Monday, June 25, 2012

The reader

I DIDN’T expect BJ to be back in the faculty room. (All students’ real names are withheld.)

She didn’t just look different; she was older, changed. She had gained weight, perhaps post-partum. She left her baby with her mother in her hometown.

She was back to finish her studies, she said.

When I first knew her as an undergraduate, that would have been a statement I never expected BJ to make.

BJ was a free spirit. Handling a 7:30 a.m. class and teaching a writing course that required submission of articles by 8 a.m., I was bound to clash with BJ. Though she lived in the campus dorm, she almost always stumbled in late—more often with a pretext, not a paper.

It didn’t help that I gave back her drafts “dripping in red (-inked corrections and comments) “. If someone asked us, BJ and I might even have to argue about who stressed whom more.

Then one day, she gave this paper. I read it. I didn’t read to review and comment. I read the paper because I wanted to. Despite the fact that the essay was different from all her earlier articles, I believe she wrote it. It had BJ’s voice, her spunk, the BJness I glimpsed sometimes in the bored, aborted attempts of past submissions.

I asked BJ about her essay. I asked her where she had been hiding all this time.

Sheepish, she said she had been loitering in the dorm one time. She had nowhere to go, no one to spend time with. The teacher managing the dorm saw her on the verge of driving herself crazy. He went back to his room and came out with a book. He told her to read it. She did. She wrote that essay.

I believe things happen for a reason. If he hadn’t noticed her that time, if she hadn’t opened the book, if she hadn’t written that essay—I might not have seen BJ back in the faculty room, seeking clearance to resume studies, picking up where she left off.

Yeah, I believe books are magic. Where well-meaning criticism shrivels interest before it has a chance to surge into full passion, reading a good story can inspire one to not just pick up another book but also write stories and own them.

What can stories do? To paraphrase a Fine Arts student’s motto: “Imagine the impossible”.

Books, though, are inanimate. They need to be passed from one reader to another convert.

The man who put a book in BJ’s hands passed away last Sunday. Professor Mike Mende was a figure hard to miss in our campus. His silence could cut quicker and deeper than another person’s harangue. He put his faith in actions, a quirk in someone who loved throughout his life words, ideas and the abstractions that make some of us jittery.

Eloquence and politics, though, pass. What lingers is the sense of a person who lives on in others.

When he was an undergraduate, you could talk to Mike for hours while standing in a hallway, both of you on your way to somewhere but somehow waylaid by films, photography, pining for a used book he returned to a store pile and never found again.

When he was a teacher, Mike always made time, in between family, teaching, research and advocacies, for students. He didn’t make the mistake of giving up on anyone.

Though he was much younger than me, Mike subscribed to a tradition that opens two choices for those who teach: every young person passing through school you either hold back or give something to take for the journey.

I remember Jane and Jay enrolling in Mike’s class. A system glitch let them through despite the lack of prerequisites. By the book, the two seniors should have been dropped from class, postponing graduation.

No academic heavyweights, Jane and Jay yet pleaded to do extra work. I pleaded how overstaying in college could do these kids more harm than good. Mike’s prerogative: he assigned them extra readings and tested them separately from the rest of the class.

When I say that Mike is a figure hard not to miss in campus, I meant that I see in him each and every student he met and made time for. Salamat kaayo for making a difference, Mike. Padayon!

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 24, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Friend zone

MY classmate Eseng and I were waiting for our rides at the corner of
the University Avenue when we overheard a group of high school friends
argue over which jeepney to take to a nearby mall.

As a freshman at the Diliman campus of the University of the
Philippines (UP), I sympathized.

To survive registration alone in this sprawling campus, mastery of
the secrets of transport ranks high in the skills list. Once I
confused the Ikot and the Toki jeepneys, and paid with my first case
of campus vertigo.

These high school kids, we learned, are seniors at a local public
high school. They’re a few of the thousands that will be taking the UP
College Admission Test (Upcat). By next school year, the passers can
enroll in any campus of the premier state university.

Eseng was quick to deduce this. He saw the colored maps of the
university that the students were attempting to read. He guessed their
dilemma even before they blurted out their distress.

And just as he taught me, he pointed out to these kids how to read
destinations by the jeepney’s roof color: yellow for the Ikots and
Tokis, green for Philcoa, Pantranco, MRT and the nearby mall, and red for Katipunan.

From transport adviser, Eseng shifted to coaching the students on how
to prepare for the Upcat. A major in film studies, Eseng’s day job is
teaching in a Makati public high school. He dreams of defending his
thesis, and applying to teach in college. Flexible hours make college
better than high school, Eseng believes.

He may soon be academically qualified for college but I think my
classmate is in his rightful place, mentoring high school students.

College professors may enjoy some perks, but a special grace is
reserved for those who weather the turbulent years of early
adolescence. Who doesn’t have a favorite teacher in high school? Or
friends that date way back?

Many look back at high school as the Golden Age, when students loved
teachers as unconditionally as their mentors loved back.

Reviewing our reactions to the confused teens gave me a clue why. An
undergraduate instructor, I listened and observed how the high school
students resolved their problem. Eseng offered to help, easily
crossing over from onlooker to guide and big brother.

Eseng coached the “barkada” as a team. I was curious if one or two
would break away, and decide that chancing a ride on his or her own
might be better than waiting for an empty jeepney to materialize at
the height of rush hour. Impatient, I pointed out this option. Why
wasn’t I surprised when the whole group chose to move to a different
spot rather than break up?

Schools are for socialization. Yet, our system also dissociates. The
more advanced the pursuit of learning, the greater reserves of
independence required—for thinking, for decision-making, for

What does youth need more: solitude or friendship?

Last summer, my own teenagers introduced me to “friend zone”. It’s
not a social network. It’s the “special relations” reserved for those
who quite didn’t make it yet as romantic partners but are also
regarded as several degrees warmer than platonic pals.

To be in the “friend zone” is torture for Juan, who thinks it’s a
second-place finish. My Carlos thinks friends have it even better. You
can be a friend forever. An ex-steady can never enter the “friend
zone”—never ever, my teens assured me.

Will youths outgrow this desire to merge and move with all the
complexity and unpredictability of a single-minded amoeba-like entity?

As the green-roofed jeepney bore the group away, still chattering, I
hope that young people don’t rush to fill the vacuum left by high
school with the first surrogate they meet in college: lovers,
fraternities, causes or ideologies.

Eseng taught me how to read jeepney roofs. College chum Ibiang
completed an MRT loop with me. My former student and now classmate,
Omar, explained the counterclockwise Ikot and the clockwise Toki.

My mistakes, though, made me lose the path and find it back again.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 17, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Love triangle

THE TRIANGLE is not my favorite. The associations created by its sharp, odd-numbered edges unsettle.

Yet, how should one take a triangle within a triangle?

I was vexed when I found myself in the Ayala Triangle Gardens.

Late one Sunday, I joined the company that was taking advantage of this oasis in Makati, the capital’s central financial district.

Aside from the diners, families were strolling or exercising their dogs. There were runners, walkers, moon worshippers, lovers, wifi lovers, lovers of lovers. Every type of human seemed to be in company that night.

According to the official website, the place is right in the middle of the triangle formed by Paseo de Roxas, Makati and Ayala Avenues. The Ayala Triangle is named so because this sub-district is a triangle-shaped parcel of land in Makati.

Does the place live up to its name? From the human point of view, the place has everything. There are shops, banks and, most importantly on a Sunday, ATMs.

The plant world is well-represented, too. I recognize fire trees and rubber trees, a number of the oldtimers impressively bewhiskered with creepers, vines and lianas, not to mention a mini-forest of roots.

There are no signs asking humans to keep off the grass, or the grass from encroaching on human space.

As for fauna, did I not mention the dogs?

I’m curious, though, why pet-friendly places attract only pure-breed dogs and their significant human others. Where are the “aspins” (“asong Pinoy”)?

The Philippine Animal Welfare Society (Paws) coined the name to rescue native mongrels from the sad associations of their old name, “askal (“asong kalye (street dogs)”).

Before a team of players adopted the name and turned football into a national craze, the “askal” was known not for frequenting the mall but for being an unwilling participant in human cruelty: “slaughtered, abused, ‘kinakaladkad sa likod ng’ tricycle (dragged from the back of a tricycle), ‘o pinapasok sa sako (placed inside a sack)’,” Paws Aspin Club president Nice Rodriguez was quoted as saying in a May 15, 2012 Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) article.

Through its Aspin Club, the Paws has been campaigning to change biases against native dogs. Since 2009, it pursues its campaign, using the motto, “My ‘aspin’ is in”.

“When someone says, ‘askal lang (only),’ it’s like you’re saying, ‘Pinoy ka lang.’ Does that reflect how we see ourselves?,” the same PDI article quotes Paws resident veterinarian Dr. Wilfred Almoro. “That’s why ‘natutuwa ako (I am pleased) when I see someone bringing an ‘aspin’ to a mall—it says a lot about the confidence of the owner, as well.”

Or human love for the aspin. Families usually keep an aspin to guard home and property. Despite government campaigns that administer free or subsidized rabies injections, many aspins are not considered valuable enough to be brought to veterinarians.

Thus, a rooster may expect better reception than an aspin from drivers and conductors of jeepneys and buses. One i-Witness documentary featured a man who earned a living through the performances of his pet ‘aspin’. The duo had access to plazas and parks. They had to wait a long time to find a bus that would give them a ride.

Watching the toy dogs that played tag with their significant humans or roamed without a leash that Sunday night, I missed Udo, the part-Labrador and part-Alegria askal I left in Cebu.

By fitting themselves so loyally to our world, our dogs also embrace and live with our hang-ups and baggage.

Cats are a different matter, though. Cats are not owned. They only deign to be fed.

Aside from green-loving humans and flora, the Ayala Triangle Gardens shares space with several of these cool characters.

The first independent operator mewed just when I was about to bite my first spicy wing. When I paused to look where the sound came from, there came a burst of counter mews from another operator that sniffed out what the competition found.

Several mews later (and bones surreptitiously dropped under my chair), I took a stroll, thinking there must be justice because God created a world split between those who live with a leash and those who don’t.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 3, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Grey matters

I TELL strangers this “secret”: I’m 46.

Some people guard their real age like a state secret. Yet, when strangers offer me seats during rush hour at the MRT or usher me to the front of a long, twisting queue, I set the record straight because their generosity rests on the presumption that I’m a senior citizen.

Warring with dismay is embarrassment that I am offered entitlements I’ve not earned yet—and feel sorely tempted to try.

Vanity usually wins. Sometimes, though I’ve corrected the misimpression, a few continue to doubt, like the lady who swept her eagle vision like a searchlight over my graying tresses, daring the lies to come out and surrender like the pale roots of dyed hair.

Most, though, are really well-intentioned. Although it’s said that gallantry is endangered, many Filipinos have a soft spot for the elderly.

Although a friend makes it a principle to quarrel every jeepney dispatcher who calls her, “Mader (mother),” I’ve been called this and many others: “‘Nang (diminutive of ‘Manang (Older Sister)’),” Mom (local pronunciation of “Ma’am”), “‘Nay (“Nanay”),” even “’Iya (“Tiya (Aunt)”.

Dispatchers, not best known for tact, must reserve for a reason these names for us, citizens of the grey.

Yet, though we honor our elders as only Asians can, we have biases that cloud our views.

In our eagerness to help, we may ignore their preference to do things the way they want to. A young man in nursing whites gave up his seat for me at the MRT. It was rush hour and he had been cradling a heavy knapsack.

I did my usual pantomime of smiling and refusing the seat, but later gave in when he stood up and, also smiling, insisted I take the seat. I’m not sure which was the greater discomfort: arguing with his offer or sitting down and having a forest of crotches at eye level.

To be old is not to be disabled. Yet, some attendants routinely bellow or make elaborate signals. I think they’ve checked me in three boxes: old, deaf and slow.

Early one morning, I was enjoying an MRT escalator, perhaps the last slow thing in Manila, when I was overtaken by a little old lady. She had a head of pure white and wore sleek black walking shoes. She took the steps two at a time, dainty as a bird and as spry. Later, at the MRT, after I gave in to the insistently polite young man, I saw her eyes on me, reproaching.

Even families need to empathize more with their elders. To claim documents at the National Statistics Office (NSO), I joined a queue in a narrow, steep stairwell. When we finally could sit down, a lady asked her elderly neighbor how her knees were faring.

Overhearing them, an NSO officer said that they only allow senior citizens to go ahead of the line when they’re claiming their own documents. They noted a pattern of workers asking their parents and other elderly relatives to process applications.

The elderly may have a lot of time on their hands. Their place is definitely not in a queue in a cramped, hot place.

Dropping by at a teahouse in Binondo, we found Algier, the owner, in a funk. While he honors the 20-percent discount on dining granted to senior citizens, he experienced some abuse, if not by the elderly then by their family.

One couple, for instance, orders several dishes, avails of the senior citizens’ discount, nibbles and then leaves. Guess who’s finishing all that take-home food? Algier asks.

Grey is just a color. It looks like ash but isn’t.

Never—and I’m quoting a man who exterminates for a living termites and all pests—underestimate the living.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 10, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Monday, June 18, 2012

Windmills of Bangui

WHAT’S here and not here, goes the riddle I always found easy to answer.

The wind, of course.

I felt less cocky standing at the foot of the towering turbines lining the coast of Bangui Bay in Ilocos Norte.

The wind turbines rise to 230 feet. Twenty turbines are ranged along nine kilometers of the Bangui shore.

Completed in 2008, this wind farm is called the NorthWind Bangui Bay Project.

Finding the place during a late weekday afternoon, I found it easy to believe the local impression that the windmills are only sidelights for visitors seeking the white sands of Pagudpud at the northwest tip of Luzon Island or straying from the Unesco-declared world heritage city of Vigan.

We missed the turn because the roadside marker mentioned a windmill café. Bushes obscured the sign. After a steep, circuitous route, we reached the Bay of Bangui, facing a sullen, white-capped South China Sea.

No café. The windmills are there, of course.

For sightseers, they offer a lot of photo opportunities. My older son asked me to pose as if I were holding a paper windmill and blowing to make the blades turn.

The memories of childhood are stirred by the feeling of diminishing as we left the road and walked down to the shore. All five feet of me, sinking in the shifting sand of fine stones, had to bend back at the torso, not just tilt back my head, to gaze up at a turbine’s 230 feet of whiteness.

Unlike that comforting childhood riddle of an omnipresent but unobtrusive wind, the turbines radiate power. It’s not only because the 20 wind turbines generate 33 megawatts. This electricity is exported to the Luzon grid, reportedly “plagued by expensive and unreliable power supply,” according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

These state-of-the-art windmills cost about US$35 million, almost 90 percent of which was shouldered by the Danish International Development Agency.

The WRI notes that the Bangui wind farm will displace “highly polluting diesel-based power generation thereby reducing emissions of (greenhouse gas or) GHG.”
Despite their out-of-this-world presence, the wind turbines are all about sustaining the earth. Wind power is a source of sustainable energy.

Overlaying the sound of the sea pounding the Bangui shore is the regular whish of the turbine blades scything through the air.

Does the community hear the sound of the future?

Bangui is an oddity in the Amianan. While other northern Luzon towns and cities boast of sprawling plantations of tobacco and rice, or rely on agricultural products, crafts, heritage churches, natural wonders and other inducements to appeal to tourists, Bangui has to work harder to court transient favors.

The coast is harsh and forbidding, a raw profile of rocks carved by the relentless, ageless battle with the sea and elements. Yet, like its neighbors, Bangui strives to eke a living through tourism.

Vehicles stop at roadside stalls, selling the same garlic and shallots sold in other northern Luzon towns. Then we spot what Bangui alone sells: rocks.

Molded by the sea into a pleasing smoothness, rocks are sold by the color: reds, greens, greys, blues, blacks. Parts of Bangui that end up in gardens, aquariums and Bangui’s souvenirs.

At 13, Rafael still has the height and open face of a child. The incoming high school student runs to cars arriving at the wind farm. For P50 and P70, he sells wooden replicas of the turbines. He says his father carved these.

Near the turbines is a scraggly cluster of stalls, selling more desktop souvenirs and keychains. All look like the ones Rafael says were carved by his carpenter-father.

The desktop souvenirs have plastic flowers. The native bushes only grow long, cruel thorns; perhaps it wasn’t the season yet for their flowering.

The variegated pebbles and stones adorning the tokens are real. It must be a home enterprise: the children and women gather, glue and apply lacquer on the stones. The wooden windmills are made by the fathers.

Which of Bangui’s two windmills will answer the riddle of the future?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 27, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column