Tuesday, April 29, 2014

“Relic fever”

AN ACCIDENTAL traveler these past months, I’ve learned to quickly pass airport checks by putting my phone inside the bag and leaving home the scissors in my pencil pouch.

But there’s something in my jeans pocket that sometimes merits a probe by airport police.

In the most recent incident, the female security staff asked me about the bulge in my pocket. I showed her a small leather pouch, which she asked me to open.

I shook out the contents on my palm: a jade bi, a wooden cross on a string, a wooden rosary, a woven bracelet and a red handsewn pouch. The officer picked up the pouch.

When she pressed it, I knew she would hear inside the cloth the crackle of paper wrapped around powdery substance: incense blessed by a saint in a temple I visited with a friend.

But from the viewpoint of someone trained to spot guilt and crime, the substance could also be something else. This thought flashed quickly in my mind when the officer asked me to identify the red pouch.

I answered without dissembling: “anting-anting.” The officer instantly gave back the pouch and waved me through.

When I told my older son, he commented that it was a good thing the incident took place in the country, not overseas where an amulet would require more than a literal translation.

That exchange at the airport is intriguing on other levels. The officer and I are trained to be professionally speculative: she in the line of detection, I in academic and journalistic inquiry.

Yet, in the presence of “anting-anting,” we both reacted against type. A culture we shared was more powerful than education or discipline. A talisman against danger or misfortune, an “anting-anting” is an item so personal, some are even buried in people’s bodies to prevent loss, theft or contamination.

But what can be one person’s lucky charm may only be a fetish or idol to unbelievers. So perhaps it is not only accidental that many “anting-anting” are small enough to be hidden from sight or covered by clothing. Rebuking religion and science, amulets exist like the subconscious running beneath the surface of our avowed beliefs, the biases we repeat like a mantra, we no longer question them.

Yet, these seemingly contradictory streams are more parallel than divergent. Occasionally, these streams even coalesce. The twin canonization today has brought relics into focus. “Relic fever,” particularly for anything associated with John Paul II, started long before news broke out about his canonization. The Associated Press reported that the Vatican fueled the boom as soon as he was beatified in 2011 although the tradition is to venerate an item as a relic when it came into physical contact with or was physically part of a saint.

John Paul II, reportedly the “world’s first globe-trotting pope,” left many mementoes associated with him in his travels. Watching in 2013 a TV report about the plate, utensils and table napkin that is displayed, unwashed, in a Manila restaurant where John Paul II dined on fish and shrimp during his 1995 visit, the uncle mumbled to me, “Kalokohan,” a judgment he must have passed not so much on questionable hygiene as much as on the inexplicable encroachments of faith on reason.

Umberto Eco wrote in his novel, “The Name of the Rose,” about a saint whose foreskin pieces were venerated in so many monasteries in Europe, a monk speculated that if all these relics were put together, the saintly organ would be as high and prodigious as the Tower of Babel.

Throughout the ages, skepticism hardly threatens belief perhaps because it is human and universal to seek a prop for invincibility, some shelter, no matter how flimsy or insubstantial, from the unknown. When the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño belfry toppled during the October 2013 earthquake, many of the faithful asked those guarding the area to give them pieces of the rubble in exchange for snacks or meals.

Recently, a friend showed me a piece of grey rock, part of the belfry and the 1735 construction in hard stone. He said it was given to him by a friend vending outside the Basilica. He keeps the rock inside a leather pouch that was the scrotum of a kangaroo, one of those legally harvested in Australia to prevent overpopulation.

Before my friend explained, I was curious about the leather pouch but not the rock. When I knew, I gave back his “anting-anting”. No more explanations needed. Some things, like faith, are personal.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 27, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Passion

PAYING a Holy Week visit to churches puts me in mind of visiting a house full of ghosts.

I dropped by St. Joseph Patriarch Parish in Mabolo on Holy Tuesday. A choir was practicing and carpenters were carrying on. A few people were in the pews.

What gave the church an air of abandonment were the bolts of purple cloth draped to cover statues and crosses. Used to addressing my prayers to a human-like visage, it is disconcerting to see the familiar icons sheathed from view.

Every person lives with ghosts. Some are even comfortable enough to talk to them as when they were still alive. However, when the ghosts go away without explanation, what can the living do?

The week before, I visited the Redemptorist Church. Instead of vivid flowers, huge brown leaves like gnarled hands grasped the altar. The artifice made me think of death and the decay that determinedly trails after life.

As always, the news bulletins and media fare clash with the church. Reports about heavy traffic on land, sea and air went in tandem with travel advisories on places to visit for Holy Week.

Transport authorities are on “heightened alert” for the “mass exodus of Filipinos to the provinces for Holy Week,” reported Rappler last Apr. 14.

“Holy Week is not really a vacation week,” pleads Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 15 report by Justin K. Vestil. “Let us not go swimming while the whole Christian world is in reflection.”

When I was a girl, my elders warned that a wound incurred on Good Friday would take time to heal. This doused any plan for mischief, specially when my yaya added that a headless priest would rise from such a wound.

Today, neither superstition nor religion dampens the fervor driving people to go on “mass exodus” during Holy Week. Many take advantage of the long holiday and the summer to go home or bond with family and friends.

Rather than chastise people, shouldn’t church leaders take a more benign view of these contemporary excursions? Compared to the past, more families are disrupted by separations.

In the West, it is not only cathedrals that are empty, were it not for tourists. Isolation and anomie are too intimate with too many individuals, adrift from family or community.

Friends who enjoy the greener pastures overseas return to the country for one thing: to keep the old ties alive.

Despite the ills that plague the local transport industry or even the entire economy, the Filipino will always be known for this “mass exodus” to return to hearth.

Every Filipino has a fond memory of family outings to the nearest beach, sharing food cooked at home, and unwinding by rewinding anecdote after anecdote until the sun sets or the tides recede. Thus, a beach outing is a staple in every itinerary for Filipinos coming home.

In these times, when families living in the same city can pass a week or more without seeing each other due to work, school, traffic and other stresses of modern blight, isn’t a four-day holiday like Semana Santa a heaven-sent opportunity to be again within touching distance of each other?

Yet, I also understand the church’s concern for the faithful to slow down and look inwards. From racing like rats to swimming like lemmings is not much of a difference.

Confronted by a hole in our life, we cannot make the smaller hole go away by digging a bigger hole around it. Or to paraphrase a character from a novel in the Rebus series by Ian Rankin, the one who wins the rat race only proves who is the top rat.

For those who can stand the company of ghosts, I recommend stepping inside a church during Semana Santa. Never fond of crowds, I find that churches during this time make their best impressions on me.

Icons in shrouds are never the most scintillating companions. But the little they do say I hear very well: all journeys end in shrouds.

The chance to walk away from this silent company, return to light and merge again with the living reminds me again why Christians refer to the entire Semana Santa narrative, from crucifixion to resurrection, as The Passion.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 20, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

If condoms grew on trees

SCHOOLS are temples devoted to learning. These are fertile grounds, too, for myths and superstitions.

A friend who knew I was studying at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines asked me if I saw “The Condom Tree”.

In my two years here, I have still to cover the campus’s entire 493 hectares or 1,220 acres. Yet, even with a heavy school tote, a visitor will enjoy walking under the ancient trees, with about 500 acacia and fire trees rimming the Academic Oval.

I have not spotted The Condom Tree. As described by my friend, who heard it from a friend, students making out in the open jettison their used condoms at the base of this tree.

It is a curious tale as it conjures a crazy collage of hedonism and regimentation: after a romp in the wild, young people troop to deposit their rubbers at some tree that may either be languishing from the plastic dumped on it or thriving from the rivers of fluids watering its roots.

A friend, female this time, asked me if it was true that after nightfall, the open spaces in the campus became motels. After evening class, I have stumbled over tree roots and uneven sidewalks but have yet to come upon enthusiastic couples tussling in the dark.

When the toilets in my college were renovated, a discussion that made the rounds among students was whether it would be practical to install a vending machine for tissues, sanitary napkins and condoms.

The women argued that condoms should be available in the women’s toilets as well because we bear the brunt of unprotected sex. Boys may always spare coins for beer and cigarettes, not necessarily for condoms.

When the toilet rehab was done, we had bidets but no dispenser. Since condoms have yet to grow on trees, will prophylactics be available in campuses only if these were placed inside a glass box, with the sign: Break glass in an emergency?

Many campus myths are stuff for levity. Some misconceptions that endure are not.

X, a fresh graduate confided her worries about Y, a fellow coed who did “It” with her boyfriend, Z. Both women were worried because X and Y have their regular menstrual periods at the same time and Y was already delayed by more than a week.

Y and Z did “It” twice, without taking any precautions to prevent pregnancy. Z opted not to use condoms because the sensation was keener for him. I wondered how much fun it is for Y every time she gives in to Z and then waits for a monthly period that may just be delayed or not.

The dilemma faced by X and Y (Z, being the unknown factor, only known for his predictable devotion to the ultimate sensation) is classic. I’ve heard this when I was a teen. Now that I have teens of my own, many girls still await the dreaded confirmation of an unplanned pregnancy as if this were manifest destiny, not something forestalled through abstinence or preparation.

The Supreme Court (SC) recently ruled the RH Law is constitutional. The corpus of the RH Law is to control the population, declared SC justices.

But more important than preventing pregnancy is empowering Filipinos with information. An informed person makes better decisions. And yes, does not leave one in thrall of myths, superstitions and ignorance.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 13, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Friday, April 11, 2014

Nose knows

IF dogs surpass humans in perspicacity, credit goes to the fulcrum of this canine wisdom: the Nose.

A case in point is our family “aspin (“asong Pinoy”), Udo. I’ve observed many times His Noseness stick his muzzle into the air before doing anything.

With each twitch of the nose, Udo picks out crisscrossing strains, delicately separating each so he can decode each stream and decide on his appropriate response.

Stationed behind a door that has an aluminum partition that blocks his vision, he can still tell which cat is trying to sneak into the garden: if our reclusive tabby, he reserves a grudging growl; if interlopers, he launches into a full-scale maniacal frothing frantic scrabble to get at the upstarts.

Coming home this summer, I wondered why he was sniffing around and perpetually peeing into a corner of the wall we share with a neighbor. Then I heard barks from the other side.

Unable to muzzle-to-muzzle challenge The Other Dog, he just left enough piss to reinforce the impression who’s master on our side of the wall.

Listening to a pep talk some priest made before an auditorium stuffed to the rafters with hundreds of college graduates and their sweating but relieved families, I wondered why no one has ever dwelled on how a dog uses its nose to allay graduates’ fears before they are sent out to the unknown wilderness beyond academic civilization.

Commencement addresses invariably bracket the lofty and the abrasively self-promoting. Speakers, usually with a lot of titles or a resumé like a baby thesis, love to pepper their talk with proper nouns, such as Service and Honor, as well as pseudo poseurs, like Highest Percentage of Passers in Professional Licensure Exams and Eligibility Tests.

Such talk may allay those who want to get the best value from college tuition payments or gain a 40-year headstart for a Lifetime Achievement Award.

I wonder, though, how these speeches will inject pep into 90 percent of the graduating batch. Those who will print a hundred letters and resumés, receive a call or an SMS a year after the last letter has been sent, and wait for hours while their interviewer goes on a merry-go-round of meetings until he’s finally free to ask the applicant if he or she is willing to put in fieldwork for 12 hours a day, seven and a half days a week, with a motorcycle to be purchased with twelve monthly deductions from the paycheck after regularization.

Perhaps it is too much to ask a commencement speaker to probe the air delicately with flaring nostrils and demonstrate how the friendship between humans and canines is built on mutual respect. But even after decades of sitting through speeches first as a graduate, and then as a teacher, and now as a parent, I still dream of hearing nuggets of hard-earned wisdom dispensed in 10 minutes to prepare (let’s not even aspire for “inspire”) fresh graduates for what’s out there.

Speaking of “fresh,” I wonder why academic tradition requires the gravitas of years on the person behind the podium. Won’t young people benefit more after listening to someone of their generation, with all their attendant wiles, anxieties and risks? The game has changed so much, I hesitate to even give a pep talk to my own sons.

My first job was with a non-government organization (NGO). Thirty years ago, it seemed daring, altruistic and “alternative” to work for little pay and an overload of good intentions. Today, some NGOs are playing grounds for grand-scale plunder, malversation and corruption.

College taught me how to work with words but not how to negotiate with farmers. While pretesting a comics on land tenure in the uplands of Bohol, I got drunk for the first time because hesitant to insult my hosts when they offered “just a glass” of coconut wine, I ended up drinking in every household I visited.

Denying I was drunk and unable to find roadside guavas to stop the whirling inside my head, I crossed a stream and nearly drowned.

Or so I claimed. My co-worker said I seemed to be sniffing the stream before I plunged, nose first, into the trickle of water that drowned questionnaires, sample comics and the hem of my pants. Graduates, beyond school, expect a lifetime of learning.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 6, 2014 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial-page column

Friday, April 04, 2014

Mad men and mermaids

ROUTINES play a big role in barbershops. When schools open, nearly everyone who walks in sits for a clean cut: ears in the open, hairline clear off the top of the collar.

In summer, the walk-ins invariably ask for the bald-as-a-billiard-ball look. In our “suki barberohan” near the old Mandaue City public market, nearly everyone who walks in often walks out looking alike. You could rob a bank or own it: for P35, you got the same look.

There are exceptions.

After spending months in a city I’ve not grown fond of, I see my sons’ barber to lose unwanted hair as soon as I’m back in the city of my birth.

Why pay more for the same cut in a “beauty salon”? Instead of fashion magazines and showbiz gossip, I get back issues of tabloids, commentary about local politics or boxing (two topics our barber is a specialist on), and a spine-tingling neck-and-back massage capping a trim. Only P35, tipping optional.

The best part about going to a barbershop are the opportunities for watching men. Perhaps less majestic than the whaleshark but even more mysterious is the gender that I spend much of my adult life with (I have three men in my life: two sons and a husband).

Stereotypes hardly do them justice. Just the other day, I was submitting to our barber’s scissors and political predictions when two men in sawed-off sleeveless shirts, denim shorts that have yet to be tamed by soap and water, and serious silver jewelry walked in with a delicate-looking tyke.

The barber on my left whipped out a small box and placed it on top of the seat. In malls are grooming dens specializing on stress-free kiddie haircuts. Instead of the red upholstered seats that look like the ones that shoot killing voltage into convicts are miniature planes, racing cars and submarines with enough gadgets to lure a tot into having his or her first haircut.

In these cheerful cubicles, the barbers or hairdressers must have advanced degrees in psychology or, at the very least, crowd control. Ensuring that the tot doesn’t burst a fuse when a snippet of hair is trimmed is an entourage of relatives, usually female, cooing, cajoling and bribing the minor to at least walk away from a session without a haircut that would not look bizarre on an alien.

Not a word was wasted as the two aging he-men nodded to the barber, barber nodded back, and the tyke was hoisted on the kiddie seat. One of the burly escorts, who had a thick dogcollar lacking a leash, barked just as the barber was about to apply an electric shaver on the boy’s tresses: “Dili na sad semi-opao. Tapered kuno (not the usual shave, tapered this time).”

Dogcollar turned out to be the grandfather. A much worried one, harassed that his grandson tried to cut his own hair, leaving a near bald spot on one side. The remedy, proposed by his “apo (grandson)”: longer hair at the top and sides, tapering to the nape. Should cover the “mistake” and leave enough bangs to “style”.

All eyes in the barbershop swiveled to Dogcollar, who sheepishly said he was just repeating his grandson’s choice. Then, half-reluctantly, half-proudly, Dogcollar blurted: he wants to open his own salon.

This made the barbers instantly joke and clamor to be hired by the young entrepreneur, who was silent, staring at the reflection of the scissors moving over his head. The other escort paused in his reading of a tabloid to comment: Is that what you want to be: a businessman or a mermaid?

I wondered about the choice of word: why “salon,” not a “barbershop”? In the latter is space for barbers with minds and mouths as sharp as scissors; no space perhaps for that in the former, which can fit hairdressers, cosmetologists and all genders, including queer.

An hour later, the barber laid down the scissors. Dogcollar and fellow macho made the manly version of fussing, still joking about the grandson’s definite dreams and undefined gender.

The tot, whom I had never heard speak the entire time, watched as the barber styled his bangs by combing up and flipping back. When he finally got down and faced Dogcollar and fellow macho, there was no sight of the telltale bald spot.

“Guapa (beautiful)” was all Dogcollar could splutter.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 30, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”