Saturday, November 28, 2009

What is owed

EMILIANA Catipay Catubig had a choice few are granted.

She chose the manner of her going.

Tuesday afternoon. The 89-year-old woke up in her own bed. She was in the house her late husband, Gregorio, made for her. She first entered it as a bride of 18.

Now, after a lifetime of farming, livestock raising and housekeeping for a husband and 11 children, she hardly left her home now. She distrusted motorcycles for hire and disliked asphalt and cement, which made her feet swell.

That Tuesday afternoon, before the dream of Gorio even left her, she told her daughters, Santa and Pastora, to get ready. They had to go to the Poblacion in Samboan the following day.

We’re going to buy more rice; a lot of people will be coming here tomorrow.

This is what Toring recalled her mother saying, when she recounted this story later to the others who came home as soon as they knew.

When Emil said that their father had called out to her in her dream, her Toring blurted in Cebuano: don’t go, Ma, don’t listen to him.

In answer, Emil said she wished to wear the dress her children gave her during their golden anniversary.

If it’s going to be hard to put me inside it, just put the dress over my body, she directed.

Then she asked Toring to comb her hair, Antang to wipe her body with a wet cloth. The women changed the house dress their mother wore for a fresh one. When Antang went down to fetch something from below the house, Emil leaned against the arm Toring braced to support her, and passed away.

To contrast with our arrival in this world—violent, bloody, screaming—our departure from this place should afford us some kernel of solace.

Can’t death be at least tranquil? A homecoming without the fuss, a gentle slipping away to sleep? Winding down the story to return to that cocoon of unbeing before the spasms shook and expelled us, before we got pushed out to this world of light and noise and tumult.

Last Tuesday proved me wrong and correct. While Nang Emil left this world to enter her dream, I was following the news for the body count in Maguindanao.

From the 40 first reported as abducted last Monday, the media reports rapidly spiraled into a crescendo of infamy: 21 bodies found, which became 24, then 35, and, as of last Friday, “at least 57.” Never until now has the qualifier, “at least,” been unequalled in its power to chill.

In this country, a death is an occasion to celebrate the dead among the living. Travelling by bus, motorcycle and foot, Emil’s family, friends and neighbors gathered within hours to keep vigil, fulfilling her foreknowledge that more rice would be needed in her household.

While a son and neighbors made her coffin, stories were told and retold; even jokes, swapped. A modest woman who only ventured out to till and hear mass, Emil was known never to turn down a neighbor in need, ready to share milled corn or meat preserved from the fiesta.

Five days after the abductions, a colleague tagged me on Facebook for the names of the 32 journalists massacred in Maguindanao. One is still unaccounted for. I’ve tried to look for the names of the other victims, if only to fight the numbing chill of a deathwatch-by-the-numbers.

Each of the victims was a person. Each had a family, loved ones for whom the vigil will be an unquiet one, not broken by remembrance and jesting, a mourning that will not end with the burial.

Last Thursday, the sun shone when Emil was brought down to the Poblacion for the last time. A downpour nearly drowned out the priest saying last rites in the church. But the sun was out again when the community walked to put her to rest in the local cemetery.

Uneventful, ordinary. A suitable passing that’s denied the 57 Maguindanao massacre victims, “at least,” their families, our country.

For what is owed, let there be then no forgetting; no resting until the rule of law brings the murderers and conspirators to justice.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 29 “Matamata” column

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When words eat us up

IN THE age of borderless connections, we celebrate disconnecting.

Around Christmas, the New Oxford American Dictionary announces its Word of the Year (WOTY).

For 2009, the WOTY is “unfriend.”

Explaining their choice in, Christine Lindberg attributed the new verb’s “real lex-appeal” to its “currency and potential longevity.”

The senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program traced the origins of the unlikely verb to the act of demoting a friend in online social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.

In her online column (, The Huffington Post’s “Friendship Doctor,” Dr. Irene S. Levine, observed that “the act of unfriending (or defriending) is part of the normal pruning process of maintaining a presence on social media… It's easy to collect more friends than you want or need.”

Levine cites possible reasons for this reversal of electronic affections: “if someone posts too often, bores you, lurks without posting, has questionable politics or ethics, says something caustic or insensitive, acts unpredictably, or even uses too many exclamation points.”

The speed of connecting and disconnecting on the New Media has left me— still does—hopelessly panting and choking in virtual dust.

I learned to text only in 1996 when the husband threatened to cite my anti-technology mindset as an “irreconcilable difference;” sent email without my sons-slash-instructors watching, in 2000; and finally posted in my Facebook Wall, without my 11-year-old teacher hollering in frustration, just this September.

As a blogdie (my moniker for oldies who finally create a web journal or blog), I use merely shovelware, having never uploaded material I’ve written only for the Web.
Yet, even if I am simply cutting and pasting my columns from our website to my blog, I still go over a piece I’ve already edited several times before emailing this to my paper’s opinion editor.

Growing up with books and newspapers, I believe the published word is a commitment.
Before passing on information, a writer must verify with many sources. To write with nuance and insight, you must connect to hidden, more difficult pathways: remembrance, experience.

Writers must do their best to get it right the first time. An error demands you make amends: apologize, correct, move on.

But for as long as a copy exists, a mistake can have a life unanticipated by its creator. Lies bloat and float.

On the Internet, hit the “delete” button and empty the bin. It’s that easy to trash. Or unfriend.

Yet certain online content is indelible.

On Nov. 3, Celebrity Nation TV uploaded a video showing Manny Pacquiao driving away from the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show. Beside him, an unidentified woman passenger shields her face from the fans and paparazzi.

After the Nov. 16 thanksgiving mass, “TV Patrol World” aired a footage of Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, crying and then rejecting the boxing champion’s embrace during the “Peace be with you” segment.

If you missed these videos on their original portals, Youtube preserved these. If you’re not wired, you can’t miss the tabloid speculation, the radio buzz, the roadside gossip. By way of different channels, the “Manny, Jinkee and Krista” circus was spread.

The more virulent of media viruses do not confirm before crucifying; they damage by allusion.

Viewers razed a TV network for airing the “Crying Jinkee” footage because, allegedly, Pacquiao was not part of its TV family. But the other network that exclusively aired the Pacquiao fight but did not air the Jinkee video was also panned for, allegedly, failing to live up to its company motto of “no bias, no slant.”

Even a learning institution was pilloried for featuring Krista the starlet in its infomercial touting the university’s motto, “Man for others.”

Given the roadkill left by videos rampaging on the Information Highway, another new verb might be handy: “vidhex.” Mommy Dionisia can blame her son was vidhexed, cursed by videos and not by his own poor timing or self-control.

Did I call it a verb? Perhaps, it’s a noun, as in a scapegoat. 09173226131

* First published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 22, 2009 issue

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In defense of mania

I WAS shelf-shocked.

One afternoon after class, I swapped lunch for a visit to one of my haunts for used books.

My mind was on finding body parts investigated by Kathy Reichs’ forensic anthropologist, Temperance “Bones” Brennan, when I spotted the greenblack spine resting on top of a pile of mint covers.

Breathe in, out. That’s what Tempe did when she came upon the freezer holding a serial killer’s collection of meticulously labeled plastic bags, mementoes of various kills.

Except that the book, age-mottled and seemingly abashed to be in such bright company, made me empathize more with the human predator, scanning lovingly such ghastly souvenirs and relishing the memories.

Was it possible that the gods of bibliophilia were smiling on me? Had I exchanged cold tuna and rice for a rare and valuable find?

Alas! The book did not turn out to be the Gutenberg Bible or even Shakespeare’s First Folio.

According to its title page, the “Het Boek der Psalmen” was published in Amsterdam in 1905.

By five years, it’s on the wrong side of the 19th century, which demarcates the period interesting to antiquarian book collectors.

A few years ago, I interviewed John, who now lives in Cebu but stores his treasured collectibles in another country he would not even disclose.

Unlike the rest of us who read books to breathe and only incidentally beg, borrow or steal something to read, John, due to his book trade and his proclivities, lives to dive to the bottom of bargain bins on the chance of bumping into, say, a first edition or, better yet, a handwritten artifact made before 1455, when Europeans discovered printing and first used the word “edition.”

While John confirmed that it does seem that the country is not as crazy about reading as texting or running for public office, he said we were at least conducive for book hunting and collecting.

Book sales and secondhand booksellers in the country ensure that books are still energetically sold, exchanged, even occasionally hurled at incorrigible readers in one of their deaf-to-the-world trances.

John the Collector impressed me, but I remained dubious. Aside from inescapable chores and bills, termites and humidity cool the passion for collecting books in this clime.

Surrounded by public schools without libraries and children who have never lost themselves in a book, it is also a sin to cling to bibliomania, the mild (only because it is not criminal) disorder dictating the compulsive accumulation and hoarding of books.

Then there is the Filipino value of “pakikisama,” or coexistence, which warns you to leave space in the marital bed for the person you marry, who will not take kindly to being displaced by any stiff-backed rival with perfect binding.

But a 104-year-old book of psalms converted me.

The first collectors in England moved to rescue books when the minions of kings plundered and stripped the monastic libraries.

Book collecting may seem downright exotic in this country, where public purses favor libraries less than flyovers and waiting sheds.

The volume I weighed on my hand was not owned by Voltaire, whose ownership made priceless his copy of an 18th-century book written by an author no one remembers.

Though neither bowed nor shelf-cocked, from resting crooked in a cabinet, the psalm book has its collectible value further reduced by the provenance written on its brittle flyleaf: “Minnie De Zeeuw, March 27, 1908, 12th birthday.”

This volume’s endpapers are stuck and torn; many pages, dogeared. Like a luckless fading beauty, the book has not escaped foxing, the brown spots that will someday tan as a prelude to crumbling.

Worst of all, the book is in Dutch and nearly covered in musical notes, two languages locking me out.

So why did I bring her home with me? Perhaps it was the price: P50. Curiosity about its first owner, Minnie-who-would-be-113-years-old-had-she-lived-till-now.

And a feeling that the obscure can illuminate; the deranged, enthrall. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 15, 2009 issue

Skewered symbolisms

Judging by its bumper sticker, this Multicab I spotted during rush hour dreamed big: “When I grow up, I want to be a dump truck.”

Hours later, even after a grueling morning and a delayed lunch, I still had the chuckles when I recalled that wee car and its owner’s Goliath-sized humor.

I wish the same bug bit the brains behind those political ads.

Night after night, they’ve thrown everything at hapless voters eating their doomed dinners. Everything but humor.

From-rags-to-riches Manny. Loren Kalikasan. Chiz the Chipmunk. Now-showing-Erap. Noy and the Fireflies, flipsided with Galing at Tiyaga.

One night, I caught myself wondering if it was spray net or glue that kept Noynoy’s top strands from rearing up and flickering their forked tongues in the combined heat generated by the native torches in that sing-along ad.

Then I became ashamed. I missed the point.

The message wasn’t about not letting the journey towards democracy ruffle one’s hair. I think it was about the son of Cory and Ninoy not being overshadowed by overpriced imported lampposts.

Still niggled by a feeling I missed the ad’s subtlety, I consulted the third edition of “Media Effects Research” at the excellent library of St. Theresa’s College.

According to author Glenn G. Sparks, researcher and teacher at Purdue University, media effects research holds that there are two ways to convince people. The central route to persuasion appeals to reasoning.

However, this high road has the disadvantage of stimulating people to think of arguments to counter the persuasive message.

The cognitive approach to persuasion is particularly limited with audiences that perceive the message as counter-attitudinal. When you are exposed to something that is contrary to your beliefs or attitudes, you are naturally critical, defensive and combative.

Does that mean ads are useless on political foes?

Villar’s ads meet the two values of successful propaganda, as laid down by Fritz Hippler. According to Sparks, the mastermind of Nazi propaganda attributed Hitler’s success to his campaigns’ simplicity and repetition.

I’ve lost count of the ads multiplying Manny the Compassionate during primetime. I don’t remember the other dramatic personas he projects through his ads.

But I can confidently hum the ditty accompanying the little girl miming her way around one of the townhouses constructed by a Villar-owned company. So whenever the TV screen shows the latest paid-by-friends-of-Villar ad, testimonial or pseudo news story, I supply my own background music: “Bulilit… bulilittttt (small person).”

If not for foes, are political ads then for one’s supporters?

Sparks writes that fear, guilt and humor may be used to reinforce persuasion. The third element specially disarms people, a good tactic in these joke-ready islands.

But a joke that’s gone too far may be something that wasn’t one in the first place.

Noynoy’s overproduced MTV spotlighted the showbiz “friendships” forged by his popular youngest sister. In this glitzy sphere, perhaps the makeover of Noy’s sparsely furnished head was inevitable in the footages, even in his cut-out image sprayed on a yellow banner.

Noy’s media handlers should know that his believers (count me in) don’t mistake Noy the Wispy for Noy the Wimp. Those few straying strands covering his noggin might be all that distinguishes his profile from that of a mushroom, but I think the fellow offers a drastic change from the Fungus in the Palace.

So if neither for friends nor for foes, for whose benefit then is the airing of political ads?

When a message is packaged as mere entertainment, this peripheral route was found to be more effective in introducing changes. People watching gyrations in a noontime show are not gearing up like a talk show audience to rant and pummel their agendas into their opponents’ skulls.

Political ads may just be exercises in the driest form of humor, packaged ostensibly as samples of the art of self-delusion but actually inviting the audience to find the caricature, take aim and have a chuckle.

In the cost-conscious world of primetime advertising, there is no time to account for performance, discuss programs, recommend solutions. It’s not unlike being caught in traffic.

You have time to read a bumper sticker.

And hope you get the joke at the end. 09173226131

* First published in “Matamata” on Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 8, 2009 issue