Monday, June 30, 2008

Pacquiao's courage and redemption

Photo taken from

This is my column today.

I have been very vocal about my objections to professional boxing as a sport, primarily because it is the only sport that showcases the most cruel of all intents—to deliberately hurt another person, bring him down crashing into the ground, maimed, bloodied and battered. It’s just a modern-day variation of what gladiators used to do in olden Roman times.

Even when the two boxers are equally matched and the bout becomes not only a clash of strength and skills but a battle of wits and courage, such as what the world saw in the Pacquiao and Diaz fight yesterday, there is still something disconcerting about watching two people mercilessly pummel each other’s bodies supposedly for glory and honor. What is even more unsettling is the fact that the boxers do it while millions of people scream for blood and encourage them to go for the kill.

Despite one’s reservations about the vicious nature of the sport, it would be hypocritical for any Filipino to deny the surge of pride that comes with a Pacquiao victory. This particular victory is exceptionally sweeter in light of the very bleak mood in the country on account of the double whammy brought about by typhoon Frank and the runaway prices of oil.

Anyone looking for a metaphor of the everyday Filipino man’s courage and determination to prevail over seemingly insurmountable odds would have found it there on that boxing ring yesterday when Pacquiao hammered away at what seemed like an invincible wall.

In the middle of the fight, I found myself wondering what it would take to bring down Diaz, who did seem bigger and impervious to the pambansang kamao’s relentless pursuit.

We all know what happened in the ninth round, of course. The image of a collapsing Diaz would be seared in the national consciousness for a long while, hopefully not just as a “great moment in sports” but more as a representation of something bigger, something loftier. The context of that image may be disconcerting given the basic premise of the boxing sport; but the triumph of the human spirit deserves recognition any day.

Pacquiao’s battles in the ring have long ceased to be just about boxing. For quite sometime now, Pacquiao’s fights have become a showcase of our social and cultural quirks.

As the commentators of the fight breathlessly and constantly reminded everyone—assuming that people listened to their running commentary given that the breathtaking action didn’t seem to require explanation—there was so much more at stake in the fight.

It was too much to saddle the pambansang kamao with the country’s many burdens and really, it takes a huge amount of literary license not to mention suspension of logic, to assume that our many troubles could be taken up on that ring. Not that our problems would magically go down with a knockout anyway. But Pacquiao himself and his handlers did package this particular fight that way and many Filipinos probably saw it that way—as some kind of proof that as the cliché goes, yes, the Filipino can.

Perhaps the most enduring social context around the Pacquiao phenomenon is the personal saga of the man himself. I will save everyone the telenovela yarn of how a poor struggling boy from General Santos City rose above the many difficulties to become a global sensation. The fact that he is now a multi-millionaire is an important part of the story, given how we equate success with monetary wealth.

But perhaps what makes the story more compelling is how Pacquiao seemed to have also overcome many human frailties that seem to indicate problems related to coping with celebrity status. For a while there, it looked like the man was struggling with some psychological problems and the bugs in the programming did come to the surface—of drunken revelries gone awry, womanizing, and innuendoes of profligacy. Reports indicate that he has since then overcome his personal demons to emerge as a more focused person determined to live up to his national status as a role model.

The fact that he has since then gone back to school to pursue a college diploma is also noteworthy, as well as his many philanthropic deeds. That embarrassing foray into politics has hopefully made him realize that it takes more than celebrity to become a leader; that a political perch is not the end-all or be-all of a person’s worth. So yes, the man’s personal redemption is something that deserves commendation.

Every time Paquiao goes into the ring, the cultural context involving his mother gets media mileage, and for good reason.

It’s difficult not to empathize with the emotional conflicts his mother endures every single time; to this day, she has not been able to watch a Paquiao fight live. What kind of mother, indeed, can stomach watching her own flesh and blood being pummeled physically? Despite the millions of dollars of booty that comes with each fight, we know that a mother’s pain is real—only a parent, probably a mother, can effectively validate this very human reality: All the money in the world does not justify the sight of one’s son enduring that kind of physical pain and torture. As my own mother would remind us, she would rather suffer the physical torture herself than watch any of her children being hurt that way.

I think that that particular sidebar story deserves the media hype if only because it reminds us that beneath all that hoopla is a very real story of a vulnerability, of how at the end of the day despite the successes and glory, we are really all just little boys under someone’s maternal watch.


9:30pm, June 30, 2008

Just an interesting aside: Although a number of my friends emailed or texted me to tell me they agreed with my observations about how Manny Pacquiao's mother Dionisia exemplified the stereotyped Mater Dolorosa, one friend posed a divergent opinion. He asked with wry amusement: How come Manny's mother does not seem to show the same emotional anguish when the other Pacquiao son fights - and inevitably loses - in the boxing ring?

But then again, we really don't know because media does not cover those boxing fights as religiously as it does Manny's fights.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Vicious, vacuous

(logos courtesy of their respective websites)
Okay, many among the handful of readers who have stuck with this blog all this time despite the fact that this blog has become most often than not simply a reservoir of my columns rather than what it used to be (i.e., more free-wheeling and relaxed) are aware that I like watching local talent contests on television.

Some habits are hard to break, I guess. See, I grew up with a yaya who was a into the stuff and she would physically drag me to all the amateur singing contests staged in our hometown. My parents were quite happy to let her go provided she would lug me around as well. My yaya was also a die-hard-Noranian-to-the-very-core, by the way. The connection? Well, Nora did catapult to fame courtesy of Tawag ng Tanghalan, right?

Anyway (or as Bryanboy would say, anyhoooooo). I've been watching Pinoy Dream Academy as often as I could, which unfortunately is not as often really. But I do try to catch their Saturday gala performance nights.

I also try to watch Pinoy Idol, although, to be really brutally honest about it, doing so is extreme torture. Really. Honest. It's like sitting through a horrible massacre. At times, it is almost unbearable to watch the contestants doing self-annihilation as they valiantly showcase whatever supposed talent they have and end up mutilating their very potentials. The judges (Ogie Alcasid, Jolina Magdangal, Wyngard Tracy) offer generous help - in the massacre. They argue, debate, pass what they think is criticism - and end up tripping all over themselves in pointless verbiage.

For the most part, it is verbal diarrhea. A simple case of not engaging the mind before opening the mouth. And the contestants end up not being any better. How could they given such advice as "you are not even pang Master Showman, or "bagay sa yo ang kanta," "I can't pinpoint what is wrong with you, perhaps it is your age." Go figure.

I don't see the point of inflicting juvenile angst on the viewers either, which is what PDA does everyday. The logic of the show is that all that personal growing up stuff supposedly helps the singers become better - and the audience more appreciative of what goes into each performance. The logic doesnt quite fly because everyone has his or her own growing up mess to deal with - it is not something that happens uniquely to 16 people inside a house with cameras. Christian Bautista has great singing voice and we appreciate it without having to understand what pain in his personal life made him abbreviate Lupang Hinirang in one of his performances.

But that's the format of the show and we all have to struggle with a few inconveniences to watch some talent unfolding.

Which brings me to the gala performances of PDA last night. I think that in general, the quality of talent in PDA comes across as several notches above those in Pinoy Idol mainly because the technicals in PDA are just better. And I think there is something that can be said about how mentoring from experts does improve one's performance even if it's the placebo effect - you know, all that stuff about confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. I am sure the efforts of all those vocal trainers from the UP School of Music and from Mr. C himself, and the performing tips from Direk Joey are doing wonders because some of the contestants did show much-improved performances yesterday.

A revelation, for example, was the performances of that girl Laarni (Sultan Kudarat) and that of "girlfriend" Bea (she can't sing - period, but she at least showed some semblance of a vocal performance yesterday). Even Christian (he with a growth deficiency) came off with a performance that somehow made us set aside for the moment reservations about the possible limitations of his talent.

But what got me really thinking hard were not the performances. It was the quality of the judging. Yesterday's judges were Louie Ocampo (again), Isay Alvarez, and Gerard Salonga.

The judges came across as knowledgeable (the Pinoy Idol judges are perhaps knowledgeable in their own right, but the problem is they dont come across as such). They dished out insightful comments all right, pointing out, for instance, the difference between a flat note and a sharp note (many presume singers only do wrong by going flat).

But for crying out loud, did they have to be verrrrrrrrry verrrrrrrrrrrry vicious? It looked like they were out for blood and they wanted to prove that they knew their stuff. So what happened was that listening to them didnt turn out to be a pleasant or educational experience either as they seemed to be in a very foul mood. It looked like they didnt like what they were doing.

Gerard Salonga was probably the harshest of them all. That side comment "ang malas ko naman" was really uncalled for as he came across as unappreciative of his role as judge. I am willing to grant that his comments were definitely more intelligent than those of Simon Cowell - for example, that comment about a female contestant having "marginal talent and getting through with just smokes and mirrors" was dead on, but did he have to say it that way?

I'm probably just letting my inherent "Pinoy sensitivity" come to the fore. But really, intelligent and insightful does not have to be vicious.

And that, folks, was how I spent the weekend.

Friday, June 27, 2008

No implementing rules for new tax law

This was my column last Wednesday, June 25, 2008.

The problem with media hype, or any kind of hype for that matter, is that because it focuses on the larger issues and disregards the fine print, it creates mistaken assumptions and often, unreasonable expectations.

When proponents of the latest law exempting minimum wage earners from paying income tax went to town to brag about how they should be nominated for sainthood for providing a lifeline to the two million minimum wage earners in this country, they created expectations that may not be met by the new law immediately.

Many workers are in for a major disappointment.

I am not just talking about the militant labor sector which, of course, will never be happy with anything the government does. The reason is ideological—they want a different system. Bayan already doused water on the jubilation by pointing out that the benefits provided by the law were insignificant. According to Arnold Pineda of Bayan’s public information department: “All of us are affected by high prices. Savings from tax exemption will be rendered insignificant by runaway increases in prices of basic commodities and services. And what about relief for the unemployed who are hardest hit by the surge in prices?”

Of course, the net benefit of around P35 a day, or P750 a month, which the law grants to minimum wage earners as additional take home pay is nothing to sneeze at. It’s definitely better than nothing. Thirty-five pesos a day translates to a kilo of government-supplied rice, a few pieces of dried fish, and probably some vegetables - enough to feed a small family one whole meal.

As someone who is part of the working class—the people who are automatically deducted income taxes while big businessmen and a number of professionals who earn much more get away without having to pay the correct taxes on what they make—I certainly think it’s about time some tax relief is given to the working sector.

Decreasing taxes, on in the case of minimum wage earners—not making them pay income tax at all—is better than doling out cash in exchange for nothing, which, in case you haven’t heard, is the government’s latest madcap idea. No, I am not against helping out people, am just against the idea of helping people become more indolent. There are many jobs government can create for people— planting trees, promoting waste segregation, patroling streets at night, etc.

And oh please, let’s cut the crap about how the shortfall in tax revenues will affect the national budget. The shortfall can easily be covered by a more efficient tax and vigilant tax collection system. In fact, I think that the government is paying too much attention on income taxes rather than on consumer and other sources of taxation.

So yes, the new tax law should be a welcome relief to millions of Filipinos. The self-congratulatory mood of our legislators and our government officials may be justified. Unfortunately, it seems the jubilation was not shared by the rest of the government bureaucracy who have been dragging their feet making sure that the law is implemented.

The media hype on the new tax law implied that workers would get the benefit pronto. This is farthest from the truth, of course. The reality is that as of this writing, the Bureau of Internal Revenue still has to release the implementing rules and guidelines which should guide compliance with the new law. Without the rules and guidelines, corporations and business entities cannot implement the new law.

In fact, in the week that our government and legislators were making a field day about the passage and eventual signing of the bill into law by the President, there was a mad scramble to get a copy of the law. In many of the human resource management email groups that I subscribe to, the recurring request for several days was for someone—anyone—to please post a copy of the new law. No one had access to it.

Someone finally got access to a copy of the Senate Bill, but no one could verify if that version of the bill was the one that was adopted, or if it was adapted in full without revisions.

We all had to rely on what was being reported by media. Unfortunately, we cannot implement changes in compensation tables based on news reports. To begin with, many of the reports were shot through with wrong assumptions.

For example, one daily said that the new law “exempts minimum wage earners from filing income tax returns.” We know that the law exempts minimum wage earners not simply from filing tax returns but from paying income taxes. Besides, most employees who are deducted withholding taxes have not been required to file income tax returns for quite sometime now, particularly if these tax obligations have been already been covered by their withholding taxes.

Because of the hype, many workers already began spending the expected windfall even before they could get their hands on it. I know of at least four unions who immediately fired off demand letters to their management to reimburse employees the taxes already withheld from them since January.

The media reports never mentioned anything about the date the law becomes effective —is it retroactive to January, or only on July 6, which is 15 days from the time the law was published? Has the government set a new tax table to accommodate the changes in personal exemptions? Considering that minimum wages are not uniform all throughout the country (each region has a different minimum wage), has the government set a ceiling figure for the computation? This is critical for many companies who operate in many places all over the country.

There are many more questions that remain unanswered and which has delayed the implementation of the law because like I said, there are no implementing rules yet. As usual, the speed at which our government leaders and legislators made promises was not in sync with the capability of the bureaucracy to deliver.

To cut a long story short, contrary to what our government leaders and legislators have been crowing about, there is no way that workers will receive this tax exemption anytime soon. Not without the implementing rules. And certainly not until all the kinks and confusion have been sorted out.

Kidnap, ransom and politics

This was my column last Monday, June 23.

Of course we all suspected that there was more behind the Ces Drilon kidnapping than what we were being made to believe.

The main hostage happened to be a media celebrity affiliated with a major media network. The perpetrators of the dastardly act were bandits who have successfully pulled off a string of kidnappings in the past. The site of the kidnapping was a virtual war zone riddled with social, cultural, and political issues that have been festering in the national consciousness for quite some time. The military, a number of national and local politicians, and a host of other kibitzers and hangers-on got in the act. In short, all the elements that spelled big trouble were present.
But most were still unprepared for the level of complications and the kind of intrigues that would surface in the aftermath of the kidnapping and the release of the hostages.

To begin with, despite all public pronouncements to the contrary, we all knew ransom was paid. We all knew that all that public posturing about a “no ransom policy” was untenable. We all suspected that the supposed negotiations for the “unconditional” release of the hostages really involved bargaining on the crucial questions “how much,” “when,” and “where.”

I didn’t think anyone actually believed that yarn about how the bandits released their hostages in exchange for Senator Loren Legarda’s promise of livelihood projects. I did catch a very pleased Legarda on television grinning like the proverbial cat that swallowed the mice and intoning, very authoritatively, that absolutely no ransom was paid. All those years spent reading the news with an impassive facial expression are really paying off well for the senator given her ability to assert half-truths and outright lies without choking.

It’s now very clear that ransom was indeed paid. Ces Drilon’s family has admitted that they indeed forked up P5 million and the payment was supposed to have been instrumental in the release of the first hostage. Some sources say that two duffel bags containing more ransom (P15 million, sources claim) were unloaded at the Jolo airport on the day the rest of the hostages were released.

It is inconceivable to think that the senator was unaware of this fact since she was directly in touch and negotiating with the kidnappers. And if we really think about it, even the senator’s promise of “livelihood projects” is still technically ransom. Heck, even this nonsense about simply paying for the board and lodging of the hostages is downright ridiculous because not only are the living conditions beyond miserable, paying for board and lodging also legitimizes the whole sordid arrangement. If one pays for board and lodging, there is a presumption of gratitude, services rendered, and a consensual arrangement.

We know why it is important to maintain a no-ransom policy—as a theoretical policy. All efforts to intellectualize the discussion yields the same conclusion: Paying ransom turns kidnapping into a highly profitable industry. It emboldens kidnappers to do more. It encourages others to get into the act. It perpetuates a vicious cycle. A no-ransom policy makes sense.

But it’s not workable. Paying ransom is often unavoidable and many families would rather pay up than lose someone they love. The rationale is that “it’s just money” and therefore cannot compensate the worth of a loved one or the trauma everyone goes through.

As shown in the kidnapping of overseas worker Angelo de la Cruz, our own government, just like many other countries, had also capitulated to ransom demand from kidnappers. Most would rather pay up rather than risk public condemnation in the event that kidnappers carry out their threats and kill their hostages. The reality is that while most of us may come to accept the death of hundreds of people to calamities and accidents, we all demand that kidnapped hostages be saved at all possible costs.

Paying ransom is the better option in the short run, but it does bring more long-term harm. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is not found within a kidnapping situation. The solution is not a no-ransom policy per se, but to make sure that kidnapping does not thrive by addressing that issues that make it relatively easier for certain people to commit kidnapping even, supposedly, as a last resort.

So we know that ransom was paid. It is one thing to obfuscate issues in an effort to conceal knowledge or involvement. It is an entirely different thing, however, to deliberately wash one’s hands and make categorical denials in public. It makes everyone look stupid. And quite frankly, it makes the people who insist on perpetuating the lie look like creatures with forked tongues.

I wasn’t surprised that Legarda’s involvement in the negotiations was the subject of mischievous speculation. We’re a people notorious for seeing politics in practically everything. I also received that poison text message that accused her of having milked every bit of the occasion for media mileage supposedly to boost her presidential ambitions. The family of Ces Drilon has denied the veracity of the text message but this denial hasn’t stopped the speculative drivel on the real value of the senator’s role in the release of the hostages.

Legarda’s supposed posturing for the 2010 elections is not the only element that has linked kidnappings and elections once again. Kidnappings and elections do seem to be intertwined in this country in many ways. Conventional wisdom says that kidnappings rise during elections purportedly as a fund-raising effort. I am not saying that this particular kidnapping was staged to finance an election, but the upcoming gubernatorial election for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has figured in the issue.

The mayor of Indanan, Sulu, who is now being held on suspicion of having masterminded the whole kidnapping operation, is one of the candidates for governor of the region. As if the recent twists in the search for the real culprits have not been complicated enough, there are now those who see the mayor’s arrest as politically motivated.

The political implications of the mayor’s alleged involvement threaten to upstage the quest for the truth around the kidnapping. As usual, politics do tend to confuse the issues and get the better of most of us. Things are bound to get more complicated in the next days as the quest to unravel the truth becomes entangled in politics and political swashbuckling.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Who's on the cover of your kids' notebooks?

This is my column today.

I don’t really think it is an issue of earthshaking urgency, but I’m still glad that a ranking official of the Department of Education recently questioned, and publicly, the wisdom of this decades-old practice of featuring on the cover of our schoolchildren’s notebooks the prettified mugs of local celebrities.

I know. There certainly are more important and more urgent issues today such as the surging incidence of heinous crimes in the country. Someone I work with was the victim of a kidnapping recently (no, I am not referring to Ces Drilon since I obviously don’t work for ABS-CBN). The kidnapping of Drilon is understandably given more attention on account of her celebrity status, but there has been a resurgence of kidnapping cases recently. At the same time, the mother and niece of a former colleague along with three of their maids were murdered in a brutal robbery and arson incident, also very recently. I’m going to write about these dreadful incidents when the facts are clearer.

But since classes have just opened and school supplies are still a major preoccupation, particularly since some mayors have been distributing free bags and notebooks to schoolchildren after classes have opened and after parents have already bought the supplies, I figured it as good a time as any to discuss this latest tempest in a teacup.

Most of those living in Metro Manila may not be so familiar with the notebooks that are now the subject of attention of some officials of the Education Department—the ones with pictures of celebrities on their covers. This is because most private institutions in Manila print their own notebooks or have standing arrangements with certain distributors and therefore prescribe a certain type of notebooks for the use of their students. These notebooks are more expensive, naturally. Status symbols don’t come cheap; and whether or not they add value to the learning process remains unresolved.

Most local government officials have also jumped into the fray and have begun this practice of giving away free school supplies to public schoolchildren in their respective localities. It’s a noble gesture. Alas, the act does not seem to be driven by the purest of intentions. This is because the notebooks and school supplies that are given to public schoolchildren carry the smiling faces and the political slogans of local officials. Thus, one cannot help but doubt the supposed altruism and see politics in the picture.

But elsewhere in this country, kids make do with what is available in the market that’s cheaper. These are notebooks that feature celebrities on their covers.

Because I grew up in the province, these notebooks were an ubiquitous part of my childhood. My parents couldn’t afford designer notebooks (like the Sanrio notebooks my sister was willing to die for) or those that we were told were strictly for the use of college students such as Sterling and Harvard notebooks so I had to settle for notebooks with artista on the cover.

This is going to reveal my age and I’m sure I won’t hear the end of it from my friends, but in the interest of providing a context, let me share that in my childhood, the fad were notebooks that featured in various degrees of languorous repose Arnold Gamboa, Lala Aunor, Winnie Santos and Eddie Boy Villamayor, collectively known as the Apat Na Sikat.

As I grew older, the celebrities in those notebooks would eventually give way to the talented and not-so-talented song-and-dance kids from Dats (That’s Entertainment, as if you did not know) and then to the angst-ridden teenagers from Thank God It’s Saturday and G-mik. While in Divisoria recently, I noted that the notebooks that were selling briskly were those with pictures of the Pinoy Big Brother housemates on the cover; although I was told that Juday’s familiar cheeks were still in great demand despite the ban called by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption.

I know these things because I do have this thing for notebooks—I carry one or two with me everywhere I go. I am a very visual person. I am able to grasp and understand concepts and retain them better when I literally see the ideas written down. I can’t think clearly if my eyes are not engaged. For me, the phrase “see ideas” is not metaphorical but literal. Fortunately, I can now afford to buy notebooks of better variety—definitely better than the ones my mother used to buy for me when I was a student—but not yet the kind that comes in moleskin covers.

The value of using particular notebooks or school supplies other than for the sake of uniformity remains unclear. I don’t know if being blessed with the opportunity of being able to stare at the cute faces of Kimerald (Kim Chiu and Gerald Anderson) while learning—or at a solid green, royal blue, or maroon field with an emblem of an archer, an eagle, or a naked man on it—really does wonders to one’s academic performance. I haven’t come across an empirical study that validated what seems to be a conclusion that’s drawn purely from intuition—that these things matter in the learning process. From personal experience, what or who was in the cover of my notebooks didn’t seem to make an impact on my academic performance either way.

But some people are now saying that they do matter and that our schoolchildren deserve better than to have notebooks with people of dubious character and values on their cover.

I think turning the issue into a moral debate is counterproductive. We can argue endlessly on the real value of putting pretty faces on the covers of notebooks but I think that it really boils down to freedom of choice. People should be allowed to choose for themselves what kind of notebooks and whose pictures they want to accompany them in their academic journey.

Unfortunately, this is the real problem. I don’t think our kids have choices. One either settles for notebooks with celebrities or the generic kind with just boring prints on their cover.
I doubt if the current discussion will put a stop to our seeming collective fascination with celebrities and the way we cultivate fanatical devotion toward them. But at the very least, I hope that the discussion would at least encourage the businessmen who print those notebooks to consider that there are, truly, other worthy alternatives. There is a great number of Philippine historical landmarks and heritage sites that deserve the front page feature. There’s a long list of national heroes with interesting portraits, they may not be in the same league as Sam Milby or Anne Curtis in the looks department, but their stories and historical value cannot be undermined. There are artistic renditions of significant periods and events in our history. There’s also a wealth of art pieces that deserve recognition and appreciation.

At the end of the day, people should just be allowed to choose from several alternatives.


This was my column last Monday, dedicated to my dad who I call Tatay.

Because I grew up in the care of my grandmother and an aunt, my interactions with Tatay were limited to a few perfunctory gestures during official family functions and occasions. It didn’t help that— despite the abundance of maternal affection (she was called Mama by the whole clan)—my grandmother seemed to belong to that genre of mothers-in-law who seemed to think that no man was ever good enough for their daughters.

So Tatay was simply the stereotype “man of few words” who lurked in the shadows of my childhood.

I don’t have memories of having been carried in his arms or being hoisted up on his shoulders; he wasn’t the man who taught me how to balance myself in a bicycle, or swim, or fashion balls and carts out of palm fronds and tansans. I never flew kites as a child simply because I didn’t have anyone to teach me how. Somehow I couldn’t imagine imposing the task of hoisting up a kite and running with it to an aging grandmother.

Which is not to say that I lived a childhood deprived of mirth and mischief. Kids do make do with what they have with their amazing ability to adjust and rationalize.

What Tatay and I shared were a few poignant moments of awkwardness as we struggled to get to know each other throughout my childhood. But I guess fathers do have a way of making their presence felt even if the impact and the power of those few shared moments would only unravel years later.

My own realization of the important roles Tatay played in my life struck me like the proverbial thunderbolt when I joined a Toastmasters speech contest in the early ’90s. The theme for the contest was family relations and while reaching deep down inside myself, I decided to do a piece on my awkward relationship with my own father.

I realized I wasn’t as unique as I thought because of the five finalists in that particular contest, four of us chose to craft and deliver speeches that talked about our relationships with our fathers. This was the in the ’90s when Fathers’ Day wasn’t such a big deal yet. Most fathers in the audience squirmed in embarrassment. To this day, Tatay doesn’t know I delivered that speech.

The chairman of the board of judges couldn’t help but observe that there was indeed a fount of emotional material underneath all the static that surrounded the relationship Filipino fathers share with their offspring.

That’s when the memories gushed forth.

I must have been six and running around in the backyard gleefully the way someone of that age would, unmindful of the admonitions of the grownups, when I stumbled and suffered a nasty cut on my leg. I remember desperately trying to be a grown up and suffering in silence as I tried to stem the flow of blood. Somehow, Tatay was suddenly there. He didn’t say anything. He simply sat me down, fixed the situation in his own way, and then quietly set me off to do my thing again.

No recriminations, no big drama. That would be Tatay’s trademark.

I remember many times in my life when he would just quietly emerge from the shadows to fix whatever was wrong in my life and just as simply disappear. No flashy declarations of affection. No major expectations of gratitude. Tatay wasn’t—and still isn’t—big on lectures or worldly declarations of what should or shouldn’t be. He simply was there when I needed him, like an invisible shadow that hovered and appeared when needed.

Most fathers are like that, I guess. They are just there. Which is why it is easy to take their presence in our lives for granted.

There’s this admonition that our mothers like to trundle out at a moment’s notice, the way our mothers are wont to do—something about how one learns to fully appreciate certain roles only when they begin to play it. It’s a cliché whose wisdom is often lost in the dynamics of familial intramurals. But it is cliché that haunts you at the crucial moments when one is forced to wonder how your parents coped with your own version of your kids’ misdemeanors.

Yesterday was Fathers Day. Because we live in an age where consumerism is the norm, everyone who stood to profit from hyping certain occasions made a field day out of it. I’ve always had this natural aversion for anything that reeks of commercialism because it makes it easy for anyone to get lost in the fuzz and the hoopla and lose sight of the things that really matter.

But I guess there’s something about getting old—or older—that makes us develop marshmallows in places where the heart should be. And I guess being at the receiving end of affection makes us come to terms with certain occasions and forces us to appreciate affection when we get it. We make peace with the world and simply sit back and bask in the glow of affection.

So if there is something that we should be grateful for about the way consumerism has consumed our lives, it is the fact that at least it has become easier —if not convenient—for kids today to be more in touch with their feelings particularly towards their fathers. It is easier to be affectionate with mothers because their social role dictates that they be nurturing and affectionate. But fathers are supposed to be of a different breed and are supposed to be oblivious to hugs and tears and big expressions of affection.

Tatay and I had an uneasy relationship growing up but I have realized that this has not in any way diminished the affection we have for each other. Tatay was not the proverbial hero of my childhood but he certainly is in my grown up life. I can only wish I am as good as father to my kids as he has been to me.

Happy Fathers’ Day, Tatay.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pinoy reality academy

I've been watching ABS-CBN's Pinoy Dream Academy since it opened last Monday mainly because I like the repartee between Ryan Cayabyab and Direk Joey Javier Reyes.

For quite sometime now, I've been ranting about the absence of intelligent commentary on singing contests where there are judges whose job description is precisely to explain what they liked or disliked about a contestant's performance. Unfortunately, most of our experiences in this area has been dismal failures because the judges either tended to be too shallow or focused more on playing to the cameras than trying to make sense.

I had high hopes for GMA 7's Pinoy Idol (the reincarnation of the local edition of American Idol - there was a Philippine Idol in another channel a couple of years back) because I know Ogie is articulate and Wyngard can be ascerbic and insightful. But we all know that show has not really taken off because nothing has clicked so far - the emceeing by Raymond Gutierrez is uninspired and borders on the irrelevant, the staging is so "That's Entertainment," and the critique is neither here nor there. For some strange reason, the performing area of Pinoy Idol looks cramped and it looks like they've been scrimping on electricity because the lighting is painfully inadequate.

Fortunately, Pinoy Dream Academy has started airing.

The current edition of PDA admittedly apes the Idol format in terms of having judges who make commentary on the performance of the contestants but has added creative flourishes that actually make the show interesting. For example, the judges don't just make a critique; there is an on-the-spot workshop on vocal techniques.

Of course the ABS-CBN trademark is still pretty much evident - they still milk situations for their emotional value a la Maalala Mo Kaya - but I think that this edition of PDA is going to be successful if only because for a change it features three judges who actually come across as knowledgeable.

We all know Ryan Cayabyab is a musical genius. However, his competency as a critic has not been brought to the fore until now that he has been paired off with Direk Joey Reyes who is perceptive and garrulous. The result is analysis that is not only incisive but also enlightening.

More of PDA some other time...

Not getting through

This was my column yesterday, June 11. I inadvertently posted the wrong column yesterday. Thank you to a very perceptive reader who pointed out the oversight.

In a public appearance over the weekend that somehow conjured images of a junta, the President’s men sought to allay the public’s fear related to the runaway prices of oil, rice, and commodities.

Understandably, the rhetoric was still about how the government was in control and remains prepared for any crisis. The last thing this government and this country needs is widespread panic. However, I don’t think the government should bother about allaying our fears— quite frankly, there is very little else that can scare the hell out of us Filipinos after everything that we’ve been through and continue to go through.

But at least the government was already talking solutions and recommendations on exactly how we can survive the skyrocketing prices even if the current solutions being peddled are still rather inchoate and remains at the level of “nice to do” rather than as imperatives.

The government’s action on the oil crisis has so far been limited to justifying the increases in oil prices (“it’s a global problem”), in chastising oil companies for jumping the gun on the succeeding rounds of oil price increases, and of course, deflecting the blame somewhere else.

But like I said, finally something concrete such as encouraging people to use bicycles or walk to destinations. These are great ideas because using our legs to get us to where we want to go obviously offers health benefits as well. I am sure there are many people out there who would be happy to oblige Secretary Angelo Reyes on his suggestion. I personally see it as a much better alternative to the hamster-like efforts we do inside gyms.

The problem is we don’t have facilities where people can ride their bicycles in safety. There are no designated bicycle lanes or streets.

We can walk, sure. We are an ingenious people who can summon people power when we want to and commandeer streets into spaces that suit our personal needs when the situation calls for it. I am not talking about people power in the political sense. I am talking about people simply taking over streets and turning them into funeral lounges, markets, beer gardens, and living quarters.

We also transform busy streets into huge pedestrian lanes when the situation calls for it. The problem is that motorists are just as capable of doing the same. The sad fact is that in this country, pedestrian lanes, just like traffic lights, are mere “suggestions.” So unless the rules on pedestrian lanes are strictly enforced, I am afraid walking remains out of the question. We haven’t started talking yet about the other hazards such as Metro Manila’s lethal fumes.

There are days when I wonder if the government is truly serious about energy conservation or about reducing our dependence on oil. It has so far been unable to walk the talk.

For instance, there was a directive last week to government offices to conserve energy but I still have to see very concrete steps being implemented to back up the directive.

On the front page of this paper last week was a photo of streetlamps at Roxas Boulevard that were still open at noontime. It wasn’t an isolated incident—many streetlamps in Metro Manila seem to perform a different purpose than what they were intended to do—which, lest we forget, is not really to serve as makeshift bulletin boards and host to all kinds of streamers and greetings—because they don’t light up when they should, which is at night. I know that many streetlamps are no longer manually controlled and are equipped with light sensors. But whoever is responsible for ensuring that the mechanisms work seems to be sleeping on the job.

And while we are talking about streetlamps it must be pointed out that we do have more than enough of them in Metro Manila. Most of them, however, were built more as monuments to the terms of office and inflated egos of local executives who also needed some physical proof to show their electorate that they were doing something. We all know of course that building streetlamps has been a steady source of kickbacks for some local executives. This explains why they keep on building more and more streetlamps every year, very soon they will be built one on top of each other.

I found myself inside a government office last week and noted that while the air conditioning system was not working, it really wasn’t because they were conserving energy but simply because their decades-old aircon units had already conked out after all that sputtering, gasping, and hissing went largely ignored for sometime. Where they saving on energy while sweltering in their barong Tagalog? Good heavens, no. The ratio of electric fans—all running at industrial speed—to people was practically 2:1. This meant that there were more electric fans than there were employees in that office. For a while there, I had a glimpse of what it must be like to be sucked into the eye of a tornado.

We keep on talking about an impending crisis, but the shopping malls were all bursting to the seams over the weekend and people were spending as if there is no tomorrow. We talk about how oil is becoming more and more unaffordable but there doesn’t seem to be a major reduction on the volume of vehicles on the road. It’s still bumper-to-bumper out there.
I don’t think the government is really serious about getting people to save energy. I don’t think the message is getting through to people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Juday's right to peddle opinion

This was my column last Monday, June 7.

I can’t make heads or tails of the hullabaloo around Judy Ann Santos’ infomercial on the Manila Electric Co.

If we are to go by the vehement reaction of some quarters, it is as if the actress has committed treason simply by explaining—or simplifying, some quarters say oversimplifying—the electricity systems loss issue.

Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan castigated Santos for “taking the side of Meralco” on the issue saying in so many words that because Santos “allowed herself to be the tool of Meralco” she, in effect, has ceased being a supposed “good example” in this country.
It is as if there’s a law in this country against impartiality, or against anyone taking a side of a controversy.

Going by the lawmaker’s acrobatic logical deduction, everyone who takes a contrary position on an important issue loses all credibility. I wonder what that makes of the many people—columnists like me, included; and certainly politicians like her, too—who do peddle their own opinion and who do take a stand on important issues of the day. Does that also reduce our worth in the public eye? If this is so, then we should probably declare illegal and immoral any commentary that’s contrary to what seems to be the prevailing one.

Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante, chairman of the House committee on public information, vowed to look into possible violations by Santos of the Consumers Protection Act. I wish him luck in his Quixotic quest. We all know, of course, that nothing is going to come out of this empty threat because to begin with, there are obviously more wanton and more serious possible violations of this particular law including perhaps the phony endorsements of senators and politicians of commercial products of dubious origins and merits.

I think that the congressman was simply trying to do what many lawmakers in this country are good at doing: Spewing fire and brimstone, in the process blindly grasping at whatever threat that comes handy. Please, since when was explaining an issue from a specific perspective—no matter how inchoate or how terrible the metaphor used—a criminal offense?

Taking the cake, however, was the overkill reaction of Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption: He called for a boycott of the Santos’s films and television shows. I concede that everyone in this country has the right to make an utter fool of himself or herself, including calling for a boycott of whatever and whoever. God knows far too many films and televisions shows in this country do deserve to be boycotted for their sheer stupidity. But one wishes certain people learn to moderate their act and for a change engage their minds before opening their mouths. Shooting the messenger is just so trite and passé.

The infomercial in question, where the popular actress likened the systems loss issue to melting ice lost in transit after purchase, is simply one perspective of the issue. Of course it is a biased perspective. Of course it is propaganda; it is a paid advertisement isn’t it? The problem is that very many people in this country continue to adhere to this stupid notion that the masa in this country, who presumably identifies with the actress, is unable to make the distinction between truth and propaganda. Of course everyone in this country knows that that infomercial is Meralco’s attempt at face saving.

Ask any person in this country what they think of the infomercial and you are bound to get the same reactions: Santos is an ABS-CBN talent commandeered to come to the defense of the network’s sister company, she was paid to do the infomercial, it’s all smoke and mirrors, etc. We all know that infomercial is Meralco’s way of explaining and defending itself.

Whether or not the points made in that infomercial are accurate, or whether the metaphor used is appropriate or not is open to interpretation and debate. Anyone who disagrees has the right to rebut, refute, or even take out his or her own infomercial. It’s a free market out there. If certain people think that the infomercial is misleading or inaccurate, then they should explain why. What they cannot and should not do is shoot the messenger.

I find it ridiculous that there are people in this country, lawmakers and civil society leaders at that, who take affront at anyone’s right to express opinions or explain certain issues from his or her own perspective.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the castigation of Santos seems to emanate from a rather unflattering judgment of the actress’ purported lack of wisdom, bordering on disrespect for the actress’ intelligence.

I am not making an endorsement of Santos’ mental qualifications. She did allow Jamby Madrigal to co-opt her identity in an election and inflicted the Senator, known for her legendary emotional hara-kiri, on the country. But hey, aren’t we supposed to be a country of equals and therefore entitled to make our own judgments, opinions, even endorsements, no matter how seemingly incorrect or unpopular?

In his denunciation of Santos—and I stress that the denunciation is directed at Santos, not at the points she made in that infomercial—Abante said that because Santos sided with Meralco, Santos clearly did not understand the situation and that her act was motivated by monetary considerations. “This is what money can do,” he proclaimed with some undisguised measure of self-righteousness.

I read somewhere that Santos did get paid for that infomercial. Four million pesos, if my reckoning serves me right. I don’t see how anyone can take that against her—she is a celebrity who makes money that way. Last I looked, there is no law in this country against making a living. What I can’t take is the wanton disrespect for Santos’ right to make and peddle an opinion because, “she is just an actress.” It’s all part of this dangerous stereotype that casts actresses as simpletons who simply parrot whatever their benefactors ask them to do. Is it too much to assume that Santos has her own mind and her own advocacies?

I understand that someone as popular as Santos has a moral obligation to her followers. I also concede that actresses like her with a massive fan base have the responsibility to take into account some notion of “the common good” in her actions and statements. But—and this I insist on—no one in this country, absolutely no one, has the right to dictate his or her own notion of what is right or wrong on another person.

At the end of the day, we all have to account for our own actions. If Judy Ann Santos made a grievous mistake by taking the cudgels for Meralco, then that is something that she has to account for personally. But I don’t think she should be castigated for participating in a national debate simply because she is an actress and has been paid to do so. That’s her right and privilege. Excluding her from the debate because she is presumably “inferior” is just another form of bigotry.

Back to school problems

This was my column last Wednesday, June 4.

Classes will open next week. As can be expected, media attention has been focused on this seasonal event since last week, in the process painfully pointing out the million and one things that are wrong with our system.

And precisely because of the intense media attention, everyone in this country who suffers from withdrawal syndrome, if not caught within the glare of television cameras or the flashbulbs of news photographers, have jumped into this annual orgy of blaming and counter-blaming.
I have said this before and I will say it again: If only we focus on the problems of the educational system all year-round instead of paying attention to them only when classes open, perhaps we stand a better chance of really fixing them.

I will give the current hoopla two weeks. Within that period, let us brace ourselves for the inevitable finger-pointing, caterwauling, screeching and pompous grandstanding from our leaders, from parents, and from the usual militants and activists.
Parents will complain about the high cost of sending children to school as if this job description was foisted on them only yesterday.

Government officials will organize Oplan Whatever to deal with the classroom shortages and the other problems only within this period, as if they knew about the opening of classes only last week instead of it being an annual event that operates like clockwork. And some media organizations will sensationalize everything of course to further give the impression that we are a country that can’t get things done.

Once media attention wanes and begins to focus on the next scandal or controversy, expect the problems of the educational system to magically disappear as if they never existed in the first place. We bring the issues to the conscious level only around this time of the year and then relegate them to the freezer the rest of the year. And we ask why we haven’t been able to fix the problems?

Around this time last year, I wrote about creative ways to deal with the perennial classroom shortages. In essence, I said that learning did not have to take place only within the confines of a classroom and that creative teachers can find ways to manage the classroom shortage.
So I hope the focus of the discussion this time around will not just be on how many classrooms we are short of, but more in terms of how to deal with that problem. Hopefully, media will also drag into the discussion businessmen and legislators and ask them how many classrooms they have built in the last year.

This idea of moving the school calendar from the current June to March to a September-June schedule has been floated for quite sometime now. The rationale is that we tend to experience the heaviest rainfall during the months of June to August. We all know the kind of mayhem rains induce in this country—streets get flooded, canals and rivers overflow, traffic is at standstill, etc.

Moving the school calendar out of the rainy season will enable teachers to manage the classroom shortages better as it obviously is just easier to hold classes in open air when it is not raining. Everyone seems to agree that it is a good idea. The problem is that no one seems to have the guts to actually make it happen.

The President once again displayed her penchant for micro management when she decreed that schoolchildren who go to public schools should not be required to wear uniforms anymore. To bolster her case, she cited the experience in Europe and the United States where uniforms are not required of schoolchildren. Quite frankly, the comparison stank.

There are a number of reasons why it is a bad idea to require schoolchildren in Europe and the United States to wear uniforms, but two automatically make the comparison invalid. First, they have four seasons and it would be impractical to require different sets of uniforms for winter, spring, or summer. Second, the need to encourage individual expression is just more pronounced in these countries.

The reason cited by the President was economic. The cost of uniforms has increased and a number of families presumably can’t afford to buy uniforms for their children. The logic is that wearing everyday clothes will not be as expensive. I don’t know if that logical deduction can be empirically proven as I think that uniforms tend to be more practical and economical in the long run. If it’s any source of comfort, at least the government did not decree providing free uniforms for all schoolchildren— that would have been pushing mendicancy.

I think that uniforms serve primarily as “equalizer.” When everyone is wearing the same set of clothes, the demographic differences, particularly in terms of economic status, become less pronounced. It reduces discrimination. And then there are the issues about security, identity, pride, etc., that needs to be considered. I think that the last thing we need in this country is for kids to be distinguished in terms of whether they are wearing uniforms or not—or correspondingly, whether they go to private or public schools.

I think the better way to deal with the problem is to even require all schoolchildren in this country, regardless of the school they attend, to wear only one type of uniform the way they do in other Asian countries. It’s like a national uniform for all schoolchildren. And then we can set up a system where students donate old uniforms to the school which then makes it easily available for others who can’t afford to buy new sets. Hopefully the cost would also go down as the quantity of the demand increases.

There are obviously many things that can be done to remedy the problems in the educational system. Perhaps we can do away with solutions that are knee-jerk and populist and instead focus on the ones that are long-term and strategic.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Skyway robbery

This is my column today.

The last time I found myself in the South Luzon Expressway was early February. It was sheer torture and I have since then gone out of my way to avoid going through the highway. Not only was traffic horrendous—moving like the proverbial snail taking its own sweet time. The roads also resembled an obstacle course designed for people with a death wish.

I am told that it is now almost impossible to make heads or tails of whatever it is that’s being done at the expressway. Friends who have no choice but to take it everyday have given up trying to understand the exact nature of the improvements being done as what used to be a highway had become a series of perilous trails that meander, split, or suddenly come to a dead end without warning. Surely improvements can be conducted with some care and consideration for the convenience of the motoring public. It’s really a wonder how easily we Filipinos take aggravations; it as if misery were our birthright.

The skyway offers very little comfort. Not only is it extremely expensive, it also covers only a fraction of the SLEX and tends to be jammed during rush hours. What is further aggravating is that the people who manage the skyway behave as if that elevated highway is private property and using it—even paying an exorbitant amount of money in the process—is a privilege that motorists should be grateful for.

A good friend of mine, Mr. Romeo de la Rosa, had an unpleasant experience at the skyway very recently. His story is something that is not isolated as I do know a couple of other friends who fell for the same trap as he did. I feel that his story deserves to be told. I am therefore lending this space to him and his story. What follows is Mr. de la Rosa’s personal account sent to me through e-mail.

“On May 10, 2008, traveling southbound, I thought I should take the skyway to save some travel time. It had been a long time since I traveled south, my usual travel direction being northbound. On that day, I was going to Tagaytay City to visit my kids who were in a youth camp. Only a few motorists take the skyway, deterred by the exorbitant toll fee, for a few minutes of traveling comfort. Distance for distance, the skyway may be the costliest tollway in the whole world!

The skyway appeared inviting, clear and nearly deserted, and the toll fee of P85.00 seemed worth the time saved. Although I was forewarned that traveling through the SLEX these days is a torturous trip, I realized soon that there was more to that warning than macadam roads and heavy traffic.

I entered the skyway at about 8:30 a.m. I was on the lane at the left and it was a bit late for me to realize that I was approaching the e-pass lane. I stopped a few meters from the toll booth but couldn’t move to the right lane because my vehicle’s front wheels were already within the concrete barrier. I could have backed off but a vehicle came right behind me.

A security guard in blue and white approached me and I asked to be assisted to move to the right lane by asking the vehicle behind me to back off a little. Instead of assisting me, the guard demanded my driver’s license. I was taken aback by the arbitrary manner he displayed. I initially refused because I doubted if he had the authority to take a motorist’s driver’s license or perform traffic duties. The other reason is that I do not believe that straying into the e-pass lane is among the traffic violations in this country.

But here was a scruffy fellow, still wet behind the ears and who couldn’t even properly carry the standard blue and white uniform, demanding to take my license. Against my better judgment, I handed it over to him because he would not let me out of the lane or let me pass through.

By the way, the e-pass lane, supposed to be unmanned, was actually manned by a bored teller who promptly collected from me the tollway ransom of P85.00. Later, I learned that many others have made the same mistake and experienced the same harassment from the hands of skyway security guards who conducted themselves as if the tollway is their personal fiefdom unmindful that their bread and butter come from motorists who still patronize it.

A motorist losing his bearing and straying in the e-pass lane in the skyway, as I did, is a mistake that seems induced to happen. The signage of the skyway e-pass lane is inadequate and hardly visible. Unlike in the North Expressway, where there are low and large notices before the e-pass toll booths, the signage in the south tollway was atop the roof, stark and grimy, as if it is normal for motorists to drive with eyes looking up the sky. As the NLEX management had demonstrated, signs should be eye level and clearly readable.

Aside from signage inadequacy, the manner my license was confiscated did not meet the requirements and conform with the proper procedures in enforcing traffic regulations: First, the security guard in blue and white is not deputized and not authorized to take my license, and, second, the person I presumed was deputized to do so did not perform his duty personally nor displayed a modicum of courtesy to inform the person being apprehended of his offense.

As soon as the security guard in blue and white who took my license handed it to the security guard in greenish gray uniform with PNCC patches on, the latter quickly and with obvious haughtiness, issued me a traffic violation receipt. The PNCC guard did not bother to leave his post by the tollbooth and, instead, sent the security guard in blue and white (as if the latter was his aide-de-camp) to hand over to me the traffic violation ticket. When I asked why I was issued a ticket, the security guard in blue and white retorted that I should have immediately pleaded with the company guard so that he could have spared me.

So that’s how I got it! You have to stoop before these people so that you may keep your driver’s license. Among my long list of tales of woes on road trips and travels, this one topped it all—and wrecked my weekend and what should have been a pleasant family day.

I am particularly indignant about the fact that this road, this white elephant of a tollway, that I, as a taxpayer and toll payer, is paying for seems to fall in the hands of people who do not have a sense of public service, basic discernment and skills on how they should conduct themselves and perform their job.

At the end of the day, the SLEX proved to be the most torturous tollway in this side of the world given its hazards of pockmarked road surfaces, diggings and repairs, wayward buses, traffic crooks and hooligans.”

Like I said, Mr. de la Rosa’s story is not uncommon. Let’s hope that someone from the PNCC is reading this and actually does something about those signages and about the appalling customer service behaviors of their guards.

Is anyone listening?

This was my column last Wednesday, May 28.

One question columnists need to have a ready answer to because it is bound to crop up in most conversations is: How do you not run out of things to write about?

I must admit that there are still occasions when the question manages to catch me off guard despite having been in this job for two years now and despite having been asked that question more times than I care to remember. I mean, how are we supposed to answer that question? Are we supposed to admit to having been born with a natural predilection to dish out opinions—as in, yes, I was born spewing political diatribes? Would it be okay to admit that there actually are days when one is faced with the metaphorical blank wall and there is simply nothing one can write about with some degree of enthusiasm?

Obviously, there are as many answers to that question as there are many columnists.
But given the way things are in our country, I feel that the relevant question should be: How do you not get tired writing about the same things over and over again?

I have this nagging feeling that being opinionated is not really difficult to be in our culture given the fact that everyone in this country seems to have something to say about anything and everything. We seem to be a people with strong opinions about what is happening around us and we seem to forever inhabit a metaphorical living room set of talk show.

I receive lots of e-mails from people who give me ideas about what to write about. I like to think the suggestions are done with the purest intentions as most of these are prefaced with statements like “I’m just an ordinary citizen with no access to media.” I keep receiving document after document from people who feel that their side needs to be heard as well. Lots of people out there have strong ideas and opinions and they want to be heard. The problem is: Is anyone out there really listening? It does seem that what we have is a long line of people who all want to talk and nobody wants to listen.

For example, because of the color-coding scheme, I am forced to take a cab to work on Fridays. I still have to enjoy a taxi ride without being assaulted by a driver’s running commentary about what is wrong with the country and with the world.

Why, just last Friday, the driver of the cab I was riding in was particularly vehement about how the runaway price of oil is strangling the Filipino people. He went on and on about what the government should be doing to help drivers like him. I interrupted him to suggest that he shift to LPG gas instead of relying on oil—that’s what most taxi operators have been doing, after all. He sheepishly admitted that the cab we were riding on was actually fueled by LPG and he was therefore not directly affected by the recent increases in the prices of gasoline.
But no matter, he said. And he continued with his litany of woes blaming the government, the local governments, even businessmen for the gas prices debacle.

Our congressional hearings are televised live and often come across as an episode of the Jerry Springer show where people reveal lurid details about other people to the delight of the crowd; we half expect our senators and congressmen to accept phone-in questions during these hearings. After reputations have been sullied and energies have been spent, nothing else is heard about the results of those hearings. No reports, no legislation, nothing.

Yesterday, most business organizations came up with public statements about the electricity imbroglio. Sometimes one wonders if all those attempts are necessary and serve a particular purpose other than to enhance media presence.

The one statement from a business leader that actually made a smidgen of sense—and only because it zeroed in on what really matters the most—was ignored. In so many words, Donald Dee said something about not caring who controls Manila Electric Co. as long as electricity rates go down. His comment was not given sufficient airtime by media because it didn’t add fuel to the ongoing exchange of blows between the two contending parties.

I’d like to repeat for the benefit of the Government Service Insurance System and the Lopez family: Let’s focus on the important issue, please, and that is lower electricity costs.
Unfortunately, that important point is lost in the din and dynamics of the heated discussion. Both sides are preoccupied with proving who is right or wrong and with dishing out more mud to throw at the other camp they seem to have forgotten what is really at stake in the whole sordid mess.

Who cares if other electric companies also charge systems losses, or how many others charge their own electricity consumption to the public. The fact that others do it, too, does not make it right or justifiable—besides, these other electric companies charge lower rates. The issue is not who else is doing it, the issue is whether it is jacking up electricity rates unfairly for Meralco consumers and what can be done to remedy it.

So one really wishes that the kind of discussion we do in this country moves on to actually solving problems rather than just simply talking and exchanging opinions about them. More importantly, one wishes that concerned agencies do something about what others complain or express opinions about. It’s wishful thinking, though. In this country, very few things actually get done no matter how many times it is written or talked about.

Schools will open in a few weeks’ time. There will be the usual commentaries and debate about what’s causing the sorry state of the educational system and blah blah blah. Of course it is the same problems that we’ve had in the last 20 years. We talk about them every single opening of the school year, it has become a seasonal thing. But has anything concrete been done to really remedy the problems? The answer is obvious because columnists will still be writing about them soon.

We don’t run out of things to write about because quite frankly, some people, particularly those in power, simply refuse to listen.

Reflections on a capping ceremony

This is a late post of my column last Monday, May 26.

It’s been quite a while since I last saw a nurse wearing the standard— some would describe it as archaic —uniform: All-white dress, white shoes (and not rubber sneakers variety), and a nurse’s cap perched on top of her head.

My older sister, who is a nurse, used to complain about how being in an all-white getup was so inconvenient and how that white cap always got in the way of her chores in the hospital. The cap, she said, gave her headaches as it had to be fastened securely with pins. And because nurses had to fix them every now and then to keep them in place one can only wonder at the quantity and kind of germs and bacteria those caps played host to.

Thus, I can understand why most nurses today opt for those colored scrub suits even if they sure make them look like they are on their way to or just came from a pajama party; a description which I am told is better compared to the one which likens them to cleaning personnel. But if I were a nurse, I would probably also prefer a uniform that is more convenient and practical. And I certainly would not wear those caps.

So if hardly anyone wears a nurse’s cap anymore, why do nursing schools still hold capping ceremonies for incoming third year nursing students? This was a question that was top of mind last week when I attended my son’s candlelight and capping ceremony. Obviously, my son is male and wore a pin rather than a cap. In fact, half of the students in his class were males, a reflection of how the nursing profession has changed through the years.

The answer became obvious as the three-hour ritual got under way: It was a ceremonial pow wow aimed at reminding everyone, the would-be nurses in particular, about the historical and social value of the nursing profession. The guest speaker (a decorated military nurse with the Air Force carrying the rank of captain) and all those who mounted the podium delivered the usual platitudes about the nobility of the profession and how, at the very end, it is about serving humanity.

I am not sure though that all those efforts to recall and invoke the bravery and selflessness of Florence Nightingale worked. In the interest of calling a spade a dirty shovel, we all know why most of our students are in nursing schools. The reason is because there is a huge demand for nurses abroad, with some experts predicting that the demand will continue to increase in the next 10 years. A career in nursing offers the most promising opportunity toward a lucrative job abroad. This is why even professional doctors are enrolling in nursing schools.

This is also the reason why a number of unscrupulous people are preying on hapless students. A number of learning institutions are suddenly offering nursing courses despite the fact that they obviously don’t have the capability to train nurses. Just recently, we heard about a nursing review center in Laguna that embezzled the money that nursing students forked out to pay for their board examinations in June.

And this is why our regulatory bodies are continuously tinkering with the nursing curriculum, implementing stop-gap measures rather than putting their foot down and closing nursing schools that are really nothing but glorified diploma factories. I am told that the reason why this cannot be done is because many of these schools are owned by people who walk the corridors of power. So our regulatory bodies are content with coming up with palliative solutions such as their latest inspired madness: Increasing the hours nursing students spend in clinical training and in general lengthening the duration students spend in school.

The acrobatic logical rationale is that forcing students to spend more time in training would make them more capable. We all know the logic stinks because it really doesn’t matter how many years a student spends in the classroom—it’s the quality of instruction that matters; it’s the availability of facilities that makes the difference. With more than a thousand nursing students crammed into hospitals at any given time, most of them end up simply loitering on hallways and not getting any real clinical experience at all.

Many students are in nursing schools with nary a thought or appreciation for the intellectual or emotional intelligence required for and by the profession.

Thus, I can understand why nursing schools worth their names and reputations continue to sustain rituals and ceremonies, like capping and candlelight ceremonies that strike most as already irrelevant. They even had to make adjustments in the process. For example, because the cavernous SMX Convention Center which was the venue for the ceremonies, does not allow lighted candles inside the hall, the candlelight ceremonies had to do with battery operated bulbs attached to the replicas of the oil lamp Florence Nightingale used during the Crimean War.

As I sat there in the middle of the convention center, reading a book in the midst of all the pandemonium of kith and kin scrambling all over themselves to take pictures and videos of the would-be nurses, I couldn’t help overhearing the lament, the hopes and the aspirations of the other parents.

A very proud mother beside me was droning on and on about the difficulties her family had to endure to make sure that they would continue to be able to afford sending their daughter to this particular nursing school, renowned for stringent academic cutoffs and expensive tuition. A group of parents behind me were swapping stories about how they had to spend sleepless nights sewing the costumes for a cultural number their children had to mount for one of the related learning subjects. I, too, am familiar with most of these stories although my own personal sacrifice has been limited to waking up earlier than usual or staying up late at night to chauffeur my son to school on occasion.

That’s when the realization hit me. The ritual was also being held for the benefit of parents.
So wearing a nurse’s cap may not be the norm anymore in hospitals, but the ceremonial act of putting it on stands for something that will always be relevant—as reference to what the nursing profession used to be about. And as a symbolic validation of the hopes and dreams of parents who only want the best for their children.