Saturday, April 27, 2013

Summer’s children

AFTER a time, I realized what was missing this summer: the sound of children playing on the street.

Summer then was the heat flushing us out to the street. There was no school to regiment our day, only “tubig-tubig,” “bato-lata,” “Japanese game,” and “buwan-buwan.”

The first three games were played even when the sun was at its fiercest. Our elders had not heard of global warming then. Only occasionally would a playmate be called back to their house, face streaming with melted dirt from grimy hands that wiped away sweat to better aim a slipper at the much dented can of sardine in “bato-lata.”

Released later, this kid would have been made to change into a clean white sleeveless undershirt, neck now caked in layers of Johnson’s baby powder but head still emitting the fierce fumes of sun and sweat, laced with Johnson’s baby cologne. And off we went to “biko,” “siatong,” “dakop-dakop” or “tago-tago.”

If the moon was bright and if there was another brown-out, sometimes our elders would lead the evening exodus to the street, where water was poured on the ground to draw and bisect a circle. This line of water meant life and death: running along the line, the “It” tried to tag the player to take his place; the rest of the players ran away from him but had to keep within the circle.

This was life and death in summer then.

Although I can still whiff the smell of summer in a late afternoon bonfire, our street does not ring with the cries of children.

Perhaps computers and smartphones have taken them away. Or they are in the mall, trying to escape the global meltdown while creating more carbon footprints to hasten it.

It is much more complicated to be a child these days. Our children grow up too fast too early. The younger son has a summer job, waiting on fast food diners, washing up, and sorting garbage. Initially, we consented because half of his earnings go to a fund benefiting his school’s scholars.

After he asked permission to work beyond his shift, I hardly recognized the baby I once dandled after siesta. He’s making choices I made not once in the interminable summers of my youth.

Youth is about making choices, not regretting them. In Rebelander S. Basilan’s unforgettable report in Sun.Star Cebu last Apr. 21, 2013, Maria Christina, 11, and Baltazar, nine, Guevara sell fruit salad-flavored ice candy outside the fence of St. Joseph Academy in Mandaue City.

Christina would rather help their mother than go on vacation like other children. Josefina, 37, also sells ice candy to augment the pension of her husband, 67. They have five children.

The Guevara siblings mind their Styrofoam box of ice candy from morning till afternoon. Since Apr. 1, when they began selling ice candy, Christina and Baltazar have earned pocket money. Christina plans to buy a new pair of shoes for June with her funds, P50 as of Apr. 20.

When Rose, 13, earned P500 for the first time, she watched her mother, 40, pocket the money. The same thing happened when Rose earned P200. (Real names are not used.)

When Rose refused to be used by the third stranger, her mother “mauled her, slit her arms with broken scissors, and struck her with a block of wood,” reported Kevin A. Lagunda in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 23, 2013 issue.

In her sworn statement to Tabogon police in April, the fourth grader said in Cebuano that she saw her mother block the door and watch her rape. When Rose asked her mother why she was sold, she was told, “This is for our living.”

Now, this is life and death in summer.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 28, 2013 issue of the main op-ed column

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Elegy to letters

HOW does letter-writing fare in the age of emails and social media?

Since I grew up writing to pen pals as a member of writing clubs and collected and traded stationery with high school chums, I thought writing a letter and sending it through the post office would be a nice diversion in my daily routine of opening and clearing the inbox.

Diversions rarely turn out to be predictable.

First, I had to remember that the letters I would be posting would take, at the latest, approximately three weeks or 15 working days before reaching their destinations outside the country.

How would that lag affect the writing? Despite the pitfalls of instant messaging, I’ve learned to compose for the here and now. It’s hard to recall how it used to be before I discovered emailing in the late 1990s. Even though my first email address in Lycos was prone to spam and much of my time was spent weeding out the junk, the convenience of email converted me for life.

Even in the early days when we were hapless against the geniuses of malware, I still viewed emailing as superior to texting, faxing or sending via courier. The Philippine Postal Corporation (Philpost) was no longer in my list of options.

I don’t know when I missed and tried to recover what letters meant to me when I was starting to write and receive letters. Was it the anticipation of sending a letter, counting the days before it would be read and then answered, and reenacting the rite that began as soon as the expected envelope was spotted on the desk, to be turned over and over as if feeling for the weight of words, following the curls and peaks of the writer’s handwriting, tracking the letter’s passage from the stamps and postmarks, up to slitting open the envelope, unfolding the paper and reading lines that will be reread and saved between the pages of a book for future rereading?

I don’t recall ever doing this with email.

In bookstores, the section displaying greeting cards is slowly taken over by scrapbook materials and gift wrapping materials. When I discovered letter-writing, the ritual began with searching for the perfect stationery, the perfect pen that would not just skip or blot but just flow, as if ink were the material manifestation of the impetus spurring the letter writer.

On the day I mailed three letters at the post office, I stayed up late the night before to finish a task and woke at dawn to jot off my letters. “Jot,” not “write” or “compose,” because I had a devil of a time mastering the hand holding the pen. Computer dependence may someday make penmanship a quirky aspect of personality like the appendix.

When I arrived at the post office by mid-morning, I found it deserted of other clients as if the whole world had gone home, preparing for Final Judgment. I remember times when a post office was where people loitered to hear and pass on gossip, ask about messages left by someone for someone, and mail letters and packages, of course. Always there was a line of people.

Solitary, I finished my business in about five minutes. I paid P82 for the stamps, stuck each thumbnail-sized stamp on the envelopes, and dropped the letters through a slot. The stamps were colorful and pretty but too small for me to read. My nieces have sharper eyes than mine but I wonder if they will find stamps as appealing as the buttons of online images that flicker and change by the second.

My last sight of the envelopes was the untidy scrawl of my handwriting. I am comforted by the certainty that I am writing to persons who know me well enough to complain if they cannot read what I have written and will not be shy about asking me to clarify—by email, of course.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 21, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Covering the basics

WHY aren’t there workshops for writing?, asks J., a reader.

In a series of emails, J. said he had difficulty looking for a summer workshop that would refresh his teachers’ skills in English: grammar, vocabulary, composition.

He wrote that he wanted them “honed in… very rudimentary stuff.”

Although I often get inquiries regarding writing, J.’s concerns gave me pause. Most emails presume the sender knows a bit about writing and wants technical advice, encouragement, or tips for publication, readership and income opportunities.

Only J.’s inquiry wanted to tackle the basic stuff.

As a writer, I admit I rarely spare a thought about learning the “basics”. We often take it for granted a writer is doing what he or she is doing because he or she is equipped with what J. calls the “very rudimentary stuff.”

But J.’s question reminded me of an editor’s view that many writers, even those who are published, should remember to go back to the “basics”.

Why don’t we? Despite deadlines, multiple tasks, bills to pay and the itch to slacken off, the basics require attention, as well as the humility to aspire to be 100-percent error-free.

As a college teacher, I shirk from teaching the basics of writing because, well, only on good days will I declare this task as “challenging”.

It is darned hard.

Spelling, subject-verb agreement, proper tense—just enumerating these brings me back to the classrooms where I spent hours being grilled on English grammar. I learned a lot from my preparatory, elementary and high school teachers.

If I only studied grammar and composition from textbooks, I would be probably semi-literate now. It is a struggle to read and study grammar from a book. If I learned, it is because my teachers required us to write, corrected what we wrote, and made us rewrite to come up with a better composition.

And I enjoy reading, which teaches me more about the basics of writing minus the grilling.

I follow the same routine in my professional life. An editor or editors reviews and corrects my write-ups, returns my drafts to me, and reviews my revisions until an article is acceptable for publication. Over time, the routine disciplined me into being my first editor: I write, correct, and revise my own work before I submit this to an editor.

The task of covering the basics must start with the writer for many reasons. Not every editor has the patience, dedication and lack of deadlines that permit teachers to read, correct, reread and correct drafts ad infinitum. Not every editor will read beyond the first mangled line in an article. Not every editor is a frustrated teacher, aspires to encourage raw talent, and wants to guide a newbie writer along the tortuous path to the indescribable glory of the first byline.

J.’s concerns, though, are not focused on honing writers but teachers. “They very well can't teach effectively nor edit student papers if they are basically at the same level as the children they teach,” emailed J.

One of the first to address the concern to train the trainors is the information technology (IT) industry. According to Katlene O. Cacho’s June 26, 2011 report in Sun.Star Cebu, Wipro BPO Philippines Ltd. partnered with the Department of Education to launch the Communication Excellence for Public Education to help public school students improve their English oral and written skills by giving their teachers trainings and refresher courses.

The strategy dovetails with what J. observed as a pattern in the learning curve of his teachers: “They cannot seem to learn and educate themselves but they are very happy if someone teaches them, as if it adds credibility to the topics. I've done this for science and math and they've improved. Self-learning is sadly not in the options.”

Encouraging student excellence through teachers’ trainings is established as a successful strategy in the IT industry. It would boost the general quality of education if the scheme of training trainors was rolled out, replicated, or stimulated other private-public partnerships.

J.’s closing comment, though, still gives me pause. Why can’t self-learning be an option?

Addressing the basics leads to more questions than answers.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 14, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Golden age

WHEN I was choosing which elective to take, I let age decide.

It was a tie between a course in poetics and one in creative nonfiction. The former was handled by a poet in his 70s; the latter by a much younger colleague, a woman known for her essays.

I wanted to study creative nonfiction, also known as literary journalism.

Poetics made me skittish, perhaps because of its association with poetry.

Yet, I decided that age made it peremptory for me to be in the class of poetics: I would take the chance of someday sitting in her class, but I could not be as sure he would still be around next semester.

Ageing and its associations came back to me when I read Sun.Star Cebu’s reports on the recently concluded conference on “Ageing in Asia Pacific: Balancing the State and the Family”.

The 20th Biennial General Conference of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils tackled, among other things, the vulnerability of the elderly.

There was a toss-up between the family and the state on who had primary responsibility for protecting and caring for the elderly, Rebelander S. Basilan reported in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 6, 2013 issue.

While families and the state pass the buck to each other, studies show that, contrary to traditional expectations that children take care of their parents, many of the elderly support their children and grandchildren. Many have pensions; others still earn a livelihood.

I wonder where we get this predisposition marginalizing the elderly as in need of care and protection.

Last semester, my professors’ ages ranged from their 50s to their 70s. In terms of work ethic, I cannot draw a clear distinction because while the “younger” colleagues in journalism and broadcasting were involved in research, freelance journalism and trainings, the “older” professor’s outputs during the five months I studied with him included two published anthologies and participation in two writing workshops, one taking place outside the country.

In some private colleges, teachers approaching their 60s are retired, replaced with younger teachers, or given a “lighter” load. I could understand the predicament of colleges faced with steep rates demanded by senior professors with their long list of accomplishments. I could understand the tractability of junior faculty members still seeking the Holy Grail of tenure. I could understand the preference for youth, vigor and brawn in the business of, say, crunching boulders into pebbles.

What I cannot understand is reducing all human endeavors into a boulder-and-pebble quest. There’s no substitute for age and experience, specially for questioning whether boulders and pebbles should be the be-all and end-all of human quests. Writing, teaching, cooking, building a house, raising children—in what spheres does age became an actual liability?

The older we get, the less we depend on sleep. Or sex and food. That’s three distractions the elderly replace with other passions. I’ve noticed that old people start their day early. They always come on time. They prepare for something days before. They create a system over the years for accomplishing certain tasks, and they never divert from this system. As a consequence, they rarely fail to achieve what they’ve set out to do. Old people have never disappointed me. You can set both time and expectations by them, and they always deliver.

They get sick, of course. And they die.

What alleviates these human conditions of frailty and ephemeralness is humor, of which the ageing and eternally young have much in store.

I remember an anecdote of graveyard humor narrated by my favorite journalist, Joseph Mitchell. The man is long dead and his books are long out of print and if extant, priced beyond mortal reach.

But his journalism is as good as the day he passed the articles. This anecdote is taken from the Author’s Note of “Up in the Old Hotel,” a collection of Mitchell’s articles for The New Yorker.

Mitchell described a family outing that began with eating watermelons and ended with roaming among the tombstones in the church cemetery. Leading them was his Aunt Annie (“She was tall and thin and erect, and she was sure of herself.”)

Aunt Annie “would pause at a grave and tell us about the man or woman down below… ‘This man buried here,’ she would say, ‘was a cousin of ours, and he was so mean I don’t know how his family stood him. And this man here,’ she would continue, moving along a few steps, ‘was so good I don’t know how his family stood him.’” 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 7, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” main op-ed column