Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Issues for 2010

This is my column today. I will post my own take on the specific issues that I feel are relevant in the 2010 Presidential elections over the weekend.


It is still too early for our presidential timbers and toothpicks to begin trading barbs and lobbing bombs at each other, but it is never too early to discuss the issues that are, should be, or must be relevant in the 2010 presidential elections.

This is because elections should ideally be about the issues more than the personalities.

In a perfect world, or at least in mature democracies, the electorate chooses candidates based on the issues that they espouse. This is what political parties are supposed to be about. They are supposed to represent specific ideological, political, or even social and spiritual beliefs and platforms.

Of course, personal qualities should also count, but only to the extent necessary to articulate the issues clearly, and to perform the functions of the posts the candidates are aspiring for. There simply is no point in expecting our candidates to have the same personal virtues as, for instance, a cardinal of the church.

And yes, even charisma has its limits. At a certain point, candidates must prove that they have something else between their ears other than a pretty face; candidates must stand for something other than their personal vested interests.

In our country however, personal qualities—attributes, actually—seem to be the primary consideration among the electorate. Fortunately, we seem to have gotten over our fascination with celebrities and movie stars and have since then been able to make a distinction between their real qualifications and their onscreen personas.

But most among us do continue to “buy” on emotions and later on justify these with facts. Our choices are still often based on very personal reasons—such as a sense of personal affiliation with the candidates borne out of a shared demographic factor. This early, for example, a Senator Mar Roxas—Cebu Provincial Gov. Gwen Garcia tandem for 2010 is being floated around as winnable, supposedly because it locks up the Visayas and Mindanao votes. Supposedly. What is sad that is that nothing is being said about whether there is a complement of platforms and issues between the two candidates.

This situation results in the rather incongruous situation where it is the electorate that ends up embracing the issues of the candidate rather than the other way around. The electorate ends up justifying their choices and settling for whatever issues their chosen candidates are regurgitating, even if these issues are alien and irrelevant to their situations as say, the fluctuating prices of swamp cabbages in Kathmandu.

This is why educating the electorate is a critical task that must be given priority by those who have the means to do it. If we come to think about it, most of our problems can be traced to poor leadership. We are simply electing to positions of power too many incompetent or unworthy people; they may be good looking, they may be popular, they may be generous, but they are the wrong people for the job.

What happens is that we eventually spend too much time and effort trying to impeach or recall these leaders (only to replace them with people of the same ilk). Sadly, there isn’t enough time spent helping our people choose and elect the right leaders to begin with. If our voters were more intelligent and discerning, the incompetent and the corrupt would have more difficulty winning.

An educated and empowered electorate, however, is a bane to traditional politicians who rely on the usual dirty tricks to win elections. Thus, people who expect voter education and empowerment initiatives to come from our politicians are in for a big disappointment. Our politicians maybe inept and lacking in mental resources, but they aren’t stupid enough to shoot themselves in the foot.

Fortunately, there are groups and individuals that believe in the cause. And happily for them, there is the blogosphere which remains free and democratic. The downside is that not everyone has access to the blogosphere.

One such initiative is being undertaken by blogger Janette Toral in one of her blogs (http://digitalfilipino.blogspot.com). Toral has recently organized other discussions and fora on the 2010 elections including one on “Blogging and 2010 Elections Program.”

Toral invites people to weigh in with what they “think are the important issues that people should consider as priority when analyzing politician’s or political party agenda come 2010 Philippine Elections.” This latest attempt at encouraging more people to speak up and be heard regarding the issues for 2010 has netted quite a number of interesting and enlightening points of view.

The usual staple issues are still there, of course, such as national security, crime prevention, employment, energy, the environment, the economy, health care, land reform, education, electoral reforms, Charter Change, housing, countryside development, trade equity, tourism, etc. My own list hues closely to the Top 10 list of blogger Rom Sedona (http://smoketalk.wordpres.com) although it would contain more specifics such as HIV/AIDS prevention and reproductive health issues.

These issues are expected to be major discussion points in any electoral campaign. Any candidate who does not respond to these issues is bound to come out as totally out of touch with reality. Thus, all candidates do go through the motions of putting together a platform that responds to as many issues as possible, but in broad strokes and with motherhood statements about “further improving” or “turning around” or “gaining headway” in these areas.

Some bloggers have come up with other fascinating issues, though. For example, Alleba Politics (http://politics.alleba.com) includes in his short list of possible agenda for 2010 the following: legalization of divorce, women and gay rights, Philippine arts and entertainment, and science and technology research and development.

Given the propensity of our politicians to obfuscate issues and to play safe, it might be a good idea to ask them specific questions. For example, I would rather that we ask candidates where exactly they stand on controversial issues such as contraception, censorship, sex education for high school students, divorce, etc. But that’s just me.


What is important is that we get the discussion about the issues going before our attention gets diverted by the circus and the smokescreens that our politicians are already preparing to unleash upon us.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Faith and panacea

This is my column today.

Last Friday, Fr. Fernando Suarez, the healing priest, was in the bank that I worked for.
It was supposed to be an “exclusive-for-members” religious affair organized by the congregation behind the annual Sto. Niño exhibit. But as many among us know by now, Father Suarez is a huge phenomenon in a country that seems to be in desperate need of healing. There is no such thing as “private” and “exclusive” when it comes to matters of life and death.

Thus, any affair where the healing priest makes an appearance is bound to be a very public, very messy affair.

A few days ago, traffic at Edsa was hopelessly jammed as throngs of people tried to make their way to the Santuario de San Antonio at Forbes Park to attend one of the healing masses of the famous healing priest. We’ve all read news stories about how very sick people risked whatever little energy they have left, waiting for hours and hours in very congested areas, just to be touched and healed.

I was particularly taken aback by the story of that very sick young boy who was hooked up to an oxygen tank that eventually ran out while waiting for Father Suarez. We’ve seen images on television and on YouTube of very, very sick people in stretchers and in wheelchairs being perilously hoisted up among the throngs of the faithful just so they can receive healing from the priest. In moments like those, one can’t help marvelling at the wisdom of the motivations of the people who brought all those sick people to those venues.

Truly, faith and desperation are oftentimes beyond the realm of reason and logic. The things we do in the name of faith!

The scene at the bank last Friday was something straight from the movie “Himala” as people from all walks of life and with all kinds of afflictions—ranging from the physical and the emotional to the spiritual and psychological—mobbed the healing priest.

Occasions like these where faith and hope are so palpable one can almost touch them are powerful lessons in spirituality. It is in occasions like these when one cannot help submitting to the realization that faith can indeed move mountains; that it is belief in something beyond our own selves that gives meaning to our existence.

Unfortunately, it is also on occasions like these when we come face to face with another ugly realization: Faith and desperation also bring out the worst in many among us.

A friend of mine who has been acting out the roles of chauffeur cum caregiver cum chaperone to a very sick aunt with stage four cancer narrated to me very disturbing vignettes that have surrounded their efforts to follow the trail of Father Suarez. His aunt is wheelchair-bound and is obviously sick.

One would presume that people would give way to his aunt in these healing sessions. But as it turns out, they’ve experienced all kinds of uncivil behavior from everyone else. People push, shove, and generally throw courtesy to the air in these sessions.

The experience, as my friend relates, gives new dimension to the cliché “survival of the fittest.”
What is disheartening, he notes, is the way very physically fit and able people who are obviously not in critical situations elbow everyone else to receive attention ahead of the very sick. What is even more disturbing is the way people with political connections end up at the head of the line, sometimes being allowed special audiences with the healing priest in private rooms.

At Forbes Park, for example, he was quite agitated to overhear some wealthy parishioners strutting around in their diamonds and their designer getups complaining loudly about how their precious Santuario has been overrun by “unworthy” people. If we come to think about it, it should have been an occasion for people who claim piety and religiosity to draw reflection from—after all, it is not every day that Forbes Park opens its doors to the sick and the poor. But the message was lost on some people. A very popular personage was even overheard huffing around that that particular healing session was supposed to be only for the parishioners of Forbes Park.

Before you castigate me for imagining that a caste system exists even in spiritual sessions, let me stress that I am simply sharing facts as my friend saw them.

Of course these things are probably beyond the control of Father Suarez. I am sure that the healing priest only has the best intentions. He can’t be faulted for the fact that many people seem to believe that the number of times one attends his healing sessions translate into better chances of healing and recovery. But like I said, faith is a very difficult concept to make sense of particularly because it happens to be “resolute.” In other words, if one believes in something with all his or her heart, nothing can sway that person to believe otherwise.

I’ve tried to explain to my friend that while Father Suarez may have the gift of healing, it is really faith that “heals.” I’ve also tried to share with my friend supposed scientific “theories” behind the healing phenomena, mostly about the placebo effect and the power of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the psychological concept that says healing is the result of the power of one’s belief that he or she would be healed. In the end, it is not the healer who heals, it is the person who heals himself or herself.

I’ve also attempted to convince my friend that there was probably no need to expose his aunt to further aggravations and the daunting task of braving the elements just to be physically present in all of Father Suarez’s healing sessions. After all, bundling up all those medical equipment in their van and having to spend all those hours in traffic and in very congested areas were no joke. Above all, it must be taking its toll on his aunt’s failing health. But he told me his aunt’s faith in Father Suarez was so powerful that she was willing to face the supreme irony of it all: Risking death just to be healed.

I don’t quite know what to make of this phenomenon. An anthropologist friend of mine thinks that the Father Suarez phenomenon and all the other similar phenomena that is sweeping our country (it’s not just Father Suarez, although he seems more credible; we’ve also been witness to other less credible and plausible Pied Pipers including that one who brought in busloads of people from Bicol to Luneta recently) is reflective of the level of desperation among our people.

He thinks that we as a people are in dire need of faith that we seem to latch on to anything that offers something we can believe in. Perhaps. But if we come to think about it, this phenomenon is also reflective of the absence or the diminishing level of faith among us. If we come to think about it, we don’t need healing priests to heal us if we truly believe in the powers of our God.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What goes around

This is my column today.

Humor me please and see how long it will take you to figure this out. This was an exercise that I used to do when conducting training programs for bank personnel. I’ve always been amazed at how easy it is for people to take for granted certain things that we see and use every day.

There are seven basic colors in this exercise: Green, brown, orange, red, violet, yellow and blue. You may want to write the colors down although I assure you that once you get the idea, remembering the colors isn’t hard.

The object of the exercise is to apply arithmetical processes (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) to the colors. For example, a green plus a green makes a brown. A red and a red makes a violet. A yellow plus a yellow makes a blue. Confused already? A brown multiplied by a brown makes a violet too. But a brown multiplied by a violet makes a blue.

Thus, what color is produced when one divides yellow by green, or when one divides a red with a brown? Or when a red is added to two oranges and a brown? What does a violet divided by a green produce? And what color is produced by adding five violets?

The automatic reaction of most people is to assume that these are algebraic problems rather than simple exercises in parallel thinking. Many people simply give up immediately for fear of straining their brains.

Let’s save others from having to take a paracetamol pill by revealing the key to the exercise. The colors represent Philippine banknotes (or peso bills). Thus, green represents P5, brown is 10, orange is P20, violet is P100. A violet (100) multiplied by a brown (10) makes a blue (1,000). We are one of the few countries in the world that uses a variety of solid colors for our banknotes. Note that the United States of America uses only one color (green) for all its banknotes.

A similar exercise is getting people to recall the features of the wristwatch they are currently wearing. These exercises can be great lessons in selective perception, or in parallel thinking, or even as a simple exercises to encourage creative thinking. But they also illustrate the extent to which we take for granted many things that we see or use every day.

There’s actually a wealth of interesting information related to our banknotes. Do you know that our banknotes are not made of paper or plastic but of cloth? Most of our banknotes are real works of art. Aside from the historical significance portrayed in each banknote, there are also other interesting trivia about each one.

For example, do you know that most of our banknotes have texts printed in very tiny fonts called microprints and which also serve as additional security feature? In the P100 bill, the words Bangko Sentral Ng Pilipinas is microprinted repeatedly in one of the buildings featured in the reverse side of the banknote. The words Central Bank of the Philippines are also microprinted in the P1,000 and P500 banknotes. The microprint on the P50 banknote spells Gusali Ng Pambansang Museo. See if you can find where the microprints are in the notes.

There are a number of security features in our banknotes that makes it easy to differentiate it from counterfeits. However, it would be counterproductive to explain these to everyone as there are simpler, more convenient ways to detect a counterfeit note. Using ultraviolet lights (you must have noticed cashiers at some department stores subjecting your banknotes to a quick scan under a UV lamp) is one quick way to detect counterfeit notes, but it is unfortunately, not foolproof. Many counterfeit notes already contain fluorescent printing.

Anyway. What got me thinking about banknotes were a series of incidents that happened recently.

Numismatists (people who collect currency and bank notes) are agog over an announcement that in commemoration of the centennial of the University of the Philippines, our P100 banknotes will soon carry an image of the Oblation. The Oblation, which is a sculpture of a man with face up and arms stretched-wide symbolizing selfless offering of one’s self in the service of the country, will be overprinted on the P100 banknote.

Exactly where in the banknote the Oblation will appear is still a well-kept secret, but it is something to look forward to as it’s been quite sometime since our country commemorated a national event through our banknotes.

Also recently, my friends and I got into a little tiff with certain establishments over banknotes. Because we work with a bank, we are familiar with certain policy guidelines related to banknotes. It is disappointing to note that even major establishments, such as those in SM malls, don’t teach their cashiers basic information on handling Philippine banknotes.

Our first tiff happened with a cashier of a restaurant who gave us old and worn-out banknotes as change when she had new notes in her register. This practice of keeping in circulation old, worn-out, smelly notes is something that truly does not make sense because the central bank is obligated to do it. In fact, it encourages people to return old banknotes so that these can be replaced with new, cleaner, crisper notes.

The standard protocol in major establishments should be to collect and keep old notes, rather than circulate these, so that these can be deposited at their bank at the end of the day. Their bank, in turn, is expected to deposit these old notes at the Bangko Sentral. The central bank then keeps these for disposal. The standard procedure should be this: Use old and worn-out notes to pay for purchases and receive new notes as change. Cashiers should keep old notes and not circulate these anymore. Those who don’t are simply lazy or ignorant.

Let’s get this straight: Banknotes that have been in circulation for quite sometime are dirty. And by dirty I don’t mean the metaphorical or moral sense, as in “money is the root of all evil.” I mean it in the literal, even medical sense. Because it is the instrument of commerce, banknotes get passed around from one dirty hand to another, mixed with other lethal and toxic stuff in some bag or wallet, even stuffed into areas not worthy of mention in this column. I have a grand aunt who, to this very day, wraps her money in some cloth and keeps it close to her heart— again, literally. She stuffs the whole thing inside her bra. Banknotes that have been in circulation for sometime is host to all kinds of organisms. It is not wise to pass them around.

On the same day, we got into another argument with another cashier who would not accept a banknote with a little tear on it. It is actually illegal for any establishment not to accept notes that continue to be of legal tender. As long as two-thirds of a banknote is intact, it continues to be legal tender.

Unfortunately, not many among us are aware of the guidelines or of our rights so we just grin and bear the aggravation. Many among us don’t like confrontations and hate getting into arguments with cashiers or sales people either, so we just take whatever notes are given to us. Well, the point is, we don’t have to.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Trash talk

This is my column today.

A news story that went largely ignored by most everyone in media last week was the threat of yet another garbage crisis in Metro Manila. It did get cursory mention in some television newscasts and in some papers, but it was given much less attention than the other types of trash that this country produces every day—such as Joseph Estrada’s latest attempts at prevarication and all this nonsense about forgetting Edsa Dos.

As in the past, there were much preening and cackling for the cameras as local executives of the province of Rizal and environment bureaucrats went after each other’s throats. For a while there, it looked like the contending parties were finally on to the real and substantive issues related to this recurring problem of managing the thousands of tons of garbage Metro Manila produces everyday.

Unfortunately, the real nature of the squabble—it turned out to be nothing more than a turf issue—soon became apparent. Thus, all it took was some efforts to smoothen some ruffled feathers and presto, another looming garbage crisis was averted.

All’s well that ends well? For the moment, yes. But the garbage crisis is something that will continue to haunt us unless a more comprehensive and strategic solution is put in place. The crisis is not only recurring more frequently. The last time we had a garbage crisis in Metro Manila happened barely a few months ago in October when the province of Rizal closed down a dumpsite. The magnitude of the problem is also increasing each time, as it does seem to take less and less time for dumpsites to be filled up.

This is expected as Metro Manila becomes more congested. There really is not enough space that can accommodate the garbage that Metro Manila’s 12 million residents generate every day. The 19-hectare dumpsite at Rodriguez, Rizal looks sprawling on television, but we all know that a couple of months is all it will take to fill that space. Most other landfills are already filled to capacity.

We’re running out of dump yards and people willing to make the sacrifice of living beside trash. As a result, many have taken to simply dumping trash on private lands, or into canals and rivers, and even into Manila Bay.

The citizens of Rizal may seem resigned to their fate as host to toxic substances right now, but we all know that this will change when the stench becomes unbearable and when the trash becomes eyesores of monstrous proportions. This early, there are already a number of blogs put up by citizens of Rizal all condemning the seeming obsequiousness of their local executives to the whims of imperial Manila. It’s only a matter of time before the citizens of Rizal do their own version of people power against trash.

A few years ago, the citizens of the province of Cavite were in that situation when they also opposed dumping on their province. I remember some local executives of Metro Manila responding to the situation with one of the most stupid reactions ever. They threatened to bar Caviteños, particularly working people, from entering Metro Manila. The acrobatic logic beyond the ludicrous tit for tat was that if the people of Cavite do not allow Metro Manila residents to pollute their historic and sacred grounds, they shouldn’t be allowed as well to make a living in Metro Manila. I am glad no one indulged in that kind of absurdity this time around.

I know that a number of those living in Metro Manila think that other people should accept being recipients of our trash as if it’s a blessing that is bestowed upon them. I hope that these people don’t ever get to live near a dumpsite and experience for themselves what it feels like to breathe, smell, taste, and live with garbage every day of their lives.

Let’s face it. No province or town really deserves to make that kind of sacrifice. In the spirit of calling a spade a dirty shovel, hosting Metro Manila’s garbage is a major sacrifice. It is a burden that no one should be made to suffer. We are all aware of the kind of aggravation garbage makes. Who hasn’t come across neighbors coming to blows over garbage that’s been—whether intended or not—piled on someone’s front yard? Nobody wants to have garbage piled on one’s yard. It’s unsightly. It’s unsanitary. And it stinks. Now, compound that problem a thousand-fold and you have the kind of situation the citizens of the province of Rizal face everyday.

Metro Manila’s garbage problem has been described many different ways. One congressman referred to it as a “ticking, stinking time bomb.” One former environment secretary quaintly described it as a “rotten erupting volcano.” No one has come forward with a more comprehensive waste management plan. Everyone is still talking quick fixes and magic bullets.

The filthy stinking mess is hopelessly drowned in politics. In case you don’t know, there’s a lot of money involved in it. And I’m not talking about the pittance that the people who pick on garbage everyday make.

Garbage collection is a multi-million-peso business venture. It means awarding a government contract, and a government contract means kickbacks and commissions for local executives. That’s not really difficult to figure out. What, you think that our local executives don’t make money on trash? It gives another dimension to the cliché “one person’s trash is another man’s fortune.”

So indeed, why come up with a comprehensive, long-term plan on waste management that takes a lot of courage and hard work to implement when a quick fix is available, and one that offers a bounty?

In the meantime, we are faced with this filthy, stinking problem of our own making. It’s a problem that won’t go away and is bound to become more and more serious.

Oh I know that all of us are responsible for the problem, and consequently, the crafting and the implementation of a workable solution. We generate trash, we should be responsible for it. Sure, we should all be made accountable. Of course we should all pitch in and help in the effort. We should exert all efforts to completely eliminate, or at least reduce the amount of garbage we generate everyday. Fine.

The problem is that such an effort requires a master plan that involves educating people, providing support mechanisms, even putting in place the necessary infrastructure to carry it out. I am not talking about coming up with another law! Good grief, we have more than enough laws in this country that’s gathering dust in some shelves. Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 has already been passed. The problem is translating the law into a plan and marshalling efforts to implement it.

The reality is that reducing waste is doable. Filipinos can do more than just lugging around fashionable bags that proclaim “This is not made out of plastic.” The problem is many don’t know how. And there seems to be no one out there among our leaders who has the political will and the courage to stand up and lead in this effort.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Desensitized to horror and terror

This is my column today.

Up until the time I was in college, the hours between six and 11 p.m., now known as primetime television, were relatively “safe” television hours.

Primetime was an occasion for the whole family to huddle in the living room to watch some situation comedy or musical show. The shows were often of the mindless drivel type, but they were always guaranteed to be both entertaining and safe. By safe, I mean stuff that won’t do irreparable damage to the minds of children, or even adults for that matter, as well as stuff that won’t interfere with one’s healthy appreciation of dinner. Back then, one watched television mainly for relaxation.

Today, primetime television is anything but relaxing. It has gotten to a point where practically every show on primetime carries a parent advisory warning. It has gotten so bad that a number of people I know no longer watch television to avoid unnecessary stress.

The kind of muck foisted upon the general public by our television networks has become so varied and unpredictable that practically every show now carries a parental advisory warning. They now have so-called fantaseryes (fantasy series) that feature all kinds of man-devouring monsters to go with your dinner. I remember coming home at dinnertime a couple of weeks back to find a kid in the house being punished for not finishing dinner because one character in Lastikman spewed thousands of cockroaches and other insects that devoured people. I couldn’t blame the poor kid because even I could not imagine finishing dinner with that kind of appetizer in my mind.

For dessert, our very thoughtful television networks feature telenovelas with very adult content. Last I looked, adultery, multiple sexual partners, murder, swindle, large-scale deception, etc., were still adult material. These telenovelas are invariably drenched in hopelessly, endlessly, and pointlessly convoluted plots that serve no other purpose than to lengthen running time and justify the blank and dazed expressions on the faces of the actors.

As if these were not enough already, they have now introduced yet another genre into primetime television: horror television. GMA-7 started the trend with La Vendetta a couple of months back featuring a ghost haunting her siblings for justice. ABS-CBN has now countered with a made-for-television-remake of the Filipino cult classic Patayin Sa Sindak Si Barbara featuring the self-proclaimed queen of horror herself, Kris Aquino.

I think that critiquing Aquino is irrelevant in this country; it is precisely her quirks and imperfections that make people want to see more of her. Besides, it is pointless to argue with success and let’s face it, practically anything Aquino does turns out to be a huge success. However, I must insist to our networks that scaring kids every night is not exactly a good way to raise them. A friend commented in jest last week that the people behind Patayin ought to be reported to Bantay Bata for the terrible things they do to the child on that show (as well as kids who watch it) when we remembered that ABS-CBN is the main benefactor of Bantay Bata.

***

The kind of shows that our networks put on primetime is horrible, indeed, but at least we know that these are fiction. They are not real. Unfortunately, the network war between GMA-7 and ABS-CBN (or ABS-CBN and GMA-7 for people who are conscious about billing) is real. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of war that is bound to get uglier and uglier; the kind that only pulls everyone else down into the muck.

What exactly is the issue? To ABS-CBN, the main issue is ensuring that the ratings game continues to be clean and fair. Noble goal, of course, except that the station is not walking the talk in terms of keeping accusations clean and fair as well. Up until Monday night, the station was still at it, presenting witnesses who insist on remaining anonymous and who continue to hem and haw, in the end really adding nothing but static to the whole discourse.

As far as GMA-7 is concerned, the main issue is integrity. GMA-7 is smarting over the fact that ABS-CBN continues to make accusations whose veracity remains to be proven. Both claim to have not only the most definitive version of the truth but the sole patent for “integrity” as well.
What is truly sad about the network war is that both stations have now pulled all the stops in an effort to convince people out there that they are the ones telling the truth. Both stations are employing all their institutional resources in the service of the war. Not only have both stations come out with verrrry lengthy (and expensive, in terms of airtime) explanations that are broadcast on critical primetime hours, they have also engaged the services of their major stars in what looks like a proxy war.

Moreover, the networks have shown that they are not beyond using their own television shows as mouthpieces for their talking points. All these raise questions of ethics. Both stations are zealous critics of other institutions, particularly on ethical issues. Both have shows that regularly pass judgment on the actuation of other institutions and people. It would be nice if both stations really walk the talk and spare all of us the hypocrisy.

***

According to news reports, our country’s airports flunked international safety standards. The criteria used to evaluate overall worthiness of international airports included security measures, facilities, among others. I am not surprised. Here’s a real story that’s bound to depress you.

A friend of mine, who is a management consultant of international repute and who is a columnist in another newspaper, narrated to me the horrors that she and many others had to go through last Jan. 2 at the Centennial Terminal. She was leaving for Vietnam for a consulting gig and was taking a Philippine Airlines flight out of Manila.

Unfortunately, it was the day after a major holiday (New Year’s Day, of course). Most of us, particularly the superstitious ones, believe in starting the year right. We believe in putting our best foot forward at the first working day of the year to attract good fortune for the rest of the year. But it seems immigration officials in our country are not like most of us.

Can you imagine an international airport with only a single functioning immigration counter, manned by a single forlorn immigration official, on the first working day of the year?
It’s the day when most tourists and balikbayans who spent the holidays here scramble to get out; the day when businessmen with regional and international engagements start their foreign trips. It’s the first business and working day of the year! And we only had a solitary immigration official on duty at the Centennial Airport.

Imagine the situation this engendered. The queue was kilometric. Emotions were running high. The tension was palpable as the public address system kept on calling for passengers that needed to board already on planes that were already running behind schedule by at least an hour.

How is it possible for the centennial airport to be manned by a lone immigration official on Jan. 2? The reason was simple: All other immigration officials called in sick for the day. No, not because of some virus or epidemic; they simply had too much to eat or drink during the New Year revelry.

This is one of the reasons why we have trouble attracting foreign investors or tourists into our country. Who wants to come back if the last memory you have of the country is that of aggravations experienced while exiting the international airport?

In the end, perhaps our television networks are doing us a favor by showing all kinds of horrible stuff on primetime. We’re so desensitized to horror we don’t even get surprised when we see it in our daily lives.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Moving but not absorbing enough

This is my column today.

Tuesdays With Morrie was a book given to me by a former student as a present many Christmases ago.

I’ve heard about the book before then, I’ve even seen copies of it lying around in the bookstore, but I had reservations about picking it up and going home with it because a friend warned that it was “sentimental” and “depressing.” But the former student who gave it to me was raving—more like hyperventilating—about it and, ahem, he said that the book somehow reminded him of all the former teachers that have made a difference in his life, so I dove into it, finished it over a weekend, and promptly forgot about it.

Obviously, this inherently cynical fool didn’t really go bonkers over it. It was a nice read, profound in some places, dripping with poignancy in parts, and written in a kind of journalistic style that made the reading easy. I do have this natural repulsion for works that try to package common sense into some kind of earthshaking truths (e.g., death ends a life, not a relationship; or don’t hang on too long, but don’t let go too soon). Oh I know that common sense is not common and that there are people out there who need to be hit in the head repeatedly with it just so they can see what is obvious, but one wishes “self-help” does not have to be so, well, simplistic.

Tuesdays With Morrie is a little like that although mercifully, Mitch Albom, the author, tried not to preach. But to the cynical souls out there, it really is a cloying, sentimental take on some of life’s truths. It’s a work that’s soaked in cliches about many things: life, death, living, relationships, giving, etc. If we are to indulge in the same spirit and intent as that of the book, it affects people differently and one’s reaction to it is reflective more of the state of the person reading it.

Tuesdays With Morrie has since then become an international phenomenon. It has been made into a TV movie with Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria in the roles of professor Morrie Schwartz and Albom. It has also been turned into a play written for the stage by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher.

The play is the opening salvo of Repertory Philippines for 2008. It opened last Friday at Onstage Greenbelt. I prefer watching plays midway through its run when the production has already ironed out the technical kinks and when the actors have presumably gotten their acts down pat. But a former student who swears by the wisdom of Albom is already leaving back for Australia soon and only had the weekend to spare so we went on opening night.

Of the four of us who trooped to Greenbelt last Friday, three have already read the book and naturally had some expectations. I know that this business of comparing spin-offs to the original work is not fair since subsequent “versions” are really, in essence, interpretations of the original work by other people.

But Tuesdays With Morrie, unfortunately, is a work that supposedly flies on the wings of a particular “spirit,” or for lack of other terms, certain “wisdom” and well, “exhortations.” Here we have a professor who is dying (and who, we know, will die at the end of the play) and the whole point revolves around the lessons that can be derived from it. What made the book successful was that it made the phenomenon of “staring death in the face” not as morbid or, okay, as heavy, which is the normal paradigm. At the very least, we expect the play to be as heartwarming as the book. All right, we expected it to be witty, funny, and life affirming. These, after all, are probably the main reasons why the book created a huge devoted following.

Tuesdays With Morrie tells the story of a student-turned-sportswriter (Albom) and his sociology teacher (professor Morrie Schwartz). They met at Brandeis University and formed a special bond. When Albom graduates, he promises to keep in touch with the man he calls “coach” and promptly forgets about this promise. After 16 years, they meet again. This time, the professor is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. They renew their friendship. Albom makes it a point to visit every Tuesday, flying in to Boston from Detroit to once again learn from the feet of his beloved mentor. The visits turn into a series of classes about life, death, love, and living.

It’s the kind of material that makes for great theater because it is the words and the emotions that are supposed to take center stage. In Repertory Philippines’ staging, at least on opening night, the words came out as mere aphorisms. The emotions tended toward melodrama. It was dark and brooding and quite depressing (it didn’t help that the set was too somber for comfort). The spirit and insight that made the book likeable was lacking. But the drama was there.

The show’s relatively short running time (about an hour and 40 minutes, without intermission) and the fact that its whole cast is comprised of only two actors (Morrie and Mitch), took out most of the important context that provides critical transitional and background elements.

Thus, Albom’s transformation from being emotionally averse to being more affectionate and demonstrative toward the play’s end comes off a little contrived. When Albom finally breaks down and makes his big declaration of affection for his mentor, the scene comes out a bit awkward, less credible and satisfying, precisely because the audience is not allowed to see the stages of the whole transformation. For example, Albom’s brother Peter, who provides the key element that helps Albom in his transformation, is never mentioned in the play at all. The rest of the characters are also missing and the deletion reduces the impact of the story.

But what probably really pulled down the play for me was that the general effect was that of a dirge. Nothing really wrong with that if that’s what one wanted to see and experience. Unfortunately, and this is a reflection of my own expectations which, I admit, may not be reasonable, I expected more a tribute to a spirit, a celebration of life rather than just a dramatic chronicle of a man’s last days.

Thus, the “wisdom” tended to be flat and remained at the level of sound bites; you know, stuff one simply regurgitates rather than as insights one draws from a situation. They don’t really hit the mind. Fortunately, Jose Mari Avellana (who plays Morrie in Rep’s staging) plays the character with heartfelt aplomb so the dialog at least hits the heart. In the play, the character of the professor comes across as less philosophical, although Avellana thankfully makes the character very endearing.

The Morrie in the play is a person who cries buckets, is mournful, and seemingly full of regrets; quite a deviation from the almost spiritual, philosophical character in the book. Again, fortunately, Avellana is a great actor and in this play, he more than delivers—he shines. People who liked the book for its pathos will not be disappointed. They will worship Avellana. This I will say without hesitation: Avellana’s performance is worth the price of admission. He makes you forget that the play feels contrived in many places.

Avellana is particularly heart-rending in the scenes that show the paradox of a body giving way to deterioration while the spirit grows stronger. Bart Guingona as Albom delivers some of the play’s great moments, but like I said, the material just does not allow him to make transitions gracefully.

Still, Avellana and Guingona make Tuesdays With Morrie worth watching.

Their performances rise above the gloomy set and lighting (the stage only brightens up at one point to reveal a tree in full spring splendor), the boring costumes (both characters wear the same set of clothes all throughout the many Tuesdays), and the pared-down material. The material fails to draw in the audience and help them empathize with the characters onstage, but the actors do convince us that they do care for each other and make us care for and with them, even if we don’t really get to figure out why. But perhaps that’s the whole point.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sound and fury signifying nothing

I am glad that the Makati businessmen are in agreement with what I wrote last Monday about the need to tone down all this insane and totally misplaced preoccupation with elections that are at least two-and-a-half years away.

Some businessmen were interviewed on television Monday night and the consensus was the same: All this talk about politics at the start of the year makes for bad business.

Indeed, what does it say of us when we greet the New Year with nothing but frenzied speculations about who is jumping political fences, who is making alliances with whom, and who is giving way or not giving way to whoever. And it doesn’t help at all when the loudest voice above the commotion is that of former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the same guy who is hemming and hawing and babbling incoherently as usual about whether he will stand for election or not. Of course he won’t. He knows he can’t run. And he knows that we know that he knows.

All this jostling and jockeying so very early on in the game does not bode well for the 2010 elections. It looks like we’re in for a bitter five-way or six-way contest again. I know a number of other people who are already feeling nauseous and irritated with the antics of the presidential timbers and presidential toothpicks this early.

In the meantime, there are a million and one things that really need to be done in this country. The senators are best advised to focus their energies on urgent and critical legislative work. For example, it would be really tragic if the bill on cheaper medicines gets stalled once again in the bicameral committee simply because our legislators are busy with all this plotting for 2010. I know a number of other urgent bills that deserve the attention of our legislators.

Except for Senator Mar Roxas who seemed to have hit the ground running in 2008 by already attending to some legislative work, the other legislators are apparently still on vacation mode.
We know what is keeping Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. busy these days, of course. Both senators attended to their showbusiness careers during the holiday break and emerged quite victorious.

Senator Estrada copped the Best Actor trophy in the 2007 Metro Manila Film Festival for his portrayal of a migrant worker who comes home to a family that has gotten used to his not being around. Ouch. It’s actually a promising premise, one that hits a chord among many of us. It’s a very familiar, perhaps even commonplace story. Who hasn’t heard of Filipinos who slave themselves abroad so they can send money to spouse, children, and other members of his or her extended family, most of which aren’t appreciative of the hard work that goes into each dollar sent home?

I haven’t seen Estrada’s movie (“Katas Ng Saudi”) so I cannot pass judgment on whether or not the senator deserves the acting plum. But I have seen the senator in his previous film outings where the furniture and the other inanimate objects in the scenes produced better screen presence.

So if Estrada’s Best Actor trophy in the 2007 Filmfest is truly deserved, then the only thing I can say is that being a senator in the Philippines must really do wonders for one’s acting talent. The Philippine Senate must really be better at producing actors than any other acting school.
Unfortunately, Estrada chose to parlay his victory into a platform to berate and lecture the local government leaders on perceived shortcomings behind the film festival’s awards night.

Apparently, Estrada wanted to savor his victory longer and probably wanted to luxuriate in the company of friends, but the awards night was designed to be shorter as a fundraising musical concert was scheduled immediately after it. The awards night had to run on a very tight schedule and winners were asked to cut down their “thank you” speeches.

It seems Estrada and his friends prefer those excruciatingly boring and terribly drawn-out awards nights where winners spend hours thanking everyone in the planet for breathing the same air that they do.

Senator Revilla’s film “Resiklo” won as Best Picture. I haven’t seen this reincarnation of “Mad Max” and I don’t have any intentions of doing so regardless of how many awards it wins.
Sorry, but I don’t agree with the senator’s short-sighted observation that producing big-budgeted extravaganzas will revive the Philippine movie industry. I don’t think we can compete with the rest of the world in that department; we are years behind in terms of that kind of technology. On the other hand, our indie films, the ones that bravely tackle the many dimensions of living, surviving, dreaming and being, are the ones that are bringing recognition to Philippine filmmakers. If we are to compete out there with the rest of the film industries of the world, we must compete in the areas that we truly excel in. And that doesn’t mean more “Resiklos.”

Ironically, Revilla lost the significance of Cesar Apolinario’s win as Best Director. Apolinario, a first-time film director, is a broadcast journalist who honed his skills through documentaries and reportage for television.

***

At least two lives were lost while another 40 were injured in last Monday’s tragic incident at Masantol, Pampanga. It was another religious procession gone wrong, reminiscent of many other similar tragedies in the past that also claimed many lives.

Truly, the things we do in the name of faith.

I don’t want to dwell on the religious, cultural, social, anthropological, and even psychological significance of conducting religious processions on bodies of water. I suppose there is a compelling reason for doing so, since many cities and towns in this country conduct fluvial parades as part of the celebration of their respective fiestas. I understand that in many cases, these fluvial parades is a form of reenactment of the way the image of their saint came to Philippine shores, which obviously, has to be by sea.

But there are many things about this religious practice that begs discussion. First off are the practical considerations that must be taken into account such as costs, safety, and number of people that can participate. It obviously costs more to build a pagoda than a caroza. And building pagodas that are safe and which can accommodate the multitude of devotees is another tall order. What happens is that organizers take chances and invoke divine providence for things that are commonsensical.

Walking on land is much safer than splashing around in rivers and lakes, most of which are polluted anyway. Shouldn’t the Catholic Church interfere already and teach people that it is not where the religious ceremony is conducted that matters; it is what is in people’s hearts that counts.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Thirst for blood

This is my column today.

Having written in the past about my reservations about how boxing is being promoted in this country as some kind of a national sport, I guess it was expected that people would call my attention to the case of Choi Yo-Sam. Choi was a South Koren boxer who passed away recently under very tragic circumstances.

I actually read about Choi’s case in this paper and meant to write about it. However, it didn’t seem like a good idea to write about it to end or greet the New Year so I just filed the information in my head. But some readers e-mailed me about it, calling my attention to the fact that “Choi’s death was not an isolated case.”

Most news stories about Choi’s death carried the backgrounder on at least two other similar cases. The Associate Press report, which seemed like the source of most of the local stories, mentioned the case of another South Korean lightweight Duk Koo Kim who died four days after being knocked out by Ray Mancini in a title fight in Las Vegas in 1982 and yet another South Korean fighter, bantamweight Lee Tong-choon, who also died of injuries suffered in the brain in 1995, after losing consciousness following a fight against a Japanese boxer in Tokyo.

Choi suffered a brain hemorrhage during a title fight on Dec. 25 in Seoul, South Korea. Ironically, he won the fight, the World Boxing Organization intercontinental flyweight title over Heri Amol, his Indonesian challenger, but lost his life in the process. Amol sent Choi to the canvas with a right to the jaw just a few seconds before the final bell.

Choi was able to stagger to his feet, enough for him to be declared winner, but collapsed immediately after and had to be brought out of the place on a stretcher. He lapsed into coma and was eventually declared brain dead.

Although Choi was Asian, many among us may have difficulty empathizing with his case because he is not Filipino. Unfortunately, what happened to Choi has grave impact on the Philippines since we seem intent on positioning ourselves as a country of boxers.

What killed the South Korean boxer were injuries suffered on his head and brain. Such injuries are actually not “accidental” as many of us would like to think. Contrary to myth, the human skull is not invincible. There are limits to how much pressure it can take.

And lest we forget, the whole point of boxing—the whole intent of a boxer—when he is in a ring during a fight is to deliberately pummel the other boxer’s body and head to knock him out. We are not talking about simply poking bodies with tentative, halfhearted jabs. We are talking about delivering powerful blows at another person’s body, thrown with all the force and all the strength that years of training can produce.

We can hide behind metaphors and indulge in all kinds of intellectual and philosophical swashbuckling, but the bottom line will remain. It all boils down to intent. And there is no ands or buts about it. The whole intent of boxing is to hurt and maim the other person. Surely, there is something objectionable to that.

Oh sure, there are many benefits that boxing provides and I’ve already written about these in the past. It’s a good form of exercise. It’s also a mind sport. It is a good training on discipline. I don’t dispute all that. But all that cannot erase the fact that boxing is a sport that deliberately aims to hurt and kill another person. Its not like other sports where the object is to shoot or hit balls, or break tapes, or carry weights, or throw objects into the air.

And then there’s the kind of reaction a boxing fight generates from spectators. I have been to a number of boxing bouts and truly, there are a few things in this world that can match the kind of naked thirst for blood that it is palpable in these matches. The crowd roars with delight at each blow a boxer throws into the other boxer’s body. The crowd not only cajoles boxers to maim each other; it literally screams for blood.

One can see, hear, smell and touch the thirst for blood. Seeing a crowd being brought to its feet, applauding with fervor and appreciation each blow that lands on another person’s body, culminating into a giant roar of approval when the other boxer’s body crumbles to the strength and cunning of the victor, is truly a most gruesome spectacle.

Surely it is never too late in the day to stop this modern-day reincarnation of the ancient pastime of the Romans. If not, then surely, there are things we can do to make the sport safer for the boxers. I know that the maximum number of rounds allowed in a boxing match has been reduced from 15 to 12. I also know that certain boxing matches require that the pugilists wear protective headgear.

I think most among us can still appreciate boxing matches where winners win on points and where champions become so not because they have maimed their opponents, or worst, sent them to the grave. Boxing does not have to be about killing the other person to prove superiority. It doesn’t have to be murder.

***

And while we are at it, maybe this is a good time as any to point out to our politicians and their supporters who are already salivating and screaming and thirsting for blood, that the 2010 presidential elections are at least a good two-years-and-a-half away. If we are to go by the frenzied preparations that are already underway, it appears that we are a people that live and breathe only for elections.

As a strong advocate of strategic thinking, I subscribe to the notion that planning and strategy-formulation are elements of success one cannot substitute. So I recognize that the leaders of our political parties must already put in place some semblance of a strategic plan for 2010. But please, there is no need to involve the whole voting populace in the process.

We don’t need to be privy to the shameless horse-trading and backroom negotiations. We know many among our leaders are already drooling over the prospects of being called His or Her Excellency, the President of the Republic of the Philippines. Fine. We know everyone has a right to have a moist eye on the coveted seat of power. We know you all want to be President. We are aware that each one of you has illusions of being presidential timber (the irrepressible justice secretary said something witty that cracked me up for once, something about people wanting to become President, “from the presidential timber to the presidential toothpick”).

But please, spare us the sordid details. We know that all that blabbering and posturing simply translate into jostling for attention. But the elections are still in 2010 so stop preening like peacocks and blabbering like baboons. If you want to be noticed and appreciated, do what you are supposed to do, which is help this country move forward. There are so many things that we can all focus our energies on aside from elections.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Day Traditions

This is my column today.

Be careful what you do on New Year’s Day and the first 12 days of the year. They shall become harbinger of your fortunes for the rest of the year. This was one of many admonitions— superstitious beliefs, actually—that I grew up with.

One was supposed to be careful with money, steer clear of danger, eat healthy, and in general, become the person that one wanted to be for the rest of the year. Except for the fact that the admonition was limited in its application to only the first 12 days of the year, it wasn’t an entirely bad idea since it actually pushed for the acquisition of new and desirable habits. It gives new dimension to the cliche “beginning with a new slate.”

But as most things in our culture, the wisdom, or at least logic, is lost in our penchant for simply keeping things at the level of “traditions.” We don’t know why we do them, but we do them just the same because they are, well, traditions.

I am sure you are familiar with, and probably also observe, the many other traditions that many among us observe to welcome the New Year. Although I have, through the years, been able to wean myself from many of my parents’ New Year’s Day rituals, I must admit that I haven’t been 100 percent successful in this regard as some of these rituals are really difficult to let go of.
A number of these don’t make sense. But regardless of one’s age or the level of one’s maturity (and these two, I have learned are not necessary mutually exclusive) there’s always that recording in one mind of his or her mother’s stern admonition “there’s no harm in following and observing tradition.”

The tradition that requires having 12 kinds of round fruits around the dinner table at New Year’s Eve is supposed to usher in good luck. I suppose there’s no harm in observing this tradition if one can afford it and, more importantly, if one intends and actually consumes them. I know many households that hoard these fruits only to throw them away later either because they’ve bought more than enough, or simply because they are not fit to be eaten. Perhaps one can be more prudent and buy only the right quantities and the ones that are truly edible next time around?

I have reason to believe that many people do observe this tradition as evidenced by the long lines at the fruit section of the supermarket I went to on New Year’s Eve.

Apparently, this tradition has become a lucrative business as well since the variety of fruits that have become suddenly available has also become quite diverse. I noted, for instance, that a number of imported fruits such as plums, dragon fruit, peaches, longans, varieties of pears, apples and grapes, have made an appearance in supermarkets and even in public markets. They cost an arm and a leg, of course, but one can take comfort in the fact that at the very least, it widens appreciation of the various gifts nature makes available for us.

I also saw fruits that are indigenous to our country such as guavas, tamarinds, durian, etc. that were imported from our neighboring countries such as Thailand. I am told that the Thais, who produce better qualities of these fruits, learned the technology from us decades ago. One can’t help but take a deep sigh and wonder why we can’t produce fruits of the same quality (size, texture, flavor, color, etc.) as our neighbors.

Too bad of course that these important considerations are also lost in the mad scramble to simply “follow traditions.”

But some traditions do harm us.

I can understand the logic behind greeting the New Year with revelry and with as much noise as possible. The idea behind it is, as we all know, is to ward away evil spirits. I know that the science behind it is shaky, particularly if one does not believe in spirits, particularly those that do not come from a bottle (pathetic attempt at humor there, I know).
But we still do them just the same since everyone seems to be doing them. So we light up the sky with fireworks and make streets inhospitable to traffic with firecrackers.

Along the way, we blow up in smoke hard-earned money and, in many cases, cause damage to property and body parts as well.

And so we wake up on New Year’s Day to more smog on the air, litter on the streets, soot on our noses, bleary eyes, and with eardrums ringing from last night’s revelry. These in addition to bloated stomachs and splitting headaches caused by ingesting too much fat, cholesterol and alcohol. This is the way we greet the New Year, thanks to traditions.

I don’t watch the news on New Year’s Day because I don’t like watching what has become another annual tradition: watching people grimacing in pain in some hospital while hapless doctors do what they can to stitch back body parts blasted by firecrackers. If it is any consolation, at least we do not have as many people being victimized by wayward bullets anymore. But we do still have people, both inebriated adults and misguided children, who still end up greeting the New Year with a missing finger, or in the worst case scenario, a limb. There must be a better way to stop this annual massacre.

This time around, the government had this harebrained idea of using scare tactics to reduce firecracker-related casualties on New Year’s Eve. I am sure that the secretary of the Department of Health will soon be gloating around in a self-congratulatory mood as he regurgitates statistics that, expectedly, will show reduced casualties this year. It sure rakes up pogi points and projects the impression that the government is doing its job. But will that totally stop people from lighting up firecrackers next year?

I really doubt it! This has been done many times in the past with very little results. Any psychologist worth his reputation will attest that scare tactics don’t produce sustainable behavior changes. They simply numb people into a state of temporary denial. What needs to be done is provide better and safer alternatives. What we need is to educate people and empower them to change paradigms about better ways to greet the New Year. What we need is more long-term solutions, not short-term campaigns that only work for a couple of days. But I guess that kind of effort requires strategic thinking, something that is sadly lacking among our leaders.
And then there is of course this tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Like I said in this column last week, I have realized that keeping New Year’s resolutions has become more difficult each year, what with the many modern-day temptations and aggravations that test one’s resolve. For example, how can one adhere to resolution to stop smoking when there are many products that supposedly eliminates the hazardous effects of this pernicious habit anyway? I know, I know, such reasoning betrays weakness of character. But as a wise man once said: “He who breaks a resolution is a weakling; he who makes one is a fool.”

Still, a New Year is as good as any to indulge in some cleansing ritual. Making resolutions allows us the opportunity to reflect and assess. But then again, why limit it only to this time of the year? To simplify things, I have made up only one resolution for 2008: To allow space for myself to grow more and to allow others to grow as well.

Happy New Year, everyone!