Saturday, December 17, 2011

Niño, by way of Nora

CHRISTMAS is a visual feast.

Of all the indelible memories I retain from my youth, the belen is at the center.

The tableau of the Child born in a manger, witnessed only by his parents, animals and shepherds, still spins many versions in my mind.

Long before I saw the irony of the world’s salvation prefigured in that rude birth, I was drawn to the infinite opportunities of storytelling fulfilled from merely standing in front of a belen.

This must have been fueled by the traditional visits we made to grandparents and aunts. Theirs was the generation that did not merely set up a belen but staged one, complete with several hands to paint and spruce up the figurines and backdrop, and create a Bethlehem landscape that, in its reinterpretations, strayed far from the factual and Biblical settings.

One aunt had chalets and castles and hail, made of tiny balls of Styrofoam, littering the orderly streets overlooked by the Child beaming from an animal’s feeding trough placed inside a cave. Every December, another aunt reconstructed on her own the tedious, painstaking mechanism that made this woman-made waterfalls trickle as backdrop to the Child receiving guests, the human and the beastly.

When my eldest was born 18 years ago, I, too, started my family’s belen. I searched for a figurine of the Child not long after my son’s birth in September. Yet, it was only a few days before Christmas that I took home a box padded with wood shavings to cushion a tiny figure.

The quest almost became fruitless because I often took an instant, unshakeable dislike to the vapid, simpering, sly faces of nearly all of the figurines I scrutinized from downtown to uptown, from shelves thickly coated with an air of neglect to the glass-encased displays that once carried the cryptic sign, “Lovely to look at but yours to take home once broken”.

One I eventually took home, not because I intentionally dropped it to get a sales clerk to decode the shop’s English but because the figurine passed the “Nora Aunor eye test”.

According to a movie critique read once, the eyes hold the secret why Nora happens to be the greatest living actress of the country.

Prepared to risk his life at the hands of fanatic hordes of diehard followers of other actresses like Vilma Santos, this critic argued that only Nora can pass the challenge of having one’s face, hair, body and even screen partner covered so that only her eyes are unmasked.

Only the great Nora has those fathomless pools of feelings. Everyone else is just acting.

So at this store selling religious items where my grandmother once had a stint of selling at a time when married women were expected stay home, I found the Child. I also took home the crib of twigs it was lying in.

At the headrest is a cross with an errant horizontal bar. It always looks as if some wind is doing its best to blow away that feeble cross.

Both the cross of twigs and the Child with Nora’s eyes have stood well the years.

The plastic Little Tikes barnyard animals, then the K’Nex assembly and later, the Star Wars crew have all been given away. These were the toys my sons played with, the same ones they arranged around the Child when Christmas drew near.

Makebelieve can be rough. The figurine has lost the tip of one little finger. When the neck snapped, we performed emergency reconstruction. Fortunately, there is always glue at home.

Following the story-bending traditions of the women in the family, my sons and I recreate the Belen around the Child every year. Luke Skywalker may not have been in the scene at Bethlehem, but in the boys’ stories, he was. The kid with the Force in him and the other Kid, born one silent night.

Now, instead of toys, the boys ask for permission for sleepovers. Now, the Transformers fellows hanging around the Child are “collectibles,” grown-up toys teenagers will never move around or weave stories about.

The Child still has Nora’s eyes. When my hands cover everything else except for those depthless pools, I hear the boys’ stories again.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 18, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 10, 2011


EXCELLENCE and service.

For embodying these intertwined values, 50 alumni of the University of the Philippines (U.P.) received Oblation statuettes from the U.P. Alumni Association Cebu Chapter Foundation Inc. (UPAACCFI).

The statuettes symbolize the “Tatak UP” award, given for the first time by the UPAACCFI during the Alumni Homecoming held last Dec. 2, 2011.

The figure of a nude man, with an upturned face and arms fully extended at his side, is the icon most associated with U.P.

Found everywhere—from official logos to the shirts UPians pair with slippers and shorts—the Oblation endures in its original symbolism.
Weathering climactic, ideological, political and administrative turbulence, even media homogenization—the eponymously named Oblation Run of streaking nude men is a primetime TV staple, often shorn of the reasons behind the protest—the Oblation stands for “selfless sacrifice”.

Guillermo E. Tolentino made the original sculpture, which is found in the U.P. Diliman Main Library Building. He was commissioned by then U.P. president Rafael Palma, who suggested for inspiration the second stanza of Jose Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios”: “In fields of battle, deliriously fighting,/ Others give you their lives, without doubt, without regret/ … If the home or country asks, it's all the same—it matters not.//”
Of this creation, Guillermo wrote: “(The Oblation) symbolizes all the unknown heroes who fell during the night.”

Whether irreverently nicknamed as “Oble” or the politically correct “Pahinungod,” the Oblation statue gracing every UP campus is a thing to behold, silhouetted against the purity of an early morning sky or the palette of colors seeping in the horizon with the dying of each day.

Gazing up the statue, viewers are often mystified by the leaves that twine at the base, rooting the feet to the mound of rocks that symbolize the different islands.

The sculptor explained this detail: “The ‘katakataka’ (wonder plant) whose roots are tightly implanted on Philippine soil, is the link that binds the symbolized figure to the allegorical Philippine Group. ‘Katakataka’ is really a wonder plant. It is called ‘siempre vivo’ (always alive) in Spanish. A leaf or a piece of it thrown anywhere will sprout into a young plant. Hence, it symbolizes the deep-rooted patriotism in the heart of our heroes. Such patriotism continually and forever grows anywhere in the Philippines.”

In the present, who are the katakataka “rekindling the U.P. spirit,” the homecoming theme?

The UPAACCFI chose 50 individuals whose contributions lie in the areas of science and medicine; social change and advocacy; law, public service and governance; business and entrepreneurship; art, design and culture; education; and media and communication.

The first batch of U.P. Tatak awardees are not just graduates of different campuses. They vary in their prominence. Some are well-known to the public but were distinguished by the alumni association for their service in areas many may not be familiar with. Some closely hew to Tolentino’s description of “unknown heroes”. Some have made it their life’s work to pursue advocacies before these become political catchwords.

As a metaphor for patriotism, the katakataka creates a sense of ambivalence: does this plant still exist? What is its local name?

Rereading Tolentino, I realize that the spirit of excellence and service is more enduring than expected. Love of country and belief and stakeholdership in its future is the flame entrusted to every Filipino to keep “siempro vivo”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 11, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 03, 2011


LAST Dec. 2, journalist Carol Arguillas from Mindanao posed a question to the students filling the Center for Performing Arts at the University of San Jose-Recoletos: do you want to become a journalist?

Arguillas, news editor of the online news service Mindanews, is the 2011 Marshall McLuhan Prize winner. The Canadian Embassy, which initiates the annual search, awarded Arguillas last June for the excellence of her body of works as a reporter and editor.

During the Dec. 2 Marshall McLuhan Forum Series on Responsible Media at the USJ-R, the audience, dominated by coeds taking up Mass Communication in different colleges and universities in Cebu, answered Arguillas with a soft but instant, “No”.

Arguillas then discussed the demands of journalism—read, research, serve the public—and showed images of a beauty-drenched Mindanao rarely glimpsed in the war and conflict coverage of national media.

When Arguillas posed again the question—“Do you want to be a journalist?”—the answer became a resounding, “Yes”.

What caused the change of heart? I mused in my seat. On the jeepney ride back to my college after the forum came the second question: how many of those aspiring to be journalists write for a campus publication?

A few years back, when a local newsroom advertised for applicants to fill the posts of reporters or editors, the advertising copy cited that a campus journalism background was an asset.

Based on expectations, writing for the student paper seems to be an essential rite of passage for a person intending to devote his or her professional life to journalism.

Realities reveal the contrary: if anything, the campus press is at risk of losing a mass audience and a deep pool of talented individuals that could have committed to the unrelenting, uncompensated rigors of campus coverage.

Let me qualify key terms. By campus press, I refer to the publication that is funded by every student who “contributes” every semester, whether he or she likes it or not, a fixed amount for a publication, which may find print or not.

This suspension of several conditions any publisher lusts for: a regular stream of funds to ensure publication of material that may or may not be read by a mass audience. Outside campuses, publications survive to print another day because these are patronized by their audience.

The condition for survival? A publication must be read. To be read, a publication must be credible, viewed as filling a need for information and meaning. Nowhere but in campuses can you find ghost or irregular or ignored publications that continue to be printed for ghost audiences.

To be relevant, who should campus publications be addressing? The studentry, whose fees sustain the production of the so-called student publication. A mass audience is not a select niche of individuals. It is not the administration or the faculty. Nor is it any student party or the student council.

Like the administration and faculty, campus politicians and student councils are subjects of coverage. A student paper controlled by any entity or ideology enters conflicts of interest that will eventually bleed it of balance, accountability and credibility.

In the 1980s, I was a campus journalist. In the words of my editor, I am now a quasi-journalist: one foot in the academe, the other in the industry.

My younger and older selves agree: the campus paper has to keep its balance between reportage and advocacy, somehow connecting the sleepwalking majority to those who are awake to and vigilant about student rights and responsibilities.

My older self, though, has seen what the younger couldn’t even imagine: that technology would advance and open campus journalism to desktop publication, blogging and online networking.

In the 1980s, students still got copies of campus publications, unreadable or not, to fan themselves with or sit on.

Today, with Facebook, Blogger and scan-and-print, who will wait for you?

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 4, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Survivor’s guide to P.C.

ODD couples sometimes work.

The pairing of words not usually seen in each other’s company made me stop and reread an Associated Press (AP) article published last Nov. 25, 2011 by Sun.Star Cebu.

“Female boxers shoot down skirts” was the “head” or headline of the AP report.

For suggesting that in the London Olympics 2012, female boxers wear skirts, instead of the usual boxing kit, the International Amateur Boxing Association (Aiba) had to dodge accusations of sexism.

Aiba suggested that the skirts make the women pugilists “stand out” from the men.

Although women boxers from Poland and Romania did don skirts during last week’s European Championships in the Netherlands, their British counterparts snubbed the apparel.

“Most (of the women boxers preparing for the London Olympics) would say we have earned the right to be boxers and we want to go as boxers, not female boxers,” commented a coach.

Since 2000, the year when I first worked full-time for a newspaper, “political correctness” has circumnavigated a route that has taken the concept from the unorthodox but proper to the satirical and sarcastic, and back again.

To be politically correct means to refrain from showing any bias against a race, gender, economic status, age, belief or any orientation.

Covering social issues, I got my instruction on how to be a P.C.P. (or politically correct person) from untangling the Gordian knot of terminologies used by non-government organizations and activists (or, to be more P.C., cause-oriented advocates).

It isn’t P.C. to report about “street urchins” and “prostitutes”. Use “children in conflict with the law (CICL), “ “children in especially difficult circumstances (CEDCs),” “sex workers,” “trafficked persons” and “sex care provider” to avoid being labeled as ignorant and insensitive (or “neuronically challenged” and “socially misaligned” to the P.C.Ps.).

Yet, when some P.C. terms became longer (or more “syllable-prolific”) and thus, tongue-twisting and silly, the anti-labels turned into labels and turned off even the most flexible.

For instance, while news readers like accuracy, few may be able to deal with the distinctions made by very activity-specific terms that capture the increasing specialization of the sex trade, such as “Men Having Sex with Men (MSM)” and “Women Having Sex with Women (WSW)”.

Outside of reporters and editors (whose character-counting lives are compressed by shrinking news holes and modular layouts), does P.C. disrupt the lives of people on the streets (not “street people,” which anyway, according to P.C., have moved out to make way for “informal settlers”)?

Recently, an Iranian got his foot shot after he argued with street bums (“displaced homeowners” or just “occupationally challenged”?).

According to Joy F. Tumulak’s Nov. 23, 2011 report in Sun.Star Superbalita, two cousins were hanging around a street corner in Guadalupe when the Iranian and a Filipino friend biked past them. The cousins cried out, “hey Joe! Hey Joe!”

This angered the Iranian who got into an argument with the two men. When he was about to ride away, one of the bystanders shot him.

Female boxers may start the fad of “skirt-shooting”. Lovers of English may die each time an editor uses “waitron” to skirt the gender slurs of “waiter” and “waitress”.

Yet, in a post-9/11 world, intolerance means more dangerous exposure than name-calling.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 27, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evergreen and floating libraries

HOW do we covet?

Hannibal Lecter, that fastidious cannibal, memorably said in “The Silence of the Lambs” that people learn to covet what they see.

In my case, reading undoes me.

These past weeks, two emails stand out in my inbox. One informed me that the Ateneo Press Bookshop is holding a Christmas book sale from Nov. 14 to Dec. 15 at the Ateneo campus in Quezon City.

My former student Joy also wrote that the Logos Hope, tagged as the “world’s largest floating book fair,” is due to visit Cebu in January and February 2012.

Not only will coffee, tea and Christmas cookies come free with browsing at the Ateneo Christmas sale, this university press is known for the excellence of its publications.

According to a press release, the Logos Hope is the sister ship of M. V. Doulos. Since 2009 was the Doulos’s last stopover in Cebu, I’m looking forward to losing my way around the Logos Hope’s over 5,000 titles.

Covetousness is fairly simple to fill when it’s just about one person’s desire. How does one sate an entire public system famished for reading?

Given the timing and reduced rates of these two book fairs, are public school librarians taking advantage to buy new titles or order more copies of the staples and classics?

Unlike private schools, public education has greater constraints in resources and processes. Yet, if a library stops acquiring new books and other references, it will come to assume, in this age of exploding information, the relevance of the rotary dial telephone or typewriter: a modern oddity that’s both funny and sad.

Yet, despite public mispriorities and mazelike bureaucracy, there’s hope that books find their way to public school students and teachers.

Many book lovers are as generous as they are voracious in their reading. Not for them the self-absorption of the collector. Some like Edna give back to schools in whose libraries they explored the ludic magic of opening a book and disappearing into other worlds.

While updating a school library they support, Edna’s family donated the previous collection to Tsinelas Association, Inc. To keep students in school, this non-government organization raises funds through book fairs, such as “Their Books 4,” which is now on its last day at Ayala Center Cebu.

When her niece outgrew her Nancy Drews, fellow writer Melanie asked around and also selected Tsinelas to be the conduit for several boxes of books, keepsakes of a well-read girlhood.

One of the recipients of a Tsinelas grant to start a reading center was the Valencia Elementary School in upland Alegria, south of Cebu. A dedicated head teacher and a parents-teachers association willing to construct shelves and attend reading appreciation talks more than made up for the expenses of transporting books, some sourced from outside the country.

Book donors do not just meet the numbers but also recognize the importance of including storybooks, fiction, poetry. The public school system has barely funds for textbooks but any book lover knows that when one picks up a book not to study but to enjoy and escape, that is when reading takes hold, not just for the moment but for a lifetime.

“Spontaneous pleasure reading (ludic reading) deserves attention for at least two reasons,” writes Victor Nell. “It is an important goal of reading instruction, and it offers rewards that are powerful enough… to sustain reading for long periods...”

One quiet afternoon in the faculty room, I sat down to prepare a syllabus incorporating creative nonfiction. I left behind academia when I lost myself in literary journalism, memoirs and personal essays. Such ludic excursion is impossible in the desert of state-funded libraries.

Fortunately, for UP Cebu, Carol Ediza-Marin of Illinois remembered the school where she once taught. She sent all the programs boxes of books. That quiet afternoon spent among her books refreshes for me why we read: to enjoy, to share, to breathe.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 20, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A dream of Rain

THIS lot looks most unlikely to be in trafficking.

Jhanika is into photography the way her sister, Micah, was so into music when I first knew her.

Troy has a high sweet voice that hoists a pure clear bell above my head and slowly settles it down as the last few notes of benediction trail away.

Joni wears many veils. She looks too slight to be a hard worker. Yet, after she cried once, her shaking body as slight and breakable as a bird’s, she walked away and came back, with a half-consumed bottle of water, to resume work grief and cruelty almost interrupted.

Nikka studies Mass Communication at St. Theresa’s College (STC). Joni and Troy are pursuing the same course in the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu. They are my students. They are engaged in the oldest profession known to man, now given a modern monicker: trafficking.

When Nikka handed in her seatwork last Tuesday, she crowed that she and her fellows were very busy during the sembreak. The girls found it a challenge to cope with the demand. “The offers were unending,” she reported.

STC is a major transhipment point in this ring, I picked up.

While enrolling students at UP Cebu this week, I overheard Troy discuss with his cohorts their plan to “price” the goods in school before moving the hoard to STC. Then, cool and blatant, he asked my help to spirit away the goods, which includes several of my babies.

My insides trembled. I wanted to sneak after Troy and his gang to catch them in the act. Don’t let those baby faces trick you.

Their youngest member has not turned a year old yet. Ulan (“rain” in Cebuano) first saw print in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Insoymada” column. While his parents cavorted in the rain, which carried a whiff of the radioactive fallout of myth from Japan, Ulan waited for his cue to leave Rei’s womb and take his place in the inner circle.

Ulan will take up after his parents, Insoy and Rei. If you are scandalized by those web cam-wielding fiends peddling their own flesh-and-blood overseas, you haven’t heard yet of trafficking by nature and nurture.

When Rei first sat in my classes, she was light on her feet and grounded in her writing. Then she met Insoy, who by then, despite a lifetime of handing chalices of the host to uncountable priests in Pinamungajan, finally dropped the host in his senior year at the seminary because the concept of transubstantiation stuck in his throat, wrote for a living and embraced the dangerous thinking that one can change the future of youths.

Now this trinity is into trafficking, along with their baby-faced recruits from STC, UP, Don Bosco Technological Center, Southwestern University, and Cebu Technological University.
Where will this end? I’m not a member of this syndicate but I might as well be, for giving up many of my babies to them.

Recently, I’ve been having this dream. I’m old, wizened, my face has melted and hangs around for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks with my knees or maybe it’s the other way around. Getting up from bed is horror. The unmentionable is crawling to plug my equally decrepit laptop with the busted battery and switching on and waiting for my Facebook page to load and reading on my wall this message from Ulan:

“Hi, tita, do you have any donations for ‘Their Books,” now on its XCIX year? We can send the children/grandchildren of Joni/Troy/Nikka/King/Chai/Tala/etc. to pick it up.”

“Their Books” is an annual book-selling project, now on its fourth year. The volunteers of Tsinelas, an awarded non-government organization, sell donated books and use the funds to keep less privileged students in school, give art workshops, start reading centers, and hold reading seminars.

“Their Books 4” takes place on Nov. 18-20, 2011 at Ayala Center Cebu.

You can still give your books to any Tsinelas volunteer or bring these to their office at the Sentro sa Katilingban in STC, along Gen. Maxilom Ave.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 13, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Chicken soup and kindness

IF you shared chicken stew with a person, would he spare your life?

One wonders if doubt ever assailed Lea, 15, during the 17 hours her father kept her hostage in their home in a mountainous village an hour’s walk from the Poblacion of Borbon, a northern town in Cebu.

In Davinci S. Maru’s riveting account in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 4, 2011 issue, the family hostage drama that kept the Borbon police at a standoff from Nov. 2 afternoon till Nov. 3 morning ended with no life lost.

It’s difficult to write that tragedy was averted.

Several parallels can be drawn between this Borbon family (Sun.Star Cebu editors did not disclose names to protect the underaged children) and the Ponces of Talisay.

Last Oct. 16, suicide and murder claimed the lives of five members of the Ponce family, and that of their house helper.

Both families endured discord. The wives endured abuse, physical as well as emotional. Marital and family problems drove the husbands to consider suicide.

According to the Sun.Star Cebu report, Anthony, despondent about being estranged from his wife, drove away his children from their home in Borbon as he said he was going to kill himself.

Responding authorities later found that Anthony had tied his daughter’s arms and lashed himself to her. He had a gun.

What prevented the crisis from escalating? The police kept watch but were ordered by superiors to resume negotiations in the morning. At 7:30 a.m., Anthony fired his gun at the window but surrendered after receiving a promise that he would not be harmed.

More than the authorities’ handling of the crisis, the decision of the Borbon couple’s 15-year-old daughter to stay with her father may have defused the situation.

According to Sun.Star Cebu, Lea did not leave her father even though he was already drinking rum and carrying his revolver. She told Sun.Star Cebu that she did not believe he would kill her: “… they even had dinner together. They had chicken stew… Her father only asked her that she not leave the house. She said she cared for her father.”

In the Talisay tragedy, Emmanuel Ponce, who shot his wife, three children and their helper before killing himself, spared the youngest of his children, a 13-year-old daughter. According to reports, she was the sole member of the household who spoke to him.

The Filipino family, it has been said, is in a crisis. Commentaries have noted that Emmanuel was a former overseas worker. Yet, even families staying in the country face similar forces that pull them apart. A security guard, Anthony sometimes visited his wife in Cebu City, where she worked in a store.

Married for 18 years, the couple was estranged since their furniture-making venture failed. She said he had vices. He suspected her of having an affair.

If the family is endangered, how much more for its members? Encroached by various addictions, separation and other dislocations, the biological family, which used to be the stabilizing and nurturing core, will have to be replaced by modern proxies, families redefined and reconstituted.

For Embrelaince Ponce and Lea, the notion of family will have to include the authorities, which, by law and mandate, will provide psychiatric evaluation, counseling and rehabilitation.

Can institutions hand out resilience?

According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, resilience is “the capacity to deal with change and (to) continue to develop.”
In the resilience theory, an environment shows resilience when it withstands climatic, political or economic shock, and rebuilds and renews itself.

Long after the reports have faded from memory, I retain two images: Lea sharing chicken soup with her father while the dark surrounds them; and Embrelaince Ponce feeding the family dogs on the first morning she returns to her home, where her family died.

In life, trust a few things, like chicken soup and kindness.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 6, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Be streetwise

TREE-LINED and recently spruced up, Osmeña Boulevard is pretty as a postcard scene, and as deceptive.

Last Friday, at midmorning, my mother’s attention was caught by a group of teens that jogged across the street while the traffic lights turned red. One boy slowed down to pick something from the nape of a female passenger in one of the idling jeepneys.

Before my mother could blink, the youth was standing on the curb, sliding the medallion up and down the broken chain, as if taunting its owner, who, my mother thinks, may not have known what hit her.

Media reports and anecdotes from victims and eyewitnesses attest that a culture of street crime runs through this uptown area.

Remembering the 1980s when “rugby boys” started roaming the area while inhaling from bags containing this high-inducing glue and knowing the heavy traffic of tourists and pedestrians in the area, the trend does not surprise.

What perturbs is the rapacity of the current street operators. What they lack in years and height, they more than make up for predatory instincts. They hunt in packs, begging from or distracting victims before striking. Even in daylight, they chase those whose bags or valuables they fail to snatch at first attempt. They threaten and scare security guards or bystanders who intervene between them and their prey.

Who would have associated the ages of 11, 9 or 7 with mayhem?

Others blame drugs and alcohol abuse, not just by the youths but by their parents, if they can be called such. Often cited for worsening juvenile crime now is a juvenile justice law that keeps youths below 18 years out of jail. Among the “batang hamog” in the streets of Manila, a birth certificate is carried around to facilitate their release in case of an arrest.

The breakdown of family, environment and social institutions is blamed for the corruption of youth.

Yet, is it possible to view this in another way, that rather than deteriorate, the youth are sharpening and peaking? By some oversight, lack of imagination or failure of nerve, we fail to channel their energies into areas that benefit society, such as finding solutions to problems they best know how to tackle?

Remembering my mother’s anecdote of the necklace thief at Osmeña Boulevard, I found myself revising my initial assessment of the teen’s flaunting of his booty: would a hardened criminal risk all for a moment’s prank?

The failure of one generation to understand and thus reach out to another generation lies at the heart of a disaster like the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 that was authored by Senator Francis Pangilinan, as well as the botched attempts of the police to drag juveniles out of the street for some desultory feeding, hair-trimming, clothing and lecturing (attempts proven to misfire as soon as the same youths are picked up again from the streets for another crime for which the law refuses to hold them accountable for).

Yet, what can we learn from the efforts of some groups to wean away some of the hardened veterans of streets and even get them to motivate former allies and compatriots to leave their brotherhoods?

In March 2012, the Kaspersky Conference for Young Professionals will be held in Hong Kong to involve youths in fighting cybercrime. According to Katlene O. Cacho’s Oct. 25, 2011 report in Sun.Star Cebu, the Information Technology (IT) security company, Kaspersky Lab, invites students to work with other experts. Philippine students have until Dec. 1 to submit their papers in the competition for the best original research on Internet security and cybercrime.

IT’s not tapping something new in tapping the young. Shouldn’t we be applying this approach, too, in our streets?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 30, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Divine at 15

DID the parents of Divine Saludaga foresee, 15 years ago, that their child would grow to become not just divine but uncommon?

Divine is a senior at Tipolo National High School. According to Justin K. Vestil’s Oct. 18, 2011 report in Sun.Star Cebu, Divine was recently honored as one of Mandaue City’s Top 20 Outstanding Children.

The 20 students were chosen for their academic and community work in their schools.

Although the Sun.Star Cebu article contains no particulars about the students’ achievements, Vestil captured the uniqueness of Divine who, at 15, is unsure whether she will become “a nun, a teacher or a journalist”.

Her being the school paper’s editor-in-chief makes her lean, though, towards journalism.

I expect sass and spunk but hardly poignancy from fifteen-year-olds. (Or perhaps I have watched too many videos.)

What is it like to be 15 and consider options few adults will even glance at as options?

For a foolish reason sustained for a few foolish seconds after reading the Sun.Star Cebu article, I wished Divine stays 15 forever. Anything—her elders, a spike in the hiring of overseas Filipino workers, or even Divine herself—can trigger a change in her life’s decision.

She may realize that, however she decides, she will be embracing a lifetime of work.

Rather, I mean service, the term applied for work that will never be fully compensated.

I’m sure salaries and benefits are better now compared to those in the past, but I believe—based on experience and observation—that the labors of teachers, journalists and nuns can never be covered by paltry things like a pay slip or pension.

Is there a scheme to standardize salaries for the individual exercise of creativity, passion and excellence? There are numbers to prove the aberrations—masses of lazy and incompetent teachers, lazy and corrupt journalists, lazy and sanctimonious nuns—but the sterling exceptions are not as rare as we think.

There are teachers who don’t let poverty—of local families, of the educational system—dim the dreams of their students.

Among those frontliners who can count their official holidays with fewer than the fingers of one hand, some journalists make the extra effort to be accurate, accurate, accurate every time: go to libraries, archives and the streets to verify information; try to reach sources that didn’t, won’t and can’t give their side; and reread drafts to check that no interest is sacrificed or promoted except that of the public.

And nuns—timeless butt of inanities for being childless and sexless—who have been champions of the poor, ignorant, voiceless, abused, abandoned, degraded, soulless, in a word, final resort of those who ran out of options: can you insult the salt of the earth by saying, here is compensation for doing the work that no one else will do?

Can you be 15 and then wake up the next second?

No one can cling to the flush of youth. But here’s my hope, Divine, that you stay always as uncommon as you were at 15.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 23, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Origin of evil

IF I were to curate our times, I would begin at the comfort rooms.

CRs, as we call them in this shortcut-loving country, reflect the values and temper of an age.

When I was still in uniform, we could eat in the CRs of our school, run by nuns. The air was so pure, these places seemed only remotely associated to Bodily Function No. 1, and hardly to No. 2.

Cleaned once a day by the staff, the CRs were maintained this way the rest of the day by us students.

It was a feat. Anyone with an idea of the amount of powdering, combing and fixing up girls subject themselves to in privacy before appearing in public, will be in awe of how we never left even a telltale strand of hair on the sink long after the last class.

Decades later, I ran into a friend when we both used a CR in our alma mater. About to wash my hands, I stopped when I saw the congealing swishes of pink foundation and hair strands of assorted length marking the white bowl. When I looked up, my batch mate shook her head and said sorrowfully, “Things have changed.”

My college years introduced me to other kinds of CRs. In this university, students protested about tuition fee increases that were forever lining the priests’ pockets and not improving the students or teachers’ lots. Yet, by rigging CRs with whistlebombs that only sometimes whistled but almost always blew doors off hinges or cracked bowls, these students were reducing the functional CRs on every floor and increasing the bladder-challenged among a population better known for lifting more bottles than books.

Why was I not surprised that these petty anarchists were also bigots? In the girls’ CR, the bombs planted were not the whistling variety because, they claimed, the girls could be counted on to supply the acoustics.

When I transferred to a state college, it was impossible to ignore the reek of state-subsidized education because the library was beside the girls’ CR.

“What kind of library is this?” often warred with “What kind of girls use this CR?” for my quote of the day.

Though I gave up on research attempts with references that may have been abandoned in the mass retreat before the Japanese Imperial Army (the campus was a holding center in World War II), I could not snob the Origin of Evil, as our CR was called by the boys (whose CR, across the hall, proved there was indeed a Residence Beyond Evil).

Before it was taken over by the Crying Girl (a spirit, urban legend or noisy manifestation that interrupts many a visitor’s No. 1 or No. 2), the OOE was notorious for its three cubicles—Bad, Worse, Worst—that did not only refer to the frequent occasions when there was no water, or too much.

When I was an undergraduate, the cubicles were the final bastions of campus freedom. Every comment that could not get past the faculty advisors of the student publication or the rally marshals checking ideology and grammar on placards and streamers ended on the CR walls and cubicle doors with the genteel wooden louvers.

Adding more atmosphere to the material and astral haunting of the place were the graffiti that, in Cebuano, English and CebGlish (never Tagalog), roasted students, teachers, God, landladies and Charlie Chaplin.

How could anyone write such a long scurrilous insult without the ballpen ink drying up? Share the brand please. What kind of spelling ignoramus are the taxpayers educating? Want to know the secrets of passing Math 11? Hoy, it’s not “in” but “on” the bowl. (Hoy)2X! The preposition depends on the object, object ka?

Times have indeed changed. Student groups now raise funds for CR sanitizers and must field student agents to check if you are handwashing properly. It’s not only choosing to do No. 1 or No. 2 but knowing eye and wrist coordination to shoot inside one of at least three CR waste receptacles to prove your IQ and EQ on segregation.

And today’s bare and unstained CRs prove only that the young have moved away to post on their Facebook wall and through their Tweets what used to be the unmentionable, unintelligible and memorable in the CRs of my time.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 16, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Friday, October 14, 2011

Copy and perish

“HELL Week” is inaccurate but apt for this time: the last remaining weeks of the semester when some students wake up and find out there is a final grade due and it’s not a white rabbit they can pull out of a trick hat but a computation based on their outputs and performance, or lack of it.

Is it my imagination or am I seeing more uniforms in libraries and churches?

Not all, though, rely on their own labor or divine intervention.

Others fall back on a dependable alternative: “borrowing” someone else’s work to pass off as one’s own.

Hours silently passed with fellow teachers, poring over manuscripts, made me realize that Hell Week, in the Bright New Age of Copy and Paste, increasingly means tawdry assignations with an infernal triangle: student, teacher and Plagiarism.

Aside from being uncomfortable with threesome arrangements, I dislike the effort wasted by a naïve or ignorant second party on a third party, known and visible to only the first party.

That is because I line-edit manuscripts to offer suggestions for rewriting. In a memorable interlude, I ended up asking myself how could it help Diana Athill to know that I thought she botched her transitions? Or writer X, who did not believe the low grade I gave her essay on spirituality, ghostwritten unknowingly by Athill, an editor who reviewed for half a century the works of Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul?

At that time, of course, X did not argue. She could hardly blurt out that I only thought I had been reading her but was actually reviewing Athill, or Athill chopped up and stitched together with a horrific disregard for clarity and cohesion that calls to mind Hollywood and Dr. Frankenstein’s attempt to bring to life the Creature.

Years later, after I acquired a secondhand copy of the Spring 2006 issue of the Granta magazine and read Athill’s essay, “God and me,” I remembered the disbelief of X and had to belatedly agree with her. Had I known that she robbed Athill, I would not have failed her composition. I would have asked her to repeat the course.

Academic honesty and scholarly discipline should not be fully entrusted to chance. For years, teachers required several drafts to ease students into the process of prewriting, writing and rewriting. This method allows both writer and teacher to discover, familiarize and immerse oneself with the writer’s voice: the signature that reveals how a person uniquely thinks and expresses.

Now, detecting plagiarism has been updated by Copyscape and other software that can trace plagiarized text, even those buried deep in the 100th page of documents uploaded on or outside the Net.

According to Professor Rose Arong, who uses Copyscape to verify her suspicions, the program can assess if at least 10 percent of a work is copied, the minimum for establishing plagiarism. Without proper attribution of sources, a student has a hard choice to make: admitting and apologizing for committing plagiarism (reaping failure for that exercise) or denying any wrongdoing (with evidence of plagiarism, repetition of the course is the consequence).

Given the gravity of content theft and its consequences—academic failure, dishonor, a pall cast on future accomplishments—the investigation of plagiarism should be carried out only by a disinterested panel of experts. On no account should doubts or suspicions be posted on Facebook, possibly leading to trial by publicity and cyberbullying.

Failing grades and criticism, though, do not go to the heart of plagiarism: why does one claim someone else’s work? Plagiarism doesn’t render vulnerable only the lazy and deficient but also the most promising and passionate to copy words, images and other forms of expression. One eventually stumbles in the race to excel? The best form of praise is imitation? There is no original thought? Or the Internet ends all taboos?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 9, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Books, not flyovers

IT’S not possible to read all the books in a human lifetime.

It’s possible to let others read the books you can’t read in your lifetime.

That didn’t come from a fortune cookie but from four years of “Their Books”.

A brainchild of accidental journalist/children’s rights revolutionary/baby blogger extraordinaire Insoy Niñal, “Their Books” is sustained now on its fourth year by the campus volunteers of Tsinelas Association Inc.

Composed of students, teachers, professionals and just about anyone who believes every child should be entitled to at least a book, an education and a life, Tsinelas cooks up a lot of schemes to put public school students through high school AND college, set up reading centers or libraries, discover drawing, theater and other ways to release their inner artist, or just play, laugh and have a good time, rare and endangered for many children in difficult circumstances.

For the past two years, Tsinelas timed their book sale for a cause on a weekend coinciding with Sept. 21, anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the country and the local celebration of Cebu Press Freedom Week.

A few weeks ago, though, Joni Sarina Mejico, president of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu chapter of the Tsinelas volunteers, posted an invitation on Facebook for donations to generate the cache of books, magazines, textbooks and other references that will mostly be put on sale to the public when “Their Books” is held on Nov. 17-19, 2011, at the Ayala Center Cebu, their corporate partner over the years.

Mejico posted that textbooks and children’s books will not be included in the sale but donated to Tsinelas’s beneficiary schools for reading centers or libraries.

This year’s poster is slick and avant-garde (I suspect award-winning artist and hardcore book lover Josua S. Cabrera has let loose again his inner child to play around in a virtual playground. The design shows a curtain of black slashed by a stylized, inverted number “4” and a plain sheet that reflects the reverse image of the letter “B”. The slashes creating number “4” expose, as if through rose-tinted lenses, an image of book spines arranged on a shelf.

The image is either voyeuristic or poignant. If you thinks reading is better than sex (lasts longer, doesn’t entail making a soul-tearing choice between natural or artificial methods of restraint, allows several trials if your first attempt to connect with the author flopped), the sight of “Their Books” will ignite the fantastic collision between the male-electric and female-magnetic forces infusing all acts of creation.

In plain words, “Their Books” gives every fan a chance to own a book once held, read and collected by idols, icons or objects of fantasy. Want to peek into the novel editor emeritus Cheking Seares brings along when he sits in his favorite daytime nook, downing several cups of coffee and stirring bottomless vats of stories-behind-the-stories? Stab for luck and get your hands on the extremely beautiful, inside and out, specimens that journalist-and-fictionist Isolde Amante reluctantly lets go each year from her collection. Pine for Mitch So, for whom the word “hunkess” should be invented? At least, get closer to her aura by picking up one of the novels competing with “From Junquera with love” for this editor’s gimlet-eyed attention.

For all the orgy of senses stirred up by “Their Books,” there’s a particular poignancy to the yearly efforts of student volunteers from UP, St. Theresa’s College, Don Bosco Technology Center Cebu, Southwestern University and Cebu Technological University, as well as “Their Books” donors and patrons, to raise funds and give more than a fighting chance to students in mountain barangays and urban inner cities.

Do you think our children deserve more than flyovers and erroneous textbooks? Call Tsinelas volunteers to pick up the crates of books you’ve not read for more than a year. Or see you at "Their Books" on Nov. 17-19.

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Oct. 2, 2011 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Two loves

“ONCE upon a time” used to be good enough.

Listening to the storytellers in my family and later, in the community, I learned that to hold a listener rapt to one’s tale was to imagine plaiting an unending flow that had one story cascading into another.

Nearly all of the stories I grew up with were recollections. “I remember” was the phrase that made us children quiet and lift our faces to the source.

Face and voice: with such minimal props, storytellers fused the connection between their remembrance and our imagination. Sometimes, an oddity anchored our attention: a snippet of hair kept inside a locket, a misshapen ring that seemed too light to tie down a suitor to 15 years of waiting.

Childhood made us demanding but the most accepting of audiences. Make-believe and ghost stories rubbed elbows with family history, gossip and news recalled word-for-word from the latest long-distance call to faraway relatives.

In this unruly democracy of recall and retelling, provenance and endurance conferred the rare distinctions. The older the source of the story or the better it bore up under the vagaries of memory, the truer a story seemed to be.

Truth, though, was just one of the attractions. What I remember best was being in thrall of the storyteller. Fact or fiction, a story had to have the power of transporting me from reality to imagination.

Education did not just snip off that thick, unwieldy stem of stories; it differentiated narratives into the verifiable, inferred and conjectured.

The early fumbling initiatives in research and scientific inquiry led me down the straight and narrow path of journalism. Not only have I learned to structure my thinking and storytelling in terms of the inverted pyramid of main facts trickling down to subordinate supporting details, I accept this hierarchy of values: facts are the foundations on which to base the upper tier of informed opinion and responsible action.

Often, it chafes that stories cannot take off for lack of a crucial link or a balance of all perspectives. It galls that deadlines make the yield of facts sometimes so paltry, a story emerges half-formed or gasps, near-aborted. A writer tapping a reservoir of self-honesty will never submit such an abomination to an editor for emergency resuscitation.

Obscured by its harried pedestrian façade and habit of crude skepticism, journalism is easy to dismiss as anything but a circuitous detour to accidental sainthood. Yet, how to explain the perpetual vigilance, the solitude for examination of motives and intent, the self-flagellation?

And all for a story? Not just for most or nearly all stories but for every one of them. The privilege to tell the story is also about the obligation to watch out for a mistake, specially that which one makes knowingly and as conveniently excuses and justifies.

In this mundane discipline of making every story matter and getting the story right every time, more perhaps are stained than sainted.

Yet, for telling the stories, daghang salamat, Cebu media. (Written at the close of the 17th Cebu Press Freedom Week)

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 25, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Inky past

CAN you read?

For someone who devoured books, I had one of the worst pick-up lines: check the sentence before this.

This is exactly quoted from a boy I pounced on to read my radio script. That he happened to have the cutest shorts running around the soccer field of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu was only his secondary asset.

It mattered more that he did not mangle English. After haggling with the gods, I had a radio talent-slash-news assistant-slash-boyfriend weeks after my victim first cleared his throat and read the lines thrust at him after stepping out of the men’s CR.

In the 1980s, Communication Arts students in UP Cebu took up writing and specialized in broadcasting. This was because our fiercest professors were stalwarts in radio and TV. Our part-time lecturers often stumbled to class late or never after putting the newspaper to bed at unholy hours.

Perversely, I loved writing and faced the bleakest future in broadcasting. The countdown leading to the “On Air” sign flicking red in the radio lab drove away my words like startled birds driven to seek refuge in a pre-9/11 sky.

Broadcasting depends on technology. Technology means equipment. Aside from requiring money this state scholar didn’t have, equipment has odd fetishes, such as plug the cord, fiddle with a button or check out the battery. What genius can remember all these?

Exempted from my phobia was the typewriter. You know where you stand with this invention. My father’s Underwood was gargantuan and immovable; till now, I create and compose best at a desk facing familiar walls.

A light, portable typewriter may have been more convenient. Yet it smacked too much of the libertine, this shifting, shiftless hopping from one desk to another.

Not only did the pounding of keys required by the family Underwood tone my arms, the noise provided orchestral emphasis that writing is mutable but serious. Not all mistakes can be covered up. Writing and rewriting is instinct, a reflex at the level of breathe in, breathe out.

This was the prosaic setting of my college romance: from writing by hand, I tangoed with the typewriter and later explored the printing press. After getting over the exasperatingly sweetish muck of infatuation, my boyfriend-not-MU (mutual understanding) and I settled down to timing our dates with my schedule at the press that was printing our infamously progressive, unread student paper.

From the coy challenge of “do you read,” I was now asking the poor fellow, “can you strip?”. To this day, I’m not sure if he got a kick from checking the grammar of the overwrought essays and turgid poems our editorial team decided was the proper dose for bourgeois stupor.

Perhaps he just felt it his duty to stay with a girl stuck for hours in a room full of men who stripped to the waist whenever the air-conditioning unit quit (often). More ambrosial than virgin paper was the smell of chemicals from the dark room where the lay-out was shot and turned into a negative image. In the stripping section, we worked with cutters, slicing out the paper and daubing maroon paint to expose only the parts of the negative to be printed on the plate.

Sound is everything. Any lovemaking couple, a woman giving birth, a pornographer will attest.

No less primordial is the sound of the presses running. Printing is not unlike a couple testing out their compatibility. There’s an experimental run to check if the fluids are flowing, check; colors bright, check; pages aligned, check.

The run- stop-check tedium is messy but requisite, foreplay to somebody shouting to let her rip until the final seminal outburst: a set of pages printed, awaiting cutting, binding, reading. From the impatience of waiting for the run to start, to the panic of imagining the uncorrected errors being printed, and the near hysteria when the press stops, the silence echoing with the unimaginable until one smells before sees the freshly printed sheets—no wonder one of my college romances fizzled.

The other endures till now, the start of the 17h Cebu Press Freedom Week.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 18, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Land of eternal sunshine

YOU are where you live.

I met Celia when an afternoon shower prevented me from leaving the Sidlakan Center in Piapi, Dumaguete.

Even after retiring as a public school teacher in Bayawan, Negros Oriental and raising four children, who now have families of their own, Celia has not yet tired of life and is working as a consultant for this privately initiated center promoting craftwork made by various people’s organizations in Negros.

By any employer’s standard, this handsome lady with deep-set eyes has few equals. She daily reports to work despite a bureaucracy holding up her salary.

The gigantic and velvety mayanas I was admiring turned out to be planted by Celia, one consultant not content with just dispensing advice.

After chatting about children (mine), grandchildren (hers) and other people’s children (our students), Celia invited me to buy a lot somewhere in Valencia. We could be neighbors, she coaxed.

Her home faces the east. We want to see the sun rise even while ours’ set, she said.

The openness to change is something I associate not just with youth but with agelessness. It’s one thing to defy life because one has yet to be brought to one’s knees.

It’s another to earn experience and grace, appreciating that while both are desirable, only one is deserved.

I wonder if circumstances were different and I had met Celia in Cebu. Would I tempt her to retire in Cebu?

Celia has a sister residing in Talamban. Oh, I say. The place has transformed since the late 1970s, when bodies were dumped there, defaced and amputated to delay identification.

Development in the Banilad-Talamban artery has reached such an apex, a million signatures were recently gathered for a petition submitted to the Cebu City Government.

The Ban-Tal petitioners ask City Hall to postpone developments in the area until solutions can be found for congestion, traffic, air quality, garbage, drainage and flooding.

Celia’s sister, also a retired public school teacher, receives regular financial aid from the local government. I nod but don’t ask if Celia’s sister had to line up for hours, under the sun, on different occasions: to register as a senior citizen (and a destitute one at that), then later to vote, and for the third time, to present proof of exercising this civic duty so politicians can reward them with a pittance for celebrating their birthdays.

Why do we set grants and discounts as the ceiling for appreciating those who have not just earned but deserve the best in their twilight years?

Celia begins each day watching the sky outside her home change from purple to lilac to tangerine, lemon and ethereal blue. Valencia is 10 minutes’ away from Piapi. As a reflex of her decades in teaching, she comes early, not to beat traffic that is not existent but to water and turn the soil around the mayanas.

I wake three hours early to cross a bridge and make two or three transfers to commute to a 7:30 a.m. class. I hurdle a road modernization project in Lapu-Lapu City; traffic proceeds at a medieval pace, I sleep on my way to and coming home from work. With any luck, if the government installs two flyovers in uptown Cebu, I will have a longer doze as I will have to wake six hours early to make it for my first class.

Who has time to watch sunrise? It’s just an interval between travelling to go home and travelling to go to work.

Cebu’s future looks so good—flyovers maybe snaking around to cover up the smog-blotted horizon, high-rises mushrooming in oblivion of building and zoning codes, traffic turning us all into people of the streets—we might as well put up a gigantic billboard and paint a sun eternally rising over us.

My friend Celia will have to excuse me if I don’t invite her to Cebu; I’m not sure I’m staying around for retirement.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 11, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Lessons from “Alo”

“Nganong nag-apil-apil?”

It’s a short trip via jeepney from the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu in Lahug to a Vhire terminal at the North Reclamation Area. Usually, I enjoy this ride at the end of the day. I’m going home and can let my thoughts drift this way and that.

Last Thursday, though, my fellow passenger gave me the longest 10-minute 04L ride so far.

Barely getting past the phalanx of knees, I was balancing my knapsack and tote full of books and papers on my lap when the man across me fired this question.

I instantly looked at my side companions, thinking I had interrupted a conversation.

The man called Chito corrected this assumption when he addressed me again, prefacing with “Ma’am” the question he didn’t give me time to answer—“Maestra ka sa UP?”—before consuming most of that 04L ride with a rant against “thoughtless” and “naïve” students and their even more misguided and wayward mentors.

Hanging on to my seat and my precious papers, with our knees knocking with every spurt and jerk of the jeepney, I messed up my chance to insert at least two complete sentences in my fellow parent’s nearly unbroken tirade.

Claiming that he will never allow any child or relative of his to enroll in UP “to get brainwashed,” Chito expressed a perception shared by others reacting to the arrest of three UP Cebu students after violence broke out over the fencing of a disputed property in Aloguinsan.

According to Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 30 report by Kevin A. Lagunda and Justin K. Vestil, 36 farmers and their supporters were arrested for pelting the police with stones, human waste and acid. Bayan Muna, Karapatan-Central Visayas and the Farmers’ Development Center (Fardec) countered that violence was initiated by the cops, who hurt the farmers and their supporters.

Chito’s exasperation stemmed from the perception that the students were sent by their teachers to Aloguinsan. He said that aside from disrupting their studies and worrying their families, the students’ arrest will make it difficult for them to find jobs. What have they got themselves into?, he asked in rhetorical Cebuano.

Those arrested were part of a group, including students of another university, that was transported by Fardec to Aloguinsan for their Basic Masses Integration (BMI), “an immersion program that is supposed to help them understand the farmers’ plight,” reported Sun.Star.

None of my fellow teachers sent the students to “Alo” (to use the students’ “nickname” for the site of dispute). I don’t know any teacher who condones lawlessness or excuses the neglect of family and school duties for “social transformation”.

I know, though, that many teachers and students believe in not confining their learning to the four walls of the classroom. This principle, so oft repeated it has become a cliché, embraces not just the virtual worlds opened by technology but the much older, much tested school of experience.

Non-government organizations may call this exposure BMI. Those in the field of Mass Communication call it the “field”. Whatever the jargon, personal involvement (“pag-apil-apil”) through observing, witnessing and even participating in the realities experienced by other Filipinos outside one’s stratum is education, I dare say the only valuable one for being authentic.

Yet, unlike in a classroom where the conditions can be controlled and the disputes are safely within the range of the anemic to the acerbic, life has few screens to sieve the decent, the rational and the civilized from what’s immoral, inhuman and barbarous. Thus, mentoring the young makes one responsible for widening their perspective to look beyond the moment, substantiate passion and rhetoric, and act on decisions after examining options and consequences.

Yes, Chito, it’s called teaching, not brainwashing.

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 4, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, August 27, 2011

House rules

THE RECENT separate reports of demonic possession make me wonder: Is the craving to communicate with the unknown just a novelty for the young or a preoccupation among those already pierced by the twinges of mortality?

I watched on the news several people restrain youths after they played spirit of the glass or the coin. Male and female students of different schools located in different parts of the country, the youngsters shrieked, rolled their eyes and talked unintelligibly when a cross was pressed against different parts of their body.

According to a schoolmate who backed out at the last minute, the Cebu-based students made a pact to play the Ouija board at noon in an empty classroom. This is a sheet covered with letters and signs, which players “read” after a spirit, summoned by them, enters and moves around a downturned glass to deliver a message.

What can the living learn from the “beyond”? Curiosity about Anne Frank (Does the spirit grow older after dying? Was she working on a follow-up of her memoir?) made our book-loving group plot to play spirit of the glass on seniors’ night in high school.

However, after making sure the coast was clear of teachers and monitors, we realized not one of us brought an Ouija board or could draw one from memory. So we settled for spin the bottle, giggling after crushes were dredged up and pushed away all desire to command to “tell all” the soul of a young Jewess murdered in a concentration camp.

The fount of youth is not a fabled elixir but the arrogance to keep death at a distance, between the pages of a novel or six feet beneath a moss-encrusted grave marker. My immunity ended six years ago when my father died.

On the night my father suffered cardiac arrest, the medical staff was responding to another Code Blue on another floor. This private hospital had only one team to respond to such cases. The time it took for the staff to stabilize the first patient and rush to my father’s bedside was crucial: my father graduated from being an emergency to a case for resuscitation and then life support.

When he passed away days later, I was conscious of the weight of his displeasure. All my calls—from bringing him to a private hospital when he preferred the public one he served for 30 years as a surgeon to allowing his medical resuscitation when he didn’t believe in extreme measures—were opposed to what he wanted.

In death as in life, my father could nurse a grudge. In the years immediately after his death, I dreamt variations of the same speechless, sinking horror: standing outside his hospital room, the dread of anticipating what lay beyond the door crushing me; or looking down at his body, unable to tear myself away.

I don’t know when but in time, my father lightened up. He still visits me in my dreams, but we’ve moved away from room B-552. He’s often in his faded shorts, with his favorite accessories: a cold bottle of beer and his second or third pack of cigarettes. Sometimes he’s reading the news or rudely butting in while his favorite commentator blares from the radio that’s never switched off when he’s at home.

Where he is now isn’t our old home. I don’t know where this is because my old man has become unusually restless. I’m always following his stooped figure down a strange street that looks oddly familiar. We visit family but other folks I don’t know. Sometimes, I wish he wouldn’t overdo this socializing. I have to work in the morning.

And can he talk. We never had to talk to understand what each other wanted, but in these recent dreams, my father is positively garrulous. When I wake up, I don’t remember a thing he said, only that I never say a thing. After having everything go during those last years—his teeth, his eyesight, his memory, his hearing, his appetite, his independence, his daughters—my father’s back in the driver’s seat and I’m a grayer version of my school girl self, sitting beside him, dutiful and silent, occasionally coughing when the wind wafts cigarette smoke my way.

In the spirit world, the living must remember that we’re only guests.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 28, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Friday, August 26, 2011

Holy cows

“JESUS saves USC” was the headline of an Aug. 14, 2011 article that reported how gymnast Jesus Zaragosa won two gold medals and boosted the standing of the team fielded by the University of San Carlos (USC) in the 16th Milo Little Olympics.

That headline made me pause in my scanning, read and cheer: Hurrah, Jesus! Hurrah, USC!

And cheers to Sun.Star Cebu sports editor Mike T. Limpag for memorably capping reporter Marian C. Baring’s report.

It’s not only because a well-chosen “head” permits a first sip of the news to a distracted newspaper reader.

“Jesus saves”—that’s truth coming not from a bible-thumper but a tabloid editor. Sun.Star Cebu—all 11 X 17.5 inches of it—is technically classified as a tabloid.

According to a recently proposed ordinance, the Cebu Provincial Board wants to ban all tabloids in the cities and towns of Cebu for “contents (that) are luridly or vulgarly sensational”.

Naughty but accurate, Limpag’s play of words and associations is welcome after the turgid debates on art and religion, freedom of expression and censorship, tabloid journalism and morality these past weeks.

After artist Mideo Cruz was “crucified”—to quote Sun.Star Cebu columnist Melanie T. Lim—for his unorthodox use of religious images in the “Poleteismo” artworks, I wondered if the backlash would result in much pussyfooting and toadying among those we expect to shake us up.

Religion and sex: there are few to rival these for drawing us out of our isolation and involving us in messy, not altogether undesirable entanglements.

That, in the Age of Borderless Communication, such messages are often coursed through upstart “messengers”—artists and journalists—who wield skepticism, irreverence and irony to serve Expression and Truth—guarantees a head-on collision with other mediators guarding Convention and Truth.
Should we be held hostage by our messengers?

We have a choice. We can choose what to believe. Before believing, it is better to listen to all messengers and then select which to believe than to select first and then listen, a reflex tantamount to barricading oneself behind the ramparts of self-perpetuating biases.

What is the harm of giving free rein to all messengers, even those whose intelligence, morality and sanity one questions?

Sanity is subjective. When Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Romualdez Marcos was our first lady and the unofficial arbiter of “the good, the true and the beautiful,” writers, journalists and artists who attested to the salvaging of the so-called enemies of the state disappeared from the known world.

Who was sane then? Or insane?

Next to choice, the sweetest fruit of democracy is perspective. And the only one capable of creating this is the individual.

In the schools where I teach, we prize the individual. I don’t know if there is an artwork, an article or a literary creation that I admire that has been produced by a committee or, to use the It Word, from collaboration.

Given the visceral act of creating, even those of us who are tasked to teach and grade those who aspire to write and create are limited only to passing our personal judgment.

In a sense, we, too, are spectators and participants, engaging with and being engaged by a work but without the right and power to change, censor or ban a perspective and the individual behind this.

In the case of bad art—puerile or bigoted, insipid or offensive— only its human creator can destroy this.

Only Jesus—my God, not the gymnast—can strike down “insensitive” and “offensive” artists.

The rest of us should just walk away and get on with our life.
( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 21, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Our beasties

What’s the greater terror?

Confronting something we don’t understand or recognizing the unspeakable that’s familiar?

In its brief, interrupted public engagement, the Mideo Cruz exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) revealed a glimpse of ourselves.

However its merits or demerits are perceived, this was art that fulfilled what may be its creator’s intention: it agitated.

Last Aug. 9, the CCP Board closed down the Cruz exhibit, citing the “increasing number of threats to persons and property” sent via letters, text messages and emails and directed at the artist and the CCP officers.

Entitled “Kulo,” the Cruz exhibit was immediately denounced by outraged visitors and even those who only viewed selected images from the exhibit broadcast through TV reports.

“Sacrilegious” and “blasphemous” were hurled at the art pieces, which include a crucifix with a penis and a Christ the King figure with rabbit ears.

Aside from groups that picketed the CCP, Christian groups threaten lawsuits against Cruz and the CCP for violating a law against “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and indecent shows”.

The CCP’s decision to close the exhibit came also after a couple vandalized some of the art works and tried to set fire to the exhibit.

As I told a friend who recently asked me about my stance regarding this incident, I cannot fairly comment on the exhibit of Mideo Cruz as I have not been to the CCP, walked around the art pieces, and compared what may be the artist’s vision with my gut reaction as spectator or participant.

To evaluate a body of works through isolated images, specially sieved through news accounts of the controversy brewing around these, is not to view and react to the art or the artist but to witness the trial, sentencing and lynching of the Artist pitted against Community, of Anomaly versus Convention, of Freedom of Expression versus Religion.

For such bloodless concepts, the reactions they elicit among us are disproportionately violent.

In 2006, after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad made by 12 cartoonists, riots rocked the Muslim world for weeks. At least 19 people were reported killed. A Pakistani cleric issued a fatwa and announced a $1-million bounty for the killing of the “blasphemous” cartoonists.

Although the Danish newspaper apologized to Muslims, other dailies in Europe and the US published the cartoons, asserting these had “news value” and defending the right of freedom of expression.

Why not walk away from disagreements? Why escalate the breakdown of communication with revenge and violence?

The questions left unanswered in the Jyllands-Posten caricatures case reverberate even after “Kulo” has been closed down by the CCP.

Praying before icons in one church, I noticed how smaller icons were left at the foot of statues. These odd pieces looked old and chipped, as if they belonged to families for ages or were frequently handled or rubbed by devotees.

I thought such icons were left to “absorb” grace from the bigger statues before these were claimed again by their owners. A friend corrected me, explaining that these were statues abandoned by those who switched religious allegiances and no longer honored the Virgin Mary or the Sto. Niño.

Were these icons thrown away by the church caretakers? My friend said that parishioners eventually “adopted” and brought them home.

This remembered traffic in recycling belief—“I don’t want it; take it if you want it”—seems to hold a lesson or two about perceptions and tolerance.

The function of art is to unsettle. Beauty is disquieting but even more so is ugliness.

Should we break the mirror because we don’t like what it reflects back to us?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 14, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” column

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Ghost writer

ONE of the pleasures of teaching writing is reading a young, sometimes raw, voice straining to hear itself.

The variety and disparity make the encounters. Some write without effort at all. Or at least no effort can make their unfettered voices conform to formula and rules.

Then there are the plodders. If I persist in untangling mismatched verbs and irreconcilable tenses, it is either because glimmers of insight give me the courage to dive into the turgid depths of gnarled grammar to discover an uncommon voice. Or the writer herself has such a hide of resoluteness to unlearn and learn, I anticipate much from sharing the journey with her—and never get disappointed.

One voice I remember clearly to this day. That I failed to recognize it even though the act of composition was being executed right in front of my eyes must be blamed on my mood at that time, as well as a writer’s love-hate affair with deadlines.

One long weekend in Lent found our family staying in a friend’s house along the Santander coast. It was the evening of Good Friday.

We were the only ones occupying one of three rooms. Although we heard the caretaker’s stories about the strange last room, I chose this because it had no TV set. The caretaker said she sometimes heard the shower being used while the occupants were away; I welcome a functional shower, specially in summer.

Since my family was waiting for the tide to rise with the moon, I was alone in the room. I intended to write my column that evening because my duties made it hard to focus during the day.

Opening a blank document on my husband’s laptop, I typed local names for the seaweeds we harvested and ate with our supper. Then I took a shower.

When I returned to the laptop, there were lines written below the words I encoded. Surprised by the gibberish, I automatically blocked and deleted the lines.

I looked out of the window. The family was still on the beach. I heard no one enter the room while I was in the bathroom. I was as certain that my family would not mess around with my work.

Who did? Part of me wanted to leave the room. Yet, remembering my deadline, I decided against dawdling and turned back to the computer.

Three words were encoded while I glanced out of the window: “I” and below this, “The am”.

It was not the air-conditioning unit that made the room feel frigid suddenly. I told myself that the malware-detection program of the laptop might need upgrading again, convinced that my husband’s laptop had some weird bug.

Yet I didn’t or couldn’t erase the three words, arranged in seemingly two paragraphs, with a space in between.

It should have been difficult for me to begin, let alone finish, a column that night. Yet such is the fear of missing deadlines—and to be honest, the dread of finding gibberish encoded again after just a second’s glance away from the open document—that, after an hour or so, I was halfway through the column when the other wrote again.

At first, the cursor disappeared. In its place, blue space bloomed on the screen, followed by words. Strung together, the words, mostly articles and conjunctions, did not make sense. Reading the whole composition, I thought I heard someone trying to talk.

Afraid that the “virus” would take over my composition, I abandoned my husband’s laptop and got my old IBM. Somehow, the temperamental battery worked; somehow, the column was completed that night and emailed the following day, without any more incident. When we returned home, I tested my husband’s laptop and found it working normally, minus the pop-up words and blue text.

Months later, I interviewed an old resident of Alegria. A local healer, she told me it was a pity I didn’t eat the writing that was offered to me and thus, absorb power. After trying to explain viruses, printers and the Internet, I gave up and she looked at me, most certainly with pity, as if I had just been talking about spirits and the supernatural.

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 7, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A writing life

WILL I get paid if my article gets published?

That was the first question raised by a campus journalist after I concluded a talk on writing features.

Last July 29, I joined about 30 students in the 27th journalism seminar organized by Ang Suga, the official school publication of the Cebu Normal University (CNU).

Many of the participants are writers and editors of Ang Suga while the others are press relations officers of various student associations. I didn’t get to talk to the students individually but I learned that at least two of Ang Suga’s officers, including editor-in-chief Ioannes Arong, are taking up creative writing.

Though I don’t often get a chance to work with campus writers, I look forward to such interactions.

Meeting those who aspire to work as journalists, writers, poets and storytellers in video and film is an even bigger thrill than meeting the professionals whose works I follow, buy or collect.

The latter most often have cut a swath in the frontiers of creativity. While the best still write with fire in their belly, the writing almost always falls into a groove: once a writer finds his signature, expect few surprises until he or she signs off.

Young writers, though, are unpredictable. They stand before virgin territory. They are the unexplored.

While I’ve come to associate passion with the young, I can’t predict how they decide, or why: why the ones you’ve privately baptized as the Golden Ones disappear soon after graduation, their once-familiar bylines and maturing voices never glimpsed again in the swells and furrows of the creative life.

Or why the ones who complained loudest and longest about writing and rewriting are still at it—groaning about deadlines, whining about the pay but still writing and rewriting, years after passing a course, graduating on time, keeping a scholarship or making it to the Dean’s List have lost their bite.

Why write?

My immediate reaction to the first question posed in last Friday’s seminar was to privately cringe: if the young gauge writing’s value only by the pecuniary, then the future is dark for writing in the age of non-readers.

Yet I tried to emphasize with my answer the opportunities local dailies open to aspiring writers and other freelancers. I said that contributed articles, specially to the section that runs press releases about community events, are never paid for but are published for free in Cebu dailies.

Many other newspaper sections cater to specialized audiences or niches of interest, such as youth, spirituality, heritage, culture and wellness. When there are no regular reporters covering these beats, a paper is usually open to contributors.

A reader who studies her paper and the kinds of articles and style of writing published; who emails originally researched, well-written copy; who’s willing to rewrite, following an editor’s suggestions; and who can also take photographs—such enthusiasm may be rewarded eventually by the editor giving an assignment. Among local dailies, assignments undertaken by freelancers are granted an honorarium and guaranteed publication.

Yet, on the ride home, I examined again that first question. I wondered why I had immediately interpreted the question as solely prompted by the monetary.

Was it possible that the young writer meant: can one earn a living through writing?

Or: can writing sustain a life?

That rain-scented afternoon spent with the aspiring journalists, poets and writers of CNU reaffirms my belief in the rejuvenation one draws from the young.

How I wish, though, I had not been too old, too tired, too jaded to hear the real questing behind that first question.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 31, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, July 23, 2011


LAST Wednesday proved nature has few rivals in staging dramatic exits.

In our faculty room in Lahug, we felt as much as heard the din as the clouds burst and poured for nearly an hour at about 4 p.m.

Tired by a day of teaching, checking and editing, I did not join the crowds that, defeated by traffic, flashfloods and a perplexing fire that broke out on Samson Road in Lahug, stoically shouldered their burdens and walked home.

After two hours of standing under weeping acacias, I boarded a jeepney. It felt good to finally go home.

The day after, I learned that a former schoolmate also had a homecoming on that unforgettable Wednesday.

Until he passed away at the age of 41, Salvi was well-known among fashion cognoscenti as Sal Malto. He was the Sal Malto, a member of the elite Fashion Council of Cebu.

Being sought after by the privileged and influential is a shaky foundation to stake a claim on success and fame. Yet, with Salvi, I felt that the accolades and patronage came to him by merit. He was truly creative.

During a short stint editing lifestyle, I had a habit of scanning the local and national media’s coverage of fashion shows. I looked at the photos, only reading captions to find out the name of the designer whose creation caught my eye.

A gown modeled for a wedding-themed show staged in Cebu I remember till now. The model was winsome in a white column made entirely of overlapping discs that seemed at first like small piyayas, the sweet dough cakes of Bacolod, but then later reminded me of the pristine petals of kalachuchis in full bloom.

Indifferent to clothes, I poorly describe a creation that did not usurp the wearer but made her, ramp professional, become, in the click of a camera shutter, the timeless picture of a radiant, luminous bride.

When I glanced at the caption, I thought how the gown was quintessentially Salvi: quirky, unique, beautiful in ways that could not be defined or labeled.

As an undergraduate at the University of the Philippines Cebu, Salvi was all gangling limbs: he was gifted in theater, his impersonations of teachers and classmates spot-on, hilarious but not cruel; in designing, those bony fingers often twirled around a pencil, sketching prom and date fantasy frou-frou for classmates and friends; and in generosity.

Creative individuals can be selfish, indwelling, insulated. Mortals like us create unending concessions to accommodate their giftedness.

Yet, being Sal Malto never got in the way of Salvi being Salve, Salvador.

Born on the eve of Christ’s birthday, Salvi’s nickname is a greeting, a salute. When my sister got married, he made her gown, as he did for countless UP classmates and mentors. Though the Filipiniana gowns he designed for Prof. Ligaya Rabago-Visaya added to the tradition of Sablay March-watching during April graduation ceremonies in UP Cebu, only his high school mentor knows how faithfully Salvi could be relied on to judge or be consulted for campus plays and contests.

He sponsored scholars; he made it possible for the seemingly ordinary to discover their giftedness. He volunteered for community theater and outreach programs that rarely made it to the society pages.

He soothed and healed without fanfare, away from the limelight. Olive Caday-Fillone, then the chairman of the UP student council (SC), remembers how, as a member of the SC volunteer corps, he was even more active than some elected councilors.

Last Wednesday, neither flash floods nor horrendous traffic could stop his family and friends from receiving and sharing the shock of his passing from aortic aneurysm.

Yet, just before you go home, Salvi, please take one more curtain call. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 24, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Another city

ON the day Cebu City was designated as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) City of Culture, my friend and I were walking back to her hotel along Osmeña Boulevard.

After an afternoon of coffee and stories near the Provincial Capitol, we prepared to part, she to wait for her husband and I to meet up with a son.

My friend declared she planned to walk the few blocks back to the hotel. She enjoyed the stroll along the tree-shaded stretch, liked its difference from the mall enclaves that made many parts of Cebu a featureless replica of other metros.

I took another look at my friend and decided to walk with her. Olive finished her undergraduate studies in the city. As an activist, she walked these same streets. For meetings and study sessions that lasted into the night or till dawn, she staked out with other students, first over doughnuts and batchoy, and later, rice toppings.

Yet family and work had taken Olive out of Cebu for decades. Compared to the jungle of Manila, Fuente Osmeña seems all southern charm and languid pace.

As we walked, I pointed out to her the streets to avoid as a shortcut after twilight. (A fellow teacher and her teenage daughter were walking home at dusk when a foreigner approached them. “I like her,” he said as if my colleague had actually been shouting at the top of her voice that her daughter was for sale. After office hours, many female students complain of strangers propositioning them along this stretch.)

Olive and I crossed one corner for the one where another friend once followed a seemingly amorous couple. My friend and her companion, both in their 60s, looked away as the woman wriggled against her male companion, whose arm clinched her to his side.

The ladies were actually relieved when the man casually walked away, leaving behind his companion. However, when they overtook the woman and took a look at her pale face, the ladies learned, too late, how they mistook them as a couple engaged in a public display of affection.

The man had actually been demanding for the valuables of the woman, who was trying to pull away from the ice pick he pressed against her side.

Hearing the story, Olive said she strolled along the boulevard only during the day. I said the holdup my friend witnessed took place before noon on a busy weekday.

The earrings we took off before leaving the coffeeshop was a precaution, I said, against the repeat of another incident involving the assistant of my sons’ orthodontist. While waiting for the traffic sign to flash green for crossing pedestrians, the assistant could only shout in pain as a boy took hold of her ears from behind and tore away her earrings. After nursing swollen ear lobes for a week and regretting the loss of heirloom jewelry, the receptionist and our orthodontist now wear small pearl studs of little value.

At this point in our walk, Olive and I had reached the third block at the inner periphery of the Fuente oval. As I turned to her, two grimy youngsters closed in from behind. Overtaking us, the nearest boy jolted Olive’s arm, the one that held down the purse slung in front of her.

The usual modus is for the youths to beg for a handout. They’re not as keen on the coin you’re getting from your purse as on your bag, jewelry or other property. In early afternoon, a tourist was mugged by a band of kids that first begged and then pushed him down to the curb as they swarmed, running away with his camera and shopping totes.

A security guard at one of the Fuente locators once stopped a thief from running away with a student’s silver bracelet. He told the police that trying to escape, the youth ran towards the guard.

However, since the thief was a minor, the police released him. The boy later visited the guard to threaten him, “Hilabtanon ka (you meddler).” Fearing retaliation, the guard asked for a transfer.

Unscathed, Olive and I parted outside her hotel. Proud to be part of a city of culture, I nevertheless wondered if the accolade covered all forms of the creative and the ingenious. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 17, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Pin-up madonnas

WITH my bags of books and groceries, I squeezed in beside the woman seated quietly beside the Vhire window.

The bags, the woman and I made too intimate a fit in that narrow space. After a few minutes, two other passengers completed our row.

While getting my fare, I felt someone’s eyes on me. When I glanced at my left neighbor, what I mistook to be a bundle hugged to her chest turned out to be an infant girl, nursing.

Like other babies latched on to their mother’s breast, she had this preternaturally wise glance. I’ve a better seat than you, this tiny creature with a few wisps of hair airbrushed on her perfectly rounded head seemed to tell me.

I could tell from the way she was watching me watching her that she was way past the throes of a great thirst. Replete, she was having post-prandial sips, the infant version of watching the world go by while occasionally wetting one’s whistle in a brew mixed strictly according to one’s specifications.

After the Vhire driver called out for fares, my left neighbor rummaged for her purse. When those ancient eyes alighted on the pink thing, there was a loud wet pop as she pulled away from a teat and grabbed for the bright coins.

Her mother told her she could have something else. My neighbor did several things at once: paid her fare, fixed her blouse, rearranged her packages and gave her daughter a slip of paper she waved at me, as if to say: what are you looking at?

Mother and daughter chatted, ensconced in a bubble of bonding that excluded the rest of us.

None of that babble that naïve or occasional mothers use on children they regard as adorable but unknowable aliens.

This mother conversed with her child. When a man on motorcycle sidled beside our Vhire, my neighbor commented that the child’s father must be on his way home from the office, too. Little Ms. Genius agreed. “Pa-pa,” she said and waved the slip of paper at the man on the motorbike.

Until I dropped off for my usual nap, mother and daughter were chatting away, an exchange that was far from being only one-sided on the part of the adult as the young one always had something to say with a few well-placed syllables, accompanied by an emphatic rustle of the paper held in that tiny fist.

On top of the many benefits of breastfeeding, add traveling convenience and jumpstart in socializing savvy.

I’m glad that the month of July, which banners the theme of nutrition, was ushered in this year by public campaigns promoting breastfeeding.

In a mall, an exhibit showcasing photos of nursing mothers drew a respectable audience even during a mall-wide sale.

Even better, I see more women nursing in public places, including jeepneys. One mall conspicuously displays a sign emphasizing that benches were placed to prioritize nursing mothers and senior citizens.

It’s a long way from the time when breastfeeding was perceived to be a low-income mother’s only alternative for good nutrition.

It’s even better: breast milk is the best choice for any woman and her child.

As any envious son of Adam knows, being anatomically equipped to instantly nurse and comfort one’s child makes mothers unequalled at mothering.

A working mother survives the rigors of graveyard shifts of feeding on demand and waking up in time for the office because of the maneuver I call “roll on-roll off”: roll over and uncover a breast when the baby just stirs. Roll away after the little tyrant nods off again. All this without the three of you—madonna, baby and pater—losing sleep.

Given all the good it’s wrought, breastfeeding deserves one of those gigantic Edsa billboards. Why distract motorists with only one type of breast: the cheeky uptilted ones that have not yet been sucked, pulled, squeezed, chewed and remolded to suit a small tyrant’s specifications?

On the other hand, I’d rather sit beside nursing mothers any day rather than gaze up at a sagging, floppy breast blown up to the size of a skyscraper.

If breastfeeding has taught me one thing, it’s that looks aren’t everything.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 10, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column