Saturday, April 28, 2012

Breathing plastic

LET me count the ways I love plastic.

First, I can’t seem to eat out without using plastic.

In my walking route is a hole in the wall whose cauldrons draw a long line as early as 7 a.m.

The buyers—office workers, men bearing tools, mothers dandling babies— walk away with their breakfast or lunch packed securely in plastic bags that must hold other plastic bags.

I confirmed how many plastic bags are needed for a take-away meal when I bought lunch one day at our canteen.

My P51 lunch consisted of: one cup of rice (one small plastic bag), one serving of mongo soup (one small plastic bag), one piece of “tinowa (stewed fish)” (one plastic bag), “tinowa” soup (one plastic bag), and one medium-sized banana.

The soup was placed in a separate bag since the protruding bones of the “mamsa” fish might puncture the plastic bag.

That’s my theory. It could also be that each item of food is placed in a plastic bag so that the cashier automatically counts the number of plastic bags to give a quick total of the amount due.

Or again, food vendors may just love plastic the way I do.

My entire P51 lunch went into one large plastic tote.

If I ate in the canteen and used a tray and utensils, I could have saved five plastic bags from choking the ecology in five non-biodegradable ways.

Yet I find it more conducive to eat in the office because of the—sigh—air-conditioner. (When our building was constructed, the design didn’t include enough windows. Several large windows would have solved the challenge of getting students and teachers to focus on work without resorting to electricity. Windows would have taken advantage of the thick, spreading canopies of the nearby trees. Unfortunately, enough windows never entered the picture, er, the design of our building, constructed long before the trend of green architecture.)

Returning to my plastic chase, I think Filipinos rarely break for lunch at exactly noon because that’s too late to find food or too crowded to eat in peace. Hence, workers line up before time-in or at 11 a.m. to get first pick of the day’s menu. This “take-in” food they bring to work.

Sustaining this food economy is, naturally, plastic bags.

If we reuse plastic, it would alleviate our rising pile of trash. That’s theoretically speaking.

After I took my P51 lunch out of five plastic bags and transferred these to plates and bowls, I had to decide the fate of five plastic bags: discard or reuse?

That’s not entirely honest: I didn’t really ruminate over my choices. After I finished eating, I placed the bones and torn plastic bags in the plastic tote, knotted the tote to keep cats from scattering the bones under our conference table, and walked away—naturally.

Aside from being sturdy and cheap, plastic bags are valuable because they don’t invite soul-searching.

We shed plastic as if this is our natural pelt.

Plastic bags of all sizes and shapes molded to fit our humanity: from noodle seasoning and cigarette sticks bought “tinggi”-style from a street vendor to the commodities bearing the brands and logos charting our ambitions.

Unwilling to count plastic just to fall sleep, I usually bring whatever remains from last night’s dinner to this morning’s breakfast as my lunch at work.
I pack these food leftovers in plastic containers that have been washed so many times, and put this in a plastic tote that has been washed ad infinitum, I feel my guilt as an eco terrorist is washed, too, if not to a clean slate of eco-purity, at least to the scratched and blurred opacity of plastic bags, recycled after several washing.

Except for two things, er, plastic bags that still end up with my green lunch: one small plastic bag for fork and spoon and another medium plastic bag to contain a possible spillage from the plastic food containers and protect my books and other belongings.

The mystery lies not in sneaky plastic bags; it is in my pretension that I can actually get away from breathing plastic.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 29, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mission possible 2

WALKING is an exercise in shedding.

For two days, while waiting inside the Vhire to bring me to Cebu City, I watched the same man walk by, balancing a banana trunk on his shoulder.

I presume he was bringing this home to feed pigs he was raising. If I try to imagine his figure now, I cannot exactly describe how he looked, where his bolo was, whether the trunk rested on his left or right shoulder.

I just thought, looking at him, how naturally man and burden blended. He was not dragging his feet; he didn’t hurry. He looked as I said he did: a man on his way home to feed the pigs.

I thought of the man while walking to work on my second week. It’s an hour’s walk, which I’ve since shortened to 49 minutes. It takes me about the same time to walk in the early morning and in the evening.

Every time, I reach my destination. Every time, I imagine taking out a pedometer and checking the distance traveled and counting the rewards for health and environment. Each time I don’t think my face expresses the look glimpsed on the face of the man carrying home a banana trunk.

At first, I considered excuses. The morning sun made my sweat pour. At the end of the day, more folks were out on the sidewalks.

On the fifth day, I realized walking is far from solitary and cleansing.

Just as contact with the outdoors makes me more aware of the subtleties of pleasure created by grass or gravel, sheltering canopies or naked sky, spending time on the streets made me realize there’s a pyramid of users enjoying their rights on the streets.

Ranked first is everything with wheels. Or perhaps that should be rephrased: anything consuming petrol rules the road. Petrol and roads were invented to enable us to travel far distances in record time.

That means, those of us who regard being in a certain place at a certain time as less valuable than getting there have to accept our place in the periphery. It’s not just about following road regulations and street signs to stay on the right side of law and civilization. It’s about staying alive.

The half-raised head of a dog, frozen in the violence of a road kill, remains a parody of street survival, gazing with sightless bloodied sockets at vehicles whizzing around it. The animal in death attracted more consideration from the “kings of the road” than when it still enjoyed its short, interrupted life.

Dogs, cats and the four-footed have it only slightly worse than the two-legged. On sidewalks renovated for tourism, I still don’t let down my guard. People sleep here. Children hunt in packs. Helpers or fish sellers casually fling tubs of water, flavored with canal extracts and fish guts, to wet the ground and cool the day.

During snarl-ups, pedestrians should expect company, stepping aside to make way for motorcyclists and bicyclists that are also escaping endangered existence on the road. Are our roads merely lacking in motorcycle and bicycle lanes?

Or are they just full of drivers intent on teaching with extreme prejudice the rightful place on the roads of those who power their journeys with two legs?

When I was younger and slimmer, I owned a T-shirt whose humor was even better than its graphics.

A steaming pile of poop was in the line of an oncoming set of monster wheels. The print read: “Endangered feces”. My younger self never felt compelled to walk anywhere except to a bookstore and the toilet.

Alas, I now possess the wisdom and the will but not the wit to wear a shirt that was long ahead of its time.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 22, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mission possible

THIS CITY’S best-kept secret is its sidewalks.

A good way to discover them is to walk, instead of ride, to places.

Last week, officially the start of summer classes in our college, I walked to work. To cross the Mactan channel, I commuted by Vhire.

From the Vhire terminal in the North Reclamation Area (NRA), I walked to the campus in Lahug. I don’t know how many kilometers that is. The first day, though, I took exactly a minute short of an hour after hitting the streets near the pier to step inside the faculty room. The second day, I needed 43 minutes to connect from the NRA to Lahug, even though I slowed down thrice.

The first time was to put some distance between me and two youths whose loud yapping and sharp wolfish stares I didn’t trust. I slowed down again to trail after graveyard shift workers just released from work. Dressed in dark thick clothes, they seemed to be sleepwalking on their way to nowhere.

The third time was to allow a fellow to make up his mind about the direction he was going to take in the sidewalk we shared. His vacant young face didn’t send alarms clanging inside my brain. He did have an unzipped fly. And while I am not above bragging about my walking, I cannot say the same for my skills in wrestling.

When I looked back, the fellow was now joined by a gaunt, hungry-looking mongrel in contemplating his open fly.

These interruptions were nothing compared to the struggle I waged the minute I woke up and left the house. It’s too hot to walk. Only crazy people and dogs can be found on the streets. I have to finish something at work. Cebu doesn’t have sidewalks. Am I crazy?

It’s weird how it always looks too hot and dangerous outside when you’re indoors. Yet, when you step out and wince at the pressure that palpably bears down on your head or eyes, that’s about the last occasion for reasonably whining about this “hot” country.

Walking early in the morning is not as great as walking at sundown, except no twilight spectacle can shame the softness of an early morning breeze.

A morning person, I like being able to see where I am going. And there’s a lot to see when you walk when the streets are still empty of people who cling to last night’s dreams evaporating in the slow simmer of summer.

Dogs are morning creatures, too. While I’ve seen cats, the ones I’ve passed had the air of husbands slinking back home after a night of caterwauling.

On the other hand, neighborhood dogs usually cluster in companionable groups, sniffing each other or the variegated packages they drop helter-skelter on the path. When I step aside to avoid another steaming trap, the pooch grins at me, as if to say: Hey! Where’s the rascal that left this behind for you?

Realizing how a dog is a paragon of loyalty in a world of shifting allegiances—dogs never forget a scent—I’d like to “see” the streets as a dog does. Humans, poor creatures, rush from work to more work, like chickens that forgot where they left their heads.

A dog’s nose, though, excavates worlds and galaxies in the least likely crannies. A walk for them is not just a walk. By this distinction, it’s not hard to guess who knows the streets better.

Or discovers there are sidewalks after all. Sometimes, these are hidden under a bed of scales and the briny, metallic smell of spilled fish guts and a distant, invisible sea. The makeshift wet markets that appear in the evening to serve workers returning home still linger on in the streets long after the sun is up and last night’s dinner is lost in the sludge of memory.

Some sidewalks are blessed by trees, ancient and still among the most beautiful of Cebu’s underappreciated virtues. For all the garbage spilling on sidewalks and humanity pressing from shanty, enclave and street, Nature’s canopies in gemlike luster can still be spotted among the pinnacles, billboards and flyovers cutting up the skies above the city.

For this benediction, I am glad to be as crazy as dogs after all. Rediscovery—of the city one calls home, of communion with dogs, of one’s own legs—is the reason why walking always does it for me.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 15, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column


I WAS watching a local documentary featuring blue whales sighted in Camiguin Norte.

I found the young documentarists as exotic as the whales they were studying.

One fellow, with an endless, complex hairstyle and all kinds of adornment weighing down his neck and wrists, was narrating how their photos and videos were turned over to scientists studying the whales.

This documentation) may help us understand and co-exist with the whales better, he said and added: “hopefully”.

Before I heard him use this word, I had been watching more his bracelets and necklaces than listening to his commentary. (Born in a different, more bloodthirsty age, he would have been wearing the trophies from his kills, rather than wearing shellfish and beads and chatting about conservation.)

By capping his statement in that manner, this new-age warrior made me think of how we use language to fulfill our world view.

I believe no one elsewhere uses “hopefully” as hopefully as a Filipino.

Ask a Filipino contemplating a desired future or end—graduation, employment or courtship—and the adverb is invariably tacked on after a favorable prediction of attainment, as if to neutralize too much confidence and not to tempt the fates. “I will get her consent… hopefully.”

This elliptical arrangement—“hopefully” never precedes, always follows obsequiously like an afterthought that dislikes to offend—is intended to: take the first step of commitment by admitting desire; follow up by asserting that one has done everything humanly possible to win the desired; and lastly, take a step backward in not discounting that a Supreme Force decides the final outcome for it may compromise destiny to be too cocky.

Trust a Filipino to adopt a mistake and turn it into something else.
According to English language experts, it is improper to use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb.

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that critics are “adamantly opposed” to the use of “hopefully,” whether to mean expectation of a positive turnout or a bald statement of the desired.

Why couldn’t that eco-warrior have said, “I hope the scientists use our documentary to understand better the whales”?

It is certainly shorter. Yet, in his place, if I, too, had spent three days in the open seas, waiting for creatures of the deep to shatter that blue mirror into liquid splinters of fire, “hope” would not also be my first choice of verb to use.

Ernest Hemingway, who wrote short sentences, had no patience for adjectives and adverbs in the company of one strong verb.

I doubt, though, if persnickety grammar is at the root of our infatuation with “hopefully”. The young, with their hybrid ways of communicating, may be tweaking a fatalism that lies at the root of our world view.

My generation refers to the future with a cautionary expression of fatalism. “The whales will still be there, ‘puhon (God willing)’.”

Considering that my generation and the older ones have brought the whales closer to extinction, it may make sense to follow the example of the young: affirm the desire, do everything possible, and accept what comes next. Grammar experts might not like the outcome, but the whales might… hopefully.

( 09173226131)

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

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Theresian

I’M a Theresian.

I don’t mean only that I studied at the St. Theresa’s College (STC) from kindergarten to high school. I lecture in STC’s college department since the 1990s.

All in all, I’ve spent more than half of my 46 years at STC. Yet the numbers alone don’t account for how “old” I am as a Theresian.

Like a lot of other Theresians, I believe: “once a Theresian, always a Theresian”.

The controversy surrounding the school’s barring of five high school students from attending graduation ceremonies over morality issues fills me with mixed emotions. More than anything, though, what I feel is sadness and resolve.

How do the five high school students feel about being a Theresian? Will they look back with gratitude at the way their teachers and the ICM sisters molded them? Will they feel a sense of mission to help other women according to the Theresian ideal of blending feminism, militancy and spirituality?

Will they even want to be known as Theresians?

As a mother and a teacher, I believe in not losing sight of the lesson while passing judgment, specially while punishing. In high school, my English teacher, Madam Rebecca MontaƱo, required us to read “The Use of Force”. In this short story, William Carlos Williams writes about the thin line separating righteousness and abuse in the struggle between a family physician and a young girl.

The child’s parents are unable to convince their child to open her mouth. The doctor is initially driven by concern about the diphtheria epidemic that has claimed the lives of other children.

Yet, when the child physically attacks him, something other than concern for her life drives the doctor to overpower the child and ram a spoon down her throat until she gags. He discovers her sore throat at the same time that he realizes:

"The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is a social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.”

By my senior year in high school, I chafed against the restrictions of STC. I purposely chose a course that wasn’t offered by the ICM sisters so I could convince my father to permit me to pursue college in another university. Even when I shifted to Mass Communication, I transferred to the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu even though STC is one of the pioneers, other than UP Cebu, offering this course in Cebu.

Yet, when I decided to teach full-time and later, to lecture on Journalism, I returned to my high school alma mater. I continue to lecture there despite run-ins with administrators and the balance required to juggle lecturing with a full-time teaching load at UP Cebu .

Why? I believe in what STC believes in.

More honestly, I have a love-hate relationship with my ICM mentors, now bosses. I am exasperated by their tendency to dwell on marginalia. I refuse to check the length of my students’ skirts, ban dangling earrings or bar late students from entering my class. I would like to see among the STC sisters more openness and flexibility to changes, such as technology, that have an impact on their mission to educate and empower young men and women.

Despite these abrasions, I believe in the code of morality all Theresians imbibe and are expected to live by, even outside the campus or beyond our studies.

What is moral? To be moral is to have a seamless conjunction between our public and private lives. One cannot be a philanthropist and not pay the minimum wage to one’s workers. One cannot be successful at one’s career and fail with one’s children and spouse.

To be moral is to help those who have less in life; to speak out against injustice; to respect the rights of others.

STC is not a haven exclusive to saints and angels. We count among us bigots, sinners, moralists, and, to be sure, “amoral moral” Theresians. Many of us have stumbled and will stumble.

Yet, I’ve learned that stumbling and falling flat on your face can have two reactions: you stay on the ground or you get up. A Theresian must choose to get up.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 1, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column