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