Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dating for dummies

Write for the fool in the audience.

When I shifted from Engineering to take up Communication Arts, I was struck by my professor’s mantra, uttered at least three times in the first class I attended.

I fled my old course because I could not make sense of circuitry. Thus, this anthem to simplicity resuscitated me, turned me into a new convert of my adopted course.

Nearly three decades after, I believe this is a rule that still doesn’t need reinvention.

Look for the least common denominator. Reduce to the simplest terms. If there is a shorter word, use this. Write to be understood.

And should these instructions, culled from elementary Math to news writing, be not clear enough, there is always the graffiti-raw truth of KISS: keep it short, stupid.

This precept, though, is prone to be misunderstood or manipulated. When my professor prefaced a lecture on broadcast writing with her favorite line, she meant that we should make ourselves as clear as possible in order not to be misunderstood.

She didn’t mean, look down on the listener or the reader.

She didn’t direct, pander to the lowest instincts.

And she certainly didn’t send us off to connect with our audiences and create a mutual admiration society of simpletons.

But, despite the best mentors and the best intentions, simple sometimes slides into the simplistic.

After a woman was recently tortured and killed by a man she met through a radio dating program, local radio stations volunteered to stop broadcasting the mobile phone numbers of listeners looking for friends, which often led to “eyeballing,” slang for face-to-face encounters between strangers who initially met through on-air chats and texting.

According to the Jan. 31 report of Sun.Star Cebu, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP)-Cebu Chapter left it to member-stations to decide on the fate of their dating programs but reiterated the media’s social responsibility to “evaluate the values” of its programs and avoid “(being) part of a crime.”

Let’s hope it’s not just cold feet that led to the axing of the radio dating programs. If the sentiment on media responsibility is really authentic, KBP members should take a cue from a station that said the pulled-out format will be replaced with a talk show concept they had long waited to pilot.

Then again, it’s disquieting to realize only two things might induce media gods to change format: falling ratings or a corpse.

Lest we slip into an orgy of breast-beating, we might also evaluate some of the recommendations waved around after the discovery of the gruesome crime.

One is for a station to issue disclaimers.

Will you trust more a station that gets a carefully modulated voice to read this disclaimer before an online dating program: “This station neither confirms nor denies that some callers on the show may not be issued a clean bill of mental health. Any actual consequence arising from this program should be judged against the program’s intention of providing only entertainment and enjoyment for all. We emphasize the importance of keeping an open mind while announcing on air your mobile phone number to no one in particular and everyone within range of our transmitter station. Relax and enjoy.”

To be fair, simplemindedness is not a media franchise.

But I don’t think it’s of much use for a program host to remind listeners to “take precautions” before meeting up. If you have to follow a format that invites strangers to swap intimacies on public air space, what beneficial advice can you possibly give when they segue to eyeballing each other? If you can’t be good, bring a condom?

Then again, that might be a good idea. A condom shields you from some sexually transmitted infections.

A church official has rued the immorality of courting by radio or text. “You have to see the person, when you are just texting you can easily lie.”

But that’s just it, monsignor. That’s what got them into eyeballing. Like today’s young and the restless, my aunt also seriously tested a gadget before buying it. I’m not sure, though, if that’s a sound disclaimer to post before a dating program.

You could bring home a psycho.

* Published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 1, 2009 issue.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Zen of eavesdropping

KEEP your head down. Show up every day. Be indispensable.

When I showed up at a government agency this week, this was the drift of the office talk.

These were unusual mantras to hear from employees most likely assured of employment until retirement. Eavesdropping more, I realized that the talk circled around the recent closing of the Intel plant in General Trias, Cavite.

After someone speculated how life would be for the 3,000 or so employees laid off by the Intel pullout, a co-worker punched home this point in Cebuano: did (the workers) have any idea this was going to happen to them?

That seems to be the question on many minds nowadays.

Coming after Christmas and Sinulog, a creeping, spreading uncertainty is taking hold. I can recall the palpably different tone of the entrepreneurs and capitalists I interviewed as last year drew to a close. Many exuded a bullish confidence that Cebu will not just ride the rough swells but even be unaffected by distant rumblings.

Yet a business leader countered my queries with a question of his own: where will we be if we let our fears control us?

These days, I’ve yet to catch sight again of last year’s jauntiness—or perhaps I’m in a different company, with different perceptions. When I get off my mid-morning classes, I often share jeepney rides with call center workers also going home from their shifts at a nearby information technology (IT) enclave.

Last year, the buzz among this jeans-and-hoodie bunch was workplace gossip and the job application carousel. If the ethos among past generations of workers was to find a company to “grow with” until retirement, these young drones felt no loyalty except to the chase, for fatter salaries, more perks, more workmates’ bonding.

This year, my jeepney rides have been uneventful so far. It may be that my usual companions have decided to upgrade to taxis or are abandoning workplace-hopping for the moment. Come to think of it, I haven’t received for some time now a call from a human resource officer, requesting for an assessment of my students’ potentials for call center employment.

Yet, it was the exit of Intel—the first American semiconductor company to set up shop in the country in 1974—that made it dawn on me that, like those government workers, we should be paying more attention to business news.

The goal should be not to scare ourselves deeper into a hole. As advised by that local business leader last year, picking up some financial literacy should prepare us for facing down our fears.

Just decoding business jargon should tamp down any panic threatening to overwhelm us. An April 2008 report in quoted Intel Philippines officials as denying that the company was shutting down the entire operation, saying only that it was ''ramping down its assembly efforts in the processor arena.”

In the light of the final outcome, I will never view “ramp” with the equanimity I once reserved for a simple mechanism that is supposed to help move heavy objects. In terms of its economic dislocation, “ramp down” may be closer to its association in skateboarding.

For extreme athletes, there’s a skateboarding maneuver called the “drop in,” which requires nothing more complex than the “will and guts” to take the self mounted on a skateboard from standing on the lip of a skateboard bowl to speeding down the ramp with no way of knowing where one will end up.

Does this mean taking up extreme skateboarding to be able to surf the times or even just the business news?

My 43-year-old joints will never make it. Nor will my 10-year-old son look on kindly to my mucking around his toys.

For now, to fight this Creeping Uncertainty, I will have to stick to basics: re-read the news. Pay in cash. Keep my head down. Show up every day. Be indispensable.

Also eavesdrop. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 25, 2009 issue

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Finding Joseph

SHE was born to be misunderstood.

When she joined our circle of women, she stood a head taller. Her riotous graying curls blocked my view of the tiny red-and-gold figure in its gilded glass house. A beige strap peeked from her gossamer-thin sleeveless blouse. A girlish ribbon of white cinched the lower V of her back.

Those curls, that indiscreet strip, the faint spots age left on the back of her dimpled upper arms. I tried to move my eyes back to the distant figure of the Holy Child but my eyes had a mind of their own.

When the sea of devotees broke into song to open last Friday's 7 a.m. Misa de Translacion at the Basilica Minore, the woman in white began to shimmy, quiver, rock. There may have been only a pocket of space separating her from the rest of us. Her curls, shoulders, torso, hips and rump conveyed this space was a sweeping stage, a grand auditorium, a raised dais.

At the end of the first two songs, she lifted both arms and offered herself to him. While the rest of us stolidly sang, holding on to our bags, packages, fans and portable chairs, she blew Him a kiss.

Though the rest of us who surrounded her did not budge, I sensed the molecules shift among us. Standing next to where I slouched against the barricade was a group of older women, clad all in brown. Blinding white veils covered their heads.

They, too, glanced when the Woman in White began her dance-worship. One of them, a woman cradling a sleeping infant, ignored her and stared ahead.

Blocked by those curls, I thought of Jezebel and wondered if a permed head also wreaked as much havoc during ancient times.

When the direction to sit came, the Woman in White unfolded a stool. Glancing back, she saw the mother holding the sleeping infant. She stood up, touched the other woman on the arm and offered the stool. But the mother shook her head, without even glancing at her. When the Woman in White repeated her offer, the mother tightened her arms around the child and refused, sharp and final.

After the woman resumed her seat, I found out I could now look down on those curls.

When the baby woke, it first made no sound. Its mother shifted and began to rock and sway. But it would not be rocked to sleep; it wanted to nurse.

When the mewling protests began in earnest, the mother's brown-dressed companions shared the mother's distress. The mother whispered that her daughter, who brought the bottle of milk, had gone to the toilet. Someone whispered that the girl will have to cross oceans to get back to them in this crowd. Another remembered that their group had since moved from the spot where she left them. And the final whisper: neither the women nor the girl in the toilet brought a cell phone.

Remembering how my milk flowed when my nursing sons woke and cried, I was about to urge the mother to nurse the infant when I saw the zipper at the back of her brown dress. Then I, too, wondered if the girl with the milk bottle would ever come.

The mother beseeched the Woman in White if she could take her seat. The older woman immediately stood up. The rest of us women drew closer and shielded the mother as she settled down and prepared to nurse. When the mewling quieted and the mother became still, we, too, were becalmed, as if our long barren breasts had found the release and life once more flowed.

In a whisper, one of the women in brown told the Woman in White that the infant was born 12 days ago. In the Misa de Translacion, or Translocation, the Santo Niño is reunited with Our Lady of Guadalupe. The images are then brought to St. Joseph Parish in Mandaue City, completing the connection.

From advent to Christ's adulthood, Joseph was near invisible but essential: he helped the Mother bear the Child, the Man to achieve His Father's plans.

At mass end, I found myself again beside the Woman in White, pinned against the barriers as priest after priest sprinkled holy water and benediction on petitioners and icons.

"Father, drench me," she said, swaying. While people turned away from her uplifted face and raised arms, I smiled at Joseph. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 18, 2009 issue

Saturday, January 10, 2009


JANUARY brings to mind the sea.

From my home in Barangay Bankal in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, I follow on television the roiling waves of men heave and pull the statue of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno de Quiapo in its yearly sojourn from and to its berth at the Minor Basilica.

I have never seen up close the life-sized statue that, according to Wikipedia, was carved by a nameless Aztec carpenter and transported by galleon from Mexico.

But lapping up the testimonials and footages of the procession, specially the rising injury and body count of the Jan. 9 fiesta, creates a sensation no different from being tossed at sea.

Here is an excerpt of the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s description of the Black Nazarene procession:

“To Quiapo's fiesta procession speed wave on wave and horde upon horde all of Manila's maledom: ‘kanto’ boy and ‘maton,’ jeep driver and stevedore, the ‘siga’ and the ‘sikat’... And all, from 13 years and up, have come to prove themselves macho in the roughest, rowdiest, ruggedest procession in the city's year. And what a spectacle it is: that rumbling sea of heads in the midst of which, now sinking and now rising, now tottering and now falling, now rushing and now lagging, suddenly appears uplifted over the tumult, dark and dazzling, terrible and triumphant: the Lord of Downtown.”

Though I have never been to Quiapo, I can imagine that surge of humanity, as well as the almost mystical amalgam of horror and wonder roiling inside those swirling in its midst.

In early 2000, I was a speck in the noontime crowd milling outside the Basilica Minore. Mixed with the devotees were the curious, like me, who found themselves drawn to the Saturday procession closing the January novenario. I had never attended any novena mass before this, despite years of Catholic education.

I wore stout walking shoes but brought an umbrella I could not open in the tight press of bodies. I also had no candle, no box of matches, and no replica of the Holy Child. But my real initiation took place when the red-and-gold image emerged from the church gates and the crowd surged forward.

Forced to tighten ranks when it turned from Jones Avenue to the smaller Jakosalem Street, the procession baptized me with my first “sea-legs.”

As the crowd pushed, I found out I could not walk. Unable to hold on to anyone, I could only grip my furled, useless umbrella to my chest. With my arms pinned thus, I was propelled forward by the surge of bodies.

I made an inarticulate sound when I lost my footing. But instead of falling down, I was carried by this wave, which deposited me later, without harm, on a spot that appeared after the crowd turned the corner.

For one used to making decisions, even one as elemental as putting one foot forward, the moment left me in almost superstitious awe. Since then, I’ve talked to others who went through the same experience of “floating” at some point during the procession.

One moment is emptiness, a total absence of will. In the next, life rushes back into the vacuum, as do gratitude and wonder.

The absence of tragedies in Cebu’s Sto. Niño fiesta is just one of the contrasts cited when a comparison is made with the Black Nazarene feast.

While one celebrates Jesus as child, the other worships the suffering Christ, flogged, crowned with thorns and carrying the cross of humanity. One feast tests men to suffer and endure; the other draws children, families, even the elderly.

Outwardly different, both celebrations must come from the nothingness we face before unsolved mysteries, whether of nature or of belief. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 11, 2009 issue

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Peeling the Cebuano

ARE we the only ones who like our bananas green and boiled?

Ann K. asked, my first email this year.

Before the old year ended, my friend quit her job and came home to Cebu.

As a dog will turn circles around itself before settling down for a nap, Ann K. also went through rituals to dust off all those years in Makati.

That day, while munching on bananas dipped in pork fat and rock salt, my friend complained that Cebu had changed so much. There used to be a time when she could confidently give directions to strangers asking how to find, say, Echo Electrical Supply.

Now the landmarks are replaced by flyovers, my friend griped.

Though not a food historian nor a cultural cartographer, I emailed an attempt to comfort my friend, displaced in her own city: I can be content to dunk (“tuslob”) my boiled banana in a two-layered dip of vegetable oil floating over soy sauce. But I really prefer to pair off (“suwa”) unripe bananas with “maos nga ginamos” (salted fish so “ripe,” it is grey sludge, accented only by red intestines).

If I prefer salted fish, it must be because my father was born in Camiguin, I emailed my friend. His part of Tupsan faced the sea. Whenever the pregnant waters crossed the threshold of his home, my father had no choice but to scoop the dying fish left in the waves’ wake and preserve them in salt.

Fish smells better than a corpse, Papang once told a fellow doctor who stared at the small platter of grey sludge adorning our holiday table.

Now, after downing more bananas (ripe and raw, boiled and fried, fatter than my finger, longer than my sins), I wonder if my reply was of any help to Ann K. I forgot to tell her about Yaya, companion since my childhood.

Though not yet a maiden when she left Samboan to find housework in the city, her family back in Bato only had to scrape a layer from a vat in their kitchen to have a dip for their meals of banana, ube, gabi, biga, kamoteng kahoy and other tubers. Found permanently beside the “sug-angan (native stove),” this vat contained leftover fiesta pork, which their mother reserved for guests and emergencies.

But that ocean of pork fat was there for anyone. It never ebbed, proving more constant than the sea. Pork fat was already an entire meal, perking up the blandness, predictability and occasional itch of the daily fare that strung the days between one Maytime fiesta and the next.

This habit of “tuslob” is Cebuano moderation. While the Filipino palate is no stranger to sauces and dips, the Cebuano will never mistake the self-restraint in “tuslob” for the indulgence of a “sawsaw (soaking),” heedless of what comes after.

Thus, Cebuano coeds “make ‘tusok’ and ‘tuslob’ (skewer and dip) the fishball” in the street vendor’s sweet-spicy sauce. In urban ghettoes, the daily affordable treat is “tuslob-buwa,” sizzling brains and fat fried in a mobile cart and used as a communal dip for customers that shell out P2 for the “puso (hanging rice)” to be dunked. Should someone attempt to “sawsaw” in that spitting sea of lard, his fingers will surely end up swimming with the yellowish brains.

Deserved or not, legends have been spun about the Cebuano’s lean resources, his reflexive stinginess. Viewed by this Bisdak (“Bisayang daku,” one raised in Cebu), our “tuslob” culture just skirts extremes: not unrelieved parsimony but also stopping short of a bacchanalia. We know how to dole out what is meager to flavor the tedium of need, work and sacrifice.

Yet, despite what our more affluent neighbors think, the Cebuano is not only caught up with survival.

In “tuslob,” the secret does not lie alone with the savory but in the pairing of contrasts. What are a few days of frenzy without the yearlong industry that makes it possible? Yaya, who has worked in the city since the age of 13, has gone home to the south for their fiesta these past 43 summers.

And Ann K.? Though she may feel she exchanged one city of flyovers for another, my friend can’t deny the instincts of a Bisdak who will turn her back on opportunities for the mixed bliss of sleeping in one’s bed.

As well as the peerless pleasure of exorcising old ghosts with a “tuslob” of pork lard, rock salt and hard, green bananas. 09173226131

* “Matamata” column published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 4, 2009 issue