Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jealousy and the Pinoy

A SPATE of tragedies makes me wonder if jealousy may rival politics as the national passion.

While refilling grocery shelves, a worker was recently stabbed to death by a rival who suspected the victim of having an affair with the latter’s live-in partner.

Three other incidents in August led authorities to also blame the love triangle.

Approximately a week before the grocery attack, a female call center agent was stabbed to death by her partner, who also turned the knife on himself, in Lahug.
In Lapu-Lapu City, two kids had their throats slashed by their father, who then hanged himself.

In Mambaling, a woman was stabbed dead within hours after reuniting with her family. Her children blamed her live-in partner, who was overheard accusing their mother of reuniting with an old flame.

Psychologists hold that jealousy is part of the human condition. Even five-month-old infants are observed to exhibit insecurity and possessiveness.

But what triggers jealousy, defined as a fear of losing something or someone of value, to leap from self-inadequacy and sadness to murderous rage and an obsession with retaliation?

In the four cases mentioned earlier, the attackers were all males. All suspected their partners of being unfaithful; two were actually left by their partners.

Why was violence resorted to by the aggrieved males? Is it, as sociologists say, due to the primary insult inflicted by their partners against their machismo, the personal sense of identity and honor that decrees men must dominate, at least be regarded as better than other men?

Three of the four attackers were unemployed. Is the act of infidelity also perceived by the male Pinoy as a more grievous form of emasculation, specially when the replacement is younger, employed, better at providing; thus, the alpha male edging out the weaker rival?

Novelists and soap opera script writers always show males fighting to win the affection of their woman. Did it ever occur to the attackers in the four cases to win back their love? By seeking a priest or counselor to help them repair their union; cleaning up their acts and looking for a job; or pleasing their partners in bed, in the kitchen, with the kids’ assignments, in all fronts that matter? Was reconciliation ever considered? Why did everything have to be reduced to “me or nothing”?

Why does a man retaliate against an unfaithful partner by killing their children? According to philosopher Johan Frederik Staal, “runaway evolution” explains why there are masculine characteristics that are exaggerated to single out males as more virile, stronger, the better bet for survival.

So if the peacock can fan out his tail, the rooster strut with his brilliant cockscomb, and the male fiddler crab snap an enlarged claw, perhaps some males regard children as their extensions, proof of paternity and patronage.

The Lapu-Lapu City attacker texted his partner, “You can’t take our children with you because you have hurt them.” Then he slashed the throats of the children, aged four and six. Would it have hurt to ask the children to choose between being betrayed or staying alive? Did he not think he could raise two children by himself?

Perhaps suicide, like male inarticulateness, is not evolution-dictated, only mass media-created. Few things can be as addictive as pining heroines and strong and silent heroes.

But for the sake of those victimized by the runaway green-eyed monster, I hope the stuff of our melodramas can create new machos: one for whom relationships are lifelong processes, not mating competitions; whose self-esteem is not just in holding on to their women but also nurturing families. 09173226131

*First published under the “Matamata” column of Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 30, 2009 issue

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Deliver us

CAN one have two contrasting but gut reactions to an artist?

I first saw “Hapag ng Pag-asa,” a painting showing street kids eating with Christ, being sold as a postcard in the souvenir shop of a church.

Religious kitsch, I thought.

There were other postcards featuring the works of the same artist. Embedding the familiar biblical figure in contemporary scenes, the artist’s attempts to juxtapose material and social deprivation with redemption was as heavy-handed and vexing as a megaphone blaring during a street demonstration.

The postcards were not out of place in that shop selling commodities of varying degrees of piety and sentimentality.

After I made a circuit of the place, I stopped before the postcards’ display and picked up one reproduction of “Hapag.” What distinguished this from a glinting cardboard fan showing a red-and-gold icon or a pretty rosary bracelet with multi-colored stones and a tinkling crucified Christ?

The artist, I realized after some musing. I was curious about the person behind the visions emerging from the brush strokes.

Last Saturday, I joined the crowd milling around the exhibit of Joey Velasco in an uptown mall.

Velasco created “Hapag” and the other oil paintings featured in “Ang Ginoo Uban Nato.”

With a title referring to Velasco’s trademark motif of the Christ mingling with the poor, powerless and anonymous, the “heART EXHIBIT,” as billed by the Salesians of Don Bosco-Social Communications Office, drew many students, teachers and families.

I saw Fr. Fidel Orendain, SDB, social communications officer of Don Bosco Lawaan, and Velasco engage students and other members of a sizable audience in an informal, enthusiastic give-and-take. There was a crowd milling around a long table where poster-sized reproductions of the Velasco paintings were displayed for sale. Autograph-signing was lined up after the program.

After circling the paintings displayed outside, I entered the installation arc and came upon the actual “Hapag,” among other works.

Although they span nearly a decade, the paintings look, in the uniformity of their theme and technique, as if Velasco painted them in quick succession, with short breaks in between sittings.

This would be a glaring flaw, if I only wanted to chart Velasco’s expansion and depth as a painter. But as I understood from the exhibit handouts, Velasco is “more comfortable” about being called a “Heartist” than as an artist.

Seen from his perspective, his paintings attest to his inner journey, as leaves lifted from a journal will document the fall and redemption of someone who recovered from a “near-fatal illness” and mid-life anomie by discovering art and faith.

Understanding the role of social communication—the use of media for a specific social or political purpose—made me see the Velasco works in a new light. Certainly, the exhibit curatorship, which paired each painting with the artist’s reflection and stories behind the works, helped me find something to value beyond the visual clich├ęs and sentiment weighing down a Velasco tableau.

When I was still in my high school skirt and blouse, I saw a newspaper review featuring two works from the Crucifixion series painted by Ang Kiukok. Ugly and brutal, the images stayed with me long after, flashing vividly when I crossed picket lines to cover strikes or penetrated inner cities to write about urban “resettlement.” Asked why he painted with so much anger, most notably during martial law, Kiukok replied, “Why not? Look around you.”

Watching school girls and their parents walk away, clutching their autographed reproductions, I hoped Velasco would deliver them from my Kiukok epiphany.

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 23, 2009 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Curtain call

AFTER the second street performance, my fellow passenger—another woman—interjected: The crazies are crowding the streets. Someone must do something about the price of gasoline!

I was on board a jeepney, one of the many choking the route along the piers.

The heat and the dust had hermetically sealed us in our separate cocoons of catatonia when traffic stalled our jeepney beside a woman bathing at the curb.

With a canister that once held cookies, she was scooping canal water and splashing it on her torso, arms, head.

The man across snorted. Two fellows exchanged comments I could not catch; the grins on their lips did not quite reach their eyes.

The rest of us, mostly matrons wilted from errand runs and young office workers, looked at the bathing woman in silence.

She wore only a pair of shorts. After each pouring, she shook herself, fiercely, like a dog shooting off missiles after the shock of water. Her breasts lashed from side to side, the brown nipples like runny yolks about to slide off the quivering mounds.

One of my nightmares is to find myself walking without clothes among the Monday morning rush hour crowd. Across me, a mall employee used the traffic lull to retouch her face, her compact an open clam revealing small beds of color and glitter.

In those dreams, which I’ve entitled “Retirement Panic,” my nakedness is just one of the details. What I dread is the precise moment the drones notice I am not one of them and turn on me.

So the woman bathing by the curb converted one fan in our jeepney. No marionette could match her mechanical stoop-scoop-splash-shake before a canal swollen from the recent rain. Was this not a bravura performance, I wanted to ask my snorting neighbor: See how the sun lights her up, how the jet-black water clears away and softens.

Sweltering, fidgeting, mumbling, we crawled on. When we stalled again in front of an abandoned commercial building, a woman wiping her naked torso on the steps forced a fellow passenger to blurt out her theory on the mental cost of rising prices.

While her comment drew out the men, seemingly relieved to clutch at reason and argumentation, I watched the woman methodically apply her rag behind her ears, under her arms, beneath her breasts.

Flesh spilled when she stooped over two piles of clothes. From one, she removed an item of clothing, which she transferred to the other pile. Remove, transfer.

A person dressing up or checking out apparel before purchase will hold up an item to spot a flaw or imagine how its features will play up her virtues.

This woman was beyond pedestrian vanity or covetousness. She picked up and piled up as if she was: about to wash them, knowing how clothes are a neverending trap for dirt; planned to burn them, as fire would finally deal with dirt; or was sorting clothes into two piles on a Tuesday afternoon “just because.”

Before The Sorter could break her rhythm to give me a clue, our jeepney moved on. My fellow passengers were now on the proposed jeepney fare hike, arguing with the driver why only fifty centavos, not P1, should be the ceiling as many PUJ drivers were currently not returning the fifty-centavo change for every P7 paid at the present P6.50-rate.

When our jeepney entered the tunnel of dust leading to the mall, the lady snapped shut her compact and the rest of us covered our faces with hands or hankies. If I didn’t clap, it was only because applause is rude in between performances. 0917-3226131

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matama” column, published on August 16, 2009

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The dollhouse

The woman gave a start. The lady she espied turned out to be a geisha doll reflected on the mirror of a cabinet door that swung open.

She was one of the regulars who came to check this seller of usable junk. Cabinets, mattresses, rugs, bicycles, washing machines, freezers, fax machines—still serviceable, these goods were clustered along with their kind in sections marching neatly under the tin-roofed sheds in that sprawling lot.

Then there were the items cannibalized from junk and now grouped with objects having the same shape but different function. So small cowhide balls gathered dust beside multi-colored gashed bowling balls and opaque spheres of stone that could be paperweights or balls in a game the woman had never heard of.

It was her habit to stop first by these oddities, musing to find a reason why the clerks categorized as they did: what did fire hoses have in common with flexible hoses salvaged from discarded machines? Perhaps there was a housewife out there who might improvise a flexible clothesline, convertible for emergency escapes?

Her private game done, she inevitably drifted to the section of the dolls.

The first time she came upon them, she wondered if a museum had fallen on hard times and was forced to auction off its collection, lot by dirt-cheap lot.

There were court ladies swathed in glinting brocade, samurais, noblemen, wooden Kokeshis whose pale, pearl-like surface reflected beneficent expressions. A Meiji period battle horse raised a hoof and cocked its head, the fine, ash-white mane seeming to shiver in the vacuum of its box.

They seemed to have just stepped off a story, conjured from whimsy and so requiring the cases of glass and wood to prevent hands from pawing a lacquered coiffure, arranged in the ginkgo-leaf style, or the gossamer folds of a sleeve slipping a little to reveal a fine-boned wrist.

Wood and silk, stitch and paint, slight enough to disappear in a palm or glowering down on her like a painting come to life—the dolls fell into three or four easy-to-remember categories. No doubt to simplify purchasing decisions, the clerks priced dolls falling below half a foot to a thousand pesos; a bit higher, a few hundreds of pesos more.

Or perhaps, she mused, the clerks just factored more if the glass and wood case was thrown in. Houseless dolls, or parts of it, were in a jumble on one shelf.

During every visit, she invariably noticed women, even some of the men, gawking at the dolls. Then they moved on to the ceramic ware. A huffing clerk once complained he had the hardest work: to find and cluster same plates and bowls because customers liked to buy in sets.

Workmen cementing the ground outside attested that ceramics was one of the shop’s bestsellers. In the doll shed, the ground either invited visitors to wallow in its mud or set off little dust devils that coated finely the unsold display cases. A huge termite mound nearly covered one of the kiri wood boxes.

Despite the smell of damp and the sticky feeling of many eyes on her, the woman lingered longest among the dolls. They were a long way from home, where they were heroes of lore and myth, painstakingly made by hand, keeping faith with the ancient, bequeathed to the young, and now awaiting termites or a buyer.

The woman rarely thought of the dolls without thinking of their creators. But she had no space on her shrinking work table, not even a hundred pesos. She bought a small brass urn for fifty pesos, thinking of the paper clips that could be finally organized, and went home to catch the afternoon news. 09173226131

* First published in the Aug. 9, 2009 “Matamata” column of Sun.Star Cebu

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Yellow rules

STRENGTH assumes more power when encountered unexpectedly.

It rained heavily when I woke on Saturday morning. While I was switching on the laptop, my sons, aged 10 and 15, asked me if it was true that President Cory Aquino died. A Reuters story was the first article to confirm this.

When Ninoy Aquino was shot on Aug. 21, 1983, it was a sweltering Sunday. My father broke the torpor of our siesta with this breaking story, which he first heard from the old Sony radio that he always carried around.

It was one of the few times I saw Papang agitated. He predicted “anarchy” would break out. In the days that followed, the same fear dominated the thoughts of many, specially those who lived through the turbulence before and during Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of martial law in the country.

For my generation of Martial Law babies, the Aquino assassination sent a frisson of anticipation. Finally, it seemed that anti-Marcos sentiment was crystallizing.

The Aquino slaying, a political act unprecedented in blatancy and recklessness, coalesced an unlikely alliance: politicians that seemed just shades darker or lighter than the tyrant residing in Malaca├▒ang, the Left, human rights victims and activists opposing the involuntary disappearances, muzzling of the press and other abuses of the regime.

Our noisy but outnumbered and fragmented group was now joined by the middle class, somnolent, determinedly non-committal but powerful in its resources and influence.

All around, the blinders of non-involvement were being taken off. People who did not boycott Coke, San Miguel beer and other cronies and who could not stop reading the officially sanctioned disinformation in the Manila Bulletin, Daily Express and Times Journal were turning up in the streets. You could hear the whisper sweeping the country, becoming more than a whisper: enough’s enough.

Yet many of us still had our doubts if the nation would be galvanized long enough to end the dictatorship. The cynicism was partly induced by history. We have few rivals in being overwrought but fickle, fervid but forgetful.

And then there was that unlikely figure uniting the Opposition: Ninoy Aquino’s widow, a woman whose soft, quivering and pallid voice could make the most impassioned call for an end to the dictatorship sound like a sonorous, sleep-lulling novena.

To many anti-Marcos veterans, Cory seemed more of an incongruity than a symbol. Her demure yellow callado shifts and yellow-rimmed granny glasses were reminiscent of picnics and old classmates’ reunions, not demonstrations and street polemics.

It was her color that should have cued us. Yellow is often portrayed as the color of cowardice. At its most innocuous, yellow is the sunny hue of smileys. In the palette of protest, no person or party ever adopted that shade, with its associations of betrayal and naivete.

The housewife not only reinvented the color yellow, she changed my perception of leadership. While she repudiated social injustice in no uncertain terms, Cory also stood for dialogue, reconciliation and peace. These were not just political catchphrases either with her.

She stood for the spiritual in an arena that worshipped power and influence. She walked and prayed the rosary when protests often ended in blame-throwing and clashes, even bloodshed. She was religious long before she came into political leadership, a contrast to other leaders who court the religious for political expediency.

And she voluntarily faded into private life, a rare bloom in a jungle that dictates tampering with laws and morality to cling to power.

In keeping with a lifelong class act, Cory Aquino asked the many concerned for her when she was diagnosed with cancer to “continue praying for the nation.”

When she passed away at dawn on the first day of the month that also saw her husband’s assassination and her unforeseen initiation into our country’s history, the rains poured heavily. It was as if the heavens also paid tribute to a soul that did not live by this world’s rules. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 2, 2009 issue of the “Matamata” column