This, above all:

This, above all: To be God's best for The Coach and for Anna

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Justice denied

Time Magazine (August 28, 2006 issue) reported there are more Americans who can name off the bat two of Snow White's seven dwarfs than two Supreme Court justices.

I can believe that.

I probably know more of the cast of Ed or Gilmore Girls than of those who sit at the Kataas-taasang Hukuman ng Pilipinas. A scenario most likely not limited to me.

Which is a shame, for that reveals our lack of political will, a loss by default not to lead ourselves.

Starting tomorrow I will have to fly to Cebu several times to help protect my family against the consequences of such an apathy, this time from among city government employees. I will, literally, have to fight City Hall.

As a lawyer I know the courts will not listen to me unless I establish a clear legal right to get a temporary restraining order (TRO) against a private project protected by those in power. As a citizen I burn in anger because I should not be required to prove why my rights should not be overtaken so.

I ran into walls at City Hall just trying to explain that, yes, I am a part of those whom the government serves, and stand equal with my rich next-door neighbor, never mind her powerful political connections.

A gargantuan task, especially when my parents—a schoolteacher and a local government employee, both retired—can rely only on the family's collective wits and determination.

Among the fallout in this case that leave a bad taste in the mouth are three I detest the most: filing a case; parrying with the head honcho who, I have been thrice warned, is vindictive; and dealing with the media.

Oh, to be left in peace to just write.

The evils of the world are better seen in fictive light.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Face Value

Warning: Terribly longish post about how a distorted view of beauty creates pain, but well worth, I think, the time to read, as well as the time I spent in ruminating, reading, and interviewing celebrities (the medical and non-medical kind). This work-in-progress is incomplete; I'm still struggling over certain areas. My perspective, of course, is Christian. I welcome yours.

Would Prince Charming have kissed Sleeping Beauty if she weren’t, well, a beauty? Would he have singled out Cinderella from across the ballroom if her waist-to-hip ratio weren’t 0.73?

Perhaps not. No matter how much we want it otherwise, beauty is not merely skin deep, particularly for those of us who frantically hop on the beauty treadmill, reconstructing what Mother Nature gave us, fighting to halt the ravages of time—sculpting, buffing, peeling, tattooing, lifting, augmenting, suctioning, plucking. The beauty industry that ranges from fashion to cosmetics, from diet plans to fitness studios, from salons to plastic surgery, grows and thrives on the mindset that physical beauty is the primary standard by which we consciously or unconsciously “categorize” a woman.

Television—the de facto, modern-day arbiter of taste and value—feeds on this need for female beauty. Advertisers capitalize on appearance: even commercials that do not sell or are not in any way related to beauty products portray the wiles and wares of a stunning woman. Cigarettes, beer, cellular phones, bathroom tiles, refrigerators—apparently these gain life and increase in sales only in the hands of a dazzling temptress. According to a U.S. study, more than 5,000 commercials with “attractiveness messages” hypnotize viewers each year. Much of the merchandise marketed exclusively on TV panders to the woman’s desire to look better by peddling near-miraculous beauty and makeover products: topical concoctions that shrink fat, enlarge the bust, and remove scars; Cleopatra foam-tipped springs that, when inserted into the nostril, literally lift the bridge for a perkier nose; and the Chinese growth balls that add inches to height when drank once in the morning and again before bedtime. What’s probably more remarkable is that sales are skyrocketing off the charts.

The public is partly to blame for this frenzy. While height is necessary for our flight attendants to reach overhead bins, we also unashamedly require them to be young and beautiful as they pour our coffee. We tend to listen more to good-looking salesladies, prompting companies to hire them primarily for their looks. Filipino TV viewers perpetuate the vicious cycle: we subconsciously but insidiously demand our performers and broadcasters to look physically appealing even before we determine their level of talent. Even worse, we excuse their lack of talent as long as they are attractive.

The beauty bias is rubbing off on non-celebrities. Plastic surgeons in the Philippines confirm that the openness of a few celebrities about their surgeries has drawn more “ordinary” folk to ask for procedures. They come to the clinic, bearing pictures of celebrities, wanting the nose of Nicole Kidman, desiring Barbie Doll proportions or those of Ethel Booba. (According to plastic surgeon Manny Calayan, the most commonly requested body in the country for the past two years is reportedly Ethel Booba’s—from her augmented breasts to her augmented behind, from the cheekbones etched on her face to the tweaked nose.)

There is no universally accepted ideal of female beauty, lending credence to the adage that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. David Hume wrote in 1741 that “Beauty is not a quality in things themselves; it merely exists in the mind that contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.” Some cultures uninfluenced by media find the Rubenesque and Venus de Milo figures delightful, honoring the extra pounds as a sign of prosperity. Generally, however, most women are seduced by catwalk figures: at the height of Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer’s popularity in the 1980s, the prevailing notion was of the robust, healthy woman. Then when the wispy Kate Moss and her scrawny posse crossed the threshold in the 1990s, they ushered in the trend of waif-like proportions (or the lack thereof). So far, this remains the vogue: women in fashion advertisements nowadays tend to be very thin, all the better to fit in the popular low-waist, hip-riding jeans. The average fashion model today reportedly weighs 23 percent less than the average female.

Sometimes women’s search for beauty is about desiring for what they are not or what they don’t have. This rather widespread attitude is further cultivated by media and manufacturers; the demand that is created—whether necessary or not—spurs sales. Caucasians, for instance, are persuaded to think brown skin exotic, and they spend much time under the sun and in tanning salons, or purchase tanning lotions to hide their pale skin. On the other hand, Filipinos and other Asians doggedly bow to the hegemony of Western media and yearn for fairer features, turning to papayas, citrus and chemicals to lighten their visage.

Perhaps the more scientific way of determining beauty is measuring the symmetry of a woman’s features or figure, the way that art is similarly studied for symmetry: there is harmony or beauty of form that results from balanced proportions. If, say, a woman’s face were to be folded in the middle and one side laid to rest on the other side, would the points of one part correspond with the other? If yes (as in the case of Jaclyn Smith or Paulina Poriskova), then there is symmetry, hence, beauty. If none, there is an imbalance that is considered unpleasant. This theory at its surface appears reasonable, but it hardly explains why many find Barbra Streisand beautiful despite her hooked nose, why Shannon Doherty used to land plum roles despite her noticeably uneven eyes, or why the distinctive gap between Lauren Hutton’s front teeth does not inordinately bother us so.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful. To gaze at physical beauty gives us pleasure, in the same way that we find pleasure in the beauty of geometric shapes or colors or musical notes. However, to mindlessly clamber onto the beauty bandwagon, subjecting our bodies to immoderate demands, reveals a deeper need that begs to be assuaged.

For many women, physical beauty is more than eye candy: it is a key—to success, perhaps, however one defines success; or to fulfill a biological need; or maybe to obtain affirmation.

Time magazine in 2002 revealed a University of Texas discovery that “ugly people” (the description “ugly” referring to what is considered conventionally unpleasing to the eye) are paid ten percent less than employees with average looks. A similar study pointed out that, all things being equal, employers would hire taller people over those who are shorter.

Laboring under this collective demand for beauty, many celebrity wannabes get a head start on their cosmetic surgeries before they are launched into the world of entertainment. Dr. Vicky Belo reveals that actors are gradually accepting the fact that cosmetic surgery is an “investment in their career,” that their “face is part of [their] job.” Without knowing it, the good doctor echoes what Aristotle said about beauty being “a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction.”

The impact on the professional lives of the “redesigned” celebrities is immediate. Ella of Viva Hot Babes claims that after her bust augmentation, she received more offers to do shows. John Lapus says that after his chin sculpting and liposuction, he’s been receiving compliments from his friends, strangers and even enemies, and his career took off.

The case of World No. 3-ranked tennis star Maria Sharapova further proves that beauty can be a powerful determinant of success in business. Time magazine reported in 2005 that sponsors pay a premium for beauty in tennis and other women’s sports. Hence, Sharapova, with her blonde bombshell looks and trim 6-foot-2-inch frame, rakes in millions of dollars more in endorsements than her equally gifted female colleagues, notwithstanding that any one of these tennis phenoms can easily outplay her for any title.

Still others contend that the longing for beauty is much more primal than a business interest. Evolutionary scientists, including Charles Darwin, say that the dominant notion of beauty can be traced to our biologic need to procreate and is therefore “fundamental to the evolutionary process” of humans (as well as animals, apparently). According to biologists, there is a positive correlation between beauty, on the one hand, and fertility and good health on the other. Beauty acts as a “certification of biological quality,” which purportedly explains why, according to studies, men of diverse backgrounds prefer a low waist-to-hip ratio of 0.6 to 0.8 (meaning, the waist is 60% to 80% the size of the hips), regardless of the woman’s weight. Scientific experiments have apparently shown that a lower waist-to-hip ratio means a higher level of estrogen. More estrogen in the female body results in more reproductive fat on the hips and thighs. Ergo, men will be more attracted to women with an hourglass figure.

While this is an interesting aspect to the hubbub over beauty lust, it does not explain why women obsess about beauty. Childbearing is the farthest thing from the minds of those women who have their double chins removed, or those who permanently curl their eyelashes. The question is, why do we put so much weight on physical presentation?

It seems that we women latch on to beauty to affirm our sense of self; unfortunately, we equate our sense of self with the externals, which is why we rush to comb our fingers through our hair and lick our lips when someone insists on taking our picture (and why we keep only those pictures that show us in our best form), why we’d rather not tell our age, why we submit to the haunting truth in Janis Ian’s song: “I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles.”

Many a woman cope with a bad experience by shopping, buying a new pair of shoes, or getting a haircut or a facial—addressing the pain inside mostly with feel-good instant makeovers. After a bad break-up or when a relationship falls apart, some women would get a bust augmentation. For many women, the aesthetic has become an anesthetic. Filipino poet Reuel Aguila recognizes this in his poem, Pagnanasa (Desire) 2: “From the botox of my face/ To the lipo of my tyan/ Nali-lift ang spirit/ Sa breast kong pina-enhance.” Women feel that physical beauty validates them. Even when women desire to be inconspicuous, there is still the dream of security and acceptance.

Theologians believe that the yearning for beauty finds its root in the curse that God put on the fallen Eve in Genesis 3:16: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Christian scholars argue that this desire will be inordinate, leading woman to find validation in man, seeking from him what he is not capable of. Andy Comiskey of the Living Waters Ministry argues that the curse upon Eve resulted in woman’s fallen tendency to find her identity in man, to seek completion in him, and mistakenly attempts to discover herself through him. Hence, many women mistakenly adopt men’s notions of female beauty as their guide. Her definition of beauty correlates to his: big breasts, small waist, thin thighs, oval face. Some studies confirm these assumptions. Anders Pape Moller, in his study Sexual Selection and the Biology of Beauty, presents human evolutionary psychological studies across cultures that reveal “how men rank female [physical] beauty the highest among a long list of attributes, while women rank male resources as the most important attribute of potential mates.” According to Bryn Mawr’s Savithri Ekanayake (The “Perfect” Female: an Analysis of the Biology of Beauty), studies from around the world found that “while both sexes value appearance, men place more stock in it than women.”

Regrettably, physical beauty is not the real beauty that is the essence of woman—what author Stasi Eldredge calls the “soulish” beauty— the kind that indwells in every woman and does not depend on her outward accoutrements. This kind of beauty takes its moorings from 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” Such beauty doesn’t translate to or require an introvert but a heart that is quieted by love and filled with peace, a heart that knows it already possesses beauty.

Eldredge submits that we women seek to unveil beauty within ourselves: deep inside, perhaps even deeper for those who have buried this essence in their hearts, women want to be seen, wanted, pursued and found beautiful and captivating, a beauty that is “core to who we truly are. We want beauty that can be seen; beauty that can be felt; beauty that affects others; a beauty all our own to unveil.”

Perhaps the antidote to the curse on the fallen Eve is to first recognize that woman’s beauty already resides in her from Day One. When God created man and woman, He said that what He had made was “very good.” (Genesis uses the superlative “very”—as in “very good”—only after He made man and woman; in all the other aspects of creation, He said they were “good.”) Creation celebrates woman as the bearer of God’s image, the Imago Dei. Eve was created because things were not right without her; she was not a mere afterthought. Something was not good, and “it [was] not good for the man to be alone.” God calls woman an ezer kenegdo, a Hebrew term that is difficult to translate: the term ezer is used only twenty other times in the Old Testament, and in these twenty times, ezer described God Himself, when He is needed desperately. And when God looked at her, He saw that she was “very good.”

Woman therefore is God’s piece de resistance. To paraphrase Eldredge: In the crescendo of creation, from formless void to perfection, woman is the beauty to which creation ascends. Only when woman accepts this—that she is the beauty that she already is—can she escape the beauty that ensnares.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Give 'em hell, Coach!

At the dinner after UP’s exhilarating win against UE, everybody in the team was asked to say a few words—to say goodbye, reminisce about the season, share lessons learned, give thanks.

Head Coach Joe Lipa Jr., ever the mentor and tormentor, used more than a few words. To emphasize the import of his words, he would hark back to what he had already said, repeat it, this time accentuating his earnestness by chopping the air with his right hand and peppering his speech with OKs—as if to say, Are you listening to me, boys? OK?

On building character
(Number of times said: THREE)

“Boys,” Coach Joe said, in his gravelly, pongalangala voice. “So many people have taught you basketball: from your grade-school coaches to your high-school coaches. What we from the UP coaching staff really want to do is to teach you to be better men. To be good persons. Nothing is more important than that. OK?”

This is the essence of Coach Joe’s father heart, the kind that singles out character, and knows when victory is important or not important.

On hell
(Number of times said: FIVE)

The Coach, when it was his turn to speak, quoted from Coach Joe: “The road to success is always under construction.” I suspect this is where Coach Joe was coming from when he would, after already starting on another topic, suddenly remind the boys about training hell.

“Boys,” Coach Joe said, gripping the mike. “Starting next week, expect hell. OK?”

Variations of the same theme were minor:
  • “We are going to start training right away. Next week will be hell. OK?”
  • “Boys, expect hell! OK?”
  • “We are going to work hard, boys. OK? Expect hell next week!”
That is Coach Joe’s philosophy: Work hard. Give honest labor.

On making good coaches
(Number of times said: TWO)

Turning to the other side of the lanai, Coach Joe faced his other “boys” and said, “To my coaching staff, you know that I want you to become good coaches. You also know that I am not fond of reading.* But because I want you to become good coaches and become good men, I have read many books on this, including the books of John Maxwell, so I can help you.”

Coach Joe’s strong personality and stronger convictions arouse either severe alienation or deep affection. He is like tennis star Rafa Nadal: he doesn’t leave his emotions in the locker room. He is like his friend,** Coach Bobby Knight (Indiana University): on and off the court, Coach Joe is intense and will make no bones showing what he feels.

Either you love him or you hate him.

I love him. Very much. I have witnessed through the years how he has parented The Coach as a high-school player who would hang out at the gym to watch the UP MBT practices, as a college varsity player under Coach Joe's tutelage, as a young husband to a skittish wife, and then as a coach who would strike on his own.*** I have seen how, when Coach Joe makes a decision, he thinks of what legacy he can leave the boys: he thinks of consequences, not rewards. When facing any crossroads in his life, he doesn’t have to struggle over what is right and what is wrong: he always chooses what is right. What he does struggle over are the consequences that his right choices bring to his family. But because he is deeply loved, his family—especially dear Tita Ging with her sacrificial heart—walks with him through life’s many unfair twists and turns.

Just as we, whom he counts as friends, also gladly walk with him.

Coach Joe inspires loyalty. I have yet to meet another coach who, without trying, has maintained such love and fidelity from his former players. The Coach, Coach Ramil Cruz, Ateneo Basketball Director Ricky Dandan, Rey Madrid (now an architect, who at one time also got to coach the UP MBT), Coach Bogs Adornado, NU Coach Manny Dandan (whose association with Coach Joe comes through his being Coach Ricky’s brother), and even the coaching staff of Ateneo, Coaches Sandy Arespacochaga, Jamike Jarin and Gene Afable, among many, many others****—all swear by Coach Joe’s friendship, integrity and basketball acuity.

Thank you, Coach Joe. Perhaps it’s true what you said before, that you would not ever get rich, but let me join the many who know that you have made our lives richer.

* The man who claims he doesn’t want to read has written two books on basketball: the iconic Brain and Brawn Basketball and A Basketball Coach’s Guide: Philosophies, Concepts, Strategies and Drills, two books that have helped and challenged many a young coach.

** Coach Joe considers the late Coach Sonny Paguia, longtime NU coach whom The Coach also loves, more his mentor and good friend.

*** I am possibly biased, for Coach Joe often advises The Coach, “Jo, love your wife. Love Janet.” (And though he is not Cebuano, Coach Joe says my name the Cebuano way, accenting the last syllable and adding a lilt to the end. No one else says my name like he does. Each time he meets The Coach, he asks, without fail, “Kumusta na si Janet?” Always. Gentleman that he is, at least to us coaches’ wives, he would apologize for how he or the game has taken our husbands away from us—this said with a slight, courtly bow and a kind pat on the shoulder.)

**** A young coach I met this year, wowed by Coach Joe, told me that he had felt his mind explode when Coach Joe re-introduced him to basketball, at the new things he was learning.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

UP players don't die...

…they just win big in their last game.

Two hours before UP’s game against powerhouse UE last Sunday, I was fixing The Coach’s UP uniform, the last time for this year. He had just come in from his Air 21 work—yes, on a Sunday, my dear hardworking hubby—to pick up his stuff before running off to coach St Stephen in its game against Jubilee at 2:30 P.M.* UP’s game started at 4 P.M., which meant The Coach would miss a chunk of the UAAP action. It didn’t seem like such a good start.

Yet everything else conspired for UP to win its last game for Season 69.

UP played well, save for a few errant, ano-ba-yan!?! passes that curdle the blood when there were only a few precious minutes left and barely three points in the margin.

But UP led all the way. No deadlocks allowed.

Latecomer Magi Sison was such a delight. He’s just a kid at heart, really, a beanpole in big basketball shoes. And he grins when he dumps a shot or gets a rebound. That is basketball—it’s supposed to be enjoyed, too.

Marvin’s brilliance lasted until the end game, thankfully. Nestor’s on-court spills (the most I’ve seen in his games this season, and I've missed a few) didn’t spoil his showmanship, and the crowd loved him for it. Woody Co—my other favorite among the boys—has been consistently stepping up in defense and offense, working both sides of the floor. Quiet and unassuming, but deadly and intense. I love this kid.

Even the referees helped; they were calling out fouls which they would’ve ignored in the previous games. Gee, the calls were close to favoring UP: not that I would’ve wanted it that way, but, boy, was it a welcome change from being on the other side of the uneven stick. I could’ve sworn the refs did not allow the margin to breach the three-point mark.

Though Binondo heaped a margin of +8 points on UP, it turns out many more bet on UP. Still scratching my head on that one, but I figure it was because it was a no-bearing game for UE.

Whattaheck, I think even UE played in favor of UP. Custodio was a dismal, almost half-hearted shade of himself. Borboran and that other UE kid, whatzisname, didn’t play well either, prompting Coach Dindo Pumaren to put in his second-stringers.

Like we did. In fact all our players were given the chance to rule the court, and I thought, hey, that’s how it should be, at least in our last game and under the circumstances.

Did the fact that it was a non-bearing game for UE play any factor in our win? Well, so what if it did? A win is a win is a win. And if you saw UP’s side of the stadium erupt in a blazon of arms in the air, posters big and small, people standing on their seats, then you’d know how much this victory is sweeter, better, longed for, and earned.

It was a good sendoff for the graduating boys—Galen, Ira and Nestor. I will miss Galen the most, because he was so committed to the game, even in what is probably the shortest stint ever in amateur basketball (barely eight months). Such a loss that we would not see him blossom further, as I know he still can.

At the post-game dinner, the host Jerry Esquivel summed it best when he said that the gathering that night was a beraka, a Hebrew word that means, loosely, a celebration—for any occasion and for any blessing. He said the Jews hold a beraka to celebrate life or a birth, as they would to celebrate death. And so it was only right that the Maroons celebrated both its victories and its defeats.

Until next year, Maroons!

* The Coach won his fourth game against Jubilee. St Stephen now leads the tourney with Chiang Kai Shek at 4-0.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

From our shelf: Questions on life and death

There are books you cannot put down, page-turners that keep you from finishing your work on time.

And then there are books you have to put down, like Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey—for you to catch your breath, for you to pump the air with your fist (quietly, of course, lest The Coach wakes from his slumber), for you to reflect on things beyond your ordinary grasp.

The proposition is provocative: a rope footbridge in Peru, known throughout, breaks in the year 1714, and five people plunge into the chasm below. Brother Juniper who was only a few steps away from crossing the bridge copes with his near-death by grappling with questions—his own brand of catechism: Why these five people? Why spare him? Is it destiny that dictates their deaths? He needs to make sense of the disaster, to find order behind the chaos. He investigates each of the five, chronicling the big and the small of their lives. He mulls: “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.” Ironically, the bridge ultimately claims him as its sixth victim: he, with his work, is in the end burned alive for heresy.

Thornton raises questions on “acts of God,” a term I first encountered in law school, sounding to me then severely ominous, like the imprecatory slaying of thousands or the F5 twister. The term, as it is used in contracts, is synonymous to fortuitous events. I remember wondering how lawyers could consider God’s acts—He whom we Christians deem sovereign—as merely happenstance.

Brother Juniper’s commitment to his quest is fueled by his previous, systematic cataloging of fifteen Peruvians who survived and fifteen who died in an earlier pestilence in another town. Brother Juniper rated these thirty people from 1 to 10 on different criteria: each life or soul’s goodness, piety and usefulness. Such calculations were meant to support or counter theological assumptions: do the good really die young? Are the wicked spared from death?

Which, for me, begs another question: is God fair? Did God ordain life to be fair? Our neighbor, truly searching for guidance, accosted me with that question right after the tsunami hit Aceh. We ended up—six of us neighbors—bringing potluck and bibles to our house and discussing the issue further.

God and fair play: what a tricky issue to handle. Something, perhaps, for another day in this blog. Something I’d really like to think about in more depth, too.

I caught the latest film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey on cable about two months ago but had to let go after some time. I couldn’t continue watching the film. I love Kathy Bates dearly and she is often magnificent in her roles, but in my mind she is not the Marquesa, no. Even Robert de Niro failed to move me. I couldn’t look past their accents and see the book’s Lima, Peru. I’m not sure if that was the film’s fault or mine. Perhaps it would be really difficult to adapt a story wrestling with deep philosophical issues.