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