Saturday, May 23, 2009

Season for swine

IN the 1980s, for our TV production class, we had to shoot our video assignments with a monstrous, hideously heavy U-matic camera.

The camera settled like a baby whale on the shoulder. An umbilical cord attached the cameraman to his or her assistant, who lugged a recorder, which resembled in size and weight today’s CPU with a strap.

Since our crew also included the writer, production assistants, talents and the inevitable director on panic mode, it was impossible not to notice us when we shot on campus. Even if you ignored our querulous bunch, you could still trip on one of our cables.

Had videography stayed at the level of state-subsidized TV production classes, would we be having today’s problems with surreptitious recording?

In an operating room and itching to record while a medical specialist removes a canister inserted in a body orifice during sex? You’d think twice with a U-matic camera seesawing like a baby Orca on your aching shoulder.

Tempted to preserve more than memories of a private encounter? You’ll have to blurt your aspirations to star in a homemade video romp when you enlighten your partner that the cables hanging from the ceiling are not exotic vines to swing from for bedroom acrobatics.

However, unlike confused mortals, technology follows only one arc: from advanced to more advanced.

In just four decades, the world has had a whirlwind affair with its toys. After its fascination with the U-matic, introduced in the 1970s as the world’s first videocassette system, the world moved on in the 1990s to discover the digital video camcorder, then the digital camera, the camera-ready phone and other gadgets.

Even to the technically inept like me, one difference stands out in the march of technology: the more sophisticated the gadget, the smaller it becomes, as if the infinite objective of technological advancement is to reduce the physical to the point of invisibility.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my future grandchildren will chuck away my storybook present for one of those nifty spy dots with which they can betray their parents so the State can lock them up for life and kids can sleep whenever they want to, with no curfews and no homework checks.


We can’t pine for the past as we can’t blame technology for our quandaries. The Canister Case wasn’t brought on by a camera-enabled phone and You Tube; a breach of professionalism and an utter lack of compassion led to that end. In every sex video scandal, the public outcry is over the public humiliation, not the private depravation.

Accessory to our crimes, technology is also a witness to the sins we publicly embrace and the ones that remain unconfessed.

There is now a hue and cry for laws to regulate cyberspace and curtail video pornography. Where are the confessions for deceptions and betrayals? One man can righteously accuse another for using technology in a “betrayal of womanhood;” the same accuser dismisses his own lapses as “weaknesses of the flesh.”

Why, because there is no videotape? Only the deed that is captured in digital images, replicated, pirated and downloaded demands a public breast-beating? Do we know atonement?

As technology tests the limits of visibility so does our sense of guilt. The infinite goal of our morality is to be, like the mobile phone, thin, thinner, gone. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 24, 2009 issue of the “Matamata” column

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rules of entry

DON’T get into a situation.

Some years ago, I heard two views on surviving sex on the streets. A non-government educator on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections advised sex workers to start negotiating with the customer on using a condom while still in the taxi.

He explained that the seller and the buyer were more likely to focus on “business matters” in the taxi. Baser instincts would take over when the two found themselves in a private room.

This negotiation tip made sense until I heard two sex workers scoff and laugh at the notion that a customer would allow himself to be bundled into a “raincoat” and led to a room like an obedient preschooler on the first day of school.

While waiting for her weekly hygiene exam, this street veteran told me that the best way to avoid bodily harm was to “avoid getting into a situation.”

She actually used a sly Cebuano expression redolent with at least a dozen interpretations: “Ug nganong ni-enter (and why enter)?”

I recalled these views when I recently read about “another” US serviceman being accused by “another” Filipina of rape “again.”

In 2005, a Filipina the media named Nicole accused Lance Corporal Daniel Smith of raping her inside the Subic Freeport. Smith was later convicted of rape and sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment. This April, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision after Nicole recanted her allegation.

Last Thursday, another Filipina, tagged by the press as “Vanessa,” accused a US soldier of raping her in his hotel room on Apr. 19.

Although separate and unrelated, the two cases overlap and merge. To many, Vanessa’s story is unsettling as an echo of not just Nicole’s frustrating search for justice but also of the disputable justness of her victimhood.

There are similarities in the situations that preceded the abuse alleged by Nicole and Vanessa. Both Filipinas met the Americans in a bar. Both socialized with the Americans, with Nicole drinking and dancing with Smith and Vanessa and her friends later going to the soldier’s room after making his acquaintance, going home only on the following day. Both Pinays willingly left the bar with their new acquaintances for a private setting (on the second night of their meeting, The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reports that Vanessa expected their friends to join them in the American’s hotel room, and she tried to leave the room when it became apparent no one was going to show up).

Even considering the differences of culture, the act of voluntarily entering and staying in an acquaintance’s private room must have a very, very narrow range of interpretations. For anyone walking into such a situation, the street veteran’s remark, “nganong ni-enter?,” is not off the mark.

The comment assumes a different significance in the light of Vanessa going public about being violated, identifying her abuser by his nationality and occupation, but stopping short of filing a case against him. The women’s group Gabriela said that Vanessa was disheartened by the difficulties endured by Nicole.

“(Vanessa) just wants to bring out her pain and hurt. In a way, it’s a form of justice,” commented lawyer Evalyn Ursua, according to the PDI.

Rape’s emotional and physical scarring is nothing compared to the public flagellation endured by a victim during trial. Yet, a case filed in court gives the accused a chance to prove his innocence and clear his reputation, an impossibility in trial by publicity.

Formally charging the accuser she named John Jones will not only send out a message that victims will not be cowed into denial and silence but will also open a chink in the public’s cynicism and dismissal of Filipinas who cry rape and later recant. If you cannot avoid a situation, you have to see things through.

Otherwise, “nganong ni-enter?” 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column for May 17, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The weight of men

ARE we really now kinder to mothers?

Returning to the city from the countryside, the first newspaper I open in days ran ads touting “Mother’s Day” on May 10.

The visual cliché of husband, son and daughter gazing up at a beatific female was incomplete. Wouldn’t it be mirroring also other truths to show also a mother with children but no partner? Or a woman with a partner but instead of children, a basin of unwashed clothes? How about splicing images of two or more women and their children, with one male dividing his time (and resources) among his several households?

This country joins other liberated nations in observing “International Women’s Day” on March 8.

But the stories I’ve heard these past days weave not just a thread but a skein of the enduring labors of women as wives and mothers suffering under the weight of men, pardon the pun.

For these field interviews, there was no intention to select the male respondents for their female connections (or disconnections). However, in the space of five days, I’ve met more than a handful of not just unrepentant but cocksure fellows who were happy to confirm that, whether 40 or 80, men’s natural disposition is to be on top.

There is the rolling stone who looks for a local woman as often as he moves to a place to find work. In the two decades that we’ve known one guy, it is bewildering to remember the chronology of his employment unless we associate every posting with his partner of the moment. Asked if he has not tired of this erect-and-dismantle pattern, the stoic shrugs: he needs someone to wash his clothes wherever he finds work.

Another type is the connoisseur who shows no remorse and no flagging despite the years. He appreciates women, flipping open his billfold to show strangers pictures of not his wife or grandchildren but the first love he courted when he was just callow and green, and his latest conquest, now that he is no longer young but still green.

This man is the master of disappearances, hiding the second or the third when the first makes a surprise visit. There is only one sun but there can be many planets; it will only disrupt nature if the planets cross paths and collide. Otherwise, believes this dubious man of science, the planets can revolve around the sun till hell freezes or the first discovers the second or the third.

And then there is the Compassionate One. One fellow meets a former partner one day at the “tabo.” After he compliments the fine looks of the girl his ex is tugging along, the woman replies: she should have your looks as she happens to be yours. The compassionate fellow does better than apologize; he buys his ex a new pair of stone-washed denims and his (now accounted for) offspring, “halo-halo.”

Another guy feels it his social duty to listen to the tales of woe women spin about their imperfect husbands. To wipe the slate clean for his gender, the savior of the world makes up by taking up with the dolorous wives. In two cases, the confessional proved to be the shortest route through a woman’s defenses.

Of course, for the men to live happily ever after, women whip up quite a storm in the backstage. Matriarchs spare the wives but introduce all the children of lapsed husbands to ensure that they know their half-siblings and do not add incest to their father’s cupidity. When a betrayed wife gives up or dies from heartbreak, an offspring, usually a daughter, continues the crusade, pursuing and punishing rogue father and mistresses with that direst of sting: a woman’s tongue.

In one case, neither a daughter’s fury nor a wife’s martyrdom cured a fellow. This connoisseur broke an arm while battling a boa constrictor that slithered into their bedroom. While the septuagenarian was sedated for the major operation to replace his shattered bone, his legitimate children asked the surgeon to include a vasectomy in the medical package. No more wild sowing, vowed one daughter.

He who travels lightest goes farthest, retorted the serpent (slayer) who, approaching 80, is still on top of his world. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 10, 2009 issue

Secret of Montpeller

EXCEPT for several swanky villas hugging the coastline and giving southern Cebu a Mediterranean makeover, I figured the countryside still idled, the equivalent of standing still to the city-born.

Until we had to chase little old ladies.

To interview a former barangay kapitana for a town history assignment, my partner and I left the city at dawn and bridged the southeastern and southwestern mountain ranges by traversing a clamorous, rain-drenched Nug-as Forest.

Looking for the source’s green-and-yellow residence, we must have passed by this house twice before it occurred to us that the source may have described the house as it was first painted, nearly half a century ago.

When the small face appeared at the corner of a curtained window, our guess was confirmed—sunlight and damp can create an indeterminate shade that’s never been sold in a tube—but also our fears: Nang Sebia’s grandchild said her lola left some time ago to carry out some business in the weekly market held near the highway.

It added to my fears when the child said that her lola was returning “dili na madugay (not long).” When one lives attuned to nature’s rhythms—rains coming after the drought, towering trees springing from tiny, shrunken seeds—“not long” can mean anything, from tomorrow till forever.

My partner took the child’s prognosis with stoicism and dozed off.

I counted the mahogany seeds dropping on the windshield and wondered why I ever thought old women were like stuck stones, lichen-catchers.

Then I brightened up.

Unlike men, who will drink, shoot each other, whore and gamble their hard-earned money before sheepishly trudging back to their stolid life in the uplands, women use the cash to buy for the household and immediately go back home before the meat and fish spoil.

Besides, how many 80-year-old women are fearless enough to mount a habal-habal and be squashed by other bodies for the hair-rising ride up these cliffs?

Just then, something ran out of the house. The figure was small like a child’s, fleet on the foot as a mountain goat, and had a head full of pure white hair.

It was also noisy as a bird nearly deprived of its worm, scolding the habal-habal driver that was roaring past the house.

Perching on the seat like a monkey, the figure took out orange flowery slippers from its skirt’s pockets and placed them on her feet.

Only then did I realize I was looking at a little old lady.

After the habal-habal blasted off, I shook my partner awake and said the quarry had escaped and we must give chase.

He said that was not the mother but only a daughter or sister.

But, of course, he started the car because there is nothing that scares men more than the mouths of women.

In the next barangay, we asked for information from an old woman waiting outside a roadside store. We waited for her to first tell us her theories on where the person tending the store was most likely to be.

Then we in turn told her who we were looking for and our reason for seeking her.

Meanwhile, she had rolled a tobacco leaf, found a match and lit it.

Now convinced that Nang Sebia was still down in the tabo, I kept my eyes peeled for a little old lady roaring up these slopes.

Minutes later, three habal-habal bikes did indeed blast past us, all loaded down with all sizes and shapes of little old ladies clutching on to bags and dear life.

Only by averting his ears from perilous proximity with my mouth was my husband finally able to coast into the crowded tabo near the highway.

I was certain that searching for Nang Sebia was a lost cause, that she was as elusive as the legendary Maria Cacao, fairy queen disgruntled with an ungrateful world.

Suddenly, my partner braked, threw open the door, and ran out, shouting.

I wondered if he, too, was going to do a Maria Cacao on me. But it turned out he finally saw the kapitana.

After the usual interminable explanations, Nang Sebia stepped down from behind the habal-habal driver that was leaving for the uplands. We found an eatery with a spare table.

I was dying to ask her if the women of Montpeller had discovered the elixir of eternal life, when she looked behind her and asked, in a little old ladyish kind of tone: My packages? I suppose they will be arriving before I do?

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 3, 2009 issue

Romancing the phrase

THIS stall along Pelaez St. makes bouquets for everything, from lovers to wakes.

The stall is called “Blooming Fields,” well-suited for a business that must be a regular earner.

But that’s not the reason why I paused in my walk when I first spotted the stall. Decades back, there was a movie made about the friendship of an American journalist and his Cambodian translator. Their bond enabled both to survive the anarchy that turned the Cambodian countryside into the “Killing Fields,” which is the movie’s title.

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Might that stall’s name been inspired by the movie? Perhaps the owner is a: a) frustrated journalist who believes in immortalizing the power of the pen to make sense of a world gone haywire; b) a ‘60s remnant, a peacenik who unrepentantly believes in humanity; c) a movie buff who still replays the film for that first glimpse of an unknown named Liam Neeson, who fills out a bit role with his thespic and animal magnetism; or d) a bottomline watcher who never watches films just to analyze these, and simply chose the adjective “blooming” because that’s what flowers do best when a load of dried manure is dumped on them.

Such is the evocative power of words.

Mind you, poets don’t monopolize the art of the subtle association.

Recently, the Court of Appeals (CA) coined the phrase “an unplanned romantic dalliance” to justify the dismissal of a lower court’s rape conviction of US Marine Daniel Smith in 2006.

“Dalliance” evokes a particularly Victorian feel, as if the trysting parties are merely half-bored and playing at love, stealing glances or, at worst, a limp kiss, while waiting for one’s chaperone to wake up from snoring in the corner.

Perhaps that is why the courts are the best arbiter of guilt, not fervid writers.

According to Sun.Star Cebu’s April 24, 2009 report, the Court of Appeals made “a careful and judicious perusal of the evidence on record,” which convinced a “prudent mind”—by inference, embracing the courts and rejecting writers—that what took place at the back of a van in Subic on the night of November 1, 2005 was the “unfolding of a spontaneous, unplanned romantic episode.”

I wonder why the CA balked at declaring it was consensual “intercourse” or “sex” (if one prefers the shorter, clearer word). The plain word is easier to reconcile with the images summoned from the testimonies of the rape accuser Nicole and witnesses: the groping in the bar and in the van, the disrobing and penetration while Smith’s companions watched, the street dumping of the partially naked Nicole, the used condom sticking to her jeans.

Perhaps the “prudent mind” of the court rejected these details, sworn and attested to, as being imprudent, creating great risk.

Risk to whom? Perhaps risk to the images created by Nicole’s recent affidavit, made just before the CA’s ruling, in which she confessed to “losing inhibitions” because of the alcoholic beverages she imbibed that night and her own “attraction” for Smith.

In the long history of our country’s relations with the US, the Nicole-Smith episode is a mere wrinkle in time, a pebble in the sea of abrasions (or perhaps, “pea” is the more apt metaphor since it recalls another princess in a fable, complaining about bedside irritations).

For Filipinos like me, though, the case begs answers. What is rape? Is it not rape when an intoxicated woman does not have full control of her mental faculties and thus can only verbally oppose but not strenuously resist a partner who forces intercourse?

Can there be rape when RP-US relations are at stake?

The vindication of Smith seems to redefine a rape victim as anyone other than those who hang out in bars, dance with strangers, leave a public area to enter into the treacherous realms of “spontaneous, unplanned romance.”

For such women, they cannot be called victims: they deserve what they get.

I should not be so surprised. In this country, one can daily walk past the unexpected: florists becoming wordsmiths, and justice moonlighting as romance writers.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Apr. 26, 2009 issue