Sunday, December 30, 2012

Instructions from a bestiary

I LIKE best these times. After the mad and maddening whirl of days, everything seems to move towards this point: a dog and his human in a room, a book open on the table, the fading of another year.

Birds taking wing and the blue vault of a summer sky are sublime, but this, too: the dog sleeping at her feet, his hind legs sometimes kicking in a dream of puppyhood he is returned to by a mid-morning nap.

For a while, everything is perfect. But the human, flipping pages, finds his quietude irresistible and rubs him with her foot. He halfheartedly growls and, when the offending foot finds the spot behind his ear he is particularly sensitive to, rises to his paws and plops down on a spot several paces away, his behind pointedly facing her.

A dog is a human’s best friend.

Even under the scalding abrasions of that kinship, loyalty and love for their human is fixed in the canine nature.

In the same way, we know how fragile peace is and cannot resist breaking it.

Our abrasiveness finds its natural outlet in that most unnatural of occupations: making war on each other.

That is at the heart of Merlin’s tutoring of Wart, the dreamer who later grows to shaky manhood, pulls out a sword buried in an anvil in a church courtyard, and moves on into an even more tenuous rule in T. H. White’s luminous retelling of the Camelot legend, “The Once and Future King”.

The Penguin Group recently published an edition that’s in stock in a national chain of bookstores. The cover illustration is partly a watercolor rendering of a knight mounted on his steed and wielding a sword, and partly a visual giveaway since White’s novel is like a Rorschach ink blot test for one’s notions about power.

In the novel’s first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Wart, the future King Arthur, is turned into several animals as part of his education with Merlin.

Portrayed by Walt Disney as a magician and by White as a nigromancer or practitioner of Black Magic, Merlin is growing backwards or becoming younger with each year. Being able to see how the king will meet his end gives Merlin an unrivalled vantage point to guide his education as a child, an excellent qualification for teaching that later inspired J. K. Rowling to create Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.

How can being turned into a perch (a kind of fish “braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike”), merlin, ant from the Afric shore (more “belligerent” than Norman ones), owl, wild goose and badger prepare Wart to become the once and future king?

“Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance,” decrees Merlin.

So transformed, Wart first learns that “might is right” from the murderous ants who view war as neither sickening nor honorable, just “Done”. Asked to stand sentry as other wild geese sleep, Wart misunderstands the nature of the enemy.

When he asks the young female, Lyo-lyok, if he is guarding against other geese, she finds his notion of geese killing other geese obscene: “But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?”

It is in the novel’s second part, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” that Wart is told by Merlin the fine point of his education as different animals: “learn to be a human being”.

Wart is now the young King Arthur, fresh in ascendancy but ancient in his lust for the sporting game of fighting other humans. The young king of England surveys the scene of one battle and confides to his old mentor that he enjoys war, specially the part about winning.

Merlin replies that chivalry is fine when one is encased in armour and seated on a horse or directing from the battlements of a castle: “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”

Though elegant in prose and elegiac, White is nowhere close to Udo, my saintly aspin, who forgets and forgives and insinuates his muzzle back to warm my feet. I look down on that napping head. I look away. Something directs my foot back to that sensitive spot behind his ear. Humans, alas, learn only too well.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 30, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Friday, December 28, 2012

Contesting birth

THE BELEN is new, my friend Nena told me when we saw each other before a late morning mass at Redemptorist Church.

I don’t hear mass regularly. When I do, I like the experience. Like anything that’s not part of routine, I seek out and am always never disappointed by the occasion.

Redemptorist along my alma mater is a favorite. The presiding priests are punctual, clear-spoken and sober. The homily, said during Wednesday novena, is brief and substantial, proof someone spent time thinking, writing and rewriting. A good homily is rare these days when the pulpit becomes a stage for a joke, a harangue, a call to arms.

And this church fully accounts for its collections: how much, who benefits.

My reasons for hearing mass and my habit of seeking out certain churches don’t jibe with Nena’s.

My friend hears mass regularly in this church. Ever since I knew her, she walks every morning from her home to sit at the same spot in what must be the same pew for years. Only sheets of rain driven by strong winds through the wide doors make her move to the center pews. No storm, personal or otherwise, has kept her away.

Nena is not alone. Many faces have become familiar over the years. Whenever I see them, I am reminded that the church is a community, not just an edifice.

Nena was on my mind when I argued with my professor about the existence or myth of the Catholic vote. He spoke vehemently against the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), equating dwindling church attendance with the weakening of its hold.

Though it is impossible for me to muster even a spark of passion for that brood of obstructionists, I countered that Manila and Cebu differ in their pattern of church attendance. Even when holy days of obligation fall on working days, the churches here don’t just draw a clutch of parishioners, plus a gaggle of tourists and churchgoers like me who drop by for convenience.

Yet, I am hesitant to equate full and groaning pews with the obeisance and compliance equated with the so-called Catholic vote. The strength of the church is not in the dominion of the few over the collective but the exercise of conscience by each of the faithful.

Not expecting but not also surprised to see the familiar white-tressed figure at her usual pew, I sat beside Nena. We caught up with each other’s stories. She told me about the repair of the church roof. Water stains can still be seen in the vaulted ceiling. Watermarked columns, the rot of age: the corporeal form of the church, not just her human dimension, betrays how time leaves no one unchanged.

If Nena had not pointed out the new belen, I would not have noticed. Still located on the left side of the altar, facing the assembly, a hut, not the cave of past years, is now the Nativity setting. These are just incidentals framing the essential: a child, a family, a community.

It makes me pause that a birth that took place more than 2,000 years ago still affects the world. In a Santa Monica park in Los Angeles, the diorama depicting Christ’s birth has been edged out by atheists and a judge’s decision to uphold religious freedom.

According to an Associated Press report carried in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 22, 2012 issue, no room can be found this year for the baby Jesus after atheists nearly cornered all the booths at the Palisade Park.

Their displays included a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson who believed all religions to be founded on “fables and mythologies,” a greeting for “Happy Solstice,” and a display honoring the great Flying Spaghetti Monster, founder of the “Pastafarian religion”.

Watching the new belen framed by signs of seepage and rot, I pray future generations will be able to pick out Jesus from a line-up of usual suspects: Poseidon, Santa Claus, Lucifer and Big Bird.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus Dec. 23, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Closed stars

I’M attached to yearenders. This year has seen me at my mawkiest ever so it’s not surprising that I’ve even taken note of not just the last homework but the second-to-the-last-paper to pass before school closes for 2012.

For this assignment, I had to make sense of systems theories.

I hardly understood the subject when I was an undergraduate more than 20 years ago.
But now that I’m facing classmates who could be my own daughters and sons, there’s no stronger incentive not to show off my idiotic tendencies.

After hitting the books, this is what I remember: there are two kinds of systems. Open systems interact with the environment so as to grow and live. Closed ones don’t need to because they’re not alive.

Stars, for instance.

I must have been absent from science during my entire second grade because I swear stars seem alive. When I step out of my evening class, the air stings and the furtive scents of the night make something in me uncurl and stretch. I could tiptoe and pluck a handful of stars from the velvet sky.

The perk of a campus perennially short of state funding is that the poorly lighted premises cannot rival the evening sky. I stroll under the trees before diving in with the other lemmings swimming to beat the pre-midnight rush hour.

Less than two weeks before Christmas, other stars have also sprouted on the campus grounds and buildings—stark white, more Soviet than Bethlehem-like, with flashes of American Idol, framing the Oblation, converting this symbol of self-annihilating sacrifice to the people into rock star royalty.

Though earth-rooted, these wrought stars scintillate by night and day. Yet, they’re dwarfed by those celestial pinpoints that flash with distant fire.

According to systems theory, closed systems move toward internal chaos and disintegration, heedless of the needless environment. When there is no life to sustain, can there be death?

Is that the attraction of stars to life lived among roiling humanity? That the power to burn and annihilate can be reduced by light years to the harmless twinkling of a child’s bedtime rhyme?

When I step inside an Ikot jeepney that slips me into the stream of commuters, I leave behind the swirl of stars. Mass transport, mega cities, timetables—who remembers to look at the sky while negotiating from point A to B along Edsa?

At a red light, a boy, solemn as an acolyte, boards the jeepney. He lays envelopes on the passengers’ laps, bags, books. He goes back to the stepboard, sits and waits, facing the traffic.

After an interval he alone knows, he stands up and collects the envelopes. Sometimes someone gives, but after taking this route beyond count, I know what the child knows. His harvest is poor; some locust or pestilence beyond memory has long scoured the ground of its thin cover.

Is it kindness or cruelty that we give back the envelopes? What is his daily quota of jeepneys? In less than two hours, it will be midnight.

The dingy pieces of paper carry an appeal written by a hand that could not possibly be the child’s. It says a lot about how far this traveler still has to go in his quest among the dust, fumes and terminal blindness of the streets.

In morphogenesis, the open system gives back to the environment the matter and energy it receives from it. We don’t have to be stars to look down, burning, implacable, once human.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 16, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Much ado about nothing

AMONG many things, I mourn the lost art of doing nothing.

Pretending to do something while doing nothing has moved up to the list of survival skills.

But doing nothing while doing nothing at all is so difficult as to be humanly impossible.

I remember how, during a weekend retreat among student leaders, our discussions were cut short by the sound of a teacher, J.V., falling sideways like a tree cut down if trees attempted yoga and fell asleep.

When we saw him in the morning, J.V. was still lying on his side. We were hopeful that he died in the night. A death would have taken our minds off another badly cooked breakfast by a student who couldn’t keep his hands off his book.

Unfortunately, J.V. woke up and said he had dreamt he was climbing out of the deepest pit of depression when his foot slipped. I suspected our teacher-chaperone was doing nothing while pretending to do something but I’ve never been able to prove this up to now. If I could, I would be duplicating his feat.

Now that I’m sitting again with classmates who could be my biological children, I’m learning how generations improve by leaps and bounds. Instead of the old trick of reading a novel hidden in a tome of unimpeachable thickness, one only taps notes in a netbook with the rapt air of a scholar catching pearls of wisdom dropping from a professor’s lecture. In actuality, the scholar can be Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagramming or just turning nouns into verbs in that horrid cyberbabble.

However, never wear a pair of glasses.

My professor forgot to take his off and sat in front of five of us during a report of terminal profundity. From the flickering reflections on his lenses, I learned that he preferred looking at photos than reading text on Facebook.

The examples I’ve given, though, don’t exemplify the art of doing nothing. These are normal things, if by norm we mean the survival of, if not the fittest, then the least fit but the most attached to their continued existence.

Take, for instance, the debate on the phrase, “safe and satisfying sex life,” which coyly interrupted senators trying to pass or not to pass the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

Evening news programs on the TV networks showed the exchange of questions that took place between Sen. Pia Cayetano and Sen. Francis Escudero. The principal sponsor of the RH Bill, Cayetano rejected the proposal of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to remove the phrase from the bill’s definition of RH.

Although other male senators supporting or elaborating on Enrile’s amendment drew laughs, it was Escudero’s reply that occupied news air time. Asked by Cayetano if he preferred a safe or satisfying sex life for his daughter and wife, Escudero turned coy and said he preferred “safe” for his daughter but could not answer anymore for his wife. Escudero is publicly known as separated from his wife but romantically involved with actress Heart Evangelista.

Perhaps TV should not be faulted for being able to magnify an event a hundred times more than its triviality warrants. Or its unparalleled power to single out the booger hanging by a filmy tendril from the nostril of an otherwise pluperfect human specimen anchoring the news.

Wondering if the RH Bill was finally proof that legislators could get away with seemingly doing something while doing nothing at all, I looked up the “safe and satisfying sex life” incident on the Net. A report on placed the seemingly trivial debate in context.

Cayetano explained that as used in the International Conference on Population and Development, “safe and satisfying sex life” refers to an often ignored need of many women who are forced to have sex or have sex without the use of contraceptives that guarantees they are safe from unwanted pregnancy.

Conservatives oppose the passage of the RH Bill for promoting promiscuity. Yet, as the male senators demonstrated with their prudish vehemence against an RH definition that caused so much “discomfort,” more empathy and listening to partners should redefine acts of intimacy.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Dec. 9, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Perfect Oval

I AM that horrible creature: an exercise phobe, a fence-sitter, a lazy bum barely fit enough to straddle the fence even as a figure of speech (“sitting at the wayside” is preferred as being easier on the imagination) while the rest of the world huffs and puffs its way to fitness and longevity.

Dictionaries take a dim view of fence-sitting. It is the act of not acting, of not taking sides.

I think, though, the view is incomparable.

It’s not only because one chooses where to rest one’s rump. One watches better as rumps are hard to dislodge once stationed. Round on all sides but surprisingly stable, rumps are unlikely to tilt and roll away unless something proves stronger than gravity, an object desired beckoning or detested approaching, for instance.

A keen reader may have noticed five paragraphs have already rolled into view and I am still here, fence-sitting, thumb-tweedling, whatnotting.

In the time needed to read the preceding paragraphs, a perfect specimen of health must have completed part of the 2.2 kilometers that‘s the distance of the Academic Oval at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus in Quezon City.

Keener than any reader, the fence-sitter will argue: not only perfect specimens but all body types, sizes, shapes, advocacies, hair colors, even body covering are walking, running, biking, skateboarding, loping, sniffing, padding, chasing at the Oval. On any day of the week, at all hours, in all kinds of weather, even on holidays that effectively empty the campus.

And yes, include in that list, reading, chatting, lying down, sprawling, sitting, fence-sitting, thumb-tweedling, whatnotting.

During these past seven months, the only time I’ve seen someone near perfection around the Oval was the morning when actor Piolo Pascual and friend ran past me six or seven times on the off-limits-to-cars inner track that circles the core of the campus.

In the time that it took me to reread and finish a chapter of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” which I was discovering for the second time, the fellows breezed past. Eco’s humor is harder to penetrate than his erudition; it was especially more difficult to comprehend when Piolo’s approach was always heralded by squealing from young girls who recognized him and the blinding graze of the actor’s undimmed smiling. What thundering thighs! What a pair of lungs! What a heart!

Most days, it’s just us folks using the Oval. Or in my case, not using.

Perhaps that is what amazes most about the Oval, a landmark that more than marks the land, remaining in use and of timeless relevance decades after it was first planned. Appreciated, not just used. By a lot of folks, not just the privileged.

Visible in a photo of the UPD campus dating back to the 1950s, which is uploaded on, is a hard-to-recognize Oval, bare as a lunascape. According to the site, then President Bienvenido Ma. Sioco Gonzales ordered the planting of acacia trees in the Oval immediately after the campus was moved from Padre Faura.

Dawdling after Saturday classes, my classmates and I watched a heavy-maned Labrador nearly win a fight of wills with his human. He didn’t want to go home yet. He wanted a cup of taho or a cone of dirty ice cream. He didn’t get either, but he got to sniff and chase after the myriad olfactory mysteries eluding him at the base of one of the 164 ancient acacias that make the Oval The Oval.

If you’ve seen the smog hover over and smother the Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (Edsa) route, it boggles the mind that a short jeepney ride from Quezon Avenue along Edsa are trees these ancient, these numerous. One can be forgiven for thinking these are mirages until one smells the air around the Oval. And breathes deeply.

According to iskWiki, the transformation of the former cogon lands into this urban forest was made possible by Professor Jose Vera Santos.

Taking shelter under the century-old canopies and an endless blue sky, I wonder whether we will see again the likes of Gonzales and Santos who saw, long before anyone did, the priceless pleasures of fence-sitting .

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 2, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Unbundling joy

POOR sardines and noodles.

Caritas Filipinas recently urged donors to give more nutritious food than canned sardines and instant noodles.

Fr. Edu Gariguez, Caritas Filipinas executive secretary, said that observing a “nutritional criteria” in giving Christmas bundles of joy or relief goods adds meaning to charity that some perform for appearances.

“Meron kasi mga nagbibigay para makapagbigay lang (giving for the sake of giving),” Gariguez discourages, according to a Sunnex report published by Sun.Star Cebu last Nov. 18, 2012.

Gariguez said donors should go beyond buying what is only “available” and “mura (cheap)”.

Is the Caritas statement directed at companies that possibly buy relief goods in bulk, publish a photo or an article about their acts of corporate social responsibility, and get a tax write-off to top it all?

Or was Caritas addressing givers like me who know exactly how many, what brands and the expiration dates of the bundles of joy my family gives?

I’m really sorry that the concern for the recipient’s health was lost in translating the Caritas instruction. Even knowing the effects of high sodium and other preservatives does not make it easier to swallow Gariguez’s preference for “Spanish” or bottled sardines as healthier options.

Why am I reminded of Marie Antoinette’s reply to the report that the masses of Paris were starving for bread? “Why don’t they eat cake?,” France’s last queen said before ending at the guillotine.

In families where “middle class” is just the difference of a chin kept above the threshold of poverty, the Caritas’s downgrading of sardines and noodles as relief goods was insensitive, if not hypocrital. Caritas Filipinas is the foundation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

Many families, where both spouses work, prioritize sending their children to the best schools they can afford. In many cases, these schools are run by the religious. When the call for bundles of joy comes after calamities or at the end of year, many students bring sardines and noodles.

Cheap and available, these are usually found in the kitchen cabinet. It’s food that the donors themselves eat.

Anyone who observes the check-out line at supermarket cashiers will observe how canned sardines and instant noodles go in take-out bags or green bags with more frequency than other goods. Does anyone know of many sari-sari stores that stock on sardines in bottles?

This simple law of supply and demand is spurred by bottled sardines costing at least twice more than those in cans. A can containing about four pieces of sardines and tomato sauce can also be mashed and mixed with one egg or a P2 pack of “udong” (noodles) and cups of water to make an instant meal that can feed a family when payday seems like a year away. Ever try distributing sardines in a bottle among a horde of teens on an all-night group study marathon?

Awful though they are for prolonging lifetimes, canned sardines and instant noodles are the staples of many families that, to keep their children in school, can’t afford to turn up their noses at food that works better in quantity than quality. If we had more breathing space between tuition fee installments, we might also go for Spanish sardines, the genuine kind caught from some Spanish-speaking coast. If bottled sardines are on our tables and in our bellies, bottled sardines would wind up also as our bundles of joy.

As a giver, I believe in giving only what I would use. Yet more important than utility is intent.

At the heart of gift-giving is the intention of the giver, which can only be guessed at or interpreted by an onlooker. Only the giver really knows what’s in his heart in the act of giving.

Perhaps that is what the Caritas intends to impart: we should care for the poor beyond a day or a season. Some of our offerings could be better. We pray that the Catholic Church, in tapping spiritual x-ray, discerns more than excess sodium and preservatives in our gifts.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Nov. 25, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, November 18, 2012

“Bayong” mentality*

DON’T even try to change your spouse, pragmatists advise. I agree, preferring quiet co-existence to a fool’s quest for perfection.

However, after this week’s quick stop at a supermarket, I witnessed how even the 20-year-old habits of one’s roommate can be changed.

My husband picked up the tote I unrolled to hold our few purchases. Holding at some point books, shoes, used clothes, canned goods and newspapers, this tote has flowers plastered all over in a carnival riot of fuchsias, oranges, emeralds and purples.

The flowers, not so much the history, of my tote would scare away any man. That it didn’t daunt my roommate is proof that marriages can surprise and laws demand compliance.

Shoppers in Quezon City have to shell out P2 for every take-out plastic bag if they don’t bring their own tote. The P2 goes to the Green Fund, “in compliance with Quezon City Ordinance SP 2140 SP 2012,” reads the paper issued along with the official receipt of our purchases.

Although ignorant about how City Hall will use the Green Fund, I support the passage of an ordinance to reduce dependence on plastic. While it’s not plastic per se but the improper disposal of garbage that contributes to flash floods, discouraging the use of plastic may be a step towards this end.

Due to its convenience and cheapness, plastic is ubiquitous. It’s not indispensable.

In southern Luzon last summer, I saw how the “bayong” or the native tote made of woven fronds is a common sight in the streets, particularly in Lucban, known for its Pahiyas Festival that showcases farm produce and local crafts. Pahiyas visitors need no reminder to take away goodies in a bayong, plain, handpainted or embellished.

The bayong, used for trips to the wet market, was carried also by Lucban men. It was even more conspicuous than knapsacks in the narrow streets. In Cebu, the bayong with specially made holes is also used by men to transport fighting cocks. In Metro Manila, the “man bags” slung by the trendy share the form and sensibility of the bayong.

Though a thing of the past, the bayong remains contemporary. Its relevance is tied up with its sensibility: more than a single-use utility, it is a necessity bucking the trend of runaway consumerism and throwaway consumption.

When Maynilad workers recently transferred the water meter of homeowners in ParaƱaque, I spotted how one man carried his heavy implements and materials in a work bag converted from a nylon sack that once packed detergent. He cut out holes for hand-grips so he could more easily bring the sack turned bayong.

For those of us who need more incentive than practicality, the green consciousness uniting public and private sectors should spur men and women to pack away totes, modern remakes of the bayong.

In Cagayan de Oro, supermarkets began collecting last Wednesday P1 for every plastic carry-out bag requested by customers.

Nicole J. Managbanag of Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro reported last Nov. 14, 2012 that the Cagayan de Oro City Council mandates this “pass-through charge” in its Eco-bag Ordinance to discourage single-use plastic bags, reduce the plastic that contributes to flooding, and turn bag-making into a source of livelihood for typhoon and other calamity victims.

In both Quezon and Cagayan de Oro Cities, business establishments support the green ordinances. Even before the passage of one, the University of the Philippines Press bookstore in Diliman, Quezon City expects customers to take away their purchases in their own tote.

With commuters needing to carry totes for their packed lunch, laptops, exercise gear and other daily necessities, there are opportunities to earn from producing and selling these totes. The Christmas bazaars in Greenhills and Divisoria display a rainbow of ingenuity and craftsmanship in the totes that are eco-friendly options to gift-wrapping.

One criticism against the bayong is that it has a limited carrying capacity. Green bags are not only about using and reusing materials that degrade naturally and don’t upset the balance of the ecosystem. These also should make us think about not getting more than we need.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Nov. 18, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Monday, November 12, 2012

Just deserts

THREE things must be in place to acquire more books than can be read in a lifetime: an excuse, opportunity, and a book sale.

Any reader may argue that the first two are superfluous. The third condition is both excuse and opportunity.

I will not argue although shortly before lunch on a weekday, I had all three. The excuse was finishing the marathon of enrolling for another semester at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. The opportunity was a free afternoon to spend with last semester’s book allowance intact in my pocket.

The book sale is the yearend slash-off of all titles in stock at the UP Press.

On my sixth month in this city, I have yet to visit all 11 “little bookstores” listed by my favorite Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist, Michael L. Tan, in an article published by Sunday Inquirer Magazine last May 1, 2011.

Not an insignificant part of the charm of these “little bookstores” is not just helping these brave ventures survive, as Tan suggests, but it is the high likelihood of asking about a title from a member of the sales staff who is most likely also a reader, not just someone who knows books as stock numbers in a list, specially not in an obnoxiously pushy bestsellers’ list.

As the stipend of public fellowships hardly covers bus fare to Baguio (so one can browse around in the intriguingly named Mt. Cloud Bookshop), I have settled for now on the four or five bookstores located within Quezon City.

Because it is in my campus and there was a large outdoor sign shouting “Sale” in frantic red letters designed to grab the attention of even those with myopia and astigmatism, the UP Press became the object of last Tuesday’s quest.

If you have a car and have no problem about stuffing it with books, you can park under the trees and escape, that is if you still have space after your purchases to recline your seat and flip through “Ordinary Time: Poems, Parables, Poetics” by Gemino H. Abad (P100).

However, if you only have both feet, no wheels, and the self-delusion that you will “only look around,” take the “Ikot” jeepney from Quezon Ave. After the jeepney turns right at the University Ave. (with the iconic view of the Oblation framed by Quezon Hall), then turns left for Roxas Ave., get down at the waiting shed and follow the trees that lead to the UP Press bookstore at E. de los Santos St.

The UP Press has its website (, both the old and the redesigned, and a Facebook fan page. Both are useful for those seeking books through virtual and more efficient means.

I like to come upon books as you chance upon strangers with whom you feel you’ve shared a past. So while there are the three preconditions, sweetening the deal are other incidentals: walking under the trees, watching a mother wait for her tired and cross child to catch up, finding a deserted second floor with an air of concentrated silence, doubtless from unseen readers flipping pages.

The bookstore is close on weekends and for lunch. Mark, though, opens the store for browsers even if it’s not yet 1 p.m. Since my visit last January, another room has been opened. Many of the titles are academic. Several books, including those on creative nonfiction and writing, made me pull a chair and read. “The knowing is in the writing,” Jose “Butch” Y. Dalisay Jr. writes of the practice of fiction. It’s an insight that resonates in journalism, too.

After nearly three hours, I leave the UP Press bookstore in the company of three: Abad, Dalisay and Tan (“Revisiting Usog, Pasma, Kulam”). This bookstore insists that visitors bring their own green bag, whether they buy or pretend not to buy and only “look around”.

That I had my own green bag already unfurled after Mark totaled my purchases proves that, preconditions or not, self-knowledge is an occupational curse for readers and book sale addicts.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov 11, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 03, 2012

“Artista” comes to town

THERE’S no one like an outsider to focus attention on oneself.

My classmate Mark is most curious about Cebuanos. During last semester’s course on journalism history, he quizzed me about how and why Cebuanos vote.

He only irked me once, when he asked me if Cebu was really “GMA (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) country”. I hissed back that in the 1970s, Cebu was the seat of vocal opposition to Marcos while the rest of the country, including Manila, was in thrall
of him and the KBL (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan).

A registered Quezon City voter, Mark wanted to know why there was no anti-epal movement spearheaded by Cebuanos. “Epal” is urban Filipino slang for people who grab attention (“pumapapel”). The term includes politicians who exploit projects for self-serving mileage.

Since we were hissing back and forth while our professor was seated across us, I could only retort that Cebuanos at least never voted an entertainer into public office.

Now it seems I might have spoken too soon. It’s not contradictory data dug up by Mark, a history major. It’s the salvo fired by Annabelle Rama who, after publicly castigating ABS-CBN and dyAB broadcaster Leo Lastimosa, said she will be the one to end the Cebuano shutout of actors and other showbiz denizens seeking public office.

Lastimosa criticized the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for accommodating Ruffa and two other Gutierrez siblings, the children of Rama and actor Eddie Gutierrez, ahead of citizens lining up to register as voters of Cebu City.

Rama, who is running to represent Cebu City’s north district, interpreted Lastimosa’s criticism as an attack against her family and gave another demonstration of her signature ability to shoot her own foot with her mouth (pardon the messed-up metaphors).

Comelec officials explained they accommodated the Gutierrez family to preserve order during the registration. The family’s reservation was honored despite the standard of registering on a “first come, first serve” basis because, according to Comelec, star-struck fans might mob Ruffa, Richard and the rest of the Gutierrez family and friends who may not all be movie stars but whose mestizo looks are significantly not impaired from not having to stand for hours under the sun or in lines snaking from sunup till sundown.

Since I have been conducting a Rick Riordan marathon this sembreak, let me draw some wisdom from the old myths. According to Riordan’s retelling, when the gods and goddesses of Olympus chose to appear to mortals, they had to resort to disguises to make them look more ordinary than ordinary. It wasn’t because they left behind in Olympus their powers and conceits—they didn’t—but staring directly at the raw essence of godliness always reduced mortals to donkeys or insanity.

In Cebu City, at least, there’s no need for demigod disguises since the Comelec is around to protect celebrities from zapping mortals who are not yet fried under the sun or from lining up for hours. The law also allows quickie residency since it allows mga “dili ingon nato (roughly translated to mean people not like us)” to set up residency at least six months in the place of registration, and conveniently extends the registration until seven months before the elections.

Yet, Rama is right. Anyone who meets the requirements of candidacy is entitled to run.

In a democracy, there should be no discrimination against anyone desiring to serve the people. Of all the biases, none is more insidious than the prejudice against the Filipino voter.

“Trapo (traditional politicians),” epal or whatever tag of infamy that wordsmiths have yet to invent have long exploited voters’ weakness for the moneyed, prominent and popular. It is a fatal flaw that can be counteracted by being informed before casting one’s vote.

The registration controversy involving Rama’s kin and friends reveals not just the ease of accommodation granted to and accepted as a form of entitlement by those considered not ordinary or extra-ordinary by society. It also exposes the vacuum of humility, temperance and intelligence in some aspiring public servants. Voters, caveat emptor (Latin for “beware”).

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus Nov. 4, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Deathless love and hungry souls

IT WAS an end that my Yaya rudely judged to be “very another”.

For a while, “Walang Hanggan” threatened to carry out its threat of being neverending. The nearly one-year-old telenovela about star-crossed love made captives of everyone in our household, except perhaps for the family dog.

When the network gods finally decreed last Friday to end the drama, it chose a classic formula: kill the protagonists.

My Yaya wouldn’t first believe it. I don’t blame her. Pinoy dramas have the longest drawn-out dying scenes. And the fakest: despite the death watch, wailing music, farewell monologue/dialogue and other red flags of mortality, the hero/heroine clings to life and segues into a healthy happy long life.

Then Katerina dies, followed by Daniel. Yaya hisses her judgment. In canine sympathy, Udo’s hind legs kick the air. Or maybe it’s just a dream of dancing dog biscuits.

I think there’s a bit of happiness in the ending because the lovers are reunited, first as spirits chasing each other in an open field, and second, reincarnated as the son born to their parents, Emily and Marco (who were star-crossed themselves), and the daughter born to their neighbors.

If not made in heaven, it’s an ending at least made in time for All Souls’ Day.

A German colleague once made it a point to hop around cemeteries in the city on Nov. 1 and 2. He was amazed by the parties, sleepovers, sing-alongs and “fiesta” Filipinos conducted among the graves. Told that some of the dishes were offerings for the dead, he wondered if we thought our relatives were still hungry in the afterlife. And if they were, would they be looking for food?

I visit my father before or after All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Scraping the melted wax and throwing away faded flowers, I think even Papang, who preferred dogs to humans up close and personal, likes the surfeit of attention. Do we expect the dead to loosen up? I still leave his favorite Hope cigarettes by his marker. Hope gave him a rasping cough when he was alive. Without lungs to worry about, the dead do have it better than us.

Still, the thought of hungry souls worries me even as my Yaya doubts endless love among ghosts can ever warm the blood. I revisit the Greek Underworld, cauldron of undying passions.

The Underworld is the realm of Hades. It includes the Asphodel Meadows (where souls who lived neither a bad nor a good life are sent), Elysian Fields (for the virtuous) and the Isles of the Blessed (resting place of heroes).

The Underworld is more notorious, though, for its less than savory destinations. Darkest is the great pit of Tartarus. At first, it functioned as the Greek gods’ solid waste management. Later, it represents divine justice, where the punishment matches the crime.

According to myth, Tartarus imprisons, to name a few: Kronos the Titan leader, who overthrew and castrated his father, Uranus, the sky, and was himself overthrown and chopped to pieces by Zeus and his other god-sons; Sisyphus, who poisoned his guests, seduced his niece and gossiped about Zeus’s philandering; Tantalus, who stole the ambrosia of the gods and boiled his son and served him as the gods’ dinner; Ixion, whose immoderate lust pushed him to kill his father-in-law, steal Zeus’s wife Hera, ravish her clone and beget the breed of centaurs; the Danaides, who murdered their husbands; and Salmoneus, who tried to impersonate Zeus.

But in Greek myth, it wasn’t only the gods who had a problem with their lusts. The Underworld drew mortals who attempted the unmentionable: bring the dead back to life. When Eurydice was bitten by a snake, her lover Orpheus coaxed music from his kithara to trick Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, and Charon, the ferryman of death. Hades promises Orpheus he can have Eurydice back if he can walk without looking back until he joins the land of the living.

Nearing the end of his quest, Orpheus cannot bear not to look when he hears Eurydice walking behind him. He turns just as Eurydice is sucked back to the Underworld.

Death leaves a lot of hungers unsated, from above and below the grave.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 8, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sign language

AMONG the things I have to get used to while traveling is understanding how cold and hot water taps work.

Not all bathrooms in the country are Filipinized. By this, I mean there is a plastic pail and dipper for those who think bath tubs, shower stalls and bidets are not the only necessities in life.

I usually have to solve a riddle of three to get a bath. The middle knob controls the faucet. But which of the outer ones ensures I don’t perish from a shower of fire or ice?

What confounds me is when the symbols don’t follow logic: when “H” and “C” knobs release anything but hot and cold water, or a choice of red and blue handle indicates no shift in the shower’s moods.

I realize that it’s easier to adjust to the peculiarities of hotel plumbing than to the vagaries of symbols. Signs have to work. These are roadmaps that cut short the trip that our mind has to travel from reading and understanding.

Signs also condition us for certain responses. In emergencies, I’ve entered the men’s comfort room because I spontaneously relate more to the symbol of the human silhouette in pants than the one with the skirt. Since I lose precious time apologizing to affronted males, backing out and darting inside the toilet nature and society designated for me, I’ve learned to seek and accept the female sign with the old-fashioned A-line skirt.

Some symbols, though, are hardwired and non-negotiable in their associations. After pop icon Madonna recently opened her concert in Denver, Colorado with a spectacle featuring guns and a blood-spattered screen, concert-goers called local radio stations to protest the star’s glorification of violence.

The backlash came even though Madonna, before her concert, issued a statement that she did not believe in violence. The guns symbolize “intolerance and the pain I have felt from having my heart broken,” Madonna was quoted in an AP report carried by last Oct. 20, 2012.

A report described the controversial second act of the Oct. 18, 2012 concert, where Madonna shoots a masked man with a fake gun and the giant screen behind the stage is splattered with blood. Concert-goers dancing to the song, “Gang Bang,” which includes the lyrics, “shot my lover in the head,” stopped, looked around and murmured. A few walked out.

Last July 20, during a special sold-out midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Returns,” James Eagan Holmes, wearing armor and a gas mask that could not hide hair tinted a shocking orange like the Batman villain, the Joker, entered through the emergency exit of the Aurora Theater in Colorado. Holmes shot dead 12 people and maimed 58 others, with some probably disabled for life.

The press agent of Madonna said that the scene with the shooting was also shown in other cities visited by the concert tour and could not be excised. “It’s like taking out the third act of Hamlet,” the agent was quoted in

In her pre-concert statement at Colorado, Madonna said she does not condone the use of guns. "Rather they are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging.”

Semiotics, or the study of signs, covers semantics (the relation between signs and their denotation or literal meanings) and pragmatics (the relation between signs and their effects on the people using the signs). While semiotics seems to be a branch of knowledge that interests only academics, it’s a key to unlocking not just the different levels of meanings of symbols but also hidden agenda in mass media.

In the hands of hotel management cutting on costs, mismatched shower knobs mean only an irksome but short-lived inconvenience. In the hands of an influential artist with the power to make hundreds gyrate and let loose to the sounds and images of destruction and death, what can signs and symbols not do?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 21, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, October 13, 2012


ADOLESCENCE is not only maddening. Try understanding an adolescent on cyberspace.

My nieces in Australia mailed me their photos. That is, their mother/my sister got them to turn over their school snapshots to store in my wallet. A tone of duress wafts from one note written at the back of a photo.

Rory, 5, writes: “Dear Nanay and I will be your best firend Love love Rory Rory”. Nana, 15, is terse: “Dear Nanay, the photo needs no explanation. I ask that you refrain from showing this picture Love, Joanna”.

Beauty perhaps means differently at certain stages. Still nestling at the cusp of childhood, my younger niece is self-possessed. She smiles at the world, confident that it is beaming back at her.

A young woman loses the dew of openness. Framed by old man’s glasses, Nana’s eyes yet hold a glimpse of the child I first saw in my sister’s arms, later carting armloads of books and a puppy, and last seen up close afloat in the other world of “Twilight”.

I take my lovely girls and mystification to another teenager. My son Carlos, 19, directs me to Nana’s Facebook page. I “like” her profile picture but have to wrestle with my son, who tries to prevent me from leaving a comment.

I succeed. I post: “Hi, Nana!” I want to add more but feel tongue-tied in the company of Aratrika, Parth, Breanna, Sehar, Sherridan and Nana’s other friends who “like” her photo, too, but don’t leave a note.

Now I notice I am the only one who does (where is my sister?).

When Carlos sees my pallid, short-for-me note, he groans with all the what-have-you-done ominousness only a teenager can muster. From his raving, I gather that I might have mortified poor Nana until the next century, irrevocably trespassed some digital divide invisible to oldies but glaring like neon-sprayed disaster to the young.

I bluster. Doesn’t “hi” still mean “hello” on cyberspace? Why would I cyberbully a girl I love as a daughter?

My son only gives me a look. I feel like I’ve suddenly sprouted wild facial hair and spouted even wilder notions of truth and fairness like a certain favorite senator.

For the first time, I step into the shoes of those who see the virtual world as chaos waiting to be unleashed. Where the familiar and pedestrian, like windows and traffic, can become altered and new, and a slip can open a vein to stir up all frenzies.

To create order from this disorder, the temptation is to impose: pass a cybercrime prevention law that dangerously sweeps, along with 16 other cybercrimes like cybersex and child trafficking (as tabulated by Janette Toral of, the constitutionally protected right of freedom of self-expression, as well as right to privacy, with a murkily defined cyberlibel.

Protesting hacktivists, Netizens and 15 Supreme Court (SC) petitions may have won a reprieve when, six days after Republic Act 10175 took effect, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order that puts the law on hold until early next year.

Issues raised by the controversy—the definition and penalties of cyberlibel, as well as the manner by which this clause was “inserted” and the law passed without public hearing—should continue to engage us. How do we protect ourselves from the unscrupulous that will misuse quickly evolving digital technologies to invade privacy, steal identities, exploit gullibility? How do we ensure we don’t abuse the Web?

At the same time, with reason, we suspect that applying traditional means to control a new medium following new logic makes us vulnerable to the evils we swore never to let loose again: repression, dictatorship, chaos, death of society.

To break the impasse, many demand authorities consult stakeholders. Others call for online self-regulation and digital media literacy.

Adolescence and cyberspace are so much alike. Both are constantly shifting. It’s a maddening thing, sure. But the only way out is to go through it.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 14, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Teacher's pet

I WILL never forget my kinder teacher, Ms. Espina. She had a soft voice, calm hands. She was the kindest woman. In my five-year-old mind, she was the best thing about school.

For a while, I thought that our class was named after her: “kinder” for the woman my classmates and I were all drawn to, like ants homing in on molasses.

When I was promoted to prep, I was heartbroken to learn Ms. Espina stayed in my old classroom and I had to enter a new one. This was ruled by a teacher shorter and smaller than Ms. Espina.

Boy, was she fierce.

When a pupil bawled and ran after her mother on the first day, and my other classmates hiccupped and started to cry and also moved towards the door, our new teacher herded all the runaways back to the room. She locked the door. And leaned against it. And looked back at us.

My heart almost stopped beating as I wondered if I would ever see again my mother and father and Ms. Espina across the hall. When our class was dismissed shortly after recess, I walked past my old classroom. Ms. Espina was at her desk but I didn’t go in.

At six, I felt old, wise and doomed. Not only can I never be with this gentle soul again, I could not imagine the other teachers lying in wait out there until I finally would be old enough to never enter a classroom again. E-ver.

Well, I recently turned 47 and I’m still wondering about those teachers. Last June, I entered graduate school.

Two of my former students became my classmates. Instead of passing notes in class, we update each other through email, Facebook, e-groups, text. When our professors posted our class standing, the use of student I.D. numbers to mask identity didn’t apply to me. I have the only I.D. number that begins with “1983-…” while the rest of the class have “2000-…”.

I’m even older than my professors. One teacher and I are the only ones in our class that saw President Ferdinand Marcos alive. Later, I learned that my professor was still in high school while I was a senior undergraduate during the dying days of the dictatorship. While he was still into Archie, I was reading “Das Kapital” in comic book format. Cool.

Yet, sitting inside a classroom as a student, not as a teacher, I realize how I’m not drastically different from the six-year-old who realized that the only secret to getting unstuck from that seat and walking out to take deep gulps of blissful freedom is to please the one who can lock and unlock those doors.

That’s essentially how I got to be such a teacher-pleaser. I like school. I like assignments. I like commuting early to be in campus eight hours before my class starts. I like libraries where no one is selling coffee, blowing smoke my way or hoarding the newspapers. I don’t much like exams but I like tussling with a problem, pinning it down and walking away, feeling like the Terminator. Yeah.

Most of all, I like being a student and trusting my teacher to take me to a place I’ve never been before. No one will ever take the place of Ms. Espina in my heart, but it was actually fierce, tiny Ms. Prep who, true to her name, stood me at the edge of the precipice, challenging me with her eyes to jump.

Backwards to safety or forward to vastness and possibility.

On World Teachers’ Day, I write this letter to reassure Ms. Espina she will always be my first love but my gratitude goes to her and Ms. Prep and all my teachers who make magic.


( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus October 7, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Teacher's pet

I WILL never forget my kinder teacher, Ms. Espina. She had a soft voice, calm hands. She was the kindest woman. In my five-year-old mind, she was the best thing about school.

For a while, I thought that our class was named after her: “kinder” for the woman my classmates and I were all drawn to, like ants homing in on molasses.

When I was promoted to prep, I was heartbroken to learn Ms. Espina stayed in my old classroom and I had to enter a new one. This was ruled by a teacher shorter and smaller than Ms. Espina.

Boy, was she fierce.

When a pupil bawled and ran after her mother on the first day, and my other classmates hiccupped and started to cry and also moved towards the door, our new teacher herded all the runaways back to the room. She locked the door. And leaned against it. And looked back at us.

My heart almost stopped beating as I wondered if I would ever see again my mother and father and Ms. Espina across the hall. When our class was dismissed shortly after recess, I walked past my old classroom. Ms. Espina was at her desk but I didn’t go in.

At six, I felt old, wise and doomed. Not only can I never be with this gentle soul again, I could not imagine the other teachers lying in wait out there until I finally would be old enough to never enter a classroom again. E-ver.

Well, I recently turned 47 and I’m still wondering about those teachers. Last June, I entered graduate school.

Two of my former students became my classmates. Instead of passing notes in class, we update each other through email, Facebook, e-groups, text. When our professors posted our class standing, the use of student I.D. numbers to mask identity didn’t apply to me. I have the only I.D. number that begins with “1983-…” while the rest of the class have “2000-…”.

I’m even older than my professors. One teacher and I are the only ones in our class that saw President Ferdinand Marcos alive. Later, I learned that my professor was still in high school while I was a senior undergraduate during the dying days of the dictatorship. While he was still into Archie, I was reading “Das Kapital” in comic book format. Cool.

Yet, sitting inside a classroom as a student, not as a teacher, I realize how I’m not drastically different from the six-year-old who realized that the only secret to getting unstuck from that seat and walking out to take deep gulps of blissful freedom is to please the one who can lock and unlock those doors.

That’s essentially how I got to be such a teacher-pleaser. I like school. I like assignments. I like commuting early to be in campus eight hours before my class starts. I like libraries where no one is selling coffee, blowing smoke my way or hoarding the newspapers. I don’t much like exams but I like tussling with a problem, pinning it down and walking away, feeling like the Terminator. Yeah.

Most of all, I like being a student and trusting my teacher to take me to a place I’ve never been before. No one will ever take the place of Ms. Espina in my heart, but it was actually fierce, tiny Ms. Prep who, true to her name, stood me at the edge of the precipice, challenging me with her eyes to jump.

Backwards to safety or forward to vastness and possibility.

On World Teachers’ Day, I write this letter to reassure Ms. Espina she will always be my first love but my gratitude goes to her and Ms. Prep and all my teachers who make magic.


( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus October 7, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Make peace

“HACKTIVISTS” defaced websites last Sept. 26, 2012 to protest the CyberCrime Prevention Act of 2012.

With rock music in the background, an individual or group that goes by “Anonymous Philippines” denounced the government for “effectively (ending) the Freedom of Expression”. A provision on cyber libel can be interpreted to imprison any Netizen or block access to any site.

Last Sept. 25, the Supreme Court (SC) issued a temporary restraining order to the Movie Television Review and Classification Board to prevent the public showing of “Innocence of Muslims” on TV and in movie houses.

Local Muslim leaders have petitioned for the banning of the video, uploaded on YouTube. They claim that it invades the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion without fear or hatred.

Last Sept. 28, it was reported that some bishops saw a conspiracy to bring down the Church in the recent controversies involving Msgr. Cristobal Garcia. They alleged that the government is spearheading this smear campaign to demonize the Church, an opponent of the reproductive health bill.

In its October 2012 issue, the National Geographic magazine reported that the illegal trade in ivory, which slays elephants for their tusks, can be traced to the mania among Filipino collectors for ivory icons. Garcia, a prominent collector, reportedly introduced the writer to antique retailers involved in the black market trade. The church official has also been suspended from the Cebu Archdiocese while being investigated by the Vatican for charges that he abused altar boys 20 years ago in the United States.

Hacking, religious hate, conspiracy theories. What a full week this seems, and it isn’t even over yet.

The chain of reactions set off by these three incidents shows how keyed up we are to fight fire with fire. Even when the threat seems to be still in the offing, we rush to the “clear and present danger” we imagine but have yet to see.

By doing so, we come to be what we are trying to prevent.

Why? More importantly, can we prevent our, so to say, jerking like this?

Aggression is a behavior that is culturally transmitted, reported The Economist in its Apr. 15, 2004 article on Robert Sapolsky’s study of baboons in Kenya. The Stanford University primatologist recorded that tuberculosis killed nearly all the males in a troop he was studying. Since the infection came from a garbage dump that was the troop’s main source of food, the fatalities were nearly all of the males in the fittest condition to fight for food.

Ten years later, Dr. Sapolsky found the behavior of the troop males to be still peaceful. Although male newcomers still fought other males, they chose rivals of more or less the same strength, not the ones who were smaller and weaker. The new males also picked less on the females.

Although no animal other than humans has been observed to transmit manners, Dr. Sapolsky and his fellow researcher theorized that the males that joined this troop found it easier to be accepted by copying the behavior of insiders. After the macho fighters were wiped out by the epidemic, the remaining females were more receptive to male newcomers, who could be possible sires. This pacifism coded itself into the new males’ behavior.

While I am not sure if we are better or lower than the baboons, humans have a choice.
Our class watched two versions of the video, “Innocence of Muslims”. Viewing that video did not convert anyone in the class to be an Islamophobe.

Our reactions to that video, though—whether it is to violently protest or as violently, call for its banning—tell us more about ourselves than about Islam, Mohammad or Muslims. That’s a differentiation that should separate the baboons from humans.

( 0917-3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Sept. 30, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, September 23, 2012

ML for kids

RECORD-KEEPING is curious. All the national dailies marked the 40th anniversary of Marcos’ signing of Presidential Decree 1081, which placed the country under martial law (ML) on Sept. 21, 1972.

Even the Manila Bulletin, venerable for its indifference to the rules of lay-outing and newsworthiness, devoted 1.5 pages to feature “Martial Law@40: Never Again” in its F Section for youths.

Unlike in other broadsheets, PD 1081 and its aftermath don’t appear on the front page of MB or its main opinion-editorial section. There are two columnists writing separately on two celebrations falling also on Sept. 21: the national day of Malta and the independence day of Armenia.

Is ML a subject for kids? I agree with the editors: “never again” should be chanted by those born years after the Marcos regime but never too young not to know this period of our history.

Curious to re-view ML through the lens of youths who cannot hum in a heartbeat the Bagong Lipunan hymn, I took the cue to reminisce online from Ambeth R. Ocampo’s Sept. 21, 2012 column, “Looking Back,” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

According to Ocampo, the diary of Marcos, “fascinating” for its insights into ML, is available for free, along with other diaries of Filipinos and foreigners writing about the country, in

While Ocampo is drawn to reviewing the past through the eyes of a man whose role was central to its unfolding, I am struck by the Tweet-like journalizing of the 10th president of the country while he plots and executes Oplan Sagittarius, the imposition of “Batas Militar”.

On Jan. 3, 1971, a Sunday, Marcos wrote: “… I had a light lunch of docon and paltat.” After leaving Gabu for Nichols Airbase, he is met by “Imelda and the children,” who have brought him “pospas” that he eats in the car.

The chicken-flavored porridge, a folk remedy, is probably taken to soothe a bum stomach. “It is most probably due to the tension arising out of the plan for the proclamation of martial law…”

The mention of ML jolts the domestic narration. The fellow comforted by porridge brought by his wife and children has the power to start a chain of events that will darken the land and bring suffering for two decades and counting.

Unlike Tweets and blogs, diaries of the past were written for the writer’s eyes only. That is why reading old diaries is beguiling: one presumes the outpouring is uncensored, written without the pressure of playing to an audience or justifying oneself for posterity.

On another Sunday, Sept. 17, 1972, Marcos writes at 10 p.m.: “We escaped the loneliness of the palace for this old Antillan house now known as Ang Maharlika, the State Guest House several blocks from the palace… The departure of our children has made the palace a ghostly unbearable place.”

Waking up from a long siesta in the room of son Bongbong (now senator)—“which has the worst bed and lumpiest mattress”—Marcos has sardines and “pancit (noodles)” for early dinner. He browses in the library: “… to my delight I discovered the books I have been wanting to read for some time including Fitzimmons, The Kennedy Doctrine, Sorensen’s The Kennedy Legacy, The Dirty Wars edited by Donald Johnson… Days of Fire by Samuel Katz (The Secret History of the Irguny Zrai Sanmi and The Making of Israel, Chou-en-lai by Kai-Yu, Room 39 by Donald Macfaddan (The room of the British Intelligence in WWII), the History of the World in the 20th Century by Watt, Spencer and Brown.”

On a Saturday, Sept. 23, 1972, Marcos wrote: “Things moved according to plan although out of the total 200 target personalities in the plan only 52 have been arrested, including the three senators, Aquino, Diokno and Mitra and Chino Roces and Teddy Locsin.

“At 7:15 pm I finally appeared on a nationwide TV and Radio broadcast to announce the proclamation of martial law, the general orders and instruction.”

The diary of Marcos is more than a keepsake. It is a hall of mirrors: does the human make the man less monstrous or more?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus Sept. 23, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Readers of all ages

Of the many works of art strewn around the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines, the moss-covered reclining figure of a man curled in concentration still arrests me every time the Ikot jeepney unloads passengers near the checkpoint.

Carved from stone and sprouting moss and ferns, The Reader has the air of someone who has just closed a book but is still lost inside the maze. My guess is that he wasn’t reading a reference required for class. Yet who knows? Factorial ANOVA might be to someone what J. M. Coetzee means to me.

The book can be any book as a door can be any door for the seeker. Once you step in and stay till the end, Seeker becomes Reader, the timeless captive, rooted by a tale, disconnected and set free.

Did I say “timeless”?

This moss-grown fellow hardly resembles the child of today’s polymedia libraries.
Based on the Third National Book Development Board (NBDB) Readership Survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations last May 2012 and presented last August 2012, Filipinos who are mostly likely to read a non-school book are not brooding loners, contemplating the Future of the Novel in the minute screen of their big toe but well-adjusted extroverts, quick to snap up information from newspapers, radio and TV programs, video tapes and—gasp!—malls.

GMA Network reported in their website last Aug. 23, 2012 that the Third NBDB Readership Survey also points out that going online fans affairs with books, with an SWS official declaring that “all Internet users are non-school book readers”.

This is very good news. At the same time, it fuels my techie sons’ argument that the Internet does not make them less literate. Aside from being a true daughter of my generation, stolidly clinging to rules of grammar and punctuation even in texting, I think it’s not just the rules that are bent when young LOTR fans worship the ground Peter Jackson levitates on but fall asleep in the middle of J. R. R. Tolkien’s winding tale of how the Fellowship of the Ring came to be.

Yea, what does it matter which door if all kinds of seekers go in those doors? In the crush of the morning rush at the MRT, I stood beside a young white-garbed student who had eyes only for her hand-held phone. Since I was tiptoeing to reach the overhead hand grip, I was, more or less, hanging over her shoulders.

This gave me a very good view of her My Phone screen. At first, the lines I picked out (“Kumusta? … Magkita tayo”) shamed me into thinking I was reading an SMS. Unfortunately, in the sardine-can intimacy of MRT crowds, a Peeping Jane cannot swing very far.

Back to hanging again over the student’s shoulder, I found out that she was reading an e-book, “Meeting You,” written in Filipino by an Asian-looking lady that looked of the same age as her rapt reader. The text was all in Filipino. The diction was not the sort that trips from the pen of National Artist Rio Alma (“Buwan, Buwang, Bulawan”), but it was surprisingly easy to follow.

Despite the absence of periods and paragraphs and an anarchy of commas, my first e-book reading ended too soon when its owner got off at her station. On a teacher’s salary, I’m never going to start a habit that’s connected to a gadget. However, that MRT episode made me rethink my biases about reading.

Unless you maliciously flush a book, stories that are printed lead long lives.
Unlike lovers, you can pass them along. Unlike toys outgrown by owners, books hibernate until the next generation seeks and discovers them. As for the truly precious, they flit in and out of the multitudinous rooms of our imaginations.

However, as the Third NBDB Readership Survey results seem to suggest, the kind of door does matter. With the average non-school book reader getting younger—from 17 years in 2003, to 16 in 2007, and 15 in 2012—the new portals matter in converting more young people to a pastime that may yet become a lifetime affair.

If a writer can enthrall a young girl at rush hour to scroll up and down the tiny screen of her mobile phone to seek the end of the tale (at last! a period is finally sighted!), then long live the multimedia portals that anoint the converted into becoming lifelong seekers.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the September 16, 2012 issue of Sun.Star Cebus “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 08, 2012

In praise of copycats

VICENTE “Tito” Sotto III is better than any hotshot academic delivering a standing-room-only lecture on intellectual property rights.

Teachers usually expound on theory. The Senate Majority Leader is accused of committing plagiarism, not once or twice but thrice, as of last count.

In early August, after he made his second “turno en contra” speech against the Reproductive Health Bill, Sotto was accused of copying word-for-word portions of an online post written by American blogger, Sarah Pope.

Last Wednesday, in his last “turno en contra” speech, Sotto again faced allegations that he translated into Filipino and copied without credit lines spoken by the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Two days later, ABS.CBN reported online that a U.S. blogger and contributor of “Ms.” magazine, Janice Formichella, accused Sotto of plagiarizing an article she posted on Feb. 5, 2010. In the speech delivered on Aug. 15, 2002, Sotto used a mixture of Filipino and English, with the English lines cribbed word-for-word from the article posted by Formichella.

What sense can be made from all these? So that we don’t add “nation of cheats” to our claims for notoriety, let’s heed the lessons the senator has been demonstrating, with intent or not:

First, hire speech writers that know research and writing. Being a very busy person (or assumed to be one), Sotto relies on others to write his speeches. Aside from knowing grammar and content, writers should apply grade school basics from writing themes: “say it in your own words” or if not, precede quotes with “according to”.

Second, write your speech. It’s not a rule to write a long or erudite one. Though if you have nothing to say, keep it short and polite. Or don’t say anything at all. If English is not your thing, say it in your local tongue. Why do we gauge intelligence by a person’s command of English? Shouldn’t sincerity and conviction be more important than form? One speaks from the heart and with full possession of one’s faculties. To speak is not to repeat someone else’s words. That is performing.

Third, prepare before you face an audience. If someone ghost-wrote, read your speech beforehand. People who can’t spare the time to write a speech are most in need of a speech. Not knowing when to end is as much a crime against public patience as not understanding what you’re saying.

Fourth, read carefully. Quoting sources means preserving their essence and keeping the context. Both Pope and Formichella blogged for informed choice; Sotto cribbed their words to fit his anti-RH arguments. According to a ABS-CBN report, it was the awkward translation, “maliliit nga galaw,” of Kennedy’s lines from his “Day of Affirmation” speech for post-colonial South Africa (“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope…”) that alerted social media user Michel Eldiy to Google the phrase and discover the plagiarism.

Fifth, read. Sotto said he did not know Kennedy wrote the passage that a friend texted him. Liking the lines, he asked his staff to translate and include these in his last speech. If the senator can persevere in reading kilometric lines of SMS, he should try e-books or the printed ones. Beautiful writing awes one to give credit where it is due.

Sixth, apologize. What infuriates us about Sotto is not that he stings back his accusers, whines about being cyberbullied, or dismisses his critics as “komiko”. It is that he refuses to admit his mistake. If he had said, “I am sorry,” the first time and if there had been no other accusation, we could have focused on the RH Bill. Had a life outside of Google. Smelled the flowers.

Seven, learn. To make this issue truly matter, we should make our votes reflect the lessons. Short memories aside, we have no one to blame if we put another Tito Sotto in any position of responsibility, even or especially in the barangay.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus September 9, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The original sin

DOES plagiarism offend?

In schools, where higher learning is supposed to be more than a diploma, to plagiarize is to commit, as one pundit says, the sin against originality. Two professors used up a combined six hours in two separate sessions to impress on our graduate class how grievously we would sin, as well as the deep hole we would be digging ourselves in, if we got caught passing papers that copied without citing authors: failure for the paper and a formal complaint filed with the college. Plagiarists get a minimum penalty of one year of suspension.

Yet, plagiarism is not just a spat over papers in academia, a small pond bursting with publication time bombs and prickly egos. Journalist Fareed Zakaria discovered this in the fallout following the discovery that he cribbed a paragraph from an April 2012 New Yorker article written by Jill Lepore that he included, unattributed, in his Aug. 20, 2012 column on gun control in TIME Magazine.

Zakaria apologized “unreservedly” to Lepore. TIME and CNN still suspended him. While his employers later absolved and reinstated him after a probe, the scandal has been brutal for a man called by Esquire Magazine as “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation”.

Compare the price Zakaria continues to pay for using a paragraph without attribution with the travails of Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III. Sotto moaned to reporters that he is the first senator being cyber-bullied on social network sites for the plagiarism he is accused of committing against American blogger Sarah Pope in his “turno en contra” speech against the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

Senator Pia Cayetano is also accused of using unattributed portions of reports in her pro-RH Bill speeches. The plagiarism charges plaguing the Senate may have prompted Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to propose a law on plagiarism. Let’s ask the bloggers for help, he commented.

It seems strange to consult the blogosphere about authenticity. A lot of piracy gets carried out online. Many teachers, librarians and researchers blame computers and the Internet for making plagiarism viral through online searches and “copy and paste”.

Yet, the online world also eases the tracking of plagiarism. There are software editors and teachers can download for free to screen submissions. The University of the Philippines Virtual Learning Environment (Uvle) subjects all uploaded files to a plagiarism detection service.

The Internet also promotes transparency by embedding in articles hypertext, the blue-colored word or phrase one clicks to reach the origin of information. Getting hold of the original article is better than reading someone’s interpretation of it, goes the research drill. Yet, in Sotto’s speech, his writers did not just cut out the blogger from whose post they first read about the researcher they chose to cite, they also copied the blogger’s synthesis of the research, almost word-for-word, according to texts uploaded by Rappler.

At all costs, one should avoid doing like Sotto to avoid ending in a Sotto-sized hole. The senator snarled back at critics rather than probe first his speech writers. He denied the plagiarism, and after his own staff admitted to the cribbing, bashed the blogger he plagiarized. More inexcusable than being a cheat and a boor is being lazy: too lazy to think, too lazy to say it in his own words.

Or is it the opposite? Zakaria admitted to the New York Times that overwork may have led him to plagiarize, signaling a much needed time-out for “stripping down”. The man is host of CNN’s flagship program on foreign affairs, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, a columnist of the Washington Post, an author read by powerbrokers, and a speaker commanding $75,000-per-hour.

Should we be more forgiving of an excess of zeal that ends in “accidental” plagiarism? Fielding accusations that he cribbed again in one of his recent books, Zakaria also makes people curious about the similarities between his Harvard Commencement Address last June and a speech he made in Duke University two weeks earlier. Copying oneself without credits is self-plagiarism.

Not being able to know if one is being true to oneself or not is also called something else. Offenders get more than one-year suspension.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Sept. 2, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tale of two nipples

IF informed choice is good for reproductive health, why not for breastfeeding and breast milk substitutes?

The logic seems clear enough. According to an unattributed article published in The Philippine Star’s Aug. 23, 2012 issue, the nongovernment organization (NGO) Women Involved in Nation-Building (WIN) supports the congressional proposal to amend the Milk Code of the Philippines.

A WIN spokesperson said that while the NGO considers mother’s milk as the “platinum standard for infant nutrition,” it asserts that “The Breastfeeding and Milk Regulation Act” will “safeguard and promote women’s rights to proper knowledge and information that will help lead mothers to numerous options”.

What is lacking in the range of options currently available to mothers? Information and access to breast milk substitutes is banned or constrained by the Milk Code. For instance, WIN cites the donations of milk formula and other infant food products that were turned away from evacuation centers at the height of the recent monsoon rains and flash floods that hit Metro Manila and surrounding cities.

If passed into law, House Bill 3537, or the proposed Act to Promote Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices in the Philippines, will allow milk donations during disasters and emergencies. The proposal to amend the Milk Code is authored by Rufus Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro), Josephine Lacson-Noel (Malabon), Magtanggol Gunigundo (Valenzuela), Anna Bondoc (Pampanga), Lani Mercado (Cavite), and Lucy Torres (Leyte).

I, too, agree that women’s right to informed choice must be upheld. Yet, if circumstances, such as evacuation conditions, poor health and others, decrease the attractiveness or convenience of breast milk, I don’t believe the solution is to shift focus on other options.

I believe in working harder at nursing one’s child.

The Milk Code is that rarity in the Philippines: a law that’s being implemented. Because it is followed, the policy creates a structure and an environment that supports the delivery of the benefits provided for by law.

In September 1993, I gave birth to our first born in a government hospital. My older son was a lusty 10-pounder who developed an instant dislike for my breasts. Despite swallowing an ocean’s worth of clam soup and imbibing other folk recipes for copious milk during my nine months of waiting, I could not squirt anything but a few drops of colorless liquid into my son’s tiny but endlessly rooting mouth.

It did not help at all that I did not slide gracefully into motherhood the first time. A last-minute C-Section gave me a seven-inch incision. Trial labor left me with hemorrhoids. And after nine months of anticipation, I was wrestling with this small ill-tempered tyrant who slapped away my aching breasts, kicked at my fresh sutures, and howled blue murder for the world’s earliest case of enforced fasting.

In 1993, there was no rooming-in policy. I went to the nursery for my son’s feeding. While my son protested and I struggled to muster son, breasts, sutured belly and post-partum depression, a gallery of baby visitors witnessed my breastfeeding misadventures. After a month, I gave in to mixed feeding.

The bottle, with its superior silicone liquid rubber nipple and gushing supply of infant formula milk, handily won the battle of teats. After I got replaced in my son’s affections by a 1.8-kilo can of infant formula milk, my own milk trickled and dried up.

In 1998, my second son made his appearance. I was the same flat-chested me, except five years older and more stressed by teaching, writing and tutoring my first-born. Yet, with age came experience. I no longer panicked when eight pounds of appetite made their imperious demands. The weak-looking initial trickle of breast milk I now knew as colostrum, an important source of immunity-enhancing antigens.

What made a difference, too, was the change of government policy. Rooming-in gave my son and I more privacy for nursing. No breast milk substitutes were allowed. No cute baby books from milk company sponsors. No milk handouts and cartoon character-decorated feeding bottles to give overwrought mothers a break.

Nature gave me two breasts; my son and I found a use for these for more than two years. Practice, not formula, makes perfect.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus August 26, 2012 issues of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Biting the breast

LET’S not forget what the monsoon rain brought out: disaster and human spirit.

One who inspires is Rina Nato. This 33-year-old Filipina nurses babies who get hungry while their mothers are out looking for money or food.

Days after the flash floods that hit Metro Manila, many of the families evacuating at the temporary shelter set up at the St. Francis Chapel in Cainta, Rizal still could not return to their homes but needed more than the donations that came their way.
Women left their babies with grandmothers, who had to “fake breastfeeding” to quiet their hungry cries.

This dilemma did not escape Rina, a social worker, reported Tara Quismundo in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s (PDI) Aug. 17, 2012 issue.

In Rina, I caught more than a glimpse of the Filipino’s sense of “pakikipagkapwa-tao”.

Fellowship, or sharing the lot of others, is a value one expects of but sees rarely in public servants. Even then, I do not know of any civil service code that requires a government employee to share something as intimate as one’s milk in the line of duty.

Yet Rina, a mother of a three-month-old infant, knew instinctively what the hungry babies and their equally desperate grandmothers needed: milk that’s nutritious, safe and free.

In the rudimentary conditions of an evacuation center, it must be impossible to hygienically store expressed milk. The PDI article also pointed out that Rina knew formula milk could not be distributed as aid, in keeping with the provisions of the Philippine Milk Code.

The article does not explain Rina’s decision to respond to duty unconventionally. Perhaps her training and immersion as a social worker makes her more sensitive to others. Or nature might have endowed her with an abundance of breast milk, more than what her own child needs. There’s a natural synchronicity that makes breast milk flow in answer to the hunger of one’s own, as experienced by mothers who are still at work while their babies are left at home.

Often, when hunger is sated and the infant sleeps or plays, the milk does not shut off automatically. Mothers are encouraged to safely store this milk for later feedings. Others let the milk flow until it stops, stimulated anew when the infant grows hungry.

As the convention goes, the more a mother nurses, the more milk she produces. This inexhaustible supply of free, quality sustenance for the first 36 months of a child makes breast milk a virtual fountain of life.

By offering to be a wet nurse, Rina is reversing an oppressive patriarchal tradition. The ancient practice of poor women acting as wet nurses for the infants of rich families goes back to agrarian or medieval societies where such “privilege” was considered as socially necessary: rich women had to keep their figures after giving birth and poor women had to survive, even if it meant their own infants grew sickly or died, subsisting on inferior substitutes because the social order denied them their own mother’s milk.

No victim of patriarchy, Rina’s sacrifice is not without cost. Even if nature graces you with an abundance of milk, it can be an actual physical pain to nurse. Hungry infants will attack nipples with the same gusto whether these are made by nature or technology. All too soon, an infant’s gums will sprout teeth, which can be used with surprising efficiency to grip and pull and gnaw.

Yet, more daunting than a queue of hungry babies waiting for their turn to nurse is the consolidated House Bill on Breastfeeding, which may yet amend the present Milk Code and the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009.

If passed into law, the amended Milk Code will narrow the application of breast feeding from infants falling within the first 36 months to the first six months only, allow donations of artificial breast milk substitutes during emergencies, make lactation breaks at the work place unpaid, and generally bring back mothers and infants within the orbit of well-funded and aggressive marketing campaigns of milk formula companies.

How many Rina Natos will we need then to offset the damage of another disaster of our own making?

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus Aug. 19, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Best and worst

LAST Tuesday, while Metro Manilans were waking up to another round of heavy rains and flooding replacing unwelcome memories of Ondoy, two persons flew in from Singapore. For the German and the Chinese, it was their first trip to the country.

They returned back to their base country on the same day, as many parts of the metro and other cities in Luzon went under water. What impressions of the country, a Filipino colleague mused, did they bring back with them?

Below are my answers if the question had been meant for me:

WORST place for systems. If you expect systems to be in place, be ready for disappointments. Some long-time residents say that authorities in flood-prone Manila still don’t get it: how can they not prepare for disasters that strike regularly? Others also say that some of the areas that didn’t go underwater during Ondoy now did. So what went wrong?

BEST place for improvisations. News footages captured the heroism of rescuers. It wasn’t just saving the lives of strangers, even people who did not want to leave their homes, but doing so with very little resources and a lot of obstacles. Lacking motorized inflatable boats and life vests and other safety gear, rescuers showed what one could do with a piece of rope, the interior of a wheel and determination. Although there were no reports of casualties among rescuers or the people they were helping, a system should include the purchase of modern equipment to facilitate rescue missions and ensure the safety of rescuers, many of whom are volunteers.

BEST humans. Coming after our poor showing at the Olympics and the divisive squabbling over the Reproductive Health Bill, the selflessness of volunteering and cooperation to help those made homeless, hungry and ailing by the flash floods reminded us why the Filipino is great. Students, government employees, housewives, and others who could have just stayed home volunteered to repack food and give aid. The days of no work, no class released many to aid the rescue and relief operations. Cheers also to the news media, particularly radio and TV, for keeping the public informed and vigilant. Journalists sought out communities that were inaccessible and badly in need of help.

WORST humans. P-Noy chided people who resisted efforts to relocate them to evacuation centers, where food and medical assistance were easier to channel. He wondered if material possessions were worth more than the lives of loved ones and rescuers, who had to contend with heavy obstacles and risks to return to rescue them. Yet, it’s not difficult to empathize with homeowners protecting their homes and livestock from looters. Despite the deep floods, threat of electrocution and drowning and other hazards, submerged homes were still ransacked. “Jumper” boys ran off with the cargo of vehicles that floundered in flooded intersections. One TV personality attested that the food donated for network volunteers “tasted good, in fairness.”

WORST timing for trial-and-error. By changing “green” to “orange” at the height of the calamity, the Pag-asa confused the public and incensed P-Noy in the piloting of their rainfall warning system. Officials said that they changed colors as a concession to criticisms that the original color coding—yellow for monitoring, green for alert, and red for evacuation—confused people more used to the “red-yellow-green traffic light system”. However, changing colors at the height of a crisis and without sufficient explanation made the agency seem as unpredictable as the weather it still has to accurately read.

BEST time to think about others. We may never get any kind of system going. We may never buy all the modern equipment and facilities we need when disaster strikes. We can do something, though, about the trash we are disposing, the plastic bags we can reuse, the packaging we dispose without a thought. If “we” sounds too ambitious, “I” is shorter, simpler, easier: “I can”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 12, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, August 05, 2012


IT’S not just rain that’s making this overcast Saturday pregnant with possibilities.

I’m staying home, purposely avoiding the Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (Edsa) today.
This weekend, thousands of high school seniors take the University of the Philippines College Admission Test (Upcat). A jeepney ride away from Edsa is UP Diliman, one of the largest campuses in the UP system that may take the lion’s share of the estimated 60,000 that take the Upcat every year.

This afternoon till early evening, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) will also hold its “Prayer Power Rally Against the RH Bill” at the Edsa shrine. Red shirts will be worn to symbolize the blood of the innocent, infants and women the CBCP says will be sacrificed in the abortions “encouraged” or “condoned” by the RH Bill.

Weeks in advance, high school students roamed the Diliman campus to find their testing venues and improve their chance of being on time for Upcat. Yesterday, despite gusty winds and drenching rain, the visitors still did their tour of duty, standing out among the Diliman regulars. It may have been the school uniforms and the campus maps. Trailing after a group of boys that was checking out the colleges of Mass Communication and Music, I think it’s the excitement that yips in the surface cool of teen murmur.

That was a bittersweet moment. More than three decades ago, I also sat down for the Upcat, all choked up with the fear of possibly leaving my high school alma mater and the excitement of expecting a more liberal life in college. When my older son took and passed the Upcat more than three years ago, I felt the same anticipation and pride when he passed—as well as the pang when my son finally decided on another course and a private university.

An alumnus of a private high school, my son felt that the state university could not guarantee state-of-the-art facilities and training that the private sector provides. An alumna and a teacher of UP, I kept my peace and respected his choice.

It felt odd and still feels odd now: stepping back and making room for a person who’s coming into his own. I used to buy his Read-Aloud books and later, the references and rare novel; now he’s making choices that would never have occurred to me when I was 18 turning 35.

But if I learned something from the Upcat my son and I took, it’s that education frees a person to make choices. The Upcat is just an exam; UP, one of many destinations. But to be able to weigh possibilities, to use reason in narrowing the field and singling out superior options, to chart a path that takes you from this point of your existence to that point of your aspiration—this is choice. This is power.

With wage-earner parents, that’s probably all our sons will get from us.

It’s more than what some get. Crossing an Edsa underpass one evening after class, I ran into a young man. The dark and the plastic bag half-covering his face made it hard to guess his age. The bag, smeared with rugby on the inside, inflated and deflated with his frenzied breathing.

In the underbellies of the MRT stretching along Edsa are many other children and youths whose future ends in a bag stuffed into their face. In Quezon Avenue is a little girl who skips up and down the skywalk, singing “pangitpangitpangit”. I’ve never seen her with her parents or a pair of slippers.

Last year, more than 70,000 took the Upcat. Only about 1/8 passed. Those who didn’t make it still have a choice. Parents of the Upcat takers—as well as those wearing red shirts for the Edsa shrine rally this afternoon, I dare say—know how much it takes to give one’s children a choice.

In deciding whether our children face a lifetime or a wasteland of choices, we must choose.

(, 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 5, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday