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