Sunday, March 16, 2014

Level up

WHEN my mother tells our relatives that I am studying in Manila, she gets one intriguing comment: is she not yet fed up with school?

Despite the jokes and stereotypes, we are a people that value education.

My generation laughed at Miss Tapia’s efforts to introduce learning in the chaos of Wanbol University in the 1970s sitcom, “Iskul Bukol”.

Yet we wince when we hear celebrities like Erap Estrada and Melanie Marquez torture English and publish their malapropisms. When we are not conversant about a subject, we sheepishly joke that we were “absent” on the day the subject was “discussed in class”.

I’ve been teaching for nearly three decades because I think education is the great leveler.

Learning can abolish the inequalities that differentiate people. For one, studying with other people outside of one’s family or social circle is already an education.

The acquisition of knowledge and skills to improve one’s life does not only take place in classrooms and libraries. One learns just as well from experience and apprenticeship.

Character is not only honed by grades and awards but also by mistakes and detours. One can accumulate information but meaning is created best when knowledge is shared with and fed by other minds.

Nothing creates value like learning. Even just the dream of becoming who you want to be has the power to transform.

I remember accompanying Sun.Star Cebu chief photographer Alex Badayos to an inner city named Mahayahay some years ago. The sitio is dwarfed by high-rises, warehouses and shopping complexes.

Mocking the optimism of its name, the sitio is a tour into an urban planner’s dream mired in a nightmare. One side of Mahayahay is a parody of Venice, if Serenissima, the City of Canals, floated over a stagnant pool of seawater, rain, trash and human waste.

Far from romantic, the place still crawled with children. A few days before we came, a toddler fell into the Mahayahay lagoon and drowned while its mother washed clothes nearby.

Alex and I visited the community twice. From morning till early afternoon, we did not see the men. I thought they were at work. Sleeping, I was corrected. The place was busy at night. Rooms were rented for pot sessions or short time. Alex dared me to return at night. I said I liked the place better when the men were sleeping; women, children and dogs, the only ones out.

In another part of Mahayahay, where pathways took the place of bridges, babies and toddlers were as thick as flies in an open dump. We asked a young woman, weighed down by two infants hanging from her narrow flanks, the ages of her children. She didn’t stop with the two she was cradling; she included five or six others, not naming them or saying their ages but rattling off the years she gave birth. She forgot the year of one and counted again.

At a deadend, we came to a small room, which led into another tiny room. A family occupied each of the rooms, separated only by a dirty yolk-yellow curtain. A young woman was washing clothes in the room where her family lived, ate, slept.

A man, cocky and red-eyed, recognized Alex as “The Photographer” of Superbalita. The family breadwinner worked as a dispatcher in a nearby jeepney terminal. He monopolized the talk, gesticulating at Alex and sometimes glancing at the girl’s thighs revealed by the wet housedress. Why did the men of Mahayahay remind me of night creatures, sleeping or prowling, red-eyed, in daylight?

Alex’s fan was interrupted when his wife and a girl in uniform entered the room. They came from a foundation that sponsored the girl’s studies. The mother was very proud of her scholars. She pointed to the other daughter, who stood up from washing clothes. She wants to go to college, declared the mother. The man of the house had stepped out of the room, silently.

What course is your interest, I asked. The young woman wrung soap suds from her hands and smiled before answering: “Mass Com.”

It’s been years since I’ve returned to Mahayahay. I doubt it if I can find my way inside. But I remember the children in uniforms, crossing the bridges patched up from salvaged softdrink cases, the lagoon beneath them, on their way to school.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 16, 2014 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A dream of Tootsie

WHAT’S missing in the music video that Google Doodle made to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) 2014 last Mar. 8?

The musical collage of women’s pictures and greetings from all over the world made me miss immediately one thing: the men.

On a day when purple ribbons are worn or displayed to symbolize the struggles women hurdled and still face, I am always reminded of our partners who share the burden or add to it.

This year, the United Nations chose the theme, “Equality for women is progress for all”.

In an ideal world, I dream that the men are not out of the picture. They are very much in it but also a little bit more like and yet unlike my sisters and I. Kind of like another sister, only more hairy and with balls.

In the 1982 film by Sydney Pollack, Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who crossdresses to get a woman’s role in a soap opera. He learns that waxing one’s legs to achieve perfect smoothness isn’t the only test our sex faces.

Wanted: parents (of all genders).

When Mandaluyong City enacted last February an ordinance creating the Code of Parental Responsibility (CPR), which penalizes parents for their misbehaving children, a local TV network interviewed local mothers for their reactions.

What about the fathers?

It’s hard to conclude if the reporter was gender-blind or lazy. We’re no longer an agricultural economy where the men are away to put food on the table and the women are left to take care of the laundry, farm animals and children.

When left to their own devices, men are creative at parenting. Two couples entered an eatery where the husband and I were having dinner. While waiting for a free table and for their female partners to finalize their orders, the men played with the toddlers, a girl and a boy. By play, I mean they also conversed with the children.

Finally, when they were seated, one of the men hushed the adults who were about to tackle their chopsticks because the boy piped in that he wanted to say grace. A man who expresses himself and listens just as well: beyond perfect, by my standard.

In public places, the one device parents should leave home is a baby stroller. Once, mass was interrupted by a family that came late. Walking to the last chairs left near the pulpit was, first, the mother carrying a sleeping tot, followed by the father, and, trailing behind like an actor who forgot his cue, was the slight figure of a helper hauling a contraption that opened into a pram.

Mother arranges their Baby in the pram. Helper gets a fan from a baby bag from the depths of the pram’s multiple pockets. Mother flicks away an insect from sleeping babe. These are the scenes that stole the thunder from the Lord’s sacrifice being replayed at the altar.

But the final scene had yet to be played. The man looks critically at the pram, pushes and pulls this until it doesn’t block the aisle, and directs the helper to sit. Ah! Enter the Driver and Director of the family.

With 15 minutes left to the mass, I wonder why he didn’t let his sleeping scion rest and snuggle on those broad manly shoulders. It seems a shame to waste all that strength only on parallel parking with a mini-person carrier.

Yet, the best gift a man can give a woman not just on IWD is a daily exemption from having to do Malicious Math. In a riveting interview this week with “Mareng Winnie” Monsod in the GMA News TV program, “Bawal ang Pasaway,” Cristina Ponce Enrile talked candidly about her Johnny, whom she shared with 38 others during 56 years of marriage, or approximately starting on the sixth month after she gave birth to their first child.

In “Tootsie,” Hoffman was out of work and desperate enough to pretend to be a woman. In actual life, where is the man who will swap places with women?

“Cuckold” is the husband of an adulteress. Can anyone tell me if language has an equivalent word for the wife of an adulterer? Like parenting, cheating can cut many ways.

A dictionary rule: what’s not named doesn’t exist. Cheater, cheated, betrayer, betrayed. Thy name is Woman? I’d like to retreat back to my dream now, if I may.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 9, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Mango season

WHO doesn’t have it on their table these days?

It’s summer, mango season. From the fruit seller at the corner, we buy bags of Indian mangoes.

They’re small, green, still sticky with sap. I take them out of the plastic bags and arrange them on old newspaper. Every morning, I check on my green “eggs,” prodding one, lifting the other, to see which ones have ripened overnight.

Fruits are a comfort to non-cooks. They don’t require instructions. With a nose or eye and hunger, you’re good to go.

Indian mangoes are among the best. When they’ve softened, their green skin slips off like an old jacket. I need to peel a number, though, since the sweet, slightly crunchy things are slippery and slide down my gullet before I can pop these in the fridge.

It’s a good thing the knife I use is dull. Sticky with mango sap and juice, my hands are more clumsy than usual while peeling. By the time this season of Indian mango ends, I’m confident I’ll still have all my fingers.

The other day, I noticed how the mango peel had a skein of yellow fruit underneath. When I ran a green curl over my teeth, I tasted fruit.

I was imitating the “hamog” boys I saw while stuck in traffic at North Avenue. Three of them were weaving in and out of the stalled vehicles, mango peel drooping like flowers from their hand.

Carabao mangoes were in season then, and fruit vendors peeled them in such a way that the long elongated fruit reposed regally on a bed of green skin, like a flower emerging from a corona of petals.

This artistry is not displayed for the children of the dew (“hamog”), who sleep on the streets and wake to the dubious moisture left under the leaden, polluted sky.

For these children who are no longer children, perhaps never were, a mango is not an object of desire. Without P80 in your pocket to hand over to the fruit seller, a mango is just an object to be slipped on the sly.

The three boys sat on the steps of a stalled jeepney, oblivious to the driver’s curses and the passengers’ wariness. They gnawed on the undersides of the mango peel. They threw them on the street. The driver of the car tailing the jeepney blew his horn.

One of the boys pointed a finger at the driver. His companions took their time to scrape the fruit from the last batch of mango peel.

And then, because all vehicles were still stalled, the “batang hamog” draped the green-petaled fruit skin, like leis, on the car hood.

The boys scampered away, laughing. The driver honked in frustration.

We watched, still expecting them to return and do something much worse than what they did—shout profanity, vandalize, snatch a bag, commit anything except the mischief of the young, peaking on a sugar high from slivers of the mango in season.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 2, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”