Saturday, September 30, 2017

Peter panned

TODAY is a double celebration.

As set forth in Republic Act 10868 or the Centenarians Law of 2016, the first Sunday of October is observed as National Respect for Centenarians Day.

Oct. 1 this year also ushers in Elderly Filipino Week.

Why do we honor the elderly? We are not just awed by their feat of longevity. Primarily, we are grateful for the guardianship of our elders.

Contradicting the view that the elderly are past their prime and dependent on the younger and more abled are present realities.

In the gaps created by the global diaspora of workers, grandparents keep the bonds of family. In many Filipino homes, grandparents do not just stand in as surrogate parents; they are often the only parents known by the children of their children.

People die, migrate for work, separate from spouses or generally flop as self-regulating, mature adults. Who frequently takes up the slack?

Even in households where parents are not biological and sociological catastrophes, the elderly are held up as exemplars of a life well-lived and, thus, worth emulating.

Paradoxically, Oct. 1 this year focused my thoughts on a 91-year-old who turned upside down all social expectations, as well as stereotypes, of the elderly.

When Hugh M. Hefner died of natural causes on Sept. 27, 2017, the press reported that he left behind a multimedia empire and a sexual revolution that shows no sign of winding down.

It does not seem much of a legacy.

The empire was built around a magazine whose journalistic highs and lows were bracketed by breakthrough interviews and the centerfold of a nude “playmate of the month.”

The magazine later clothed the “playmates” after conceding its defeat in 2015 by a more aggressive rival, the Internet.

Mr. Hefner said he “decontaminated” sex and chose the “frisky and playful” bunny as the enterprise logo to represent how fun and liberating the Playboy ethos was on the “romantic boy-girl society”.

His worldview was farm-like: “bunnies” were the accessible women in his magazine and in his life, and the “other chicks” were militant feminists, the “natural enemy” getting in the way of all that bunny play.

Even after bedding thousands of willing bunnies, he admitted, in his 80s, that he was still searching for his “soul mate”.

The world will never have enough of this Peter Pan.

“Pan” was one of the names he considered for the magazine. In J. M. Barrie’s stories for children, Peter Pan leads a group of Lost Boys in Neverland. His friendship with the human, Wendy Darling, is frozen because, although she loves him, as the boy who never grows up, he cannot love back.

There is life beyond bunnies and chicks, Mr. Hefner reminds us.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 1, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Madame Panopticon

HER signature of rummaging in two big bags made me realize I was again seated beside the stranger I named Madame Panapticon.

Bearing two full bags and dressed in clothes that came down like curtains for a final performance, this elderly lady gets on the train at Boni, two stations after mine, and always gets off at Santolan, another three stations before my train stop.

Except for the infants, everyone in our train watches as, during the entire ride, she fishes around in one bag after the other and transforms before our eyes.

In the frenetic pace of the city, many working women and girls going to a meeting put on their “faces” in the train, not minding the strangers staring at or ignoring them.

Madame Panapticon mimicked the exhibition but, in place of a mirror guiding the hand putting up the scaffolding for the public self, the people across her became the tool to reflect her face as she slathered, one after the other, various unguents that she took, one item at a time, from her bags.

In a queer way, the layers she applied on her face and neck did not end in a mask. I fell asleep, watching the people across us watching her. I woke to find a garish, rouged face turned towards me. For a moment, I saw the “skull beneath” Madame Panopticon’s visage.

In the second occasion, she transferred without ceasing items from one bag to another. One elderly man even peered inside a bag, as if to verify the source of the seemingly endless stream.

When she shook out and folded underwear as decrepit as the bags and their owner, I closed my eyes. I was no longer comfortable with the eyes watching Madame Panapticon. Mine.

The first time I started commuting in Manila, I imagined I was part of a supercolony, as populous and eusocial as the Ant World.

Among animals, eusociality is the most advanced form of socialism, where nature selects the best to breed and everyone else specializes in other tasks essential for the colony’s productivity.

I imagined that if I fell out of my place in the commuter chain—squashed perhaps by a passing bus—the blot my corporeal self would leave behind may eventually dry up and disappear from the single-minded tramping of other commuters.

To keep a supercolony—or any system working—a miniature of that system embedded in the collective consciousness and the subterranean levels is all that is needed.

Eyes are superfluous. These are private, looking inwards, into something as unverifiable as the soul. Eyes are not eusocial.

Madame Panapticon ignores this conceit. The All-seeing Eye—what the Panapticon stands for, in Greek—seeks out and judges the abnormal to be assured I am part of the herd and safe. How our eyes betray us.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in the September 24, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column of SunStar Cebu, “Matamata”

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Love, lies, Heidegger

I CAN'T. Never again.

When my editor-in-chief texted to ask how I was doing in graduate school, I said I was sneak-reading fiction to clear my hangover over Martin Heidegger.

Since the age of Enlightenment, Germany yielded many intellectuals. The ideas that swept Europe since the 18th Century are as relevant now, specially in communications.

At first glance, the world three centuries ago barely shows any kinship with the digital age. How did people communicate then?

From the Net: “(T)hey wrote letters, sent telegrams, gave a message to a messenger, attached a letter to a bird and (obviously) talked to each other.”

Waking up to read that MalacaƱang has again backpedaled on an earlier pronouncement about the “remote possibility" that martial law may be declared nationwide a few days from now—the 45th anniversary of the first declaration of martial law in the country—I realize that “talking to one another” remains as reflexively human, and thus as complicated, as ever.

So, despite my forthright reply to my editor-in-chief, I am back in the labyrinth with Heidegger, who countered many ideas of the Enlightenment in the 20th Century.

“To read Heidegger is to set out on an adventure,” wrote William Lovitt in introducing the philosopher’s essays, translated in 1977.

To get lost and remain lost is part of the Heideggerian tour. Try parsing this line in his seminal essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”: “That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.”

An astounding ability to use one noun multiple times, with each use signifying a different meaning, is, fortunately not the only (doubtful) virtue of Heidegger.

His love for words should mean something in a world beset by fake news, “illegal content,” and the even more nefarious legislations created to attack the weeds in our midst.

Using etymology, which traces how words developed meanings over time, Heidegger wrote in the same essay that the Greek word “aletheia” means truth, which involves a “bringing-forth”.

Paradoxically, Heidegger illustrated best the complications of truth not with philosophy but his own life. Illuminating the post-Enlightenment world of ideas, he embraced Nazism and seduced his student, then 19, the intellectual and humanist Hannah Arendt.

“Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves,” wrote the man who loved a Jew and hated the race, bringing forth how, in talking to each other, we walk a tightrope, then and now.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s September 17, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column “Matamata”

Saturday, September 09, 2017


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all?

I’ve lost count of the number of times our class on media and culture lamented over the state of our affairs.

“Our” here does not refer only to the Filipino; we have Indonesian and Indian classmates.

Yet, the mediatization of culture—a theory asserting that media frames and influences social interactions and more importantly, its discourses—illuminates issues that cannot be contained by borders of space, time, and specially constructs like culture.

In the 1800s, the English, Dutch, and Spanish colonial powers destroyed the Balangingi and Iranun people and called this act of genocide and ethnic cleansing the redemption of civilization from Muslim piracy and slave trade.

In the present, centuries later, the Christian phobia of the Moro simplifies my reaction to media reports of Islamism or Islamic militancy or fundamentalism. A complex issue is reduced to the same end of colonial campaigns: distrust the other.

Until I read James Francis Warren’s “Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity,” my grasp of pirates was the sum of watching reruns of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, produced by Hollywood and inspired by the popular theme park ride in Disneyland, perhaps the most insidious culture industry of all time.

I perceive therefore I know.

I criticize President Donald Trump for banning travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries; waffling on the role of neo-Nazi groups in the Charlottesville rally that turned violent; and more recently, caving in to pressure from the Right to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program, which may end with the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Brought illegally to America by their parents, the so-called “Dreamers” escaped poverty, repression and threats to life but are now perceived to be rivals for jobs by blue-collar America, who compose the mass base of pro-Trump voters.

Yet, stranded for hours last Aug. 31 when the “Lakbayan” or People’s Caravan entered the University of the Philippines Diliman campus to assert the rights of indigenous peoples and the Moro people against state neglect, militarization, and other forms of oppression, I lamented my poor luck to be caught in the miserable crosshairs of history.

“To see is to know”. Snow White’s evil stepmother did not realize this; nor the Westerners gawking at the Igorots and pygmies displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition, which adopted this motto in showcasing anthropology in 1893.

Nor will we. The mirror of our perceptions is trained on others; our eyes are shuttered from its one true reflection: ourself.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in the September 10, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column of SunStar Cebu, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 02, 2017


WHAT lurks behind the banal? Recently, the librarian made an observation after I handed to her the borrower’s cards to take out books.

Did I have a tough time learning to write such a long name? she asked.

Learning to write in script must have slowed me down in grade school since I was always bringing home classmates’ notebooks to copy the notes that the teachers erased before I could finish.

In high school, when classmates borrowed my notes more often than I did theirs, I remembered their grumbling that they could hardly read my penmanship.

Legibility is the hallmark of perfect penmanship, so we were inducted. Yet, intrinsic to character, penmanship is anything but uniform and remote. We write first to ourselves, if we write to anyone.

Generations of students have commented about my penmanship. The braver souls complain; the sentimental ones don’t throw away their drafts, which they say “drip” with the comments I pen in red ink.

Whether as teacher, editor or reader, scribbling on the margins of text is hardly vandalism or graffiti art: we are not declaring to a public but writing for ourself.

In Ha Jin’s short story, “Broken,” Shen Manjin, driven to rise in the Communist Youth League Section, stays after office hours to practice his penmanship.

“(T)he Political Department always needed cadres who could write well,” Ha Jin prefaces the vigor with which Manjin applies to his overtime exercises, anticipating a future when he will lead over a hundred branches of the Youth League and its more than five thousand railroad workers.

For two friends at the turn of the nineteenth century, penmanship was a test of devotion. Best friends forever (BFFs) Karl and Friedrich were as thick as thieves, once spending 10 days together, just talking.

When Karl died, only 11 people turned up. Yet Friedrich made it possible for his BFF’s life’s work, the outputs of day after day of researching in the Reading Room of the British Museum, to be published after Karl’s death.

The second and third volumes of “Capital” by Karl Marx was “stitched together” by Friedrich Engels from “hundreds of pages of scrawled-over drafts,” writes Louis Menand in an Oct. 10, 2016 article in “The New Yorker”.

“(Marx had spectacularly bad handwriting; Engels was one of the few people outside the family who could decipher it.)”

Whether as handmaiden to the seismic but invisible changes in a life or eyewitness to a body of ideas changing a world, handwriting is the ultimate subversion, proof that the personal is potent and enduring.

* First published in the September 3, 2017 issue of the SunStar Cebu Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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