Monday, June 21, 2010

LIFE AS ERPAT

Yesterday being Father’s Day, I am bringing back an old article I wrote when my now-39-year-old son was only three months old.


LIFE AS ERPAT

In times like these, to paraphrase Brecht, a conversation about trees is almost a crime—because it includes a silence about so many misdeeds.

So here I am again, back on the beat after a year at the desk, back with a vengeance, or is it off on another ego trip, at any rate eager to prove to one and all that neither domestic bliss nor the kiss of cooptation has blunted the sense of rage—and what is the first thing I do? Something tantamount to starting a conversation about trees. It’s better than talking about the many varieties of wine, or sunset on Manila Bay, or Image and Archetype in the Poetry of Rolando Carbonell; but fatherhood is still an unlikely topic, however you look at it, for anyone who wants to announce a new lease on his writing life, I mean, in this day and age, when the wit and urbanity of the so-called familiar essay are a drag, an anachronism, if not the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, can any reader be bowled over by a light piece, written off the top of one’s head, on the subject of fatherhood?

If I weren’t the author of this article, I probably wouldn’t even bother to proofread it.

But this is, in case you haven’t noticed, our Valentine’s Day issue and an occasional (“belonging or suitable to some special occasion”—Funk & Wagnalls) article was called for, something connected, however remotely, with love. I chose fatherhood.

I chose fatherhood for the plain and simple reason that I became the father of a six-pound, twenty-and-a-half-inch baby boy last November, and I feel I can at least fill up a page or two of this issue with the bits and pieces of nonsense and common sense that I have picked up since then.

The very first thing I learned was to disabuse my mind of the many comic-book notions of fatherhood that the petty-bourgeois mind has absorbed in all the years of cultural conditioning by Hollywood and Reader’s Digest. We all have this picture of the worried father restlessly pacing a waiting-room floor littered with cigarette butts. I never did get around to that. Like Macduff, my boy was not of woman born but was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d, and so there simply was no time for this father to make like a smoke-belching PUB. In the time it took me to finish a stick of regular-sized Marlboro Red, a new Lacaba came howling into this wicked world , another helpless creature to be sapped with Original Sin by the Almighty.

The next frame in our comic-book consciousness shows the doctor coming out of the delivery room, peeling off his surgical gloves, while over his head hovers a balloon on which is written: “Congratulations! It’s a baby.” In my case, when the nurse wheeled out a kind of pram from which arose tremendous howls of protest, the doctors (there were two) remained in the delivery room to calibrate the Mrs. with fourteen stitches. I didn’t see where the pram was wheeled into, I couldn’t see the bundle of flesh and bone responsible for all the caterwauling, and none of my anguished importunings could make the nurse reveal the secrets of the delivery room. Was it boy, girl, or what, was all I wanted to know; and all she would say was, “Wait for the doctors.” It made me wonder if my baby’s gender was classified information (had my baby perhaps disclosed who blasted Plaza Miranda with fragmentation grenades?) or whether the heart between the nurse’s ribs was a transplant from a United Fruit banana. I mean, there oughta be a law against keeping first-time fathers in suspense.

Well, it turned out to be a boy, which is supposed to be a rarity in these days of Women’s Lib. Seems that nine out of ten babies being born today is a potential Makibaka activist, and only one is a potential male chauvinist, so that the arrival of a boy has the same effect on earth that the return of a lost sheep has in heaven.

Happiest of all were half the relatives who had won their bets. When the baby was still a fetus in the sinapupunan, everybody had turned Delphic oracle. Some predicted it would be a boy because the mother’s features had grown sharp, others were certain it would be a girl because the mother hadn’t lost her looks; boy because it kicked like vodka, girl because it leaned to the right of the womb; boy because the mother always stepped with left feet first, girl because she stepped any which way; boy because the mother’s neck and armpits had grown slightly darker, girl because the mother was paler than usual. Nobody bothered to see if the father had lost a tooth or grown prey to constipation. The only thing the father was sure of was that his child wouldn’t be a tuta.

So we got a boy, and suddenly a whole new world opened up. Yesterday, I was just padre de familia to a brood of younger brothers and sisters and a widowed mother. Now, I was an honest-to-goodness erpat myself. It was a thought to give one pause, and mythopoeic visions ran through my mind—you know, all that business about Oedipus and the slaying of the father.

But more mundane matters soon banished all fancied terrors from my mind. The Delphic oracles had metamorphosed into Dr. Spocks and were liberal with advice on baby and child care. You don’t want to spoil him, said an aunt, so unless it’s feeding time don’t pick him up, however pitifully he cries. You don’t want him to get gas pains, said another aunt, so be sure to pacify him the moment he cries. If you want a baby girl next time around, said still another aunt, you might try changing places in bed when you go to sleep: ikaw naman ngayon sa kanan…

Sleep, however, among other things, was a luxury we would have very little of in the days to come. Two years ago, I was vice-president of a labor union which counted among its demands a paternity leave of a week or two, if I remember right. The demand was laughed to scorn by Management, and since most of the Union officers were then bachelors, there was nothing we could do but blush in the face of derision. I know now that the demand was not only reasonable but absolutely necessary, and it can be mocked and made fun of only by the rich, by those few who can afford to have their babies cared for day and night by governess, nursemaid, amah, or yaya.

I am by no means destitute, and there is a maid to wash bottles and diapers, a refrigerator to store prepared formula in. I don’t even keep office hours. And yet I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the baby came. I can just imagine how difficult things are for the typical working-class father who has to put in eight hours of backbreaking physical labor a day, and then goes home at night to a baby who wakes up and wails once or twice in three hours, complaining of a wet diaper or asking to be fed. He’s lucky if the mother has ample milk in her breasts at all times. If not, he must, with superhuman effort, shake off the grogginess in his head, pick up his tired body, and prepare the baby’s formula or change its diapers. Sure, the wife usually has a major share in this task, but in the first few months after birth, and especially if she has had a cesarian, he cannot expect her to do everything all by herself. And the day after each night when he can only sleep in snatches, he has to go back to work, back to the infernal factory, to the emotionless machines, to the foreman who bawls him out for being sleepy on the job. “If conditions make the human being,” it has been said, “we ought to make the conditions human”—and the paternity leave, no less than the maternity leave, is one of those things that make the conditions human, though of course it’s bound to affect profits.

Not only has fatherhood aroused one’s social conscience, it has pricked one’s national pride. This article has taken an unexpected turn, but one might as well pursue the topic to its logical conclusion. All roads, after all, lead to economics: “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” Man may not live by bread alone, but he cannot live without something to put into his stomach.

So, once you get to be a father, you cannot help but reflect on, if not accept, the truth of the activist charge that the national economy is in foreign hands. The higher up on the social scale you go, the more you are likely to realize just how great imperialist control of the economy is. I look around at all the “necessities” that I, like any good burgis father, provide my child with, and I see nothing but foreign, mostly American, labels. On the recommendation of doctors, relatives, and friends, all of whom have been brought up within a colonial social structure, the baby subsists on Mead-Johnson’s Enfamil (“closest to mother’s milk”), obtains his vitamins from Mead-Johnsons Poly-Vi-Sol and United American Tiki-Tiki, is helped out in his bowel movements by Glycerin suppositories, wears Curity Diapers, is bathed with Ivory soap, and smells of Johnson’s Baby Powder, Johnson’s Baby Oil, Johnson’s Baby Lotion, and Johnson’s Baby Cologne, which are supplemented by Fissan Baby Powder, a German product. He used to take his formula from Freflo bottles, British-made and of transparent plastic, which cracked after a month of use, and so we shifted to Sanifeed, also of transparent plastic and apparently of local manufacture; these last have the advantage of wide mouths which make formula-preparing a bit easier, but they leak and the nipples that go with them either have no holes or have holes so big the formula flows like tap water, choking the baby; friends who have had babies of their own are therefore suggesting another shift, this time to Evenflo, which they say enjoys the recommendation of Good Housekeeping or something.

Erpat, fancying himself a nationalist of sorts, ends up in a quandary: the imported is definitely better than the local, so where does that put his nationalism? How is one to have pride in things Filipino when things Filipino are so shoddy? The same realization has led many others to despair of the nationalist alternative altogether, and has given rise to the reactionary conviction that it is silly to protest against all those abstract isms, since the fault begins with the Filipino, who is his own worst enemy. Before blaming others, so the argument goes, let us first blame ourselves. If we are enslaved, it is because we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved.

It’s an argument that negates our own history, which is a history of resistance, of uprisings, insurrections, revolts, all brutally and ruthlessly suppressed. It is an argument, moreover, that confuses effect for cause, that sees the weaknesses of the Filipino as the cause of all his misfortunes, without bothering to inquire into the historical circumstances that have given rise to those weaknesses. Rizal has already demolished, for good, a similar argument in the essay, “The Indolence of the Filipino,” the point of which is that we do not blame ourselves first, because what we are has been shaped by others, by our conquerors.

The thing is to understand why the imported is better than the local, why there is a general lack of national and social progress. The imported is better than the local because the imported will never allow the local to improve and develop; to allow that would be to lose a profitable market for the imported. In other words, the colonizer will never allow the colonized to achieve progress, because such progress can only be to the detriment of the colonizer, just as the progress of the many will unavoidably, inevitably cut into, and if not entirely abolish, the wealth of the few. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Once you grasp this truth—unless you are so hopelessly mired in cynicism that you see no solution to anything, or have privileges to protect and therefore instinctively reject any solution that will sweep away those privileges—then it is possible to advance. Once you see that the misery of so many Filipinos is not foreordained but a result of backwardness of the national economy, and once you understand the reason for this backwardness, the conclusion is inescapable: it is not enough to feel a sense of outrage at the sight of so much misery; it is necessary to join in the fight against the abuses of such misery. And you must be prepared to share in the misery, the better to eradicate it.

To get back to our point of departure, you must be prepared—and be willing—to do away with the imported even if the only alternative is to put up with the local, because only by rejecting the imported is it possible for the local to improve and cease to be shoddy. You must be prepared—and be willing—to accept inferior locally made substitutes to come into existence. In the same way, you must be prepared to assume the condition of a peasant if you want to help in the betterment of the peasant’s lot. The idea is to be ready to sacrifice personal (including familial) comfort and ease for the sake of the greater good, now and in the future.

I can almost hear the cynics sneering: here’s another one of those propagandists for paradise, in love with abstractions more than with life itself, championing humanity to the neglect of the human. Some other time, I will narrate the stories of some workers I know, members of our union, men and women of flesh and blood, whose sufferings and aspirations are abstractions only to those who are not even aware that these men and women exist. For the moment, I must be content with generalities.

All too often, those who prate about the quality of human life, those who proclaim their devotion to what is true, human, and abiding, mistake the pimples of their sensitive petty-burgeois souls for the more mundane concerns of the great mass of their fellowmen, whose “anguish” is usually tied up with painfully concrete realities – how to stretch eight pesos a day in order to feed a family of six three times a day, and have enough to spare for the rent, the light, the water, and a new pair of shoes for the school-age kid. I think particularly of Camus, that exquisite existentialist, the humane observer who was so caught up in the contemplation of the eternal verities that when his countrymen in Algeria rose up in revolt, on the very concrete issues of “bread and the land” (in the words of Frantz Fanon), he was taken by surprise, and ended up rejecting, repudiating, virtually condemning his people’s struggle, which didn’t fit his definition of what was true, human, and abiding. “Neither victim nor executioner” was his personal slogan; but he failed to realize that, by refusing to be a victim, or even simply to speak up for the victim, he had aligned himself with the executioner.

I have gone off on quite a tangent, I am afraid, and now I must get back to my son. All I can offer him now, besides his daily dose of imperialist milk, are a few words of advice. Let him always remember that there is “plenty to protest against but nothing to despair about.” For despair, which is the other face of cynicism, “is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.”

Asia-Philippines Leader

February 11, 1972

2 comments:

Rachel said...

belated happy father's day, sir. :) hugs as always, Rach.

Vida Soraya said...

Very well written, as always! It's timeless, as if it were written just yesterday. I remember the father of my child and how he would plod through office duties after a groggy night of rocking the baby back to sleep. :-)