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

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Watch the language

SHOULD we wonder when an intention to fight terrorism creates sheer terror? When cameras are placed to freeze public smiles?

We should not. We must rage and denounce.

In the novel acclaimed as his criticism against the dream of a utopian state, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” author George Orwell shows how the last “man” in Europe is turned against the person he loves by a regime employing spying, illegal detention, torture, brainwashing and extermination.

To ferret and wipe out the enemies of the state, Big Brother, as the leader of the elite Inner Party, passes a law: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death.”

The irony of ironies is that Big Brother commits the original thoughtcrime by using language to deny reality and mutilate truth. So in this futuristic state, where Big Brother is neither kind nor loyal, Newspeak is far from truth and closer to invention.

Dictatorships and thin-skinned tyrants need no instruction in Newspeak, where the Ministry of Truth turns out propaganda; the Ministry of Peace conducts Perpetual Warfare; the Ministry of Plenty hoards and rations; and the Ministry of Love tortures and kills state enemies.

How does any autocrat get away with this doublespeak? By rewriting the past, punishing criticism, and allowing only the Official Truth, one creates “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” Orwell writes.

Though written in 1949, Orwell’s vision is not so much hallucinatory as prophetic of present realities.

“1984”: Telescreens, hidden microphones and informers are planted in public places and households. Purpose: catch subversives in the act of thoughtcrime, which divert from the orthodox view and endanger Big Brother.

July 12, 2007: Acting on the directive of Governor Gwendolyn Garcia, Cebu security consultant Byron Garcia declared the start of the implementation of the “bawal ang nakasimangot (frowning is banned)” policy for all provincial employees. To encourage Capitol employees to be courteous to all visitors, surveillance cameras will monitor and record.

“1984”: Displayed everywhere is a poster of Big Brother, with the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Before his destruction by Big Brother, Winston Smith realizes that, “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means, it is an end… The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

July 20, 2007: The Human Security Act (HSA), or Republic Act No. 9372, is implemented on this day. According to the Arroyo administration, the anti-terror law will protect the people from acts of terrorism. Critics say that HSA allows law enforcers, on mere suspicion, to subject the accused to preventive detention, warrantless arrest, house arrest, prohibition from the use of cell phones, computers and any other means of communication even when granted bail, surveillance and wiretapping, and examination, sequestration and freezing of bank deposits and other assets.

“1984”: To complete his brainwashing, Winston is sent to Room 101, the most dreaded place in the Ministry of Love. A cage of hungry rats is placed in front of his eyes so, when released, the rodents “will eat their way through his skull.” Screaming, Winston begs his jailers to torture instead his lover. After this final betrayal, Winston is released and scheduled for later extermination after he is paraded publicly as “cured.”

July 20, 2007: The Army reveals publicly for the first time that Jonas Burgos is a member of the New People’s Army. The activist-son of Malaya publisher and press freedom icon Jose Burgos was abducted from a mall by an armed group on April 28. The Army does not say how its background check on Jonas affects the search for him. According to the HSA, those wrongfully detained are entitled to P500,000 compensation for each day spent in jail. Given a financially and morally bankrupt state, critics say this will only fuel more “disappearances.” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 22, 2007 issue

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Eat no evil

PAYDAYS are terrible for grocery shopping as most wage earners stock up then on household “basics,” including a disproportionately large number of snack food, canned goods, processed meats and high-sugar drinks. The children clothes on sale are often always the extra-small and small sizes as, in these days of plenty, even children require two or more sizes bigger than what their ages normally require.

Prosperity used to be blamed for the middle class’ woes with obesity and its attendant ills. But even among the more depressed communities, it is not money per se but a brew of emaciated wallets, many mouths, cheap fried food and disregard for health that is expanding the waistlines of the poor even as they poison their insides.

Decades ago, sari-sari stores defined street corners. Replacing them now are stalls selling battered chicken and rolling stores hawking fried tempura, shrimp/squid balls and siomai.

In the inner streets of the city are crowds clustering around a pan of bubbling pork brains and fats. Tuslob-buwa fills the gut of anyone who can afford the P1.50 price of a puso (hanging rice), dipped in the collective fat vat. The heat kills the germs, explains a regular suki to first-timers who balk at dipping their rice with strangers.

In the bleakest of ironies, the country, formerly starving, is now eating its way to illness, stress and financial difficulties from rising medical expenses.

The country was singled out as the most stressed-out in Asia, with two out of five Filipinos feeling they are extremely stressed. Forty-three percent of Filipinos feel this way, according to the first Asia Health Survey.

In August 2006, Reader’s Digest and Nielsen Media Research asked 24,000 Asians for their views on health, ailments, medicine and other remedies, and hospital care. Covered in this survey were the Philippines, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

The study proponents noted the higher incidence of high blood pressure, arthritis, high cholesterol, heart and sight problems, obesity and diabetes in the Philippines than in the rest of the region.

Where should one turn to for answers about their health? According to the July 13, 2007 report of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, local medical specialists point out a diet of fish and vegetables will bring back good health.

But fish and vegetables—sold as fillets and organic salads—are among the most expensive items in fast food menus. For roughly the same price, a two-piece chicken meal will most likely be ordered by a famished customer who wants fullness, not wellness, after shelling out P200.

South Asians might also have history against them. According to a Nov. 8, 2004 Time feature, scientists say that the region is harboring a “starving gene” after “living for thousands of years under near-famine conditions.” When food was scarce, having “metabolically efficient” systems benefited Asians. It works against them as food became plentiful.

Traditional diets might take some time to become the vogue. But India, the least stressed in the Asia Health Survey, and Singapore show what might work. Modifying traditional yoga meets modern lifestyles among the health-conscious in India. According to the same Time article, Singapore tests schoolchildren, nine years up, and then requires running or aerobics an hour a week if they fail. Food-stall operators are also urged to use more vegetables, less oil, salt and syrup.

Can this be replicated in the country? If no other alternative comes up, then Wails will not be a homophone for a country. It will be the state of the Filipino. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 15, 2007 issue

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Soup commissioner

SOUP is simple but good fare.

What can be more heartfelt? By boiling water and putting whatever ingredients are at hand, a person gets something savory and healthy. The late Doreen Fernandez wrote about the sinigang soup that got her out of her sick bed. Reading it made me wish I could get sick and then find my way back by discovering sinigang.

What else is more flexible? Sinigang shows that democracy can work. The shrimp sinigang lovers are no better or lower than the beef sinigang aficionados. If you are against the entire health movement, there is no one to stop you from stewing pork cubes jiggling with marbled fat or bangus stomachs filmy with sweet blubber.

What is more forgiving? You can throw out the okra and keep the gabi. You can buy powdered tamarind or pick the young leaves of a wild pepper bush. The soup will still turn out to be soup even if you were born all wrong for cooking. I should know.

What can be more familiar? Up to now, my mother’s family pronounces anyone a “true” relation if, at the end of a meal, the person’s plate is swimming with leftover broth poured lavishly on rice before the soft mounds are leveled with the tines of the fork. Nagbahug means to eat wetly, a feat that makes me look down on paper plates as a waste of good trees and good soup.

This bahug-bahug tradition is apparently not just within our thirsty clan. According to wikipedia, soup is traced to the older term, sop. This was a slice of bread soaked with the juice of roasted meat. The oldest soup is said to date back to 6000 BC, with the main ingredient being hippopotamus.

According to the same online reference, in 16th-century France, a “highly concentrated, inexpensive soup” was sold on the streets as a quick antidote for physical exhaustion. These street vendors were called restaurer. By the 18th century, the shops specializing in soups and other fare came to be known as a restaurant.

For all the good will it has wafted in history, soups recently acquired a somewhat unsavory aroma when it was embroiled as the alibi for the meeting between Benjamin Abalos, chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), and the parents of Team Unity senatorial candidate Miguel Zubiri.

The Comelec is completing the national tally to decide the hotly contested race between Zubiri and Genuine Opposition senatorial candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III for the 12th and last senatorial seat.

Pimentel filed a motion asking the National Board of Canvassers to direct Abalos to disclose the circumstances of his meeting with the Zubiris. The opposition candidate pointed out that a judge cannot “allow family, social or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment.”

It was just for soup, explained Abalos. On the evening of June 29, he said he was not feeling well and stepped inside a restaurant to restore his well-being with soup.

The restaurant happened to be at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel, where the Zubiris were also celebrating their wedding anniversary. Abalos said he was leaving the restroom when he met Zubiri’s mother by chance. “I know ethics. It's rude not to greet people," he was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Abalos complained that a “political spin” was given to this encounter to discredit the national canvassing.

From mealtimes immemorial, I believe it is impossible to take in, let alone savor, hot soup in 10 seconds, the time Abalos said it took him to greet the Zubiris and beat a hasty exit.

It is even more mind-boggling for a government official to recover flagging health by slurping soup in a place so posh, it is obviously not maintained by government paychecks.

I do not know the social etiquette in places where the soup’s name might be as unpronounceable as the price. Based on my street knowhow, soup is served free when the customer orders rice, viand and drinks.

But perhaps the soup commissioner had such other transactions in mind when he stopped by, after the controversial canvassing, for hot soup for his health. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 8, 2007 issue