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