Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I must have done something good . . .

If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural (highlights)

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007; Page A01

Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

The results showed that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

It is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

New research shows morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

Moral decisions can often feel like abstract intellectual challenges, but a number of experiments such as the one by Grafman have shown that emotions are central to moral thinking. In another experiment published in March, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

Such experiments have two important implications:

  1. Morality is not merely about the decisions people reach but also about the process by which they get there.
  2. Society may have to rethink how it judges immoral people.

Psychopaths often feel no empathy or remorse. Without that awareness, people relying exclusively on reasoning seem to find it harder to sort their way through moral thickets. Does that mean they should be held to different standards of accountability?

Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.

Moral decision-making often involves competing brain networks vying for supremacy, he said. Simple moral decisions -- is killing a child right or wrong? -- are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.

In one 2004 brain-imaging experiment, Greene asked volunteers to imagine that they were hiding in a cellar of a village as enemy soldiers came looking to kill all the inhabitants. If a baby was crying in the cellar, Greene asked, was it right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?

The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was "arguing" with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.

While one implication of such findings is that people with certain kinds of brain damage may do bad things they cannot be held responsible for, the new research could also expand the boundaries of moral responsibility. Neuroscience research, Greene said, is finally explaining a problem that has long troubled philosophers and moral teachers: Why is it that people who are willing to help someone in front of them will ignore abstract pleas for help from those who are distant, such as a request for a charitable contribution that could save the life of a child overseas?

"We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn't face the other kind of situation," Greene said. "It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you" to think about morality differently.

Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture. It may be useful to think about morality much like language, in that its basic features are hard-wired, Hauser said. Different cultures and religions build on that framework in much the way children in different cultures learn different languages using the same neural machinery.

Hauser said that if his theory is right, there should be aspects of morality that are automatic and unconscious -- just like language. People would reach moral conclusions in the same way they construct a sentence without having been trained in linguistics. Hauser said the idea could shed light on contradictions in common moral stances.

U.S. law, for example, distinguishes between a physician who removes a feeding tube from a terminally ill patient and a physician who administers a drug to kill the patient.

Hauser said the only difference is that the second scenario is more emotionally charged -- and therefore feels like a different moral problem, when it really is not: "In the end, the doctor's intent is to reduce suffering, and that is as true in active as in passive euthanasia, and either way the patient is dead."

Book Burning - Fahrenheit 451

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) -- Tom Wayne has amassed thousands of books in a warehouse during the 10 years he has run his used book store, Prospero's Books.

His collection ranges from best sellers, such as Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," to obscure titles, like a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910. But when he wanted to thin out the collection, he found he couldn't even give away books to libraries or thrift shops; they said they were full.

So on Sunday, Wayne began burning his books in protest of what he sees as society's diminishing support for the printed word.

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

The fire blazed for about 50 minutes before the Kansas City Fire Department put it out because Wayne didn't have a permit for burning.

Wayne said next time he will get a permit. He said he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply -- estimated at 20,000 books -- is exhausted.

"After slogging through the tens of thousands of books we've slogged through, and to accumulate that many and to have people turn you away when you take them somewhere, it's just kind of a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "And it's a good excuse for fun."

Wayne said he has seen fewer customers in recent years as people more often get their information from television or the Internet. He pointed to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, that found that less than half of adult respondents reported reading for pleasure, down from almost 57 percent in 1982.

Kansas City has seen the number of used bookstores decline in recent years, and there are few independent bookstores left in town, said Will Leathem, a co-owner of Prospero's Books.

"There are segments of this city where you go to an estate sale and find five TVs and three books," Leathem said.

The idea of burning the books horrified Marcia Trayford, who paid $20 Sunday to carry away an armload of tomes on art, education and music.

"I've been trying to adopt as many books as I could," she said.

Dozens of other people took advantage of the book-burning, searching through the books waiting to go into the flames for last-minute bargains.

Mike Bechtel paid $10 for a stack of books, including an antique collection of children's literature, which he said he'd save for his 4-year-old son.

"I think, given the fact it is a protest of people not reading books, it's the best way to do it," Bechtel said. "(Wayne has) made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a painful book to read if you're a bibliophile (that's booklover for you). Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper starts to burn. The book's plot recalls the censorship of the 1950s and the book burnings by Nazis in Germany. In recent times, we saw laughable versions of book burning by groups who opposed certain books (like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter series).

Reading the book scared me as a college student and made me appreciate books and the written word all the more. Not surprisingly, the only fire extinguisher at home can be found in my library. I have spent a fortune on insecticides and pest termination to protect the books from termites, but they just k-e-e-p o-n c-o-m-i-n-g. Being the only one in our subdivision with a functioning library, my home has become the favorite destination of these pesky white-butt ants whose tastebuds go for hardbound books but snub newsprint editions. The terminator told me: Sir, if you were a termite, wouldn't you prefer newly-cooked food over reheated leftovers?

I've had my share of book burning. I've cremated good books half-eaten therefore rendered useless by termites. In the process, I've incinerated millions of termites. I've cried while watching cherished books turn to ashes in the pyre.

When I saw the above news on TV, it gave me goosebumps and raised my hackles. What a waste of books and the knowledge they contain! I cheered up at the sight of the bibliophiles who rescued the books. Those books could have been put to good use in Third World countries such as ours. But I've been told by book donors about the prohibitive cost of transporting books. If only the billionaires and millionaires of the First World could spare some of their loose change to buy up all of those used books and ship them to countries who need them the most.

If only. . .

Some People Need LOVE Spelled out for Them

Stanley and Iris, starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda, was based in part on Pat Barker's debut novel, Union Street (1995 Booker Prize Winner) by Pat Barker. It was Jane Fonda's "retirement" film before she returned to the silver screen with Monster-in-law. It was marketed as a love story, hence the blurb which I used for the title of this blogpost.

Not your typical date movie, Stanley and Iris serves a new twist to a love story. At the beginning of the film, when Iris learned that he was single, lived with his father and could cook, viewers jumped to the conclusion that he was gay. They both worked at a pastry factory: he in the cafeteria and she in the assembly line. Iris discovered Stanley can't read and write. The most moving part of the movie was when Stanley recounted to Iris what he had to go through because of his illiteracy. When the cafeteria boss accused Stanley of pilferage, Iris defended him and disclosed his secret disability which cost him his job.

Stanley's illiteracy caused him to lose subsequent jobs and he had to bring his father to a nursing home because he couldn't take care of him. Confronting his predicament, Stanley swallowed his pride and asked Iris to teach him to read and write. Being newly-widowed, Iris found in Stanley
qualities she never saw in her late husband. Stanley eventually learned to read and write and became a successful inventor. Spoiler: this movie has a happy ending.

Man builds no structure which outlives a book. This quotation by Eugene Ware is featured in a sign at the library entrance where Iris brought Stanley for his initial steps towards literacy. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of books to society and the world. The national goverment, through the Department of Education and efforts of non-government organizations, has initiated steps to address adult illiteracy through the Alternative Learning System (ALS). Manny Pacquiao, the famed boxer from General Santos City, was the recent graduate of the ALS. He took accreditation and equivalency tests to graduate high school. ALS also offers (depending on regional needs) various programs like caregiving and other livelihood training.

Let us not forget that adult illiteracy starts as child illiteracy. Despite free elementary and high school education here, poverty has forced many children to drop out of school to help eke out a living for their families. Many organizations including McDonalds and Jollibee are addressing this need by making books accessible to children in far-flung barrios. In our own little way, we can donate books and other reading materials to daycare and reading centers in our communities. Share your books with security guards, jeepney/tricycle/bus drivers and janitors. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see them reading during their free hours?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Papa, Can You Hear Me?

God - our heavenly Father.
Oh, God - and my father who is also in heaven.
May the light of this flickering candle illuminate the night the way
Your spirit illuminates my soul.

My Father was a quiet man, too quiet for comfort. During slow hours in our store, he was content to read his Chinese newspapers and magazines while relaxing on his rattan and wicker easy chair which had an adjustable back rest and extendable footrest (which I gave to him as a gift out of my first month's salary). We knew he was in a good mood if he hummed Chinese folk songs while reading. While immersed in reading, he would consume several pots of tea. Relatives on my Mama's side of the family taught me to read, but Papa was my first role model in reading as a hobby. He always looked calm and serene while reading. After closing the store, he would wear his favorite white sleeveless undershirt (sando) and blue boxer shorts and do some more reading before going to bed. When he found something delightful in the papers, he would call me and point out to me a picture or article and explain it to me. Then we would share a hearty laugh.

Papa loved to tell us his stowaway adventure. At the age of 13, he stowed away on a Compania Maritima ship bound from Iloilo City to Manila. During the trip he would ask leftovers from other passengers. Upon arriving at the port, he walked from Divisoria and found himself in Carriedo with its row of shops and stores. He found work in a grocery there owned by a Chinese businessman who hired him on the spot upon learning that he was part-Chinese. The boss taught him how to read and speak in Fookien and write in Chinese characters. His co-workers taught him the ABCs/Abakada using the brands found on labels of the grocery items they sold. When it came time for them to teach him the letter C, they showed him a Coca Cola bottle and told him to copy the capital C with a long tail (Coke calls this the dynamic ribbon, I think) on it.

Papa, can you hear me?
Papa, can you see me?
Papa, can you find me in the night?
Papa, are you near me?
Papa, can you hear me?
Papa, can you help me not be frightened?

Papa loved babies and toddlers. He would cuddle and played with them for hours but he lost interest in them once they could speak in sentences and walked on their own. I and my siblings assumed he was the same way with us. In our photo albums, there were lots of baby pictures with us in his arms. But in subsequent photos, the closest we got to him was to sit on his lap during the photoshoots. The gap between him and us widened when we became teeners. He became distant and uncommunicative with us. We only heard his voice when he had wanted us to do something in the store or when he gave us a scolding.

Looking at the skies I seem to see a million eyes
Which ones are yours?
Where are you now that yesterday has waved goodbye and closed its doors?
The night is so much darker.
The wind is so much colder.
The world I see is so much bigger now that I'm alone.

He was too silent for comfort. As the eldest child, I could sense his growing frustration over the lessening income of our store. Martial Law saw the plunging business incomes nationwide. The bank foreclosed the land and store building because we failed to make the amortization payments. In spite of low sales, during the Christmas season, he would ask me to bring grocery bags of goodies to family friends. He would also ask us to wrap rums, calendars and t-shirts for loyal patrons. On several occasions, I would notice the slight tremor in his hand when he handed the wrapped rums to soldiers who came in the store, placed their armalites on his desk and asked him for their Christmas gifts. He survived two hold-up attempts - the first on a weekend with us children around his desk in the store while he showed us some funny items in his newspapers and magazines. The guy with a gun just came up to us and asked for the day's sales. Papa gave it to him and then the guy ran out of the store. The second time, we were in school. The men came to the store and closed it up. Papa was hogtied by two men while Mama locked herself in the comfort room. Papa was able to untie himself and yelled for help from the neighbors. The men ran away with the day's sales. He wouldn't be as lucky the third time around.

Papa, please forgive me.
Try to understand me.
Papa, don't you know I had no choice?

Can you hear me praying, anything I'm saying,
Even though the night is filled with voices?

1981. The last year of Martial Law. Exactly two months after celebrating his 61st birthday, Papa woke up as usual at 3 a.m. He was supposed to brew some tea before opening the store in front of our living quarters. Leaving the master's bedroom, he saw two men carrying boxes of goods from our store. Using a .45 caliber pistol, they shot him twice. And the men and a small boy, whom they ordered to get inside our house through the jalousie windows and open the door for them, rushed out. Papa rushed back to their bedroom, locked the door and told Mama what happened. Papa never made it to the hospital.

I remember everything you taught me, every book I've ever read.
Can all the words in all the books help me to face what lies ahead?
The trees are so much taller and I feel so much smaller.
The moon is twice as lonely and the stars are half as bright.

Papa never saw his grandchildren. The kids were born after his death. And so as soon as they were a month old, they were brought to the cemetery and introduced to him and later, to Mama too. While there, we would recall funny times with Papa.

I would retell how, as a reward for my being an honor student in high school, he treated me to a movie of my choice. I chose Fiddler on the Roof based on a Broadway musical. He slept all through it while I sat watching. The songs on screen were punctuated by his snores beside me.

Mama would tell us about the time when she bought a framed poster of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci from an ambulant vendor and hung it in the living room with the family photos. After closing the store and preparing to do his ritual reading, Papa noticed the new portrait and called out to Mama: Hey, who is this? Is she a relative of yours or mine?

My sister retold her embarrassing experience with a German customer. When Papa saw her with a foreign customer, he went to assist her. German (examining a local rum brand): Hmmm, good rum (pronouncing it as "room")? Papa: No room for rent! German (looking at my sister): Is she your daughter? Papa: No! He's my son, my son! (At that time there was a popular local sitcom named "My Son, My Son" which starred Pugo and Jay Ilagan). The German left the store shaking his head.

Papa, how I love you.
Papa, how I need you.
Papa, how I miss you
Kissing me goodnight.

Papa, to my eternal regret, I was not able to say I love you before you left us. Let me say it now: I LOVE YOU! And I MISS YOU DEARLY! Thank for loving us in your own silent way. Thank you for the quiet strength you had shown us during those critical times. Thank you for giving me the gift of education which was denied to you by poverty.

(Papa, Can You Hear Me? music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman from Yentl. Click here for the clip from the film.)

Entries for February 8 & 12, 2006

While I was writing the February 8 entry, a friend and high school batchmate, Juanito "Omen" Go lay dying on the sidewalk of pioneer avenue in General Santos City. He was stabbed by three young men for no apparent reason - his wallet and cellphone were not taken and he has no known enemies. He was 49 and about to be a golden boy like me. It saddened me and my batchmates; we didn't expect him to die. we were ready about the approaching death of another batchmate Tony Cantre who is home dying from liver cirrhosis.

At this stage in our lives, my batchmates and i are more and more becoming aware of death's approach. As teeners, we felt invincible and immortal; now, we feel vulnerable to anything - sickness, arthritis, loneliness (for some, the empty-nest syndrome when grown-up children leave home), accidents. . .

On the very night he died, we held a candlelight ceremony where he was felled by the killers. The ceremony attracted a lot of people, among them may be some of the witnesses to Omen's murder. We prayed for enlightenment for the killers, courage for the witnesses to come out, and for Omen's soul to find peace and solace in God's embrace.


Last night (Feb. 11) was the last night of Juanito "Omen" Go's wake. Our high school batch said a prayer and our goodbyes to Omen. It was an emotional moment - saying goodbye to a friend and a brother.

And what was very Filipino: we were asked to pose for a photo in front of Omen's coffin. And to be high-tech our prayer and goodbyes were also videotaped.While posing, I joked that may be Omen would join us since he just couldn't let a moment like this pass without him in it. I was asked to write an open letter/petition to authorities to run after the lawless thugs.

Valentines '06

with 5 days to go before the Hearts Day (Valentines Day, duh), i'd like to share the lyrics of one of my favorite songs - What Kind of Fool Am I? (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley)

What kind of fool am I
Who never fell in love
It seems that I'm the only one
that I have been thinking of

What kind of man is this?
An empty shell-
A lonely cell in which
an empty heart must dwell

What kind of lips are these
That lied with every kiss
That whispered empty words of love
that left me alone like this

Why can't I fall in love
Like any other man
And maybe then I'll know what kind of fool I am.

What kind of clown am I?
What do I know of life?
Why can't I cast away the mask of play
and live my life?

Why can't I fall in love
Till I don't give a damn
And maybe then I'll know what kind of fool I am


Entry for March 01, 2006 Boracay magnify
Boracay is everything it is touted to be and more (or less)...

I find Boracay beach a fine stretch for strolling. But it isn't the kind of beach that relaxes strollers like me. When i stroll on a beach, i expect to see other life forms aside from bathers (sea and sun) - hermit crabs, crablets, ants, shells, corals... these i couldn't find as i strolled down Boracay. The powdery white sands are dazzling but without rocks, shells, hermit crabs and crablets, it doesn't look like a beach to me. Even the sea, while full of lumot (which a lumot brigade removes on site/sight), has no fish (jelly and other species). I am told that early each morning, the sands are combed by a tractor to remove other debris.

I find the grotto of the Virgin Mary a glaring juxtaposition to the topless foreign female tourists. I find the beachfront restos, bars and stores too pricey, too touristy. One look at the prices is enough to make the blood pressure soar. One has to take time to find affordable food. I find out that even the Aetas knew how to pose for local/foreign tourists' cameras.

But the locals are so friendly to both domestic/foreign tourists. They actually tell you how to stretch your precious pesos. The local police look good in their beach uniforms, but are unubiquitous (yet one knows they're around). And those are enough reasons to go back there.

my garden

my garden magnify
When i bought in 1992 what eventually will become my private home for the aged (namely, ME), i was impressed by the fact that the house was built not at the center of the lot but at the back giving me a lot of space in front for my garden and future retirement home-cum-research center business.

So i started with durantha hedges, ylang-ylang, fortune plants, palmeras, chinese bamboo, money tree and dama de noche. the place already has a blooming sampaguita plant, two coconut trees, 1 native guava plant, 1 langka (jackfruit) tree, 1 camias and 1 guyabano tree. at the gate is a talisay tree that provides a lot of shade to passersby and those waiting for trisikad to bring to the highway. I never did like high maintenance plants like orchids, etc. I prefer plants with simple foliage and fragrant blooms. The only plant my place needs is a champaca tree which is hard to find.

when the ylang-ylang and dama de noche started blooming, my place became fragrant all day long. The ylang-ylang scent which became the base for perfumes permeates the house the whole day while the dama de noche (lady of the night) exudes its magic at night.

it is the dama de noche that caught the noses of my neighbors. at first they thought i was using a new air freshener. they liked the scent so much, they asked where i bought the freshener. so i told them, it was the dama they've been smelling. soon, i was deluged with requests for cuttings of the dama.

When the home owners association officers named our subdivision streets, ilang-ilang became our street name. Was it because of my ylang ylang? perhaps.

my garden may not always seem to be well-kept, but i love gardening during my spare time. so i hire local boys to do the weeding and cleaning of my garden. as a bonus, i let them climb the coconut trees and gather as many bukos and niyog as they want on condition that they also cut down drying leaves.

at the gate and at the back, i also plant bougainvilleas whose thorny branches are a deterrent to trespassers. I was also given a cutting of a vine with hundreds of tiny flowers (I'm researching this plant). The vine interspersed with the bougainvillea.

El nino had wrought a lot of damage to my plants especially the duranthas. termites ate the roots of the langka and like efficient tree cutters, were able to fell it.

the rest survived. the fortune plants are now higher than my house, so are the palmeras and guava tree. the sampaguita, ylang ylang and dama de noche give a calm ambience to my home.

recently, i added a hammock (duyan) which i tied between the guava and guyabano trees. now i spend summer afternoons reading and napping in the hammock under the shade, with a pitcher of ice lemon tea within reach.

Skipping fatherhood and making it to grandfatherhood (aug.12 '06)

Arrrrrrggggghhhhh! Image

just got official word today that as of two weeks ago, i have become a grandfather!

i'm not ready to be a grandpa!

the first grandkid of this family branch is nathan john. mom is natalie joan, our niece, who's supposed to enter the nunnery, but obviously got waylaid (by a military man).

hmmmm, wonder what the grandkid will call me: lolo (traditonal, that), grampa (too western)?
modern terms of endearment: dadilo (daddy-lolo), papilo (papa-lolo), titolo (tito/uncle-lolo), unclelo (uncle-lolo) and god knows what else!

oh gawd! i'm not ready to be grandpa but i can't wait to see and kiss and hug my first grandson.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Caveat Lector (let the reader beware): This is an Ego-boosting blogpost.

This blogpost is prompted by the message of Gibbs Cadiz asking for a link-up and telling me he's also Gilbert. I hope this blogpost will serve as a clarion call to the Gilberts of the world in uniting to make ourselves felt and known.

Gilbert is of French-Germanic origin which means bright promise or pledge. Variations: Guilbert, Gilberto, Hilbert.

First, a little history of how I got to be named so. When it came time for me to be baptized, a little discussion ensued. Mama: I want this baby named Leo or Leon after his father, Napoleon. (Lola's voice-over: The parish priest won't allow animal names for baptism!) Papa (thinking to himself): I want him to be my junior! Some relative (probably my religious aunt): According to the almanaque, the baby was born on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours so his name should be Martin! (imagine me now if named Martin Tan) Mama (2nd attempt): Since I was born in Luzon, Napoleon in Visayas, and the baby in Mindanao, let's call him Luzvimindo! (Again, imagine me now if named Luzvimindo Tan) Lola: He looks like a Gilbert to me! And that's final! And so with Gilbert, baptized I was. Was I glad I wasn't born in 1982 otherwise, I would have been named Rambo (Rambo Tan!) by starstruck parents.

I first became aware of the first of my many tukayo (namesake) at age 6 while exploring the plastic globe given to me by an aunt. I found Gilbert Islands in the Pacific.

In high school, I discovered the priest- detective Father Brown books written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton. This tukayo's wit was enviable: "My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober." I think this tukayo was my first inspiration to become a writer-journalist.
Then in college, I read to smithereens the small book of Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching. "These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. By taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart." His book planted the teaching seed in my heart.

In the 80s, a tukayo, Gilbert O'Sullivan topped the worldwide charts with his Alone Again Naturally. This song remains one of my personal faves:

In a little while from now
If I’m not feeling any less sour
I promise myself to treat myself
And visit a nearby tower
And climbing to the top will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to who
Ever what it’s like when you’re shattered
Left standing in the lurch at a church
Where people saying: "My God, that’s tough
She's stood him up"
No point in us remaining
We may as well go home as I did on my own
Alone again, naturally

To think that only yesterday
I was cheerful, bright and gay
Looking forward to well wouldn’t do
The role I was about to play
But as if to knock me down, reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces, leaving me to doubt
Talk about God and His mercy or if He really does exist
Why did He desert me in my hour of need
I truly am indeed Alone again, naturally

It seems to me that there are more hearts
broken in the world that can’t be mended left unattended
What do we do? What do we do?

Alone again, naturally
Now looking back over the years and whatever else that appears
I remember I cried when my father died
Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old, my mother, God rest her soul,
Couldn’t understand why the only man she had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start with a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me, no words were ever spoken
And when she passed away I cried and cried all day
Alone again, naturally, Alone again, naturally.

If you've read somewhere that if all the issues of National Geographic Magazine are stacked in one place on earth, that would tilt/change the Earth's axis, then you have Gilbert Grosvenor, its editor in chief to blame. :-)

Of course, let's not forget the devastating Hurricane Gilbert, recorded in history as the second most intense Atlantic hurricane next to Hurricane Wilma.
Then there's Gilbert the Great, a children's book by Jane Clarke about a smiling shark that looks like a cartoon character in Nemo/Shark's Tale.
And the early film of Johnny Depp, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
And lastly, a Hollywood hotel named Gilbert:

Stereotyping Mindanaoans

The center of the Philippines is believed to be Manila; hence the term Manila-centric. Even now, Manila remains to be the object of every promdi's great Philippine Dream. Many Manila-based (as opposed to Manila-born) people consider themselves "superior" to people outside of Metro Manila (promdi as in from the -prom di- provinces). While Metro Manila may have all the comforts and amenities of a highly urbanized city, they also pay the price for it - pollution, high crime rate, shabby living conditions, etc. As they say, one needs money to go around Manila. To a promdi, Manila is Metro Manila, not just Manila City. Hear this - Bai, punta akong Manila. O? Saan sa Manila? Sa Las Pinas!

(Manila-centric. How else can one explain why national TV newcasts feature live Metro Manila traffic footages and reports which are of no consequence to the rest of the Philippines and the world?)

When national competitions like the Palarong Pambansa or National Schools Press Conference (NSPC) are hosted by Mindanao cities and provinces, the first thing that comes to the minds of school administrators, parents, teacher-advisers, students is: Nge! Nakakatakot dun! Daming bombing, terorista, Muslim! (Yikes! It's frightening there! Lots of bombings, terrorists, Muslims!)

We can't entirely blame these people from having these stereotypes of Mindanao as the mainstream media seem to write about Mindanao only when something bad happens. For every feel-good news coverage of Manny Pacquiao, there would be three feel-bad news of Bad Boy Navarrete's extra-marital woes.

The local government units and government offices based in Mindanao have to assure these people that the hosts won't dare volunteer their places for these national competitions if they thought the safety of the participants will be jeopardized.

To those "brave" enough to venture outside of their comfort zones, Mindanao offers a lot of eye-openers and new discoveries and lessons. Metro Manilans are awed by the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables at prices they can only see in their dreams. In fact, one common illness experienced by participants in Mindanao is indigestion and loose bowel movement from binging on fruits and food. Try resisting fresh fish grilled over coals, not reaching for more servings of fragrant rice freshly harvested from the fields.

They discover that not ALL inhabitants of Mindanao are Muslims. There are Christians too and the Lumad (tribal people) as well. Many inhabitants are Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Visayans who flocked to Mindanao to better their lot. What the media label as War is actually a series of skirmishes between the military and rebels in the countryside far from the urban centers. True, bombings happen now and then, but these happened not only in Mindanao but also in Metro Manila and elsewhere in the country. In these terroristic times, no city, province or region is safe, at all.

Muslims are not the war freaks they were stereotyped to be. Nor are they the stab-you-in-the-back traitors. Every tribe, race and culture has its share of hotheads, trigger-happy gun-toters, and every variety of snake-in-the-grass traitors. Are there no war freaks and traitors among denizens of Luzon and Visayas? So you see, these are not monopolies of Mindanaoans. In stereotyping, it's the sweeping generalizations that hurt the most. As the Tagalogs say it, Huwag namang lalahatin. Some of my very good friends are Muslims and I have had the privilege of working with Muslim bosses and co-employees.

During their brief stay, the participants see, hear and feel for themselves the reality that their host place is not at all like the media present it to be. Their impressions of Mindanao change because of this realization.

There was one occasion when the Mindanao stereotype worked to our advantage. When I was asked to serve as head of delegation for the participants to the National Schools Press Conference (NSPC) at Rizal High School in Pasig in the 90s, we were met, not by the Filipino hospitality usually accorded guests, but by the haughty superior stance of a Metro Manilan. We were waitlisted at the Cebu airport the day before so we arrived at around 11 p.m. in Manila. We were led to our quarters on the top floor of one school building and told to register the next morning. The classroom teachers assigned to our quarters were so accommodating and immediately put all of us at ease.

At six the next morning, we were called to breakfast only to be blocked by a porcine Miss Piggy lookalike teacher in charge of our delegation's meals. She said, with her nose and chin up in the air, that we couldn't partake at the breakfast table because we were not registered yet. So I looked for the registration secretariat and was told by a janitor they would start registering at 8 a.m. yet. I went back to Miss Piggy and showed her the official list of participants and the cash for payment of the registration. NO WAY! she told me. And so I asked the rest to eat breakfast outside the school premises. I waited at the secretariat and when registration was opened for the day, I told them in a loud voice, WE went HUNGRY because the teacher in charge of the meals of the MINDANAO delegation wouldn't let us for being unregistered. WE did not COME ALL THE WAY from MINDANAO to gatecrash this conference and get free meals! If that TEACHER is still AROUND at LUNCHTIME TODAY, she will GO HOME HEADLESS!!!

The secretariat, without my asking, deducted the cost of breakfast from our registration fees and profusely apologized for such treatment. I told them, YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES! You pride yourselves for originating Filipino hospitality. When you go to Mindanao, you act like first class citizens entitled to all and everything you desire, but when we Mindanaoans come here, and just because we are promdis, you treat us like shit!

Suffice it to say, Miss Piggy was nowhere to be found from the time the snacks were served for that day until the time we packed up to go back to Mindanao several days later.

Compartmentalized thinking can kill!

When Manny Pacquiao declared his intention to run for Congressman of the first district of South Cotabato and General Santos City, he met such an intense opposition to it. Some of his well-meaning friends did so because they knew better - that Manny was being manipulated by some quarters to do so. However, my take on the majority of those opposed it did so because of their compartmentalized thinking. They love Manny as a boxer and therefore he should remain a boxer. In fact, Manny was criticized for excelling in billiards and going into commercial breeding of fighting cocks. Now with the poll winners declared, Manny is back in boxing and everything's well again with the world. Or so it seems...

I ran into trouble with a nosy neighbor recently. After spending five years of bearing children, she finally got ligated and now has plenty of time in her hands. Bored after taking care of her kids' meals, changes of diaper, milk formulas, bathing and putting them to bed, she has turned her eyes on me, particularly my garden which remains lushly green in spite of the heatwave and El Nino. Whenever I ask some teeners to cut the grass in my garden and trim the branches of the Chinese bamboo, Dama de Noche and Ilang-ilang, she would find a way to talk to them to tell me that I ought to cut down my trees because she considers them an eyesore. I told the teeners to tell her that she should add more hollow blocks to the wall dividing her house from mine so she won't see my plants and trees. Her yard boasts of a wide bermuda grass lawn and no plant taller than these grasses. The trouble is she has already compartmentalized me in her mind as a slob, lazy and too poor to hire a gardener to maintain my yard. She imagines my yard as a breeding ground of snakes and other creepy crawlies which might harm her and her kids. She forgets that her house was built on and near a dry creek riddled with warrens of mice and snakes.

In our University, we have a summer program called College Bound Program, an affirmative action program meant for incoming freshmen who come from the cultural communities and those who are products of poor barangay high schools. It aims to prepare them in English and Math so that when they start their freshman year, they are as able and competent to tackle these subjects with the rest of the freshmen. Some teachers refuse to teach in this program because they have compartmentalized the students under this program as slow learners and underachievers. The fact is some products of this program graduated with honors.

One major reason why I left my former school employer was that no matter what I did, I could never attain its mission statement: to develop the entire person of each of my students. How could I if I was not even treated as a whole person by the administrators? I taught business subjects because it was my field of specialization as a management major in college. But I was also a self-taught writer and journalist. I was a fairly good emcee and singer.

During my employment at that school, my feature articles and stories got published in national magazines and newspapers. I was told by the ranking and promotion committee that these outputs weren't given any point at all because their subjects were not related to my field of specialization. [Memo to me: Stop writing! Concentrate on just being a good management teacher!] From that time on, I turned down those who woud invite me to emcee or render an intermission number during school programs by claiming that emceeing and singing were not in my field of specialization. So they should get English/Filipino/Music teachers to do so.

During the March 1988 solar eclipse seen in General Santos City, I self-published a brochure Everything You Wanted to Know about Eclipses. The college dean told me it was a waste of time and money because it wasn't directly related to my field of specialization. So I told her jokingly, So Ma'am, you want me to change its title to How to Manage a Solar Eclipse or A Feasibility Study of Solar Eclipses so I could claim that it's directly related to my field of specialization?

A year earlier, the school invited resource speakers from De La Salle University to conduct a seminar-workshop on The Art of Questioning in our school. Classes were not suspended; not all teachers were required to attend it, only the Education teachers. So the school spent thousands of pesos for the speakers' airfare, room and board and honoraria to teach Education teachers the art of questioning which they already knew as part of their college education. The rest of the faculty had to wait for those who attended to do an echo seminar. Shouldn't the seminar be for those teachers with no Education units who could really benefit from it? Why should they be given an echo seminar when they could have attended the same seminar conducted on campus?

Akin to stereotyping, compartmentalized thinking has been long declared by social psychologists as responsible for closing the minds of people and distorting their vision of reality. By conveniently putting people in neat categorized boxes, we seem to see order in the world as we know it. In reality, stereotyping and compartmentalized thinking kill whatever creativity, skill, and initiative people around us inherently have. I dread to see the day when and if these deadly duo will get a stranglehold on us.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Heeeey! Whatever happened to GMRC*?

*GMRC - Good Manners & Right Conduct.

The idea for this blogpost comes from my whole day of malling today. These I witnessed or happened to me on that day:
  • I got jostled by old people, people my age, younger people, kids. Not one excuse me did I hear from them.
  • I had to say excuse me to people in pairs or groups who were hogging the stairs, hallways.
  • Grown-ups asking a small boy: What's Daddy's problem?, the boy answering by tapping his right index finger on his left palm (for those not in the know, this gesture means sex) which elicited laughter from the adults and comments of how cute!.
  • College students playing the Salute game (they have to salute when they see the target; last one to do so gets "punished") using gays as targets, laughing their heads off and making heads turn to their direction.
  • A young lady smartly dressed in long sleeved shirt, jeans and high heels ignoring the cue of people in the fastfood counter, bossily pointing to the crew the meal combo she wants.
  • A group of high schoolers in a theater showing Spiderman 3 more interested in talking about who's going out with whom than in the action on screen, who upon being shushed, increased the decibel of their voices.
  • Security guards, fastfood crew, salesladies who were courteous to customers from the moment they step into their shops up to the time they leave.
It used to be that GMRC was a subject taught in elementary and high school in the Philippines way before values education became the vogue. It used to be that even before GMRC, Filipinos were taught by their parents the proper etiquette in dealing with the elderly, people in authority, playmates, strangers, visitors, et. al. I believe that good manners and values are better caught than taught. Contrary to popular belief, etiquette is not only about which spoon to use with what dish. What is key in good manners or etiquette is that it is a norm of behavior, specially in public, which shows that one practising it has respect and consideration for others.

At my age, I have learned that respect doesn't always beget respect. I've prided myself for being respectful to others regardless of their gender, age, status in life. But imagine this: After hailing a tricycle, I tell the driver my destination. He seems distracted and looks away until I tell him I'm paying P25. He looks interestedly back at me and asks P25? By then I am already hailing another tricycle.

December 2005. My purchases reached the amount which made me eligible to join the computer game and raffle. At the table provided for filling up the raffle coupons, I sat beside an old woman who brought her own pen. Looking around and finding all the other pens being used, I asked her if I could borrow her pen to fill up my one coupon (she was about to finish with her 10 or so coupons). She flatly said NO and left in a huff. My face turned crimson. After dropping the raffle stub in the box, I cued at the computer game. The old woman was in the other line ahead of me. The Lady Santa pointed the two of us to adjoining computers where we had to key in 3-digit numbers. The alarm sounded after I entered my numbers - I won a four-layer plastic clothes cabinet, one of the major prizes. She looked at me with envy as her monitor showed she won a number of plastic cups, pencils, cheap kid's socks. I told her: Karma, manang.

It gives me great pleasure to meet my students in college who are now gainfully employed or have businesses of their own. A few months earlier, a former student processed the savings account I opened with the bank where she worked. Several weeks later, I saw her while on my way out of the mall. So I flashed her a smile which promptly died on my lips when she pointedly ignored me and changed direction so she wouldn't have to rub elbows with me. She stepped on the metal grill of the mall's drainage system (which looked unevenly put over the canal). It gave way and one of her legs fell into the canal while she toppled over. She was sprawled on the pavement with the bottom of her panties showing when her miniskirt rode up her waist. The tricycle drivers rushed to her aid. I went on my way, the smile returning on my lips.

Assignment: In the course of one day, tally the number of people who has thanked you for what you did to and for them. How many thanked you in a business transaction? Compare it to the ones who thanked you in non-business situations.

Food for thought: Has GMRC/etiquette gone the commercial route? Are people courteous and accommodating to others only because it's part of their jobs or because there's money at stake?
As to rude, unruly, inconsiderate behavior, are we witnessing an overdose of self-ishness?
Have we become so engrossed with the hustle and bustle of everyday life that we have forgotten our manners?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I have two hands . . . or why ambidexterity matters

As a teacher and a writer, I have always advised others to make use of their other hand - the hand they don't use for writing. Whether right- or left-handed, we are used to doing so many things with our dominant hand.

Imagine this: you lift the phone receiver/cellphone using your dominant hand to answer a call, then the caller tells you to jot down something, what do you do? Either you put down the phone and look for paper and pen or you transfer the phone to your other hand, then use your dominant hand to look for paper and pen.

How about this: During an exam you are writing down your answers then you come to a problem solving question which requires a calculator. So you put down your pen, take out the calculator and compute. Then you pick up your pen and copy the answer.

What's wrong with these pictures?

You're taxing your dominant hand and wasting time!

If you answer the call with your non-dominant hand, you can use the dominant hand to look for paper and pen and jot down the message.

If you use your non-dominant hand to compute with the calculator, you can take down notes and answer with your dominant hand.

I've seen young people texting with both hands on their cellphones. It's a safety practice specially if they text in public - makes it harder for snatchers to take off with a cellphone held by two hands. But I wonder what they will do if they receive a text message that needs to written down.

I've heard stories of left-handed people who commit the mistake of offering platters of food to their Arab friends using their dominant hand. In Saudi Arabia and Muslim countries, the left hand is used for cleansing themselves while the right one is used for good and polite acts.

Training programs for police, military and security guards emphasize the need to leave the hand used for holding a gun free. If they use that hand to hold a cigarette and an armed enemy approaches, the seconds wasted on dropping the cigarette can spell injury or death to them.

It's never to late to teach ourselves to be ambidextrous.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Missing a Mother's Embrace

I will never forget that day in 1990. I traveled three days by boat to be on hand for Mama's triple heart bypass at the Philippine Heart Center. When the ship docked at the harbor, news reached us that there was an ongoing transport strike. A fellow passenger, with whom I got acquainted on the boat and knew the circumstances, kindly offered me a ride up to the corner of Delta Theater. And so from there I walked to the hospital. What struck me from the moment I entered it were the jolly smiles from almost everyone. The hospital layout gave me the impression of maze-like compartments in a beehive.

When I finally saw Mama, I dropped my luggage and rushed to embrace her. She had been in the hospital for two months in preparation for her operation. Earlier, when a second opinion confirmed the need for her operation, we (the siblings) were dismayed. We knew we didn't have the money for it. I asked for help from the Department of Social Welfare local office. Upon presenting to them the required paperwork, I learned that the salary I received from the University I worked for was below the poverty threshold, thus, qualifying Mama to receive assistance in terms of free medication and discounted medical services.

After two months, Mama was ready for her operation. Having three granddaughters at that time, she wanted so much to live long enough to see her grandson(s). Her nurses and doctors were optimistic about the outcome. On the other hand, my brother (who watched over her during those two months) and I were briefed by her surgeon on what to expect. Dominican seminarians of Santo Domingo Church donated blood for her operation two days later. Dominican priests and nuns offered masses for her successful operation.

One hour before the operation, we embraced. She asked me to take care of my siblings specially our "bad boy" and his family. When she was wheeled to the operating room, I gave her a brave smile. It was Friday, 10 a.m.

Eight hours later, the surgeon came to see my brother and me. The triple bypass was finished and the heart & lung machine turned off. But Mama's heart was failing to restart beating and her lungs were filling up with liquid. He told us they were about to perform the ultimate measure to revive Mama - inserting a tube into her heart to help restart it. I saw a nurse bringing the styrofoam box which contained the donated blood out of the operating room. My brother said he was going down to the chapel to pray. I was left to hold vigil outside the operating room.

An hour or so later, bad news! Mama didn't make it. My brother and I waited at the morgue for her body. He was hoarse from shouting Mama's name and got so hysterical upon hearing the news from me, he had to be sedated. When we were shown her body wrapped in a white shroud, we raced to embrace her.

It has been 17 years since Mama left us. In those years, I would have the chance to get close to mothers of my friends, neighborly mothers, Mama's friends, and motherly friends. My friends would rib me for being a nanay-napper because I would share in their bonding time. These times were filled with exchanged laughter and embraces. There is really nothing like a mother's embrace - soothing, consoling, calming, reassuring children, regardless of age, that all is well in our broken imperfect world.

Every time Mother's Day rolled in, I would usually be advanced in greeting my surrogate mothers. And every time, I would get in trouble with their children specially those who forgot to greet their mothers. I would then "nag" my friends not to take their mothers for granted.

Through the years, several of my surrogate mothers had moved on. Now I can count with my fingers the last remaining ones. And these are the ones I continue to cherish for being part of my life, for unselfishly sharing their loving embraces with me. To you Mama and my nanays, Happy Mother's Day! Thank you for your love and embraces.


I got my name in lights with notcelebrity.co.uk

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Election Time!

With elections in the Philippines being held in a three-year cycle, we see the viciousness of muckraking, indiscriminate posting of election materials, political killings, vote-wooing/buying/selling, turncoatism. I believe the quality of our freedom and democracy rise and fall on the vigilance with which we exercise our right of suffrage.
Failure to do so forfeits our right to criticize those who have been elected by those who did their duty as citizens.

Here are some serious and not-so-serious quotes I have chosen to remind us of what elections ought to be (or not!):
  • A public office is a public trust and whoever serves in government, from the highest to the lowest, is a servant of the people. - Ignacio Villamor
  • My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins. - Manuel L. Quezon
  • It is the duty if every citizen to interested in how well or how badly his government operates. - Gil J. Puyat
  • The toughest part of politics is to satisfy the voter without giving him what he wants. - William Shakespeare
  • Those who stay away from the election think that one vote will do no good: 'Tis but one step more to think one vote will do no harm. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user. -Theodore Roosevelt
  • In times of stress and strain, people will vote. -Anonymous
  • Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. -George Bernard Shaw
  • Vote for the man who promises least. He'll be the least disappointing. -Bernard Baruch
  • Our elections are free - it's in the results where eventually we pay. -Bill Stern
  • Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide. - Joseph P. Kennedy

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

I've looked at clouds that way . . .

I've been deliberately writing in simple terms. One writing principle that guides me as a writer is write to express, not to impress. I steer clear of jargon or specialized language (language understood by certain groups of people only). If I have to use it for a mixed audience, I also have to explain it lengthily. I borrowed a book once written by a Filipino philosopher and I couldn't understand a single sentence in it! The philosophical jargon in it was amazing. I guess I need to have a master's or doctoral degree to understand it. There's a column in a national daily written by a medical doctor and readers who want to know more about the disease discussed in it end up more confused than enlightened. Maybe its proper place is in a medical journal?

Beginning writers make the mistake of using big words drawn from their overdeveloped vocabulary that will make readers want to run to the nearest dictionary. If you're using MSWord, enable the readability statistics in the spelling & grammar check under Tools. This is a useful tool for you to find out who can read what you just wrote.
When writing is clouded by jargon, how else can the writer communicate? The last time I checked communication is still a two-way process.

So, my gentle blogreader, take out your pen and paper and try your hand at deciphering what proverbs were obscured in the following:
  1. Persons of imbecilic mentality navigate in parameters which cherubic entities approach with trepidation.
  2. Pulchritude possesses profundity of a merely cutaneous nature.
  3. A mass of concentrated earthly material perennially rotating on its axis will not accumulate an accretion of bryophytic vegetation.
  4. It is not efficacious to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers.
  5. That prudent avis which matutinally deserts the coziness of its abode will not ensnare a vermiculate creature.
  6. Everything that coruscates with effulgence is not ipso facto aurous.
  7. Visible vapors that issue from carbonaceous materials are a harbinger of imminent conflagration.
  8. Domicile, not salty, not sour, not rancid, abode.
  9. Members of an avian species of identical plumage congregate.
  10. Eschew the implement of correction and vitiate the scion.
Bonus - Guess this nursery rhyme:
scintillate, scintillate, globule of vivific
fain would i fathom thy nature specific,
loftily poised above the capacious
closest resembling a gem carbonaceous.

I compiled these from various sources.

Answers: 1. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread 2. Beauty is skin deep 3. A rolling stone gathers no moss 4. You can't teach an old dog new tricks 5. The early bird catches the worm 6. Everything that glitters is not gold 7. Where there is smoke, there is fire 8. Home sweet home 9. Birds of the same feather flock together 10. Spare the rod and spoil the child
Bonus: Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

If you get 7 or more correct answers, quit your day job and run for public office.:-D

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Six Weird Things About Moi

Rolly has tagged me to write on 6 weird things about myself. So here goes:

ONE: I read 5 - 6 books at the same time. Nah, I don't have 6 hands to do that. While others read only one book at one time/sitting, I manage to
multi-read. I have to - as a teacher reading 2 - 3 textbooks, as a thriller/horror/science fiction fan taking on the 3rd to the last book of Stephen King, John Sandford, and Ray Bradbury (they're so prolific I and my budget can hardly catch up), as a writer/journalist reading up on the bios and writings of journalists/broadcasters/literati, and as a believer reading Daily Bread and the suggested Bible passages at the start of each day. And no, I don't use bookmarks or dog-ear pages to remind me where I have to continue reading in these books.

TWO: I only feel totally at ease when I am the one taking a picture of myself. I call this my auto-photo/fotome syndrome. Don't ask and I don't tell. So I thank the technorati who came up with cellphone cameras and digital cameras. Now I can choose which pictures of mine to keep and delete.

THREE: I am able to keep my presence of mind in times of crisis. So well in fact that I was once suspected of being part of a plot to blow a colleague to smithereens. This is what happened: a colleague whose family was close to mine was a blast victim. When I heard about it, I asked about his condition and the nurse informed that he was conscious and warned the clinic not to inform his hypertensive mother about the blast. Since my own mom was hypertensive too, I volunteered to phone her about it. When she answered my call, I asked her to sit down and asked someone at their home to get her water to drink. Then with the calmest tone I could muster, I told her that her son was a victim in a blast and was in a hospital, alive and alert. We agreed to meet at the hospital. I passed by the canteen to buy her food and bottled water as it was approaching noon then. When I got there, everything was in a tizzy. I saw other colleagues in groups talking in hushed tones and gesturing a lot. When the mother saw me, she flew into my arms and cried. She pleaded with me to arrange an ambulance to transfer her son to another hospital as the one he's in was under renovation. So to assuage her about his safety, I made the request. While waiting for the paperwork, I shared with her the lunch I brought. Soon, we were on our way to the other hospital. When the son was finally in his new room with his mother, wife and son, I bid them adieu. Within the next few minutes, a few colleagues streamed into the room and warned the mother I was part of the plot to kill her son. Reason: I was so calm and even managed to bring her food and drinks. Since I was so self-assured about the incident, I must have had prior knowledge of it. Ergo! I must be involved in planning it! And this was what I got for being thoughtful, a boy scout and a Red Cross trained volunteer!

FOUR: I have anosmia, a term I learned from Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. I don't know exactly when I started losing my sense of smell, but I remember as a young boy waking up every morning and sneezing. In elementary my adenoids were operated on. In high school, what started as allergic rhinitis had escalated to sinusitis. My anosmia was weird because I smelled extreme aromas and odors only. I could detect whiffs of strong perfumes and revolting decaying garbage; nothing in between. After polyps were surgically removed from my nasal passages three years ago, I began sensing again to a limited degree the in-between-smells. Thank God for small mercies. Now I can enjoy my meals better. Now I can smell the scent of Ilang-ilang the whole day and dama de noche at night wafting from my garden.

FIVE: My drawing skills are limited to eyes only. My drawing pads are filled with eyes, mine and others. I can't draw any other body part, much more an entire body. I'm learning Chinese water color painting this summer. And eyes are difficult to draw with a Chinese brush!

SIX: I collect various versions of my favorite songs: Windmills of your mind, Meditation from Thais, Adagio by Albinioni, Who can I turn to?, What matters most, What kind of fool am I?, Ode to Joy, Try to remember, While my guitar gently weeps, Somewhere over the rainbow, I'm always chasing rainbows, Both sides now, and many more. In college, I scrimped on my weekly allowance so I could arrange with the record bar to record a cassette tape of Windmills versions.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Da Vinci Code Revisited

First off, full disclosure: I've read
Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln years before I read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

As a reader, I found Holy Blood, Holy Grail intriguing. It read like a quest-for-something novel like James Redfield's Celestine Prophecy books.

The theories presented in it are plausible, albeit not founded on hard evidence. And so it spawned documentary inquiries undertaken by major networks like BBC which found the book wanting in proof.

Before this book, I've read several "nonfiction" books along the same vein: alternative views on what Christians believe to be true: Erich Von Daniken and Zecaria Sitchin's books presenting extraterrestrial explanations for religious and miracles, earth's origins and the like. What I found interesting in these books are the amalgamation of various disciplines (astronomy, anthropology, mythology, archaeology, technology, physics) and how the authors drew conclusions from this mixture. I also read contradictory books written by specialists from specific fields, e.g. an archaeologist refuting von Daniken. Strangely, there seems to be no book written as a compendium of multi-disciplinary refutations to von Daniken and Sitchin's theories.

Before The Da Vinci Code, I've also read novels like the Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ and other thrillers involving the Turin Shroud, cross, the body of Christ, relics, etc. What prompted me to read the book was the furor it and then-movie-to-be-shown drew worldwide from its title ("it should be called The Leonardo Code because painters use their first names in signing their works") to physical disparity in the routes Brown wrote for the car chase scenes and the actual locations of streets and landmarks to the same rehashed objections previously raised to Holy Blood, Holy Grail to anti-Christianity and anti-anything.

When I finally read Dan Brown's novel, I was impressed by his playfulness (the codes hidden throughout the book, the way he weaved an enticing tale drawn from "nonfiction" sources). I pictured him as a boy having fun with a chemistry set in coming up with this amalgam of a novel. Some portions of the novel seemed predictable to me because I've read the Baigent/Leigh/Lincoln book.
But it was a fun and engaging novel to read and it richly deserved its best-selling status. And yes, I knew what was fiction and what was nonfiction in the novel.

While discussing the Da Vinci book and movie with college students, I mentioned James Cameron's Titanic - a film that is an amalgam of fiction and nonfiction sources. To my surprise, the students thought Kate Winslet's character (Rose DeWitt Bukater) and Leonardo DiCaprio's character (Jack Dawson) were true-to-life!

And I think this should have been the crux of the furor: Can readers/viewers really distinguish for themselves what's fiction and what's not in books they read or films they watch?

Nevertheless, I think the best thing that came out of all these is the healthy discussions and debates about faith and pop culture. It was an exhilarating experience in critical thinking for open-minded people, a spiritually-reviving one for those who thought their faiths were in danger and an enriching one for Dan Brown and the film producers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

1989 Dumaguete National Writers Summer Workshop

Every year in May, the National Writers Summer Workshop is held at Dumaguete City for three weeks.

I've heard about this writing workshop in the 80s from one of my mentors, Tita Lacambra-Ayala. Bringing typewritten manuscripts of my short stories, I would travel three hours by bus to Davao City to see her. She took me under her wing, egging me to drink several glasses of rum-coke while she read my stories. Half-drunk, I would listen as she critiqued my work. She would also regale me with her literary exploits. She would bring me to exhibits, poetry readings, meetings with the local literati like Lydia Ingle and Wenzel Bautista. I would help her out by selling sets of her Roadmap Series featuring the works of fictionists, poets and painters.

When my short story, Crimson Crescents, won the grand prize in a Mr. & Ms. magazine contest in 1988, Tita urged me to join the National Writers Workshop. I was apprehensive about the workshop at first, fearing that whatever natural writing talent I have would not withstand the panel critiquing. She gave me the list of requirements and volunteered to write the requisite letter of recommendation to Mom Edith Tiempo.

And so in 1989, I took the circuitous route (dictated by the meager travel allowance given by the Workshop administration) of bus rides from Gensan to Davao City to Cagayan de Oro City where I took a boat ride to Cebu City and another boat ride from there to Dumaguete City. Upon arrival at the narrow wharf, I asked a vendor for directions to Silliman University. With her pouting lips, she pointed to a large mansion by the sea. After a short walk, I walked between the portals of the University. A Workshop staff led me to Sampaguita Residence where the workshoppers were billeted. In the afternoon, the 16 of us were present and raring to undergo the workshop. At 6 p.m. a chorus of screams emanated from the ladies room followed by the sound of slippered feet clambering down the stairs. While doing their ablutions, the ladies from Manila got the scare of their lives when they heard the disembodied sounds (TUK-oo, TUK-oo) made by a tree gecko. Their horror elicited hearty laughs from the promdi (from the provinces) workshoppers.

The next day, at the start of the workshop, we were given a hefty compilation of our works with our bylines in absentia. A schedule of what works would be tackled in the workshop was also distributed. The panel was introduced to us and vice-versa. Dad Ed and Mom Edith Tiempo were the chair and at various intervals, we had lively discussions with Francis Macansantos, Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Merlie Alunan, Marj Evasco, Anthony Tan, Ophelia Dimalanta, Jimmy Abad, and Beth Day Romulo.

The workshop sessions were held in various venues. The panel was generally encouraging in their comments. But there was no drama especially during the critiquing. The workshoppers were often surprised by the insights drawn from their obra maestra. Always there were bursts of applause when the writer was introduced at the end of the session. Lakambini Sitoy's star shone the brightest, according to panelists and they were right.

The group was quite laid back. Some of us took early morning or late afternoon dips at the Silliman Beach, watched Blue Velvet at the only cinema in town, enjoyed the night breeze while sipping beer by the Boulevard, browsed old used books at the mezzanine of a store, trekked to the Overlook, strolled inside the vast campus, chatted about the sessions just finished while feasting on Jo's inato chicken and halo-halo, joined Cesar Ruiz Aquino in a chess game on a downtown sidewalk. Jose Wendell Capili took some pictures of us.

We held a dinner poetry reading session hosted at poet-musicologist Dr. Albert Faurot's campus residence. But the most memorable to me was the luncheon hosted by the Tiempos at their home. After the luncheon, Dad Ed took me aside and with his arm on my shoulder, gave me the lowdown on fiction writing. He said I was a natural story teller and that I should continue writing short stories. For that, I am eternally grateful to Dad Ed, one of my literary heroes.

All in all, it was the most cerebrally stimulating summer I ever spent.

After that, being one of only two from Mindanao, I sort of lost touch with my fellow fellows. However, in 1999 (ten years later), I would have an unexpected reunion with some of them during the launching of Relasyon edited by Rolando Tolentino and Luna Sicat at Ateneo de Manila University.