Saturday, May 31, 2008

Secrets of children

CORKSCREW-HAIRED and chubby-cheeked, the tot ate crispies from a bag while the woman beside him, who might have been his mother, played with a Play Station Portable.

Waiting to board our flight, the rest of us adults were too preoccupied with a million thoughts to spare him more than a glance and, from some of us females, a smile or two.

But a portly middle-aged man pulling a trolley bag stopped before the munching kid. Stooping a little, the Caucasian held out his upturned palm.

My companion, Cherry, said the child gave the man some of his crispies. Cherry found the child, in the spontaneity of his generosity, to be uncharacteristically child-like. I, on the other hand, said the child was just being his age.

Perhaps closer to truth might have been the observation that children act as others treat them.

The night before, our group nursed our drinks at an alfresco table at Malate. Halfway in our midnight celebration, a child whose top of the head barely reached our table’s edge pressed our companion to buy one of her overpriced red roses.

When her small head suddenly materialized near my elbow, I clutched my bag tighter. For this tot, no distracted, admiring glance was spared. Although I was alert to her presence, I couldn’t look her in the face. I can’t summon her face now as I write, can’t say if she was smiling or sullen-faced, cute as a button or ancient as other street veterans.

Sipping my P95 can of coke and munching the fried pork rind that came with the compliments of the café, I was distracted by this slight shadow from the shoptalk swirling around our table. Told by our companion that he will buy a rose later, the child decided to wait.

When I glanced later, she was lying on the sidewalk as a dog would have made itself comfortable, waiting for scraps to fall from the table. She had placed the cellophane-wrapped roses on her chest. I thought suddenly of the small, white boxes that hold aborted fetuses.

Later, the café guard dragged away the small, unresisting figure. He was stocky, broad of shoulders. To him, she could not have been more cumbersome than a sack of potatoes.

I didn’t see where her roses were while the guard dragged her away. I decided then to sip again from my glass of overpriced coke.

Although I have two boys of my own, I can’t say I know the secrets of children. That information would be, in market terms, worth a lot. Lost in a maze-like mall in Roxas, I reflected that knowing what children want will bring the most piercing ecstasy to anyone caught in the whirlpool of expectations and second guessing.

Parents who want the best for their offspring; school owners trying to convince parents their institution offers the best guarantee for their children’s future; product merchandisers persuading buyers that this brand or style offers the best value for money or best impression on school opening day—every one chases after figments or shadows, hoping to come upon the key to unlock the secret to young hearts and minds.

Lost in our dreams, whether for “value-based education” or the hippest school accessory, we miss the obvious.

The outstretched hand, encouraging smile, averted glance, the lunge to secure one’s possessions, the indifferent hauling away of a street eyesore.

With such obvious gestures is a child taught best the lessons that will never be forgotten. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 1, 2008 issue

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Good works

LAST Thursday’s downpour brought anew the threat of flash floods, garbage-clogged drainage and homelessness in many barangays.

Though I arrived, dry and unmarked, at the Grand Convention Center moments before that rain storm, I was driven almost out of my mind by a different case involving barangays.

Visiting only on the last day of the 35th Annual Albasa Book Fair held last May 20-22, I missed books I had been tracking with all the obsession and lack of restraint of a 16th-century ship-raiding pirate.

One of them was William Henry Scott’s “Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society.” This has been off the shelves in the local outlets of this national chain of bookstores for almost a decade.

True, Cebu has become a cosmopolitan mall brat. No one here will have difficulty procuring a copy of any title shortlisted under the latest version of any American, British or continental list of bestsellers and critics’ choices.

But Scott’s account of the Philippines at the time of the Spanish contact—winner of the 1994 National Book Award for History and the 1998 Gintong Aklat Award for Social Scienc—is nowhere to be seen in the malls dotting Cebu.

If awards and critics leave you cold, you might still want to get your hands on a copy of “Barangay,” if only to check out why it is arguably the best-loved of the books written by Scotty, the only non-Filipino teaching Philippine history in the University of the Philippines for many years.

The Episcopalian lay missionary earned respect as “the white Filipino nationalist historian” who wrote, taught and rescued our history from being buried under mistranslation, misinformation and myths.

As “Great Scott: The New Day William Henry Scott Reader” points out, to read Scott is to be “reminded not only of Napoleon’s characteristically iconoclastic bon mot, ‘What is history but a fable agreed upon?’”

Any parent or teacher concerned that students will not languish under a common Social Studies misconception that the barangay was a Bagong Lipunan innovation of the late Ferdinand Marcos should hunt down a personal copy of “Barangay.”

Though I had to content myself with ordering the titles last Thursday—not only “Barangay” proved to be elusive; all five sets of the three-volume “History of the Bisayan People in the Philippine Islands” by Ignacio Francisco Alcina, SJ, were sold out at the fair—I am consoled that many schools turned up and replenished their library collections at the fair.

Established in 1973, the Academic Libraries Book Acquisition Systems Association (Albasa, Inc.) annually conducts its general assembly and book fair in Cebu. It provides an essential and unappreciated public service not only to its member schools but also individual readers.

During the Albasa book fair, there are seminars and opportunities to buy at discounted prices book titles that are deemed not commercial and thus not carried by most book stores.

Though the exhibitors include distributors of foreign publications, what I consider to be the chief draw in the Albasa Book Fair are the local publishers. If public discourse seems parched and bereft of hope, it cannot be blamed on the institutions that have the courage, vision and will to produce titles that may never become bestsellers, be sold as mall fodder, and yet more than deserve the trees that were felled to produce the paper used in its printing.

Yes, a lot of improvements can still be done for Filipiniana, a genre eternally marginalized in many a bookstore and library. Many titles are still priced beyond the reach of many wage earners. In some cases, the paper used, binding and book design make one more conscious of and disgruntled about the discrepancy between the book’s price and packaging.

More Filipiniana books should also reflect “provincial” interests and concerns, not just those of imperial Manila or the commercially safe “national interest.”

However, it is no less than an act of nationalism to produce through the years the publications that make one proud to be born in this country: the University of the Philippines Press, the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House (publisher of the monumental and seminal Alcina history), Ateneo de Manila University Press (publisher of “Barangay” and many award winners), New Day Publishers (which carries many of Scott’s works) and Ibon Foundation (I grew up reading Ibon Facts & Figures, one of the earliest attempts to make student-friendly economic analysis).

If people are still writing books about this country, and people are still reading them, then it’s not yet time to abandon ship. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 25, 2008 issue

Saturday, May 17, 2008


ONE rainy afternoon reminded me of the exercise I had been neglecting. So I turned on the television set to look for something that would get this old heart racing.

The news roundup on two channels showed photos of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the First Gentleman, taken at the Shenzhen Golf Club last Nov. 2, 2006.

Ah, my old ticker leaped at the sight of the familiar conjugal trademarks. Mole and Waistline, according to the report, played golf with officials of the Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Company Limited (ZTE), a Chinese equipment provider that won the bidding for the $329.5-million National Broadband Network (NBN) project, five months after that November date on the green.

Why does golf seem to be at the center of the national cesspool of wheeling and dealing?

When Ping Lacson was chief of the Philippine National Police, one of his first mandates to reform the heirarchy was to declare golf courses taboo for officials during office hours. Perhaps he was thinking PNP bigwigs could work harder for the salaries paid by taxpayers.

Or he might have been bothered by the negative publicity stirred up by stolen photos and leaked stories of PNP officials swinging the iron while in the company of drug lords and other shady characters they were supposed to be investigating.

In the 1930s, William “Bill” J. Shaw and a small group of enthusiasts converted a small golf course in Mandaluyong City into a meeting place to foster “harmony, cooperation and friendship among nationals of different countries.”

Nearly eight decades later, Wack Wack Golf & Country Club sticks out in the memory of news watchers as the playing grounds of Benjamin Abalos, former elections chairman, Wack Wack director and immediate past president, and allegedly one of the three fat cats in the NBN-ZTE mess.

If Wack Wack has become part of the political news domain, it is the coup of Abalos, who, to finance his studies, first worked there as a caddy.

Then elections chairman, Abalos frequently met First Gentleman (FG) Mike Arroyo over a friendly cup of coffee at the Wack Wack club house (confirmed by Abalos); brokered the NBN deal with the FG in between breaks off the green (denied); witnessed the FG, during a “chance” encounter at the same golf club, wag a finger to warn off Joey de Venecia III, representing a competing bid, from the NBN project (denied); treat ZTE officials to a “friendly” game of golf (confirmed); bribed, during a game of golf, then Neda director general Romulo Neri with P200 million to endorse the ZTE offer (denied by Abalos but reported by Neri to PGMA, who allegedly said, endorse the firm); threatened to silence NBN-ZTE whistleblower Jun Lozada for opposing the $130-million bribe sought by Abalos from the Chinese firm (denied by Abalos; asserted by Lozada, who paid a P6,000- fee for using the green at Wack Wack and P485 worth of Tee House refreshments, alleged by wags to be “hamburjer sa wack-wack ni abalos”).

It looks like, with Abalos’ signature, Wack Wack may come upon a new meaning to its name, reminiscent of the sound made by a crow, harbinger of omens.

To be fair, the game is beloved by real gentlemen. But even in China, golf has its critics, who call it “green opium” because it ruins green fields better used for agriculture, as well as civil servants who fall victim to a mania for “golf-related corruption.”

According to Asia Times Online, venal communist party officials spend taxpayers’ money in unsanctioned holidays or broker deals with businessmen. One official even died on a golf course while negotiating with potential investors.

Like the majority of Chinese peasants and the Filipino working class, I will never set foot inside a nine- or 18-hole course. But thanks to our politicians, I looked up the word in Wikipedia and learned that golf was first listed as “gouf” under a 15th-century Scottish statute on forbidden games. It means “to strike or cuff.”

Although it has been claimed that golf is an acronym for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden,” I know that is strictly an urban legend. If you want to skip Wikipedia, drop by Malacañang. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 18, 2008 issue

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can fathers become mothers?

AMONG my favorite mothers are the bearded ones.

My friend Roylu recently emailed about being a parent the second time around. Months ago, with silver already streaking his shaggy mane and eternal stubble, he passed by my table at the university to drop off some of his books for adoption, as well as the news that he and wife Anne were leaving for Quebec, Canada.

Then a few days ago, his post to the kulturnatibist group was a lengthy meditation on “hilots,” home births and the Canadian midwives that are regarded as “sage femme,” French for “wise woman.”

Decidedly less scholarly but more effusive, Roylu’s friends zeroed in on a tiny but telling detail of that post. “Congratulations Roy and Anne and unnamed newborn” wrote Mons, Roylu’s other half in performance art.

Days later, the second-time newbie father (first-born Rosa is now an adult) emailed that he, Anne and baby were still in deep conference with a midwife, a breastfeeding specialist and a lactation consultant. The topic: synchronizing the “wiring for the breastfeeding subsystem” that was messed up by Anne’s C-section.

So, seven years after my last nursing, I emailed my friend—artist of lost causes, old but still seething passions and the nearly lost art of surrogate parenting of books—tips for inducing milk despite the odds of surgical interventions (for Anne’s benefit) and wrong gender (Roylu’s).

Was it? Is there really a right gender for parenting? These questions floated near the surface of my thoughts as I gazed at the photo of bawling Baby Luz and Tatay. Except for that giveaway fuzz above his lips and on his chin, Roylu and Luz may as well have posed for a classic portrait of “Madonna and child.”

While it may be biologically impossible for any man to express milk from his own breasts for his child, the pathways of bonding are limitless and deep. “We are just also getting into the rhythm of getting milk ready at the oddest hours since we have to give formula milk as supplement to breast milk,” this Tatay emailed. “Hopefully, we will be on our way to having a 100-percent breast milk-fed, fertilizer- and pesticide-free, organic child.”

More than anything that he wrote in that email—not the length and details, though they are certainly prodigious as he emailed after another nursing episode must have blurred night into dawn—his use of “we” in those bleary-eyed but optimistic closing lines moved me.

Only one pair of breasts may prick and flow in answer to the hunger of this child but it will not only be her mother’s embrace that will soothe Luz back into slumber (and I was not thinking of a battalion of lactation experts).

Children do need both parents, as traditionalists are fond of saying. But neither male fathers nor female mothers have exclusive domain on the nurturing, healing and freeing love that any child needs to grow into becoming his own person.

I’ve lost track of the parents I admire: their number, gender and creative configurations. There is the single parent explaining to his child that their family picture has one adult less compared to the families portrayed in the photographs submitted by his child’s classmates: I’m your mother and father at the same time so there’s only one of me, not two of us.

There is the insomniac writer who spun poetry, trawled the blogs, and threatened to beat Nick Joaquin at being Nick Joaquin with the bottles until the arrival of his sons. Then my friend used his sleeplessness to change every soaked nappy and bring his sons to his wife’s side for nursing so she could drowse on and wake in time for her morning classes.

Psychologists and sociologists have long debated whether one sex is naturally better at parenting than the other. How does fathering fare against mothering? Should fathers just stick to being masculine role models and leave the nurturing to the women?

To many children, these debates hold no interest. It is not my cooking but their father’s that sends the boys into ecstasy. On this day honoring mothers, I thank the women who’ve nurtured generations—as well as the men whose bosoms have been no less bountiful.

May men continue to face fearlessly a night of nursing and nappy-changing. May they teach their sons to cry and their daughters to dare. May all children honor their mothers and father-mothers. May this circle of love renew itself forever. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 11, 2008 issue

Saturday, May 03, 2008


I WAS proud to correctly say the word to the clinic receptionist. Had I not tirelessly wound my tongue around the word--"circumcision"--so that I could make it less cumbersome when I first mentioned it to Juan exactly a summer ago?

But after pronouncing it to the young woman setting down our May 1 appointment, as well as to the roomful of patients bored from waiting for the surgeons, I realized that I only chose the English word to put some distance to an inevitability I had not fully accepted.

When another clinic staff bade my nine-year-old son to approach the scales, the receptionist casually remarked to her companion that he was scheduled for "tuli." She repeated the word again when another mother walked in, pulling along a worried-looking boy . "For circumcision, Miss." "Okay, Ma'am, P1,500 'ang tuli'."

Lack of respect for privacy may be typical in the country, not just in its clinics. But in the case of circumcision, the informality approaches the level of unblinking acceptance with which one follows the habits of the sun, the falling behind of salaries from rising prices. Isn't circumcision more than a medical procedure? It is an age-defining summer ritual, painful, more dramatic and thus more prestigious than the May procession of young girls dressed up as angels. As they say, the blood and sweat turn it into what it is: a rite of passage separating the men from the boys.

When Juan made the decision to get circumcised this May, it was partly driven by the self-consciousness he faced while showering with his classmates or facing down the teasing of his older brother. But he picked the specific week for the appointment after we went on a trip to the south, where we saw several boys wearing oversized shirts in the towns we passed by. Though the shirts reaching below their knees made them seem like girlish caricatures, they must have convinced Juan to finally get it over with. Playing tag, watching the passing buses or licking an ice drop, these boys must have towered like free men, liberated finally from one crucial test of manhood.

What should a mother of sons do, for whom the rigors of manliness seem such a messy business that should involve only gladiators, not boys whose head still smell of hours of playing under the sun?

I emailed my sister, lucky to have only daughters who will never have to put up their fists to challenge chants of "pisot (uncircumcised)."

In Australia, my sister emailed back, nearly all doctors do not perform circumcision as it is perceived as having few clear benefits. The operation is lumped along with genital mutilation and found to be abhorrent. Only a few Pinoy doctors will perform it; many parents who want their sons to be circumcised have to return to the Philippines. Since complete healing takes place from two to three weeks, it is a steep expense for those opting for this.

Some of my sisters' relations and friends have decided not to have their sons circumcised. They will teach their boys how to clean the area covered by the foreskin. In older boys and adult men, the foreskin naturally retracts to facilitate proper hygiene.

In the land of "tuli" and "pisot," there is no real contest. I sat for hours in a room where women talked about rivers of blood gushing from a nicked vein and tips for preventing "nagkamatis (swollen like a ripe tomato)"--wear a brief until full healing, do not throw a tomato at the bandaged member, grant whatever the boy wants before, not after, when he will take forever to waddle to places.

When Juan sauntered out with his father, I understood why they still make movies about gladiators, never about their mothers (unless you can squeeze a statement from someone in a dead faint). 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 4, 2008 issue

Unbearable brunt of baring

I ADMIRE, for a change, the politically incorrect spokesperson of the Cebu Archdiocese, Monsignor Achilles Dakay.

Just when the furor over the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center (VSMMC) “surgery scandal” seemed to abate, Dakay barged in again and ruffled a lot of feathers by stating that the “main issue” was not the medical professionals’ lapse of ethics but the patient’s homosexual act.

“We are asking everyone not to forget or to bypass the main issue: The wrong act of a guy with another man,” quoted Dakay as saying during a Radio Veritas interview. “People are not talking about what happened before the operation—the homosexual act that was done very badly.”

As expected, the bias and judgment read into Dakay’s pronouncement—against the victim, against homosexuals—whipped up another tempest. On top of the social and sexual discrimination suffered by “Jan-Jan,” the alias given to the VSMMC patient, gay rights activists have pointed out his third-time victimization at the hands of this perception, aired publicly by the preternaturally unflappable monsignor but privately expressed by many.

Being blamed for “inviting” the YouTube “rape” adds to the trauma of the abuse made public via Internet and TV replays. A friend recently reacted with derisive amusement to a lead that “Jan-Jan” had been “raped.” His “what?” expressed the depths of his incredulity that the patient would resort to this tactic to swing more sympathy, or the resolution of his P6-million suit for damages from the medical team and the hospital, in his favor.

But besides betraying the predictable lie of his perceptions—both of his person and the Church that he represents—Dakay’s sentiments point the public to a more productive line of scrutiny: the issue of safe sex.

Rough sex leads to more than tissue damage and an emergency surgical procedure, as traced in the history of the spread of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids).

Although “Jan-Jan” was the first to publicly bring the sobering consequences of rough sex to Cebu, it must be disabused that his sexual preference is to blame. Rough sex can be done by homosexuals and heterosexuals.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causing Aids is mostly spread through sexual contact. According to many Aids/HIV fact sheets, the biological probability of transmission is higher in anal than in vaginal intercourse.

While “insertive” is less risky than “receptive” anal sex, medical authorities still caution that the partner doing the insertion can also become infected.

Rough sex and rape cause lesions, which increase the probability of HIV transmission. “Barebackers”—homosexuals and heterosexuals that refuse to wear a condom during intercourse—are public health hazards.

There is also increasing evidence that the male-to-female transmission risk is higher in young girls aged 16 years and younger than in older women approaching menopause. Experts theorize that there is “higher biological vulnerability” due to immaturity of the genital tract, specially the cervix.

A person with mouth abrasions or gum disease faces a small chance of being contaminated with HIV through oral sex.

Studies have also shown that HIV risk increases with substance abuse, particularly intravenous drug use and alcohol intake. Drugs and alcohol impair a person’s ability to decide and negotiate for safe sex, which makes one more at risk of acquiring or transmitting the virus.

“A sober barebacker is far less risky than a meth barebacker, who will have sex for days on end with multiple partners,” longtime activist Peter Staley was quoted by New York Magazine in its June 5, 2006 article, “Aids in New York: A Biography.”

“And the sex is rougher. There is more tissue damage.”

The Church has its reasons for desiring that its flock sticks to the straight and narrow. But staying away from rough lovin’ is also sound for your health and your partner’s. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 26, 2008 issue

Then and now

IN THE future, historians will have an easier task of examining us. With so many now taking videos on their mobile phones, will there be a lack of evidence to indict us?

Yet there is this paradox concerning technology. In the recent controversy involving some doctors and nurses of the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center (VSMMC) being probed for violating the privacy of a male patient, one realizes that the means for empowerment may leap and bound, but the subjects for empowering may still limp behind.

In TV replays, a video showing the VSMMC medical staff laughing, hooting and recording while a canister is removed from the anus of a male patient leads to lopsided comparisons:

Were these professionals who sacrificed effort, years and resources to practice a vocation ennobled by the power to relieve suffering and save lives?

Or did we just witness mob frenzy, the mindless tyranny that lynches a person and howls from some base gratification unknown in beasts?

What contrast can be starker than those healers’ behavior and the pristine uniforms covering their faces and hands?

On the other hand, what can be grosser than the similarity between the part of the anatomy being operated on and the like-sounding hypocrites that might drive Hippocrates to disavow collegiality?

What does a teaching institution like VSMMC inculcate in its interns and staff? That extraction of foreign bodies is less difficult and more enjoyable than issuing an apology (the male patient was operated on last Jan. 3; as of Apr. 16, hospital authorities have yet to conclude an internal probe and decide whether an apology is due)?

In possession of technology, do we necessarily advance?

Four centuries ago, the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Alcina, crisscrossed the Visayas. He nearly perished from sea mishaps, disease and hostile encounters. After more than 30 decades of recording and writing, he left a monumental and unrivalled documentation of prehistoric Bisayans.

Alcina recorded, among others, the religious and social prominence of effeminate men called “asog” or “asug” in the 1600s.

Another priest, the lexicographer of Bisayan terms, Mateo Sánchez confirmed that, along with the women, these “asug,” “bayug” or “bayugun” were the ancient ministers of native idols. The differentiation was so distinct that there was a term for men who ended up living as women: “asugasugan.”

Father Sanchez wrote that men who were cowardly were not called asug but “bantut” or “buyayaw.” From this, we can infer that effeminacy was not looked down upon. Using the same term to refer to animals that do not produce offspring, ancient Bisayans considered the asug as a force of nature, not an aberration.

In precolonial Philippines, the asug, like women priestesses and sacrificers, were respected. Although they were incapable of entering marriage, asugs wore their difference with distinction. Father Alcina wrote that the asugs even wore “lambung,” a skirt that went down to the feet “so that they were recognized even by their manner of dress.”

He observed that “all those who were such, performed their tasks of sacrifice because the ‘diwata’ chose them for this ministry, they believed.”

After more than 300 years of languishing in Spanish archives, Alcina’s obra was translated and annotated by two priests in 2004. Dense and voluminous, his work has yet to seep into classroom lessons in history.

In contrast, the VSMMC episode was instantaneously captured and transmitted by camera phones, uploaded in YouTube, then removed from the popular site, but uploaded again in the wake of the current controversy.

Far from correcting, technology may even abet our misshapen, lopsided collective memory. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 19, 2008 issue