Saturday, April 24, 2010

Malicious Math

NUMBERS matter, I’ve learned during this election.

Recently, I joined a lunch where the “wander-full” conversation, as a companion quipped, competed with the dishes, and handily won.

Since I have no chance of being invited again in this city if I spill everything that flew thick and fast over Monday’s pomelo salad, I will just mention one fearless prediction that seems to be that oxymoron—an “open secret”—in a city genetically unable to hold secrets.

He will win.

My companions may mine a subterranean vein or two that’s barred from access by lesser mortals like me. I do understand, though, that part of their political prescience is anchored to that most ubiquitous feature: surveys.

In college, I took refuge in content analysis to avoid the toxic mathematics of making sense of surveys.

Today, surveys try very hard to be a voter’s best friend.

Poll meisters know how to serve the numbers to a Math-phobic public: rounded off, ranked, and dressed up with large fonts, photos and infographics.

What is it about numbers that make us seek to reduce them to simplest terms?

Why do we remember some combinations and forget others?

Why do we desire this number, feel accursed by another?

I remember the Terrible Twos, not only because that’s the exact number of beings I brought into this world. At two, my two sons had their complete set of primary teeth. At two, my second son was eager to show what he could do with all 20 teeth during nursing time.

But to be No. 2 is also to be in a terrible spot: in a survey, in a relationship of three, in MalacaƱang.

Last Friday evening, it took nearly two hours to connect from the heart of uptown Cebu to the quiet streets of our home.

I found myself decoding numbers spotted along the way, a reminder that May 10 is little more than two weeks away.

The jeepney we were tailing had its spare tire sporting a design that seemed faintly Egyptian or industrial: the number “8” with a tail that curled into the form of a “G”.

We deciphered the meaning before the stop light turned green, thanks to the proliferation of “G1bo” posters. “8G” stands for the No. 8 circle voters must shade on the ballot sheet if they want the administration presidential candidate Gilberto Teodoro Jr. to sit in MalacaƱang.

Will eight turn out to be good for Teodoro, political orphan, cuckolded No. 2 in the Villaroyo swapathon?

In Pulse Asia’s March 2010 survey, Teodoro had eight percent of the Visayas respondents rooting for him. This tied him with Joseph Estrada in the Visayas results. Nationwide, Teodoro is in fourth place, according to the same polls.

Near the Mandaue-Mactan Bridge, we followed the most morose lot of youths ever to hit the streets without adult supervision. One of the streamers being listlessly lifted a few inches from the asphalt was spraypainted “Deretso 3”.

It’s a “three” that may stand for three things. On the ballot for Lapu-Lapu City, shading the No. 3 circle means voting for incumbent Mayor Arturo Radaza as a future member of the House of Representatives.

But three’s company, too, in Mactan where wife Paz and nephew Harry want to be the next mayor and councilor, respectively.

For the third association, visit the YouTube website. Play the “Deretso 3 jingle MTV.”

The cute-as-buttons girl band, Wonder Girls, lends their catchy foot-tapping beat to a murky tale about Mactan’s “Corruption King, Bankruptcy Queen and Commissioner Prince.”

My Statistics teacher once tried to convince our class that “numbers are pure” after we all scored a perfect negative grade in her exam.

After barely surviving this season, my answer remains unchanged: “pure numbers, impure minds.”

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Apr. 25, 2010 issue of "Matamata"

Friday, April 16, 2010


WHAT does your wrist say?

A late night TV report recently focused on the bracelet swap Sen. Ana Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal entertained during a campaign sortie.

The news footage showed the candidate, running independently for the presidency, tossing bracelets to an enthusiastic market crowd that included children, women and men, young and old.

The report then cut to an on-cam shot of the senator holding two bracelets: her apple-green beaded item and an orange Baller ID type bearing the name of Sen. Manuel “Manny” Villar Jr.

Madrigal said a child approached her to trade in her Manny band for a Jamby bracelet. The senator, who filed an ethics complaint case against Sen. Manuel Villar, Jr. for alleged conflict of interest over the C-5 road project, quipped that the bracelet swap may just trigger the defection of Villar followers to the Madrigal camp.

Whether said in jest or unconscious irony, Madrigal’s comment reflects more than the merry-go-round state of presidential campaigns, marked by New Media and old-style defections and “balimbingan” (a local fruit whose many sides allude to mercurial partisan loyalties).

These bracelets, or wristbands to be less gender-biased, are more visible this election, flashing different hues for varying political affiliations.

As a fashion trend, the “proud and loud” accessories ride the bandwagon started by the Baller ID silicone bands. Internet sources trace the name to the basketball superstars who sported the multicolored bands on their wrist.

National Basketball Association “King” Lebron James endorsed a line of Baller ID bracelets for Nike. Cycling legend turned cancer survivor Lance Armstrong has a foundation that gets celebrities and citizens to wear the bright yellow “Livestrong” bands to support cancer research.

Not all advocacies win admirers. Last year, Madrigal stirred up some bloggers when bracelets bearing her face were given away for free during the memorial service of former President Corazon Aquino.

New Media Philippines blogger Carlo S. Ople posted on Aug. 6, 2009 that he was emailed by a friend about Facebook user Happy Ferraren. While waiting for Aquino’s cortege, Happy and her mother bought yellow umbrellas from a street vendor.

The vendor gave them a yellow beaded bracelet as a “bonus”. The Ferrarens were at first pleased and then disgusted when they saw that the freebie consisting of yellow crystals had a centerpiece that featured Madrigal’s mug and name.

“Subtle electioneering IN A FUNERAL?!?! SHAME ON YOU,” blogged Happy in Facebook. Ople titled his post, “Jamby Madrigal Defiles Cory Aquino Memorial Service.”

Attending recently two wakes for relatives, I saw how politics laps at the margins of life in these islands. The white solemnity of the Requiem Mass for my brother-in-law was speckled with yellow when, towards the end of the rite, vehicles unloaded a contingent of Padayon Mandaue, affiliated with the Liberal Party (LP). The group was scheduled next to use the church.

During an uncle’s wake, I saw green bands encircling some relatives’ wrists, including my 70-year-old mother’s. Joshua, a family friend, had an interesting variation: he wore two bands, yellow and green, back-to-back.

Asked why he chose to use Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s band on the outside and the one endorsing presidential aspirant Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro Jr., on the inside and partially hidden against his wrist, the second-year high school student said that Noynoy is his mother’s family’s choice. The Gibo bracelet, given by a close family friend, comes only second.

In these eclectic times, stacking bracelets is trendy. It’s definitely a more attractive statement than flipping alliances and swapping loyalties. On the other hand, there’s no Baller ID band being given out in support of clean, honest and peaceful elections.

So, what’s your wrist stating?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 18, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Night rites

WHEN people gather in the country, the eating is always the centerpiece.

Does what comes after the eating dwindle or increase in importance?

Some nights ago, I was among friends, watching an azure sky deepen into a purple mantle, draped around the slopes of Negros. The second round of rice had been served and left untouched; children and wives had gone up to bed.

The table was cleared of everything but one or two platters of the dinner that had just been shared. Was someone still expected for a late repast?

The return of the men brought the answer. Bottles of local rhum and beer and a packet of powdered orange juice became, in the care of Bernie, a concoction known as “mestiza.”

A few hours ago, Bernie and I measured out the powdered juice we made into cool drinks to wash down the lunch shared by all families. Bernie I remembered because of his daughter, a petite tyrant who wouldn’t lend her tiny fuchsia slip-ons to me.

Here was Bernie again after supper had been cleared: over the cloudy orange mixture he turned upside down a long-necked empty bottle and flicked a lighter near the bottle’s opening, which burst into flame.

Quick motions of Bernie’s wrist made fronds of smoke uncurl inside the upended bottle. The gossamer tendrils were then swallowed by the orange mixture “boiling” into the bottle’s cavity, which quickly subsided and tamely flowed back to the plastic jug of “mestiza.”

Only after this spectacle would Bernie, father and magician now turned gunner, pour a shot and pass around the “tagay”.

According to the men, this is a ritual well-known to those who love a drink. They called this “exorcising the spirit of the drink.”

Richard, the group philosopher and newly married father of Philip, who turned one that day, said solemnly that driving away the alcoholic spirits makes those who imbibe the “mestiza” smell less strongly and recover more quickly from nightly bouts with the spirit of the bottle.

Before I could ask which was more practical magic—exorcising the spirit of the bottle or not touching the bottle at all—Joel took out a roll of dried “lomboy” leaves and a packet of tobacco leaves.

A “likin,” which is a native hand-rolled cigarette beloved by those who puff this to “close” a meal—is an endangered art.

It is not only that in places like Kanipaan, where our friends live, there are no “lomboy” trees left standing. The art of “combing” a petrified leaf so it does not crack and split but regains a lost memory of luster to curl softly around a slim tendril of tobacco is as much threatened by mass-manufactured cigarettes as by ecological heedlessness.

The men split and waste many of the “lomboy” leaves before admitting they are not “combing” masters. Combing is best done by running a smooth-edged object several times to draw out a leaf’s curl. The best “sudlay (comb)” are, according to the men, the matchboxes of old that used to be made of good wood, the blunt edge of a bolo, a certain type of clam or, a concession to modernity, a plastic disposable lighter.

The information that old-timers once used seashells to make a “lomboy likin” was shared by Cecille, Bernie’s partner. She and the other wives have joined the men after their children have gone to sleep.

I recognize this other nightly rite: bedtime and mothers. After all how many fathers sway and hum their babies to sleep?

Too early for any of us to remember but still too primal to forget must be the draw of the breast, the smell of milk spilling from the rooting O of a puckered mouth, soaking flesh and cloth, seeping into a milk-scented oblivion.

Exorcising bottle spirits may be esoteric; hand-rolling a “lomboy” cigarette, romantic.

I am glad, though, that bedtime and mothers remains a nightly ritual for many.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the Apr. 11, 2010 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's "Matamata" column

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Labeling for safe sex

I’VE tried citrus, chocolate and bubble-gum.

In Ethiopia, where banana, strawberry and chocolate are common, coffee-flavored was introduced.

Packaging a product as “Coffee Sensation” in a country known as the “birthplace of coffee” may seem to be trite hard-sell.

Yet, with the HIV/Aids epidemic cutting short the life expectancy of Ethiopians by seven years, pushing a caffeine fixation may not just sell more condoms but also save more lives.

Closer home, the debate is the reverse. Church leaders and pro-life groups protest the Department of Health’s free condom distribution.

If vocal critic, Dr. Rene Josef Bullecer, had his way, condoms should be sold with this warning: “This product is not 100 percent guaranteed safe, use it at your own risks (sic).”

According to Nicole J. Managbanag’s Mar. 31, 2010 article in Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro, Bullecer criticized as “half-truths” the government campaign equating safe sex with condom use.

Given that the country director of Human Life International and former chairman of Cebu City’s Anti-Indecency Board has a litany of complaints against condoms—as contraceptives, condoms are seen by him as devices of immorality, promoting pre- and extramarital sex—perhaps condom sellers may have to come up with a bigger package to sell a device that’s about the size of a P5 coin.

Then again, even church officials may strike that idea since generating more residual waste will contradict their latest advocacy for the environment.
Bullecer has a point, though. Although he has been publicly vilifying condoms recently, in early 2000, he admitted during my face-to-face interview with him for a Sun.Star Cebu special report that condoms may be the only “reasonably effective” protection for the sexually active against HIV/Aids.

For the condoms to be 100-percent failure-proof, though, Bullecer said, on the record, that people must be educated about their use.

That’s a finding echoed by government and non-government adult educators on reproductive health. Shocking but illuminating were the results of a survey conducted among Cebu City urban youth sometime in 2000.

During a forum organized by the Remedios Aids Foundation (RAF) Inc. and Youth Zone (YZ) Cebu, I learned that some of the study respondents slipped on a condom only after consummation of intercourse, thinking that this would prevent pregnancy.

Another finding was that some youths did not know how to put on or remove condoms without tearing the sheath.

In 1993, another study was made by John Jardenil and Marianna Balquiedra among high school and college students using the RAF Inc. hotline in Metro Manila. The study found that 84 percent of the callers did not use condoms because they did not know it protected them from HIV infection; perceived that condoms decreased sensitivity and pleasure; relied on their sexual partners’ knowledge about safe sex; had no condoms at the time of need; or were under the influence of alcohol and unable to opt for safe sex.

Will labeling condoms as tutti-frutti or banana be better than a grim warning, from the standpoint of public health?

An axiom of communication is to have both senders and receivers operating at the same wavelength to transact successfully. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, “young people account for around 40 percent of all new adult HIV infections worldwide.”

Less hype and hysteria, more information and dialogue, would help us cross the divide between preserving our culture and public health. As a pioneer in telephone counseling in the country, the RAF Inc. provides reproductive health information and referral services through its hotlines.

This non-government organization (NGO) also taps text messaging, interactive online chatting and face-to-face counseling for students, young adults and anyone walking in YZ Cebu, a youth center located at a downtown mall. Then a mother of tweeners when I covered this NGO, I was reminded by the YZ Cebu ambience of Cabbages and Condoms, an irreverent chain of restaurants in Bangkok where I was given a keychain containing a purple, grinning condom.

The keychain label read: “In case of emergency, break glass.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 4, 2010 issue of “Matamata”