Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Inspiring in a different way

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Like most working drones in this country, I had to make do with watching a delayed telecast of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III’s first State-of-the-Nation Address last Monday. I am not complaining, though. Yes, I think that there is value to be had in declaring a holiday during the Sona and promoting good citizenship by encouraging more people to listen to the President although it also admittedly smacks of a certain degree of conceitedness. On the other hand, it really should be business as usual for the country even during a Sona.

There are distinct advantages of watching a delayed telecast of the Sona such as not having to endure the senseless chatter of the anchors and the pundits and the technical glitches. I watched the late evening cast on television and groaned inwardly because half of the coverage was on fashion, celebrity spotting, and irrelevant commentary.

“What did you think of it?” was the oft-repeated question immediately after the address. I do think that it is a good thing that people are asking this question because it means they care. I always enjoy trawling the blogosphere and listening to the radio shows immediately after a Sona not necessarily for the exact content of the reactions but to gauge the level of involvement or passion. I think divergence of opinions should be expected—to me, it doesn’t matter that people disagree, what is important is that people are talking about the points made by the President. Having said that, what follows are my own two cents about the Sona.

I had certain expectations of the address and I’ve written about some of them in this space last Monday. I expected the President to use the occasion as an opportunity to present a metaphorical road map for the future of this country under his leadership. I expected him to share his vision for the Republic. I expected him to be inspiring; to finally step up to the plate and talk about something grander, more transcendent. I expected him to be more, uhm, presidential.

On account of the advance information that had been leaked out to the press since last week, I also expected the President to use the occasion to lambast the previous administration although I had hoped that he would keep this to a minimum so as not to diminish the import of the occasion. Surely, nobody wants a Sona that resembles a trial. And given what we have seen during the campaign and during his inaugural, I expected P-Noy to be straightforward and to deliver a no-frills speech.

P-Noy spent more than half of his time talking about the sorry state of the nation. His thesis was simple: The profligacy of the previous administration is to blame for our woes. I will not question this assertion mainly because it is something everyone already knows particularly since this seems to be all this current administration wants to talk about.

My main problem with the so-called exposes was that these were on issues that seemed to have particular relevance to the present and therefore seemed extra self-serving. Former President Joseph Estrada, he with the very short memory, quipped that the exposes were on small-time corruption. He should know these things.

The expose on the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System of MWSS were shocking indeed if one is unfamiliar with the workings of corporate boards. But when framed within the context of the current water crisis, it seemed like a deliberate device to deflect anger and pin the blame somewhere else for the fact that large swathes of households were without water for a whole week last week. The expose about calamity funds also seemed like advance justification for potential difficulties in managing the expected whammies to be wrought by forthcoming natural calamities. We know the effect of forthcoming typhoons would be more devastating because of global warning. The recent typhoon that hit a few weeks ago was relatively weaker in the larger scheme of things but it managed to plunge Metro Manila in total darkness for almost one day. Most streets already got flooded last Sunday through a downpour that was not really that heavy.

But if the point were to build a case for the administration’s campaign to reduce corruption in government, I would have to concede that the Sona was a step in the right direction. Hopefully that part of the Sona sent shivers down the spine of all the government people and all the legislators sitting on that hall last Monday. It may have been about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but it would be foolhardy to think that the former President did all those alleged wrongdoings alone without the complicity of a lot of people in government and in Congress.

P-Noy’s first Sona was short on wings and long on roots. But it would not be right to say that it wasn’t inspiring because it was; only in a different way. True, it could have been better if it had a more effective cohering mechanism; but what it lacked in form was made up ten times over by sheer sincerity and pragmatism. This was a Sona for the people, not for the intelligentsia.

I don’t think it is fair to expect P-Noy to be what he is not. This is obviously a man who is not comfortable with metaphors, flowery words, and attempts at profundity. In addition to using Tagalog all the way, the President used street language such as tongpats (kickback). It dawned on me that it would not be right to measure him against a standard yardstick given that he rose to the presidency through a non-traditional route anyway.

In addition to the exposes that sent some people gasping, the only line from the speech that people could remember after was Pwede na muling mangarap (we can dream again). There were the standards slogans from the presidential campaign such as tuwid na daan (straight path) but it was the reminder that we can now begin the process of aspiring for greater things that resonated after the speech. It’s probably not as inspiring and memorable, but it sure works as a good start.

I probably haven’t been watching that much television lately but it was the first time I saw P-Noy sporting that new cropped look which makes him look younger. His stylist seems to be doing a great job on the President. P-Noy, however, really needs to stop smoking because it was obvious that this habit is getting in the way of his public speaking. Overall, not bad for a first Sona.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sana (wishful thinking)

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

At 4 this afternoon, Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III, the 15th President of the Republic of the Philippines, will deliver his State of the Nation Address to a joint session of Congress.

It is P-Noy’s first Sona. Naturally, there’s been a lot of discussion on what his address should or would be about. There’s a lot of expectations given how this President has come to symbolize change and redemption.

Previous presidents have used the Sona as an opportunity to brag about accomplishments and to present a road map for the future. P-Noy has only been on the job for a couple of weeks so there’s not much in terms of accomplishments yet. Will his first Sona be an unveiling of his vision for the country? That is the question that is in most people’s minds.

By tradition, the State of the Nation Address is a formal affair and is supposed to be a no-frills address like an inaugural speech. But we are a people with boundless creativity and not even the Sona had been spared from artistic interference; and I am not just talking about the fashion mishaps that are bound to get ample media attention today.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo introduced innovative touches meant to provide drama to an otherwise staid affair although some people strongly argued that the so-called innovations were really smoke and mirror tricks meant to draw attention away from the stink of the administration. In short, the innovations were meant to deflect focus from the lack of substance.

And so there were those children from Payatas, the garbage site, and that metaphor about paper boats. And then there were those various people —I remember boxer Manny Pacquiao was one of them—who were invited to the affair and then asked to stand up at various points of the speech as living “visual aids.” And then there were those mnemonic devices (BEAT D ODDS, remember?), and those dreadful Powerpoint presentations. A friend couldn’t help but groan about the very amateurish way in which those powerpoint presentations were crafted —they looked like they were done by someone who had just learned how to use the program.

Sonny Coloma of the Communications Group has been quoted in various newspapers as saying that P-Noy’s first Sona would be a no-frills address.

What has gotten people’s attention, however, was the speculative drivel that’s been going around that P-Noy’s first SONA would once again be a full-scale indictment and condemnation of the previous administration. There has been a lot of loose talk about how the President would do a Mike Enriquez a la Imbestigador and use the address as an occasion to explode yet another round of major anomalies supposedly committed by the previous administration.

P-Noy himself gave concrete indications about the kind of, as well as the volume of stench, he would let loose at the opening of the 15th session of Congress. For many days now, the Palace had been very busy showing righteous indignation over the fact that the previous administration had already spent most of the government’s budget for the year.

Demonizing the previous administration is something that’s been going on for quite sometime now and quite frankly, it’s beginning to take its toll on the people. We’ve had bad news for a long time already, isn’t it about time we get a whiff of some good news? Isn’t this a good time to lift our sagging spirits, inspire us with some visionary leadership, perhaps even ennoble the people into believing that there is hope for this country despite the sorry state that we find ourselves mired in?

We already know that Arroyo poured government resources into her district in Pampanga—every President does that to his or her hometown, not that such a practice should be legitimized. We know that the previous administration exemplified greed, opportunism, graft and corruption, etc. The point is that there’s supposed to be a Truth Commission that’s supposed to uncover all these and be responsible for making sure that those who are guilty are made to pay. The point is that we also want to know what this administrations intends to do to change the system that breeds corruption. The point is that there’s a limit to how much we can beat a person or a group after we have emerged victorious.

Mercifully, the Palace has since then backpedaled furiously and tried to downplay the hate and vitriol angle.

The bright boys have tried to provide a more politically correct context to what the President intends to do this afternoon. It would simply be an exercise in “truth telling,” Coloma was supposed to have said.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda clarified that there is no intent to embarrass or shame the previous President—it would just be an enumeration of the problems inherited by the current administration. In other words, P-Noy will not be whining and complaining like a spoiled brat. He will just be Uncle Scrooge, perhaps?

P-Noy and his administration need to realize that at a certain point they have to stop blaming the previous administration for the country’s woes, particularly since this administration seems to have the misfortune of being beset by major problems early on that it really cannot attribute to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo such as the water crisis (fortunately it had started to rain heavily as I write and hopefully the rains are pouring where they should be).

Moreover, P-Noy and his administration need to start becoming messengers of hope. Unfortunately, P-Noy does not come across as a strategic thinker and visionary. He seems more of a realist and a hands-on manager. That’s well and good for the first few months. But at some point, this President needs to learn that the problems besetting this country require bolder, more encompassing solutions that require strategic thinking and collaborative approaches. For these, he would need to transform into a captain of the ship and a steward of change from a fault-finding, penny-pinching union leader.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Requiem for The Probe Team

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

There was a time in my life when I actually thought that being part of the Probe Team was the best job one could ever have. Of course I eventually changed my mind when I became acquainted with the kind of work Ian Wright gets to do for The Lonely Planet (I’d still kill to have that job even at this late stage in my career). But back when Jullie Yap Daza, Niñez Cacho Olivarez, and Tina Monzon Palma were the grand dames of public affairs television programs, there was the no-nonsense Cheche Lazaro and her brave clutch of daring reporters.

The Probe Team pioneered that genre in local television called “investigative journalism” but is really a mélange of many formats. To try to pigeonhole The Probe Team into a specific category would be doing it a great disservice. They did investigative journalism, yes; but many looked upon it as a magazine show, or a documentary show, even a lifestyle show. For many years, The Probe Team was one of the very few shows I made a point to watch.

This is difficult to write, but I must admit that I eventually outgrew my devotion to The Probe Team. And it really wasn’t just the fact that the reporters that were hired to replace those who eventually got pirated by the giant networks seemed to have become less and less engaging. The Probe Team boasts of having been the training ground of many of the top media personalities in the local television industry—from Maria Ressa, to Luchie Cruz-Valdez, to David Celdran, to Twink Macaraeg, to Bernadette Sembrano, to Pinky Webb. But those who followed in their footsteps seemed to have lacked the zing and the pluckedness of say, Manny Ayala or Karen Davila.

Although they tried as much as they could to stick to the original format, the show underwent a number of tweaking here and there supposedly to respond to the fickle preferences and the evolving tastes of the Filipino audience. They shifted to using Tagalog as the primary language and churned out more human-interest stories.

When they brought in the frisky Love Anover and her humongous microphone, people sat up and noticed but not even the vociferous criticism was enough to perk up the ratings. At that point, the show started to lose its connection with its core audience particularly when the new reporters started to let loose their lack of maturity such as when Robert Alejandro did that extremely homophobic piece on gay men who frequent movie houses for sex, complete with subliminal messages (that piece ended with the word “shame” flickering onscreen, which was a clear judgment). Lazaro had to publicly apologize for that slip.

Last I looked, the show had metamorphosed into The Probe Profiles, which featured life and personality sketches of controversial personages.

But through the many changes in format and reporters, through the series of moves from one network to another, three things remained constant: The steady and commanding presence of Cheche Lazaro, the relatively higher level of cerebral content that went into each episode, and the gung-ho, never-say-die attitude of the whole production team which was always palpable week after week, episode after episode.

The Probe Team officially aired its swan song last Sunday in a special tribute that relived the ups and downs in its 24 years of existence and tried to put some form of closure to the whole ride. The inimitable Boy Abunda put Cheche Lazaro on the hot seat Saturday evening on The Bottomline. A grand reunion of everyone who has ever been part of the phenomenal show was reportedly staged also recently.

There’s lots of tongue clucking and sighing that has accompanied Lazaro’s announcement of her (semi) retirement and the show’s demise.

The general sentiment seems to be one of regret because Lazaro is, without doubt one of the best (if not the best) female broadcasters around. She is great at what she does and what’s more, she is one of the very few broadcast journalists with unblemished integrity and impeccable taste. She has never figured in any controversy, has not been known to flaunt her weight around, and has not been involved in any anomalous transaction. In short, she is squeaky clean which unfortunately many people in this country equate with being boring.

Lazaro’s professional persona is an enigma. Although she is widely recognized as extremely competent (she is a noted professor of broadcast communications at the University of the Philippines), she is not exactly a household name. Although people with influence in this country look up to her as the epitome of what a broadcast journalist should be, but the sad reality is that Lazaro was never given a slot on primetime television. She has not been asked to anchor the coverage of major events such as presidential debates, or even the recent inaugural. In her stead, we had the usual clowns who seem to believe that having the ability to resonate their voices or get away with wearing a flamboyant costume equate with competence.

It’s a sad reflection of the way things are in our country that someone of Lazaro’s talent and character has not been given the opportunity to play a more dominant or lead role in local media. It can be argued, of course, that Lazaro probably chose the arrangements to be that way. It’s very obvious that Lazaro is the type of media person who thinks the messenger should not get in the way of the message, which is quite admirable given the way the divas in our local networks strut around and call attention to themselves as if they were the most important part of the news or event.

We do have this predilection to pick physical attributes, flair for drama, or overall entertainment potential over genuine talent. This sad state of affairs is not limited to media because we know that a lot of darned good artists—theater actors, singers, classical musicians, etc. —are not getting the recognition and attention that they truly deserve. One network’s insistence that the reason there is obvious preference for form over substance and for escapist and mindless programming is that they are simply responding to audience demand is such a cop-out. Media’s responsibility is not merely to entertain but also to educate.

Clearly, Lazaro and the Probe Team would have had made better impact on the general population if our networks helped create the ecosystem that would have made it thrive to begin with.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Facebooked

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

A friend scoffed, a bit haughtily I thought, when he read about how the President’s newly formed Communications Group (I know, the name sounds so generic and so nonspecific although it does have a businesslike ring to it) intended to use Facebook and Twitter as communications platforms to bring Malacañang and P-Noy closer to the people. He thought the move smacked of populist schtick. Obviously, my friend has not gotten on board the Facebook bandwagon.

I’ve been on Facebook for quite sometime now. Truth be told, I am on many social networking sites. I do have Friendster, Multiply, and Twitter accounts, but I rarely log on to these accounts. But why I took out my own accounts on these social networking sites makes for an interesting digression.

There are those who worry about how being on these networking sites opens one up to potential invasion of privacy. I actually signed up precisely to protect my privacy and identity. I signed up to make sure I got first dibs on using my own name as account name. Not that I have illusions of being a huge celebrity (Piolo Pascual has more than a dozen Facebook and Twitter accounts, none of which are actually his), but there are just lots of people in this world with lots of time on their hands and nothing better to do who “steal” some other people’s identities. As it is, there are at least two other Facebook accounts bearing my name. I figured I might as well have an “official account” under my own name even if it isn’t that active, well, socially. I also thought the accounts would come in handy when I actually find a real need for them; I don’t know what exactly, but who knows.

Facebook and Twitter are the two most popular social networking sites today. Many television shows such as news programs now find ways to integrate these two sites into their formats. The newscast I watch in the evening ends with a segment where the news anchors read feedback posted in their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

How exactly Malacañang intends to use Facebook and Twitter as communication tools remains unclear but I can see the potentials. They can use Twitter to quickly confirm or deny rumors, or to make announcements. I presume, however, that Ricky Carandang, Sonny Coloma, and Manolo Quezon realize that Facebook and Twitter can by no means be considered formal communication channels, nor can they take the place of traditional platforms such as an actual press conference where someone provides a face and a voice to an actual statement.

But the government’s intention to use Facebook and Twitter as official communication platforms is indicative of how these two networking sites have altered the nature of communication as we know it. Facebook and Twitter have not only effectively cut across barriers of time and space but have also succeeded where other platforms have not: They have made communications intensely personal and almost intimate. Television brings someone with a message directly into our living rooms or bedrooms, but Twitter and Facebook enable someone to engage us directly in the metaphorical, nay, virtual, equivalent of a real conversation. A tweet is a broadcast, yes, but it is a broadcast specifically addressed to people in one’s personal list of followers. A Facebook status message (or shoutout) is directed at one’s “friends.” The fact that Facebook contacts are called “friends” brings an even more intimate dimension into the whole communication dynamics.

When an octogenarian aunt, who was part of the first wave of nurses to settle down in the United States in the sixties and whom I haven’t interacted with for almost two decades, “added” me up in Facebook recently, I dropped all lingering second thoughts about the wonders of this social networking site. My aunt and I have been exchanging messages since then and we’re now happily made aware of what each one of us is up whether it’s just something as mundane as what one had for dinner or something as complicated as setting up travel arrangements for a group of friends. And even more amazingly, I have made the acquaintance and have seen pictures and videos of never-before heard of relatives.

Of course it’s been quite sometime since I have been happily “finding” long lost friends and relatives through Facebook. Last I looked I had almost 1,500 “friends” in my Facebook account and let me tell you that I personally know most of them in person; the rest I know by association.

And it’s been quite sometime since I have been using Facebook to interact with my students at this college where I teach in the evenings. I’ve learned that the easiest way to send a message to a student is not to send an email or a text through SMS—but to send a message through Facebook or better still, check if the student is online and chat with him or her directly. The current generation practically lives on Facebook so an announcement about examinations or homework gets disseminated more effectively than through the traditional channels.

As a parent (and even as the uncle or older cousin who dotes on younger relatives), I have found Facebook quite helpful in keeping up with what is happening in the lives of family members. I’ve learned that being able to offer a piece of advice, or lend a book, or even just send a congratulatory message for an achievement go a long way in terms of helping boost self-esteem.

Oh, but there are drawbacks. One obvious disadvantage is that the kind of information one gets access to can be overwhelming. There’s obviously no accounting for taste and people have their own benchmarks in terms of what stuff is suitable or unfit for public consumption. But then again, it’s just easier to ignore stuff one does not personally like rather than create a big stink about it. It’s not like someone is pointing at gun at you to read an indelicate post, or view rather risqué photos.

Very obviously, these social networking sites are an abomination to people who are socially averse. If you detest being with people, or is uncomfortable giving or receiving affection, Facebook is not for you.

Facebook even got me through a column piece on a day where there was absolutely nothing worthwhile to write about. Now, if only Facebook could help me find a long lost cousin—someone who probably doesn’t even know of our existence, I would be singing paeans at the altar of Mark Zuckerberg and friends.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Back to work

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Yet one more proof of how globalized we’ve all become was the upsurge of attention given to the recently concluded World Cup held at Johannesburg, South Africa. It is easy to understand how Filipinos went bonkers over the championship matches between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. We’ve always been inexplicably crazy over basketball. And we’ve always been enamored with anything American. But soccer? The World Cup?

I know that there are people in this country who have been advocating the shift in national sport from basketball or boxing to soccer—I know neither basketball nor boxing is officially our national sport, which just goes to prove the wide disconnect between policy and practice in this country—but I guess nobody was listening. Hopefully soccer has finally caught our collective fancy this time around. We’re supposed to be more ideally suited for soccer than basketball because of our physical, uhm, peculiarities.

I’ve always found soccer a fascinating sport because of the extreme levels of psychological and mental torture it subjects its players to. Sure, all sports puts some demands on players, but how many other sports require its players to run around a humongous playing field to kick a ball for hours while being thwarted every step of the way by opponents? Even probably more frustrating is the fact that all that Herculean effort would often result in nothing—nada, zilch. The final game between Spain and the Netherlands last Monday morning ended up with a score of 1-0. In fact, soccer games are often decided by penalty shootouts at the end because teams fail to make a score. The point of playing most sports is to score and I would suppose the satisfaction derived by players would precisely come from being able to generate as many points as possible for one’s team, something which is almost impossible to achieve in soccer.

I think easier access to the Internet and cable television, even the fact that many business establishments cashed in on the World Cup phenomenon by holding special viewings of certain matches, all contributed to the sudden popularity of the World Cup in this part of the world. But we shouldn’t discount other factors such as the pop culture accoutrements that were present. For example, people might have expressed exasperation and annoyance over the vuvuzela but those ubiquitous horns became the de facto symbol of the South Africa staging of the World Cup. Future stagings of global events would have to find something similar to showcase, hopefully not as distracting as the vuvuzela.

But what will probably stick in people’s memories about the 2010 World Cup would be something not even directly related to soccer or South Africa. It would be Paul, the octopus that shot to global prominence as the present time’s reincarnation of Nostradamus. The octopus correctly predicted the victory of Spain over Germany and eventually, Spain’s victory over the Netherlands. This must be a good time to be an octopus although it can be argued that the octopus probably never gave his “predictions” the same level of importance that we humans did.

I suppose there must have been a marked spike in the consumption of fried octopus in Netherlands. I rooted for Netherlands, of course although I started to have misgivings when it looked like the team members intended to play the game with armalites, chainsaws and hammers. They were brutal.

***

Now that the euphoria over P-Noy’s victory and inauguration has started to die down, Cabinet members have been appointed, and things are slowly winding down to normalcy, perhaps it is time for government departments to get back to work and ensure that the delivery of basic services are resumed. People in government can argue that their operations have always been “business as usual” in the last couple of months, but we all know that the change in national leadership has resulted in a wait-and-see situation. Clearly the delivery of some services has been put in abeyance pending the assumption into power of newly minted appointees.

For example, many of our roads desperately need maintenance works. I am aware that there is an ongoing power struggle at the Metro Manila Development Authority, but perhaps people should be reminded that politics should not get in the way of governance. Center islands of major thoroughfares are overgrown with grasses. The ones at Macapagal Avenue, for example, have grasses that are almost half as tall as the lampposts. Many of our canals and esteros are hopelessly blocked with garbage and should have been dredged during the summer months. The rains have started to come and it’s now too late to do anything about the silted waterways where floodwaters are supposed to pass through. We will have to brace ourselves for worse flooding this time around.

There’s a dengue and a malaria outbreak in certain parts of this country and there’s an urgent and obvious need to scale up services particularly in certain areas where cases have breached previous records. A cousin who works with a non-government organization doing outreach work in these areas tearfully recalls the abject conditions in these areas. For example, as many as three patients share one bed in some hospitals and many don’t have money to even buy food or medicines.

And perhaps our leaders should also mind the many ways in which we squander precious resources. We were passing through Quirino Avenue in Manila last Sunday at around 5:00 in the afternoon and were stupefied to see all those red and white street lamps erected by the re-elected mayor fully lighted up when it still wasn’t dusk. Kilometers of street lamps wasting thousands of kilowatts of precious electricity! We’re being told that one of the simplest things we can do to help stave off global warming is to turn off lights.

I’ve written in the past about this really annoying predilection of every elected mayor in Metro Manila to add more street lamps in their respective localities. This has resulted in an absurd situation where some roads have three of four different types of street lamps crowding each other out on precious sidewalk space. Someone told me those street lamps are moneymaking schemes although I have it on good sources that in the City of Manila many of those lamps were actually donated by private companies. My problem, aside from aesthetics, is that the main functions of these street lamps seem to be decorative rather than practical. If we are truly serious about lighting up our cities to reduce criminality, then we should erect those lamps where they truly are needed —such as those narrow alleys and dark corners of the Metro rather than on the major thoroughfares where there are functioning street lamps to begin with.

I’ve always been of the opinion that all it will take to get things to work in this country is sheer political will. I am happy to report that, finally, authorities have been able to clean up the sidewalks around Baclaran church. This time around, it looks like those in charge are serious about ensuring that those illegally built shopping stalls will not be able to make a comeback because they have erected steel barricades that serve as passageways for pedestrians on the sidewalks. This does not mean devotees of the Mother of Perpetual Help now have an easier time getting to the church, though. The stalls around the church may be gone now but the ambulant vendors with pushcarts, racks with rollers, and various other creative contraptions such as long poles with clothes hangers and even vehicles with fabricated display shelves inside, still proliferate and play hide and seek with policemen.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Anything but simple

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

It has been a while since I watched a Repertory Philippines play—the last one was Tuesdays with Morrie many seasons ago. I went with a friend who had been absent from the theater scene even longer than I have been—he said he last watched a stage play when Repertory Philippines was still mounting productions at the Shangrila Edsa Mall, which was like a decade or so ago. Understandably, both of us had some expectations.

In addition, Equus is not your ordinary, typical, run-of-the-mill play. It got global attention when Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame took on the role of Alan Strang in the 2007 revival of the play. Actually, I think it really was the fact that he took on a role that required being stark raving naked onstage for ten minutes or so that made people stand up and take notice of the play.

We knew there was going to be nudity. We’ve seen the clips on YouTube showing Radcliffe prancing around in his birthday suit. Besides we were practically hit on the head repeatedly with the warning about the “sensitive nature of the play” (euphemism in this country for cussing and nudity) before we entered the theater, while waiting for the play to begin, and during the intermission. And it’s a sad reflection of the overall maturity and discipline of Filipino audiences when production companies are compelled to repeatedly announce over the public address system that taking pictures was not allowed during the play, along with the warning that anyone caught doing so would be escorted out of the venue. One wishes Repertory people were as conscientious about not allowing people to enter the venue once the play had gotten started, or at least ensuring that those who were late did so as unobtrusively as possible, but no cigar.

Those expecting to have an easy time while watching this version of Equus are in for a disappointment. The premise of the play is disturbing although quite enthralling. A boy commits a bizarre and inexplicable crime—he blinds six horses in one night; he doesn’t maim them or kill them, he simply blinds them. Instead of having the boy locked up in jail, a compassionate judge puts him under the care of a psychiatrist. The play then proceeds to unlock the mystery behind the crime and how the psychiatrist ultimately succeeds in exorcising the boy from whatever it is that afflicts him. This summary makes the play come across as a simple whodunit. Equus is anything but simple.

In fact, Equus is so complex that halfway through the play I actually made a conscious effort to just focus on the production and to stop trying to pursue in my mind the subtexts that harkened Freudian theories (everything has to do with the libido), the ethical dilemmas of Psychiatry (when psychiatrists “normalize” behaviors and subdue the unbridled passion and creativity of their patients, are they really “healing” people or simply muffling their zest for life?), the debate between psychology and spirituality (are our problems psychological or spiritual?), the dangers of religious dogma, the great chasm between carnality and theology and yet the thin line between devotion and obsession and between fantasy and reality, the irrelevance of sexual orientation in analyzing sexual dysfunctions, etc. Whew.

Along the way, the play deftly tackles parenting and sexuality (yes, those who are riveted in the raging sex education modules controversy will find some parallels in this play), crime and justice, psychiatric methods and the demons that haunt psychiatrists, trust and betrayal, truth and fantasy, shame and pain, and ultimately, repression and liberation. Here we have a self-tormented psychiatrist, an emotionally damaged boy, dysfunctional parents, and six horses pulsing with raw sexuality.

The mélange is a potent brew that threatens to go haywire at any moment. It’s a miracle the play works. On one level, Equus is basically a suspense story about a bizarre crime. But it’s also a psychological treatise about character and motive. And yes, it’s also about sexual awakening although I feel compelled to warn people—who, based on commentaries in various social networking sites and blogs, seem to have the idea that Equus is about people rolling naked in hay —that the nudity in the play is so natural one has to be a pervert to be engrossed over it. Now, the erotic scenes between the boy and the horses are another thing, though, and they aren’t naked in those scenes. While having a quick dinner after the play, I asked my friend if he could describe what the actors looked like naked and he laughed hard because he said he couldn’t remember.

I watched the play on opening night and the role of the conflicted boy (Alan Strang) was played by Red Concepcion. The play is about Strang but the main protagonist in the play is Dr. Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, played by Repertory veteran actor Miguel Faustmann. Concepcion as Strang turns in a competent performance. Although he seemed tentative in the beginning and tended to overact in some scenes, he was convincing in his portrayal of a deeply disturbed boy. The fact that we could empathize with him despite the crime ascribed to him and his attempts to block Dysart’s efforts to help him in the beginning was proof of Concepcion’s promise as an actor. Unfortunately, he seemed a little inhibited (opening night jitters perhaps, or the fact that it seemed like a whole caboodle of friends came to watch him that night as evidenced by the cheering that greeted him at curtain call) his climax scenes came off not as visually exhilarating, liberating, or celebratory.

Faustmann, of course, was in full throttle. He essayed the role of a disillusioned psychiatrist and narrator (his role required him to act like a solo Greek chorus who talked to the audience at some parts) so superbly he was utterly convincing in the parts where he had to unravel the layers of deception spun by his patient and could see the images he described—I could see in my mind the wife he had been unable to kiss in six years!

The two had very able support from a host of actors among them Roselyn Perez, Tami Monsod, Jaime del Mundo, and Phoena Baranda. The dynamics between Strang’s parents that proved pivotal to his condition was so palpable in del Mundo and Monsod’s interpretation. Baranda was beguiling but sadly, either her microphone wasn’t working properly on opening night or she was just delivering her lines too softly she came across as whispering her lines all throughout the play.

A powerful presence in the play were the six horses played by actors. It’s unthinkable to imagine that actors could convince audiences to think of them as horses—but they did. The actor that played the horse Nugget was utterly convincing he was able to distinguish himself from the others.

Director Audie Gemora chose to stage Equus more as an intimate psychological drama (more emphasis on the drama) than as a suspense thriller or a big philosophical or social treatise on say, morality or redemption. We wished it had elements that allowed the audience to celebrate with the characters but Gemora chose to keep the staging as true as possible to the primary text. Nevertheless, watching Equus was still a deeply rewarding and fulfilling experience. You should go watch it.

Equus opened last Friday at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati. It will continue to play on the next two weekends at 8 p.m., with matinee shows at 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Pandering to the media

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

No further details were given on the exact nature of the seminar that the new Cabinet members are obliged to attend other than it is something about how to handle media. Would they be taught the finer points of diplomacy and tactfulness, such as how to tell to sod off while flashing one’s pearly whites? Perhaps it would be a crash course on anger management? Or could it be a program on image re-engineering—how to master certain behavioral skills that give the impression that one is a thoughtful, considerate, thinking professional even in the midst of extreme provocation?

As a human resource management professional, I am heartened by the message that this move sent, which is that not even Cabinet members are exempt from attending training courses or learning new behaviors. Perhaps the President himself should go through the course since he is championing this paradigm of leading by example. And lest we forget, P-Noy has not exactly been renowned for tactfulness, either. God knows the former President—she with the legendary temper—could have benefited from a crash course on anger management during her term, not that it would have helped deodorize her image anyway. So yes, am all for continuous learning and for compelling our leaders to regularly submit themselves to learning interventions.

Having said that, let me however express my befuddlement over what I think was an overreaction to Education Secretary Brother Armin Luistro’s and Presidential spokesperson’s Edwin Lacierda’s supposed public faux pas.

But really, did Luistro’s and Lacierda’s behaviors merit a public apology from no less than the President himself? Did those really merit the kind of attention they generated? Oh please, aren’t we all being overly sensitive? Aren’t we pandering to public opinion here?

What exactly did Luistro say that was offensive? Okay, so Lacierda could have tried a little harder to mask his annoyance over the very obvious attempt of one reporter to put him on the spot. He did look like he wanted to punch someone on the face. Luistro was actually smiling when he let loose his unsolicited advice to the media—he wasn’t abrasive at all; in fact, it could even be argued that he was being giving “brotherly” advice. Of course, he could have chosen to keep his thoughts to himself but surely he wasn’t hired to shut up; what kind of a teacher backs away from an opportunity to correct behavior?

As a matter of fact, I must admit that when I saw that television footage of Luistro taking a dig at media’s penchant for creating controversies by pitting people against each other, I wanted to give the guy a standing ovation. And I am not exactly a huge fan of his appointment to the post—I’ve written about my reservations on Luistro’s assumption into the job of top honcho for education last week.

But Luistro was right. People should first gather their thoughts about the sex education issue and find out as much as possible about what the whole fuss is about before opening their mouths and inflicting their opinions on others.

The problem is that the people who have been vociferous in their reaction to the sex education issue are clearly misinformed about the contents of the sex education modules—they think the modules will teach kids the kama sutra, which is farthest from the truth. They’ve also indulged in a lot of generalizations about how the sex education modules will promote promiscuity, etc. In fact, they filed for a temporary restraining order to stop the implementation of the pilot testing of the modules on the grounds that the modules violate their parental rights to teach sex education to their children themselves. Quezon City Judge Rosanna Fe Romero Maglaya dismissed their petition for a temporary restraining order last Monday and noted that no one among the petitioners could show proof that their rights as parents were being violated. Clearly, there’s a lot of discussion that needs to be made and these discussions are better done in conference rather than through media.

Moreover, this penchant for pitting people against each other publicly needs to stop. Actually, it’s not a simple matter of pitting people against each other; more often than not, some media people actually provoke the people they are interviewing to say something outrageous that they could play up or sensationalize into a headline.

Take the case of Vice President Jejomar Binay’s latest wrinkle. Now, Binay is an expert in terms of working a crowd and pandering to the media—how else could anyone explain his phenomenal victory in the last election? Binay and I go to the same church on Sundays (I am told he goes to several churches on Sundays just as he makes it a point to visit wakes at night) and the guy sure knows how to work a crowd! It’s always a fascinating experience seeing the Vice President emerge from the church like Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I also work in the same building where the Office of the Vice President is currently located and boy, how this guy loves being pressing the flesh and posing for photos! He uses the common elevators rather than the executive elevators assigned to him, eats at the employee cafeteria, walks around the building exchanging pleasantries with everyone else, and has no qualms about being pinched and hugged and patted like a baby. If this administration does not give him something worthwhile to do in the next few months, Binay would be an unbeatable candidate in 2016!

But there he was the other day in the same situation as Lacierda and Luistro. Apparently, his convoy of vehicles traveling without sirens made an illegal turn on a street and media immediately ganged up on him essentially asking him if he was going against P-Noy’s favorite advocacy. Obviously there was a context around why his convoy of vehicles made a left turn on a no left turn street— perhaps the drivers weren’t aware that it was a no-left turn street, perhaps they were told to do so, perhaps it was the most convenient thing to do. But did media people bothered with this context? Of course not! They saw it merely as an opportunity to pit the Vice President against the President.

There must be a dearth of really noteworthy stories today about this administration and people must be scraping the bottom for issues that deserve public discussion. All these attention to minutiae and this insane media attention to whatever little thing the cabinet members do make it look like this administration has not yet found its bearings. Isn’t there anything more deserving of our attention?

Perhaps it’s about time P-Noy and his Cabinet members really buckle down to work. By the looks of it, based on what we are reading in the papers, only Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Environment Secretary Ramon Paje have hit the ground running so far. Perhaps if media people see something else more noteworthy to report on, then they don’t have to resort to sowing intrigues and making a big deal out of trivial incidents.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Muffling sirens is not enough

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III covered a lot of ground in his inaugural speech. He promised to return power to the people, curb corruption, prioritize poverty alleviation, upgrade the quality of education, cut red tape, reform the military, honor the memory of his parents, silence his garrulous sister, etc. Just kidding about the last one. In general, he promised a “better Philippines.”

I didn’t expect P-Noy to present a strategic plan for an inspiring future, or even just for the next six years that he will be President. Strategic thinking is something one cannot associate with this administration or with this particular President who has risen to power courtesy of a confluence of spur-of-the-moment events rather than through careful planning and strategizing. Besides, doing so would have been superfluous anyway given that the man himself is supposed to represent hope and deliverance. His assumption into the Presidency was the message itself and the less distraction from this message, the better.

I expected P-Noy to make populist pronouncements that would send his yellow army into paroxysms of delight. I was hoping that he would say something concrete we could all chew on, for example, an announcement to the effect that he will finally implement agrarian reform at Hacienda Luisita, the way it is generally understood by everyone in this country, not agrarian reform as defined by slick corporate lawyers, but no cigar.

An inaugural speech however needed something quotable, something memorable. And so there was “Walang wangwang, walang counterflow!” This was the pronouncement that jumped out of the inaugural speech. This country is in the midst of major problems and the President decides to start with… sirens! Is this a work of genius or are they nuts?

The impact this pronouncement made on the people reminded us very strongly of how the infamous “Walang kaibigan, walang kumpare, walang kamag-anak o anak na magsasamantala sa ngayon” became some kind of a benchmark for the Joseph Estrada presidency. One hopes, of course, that P-Noy does a better job of living up to the one promise he made during his inaugural speech that everyone could relate to and remember.

It is safe to assume that making the traffic situation some kind of a centerpiece program for the first 100 days of the P-Noy presidency was deliberate. I reckon that P-Noy’s handlers knew what they were getting into and gave the matter a lot of thought; hopefully more thinking process than what was given to P-Noy’s first memorandum circular which could have brought the whole government bureaucracy to its knees.

That was an embarrassing gaffe that hopefully was the last of its kind. There are quite a number of people who thinks that gaffe is indicative of the level of competence in the P-Noy administration. I personally think it’s an unfair generalization. They’ve only been on the job for a week that we should cut them some slack. If it’s any consolation, they did have the grace to recall the memorandum and admit that it needed revising.

Is the challenge of putting order into the streets of Metro Manila simplistic and uncomplicated? Heavens, no. I maintain that the traffic situation in Metro Manila is the perfect metaphor for what is wrong with and in this country.

Our roads in Metro Manila showcase the informal caste system in our culture. Motorists driving luxury or expensive cars generally think they have right of way. Many among those in power think and act like they own the roads. I work on Macapagal Avenue where the Senate is and believe me, many of our senators and their guests and staff drive like the roads around are their private driveways. Our senators use sirens and create counterflows, even when there is no traffic!

If the President is serious about restoring order on our roads, he shouldn’t stop at sirens and counterflows. He should also order everyone who works in Malacañang and all those connected to them by affinity or consanquinity to immediately take off those stickers brandishing the seal of the Office of the President. In fact, he should issue an order stopping the printing of those stickers and mandate that henceforth, possession of those stickers will no longer entitle motorists to extra courtesies on the road. In fact, the same should apply to similar stickers and plate numbers that give motorists an excuse to violate traffic rules.

He should also enforce stiff penalties to cops caught mulcting motorists. Traffic cops should be reoriented on their functions—they should be reminded that their main job is to manage the traffic, not to apprehend motorists. In fact, the procedures involved in apprehending traffic violators and issuing violation tickets should be re-engineered—traffic cops should not do it on the road. Perhaps, pictures can be taken and violators are slapped penalties when they renew their licenses or car registrations.

Many of our roads are just too narrow and should have either been widened a long time ago or de-commissioned as major thoroughfares. The problem is that widening roads would require major resources, which we don’t have, or would pose problems with property owners who will most likely be able to stop such initiatives through the support of some relatives and friends in power. Some roads really should be declared off limits to public transportation—particularly buses and jeepneys. The problem is that most Filipinos don’t want to walk —they’d rather get stuck in a jeepney for hours rather than walk ten minutes to get to their destinations.

Motorcycles and bicycles should be encouraged in order to declog our roads. Unfortunately, motorcycles are considered major health hazards primarily because we don’t have special lanes for them and motorists in general see them as a nuisance. And then, in case people haven’t noticed, motorcycle riders are regularly flagged down by mulcting cops.

I’ve only scratched the surface—there’s more. There’s the discipline problem, the floods, the absence of directional or street signs, problems with traffic enforcement; but as usual I am running out of space. Suffice it to say that the traffic problem it’s not as simple and straightforward as some people think it is. We need solutions, not slogans. We need the President to fix the problem, not simply sit in the middle of it.

The problem is: Did the President intend to solve this problem or did he simply mean that he was willing to suffer along with all other motorists? Did he simply mean he will outlaw sirens or did he make a commitment to fix the traffic problem?

I find it a little disconcerting that the President has been late for official appointments because he chooses not to use sirens and promptly gets stuck in traffic. We’re supposed to applaud the fact that our President also experiences our woes? How does that move us forward? To avoid recurrence, they said the President would wake up a little earlier—which, in case they haven’t realized it yet, most everyone in this country does and that has not solved the traffic problem. Clearly, making the President suffer with everyone else is not a solution, nor is it indicative of governance. So perhaps some strategic thinking—such as thinking beyond sirens in this particular case—would really help.