Sunday, November 27, 2016

Many-splendored thing

HOW do we experience miracles in this age?

Given the past weeks—the extrajudicial killings, the Supreme Court betrayal, the Marcos burial sundering the nation, the vomitous lynching of Leila de Lima—perhaps the question should be: can we still expect miracles?

Miracles are among us.

Scholar Reza Aslan writes in “No god but God” that time and place determine how humanity experiences “the miraculous”.

In the age of Moses, magic was required to change staff to snake or part the Red Sea. Judea tested Jesus by expecting Him to cure the sick and raise the dead.

Then language replaced magic and medicine. Aslan notes that oral societies “believe that the world is continuously recreated through their myths and rituals,” transmitted through words “infused with magical power”.

The Greek bard singing of Odysseus, the Indian poet chanting “Ramayana” verses, and the North American shaman recounting the myths of recreation—they were not mere storytellers but “mouthpieces of gods,” with the “divine authority necessary to express fundamental truths,” writes Aslan.

In these uncertain times, the divine resides in Art’s kernel of courage to bear witness. Last Nov. 14, the link between storytelling and truth-telling was reinforced by writers Richellet Chan and CD Borden during the “Udtong Tutok” series organized by the Creative Writing Program (CWP) of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu.

Chan discussed how the child Josephine negotiates her neighborhood’s labyrinth of deceits and betrayals in the coming-of-age short story, “Kiyawkiyaw.”

Borden used a hired killer to testify about the execution of a contract in “Abat,” his spare, stark meditation on how Philippine society is a many-chambered pit of the doomed. Emerging voices, Chan and Borden nevertheless are wizened and all-seeing witnesses and truth-tellers.

During martial law, artists were among the few who broke through censorship by spinning fantasies that held a kernel of truth. Yet, despite our debt to them, artists to this day remain among the neglected and persecuted.

To support gifted but financially challenged Fine Arts (FA) students of UP Cebu, 40 FA alumni and faculty contributed works to the “Pamalandong” exhibit.

Running from Nov. 23 to Dec. 14 at the Jose T. Joya Gallery of UP Cebu, the exhibit is also a collective tribute to the program’s backbone, the early mentors of Cebu’s only formal institution for the arts when it was established in 1975.

Remembering professors Martino Abellana, Julian Jumalon, Lucille Agas, Carmelo Tamayo, and Jose Joya, alumnus J. Karl Roque, wrote that, as the exhibit title suggests, the participating artists looked back on their own struggles as students and pledged to contribute a portion of sales to “pay forward” to young aspiring artists.

“We hope to raise funds to pay off student loans or buy art materials,” said the FA professor and Jose T. Joya Gallery director.

Art is an indwelling. In Cebuano, “pamalandong” can mean a “musing,” “meditation (palandong),” or “shade (landong)”.

Art provides the break needed by body and soul. According to CWP coordinator Lilia Tio, “Udtong Tutok” refers to the high noon gaze, which is “to look unflinchingly” during the middle of the day when we take a break, eat with colleagues, or bury our secrets.

Again and again, Art brings us to the peaks of confrontation and the valleys of contemplation.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 27, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 19, 2016

“A very bad man”

IN the strange saga of Ferdinand Marcos, his many burials should qualify for a citation in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!,” an illustrated series about the bizarre.

While exiled in Honolulu, Marcos died on Sept. 28, 1989.

After President Corazon Aquino banned his remains from returning, he was stored in a refrigerated crypt in Honolulu.

Under President Fidel Ramos, the body was transferred from Hawaii to Ilocos Norte on Sept. 7, 1993. Marcos ended up in another refrigerated crypt, which became the major attraction at the Ferdinand E. Marcos Presidential Center in Ilocos Norte.

President Joseph Estrada resurrected the move to bury Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but cancelled the planned burial on July 11, 1998 in the face of fierce public opposition.

In 2011, President Benigno Aquino III delegated Vice President Jejomar Binay, who recommended the interment of Marcos in his hometown of Batac, with full military honors. PNoy ignored the Binay proposal.

Last Nov. 18, 27 years after his death, Marcos’s remains were finally buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani during a “private burial” that took place at noon.

In this predominantly Catholic country, burials traditionally take place at 3 p.m., timed with Jesus’s death on the cross.

While workers broke off for lunch or stepped out to withdraw their yearend bonus before the weekend queues and monster mall sales began, Marcos slipped in to lie down with heroes, a place history denies him.

This actual “private burial” contrasted starkly with the mock public burial of the effigy of Marcos at the Inayawan Sanitary Landfill last Nov. 15.

I interviewed Linya Ocampo Fernandez, 17, who created with her father, Raymund, the effigy buried in the “Libingan ng mga Basura,” as well as the dummies of the nine Supreme Court magistrates who ruled that President Rodrigo Duterte was within the bounds of law in ordering the burial of Marcos at the Libingan.

Soft-spoken and calm, Linya often collaborates with Mons, the latest being the dictator’s likeness constructed from chicken wire, stuffed with garbage, and used clothes, including a fake medal.

On a rickety cart, the effigy of Marcos had its mock wake at the University of the Philippines Cebu’s Oblation Square before joining multi-sectoral participants of the mock funeral march and burial.

Given only three days to make the effigy, Linya recalled that she and her father were still enthusiastic about the commission. She said that, after living through Martial Law, her Papa did not want his children to go through a similar experience.

Linya learned about the Edsa Revolution from her elementary teachers but read little about “what actually happened” under Martial Law in textbooks. Now homeschooled by Mons, Linya understands that the late dictator was “a very bad man”.

She recalls tagging along with her father to a rally protesting against the vice-presidential bid of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. After listening to survivors talk about how their children and classmates disappeared during Martial Law, Linya realized how the late dictator was “much much worse than what I had imagined”.

“I heard that kids my age like Bongbong Marcos' s son who they say is very ‘gwapo’,” she emailed. “I think that if they had the chance to listen to victims, they would change their minds… I hope they won't vote Sandro Marcos for president.” 

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 20, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Trial by headline

WHICH headline generated more cringes? A broadsheet ran this headline on the day the US voted for its 45th president: “Clinton has 90% chance of winning”.

The headline was a teaser placed in the ear or the spot beside the masthead or the name of the newspaper. In radiant yellow, the ear headline was superimposed on a photo of a celebratory Hillary Clinton. The tips of her extended right hand overlapped a blue ribbon that carried the newspaper’s motto: “Balanced news + fearless views”.

The day after the US elections, I retreated to a coffee shop and sat down with the Nov. 10 issues to check out how the local and national dailies covered the electoral turnout.

I scalded my throat by taking a premature sip of hot tea. The scalding took a back seat after I noted that two national dailies, the “Philippine Daily Inquirer” and the “Philippine Star,” carried identical front-page headlines, “OMG! IT’S TRUMP!”.

I’m an old-fashioned reader. I prefer reading paper over virtual. I buy local, national and international dailies. For my money’s worth, though, I don’t appreciate journalists making up my mind for me.

Segregation is inviolate for news and opinion. Facts—meaning anything that’s verifiable—is found on page one and the news sections. The interpretation of facts—which can be limitless to fit all the biases and agenda the media see fit to carry—is found in the opinion-editorial section of a newspaper.

So why should reading a headline truncated into three capitalized letters be even more dispiriting than a Trump victory? According to online dictionaries of Internet slang, the acronym “OMG” stands for “Oh my God,” an expression of either surprise or disgust.

“Surprise” is neutral enough, compared to “disgust”. However, consider background and context. Aside from running the Nov. 9 ear headline predicting a Clinton victory, the Inquirer threw in an extra exclamation point in their Nov. 10 banner headline to make a slight distinction from the identical Star headline. The “OMG” headlines carried more shock than awe.

These headlines pale in comparison to others that made it to global front pages. According to a Nov. 10 article published online by “The Straits Times,” Trump’s victory did not just bump off “Madam President,” a headline The New York Times never got to use on Nov. 10, it inspired other “flustered headlines”.

“WTF,” the New Zealand paper, “The Dominion Post,” exclaimed in all caps before adding in smaller fonts, “Why Trump Flourished.”

The French newspaper, “Liberation,” carried the photo of a man standing in silhouette against the US flag. Only two features are spotlighted: the top of the man’s toupee and his right hand, cocked as if holding a gun. The headline: “American Psycho”.

Yet, when editors pull out the stops to invent startling headlines like “Trumpocalypse” and “Trumpquake,” or quote Homer Simpson’s 16-year-old prediction of a Trump presidency, I miss the journalism of old.

“Writing is selection,” wrote John McPhee of The New Yorker. In his classic essay, “Omission,” McPhee quotes Ernest Hemingway, who turned simplicity into both the Art and Theory of Omission: “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.”

Under the old rules, when journalists slipped, they owned up to the error. Resigned to the coverage of world leaders like Trump and Duterte, I know better than to sip hot tea when checking out the day’s headlines.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 13, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Sleepless in Changi

MY favorite in Singapore’s sprawling, stupendous Changi Airport are the toilets.

During two recent stopovers, I learned that this hub, serving “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries,” offers free Skytrain and shuttle bus services, as well as travellators, a slow-moving conveyor that replaces walking, to connect terminals.

Those missing the free guided city tour can console themselves at over 350 retail outlets in the Changi Transit Area, selling everything from duty-free diamonds to gold-plated orchids.

If Omega, Bottega Veneta and Herm├Ęs leave one cold, there are alternatives: the Orchid Garden, Kinetic Rain Sculpture, Porcelain of Asia Exhibition, swimming pool, 24-hour movie theater, and others, all housed in this gateway-city. Heaven forbid boredom will ever flit, however fleetingly, in the mind of a Changi visitor.

But even Changi sleeps.

Past midnight, the airport temperature drops to an Arctic chill. Some retreat to the Transit Hotel where, for 110 SGD, one can have six hours of sleep and a shower. I sat down to read in a “snooze chair,” a free amenity in the public areas of Changi.

Either the bright lights or the eternal chill woke me at 3 a.m. Or most likely, encroaching age. I walked, avoiding the insidious travellators. I walked past clots of black-uniformed airport security with high-powered weapons.

I walked with a silent army of cleaners, all Asians. The young and dark-skinned shampooed and vacuumed the omnipresent carpet and couches.

Stoic elderly Asians form part of the force maintaining Changi’s outward perfection. They change, blossom by blossom, the imposing orchid installations. They feed the fat, lazy koi. They push sprinklers, which spray a fine mist on the indoor bamboo groves, gigantic ferns, and alien cacti, whose moisture-storing spikes must compensate for the absence of sunlight and fresh air.

This silent geriatric army looks after the waste left by the foraging hordes. Every pluperfect toilet in Changi has a computer screen showing the profile of the cleaning lady, along with a touch-screen system of emoticons for rating the facility from excellent to poor.

Rating the toilets excellent every time, I gazed at the screen image of the toilet ladies. Outside Changi, they could be grandmothers and elder aunts; in Changi, they are the perfect workers, never seen except for the work they leave behind: the spotless, scented toilets.

Then during a pre-dawn ramble, I came upon a toilet lady. A cardboard box was disassembled and spread under her sleeping, uniformed figure. A square of cloth covered her face.

But I recognized my Asian sister. Back home, cardboard boxes are also reused: for the homeless to sleep on; for those servicing laborers who, in the contemporary version of Russian roulette, may get sexually transmitted infections along with paid sex; for passing cardboard justice on the extrajudicially murdered.

This faceless woman gambled in choosing sleep over duty. Foreign workers comprise 29 percent of the labor force of Singapore, the highest in Asia. Never lacking a queue, even in the blue hours of dawn, is Changi’s immigration and checkpoints terminal.

Which is stronger: fear of poverty or the desire to sleep and forget? Two Asian sisters—one sleeping, the other sleepless—sought answers in Changi’s most hospitable: its toilets.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 6, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”