Saturday, March 30, 2013

Moving still

THE SAFEST thing to do is to stand still. Why can’t we?

Commuting from Quezon to Parañaque just as all offices disgorged workers before the long weekend, I had time to reflect while clinging to the MRT handrail. While Edsa below looked like a bright-hued sludge of unmoving vehicles, the MRT crawled and stalled from its human burden.

Before my arm broke from hanging on, I reached my station. Barreling through with two totes heavy with books and academic detritus, I heard a man speak in beloved Cebuano: “Mo-uli na lang ko sa akong probinsya, oy.”

Perhaps it was hearing the shared sentiment of wanting to go home or the Bisdak expression, “oy,” seasoning the declaration with a mixture of exasperation and chagrin, I found myself tearing up.

In 10 months of commuting in this place, I’ve never lost my footing, stumbled in the interminable steps, fallen prey to thieves, charlatans or the criminally gifted. Yet, here I was, in the middle of rush hour of a very, very long weekend, sniffling in the bowels of the MRT. Recipe for disaster.

When I emerged later to take deep lungfuls of the carbon monoxide- and ancient urine-flavored toxic brew that stands for air in this city, I retrieved the train of my reflection: why don’t we stay still?

I still didn’t find the answer to this question when I was somewhere in a line of cars going nowhere in the mass exodus out of the city on Holy Thursday. Given freedom from routine and chores, many opt to do something, go somewhere, leave the familiar. Do we see through the illusion? We compete for parking space, a table during dining rush hours, the search for novelty to brag about when we go back to racing in the old tracks come 8 a.m. on Monday.

During a jeepney ride, I overheard two graduate students discuss travel plans. One of the ladies grumbled about the steep rates of plane fare to a popular beach destination. Her companion wondered if it wasn’t better to drive to a nearby province, which had some good beaches. Her friend protested: “Then it wouldn’t be a vacation (if the destination was just nearby).”

While packing to stay within my 15 kilos of check-in luggage, I had difficulty deciding which books to bring home. Finally, I made space for four titles, among the notebooks and “pasalubong” for my sons: Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow,” “The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present,” and N.V.M. Gonzalez’s “The Bread of Salt and Other Stories”.

As with John Updike’s academia, I had difficulty focusing on Franzen’s suburbia but I had sworn to finish it. The Likhaan Anthology is a college textbook edited by Gémino Abad, who was my professor in last semester’s elective class on poetics. I had passed all my class requirements, but the subject of poetics was not yet done with me.

In the preface of his collection of short stories, Gonzalez wrote about arriving in Santa Barbara, Caifornia “to begin what would become a long sojourn in America”:
“… as a hedge against the future I had brought along several short stories, two novels, and various scraps of writing.”

Narrative Paradigm Theory holds that all humans are born to tell stories. We tell them “as a hedge against the future.” We tell stories to try to fix the future into the knowable. Our stories tell us that much of what happened still remains unknowable.

My copy of Pamuk is secondhand. It is battered from being always in my tote, a guilty indulgence I retreat to when academia become too unreal. In “Snow,” a poet tries to become a journalist in investigating the epidemic of suicide among young women forbidden to wear a veil.

He returns to the hometown he left to avoid political persecution. He picks up awkwardly the blunt-edged tools of journalism. He tries to rekindle an old love. In bartering the safety of his literary niche in the civilized West for a sentimental journey back to home, duty and love, the poet realizes how standing still is dying to oneself:

“When we undertake the pilgrimage, it’s just not to escape the tyranny at home but also to reach to the depths of our souls. The day arrives when the guilty must return to save those who could not find the courage to leave.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 31, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Caped crusaders

AS fashion goes, the apparel draped over the woman in the mall wasn’t even vaguely complimentary.

It looked like an oversized bib or a cape she put on in reverse.

During a busy weekend, I was lined up to pay for my purchases when I spotted the woman. One hand was pushing a stroller and her other hand was maneuvering under the cloth draped over her torso.

Presuming that she wasn’t copying the famous pose of Napoleon Bonaparte, I think she was nursing her infant under the cloth. For once, I admired how this piece of ungainly, almost repulsive fashion served a greater function besides attracting the opposite sex.

One of the obstacles hindering mothers from breastfeeding in public is embarrassment or fear of potential harassment.

Clarinda Paquibot recalled a suggestion to cover up being made by a barangay captain supportive of breastfeeding. Paquibot is the Central Visayas coordinator of Breastfeeding Tama Sapat Esklusibo (BF TSEK) project, a project of the Department of Health (DOH)and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The male barangay captain also commented that while young mothers had to cover up, older mothers could skip the modesty. Paquibot said it didn’t look as if the man was joking.

Recently, at a health center, I met a male councilor whose views ran along the same lines. As head of the committee on health, he said he totally endorsed the breastfeeding campaign. He even reminded the tanod, police and other men not to hang around the multi-purpose hall’s breastfeeding corner to avoid embarrassing young mothers.

In both incidents, I equate “young” with “nubile” and “attractive”. Furthermore, these male views imply that older mothers, with their sagging and mottled breasts, are supposed to be safe from men fantasizing and acting on their base impulses.

Yet age and experience are invaluable for many things, including the physical and social dexterity that helps one slip a breast out of the confines of a bra, hold one’s infant in a way that he or she gets hold of the whole aureole, not just the nipple, slips back this breast into its brassiere cup and cover up with one’s shirt, and repeat the same steps with the other breast before its nipple drips milk into one’s shirt or waistband to make an unsightly mess. The entire performance done in public.

Many women look away to give a mother nursing her baby some privacy in a jeepney or crowded public area. At an MRT train, which usually brings out the most competitive streaks in people, I’ve seen women make room to give a mother elbow space to nurse her baby with one breast and then the other.

What should one do with males who remain predatory at the most inappropriate moments?

For now, wear the shroud, cape, veil or whatever name is given to the cloth lactating mothers fasten around a shoulder, neck or pin to their blouses when others are present while they nurse.

Is the concept of restraint alien to men? In an interview, Dr. Sylvia E. Claudio said that the “sexual valuation of women’s body” leads some men to box in women within the patriarchal frame of predator and prey, no matter the circumstances.

The director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Center for Women’s Studies said that women respond differently to the sight of a man walking around without a shirt. Unless the man issues a sexual invitation or acts suggestively, women are unlikely to aggress.

On other hand, she also theorizes that it’s not the sight of firm, globular breasts that men ogle but the intuitive pleasure expressed by mother and child, wrapped in a life-giving bond.

“Baka naiinggit lang sila kasi enjoy na enjoy tayo sa ating ginagawa (Men may just be envious because we obviously enjoy what we do),” said the UP professor of Women and Development Studies.

Biologically, there are few differences marking out women from men. Breastfeeding is one of that rarity, unfortunately for men.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 24, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Birth pangs

METAL reminds me of childbirth: the metallic smell of gushing black-red vaginal blood, the cold and sting of implements knifing through flesh as yielding as butter.

The passage of 20 years since I gave birth to my older son has not blunted the memories.

Yet, even if I still involuntarily shudder and fight the urge to curl up as if I were the fetus, I recognize that these memories are the better ones. My sons are grown-up and I pursue a life that, all things considered, is as close to the one I desire.

Recent brushes with two young mothers, though, make me wonder how we’ve hurdled the challenge to carry women past the threshold of death-defying risks that constitute giving birth in this country.

Last Feb. 22, my interview with a barangay midwife was interrupted when workers rushed in a 17-year-old from an upland barangay in Cebu City. She had just given birth in a village so remote, it could not be reached by “habal-habal” (motorcycle for commuting in the mountains).

Despite the barangay health worker’s (BHW) exhortation to go to the health center in the lowlands in anticipation of labor, the teen delayed until she was forced to give birth in the uplands. Barangay workers later brought the infant to the health center, where he was checked and found in fine health but hungry.

Things were different with his mother. Initially, the grandmother opposed the transfer, apparently unmoved that her daughter’s vaginal laceration, caused during crowning, reached almost the anus. After the BHW convinced the grandmother that her daughter’s life was at stake , young men had to be rounded up to carry the young mother down the slopes to the local chapel, where the ambulance was parked.

At the health center, the midwife hollered for the teen’s partner to help carry the stretcher past people and furniture. Workers pushed forward a man. Short and thin, he seemed, like the mother, more of a child than a parent of one. The midwife explained that the family had to replace or pay for the materials used in the episiotomy as government stocks were insufficient and irregular.

I learned later that the father earned P100 a day, sorting mangoes by size for selling in Carbon market. The mother was out of school and out of a job. The community was agricultural, where the highlight was a bingo game. For P1, one could win the jackpot of say 20 pledges amounting to P20.

When the stretcher was finally out of the way and I could leave the room, I stopped by the cot where the mother nursed her baby while the father looked on. The lusty infant looked as if he were the only one not bothered by tomorrow.

In another upland barangay, while eating corn with breastfeeding mothers, a teen came to give birth. She came to the health center before her labor was too advanced. Her mother joined her. Her husband was at work but was informed by text.

While waiting for the young mother to fully dilate, the midwife and BHWs assured her that they would just take their lunch in the next room. Some of the women chided the teen for sniffling; one advised the mother to save her strength and leave the crying to the baby. The teen’s mother chatted with the health center staff and visitors, also mothers, about birthing, elections and cut flowers.

I stepped out of the room because the walls were damp from the altitude. Or was I perhaps undone by the young mother’s trapped eyes and the certainty that I had nothing to say?

Would intoning “Agwanta (endure)” have been better than silence and helplessness? Was it better for her to give birth among strangers in a sterile but alien setting? Was it better that the law ruled out a homebirth for her? Was it better to wait until one had one’s fill of childhood, high school, college, singlecraziness and whatnot before letting an infant move into the vacuum?

When we took the “habal-habal” back to the city, the health workers were still clearing the remnants of late lunch. No hurry. The mother was a “primie (first-timer).” Serious labor might only start with nightfall. As with babies, birthing would be the easier labor.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 17, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tarp tactics

IF you doubt your conscience, look for a giant tarpaulin.

In Bacolod, Roman Catholics who might be confused how to vote can check the oversized “kodigo (cheat list)” that diocesan officials have posted outside a local church.

Last Mar. 5, 2013, the Supreme Court (SC) stopped the Commission on Elections (Comelec) from taking down the “Conscience Vote” tarpaulin, which the latter claims is violating the legal limitation on the size of election propaganda.

As reported in, the tarpaulin measures 6 by 10 feet. The Fair Election Act allows only 2- by 3-feet campaign materials.

Looking at the Vera Files photo of Comelec workers holding a tablet-sized sheet (representing the legal size of campaign materials) against the “Conscience Vote” tarp that is nearly as towering and majestic as the limestone walls of the cathedral now serving as its backdrop, I can read very well how the church has simplified the time-consuming task of electing leaders to a short list that is much easier to memorize than an extended, ranting homily.

On the upper part of the tarp (cut in half by church workers after Comelec informed them of the violation) is a gigantic check mark beside a list of politicians and party list groups categorized as “(Anti-RH) Team Buhay”. It is colored a lurid red, which reminds me of blood—gushing at childbirth, when Christ was crucified, when the church cried out for heads to roll after the Reproductive Health Bill was passed into law.

On the lower part of the tarp is a big red cross beside a list labeled as “(Pro-RH) Team Patay”. These pols and groups may never break bread with monsignors, or at least pose with them for a photo op. This tarpaulin is in a shade of blue or purple, like the body of an aborted fetus. Abortion, promiscuity and the breakdown of family are the real agenda of the RH Law, claims the church.

Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra has defended the tarp as exercising the church’s freedom of expression. It jars to hear “freedom” being dropped in clerical defense, reminding me of poor Carlos Celdran, found guilty by a Manila court for practicing his freedom of expression to protest against the church’s RH Bill opposition during a mass and consequently “offending religious feelings”.

While I understand the Comelec’s intention to discourage the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) from posting similar election propaganda in other areas of the country, I think the Comelec should focus on other matters that affect more voters’ education and election conduct. The Catholic vote is a figment of the CBCP’s earnest belief in itself, not facts.

Propaganda, from the pulpit or elsewhere, works only with the myopic and the die-hard. Since voters who will follow their “conscience” (see “church”) are unlikely to get last-minute cold feet and critically examine candidates using the yardstick of governance, tarpaulins, right-, under- or over-sized, are waste.

Yet tarps are also friendly to ecology (less paper), eyes (no more spectacles or laser), ears (shorter homilies) and livelihood (whether Team Buhay wins or loses, hope the church donates the tarpaulins to be made into green bags and mats).

Live and let live, whether you’re “Buhay” or “Patay”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 10, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Accessorizing baby

IN the train compartment, all eyes were on the young couple seated beside me.

They were cute: the young father who stood and gripped the hand
straps, standing protectively close to his seated wife and son, the
equally young mother who spoke softly to the infant she cradled, a
tiny, swaddled package that made no fuss despite the early hour.

The day was still young. Perhaps that was why we were all so
benificient, seated comfortably before the first wave of hordes and
lines descended and glutted the MRT.

Or perhaps it was being in the presence of this beautiful couple who
negated the horrific stereotypes of young parents, unplanned

When the seat beside his wife was vacated and she tugged at his shirt,
he chose to remain standing, signaling to a nearby woman to take the
seat instead. He carried a knapsack and held with his other hand a
bulky bag in baby blue that dangled pastel-colored plastic rings. It
could not have been easy for him as the MRT jolted on its course to
North Ave.

He didn’t betray any impatience when at the fourth station, the bundle
in her arms stirred and she tugged at his shirt again. I smiled at the
Morse code of signs with which they communicated their connubial
empathy. The other women in the compartment gave them smiles and nods
of benediction. A beautiful day, I thought before dozing off.

I woke up by some internal clock that alerted me that I was
approaching my station. When I glanced to my right, I saw two wide
eyes, ringed with long dark curling lashes, staring solemnly back. The
baby was every bit as cute as his mother, who smiled before turning
him in her arms and giving him the bottle.

I felt my smile dry up and crack.

They were still a beautiful trio but the morning had changed for me.

I saw the small dark head and her brown-tressed one dip close and
lock, the bottle of formula milk like the pin keeping these two rings
interlocked. On the pearly sheen of the bottle was the name of an
expensive brand that specialized in baby products.

The designer bottle made me see the perfect family in another way. I
noticed for the first time the branded baby bag, soft cotton preemies,
fleece blanket, cap, mittens and booties with the grinning, winking
fluffy puppy. And the cute teether the young father capped with a
crystal cover before returning to the bag—he even knew which
compartment it went in without asking her.

Although his parents were dressed in the shirt and denims that is the
universal uniform of the young, this baby's layette declared that his
parents wanted nothing but the best for him.

The milk bottle was part of the show, I suppose.

After the baby fed and his mother positioned him to burp over her
shoulder, our eyes met. She smiled and I wanted to ask her why she
stopped midway, compromised in her choice to give him the best.

And the young father whom I had thought wise beyond his years—all
because he was familiar with the contents of his baby's bag and knew
surely when to keep the teether and shake measured scoops of infant
formula into a bottle of distilled water, dissolve the powder
carefully before handing the bottle over to his smiling-eyed wife, all
while slinging a knapsack during an early morning MRT ride.

When I strode out of the station, I saw a gigantic billboard of Anne
C. Because of the display size, angle of my vision and distance
between street and billboard, it was hard not to physically stagger
from the weight of her immense breasts.

We blow up breasts to bigger than life size to sell tuna. We give
synthetic milk to a beautiful child who could have much, much more if
he could just suckle as much as he needs his mother's breasts. We
measure love by accessories. Tell me, where is civilization?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 3, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column