Saturday, March 29, 2008

What Aesop skipped

SUMMER: when your kids are parked at home, think quickly to avert a situation.

Juan announced that by the end of March, he would be done with his final exam and scouting camp.

Replying to the unspoken but important implication—unlimited computer time—I started to mouth, “Wa ka kuyapi? Over my dead…”

But the nine-year-old beat me to the draw. “I know too much time playing computer games”—I looked at him with narrowed eyes—“will destroy my eyes and vocabulary”—I didn’t blink, didn’t look away, in case I missed a trick—“so I was thinking of raising a pet”—I relaxed, was about to smile—“can you afford a calf?”

I blinked. On the opposing wall, a pair of watercolor trees he painted years back when he still spelled, “Moomy,” resembled a meadow devoid of something.

“Calves”—I cleared my throat—“are drawn to greens”—like pastures, bank accounts, agribusiness fortunes—“why would a calf anyway want to live in our garden”—I look out of the window, for inspiration or in desperation—“when it smells of cats?”

Thankfully, my generation is a bit better read. So, before he suggested we trade in the cats for a chocolate milk-producing cow, I told him about a dude named Philip K. Dick who wrote about life after the war that ends all wars.

All the living things are dead, if not killed by the war then by the radioactive dust settling after the fallout. While technology can create the simulacra of any living thing—from humans to animals—the survivors covet what is nearly impossible to find: real pets.

In the radioactive shell that is San Francisco in the year 2021, most humans have fled to Mars (for new settlements like New New York). Among the stragglers living in nearly deserted buildings, there’s no need to compete for space. The new status symbol is a pet since, by definition, all animals are endangered.

According to the listing of “Sidney’s Animal & Fowl Catalogue,” anyone can buy a horse, theoretically. For instance, if a Percheron colt was listed in italics, this indicated that anyone with five thousand dollars could buy such an animal if three conditions were in place.

First condition: if, theoretically, a Percheron colt could be found. Second condition: if, theoretically, one had five thousand dollars to buy such a colt. And last condition: if, theoretically, one had money to spare since the italics indicated that five thousand dollars was the prevailing price then when a Percheron colt was still available and, were one to be found, a Percheron colt would no longer fetch only five thousand dollars.

That is the predicament of Rick Deckard in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Deckard abases himself when he has to confess to his neighbor, the exalted owner of a live horse, that his sheep is not really made of wool and guts.

“He wished to god he had a horse, in fact any animal. Owning and maintaining a fraud had a way of gradually demoralizing one.”

The neighbor assures Deckard that he will not tell his shameful secret to the others. He suggests the bounty hunter should bid for a cat, a cricket, or a mouse since this went for as low as twenty-five dollars in the Catalogue.

Deckard figures he’ll just earn the money to buy a horse, a cow or a sheep.

Quick to smell a coming moral—“to get what we want, we have to study and work”—Juan left my side to look for his brother.

Philip K. Dick was not yet done, but I didn’t call him back. The fable, which the classic movie, “Blade Runner,” is based on, is set in a future where humans have invented “andys,” or androids, to make life a little better.

When these human-looking robots rebel from serving mankind, they are hunted down and “retired.” Tests are later conducted to establish if it was indeed only machinery that was shut down or if a mistake had been made on a genuine article.

Theoretically, it did not matter, neither to the thing in its retirement nor to hunters like Deckard: “The bounty from retiring five andys would do it, he realized.”

mayette.tabada@ 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 30, 2008 issue

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The sea in her ear

IT surprised me that I couldn’t remember the name of the place. Over lunch, a colleague asked me to recommend a place in the south for a Holy Week break.

Since she had two young children, only one place came to mind: long sandbar, rooms overlooking the cove, an endless view of the horizon that effortlessly competed with the reading.

To my listening friend, I rattled off other places should they go east or west. But after I trailed off, I found my way back to the unmentioned place, to that room, once the favorite of the family. When the sun set low in the afternoons, between the small veranda and the room where the slimy sea-bronzed creatures called boys tracked sand and seaweed, the cotton curtains, washed to gossamer wisps, fluttered in the breeze exhaled by the retreating sea.

This is another year when we’ve varied our Holy Week jaunts. I think it is because the boys are growing fast; my sons and nephews have plans and dreams that I’ve long given up plotting in a linear schedule.

Last year, it was the mountains. But you can hardly get young people to wake up early enough to watch the fog creep in, swirl in tentative exploration before creeping out as silently again. Waking to its telltale moisture, young people make small yelping sounds and almost bring down the tent in a rush of concern for their gadgets and what the excessive dampness might have done to those tender circuits.

But for those who want to get away from it all, whether it is the heat and inactivity of Holy Week, or something more, the sea reigns almost supreme.

Unlike the stolid fog, the sea is mercurial. Sleeping in a tent once, I was drawn to a tinkling sound that grew steadily louder. The sound was a golden rope I grasped to pull myself out of a hole. When I opened my eyes in the dark of our tent, the tinkling became a muted roar: most likely, a drunk was emptying his incontinent bladder near my ear.

I kicked my husband awake so he could redirect the fellow to a proper urinal. Instead, I found the sea lapping at our feet. Overnight, the tide had risen. In the mountains, when you lay down your head to sleep, you don’t expect to wake up, swinging, from the topmost branches.

But when the children barely reached my waist, a tent afloat in the heaving ocean wasn’t a prospect to be welcomed. That was how we found our room in that place.

It had a veranda for spotting communes of sea urchins, a whale shark straying far from its route, the sanity-saving sight of the lady bringing the trays of breakfast.

Best of all, its spacious toilet had a retractable shower head that could flush out the most stubborn grits of sand that wormed its way in the most impossible recesses of a wriggling child’s body. There was a generous wooden ledge to arrange masks, goggles, snorkel sets, pails, spades and other accouterments of beach life.

The only thing that worried me was the old-fashioned doorknob. Because I was wary about the dial getting stuck, I forbade the younger boys from locking the door when they showered. Last night, I dreamt of that other room and its toilet with the old-fashioned lock. With the door always kept slightly ajar, it was no wonder ribbons of sea grass and sand ended up with the sleeping boys in their mats.

How she could have hanged herself on the old-fashioned dial of that doorknob makes me still wonder. A few years ago, the papers reported the incident. On a week night, the girl from the city checked in. When she did not emerge the day after, the staff visited her room—that room—and saw the body hanging from the noose suspended from the old-fashioned dial that turned clockwise to lock.

Now, when we go down south, the boys vote to go for other destinations. Certainly, they are older; day by day, they become uncharted territories. The colorful plastic toys of their sea escapades I may take down from the shelf when my nieces come to visit. They, at least, will not have read the papers.

When she lay down her head that night, I hope that the sea in her ear transported her. mayettetabada/ 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 23, 2008 issue

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Close encounters with English

You know that scene in sci-fi movies when outer space invaders abduct an Earthling to study?

As a child watching the Saturday UFO feature on our black-and-white TV, I felt that the background music peaked in sympathy with my fear: what will the monsters do to the poor fellow?

When I got older, my fear took on another dimension: if the aliens picked the wrong person—a drunk or politician perhaps—wouldn’t they look down on us as an inferior, weaker species?

Reasoning that any alien experiment on a specimen whose brains were fried by alcohol, drugs or worse would come up with an invasion strategy that would underestimate and thus be unprepared for human intelligence and spirit, I decided that it was a good thing then if the UFO conducted their research on the “lowest common denominator.”

Unfortunately, a different logic rules beauty contests. To compete globally with other aspirants for titles representing the world, universe, ecosystem or galaxy, the honor should go to the fairest and, it has been argued, the most gifted.

Stopping to buy oranges one evening, I overheard the spirited discussion at a neighborhood fruit stand. The pretty but English-challenged winner of Binibining Pilipinas World 2008 was being dissected. When I had my 20 oranges, plus a free one, in my green bag, I peered at the young woman in the front-page photo, which my neighbors were raking with their eyes.

She looked very nice. Few women are kind to the eyes in a bikini and high heels. Later, after sitting through another TV rerun of the scene where the beauty tilt winner answers in her fractured English, I thought that even fewer women can dazzle while their foot is in their mouth.

I hope if she is serious about winning that world title, though, she will treat her English with the same discipline she has kept those young limbs sculpted. Misbehaving pronunciation and missing parts of speech can be a phase she can grow out of.

What takes a little more repairing is the spirit.

Unlike the blotchy complexion that peaks and wanes during adolescence, speaking, writing and, yes, thinking in a language that’s not our own requires more than pre-pageant cramming.

But a 17-year-old should have a lot of time to learn and polish. If she wants to, she can.

And since there’s too much advice going around for one young person to absorb, we might as well make use of some of our own industrious kibitzing.

For instance, we could get out and have a life, instead of camping in front of our TV sets or endlessly downloading the massacre of English in YouTube.

Days after I get emailed links to the Bb. Pilipinas incident, three friends send the YouTube link to a so-called Bulgarian singer interpreting Mariah Carey’s “Without You” into her version of “Ken Lee.”

Is this YouTube hit authentic? If the singer really did dislocate the lyrics, should we think all Bulgarians speak like this?

Even without the bikini-and-high-heels thing, a beauty contest is worlds apart from life. Who’s going to jump to the conclusion that a 17-year-old represents 45 million, the estimated number of Filipinas living in the country today?

Only alien researchers on the prowl. And only on TV.,, 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 16, 2008 issue

Saturday, March 08, 2008

What a woman can expect

THE CAT is at it again.

From my desk, I espy the white cat sleeping on its perch: a pot of flowers with maroon petals.

Later, I see the cat has transferred. It is now napping on a pot of herbs.

Of all the cats that treat our place as a half-way home and diner, this white cat alone sleeps so unusually. Perhaps it thinks it is a plant, improved a little by way of four feet for hopping from pot to pot.

For a while, I thought the vegecat was a “he” until I saw it being sniffed at and then tailed by an orange Tom. Although I can’t be sure, the din he makes around her has me convinced that the white cat beds in a pot because there is no space for him to join her.

If I were reincarnated as a cat and had to bear a litter three or four times a year, I might also pretend to be a potted herb.

Reproduction and survival of the species inevitably came to mind last March 8, observed as International Women’s Day (IWD). When a male friend sent me an early morning text greeting, I was befuddled at first. Then I thought of my sons and wondered what I had, if at all, contributed in making them to be better, more empathetic and truer friends and partners of women.

More than two centuries of observance of IWD seems to counter Sigmund Freud’s theory that “biology is destiny.” Yet, typically, every IWD commemoration is accompanied by findings that the survival of future generations rests on the promotion of the quality of women’s life.

Investing in mothers is the only way to ensure children’s survival and well-being, points out the “State of the World’s Mothers 2006,” a report produced by Save the Children.

This US-based humanitarian organization releases with its annual report a Mothers’ Index, which ranks the best and worst places to be a mother and a child. According to the 2006 report, Sweden led other countries in Europe and Northern America as the best places to be a mother. Somalia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa were at the bottom of the ranking of 125 countries.

The Save the Children highlighted that education and access to health care, specially family planning services, are factors that guarantee women survive child birth and their children live beyond the first month or year of their life.

In the Mothers’ Index 2006, the Philippines fell in the median. Improvements in the typical Filipina’s life-cycles were predicted, though, by a 1974 University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute study that found life expectancy improved dramatically: in 1900, a Pinay was expected to live to the age of 25; in 1960, it was 52.5; and in 2000, it is expected to be 67.5.

The chances of the Filipina and her husband surviving to old age have thus risen. According to a March 7, 2008 Inquirer Research item, women in Central Luzon have the highest life expectancy (74.42 years) in the country, with those in Eastern Visayas having the lowest (69.79).

The same UP study found that infant rearing will be delayed and shortened substantially by 2000. “A woman's first grandchild arrived around age 39 in 1900, around age 42 in 1960, and will not arrive until about age 50 in 2000.”

According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), women also live longer. Life expectancy is estimated at 72.2 years for Filipino women and 66.9 years for Filipino men.

It has been noted in the 2000 population census that around 76 percent of the 2.6 million widowed persons were females and only 24 percent were males. Explanations forwarded for this is that Filipinos generally pass away before their wives while Filipinas are less inclined than their male counterparts to remarry after the death of their spouse.

In the NSO’s Family Planning Survey of 2001, nearly half of married Filipinas (49.8 percent) used contraceptives.

This survey of figures convinces me that, at least in this life, women in this country will not have to take to the pot. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 9, 2008 issue

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Rocky mountain high

IN THE end, it was the children who saved us.

To find an address in the mountains of Talamban, we did the practical thing: asked directions.

Improvements on a spillway had made the usual route impassable except by habal-habal (motorbike improvised for commuting in the boondocks). Preferring to use the family car, we took an alternative route but had to ask around whenever the road forked off.

At the first crossroads, a smiling fellow revving his habal-habal engine tilted his head to indicate the left road. He told us to go “straight lang,” pursing his lips for emphasis.

Anyone who's been around knows that mountain paths hardly go “straight.” But since we were looking for a sitio known as Pulangbato (red stone), the sight of that winding ribbon of red earth made us think we were on the right road or, at least, heading in the right direction.

Soon enough, our path diverged with children going home from school. A few of them clung, as if sticky-limbed, to habal-habal drivers, but many of them walked home, if not by necessity, certainly by choice.

Slowed down by the twists and curves, we found ourselves watching the children. They chatted, joked. Many “wore” their rubber slippers on their hands, walking barefoot. We swerved to avoid two boys, checking out the caimitos (starapples) ripening in the roadside trees.

Another group stuck the thick, matted tendrils of the orcalla tree in their heads so it seemed that they sported dreadlocks. I laughed aloud at their creativity while wondering at the speed some aspects of popular culture are communicated.

When the road stopped twisting, we gained speed and left behind the children. But noticing that the ground was no longer a red shade, we checked our direction again with a man nursing a bottle.

He said we had strayed into the next barangay. Pulangbato was near the school, he said and waved the bottle in the direction we came.

Although dubious now about bottles, pursed lips and unconventional direction devices, we remembered the children and decided to return to the spot where our paths converged.

The children were still on the road. When the Rastafarian boys spotted us, they puffed their chests and strutted. In no time, we found the school and our destination.

The school had the shuttered, abandoned look these places take on at duskfall on Fridays. I wondered if it had a computer lab or even Internet connection. In many places of learning in the uplands, even a typewriter remains a hi-tech craving.

How did the Rastafarian boys know about the dreadlocks? Did they see Bisrock icon Budoy drive by on his big black bike? Most likely, it was a habal-habal driver or a local boy, cocky with tales from the city.

The deserted school came back to me again while I watched that night the TV coverage of the interfaith protest in Manila.

In places like Pulangbato, what information about the latest controversy involving the Philippine National Broadband Network (NBN) filters through? The NBN deal with the ZTE firm would have meant faster, more efficient and cheaper Internet connectivity for government entities and through them, the public. Who knows? Perhaps the NBN plans might have included schools, traditionally kept in the backburner of development plans.

With a computer lab and Internet connection, places like Pulangbato can introduce children to exploding worlds of knowledge. The Rastafarian boys, for instance, can google “dreadlocks” and learn what's really cool from Wikipedia: started by the poor of Jamaica to express the Rastafari movement's “Young Black Faith,” this 1930s hairstyle showed that the wearer lived in “dread” or awe of a higher being; hence, the term “dreadlocks.”

But as greed and corruption for the P15-billion NBN-ZTE deal seems to have leapfrogged over the country's technological leap, the Rastafarian boys and I will just have to rely on learning, perhaps through osmosis with habal-habal drivers. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 2, 2008 issue

Wives’ tales

WHEN I first saw it, I had an electric jolt.

Nibbling the frozen chip of the chocolate dip coating a sundae I was not even supposed to be thinking of, I saw the distant neon-lit letters leap out in the dark: TARZAN BO.

Wow, I thought. Even given the street competition presented by rival bars on this Mactan strip, I wondered about the Neanderthal sensibility inspiring a bar name that implied its habitués, not just Lord Greystoke’s noble ape-man alter ego, had either strong armpits or weak noses.

But as the family car approached the bar, I realized that it wasn’t a weird variant of
English that was the culprit after all.

The letters on the nightclub’s façade originally spelled out: T-A-R-Z-A-N-B-O-Y. The last bulb did not just light up.

Up to now, that malfunctioning bulb has never been replaced. Except for a busybody like me, no one may have made a case of the darkened “Y.”

Or possibly, the vagaries of English don’t preoccupy the owner or regulars of such places. Correct spelling and clear meaning can hardly matter in a place that probably is too dark for reading, I told my husband one night. Do you see anyone bringing a book? he asks without taking his eyes off the road.

As the vanilla was quickly melting, I forgot to reply. What I had wanted to tell him was that I read in Sun.Star Superbalita’s Feb. 21, 2008 issue that Jinkee Pacquiao admitted to “Yes Magazine” that she is now going through the worst upheavals in her eight-year marriage to Manny.

Her husband is dubbed “Pambansang Kamao (national boxer)” for the acclaim and pride he has given the country for his ring victories. In the euphoria after one such victory over a Mexican foe, the buzz was all for hailing Manny as a modern-day national hero.

According to the Superbalita feature, Jinkee says she struggles with the womanizing and gambling of Manny. At parties and bars, she tries to be blind to her husband and his girls until she cannot take it anymore and goes to a corner to cry. Can one be a hero to one’s countrymen while being the lowest form of animal to one’s wife?

Boxing and basketball may be our country’s favorite sports, but it is hero-making that is actually our national pastime. Unlike others that tear down personalities as quickly as they build them up, we Pinoys have an elastic threshold of blind love for our idols, who fit better the mold of Erap the lover of women and the masses, rather than Mother Teresa the living saint.

In a country where even drainage systems hardly work but actors can become statesmen and statesmen opt to become actors, it hardly surprises anyone that our hopes for national transformation and moral resurgence is pinned not on processes and systems but on whistleblowers-turned-celebrities.

Senate star witness Rodolfo Noel “Jun” Lozada Jr. seems to repulse so far all the character-demolition attempts to discredit his exposure of the graft and corruption allegedly committed in the National Broadband Network deal.

In my books, Lozada passes at least one test: his wife wanted him back. Violeta Lozada filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court after she learned the police and airport officials spirited him away upon his return to the country.

But more than the wife test, literature has a better standard for myth-building. More nuanced and realistic is the anti-hero, a literary character who resembles the villain but denies or suppresses heroic virtues. Which side prevails determines the tale’s end.

In time, our national pastime may encourage our anti-heroes to reconcile pleasing the crowds and treating one’s wife honorably. Let’s hope, for our children’s sake, that our hero-making matures from simply replacing busted bulbs to spotting mistakes in the dark. 01973226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 24, 2008 issue