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. NiƱo.

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