007 issue

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mothers weather well

ANY number, multiplied by zero, becomes zero.

This zero property of multiplication applies as well to mothering, an activity where the female of the human species pours out love for all infinity, and her offspring respond with something not entirely expected.

Perhaps mother’s milk, after it leaves its pure containers, curdles during the transfer.

The breeding colonies of bacteria must be the reason why all mothers can tell their children apart by the extent they disappoint us.

My mother nursed me for less than two months as she had to report back to the 24-hour chaos of an emergency room in a government hospital.

This early deprivation has not left any deep-seated trauma except for a minor glitch in our bonding. Where my mother is perfectly groomed, I test the limits of makeover miracles.

Recently, after telling my mother that I was going to a Very Important Event, I waited for her to drop one, two or, more typically, 100 hints about my jeans and rubber shoes.

Strangely, no peep came in any of our daily phone conversations. Only after my trip was cancelled did I learn that my mother had enlisted our helper in hiding the rattiest of my old stuff just before I packed.

As I would have gone to that Very Important Event naked rather than dip into my book budget for clothes I did not want, the cancellation was timely.

Though its fruits are at times sour, mothering is far from waning because its practitioners believe pure intention is superior to spotty outcomes.

When I became a second-time mother, I made sure I nursed Juan until he was nearly three years.

Aside from striking against multinational milk-formula makers, this gesture required single-minded commitment to a son who seemed at times to be an adversary, armed to the milk teeth and trained in hand-to-hand combat and squeeze tactics.

Today, the bond between Juan and I is unique in all the world, requiring the negotiation of mutual deterrence at sunrise and the declaration of armistice by sundown.

When I stopped working to be with him, my former officemates told me he would still sometimes call and look for me, no doubt nostalgic for the good old days when mothers were too busy to meddle.

Yet, on the day I went back to working full-time, I got a call from the school nurse, saying Juan, after his dive from the monkey-bar to the hard-packed school grounds, sustained a fracture.

Rather than soft and squishy, mother love would be more useful in gaseous form. You can just inflate your offspring so they will bounce away from harm the moment you’re not looking.

But as math and nature are irrefutable, expect the unexpected when you mother your own.

My older son Carlos, nursed for less than two weeks, mothers me better than I do him. He cleans up my email inbox of spam, gives me a running update of the number of my necks, and teaches me how to operate the printer by pushing the power button on.

One afternoon, after I removed a painful toenail, Carlos said he wanted me to go on trimming his nails even when he lived on his own.

When he saw me blink back something in my eye, he hugged me. “It’s alright, mom,” said this fruit of my loins, heart of my heart. “I’ll pay you.” 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu last Jan. 7, 2007