Sunday, June 27, 2010

Living by the sword

WHAT’S the cost of obsession?

To find and kill Osama bin Laden, Gary Brooks Faulkner pawned all his construction equipment and put a lot of wear and tear on his kidneys.

In the news, the American recently returned to his Colorado home after he was detained and then released by the Pakistani government.

According to The New York Times/International Herald Tribune, he was roaming in the “lawless tribal areas near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan” in a “suspicious manner,” said Pakistani officials.

Faulkner was caught with a dagger, a pistol with 40 rounds, a sword, a book full of “Christian verses and teachings,” a “small quantity” of hashish, and night-vision goggles.

For his efforts, Faulkner has been called a variety of names by the media and Netizens. “Rocky Mountain Rambo,” wrote the NY Daily in its lead. “Go get em Gary!!!!!,” commented a reader named Kissarmy to the online article.

Would Faulkner have been greeted with confetti rather than jeers if he had succeeded? “Hero” and “patriot” mingle freely with “screw loose” and “Hollywood delusions” in the blogosphere.

Faulkner is an unlikely Osama hunter. The former convict is a construction worker who saved his earnings and eventually sold his tools to finance several trips to Pakistan. He is in his 50s and just started dialysis to treat his kidneys. His family says he never served in the military or underwent special training.

On his sixth trip in about seven years when he was arrested, Faulkner was checking out caves in the border district of Chitral, which is “widely rumored to hide Mr. bin Laden,” according to the NYT/IHT.

He does not speak any tribal language but wore a robe and grew his hair long. On a Daily News article, side-by-side photos of Faulkner and bin Laden show the two men sporting gray beards. Reports say that the two also share kidney ailments.

What drove the man to attempt what untold millions of dollars and a global anti-terrorism network have failed to carry out since 9/11?

His family members say that Faulkner was “increasingly frustrated” that his government was “distracted” by other domestic and international concerns and “forgot” the “main issue”.

“The reason is because a man ordered a hit on our country so we went to war,” commented a sister of Faulkner.

Getting back, settling the score, fixing someone’s wagon, wreaking vengeance.
There are many English idioms for exacting revenge; nearly all of these are in common use.

It is not only language that betrays us. Popular culture, particularly the news media, document how our alter ego breaks out of the gloss of education and civilization to run amok.

In human terms, justice—catching and punishing the wrongdoer—is interchangeable with avenging the wronged.

Peace can only be bought if we steel ourselves to wield the sword.

“"Draw me not without reason, sheath me not without honor" is an old Spanish saying about swords, quoted by a group that calls itself the Internet Sword Collectors Association.

What is the fine point of this?

Before I digress, let me answer first this online poll: “Do you think Gary Faulkner should keep hunting Osama Bin Laden?”

I check “yes” if I think “the U.S. military and CIA aren’t making progress so let him have another shot.”

It’s “no” if I think “(Faulkner) is a fool who could end up getting Americans killed with his vigilante tactics.”

The man who told reporters, “We can’t let people like this scare us… we’re going to take care of business,” had a nap after he arrived home.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 27, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Among us

“HILAN” and “dakit” are Cebuano words I renewed an acquaintance with, following the June 13, 2010 accident in Balamban, which killed at least 20 people and injured other passengers of a bus that plunged off the Transcentral Highway in Balamban, Cebu.

Aside from focusing on the tragedy and the probe to determine cause and culpability, some of the local and national media coverage included a detail that isn’t usually found in Western-set guidelines for news writing: the supernatural angle.

Local dwellers attested to the frequency of accidents occurring in that area. A driver plying this route said that, due to the spot’s notoriety as “hilan,” he and others always slow down and blow their horns whenever they pass.

According to, “hilan” alludes to a secluded place or one confined to the use of particular persons or groups. Sharing this association of being haunted are other Cebuano synonyms: “abtan,” “alabtan,” and “tao-an”.

A family who lives down the ravine said to reporters that vehicles plunging down that steep incline seemed to always halt before a “dakit,” the Indian rubber tree also known locally as “balete”. In his June 19, 2010 column, Sun.Star Cebu columnist Godofredo R. Roperos recalled: “Where the tourist bus fell last Sunday, or so I learned, there once stood a big ‘balete’ (‘dakit’) tree. It was cut down as it blocked the path of the heavy machines when the road was constructed some years back. The tree stood right on the curve of the road.”

Journalism is primarily about reporting what is verifiable.

In the Balamban incident, reports are rife with verifiable details: Sun.Star Cebu reported that Balamban Mayor Alex Binghay said drivers must use low gear in the Transcentral Highway, specially in descending roads; and Cansumoroy Barangay Captain Emilia Montecillo pointed out the railings and warning signs placed along the road due to Sitio C’s history of at least 20 vehicular accidents, excluding the June 13 mishap.

Yet, even from its high seat of Western rationalism, journalism can spot and report bits of local lore, what anthropologists call syncretism, the fusion of an imposed Christianity grafted on an older animistic religion.

Just as we accept that fairness and balance requires all sides, the juxtaposition of the verifiable and the unverifiable should, instead of negating the other, add to what we know. In 2008, the death of a Korean tourist in Kawasan Falls in Badian sparked investigations.

One of the official findings was that facilities constructed near the popular tourist spot did not have a municipal permit. The Badian Municipal Government also admitted it needed help from the Provincial Government in regulating the management of Kawasan Falls, particularly diving from the falls and rafting.

The tourist who jumped from the first level of Kawasan and fell on the raft boarded by another Korean was just one in a long line of tragedies tied to that place.

According to local lore, swimmers who drown or meet other accidents in Kawasan fall prey to the “mantalaga,” a giant squid that is believed to inhabit the depths of the pool.

More than a scare tale, the “mantalaga” explains why local dwellers know better than to drink and carouse while swimming or diving. The belief that we share this world and therefore must co-exist with others makes us more respectful, more cautious, and more scrupulous in observing laws intended to preserve human life and ecology.

The Water Code states that structures encroaching on a body of water cannot be given municipal clearance, a requirement for a building permit. Balamban police will prohibit buses and other heavy vehicles from entering the Transcentral Highway due to its risky curves and inclines.

Giant squids, vengeful tree spirits: from a certain world-view, they mean the same thing.


* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 20, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bad girls don’t

WHEN our all-girl high school batch dispersed soon after graduation to different colleges, the grapevine kept us connected.

These days, Facebook chats and SMS-organized reunions help us keep tabs with who’s now promoted to grannywatch or who’s maintaining which medication.

In the 1980s, the grapevine issued more dramatic bulletins: who had to get married.

Whenever the verb “had” walks into a phrase, it always leaves a scene.

Having to get married meant jilted studies, derailed ambitions, aborted expectations except that which, nine months later, always fulfilled itself.

Initially, as news of hasty marriages trickled down the vine, our gushing was romantic, even tinged with envy: she gave up everything for him!

Then a pattern emerged. Those who reportedly got pregnant were not the ones known for behavior our high school teachers always said would get a “bad girl in trouble”: staying out on weeknights instead of untangling the aphorisms of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, reading a paperback with a thin plot and much thinner chemises that was secretly stashed inside a tome about mitosis and chromosomal coupling, or possessing that most serious obstacle to self-actualization: a BF.

About the wild ones, the grapevine was silent. It was less restrained about the “unlikely ones,” the quiet nice girls who always sat in front and never holed up in the last seats, slouching or cracking gum or practicing microscopic penmanship in tiny notes responsible for frequent eruptions of giggles in a room silently drowning in trigonometry.

According to the grapevine, the ones who took the nursery-and-wedding-aisle detour while negotiating the wild wild world of coed life were the ones who behaved in high school: their t’s were crossed as neatly as their ankles, their high school skirts fanned out chastely so not even a low-flying bee could read their “book”.

Many hypotheses were forwarded for this fall from grace into the “baby trap”. One that got the sorority clucking was the belief that “bad girls don’t”.

Sure, bad girls stay out late, can quote from memory pages of Harold Robbins when they can’t even spell Siddhartha, even pet like born acrobats—but! Bad girls don’t get pregnant.

Like the rest of us, they studied sex dressed up as different subjects: physical education, health, biology. We discussed how rape spared neither the Doña Pia Albas nor the Sisas of Rizal’s time. How could we forget Dick and Jane and Mother and Father, a first-time reader’s poster models for the nuclear family and responsible parenthood?

But while the rest of us memorized the vas deferens and other theoretical parts of the abstract male anatomy, the so-called bad girls picked their way out of the academic thicket into more practical knowhow: how to negotiate, how to be safe, how not to be who you don’t want to be, such as being a young girl scared by a missed period.

While many of us learned how to spell epididymis and explain its role in boy-meets-girl, our batch was generally innocent, naïve—let’s face it—ignorant about sexual politics.

Isn’t that why we’re already a couple—so he can decide for me?

Should I give up everything for him? My first love will be my last so it should be fine.

My parents don’t understand me. My teachers don’t accept me. He’s there for me. Always. I hope so.

Nothing can spoil the first time. So I can’t get pregnant if we just stop after that first time.

Thus, my sympathy is for the irate mother who recently sued a young lover for texting her daughter to take aspirin and 7-Up so she would be “safe” after having intercourse.

I can sympathize because, nearly 30 years ago, these were already the enduring “morning after” myths: douching with Coke or 7-Up washes away leftover sperm and drinking 20 aspirins knocks out any semen-surfing spermatozoa trying to spurt out of the epididymis and vas deferens.

But if I had a daughter, I’m not wasting my time on that poor ignorant son of Adam. Girl, it’s your life, take over.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 13, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Beyond jejEmONIsM

WHICH word grabs you: “diligence” or “tessellated”?

I am drawn more to the word on the right.

I’m not sure what it actually means, but tassels of images and ideas tangle and brush the back of my mind while I’m turning the word around.

“Diligence,” on the other hand, lies inertly like the lump of breakfast cereal I sometimes use to blot my conscience. I know oatmeal’s good for me but I’m not curious enough to follow its journey from my bowl to the ground.

The New York Times team felt otherwise. In their “Word of the day” section, the word “tessellated” was used only once during an entire year’s coverage, in a June 2009 editorial on abortion wars. “Diligence,” in contrast, appeared in 158 Times articles in 2009, notably in a review of a book about Al Capone.

I could have stopped there. As anyone stumped by a strange word in a paragraph knows, searches with a dictionary are notoriously short-lived, even aborted. The dictionary, alas, makes fewer connections to the modern psyche than a mobile phone without load.

Propitiously, the online site of the NY Times, particularly “The Learning Network,” is full of links to appease the curious (

Why ignore “tessellated” and be lavish with “diligence”?

Defined as conscientiousness or perseverance in performing a task, the latter word figured in the phrase, “the dreary diligence of the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” that was used in the Apr. 26, 2010 Times book review, “Public Enemy No. 1”.

“Diligence,” in a word, encapsulated the emerging field of financial forensics that helped G-man Eliot Ness and the Bureau of Internal Revenue nail down Capone. “It wasn’t bullets, but paper (interview transcripts, a letter from his tax lawyer, Western Union money orders, butcher and telephone bills) that got Al Capone,” wrote the Times reviewer.

“Tessellated,” on the other hand, refers to a “checkered or mottled appearance.” Delicate aurally but raw and rather gross in association, the word, perhaps, could only be at home in an article about heartless abortionists and murdered fetuses?

The June 5, 2009 Times editorial contains the phrase, “its tessellated marble entry and grand fireplaces.” In use was the word’s other meaning: embellished with glass and stone pieced together like a mosaic.

But as it is with the virtuous and stodgy “diligence,” finding “tessellated” in such posh company made me read the rest of the article, an indulgence no dictionary permits.

This way I learned about the other side of the abortion divide. Times op-ed columnist Kate Manning wove in “tessellated” to describe the grand rewards and bloody end of Anne Lohman, a New York midwife known more as Madame Restell by the clients who sought her “female pills” to “regulate” ailments like “obstructed wombs”. In 1898, this mail-order entrepreneur slit her throat to avoid being put on trial for abortion.

By this unexpected route, “tessellated” brought me to the realization that, as early as the 1800s, the debate on reproductive health already raged, a split captured by the war of two words, “abortionist” versus “abortion-provider”.

While I will never turn my back on my five dictionaries and counting, I recommend “The Learning Network” for anyone who cares about picking up something other than jejemonism from the new media.

The Times blog was created for students, teachers and parents. You can read how to marry reading articles with class projects. You can answer crossword puzzles about classic poems to currency of the world. You can write how reading helped you change yourself, your toddler of four years, your class of non-readers.

Best of all, you can revisit the familiar and explore the uncharted. Which word grabs you: “catcall” or “refulgent”?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 6, 2010 issue of “Matamata”