Sunday, March 22, 2015

What matters

ONE of the most resolute persons I know was just in her teens when the world she knew bottomed out.

She caught her stepfather sniffing the underwear she had discarded. This was no stranger; he was the only father she grew up knowing. Her biological father did not hang around after impregnating her mother.

Her mother took her stepfather’s side. She accused her daughter of seducing the foreigner. She threw her out of their home and stopped her allowance.

She found graveyard work. But it was mid-semester; school policies forbade work if it conflicted with classes. She chose.

In a class of about 20 students, she was easy to miss except that I am compulsive about tracking my student’s rewriting. When she missed passing a second draft, I asked her if there was any difficulty I could help her with. Usually, students complain they cannot read my handwritten notes. She gave me more than an insight in writing.

I remembered this soft-spoken young woman after reading Kevin A. Lagunda’s Mar. 17 Sun.Star Cebu report about two fifteen-year-old cousins who committed suicide in Daanbantayan, Cebu. Ana (real names not used) was reportedly scolded by her parents whenever she asked money for school projects.

Her cousin Mateo also hanged himself after attending Ana’s wake. He had been given a tongue-lashing by one of his teachers, who also did not sign his clearance and barred him from taking the final test.

Suicide hits hard every time but more so when it’s done by a young person. Could it have been prevented? Was it a cry for help that went wrong at the last minute? Where did we fail?

The last question haunts because suicide always seems like a tragedy that could have been averted. The deaths of Ana and Mateo confront their families and schools with questions that we should also face if we want to prevent other Anas and Mateos from cutting short their promise.

Sun.Star Cebu reported that Ana’s classmates found her body after reading a “cryptic message” she left on Facebook. Mateo texted his suicide note to a friend. These details leave an unbearable weight; just before that final act, Ana and Mateo reached out.

What if someone had listened earlier? A former student who became a fellow teacher, Ian was swamped by lecture work and legal practice. Yet, in his non-writing class, he asked each student to use the back of their notebooks as a personal journal. He told me he felt a need to know his students beyond the window afforded by the three hours a week he was paid for by the university.

Much of the shock I felt from listening to my former student talk about being betrayed first by the stepfather and then by her biological mother was soon swamped by inarticulate admiration for this quiet young woman. She took every obstacle hurled at home, in school, and at work. And moved on.

“Most teens who attempt or commit suicide have a mental health condition or substance abuse problem,” observes the nonprofit medical group Mayo Clinic. Depression, combined with social isolation and other factors, increases the risk of teen suicide.

Listening doesn’t seem like a lot except that, just before the end, Ana and Mateo sought this.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 22, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A reading life

I THOUGHT I was a reader until Helene and Jane shamed me.

Jane is no other than the deathless Austen. My father once banned me from reading romances, anxious that all that hormonal pining would rot my moral fiber.

Jane Austen is famous because all she wrote in her 41 years was romances: woman meets man and finds paradise.

Today, Austen is not just plunging dissertation writers into bottomless self-doubt, she is guiding neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars in prising open the mind.

By studying the brain patterns of doctoral candidates reading Jane Austen, an interdisciplinary team of the Stanford Humanities Center established that “cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it”.

According to a Sept. 7, 2012 Stanford Report, skimming or pleasure reading increases the blood flow in the brain but not as much as the close reading one does when one is studying text or reading for an exam.

Do the findings hold true for readers who dislike literature? One of the most formidable readers was Helene Hanff, a New Yorker who became famous in the 1970s when she published her 20-year correspondence with an antiquarian bookstore in London.

In the October 5, 1949 letter that opens “84 Charing Cross Road,” Hanff orders out-of-print books from Marks & Co. on 84, Charing Cross Road. One would be on first-name basis with her authors if one happened to be reared in a library as venerable as one of the 100 found in the University of Cambridge.

Hanff never went to college, but she lived in libraries. When she was 17, the New Yorker fell over a copy of essays written by Cambridge professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. “Q” infected her with her “peculiar taste in books,” a lifelong passion that excluded Literature.

“I don’t like stories,” she declared in a 1963 letter, dismissing the “Canterbury Tales”. The “great lover of i-was-there books” wrote that had olde Geoffrey kept a diary to record life as a clerk in the court of Richard III, she would have gladly learned Olde English.

It’s not an empty boast. In her 1974 sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” Hanff recalled that it took 11 years to read the five books of lectures Q made to his Cambridge students about the art of writing.

The 17-year-old brought home the first volume of his lectures, and found on page 3 a reference to “Paradise Lost”. So she told Q, “Wait here,” returned to the public library and went home with Milton. But then Milton, on page 3, refers to Isaiah and the New Testament. Hanff, reared in Judaism, again said, “Wait here,” and trekked back to the public library.

Eleven years later and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, Hanff finished Q’s lectures about how to write. So did all that reading teach her how to?

When Hanff passed away in 1997, an Independent obituary described “84” as the kind of book “people passed on or gave to each other”. Fans included the Stanbrook Abbey where a borrowed copy was placed in a glass case and taken out for a nun to read one page a day to the enclosed order of Benedictine nuns.

Hanff, who later in life discovered Austen (“went out of my mind over ‘Pride and Prejudice’”), wrote in “The Duchess” that she always considered herself “ignorant”: “while other people are reading fifty books I’m reading one book fifty times”).

Thanks to Jane and Helene, it’s time to read again.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 15, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Revenge of the shrews

MARCH 8 was not always Women’s Day.

To honor the women of New York who went on strike to protest the working conditions in garment factories, the Socialist Party of America observed the first National Women’s Day on Feb. 29. 1909.

Today’s significance—of women’s long, continuing struggle to uphold their dignity—is eclipsed now by the soap-like staples surrounding a local scandal: yet another eternal triangle involving a government official, his wife, and a former colleague accused of being his paramour. The same official also faces a charge of sexual harassment filed by a former student.

Beleaguered by angry women, who have showed no hesitation to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him—scandal, public opinion, social media, the Law—Ronda Vice Mayor Jonah John Ungab may question the irony of Mar. 8.

Are the times too harsh on men? How can anyone shrug off the wide acceptance of the “battered woman syndrome” when men, too, are victims of domestic violence?

For aggrieved machos, public shaming is enough punishment for a fellow who cannot keep his harem happy and harmonious. After all, a baseball bat-swinging spouse and a combative mistress who will not slink off into martyrdom are male nightmares personified. If they can only get past their bruised egos, many battered men will show the scars or empty pockets left by abusive partners, wives or girlfriends.

That kind of reasoning, says sociologist Mildred Daley Pagelow, is the classic O. J. Simpson defense. Simpson wrote in his “farewell letter”: “At times I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her.” A national sports hero in the United States, Simpson killed his wife Nicole after years of abuse.

Pagelow blames the media for sensationalizing the husband-battering issue when it was first raised in 1977. Thus, the public accepts the myth that “domestic violence is the responsibility of both men and women”. Such thinking is like blaming the victim and the perpetrator for rape, she said.

Pagelow cited U.S. criminal justice statistics: ninety percent of violent crimes are committed by men; 95 percent of victims of domestic violence are women; men are the “primary physical abusers” of children; women are the “primary physical neglectors” of children; and the women who kill are “more likely than men to be responding to, rather than initiating, violence”.

Those who feel that the “battered woman syndrome” is sensitive only to Juanas and gender-blind to Juans should scrutinize this form of post-traumatic stress disorder: the woman blames herself for the violence; believes the abuser is “omnipresent” and “omniscient;” and fears for her life and the lives of her children.

Last Mar. 1, the first day of National Women’s Month, Gregorio Caminade nearly decapitated his ex-wife Rhea Mae after she refused to take him back. The crime was witnessed by their sons, aged five and six. Rhea Mae resisted a reconciliation because she did not want to be battered again by Gregorio, reported Sun.Star Cebu’s Kevin A. Lagunda.

The Ungabs of this world have to go through the pain of atonement or whatever approximates accepting responsibility for one’s actions among men who love women a bit too well. The Rhea Maes are beyond pain; their children are not.

That is why we need Mar. 8: “Juana, Ikaw Na”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 8, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Adultery Unlimited

ASK many Pinoys to think Korea. Three things may come to mind: kimchi, Koreanovelas, and K-pop.

Add decriminalizing adultery as a possible fourth.

Last Feb. 26, South Korea’s Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional a law that jailed spouses committing extramarital sex.

According to the social news network Rappler, a 1953 law made adultery punishable by a maximum jail term of two years. The Constitutional Court recently rejected the 60-year-old adultery law as “it infringes people’s right to make their own decisions on sex and secrecy and freedom of their private life,” reported

Any fan of Koreanovelas, or any soap for that matter, knows how infidelity drives many plots. Whether the new ruling will dilute the allure of the forbidden from bed-hopping as a conflict device and cause serious blocks for scriptwriting in Korea will have to be for speculation.

Reality is quicker than make-believe. Right after the Constitutional Court announced its landmark decision, stocks in Unidus Corp., a SoKor condom company regarded as one of the world’s biggest suppliers, “soared to the 15% daily limit gain,” reported the Rappler. Last year, 892 persons were indicted for adultery in SoKor.

We might feel smug and superior to our SoKor neighbors. Our Roman Catholic-molded morality condemns extramarital flings. Yet, the querida system is well-entrenched.

And the game of musical beds fuels more than local telenovelas. In a graduate class discussion for possible projects in enterprise reporting, a professor wondered aloud how the underground economy of setting up mistresses in love nests keeps the condominium bubble from bursting in Metro Manila.

Lest we think the law favors women better than our split morality, specialists point out that, under Article 333 of the Revised Penal Code, only a woman and her lover can commit adultery in the technical sense. A husband must bring a mistress to the conjugal home; have sexual intercourse “under scandalous circumstances” with a mistress; or cohabit with his mistress before he can be accused of concubinage, according to Article 334 of the Revised Penal Code.

Not only does adultery carry a longer jail term than concubinage, the latter is more difficult to prove. Concubinage charges will not stick if the evidence only proves a husband’s infidelity. There are proposals to end this legal discrimination against women by abolishing adultery and concubinage and creating only the crime of marital infidelity, applicable to both wife and husband.

For now, only Republic Act 9262, or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004,” provides a shield for victimized women. The law protects a woman from “psychological violence,” which are “acts or omissions” that cause her “mental and emotional suffering,” such as harassment, stalking, damage to property, public humiliation, repeated verbal abuse, marital infidelity, sexual abuse, and deprivation of visitation rights of common children.

Victims of violence should seek help from various Women’s Desks set up at the Department of Social Welfare and Development, National Bureau of Investigation, Philippine National Police, and Department of Justice Public Attorney’s Office.

In time, no one will turn a blind eye to adultery, on reel and for real.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 1, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”