Monday, July 27, 2009

Open Sesame!

ORDINARILY, a newly arrived package of books sets off a rash of sniffing around the spine and cover, usually to postpone the anticipated first taste of the first page.

However, when I touched the pouch containing the biographies of Isaac Newton and Pablo Neruda, I felt a third unexplained spine.

It was a notebook, nearly six inches by nine, covered in blue cloth, with about a hundred blank, acid-free pages.

On a card inserted inside the notebook, the seller said the notebook was a gift.

The Internet is amazing. Where is the marketplace that can bring together strangers whose purposes cross and match: one person wants to clear his apartment to make way for other books, the other is just dying to read the unwanted titles?

Where else but in this online chaos can the intangible and the impersonal produce a thing as blank but definable, as common but inimitable as a notebook?

Nothing, even on the Internet, can be as magical as a notebook.

In elementary, I used to pass on my school books to a friend who visited our family during summer vacation.

Although she was two or three years younger than I, she pored over those books, a feat that amazed me not only because this was done in summer, a time I used for thinking of creative ways to do nothing. A. told me that in her hinterland barangay, neither her schoolmates nor her teachers had these books or any books at all.

A. just wanted to read my old books because she hoped that, after finishing sixth grade, her parents would send her to high school.

My friend was specially drawn to Math. She spent nearly an entire summer just scanning my workbook before she asked me, a bit hesitantly, if she could also have my old notebooks.

I was about to tear off the unused pages but A. showed me how to remove the staple wires. She painstakingly snipped off the used pages, aligned the trimmed blank sheets, and backstitched with twine to bind a new notebook from the remnants of my old ones.

Today, I see some of my students bringing these “green” notebooks. Some deconstruct old notebooks and create a new one, using saved string or yarn, even shoelaces with neon smileys. In a sidewalk bin downtown, I saw notebooks made to look as if they were handmade.

It’s quite a trend, hip and cool for some youngsters.

All those summers ago, A. was not driven by a trend. She swam against the currents and eddies swirling her family and neighbors round and round their tiny sitio.

When she practice-solved the mathematical problems in my workbooks, she wanted a notebook that would fix in place and hold for keeps all her trials, errors and final solutions.

Doing her Math on loose slips of paper would not have worked. How would she know if she was doing something right if she no longer had the proof when a problem whose solution she had worked out years earlier would suddenly turn up in that remote classroom, by chance, by magic (what else could have made some things materialize in a blackboard in a classroom where no books warmed the hands and opened the minds of teacher and the taught)?

When I think of my friend, now entrusted with the finances of her long-time employer’s varied businesses, I am sure A. unknowingly started something else when she faced those blank, bound sheets as if she were Ali Baba unsealing the doors of the cave of wonders with the cry of magic, “Open Sesame!” 09173226131

* First published in the “Matamata” column of July 26, 2009 in Sun.Star Cebu

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The messenger is the medium

I learned about the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Walter Cronkite from the Internet.

But after reading in one website about the transitions, I automatically surfed the Net for other sites and related stories.

More than curiosity, a need to verify the information fuels my reading.

Despite the power and the glory, the influence they wield over the public and the private, the awards and the accolades, journalists err.

I have to thank growing up during the Martial Law years for this unforgettable insight of media.

But in between reading and then rejecting the crony papers, borrowing and passing around underground papers, Xerox journalism and the alternative press, I also had a class reading assignment on “broadcasting icons,” among them, Walter Cronkite.

This Walt Disney lookalike, a fixture in American households for covering milestones such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Neil Armstrong’s first steps in the moon for mankind, urged everyone who hung on to his words, who trusted him more than any politician, who felt that nothing would shake order and continuity for as long as he would wrap up each day’s happenings, the trivial and the disastrous, with his Zen-like wrap—“And that’s the way it is”— to take to heart the exact opposite message of his TV-conferred image: “'For God's sake don't! Be skeptical. Be careful.'"

Cronkite was quoted as saying this to a fan who exclaimed, after meeting him, that she believed everything he said.

His passing last Friday brings back the memory of that class assignment, specially because now, more than ever, news-mediated realities are our closest approximations of truth.

Technology improves by leaps and bounds. In contrast, public’s trust of media shrinks, sputters, inches forward.

This love-hate relationship must give hope to journalists and the public. For media workers, it’s a challenge to make each article, every newscast matter. For the audience, it’s a call to do more than read, listen and view.

Think, said Cronkite.

Cronkite didn’t reach his peak in this age, jaundiced against journalists, governments, priests, advertisers and all other gods of clay.

He enjoyed a 20-year honeymoon with an American public that was still virginal, starry-eyed and dependent on national TV in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Watching his archived broadcasts on YouTube, I got a glimpse of the iconic shadow cast by the man for whom pundits created the word “news anchor.” Ever the professional, he reported facts, not speculation, and told audiences where the information came from (when fellow CBS reporter Dan Rather filed that Kennedy was dead, Cronkite noted that there was still no official confirmation of the president’s condition).

But such was the man’s credibility and the TV medium’s power to amplify, Cronkite’s handling of his black-rimmed eyeglasses magnified the moments when the news stirred the person beneath that impartial anchor’s demeanor: after he read the flash report citing official confirmation of Kennedy’s death, Cronkite removed his reading glasses, looked down as if avoiding the camera’s intrusion and swallowed convulsively. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience not breaking down then.

Or when Apollo 11 successfully made its lunar landing, Cronkite chortled off-cam, “Man on the moon!” Seconds later, removing his black rims, he muttered “Boy!” and rubbed his hands, like a child just delighted by the magical and the unimaginable.

Yet, what makes Cronkite a giant in my view is that he didn’t believe in the hype his adoring public created around him. He went on field before reporting the news, parachuting in during D-Day and covering the bloody Tet offensive from the ground. Based on his wartime coverage, he spoke out against military solutions, in Vietnam and after 9/11 in particular.

During and after his TV career, he never ran for public office, never endorsed a politician nor any brand of dishwashing liquid.

Until he died at the age of 92, he believed that journalists should take the time to think before opening their mouths, and that the public should think and think again after consuming the news.

Salamat, Mr. Cronkite. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 19, 2009 edition of the “Matamata” column

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The cape is the man

NO man can shoot a priest in cold blood.

When she heard the news that a priest had been shot, apparently a victim of street crime, Yaya rued that he was not in his “sotana” during the accident.

The cassock would have turned away the bullets? I asked, incredulous to hear her state this with all seriousness.

My yaya is approaching her sixth decade, with nearly 50 years of that spent in the city. She regularly tracks the news. None of the issues embroiling the clergy escapes her. Yet, she retains the view that priests are essential, a life without them as unimaginable as a town without a patron saint and a mayor.

Yaya mused: How can a sinner, already blinded by evil, not be stayed by the fear of God if he had no sign that his victim was a priest?

Shouldn’t fear of God put a stop to any thought of taking away any life, I retorted.

Yet, monitoring the follow-up news and commentaries about the incident, I realized that others share Yaya’s view.

For many, the cassock, also known as the soutane, is a symbol whose power of association has ironically outstripped its wearers.

While controversies have pummeled the Church as an institution and its clergy’s lives have been encroached by the vicissitudes of worldliness, the cassock remains virtually unsullied, its associations with purity turning the vestment into a kind of wearable litmus test for the wearer as well as for the viewer.

So though priests, like doctors, live in great intimacy with disease and corruption, the white of the usual cassock seen in the Philippines and other tropical countries raises almost instinctive reactions: Am I clean? What have I done to be clean? What personal stains mock the whiteness I exhibit/witness?

According to Internet sources, a Papal indult (or permission granted by canon law) allows the ordinary cassock to be white in tropical countries. Black is the usual color of house cassocks worn by Roman Catholic clerics.

Another online source points out that Roman Catholic cassocks have traditionally 33 buttons down the front. The number stands for the years Jesus Christ spent on earth.

I’m not sure how many of the faithful know this trivia. But I know that whiteness and its association with purity and the religious is almost an automatic perception among many people.

I remember my late father reacting to the practice of the nuns in my school to wear civilian clothes instead of their habit in the late 1970s. “How will we be alerted to their presence?” worried my father, who was irreverent about nuns wearing mini-skirts and embracing street protest.

In the trigger-happy drug-addled view of street thugs, though, will a cassock still function as a spontaneously activating shield of virtue and privilege?

“Even if we wear cassocks in the streets to show that we are priests, we are never exempted when it comes to death and danger,” declared Fr. Bernardo Oyao to Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil.

Vestil interviewed the cleric, a member of the Young Clergy of Cebu, a group of newly ordained priests, for the paper’s July 11, 2009 story.

Once the daily clothing of priests, the cassock has also undergone political coloring. The wearing of it during liturgical services accounts for the vestments’ association with the traditional roles of priests.

The abandonment of its wearing is justified either for practicality in the face of parish outreach to communities or as a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s association with power and the status quo.

In pop culture, the soutane has not also been exempted from morphing. In “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” a trim and grim Neo mows down enemies and kicks ass, apparently unhampered by his close-fitting, floor-length cassock.

Although many of the faithful still reserve a deep respect for the cassock as symbol—perhaps inspired by etymological roots derived from “cassaca,” meaning “white”—it would not be irrelevant to remember the word’s other origin: “casaque,” meaning “cloak.”

As with all garments, the cassock takes its shape from the nudity it cloaks. 01973226131

* First published in the “Matamata” column of Sun.Star Cebu’s July 12, 2009 issue

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Making a clean breast of it

TO BE born female in this country is to develop a long-term relationship with your holes.

The first holes are sometimes given when a girl has just been born.

The so-called female version of circumcision entails putting a kind of gun against an unsuspecting babe’s head and shooting a stud through each of the pearly pink lobes of the stunned infant.

Doting relatives coo endlessly over christening photos of infants. I’m told that birthstone-studded ears beat a frothy head band in clarifying to one’s large family the exact gender of the youngest addition, specially if she was born with a hairless golf ball of a head.

When a girl is old enough to have a fatal attraction for mini-skirts and the whiplash reactions these extract from male heads, she gets the whole package dumped on her—lectures, sermons and prayers of last resort—about the Hole Down Under.

If she’s smart and observant, a girl will know the chief distinction between her, so far, three holes: the first pair is punctured as soon as possible; the second, only, legally and ideally, after matrimony.

If she finds herself in rebellion with The Rule on the Third, she might discover independence spewing from the fourth hole: her mouth.

In the long, winding interregnum between maidenhood and the final hole in the ground, a woman may be forgiven if she loses sight of her other holes.

After all, in the usual course of life, a woman often has too many things to do to spend a minute just ruminating on the Hole Thing.

If a woman chooses to have a baby, the hole down under becomes from a dark mysterious taboo into a mysterious passage of light, out of which another life will enter into this one.

The complete dependence of another life on her life makes a woman not just see things differently but move entirely apart. If she once covered her breasts chastely or left them half-bared strategically, the nursing mother now regards her twin cones as automatically activated by one hole: the sucking, rooting mouth of her young, imperiously demanding to be fed.

“Teats” is not a politically “in” word. It’s not even a word pornographers use in association with a human.

Yet “teats”—and the imagery of gushing abundance— will cross a woman’s mind when, despite all the oceans of clam soup she has swallowed, her breasts fail to yield even a drop of reddish-stained thin milk for a furious, yelling infant.

During the rooming-in, while the mother is trying to nurse her baby, watched and commented upon and compared by a room full of midwives, nurses and relatives—all female, all wise, all experienced in summoning the flow and squirting milk into generations of gurgling, ecstatic babies—a woman might first experience her first bottomless regret: that instead of puny breasts defined by fashion trends and cup sizes, she had cow udders, dripping with the mysterious miraculous stream that shields her young from nearly everything, from infections to mental retardation.

But as with the others, these holes are programmed for obsolescence. When the children move out and the nest grows cold, these holes are as good as plugged.

Except that she, after spending almost an entire lifetime with holes, finds that the female state of grace is to remain eternally unplugged. 09173226131

* First published in the July 5, 2009 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Goodbye, Joker

WHEN I heard that Michael Jackson died, I thought of that white mask and couldn’t summon any feeling.

When I heard that the King of Pop was 50 when he died, I had to look for the papers to verify what I heard on TV

I’m not a fan, finding him more grotesque in his life—or the bits of it splashed across tabloid pages—than in his “Thriller” made-for-TV video (MTV).

Yet few things can get me lost in the past as the high, clear and dulcet tones of the young Michael of the Jackson 5 singing “Give Love on Christmas Day,” “Ben” and “One Day in Your Life.”

Few things make me cringe as the kitsch of “We are the World” and the sanctimoniousness of “Heal the World.”

His early songs impressed on me the vulnerability and power of innocence.

Yet his strutting and crotch-grabbing, that ludicrous metallic make-believe costume, and notoriety from allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior with boys make me associate that kabuki-white mask with the deviousness of pedophilia.

Knowing how he was terrorized at a very young age by a sadistic and controlling father, remembering how he dangled his infant son over a balcony, reading about his Neverland ranch that drew first the children to its toys, rides and animals and later, dubious sleepovers—he deserved the media moniker of “King of Pop” because, more than other newsmakers, he morphed stories into a kind of hyperreality composed of versions that alluded to but never represented the truth.

Being more shocked that he was 50 when he died than by his dying brings to me the reason why I don’t share in the world’s mourning: enamored with the Joker of the tabloids, I thought the music ended long before it could be despoiled by age and decay. 09173226131

* Published first in Sun.Star Cebu's "Matamata" column in its June 29, 2009 issue

The invisible ones

FATHERHOOD must be the only occupation rated at its best in absentia.

Years ago, I entered a warren of inner-city hovels for an assignment. I found enough strange things to think I was in another world: a city made of cardboard scraps and tarpaulin floating above a sea of ooze, a smell that dogged my steps like a mangy canine out for a bone, any bone, even the one my ankle was still attached to.

It was noon. Women with children were preparing lunch. And the men were just stirring.

Of all the oddities, this was by far the most curious: that all these men—young or middle-aged, fit and able—were not at work.

The bourgeois portrait of fatherhood is all about an empty space beside smiling spouse and children. Fathers provide; mothers nurture.

Women have to be everywhere, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, at work, in the PTA. Fathers go off to work; when they come home, they have a license to disappear into a newspaper, TV set or laptop. When children are told not to disturb Dad, it really means that they are not supposed to question the disappearing acts: to retreat to work, to escape from work.

In that city growing above ooze, I rediscovered fathers.

Wondering what kept them sleeping till noon, I let my bourgeois biases color my assumption. What else but the illegal and the covert must drive these men to follow lifestyles in total reversal to the normal and respectable: while others slept, they worked; while others worked, they slept.

But the sleep-deprived can also include a taxi driver on a 24-hour shift or one plying a jeepney route thrice a week. The night watchmen and the dope peddlers: aren’t both providers, with one difference? If one provides for the family, isn’t that already meeting the all-qualifying criterion for fatherhood?

In incest cases, there is a pattern of women becoming blind to a partner abusing a daughter or blaming the daughter for “seducing” the abuser. Such women would rather sacrifice a daughter or two than jeopardize the survival of the whole family, which will happen if the male partner and breadwinner is put in jail.

Absent fathers or growling guts?

Wandering among the hovels, I noticed how few of the children drew near the men. No male arm or knees dandled an infant.

The kids clustered instead around the women, who, because they were busy with chores, either ignored them or swatted them away and harangued them. When the women’s curses faded away, the children drew closer again to the women, who renewed swatting and cursing.

The only ones unbothered by the press of small bodies in that cramped place were the men. They leisurely stretched and scratched several parts of their body. They chewed on toothpicks. They openly stared back at me, a stranger.

Even when some men are at home, they remain invisible. They cannot find their socks. Their children cannot see them.

Yet when a child runs away, or is caught slitting a stranger’s throat, or winds up slitting his own throat, the family case study specialist will often theorize this reason for wildness: an “absent father.”

But isn’t fatherhood an occupation in absentia?

So the case study writer used one adjective too much: fatherhood is an exercise to eradicate the proliferation of “absent” in modern English usage. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column in its June 21, 2009 issue

Inbreeding and regression

IN OSMEÑA country, an Osmeña recently said that “Cebu cannot prosper if we will have the culture of being attached to one family.”

In Linette C. Ramos and Rene H. Martel’s June 13 story published in Sun.Star Cebu, Tomas Osmeña “frowned” on the idea of an incumbent politician fielding a wife or offspring to run for office.

The Cebu City mayor was reacting to some barangay captains’ plan to request him to endorse his wife Margot, instead of Vice Mayor Michael Rama, for the 2010 elections.

The mayor’s stance is prescient for Cebu and the rest of the country. Not only Cebu City Hall and other local government units are restive during these times.

Citizens, civil society and institutions like the Church have taken to the streets to denounce the renewed plan of administration allies in the House of Representatives to amend the 1987 Constitution through a constituent assembly (Con-Ass).

The popular opposition stems from the perception that the Con-Ass proposal of some administration allies is aimed at postponing the May 2010 national elections and extending the terms of office of all elected officials, including President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, while a new Constitution is being drafted.

Protesters say that the law should be followed, referring to the holding of elections in 2010, as well as the strict implementation of Article II, Section 26 in the 1987 Constitution that prohibits political dynasties.

Yet, despite the legal provisions and the psychic scarring inflicted on the national consciousness by the Marcoses, Estradas, Arroyos and their ilk, why are we still so entangled with political families and their dysfunctions?

Analysts and foreigners say that the Filipinos’ fixation on political families reveals the state of our political immaturity: we may now move in information superhighways but we have retained a remnant of our feudal state. In a primitive agricultural economy where the state is hardly present or too bureaucratic and remote, the community leans heavily on the richest and nearest family that’s willing to help in exchange for labor and loyalty.

If the ties forged by the land ensured that a family ate, endured and died as their ancestors did for centuries before them, what did it matter if the local patron or his sons claimed, now and then, the feudal privilege of imposing their will and securing their interests?

Using this formula, the de Medici family converted their hold in Mugello, Tuscany, a small town in Florence, to an empire that made them the richest and the most powerful family in Europe.

Their power spanned four centuries, from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and then the Age of Discovery.

The name “de Medici” means “a family of doctors,” which, in the 14th and 18th century, could mean healers who tended the sick, as well as “barbers who made plant and herbal potions, drew blood with leeches, made pills, teas or drops from herbal and plant extracts,” points out

It can also explain the family’s interest in botany, as reflected in their prodigious gardens, where many herbs and exotic plants thrived, as well as in the unexplained deaths of their enemies and disliked relations.

The Medici family produced three popes, Florence rulers who shaped Renaissance culture, accounting and banking, strong women leaders, including a queen and a queen consort of France, as well as several members of the Spanish, French and English royalty.

Did the great Medicis have a weakness?

Honore de Balzac famously wrote that the House of the Medici was “the sovereign house with the greatest contempt for legitimacy anywhere in the world.” 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column in its June 14, 2009 issue