Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The usual suspect

FIRST, the Church.

And now the president, too, wants media to be “agents of hope.”

During the Oct. 17 opening of the P1-billion studio of GMA Network, Gloria Arroyo urged media to “sustain our people’s hope” in the face of a “global economic crisis that is responsible for driving up the prices of food, fuel and rice in the Philippines.”

In the next paragraph, however, the president debunks the country is in a crisis. Although the US is going through an “economic meltdown,” Arroyo says we only “face strong challenges.”

I check the mirror for signs. Whenever I hear doublethink, the cynical journalist in me always rears her head, an unlovely sight.

Doublethink can make two contradictory realities exist in a politician’s mind. As George Orwell wrote in his book “1984,” a fictional political party adopted these three slogans: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

But what did Orwell know? The man didn’t even get the year of the new dystopia right.

So I decide to take up the president’s suggestion, and go undercover in the sunny isles where journalists are loathed to tread.

I choose a day when I don’t have any deadline to beat. One has better credibility as an instrument of positive thinking when future articles are still at a hazy remove and one’s editor has, as yet, no idea what’s going to hit him or her.

I walk around our village. I smell the flowers along the roadside, and end up sneezing from the dust-coated petals.

I drop by a neighbor’s stall of local and national dailies to seek inspiration (and to be honest, some shade to relieve the headache that’s threatening to erupt from this excessive strolling).

Every reporter begins the day by scanning with hope the competition’s coverage. To survive in this business, we hope to have more scoops than our rivals.

I scan all four dailies. I scan them again. The story I’ve hoarded has not come out in the others. I’m alive!

About to give myself one point for giving one person—myself—hope to live till the next deadline, I catch the well-curdled face of my neighbor beside the weathered sign of “No free reading.”

When I walk away, my ears strain to listen to the jingling coins that have crossed over to my neighbor’s palm.

I am no closer to finding elusive hope but am richer by four dailies that I’ve already partially read. My heart plummets.

It zooms up again when it encounters half-way down the evilly cackling journalist that’s just bidding her time to resurface.

When I reach home, I spread the newspapers and read, page to page. I reread a couple of times just to be sure.

I realize then my fatal mistake. Why did I undertake this experiment in the first place? I should not have read the news at all.

Pandora opening the box released all evils except one: hope. The Greeks, in this legend, believed hope to be a weakling but still a risk

What is more dangerous than holding out a lifeline of optimism that life will ever be free of lying politicians, greedy generals, interfering journalists?

Yet what good is there in denying or ignoring the hard truths behind the headlines: “rice crisis,” “financial crunch,” “euro-generals mess”?

Beyond the pittance of her pay, a journalist exacts no influence on economic policies and trends, but she will report on these.

A journalist has no discretion over public funds, but will probe how these are spent or misspent.

Whenever hope becomes a fatality, why do we not look accusingly at those who betrayed, lynched, murdered and bragged with impunity afterwards?

Why do we blame the messenger?

mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131

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

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Flavors and farewells

LONG after the last farewells, our refrigerator still holds out a few tendrils from what seemed like an endless clan reunion.

Poking my head in the ref one morning, I saw dried mango, mango tarts, maringo, barquillos and other delicacies that had to be farmed out among those of us staying put in the country because relatives returning to distant shores could no longer stuff it in their already excess baggage.

Food defines us; it perks up our welcoming and flavors our farewells.

When my grandmother turned 90 last month, she can still thread a needle at daytime but can no longer spend hours in a hot kitchen anymore. But since her sons, daughters, sisters, in-laws, grandchildren and other family members were coming home with their well-wishing, as well as unflagging appetites, the meals that always defined her table took on an even more prominent place.

For the tongue is an unflagging organ of memory.

When returning Pinoys want to see how the city of their birth has changed, the guided food tour is de rigueur for local relatives who want to show off either the new cosmopolitan diversity or the constancy of the city’s culinary heart.

The availability of 101 coffee variations and the most eclectic fusion of food fads still pale to the discovery that the favorite hangout from the old days of cruising the streets from dusk till dawn still serves the best sinugbang atay ug batikon (even if its former habitués are now less free to indulge, much chastened from elevated cholesterol, spiked blood sugar or disastrous HB1AC tests).

But nothing can beat a home-cooked meal for making a Pinoy realize he never left.

Home is in one’s tongue.

It’s not just that home is the only place where one is awakened by the immigrant’s luxury: the sounds and smells of breakfast being prepared at dawn. Or that Pinoy families have a gift for talking, chewing and swallowing at the same time.

Or that home is the only place where, in one of those unexplained miracles, the slow, long and mysterious ways of preparing dishes are carried out by an unbroken line of younger disciples, who, secreting kitchen wisdom from their pores, know that only native chicken can produce the broth that makes the bam-i unforgettable, or that homemade sorbetes demands that a group of sweating men should take turns at the antique ice cream-maker (although the link between male sweat and light-as-air ice cream is less a kitchen secret and more of a family joke).

Distance and time have yet to dull that leap. Among the left-behind pasalubong in the ref, I saw a strange but familiar packet.

Before leaving, my cousins and aunt shared with us some of the special baye-baye delivered by Bayawan City relatives. Smelling of toasted cacao, the candied coconut meat reminded me of an uncle who was unable to join the latest reunion.

We would have gone after the fish down south. But while my uncle searches for a worthy enough fishing rod and we convince the fishes they have to save their strength for the fight of their lives when he comes home, I hope he will look closer at the photographs his sons took during their stay.

It’s unmistakable: images of beaming faces during reunion feasts betray this telltale sheen.

For nowhere but home is the Pinoy most articulate: when his mouth is shut but his heart and guts are bursting.

mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 01973226131

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

No comfort food

WHEN I recently caught my mother in the act of breaking a house rule, I had no choice. I helped her finish a suspicious-looking can of peach preserves.

After several health scares involving lead, melamine and even monosodium glutamate, my fifteen-year-old son now bans all foods that are made in China from the small kitchen cabinet where we store our snacks.

But he cannot ban his grandmother.

Ever since my sister and I were no larger than a plump wrinkled heavenly salty “dikiam,” my mother always kept jars full of these preserved fruits on a recess above her clothes.

When she was trying to work up an appetite (she chain-smoked then), she sucked a seed. When she ate too much, she had another to calm down the threatened revolt.

Whenever she heard my grandmother about to enter her room, in went another black (“dikiam”) or red (“kiamoy”) ball to disguise the smell of nicotine on her breath (by jumping up and down the bed, my sister and I took care of the telltale smoke wreathing my mother).

As I remember of those days, things were simple: it was good to eat and bad not to.

Now, I have to remember with an effort that the act of eating is no longer pure or simple or good.

In 2007, China-manufactured toys were recalled in the United States. Overnight, these pricey imports were the least cool things to be found inside your kid’s mouth.

It wasn’t just because of the choking hazard. US authorities discovered that many of the toys contained a toxic amount of lead.

Ingesting lead can damage brain cells, I reported my Internet browsing to my boys. Though my sons are no longer at an age that can be bribed with a fast food meal that comes with a free toy, I still spent hours trying to recall if they ever, just once in the past, popped inside their mouth the made-in-China fireball-blasting ray gun that came free with their burger and fries.

When the recent mass poisoning cases in China were traced to melamine-positive milk, I reconfigured parenting’s minimum requirements: some chemistry background, journalistic sixth sense and baking know how to detect traces of melamine in the most angelic-seeming “polvoron,” éclair and other milk-based products.

Will this melamine episode rewrite the unwritten rules of amatory food-giving? I have other worries. Our family strolls around the Danao plaza are often punctuated with a P10-plastic cup of streetside mango shake.

When all that mellow golden silk slides down my throat, I don’t have to imagine real mango slices because I watch our “suki” scoop these into his blender. But will I be able to live with, let alone swallow and keep down, niggling questions about his milk?

With my family in mind, buying grocery has become a domestic rigor, a discipline in ferreting. Before putting an item inside my cart, I read and reread its list of contents as if reviewing a resumé. Every bag of noodles is a job applicant that must be interviewed and background-checked in case it harbors some life-altering chemical.

Occasionally, though, my inner rebel throws a fit. Then I remember the bags of candied plum, “haw-haw” flakes, dried black and white melon seeds and White Rabbit candies with wrappers that melted in my mouth. Then, there was no aftertaste: of shoddy consumer product safety, of world trade conspiracies.

While I grant that the past always catches up with us, I didn’t have in mind the long shadow of tainted food imports. Numbered are the days when comfort food meant the bite of sugar and salt, plain water and tart secrets.

mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 12, 2008 issue

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Email from a “kasama”

Dear Dom Pantaleon,

I admit I opened your email last night because of its subject: “Rachelle Mae.”

I wondered if you were reacting to last week’s column, which ruminated on the impact of Cebu Press Freedom Week on student writers, who may or may not be aspiring to be future journalists.

Despite my optimism, I digressed last week on the Sept. 18 death of nursing graduate and campus journalist Rachelle Mae Palang during an encounter with the military in Dauin, Negros Oriental.

I’ve come to expect either sympathy or an argument from readers. I did not expect a “Thank you very much!” from the Pulang Mt. Talinis Front Command of the New People’s Army (NPA).

And the three poems attached with your email sunk me deeper into the unease I feel over Rachelle Mae’s dying.

On one hand, an email is an improvement over the handwritten notes that were handed down by different couriers during martial law. An email is more readable despite one’s glasses, which, though old and familiar, tends to blur scrawls, especially those made in white heat (or should I say, revolutionary fervor?).

But I am now 43, less romantic than I was at 16 and just initiated to Emman Lacaba, Fr. Ed de la Torre, Pablo Neruda and the libertarian theologists.

Now, when I open an attachment emblazoned at the top with red fonts, I think, “cool,” and ask my older son to show me which software can make the same letterhead. The graphics remind me of graffiti sprayed by spelling-challenged punks or a movie victim’s last message, scrawled in blood.

Once, long before Red letterheads became the vogue, letters passed from hand to hand were also typed. Pica or elite. More often than not, pica was used because the portable models used the larger type (a portable typewriter made it possible for a friend to type tracts while hiding in the hollowed-out middle of a bamboo stand, but a university dancer lost her bearing after years of moving from place to place, even during raids, with a typewriter strapped to her back.)

Emails do not have personalities like a letter. Once, one learned to watch out for quirky signs to establish a letter’s authenticity; one group’s typewriter’s “s” key always jumped and left a space after it so “kasama” became the vaguely patriarchal, reactionary “kas ama.”

Your email could have been sent by anyone: punk, trying-hard movie victim or Red fighter of the NPA Pulang Mt. Talinis Command.

I confess that when I opened the attachment, “HALAD SA MGA MARTIR.DOC,” I worried more about potential virus. After scanning the three poems, I sent my standard reply: thank you for your contribution. I no longer edit for a paper but you may wish to contribute this to…

It is hours since I emailed my reply. I am still uneasy.

I realize now my mistake of seeing the forest for the trees. I should not have worried over the contradictions in who you said you were: a “Red fighter” whose nom de guerre of “Ka Dom Pantaleon” includes a title synonymous with “don,” adopted by royalty and Church hierarchy since the word’s root lies in the Latin "dominus," meaning "lord” or “master."

I should not have searched for authenticity in the empty militancy and stiff imagery of your poems: “Build peasant organizations/ In the heat of agrarian guns.” I fail to see how a poem entitled “S.O.W.” (for the revolutionary jargon of Solid Organizing Work) can be a tribute to fallen comrades.

I don’t write poetry. (I have too much respect for it.) I don’t believe in making a religion out of martyrdom. (We are diminished by any death, Red fighter, soldier or bystander.)

Dom Pantaleon, stay alive. Write and do not line your grave with a tired cause and petrified metaphors.

mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 5, 2008 issue