Saturday, September 25, 2010

The House Always Wins

The promise is this: risk a small amount for a chance at a fortune. One for a thousand, 10 for a hundred thousand, a hundred for a million. The “less small” the amount risked, the bigger the potential earnings. In the land where the majority have less, with no clear chance at having more in the horizon, next to leaving the country, gambling provides the most promise at a better life. Gambling lords have a better chance at striking gold in this country than in one where the life is so much easier. And people get addicted to it believing that they can beat the odds.

Here’s the catch – while the gambler can believe all he wants that he can beat the odds, the gambling lord designs his business in a way that the house always wins. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? And that is the point - the house always wins, whatever design that house may have: a slot machine or a black jack table at a casino, a bingo social for a church benefit, a neighborhood mahjong-an, a sports arena that’s actually a sabungan, or hidden jueteng operations.

And if the house wins, who loses? That’s right.

Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan, at left. Photo by Jojo Lamaria.

And in these houses, who are home? The owners of course. Parents who run it and make sure it runs smoothly and that the end result is achieved: the house wins. Then there are the children who help with the household chores – card dealers, bet collectors, etc. And if it’s an illegal gambling operation such as Jueteng, the children run the bigger risk of getting in trouble with the law, they’re the ones who are out there in the streets, in alleyways at the market, passageways in between shanties, collecting coins and dreams. And the parents? Well, they’re safe behind the walls of the house, away from view, away from trouble. And the children get their paltry allowances every single day, and the parents get to keep the rest.

And if the children get in trouble, it compromises the whole house, so they do exert efforts to keep their children safe – by buying out the trouble, in this case, the law enforcers. Now this is a tricky undertaking: you pay off the foot soldiers, you will have to pay off the ones commanding them. You pay off the commanders, you will have to pay off the ones supervising them. You pay off the supervisors, and the money will have to somehow reach higher and higher up. There’s so much coins to go around, anyway, coins that put together can make for quite a comfortable house, buy guns for protection, and souls to play with like puppets. 

In the meantime, dreamers’ dreams remain unrealized. Maybe they do get a taste of comfort thanks to some winnings that will buy a lechon manok for the day and a few pirated videoke DVDs to sing the blues away for a few days. But at the end of the day, they still live in a shanty on borrowed land.

The rich don’t play jueteng, they don’t need to, they eat six times a day and do not have to line up for a jeep ride home in the rain. Their children go to schools in crisp, clean uniforms and on weekends they can all watch a 3D flick at the mall.

So never mind what the political implications are of having the name of our good Mayor dragged  into this whole jueteng mess, this will only result in efforts to “clear his name.” Never mind empty pronouncements such as “I have created a task force to address the problem,” or “I am directing our police force to go after all forms of illegal gambling,” etc., these are nothing more than space fillers for newspapers. Never mind cheap political tricks like “maybe they were referring to the previous administration,” it’s really cheap. And don’t blame the dreamers by saying “e kung wala namang nagsusugal wala namang magpapasugal” - they’re hungry, and desperate, and the government has failed to give them hope. For us to believe the denials, all you need to do is to eradicate jueteng, and maybe the way to go is to make this city a place where people can realize their dreams, a place where honest, hard work is rewarded with just compensation. Make it possible for its people to become heroes and realize their full potential as human beings. Show them that graft, corruption, unlawfulness and immorality are wrong, and not the norm. And all of this can only happen with principled, clean and honest public service.

Give them hope.

With that, the house of cards would come tumbling down, and the city and its people will win, finally.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Haunted Tree

If only the rest of Baguio’s pine trees were like the concrete one that once proudly stood at the top of Baguio’s most popular thoroughfare, insulting people’s sensibilities for years. Why? Nothing can kill it. It never dies. Not even with sledge and jack hammers and wrecking balls. As the song says, “they stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.”

Due process is what it’s all about, said city’s father during a press conference -- that thing was government property, and you don’t just get rid of it without going through the proper process. I’m sure they can show proof that the construction of the concrete pine tree actually went though “due process,” But I doubt if it can be said though that it went through some thought process. He lambasted the people behind the stone installation that replaced their beloved “monument to corruption,” as another former Mayor called it, for not coming out in the open to take credit for putting it up. He even said that perhaps ghosts put those up. One day the concrete pine tree was there, gone the next, replaced by something the good janitor says he doesn’t even know represents what.

Just for the record, the days after the concrete pine tree was replaced, the news was all over local media. Local cable TV hosts and their guests alternately praised and ridiculed it, so did columnists and radio commentators, and it was all over the local papers. It wasn’t ghosts that did it, it was “designed and executed by a group of volunteer architects and engineers headed by Architect Elvis Palicdon, local sculptor Gilbert Gano and other Baguio residents who contributed to this effort by lending a hand, sharing their thoughts and donating in kind whatever they could to help make this project a success,” according to a news report. The same press releases also said that “The stone pillars symbolized the eight commissioners of the 2nd Philippine Commission that held its sessions in 1904.” So unless our government officials don’t read the papers, or watch TV, or listen to the radio, I doubt if they really don’t know how the installation came to be. But then again, maybe they only watch, read or listen to what they want to see or hear.

As to which is “better,” the concrete pine tree that had a sign that said “plant me, protect me,” or Gano’s installation-art piece, it's a matter of taste, I guess. The only way to find out how the community really feels about it is to hold a plebiscite. We don’t want to go that far. But as to the artistic value of the art work, perhaps the artist should have spoon-fed his audience by actually making life-size realistic representations of the commissioners, ala Madam Tussauds’, then they wouldn’t have to use thought process and their imagination to appreciate the work – there’s evidence that those two do not flow abundantly inside that building filled with people who call themselves honorable. 

There are so many talking points about this issue that I don’t know where to begin – but allow me to focus on one: how it amazes me to see elected officials passionately defending that concrete pine tree, while real trees do not get the same amount of concern from these same people, some of whom even caused the demise of living, air-cleansing, life-sustaining trees. While we’re still talking about the demise of their beloved concrete tree, these are yesterday’s news, forgotten, hardly talked about:

-          Pine trees felled to make way for an unnecessary flyover
-          Pine trees murdered to make way for log cabins (built using “imported logs” – ahhh, the irony)
-          Government allows the “transplantation” of around 400 trees to accommodate the expansion of an industrial site, knowing that the last time a mass relocation of trees was done in the city, it only had a 15% success rate, meaning that potentially around 340 of those trees will die

Now why can’t some of our elected officials show the same concern for these trees as they do for that damned concrete pine tree?

Or maybe it’s not the famous tree in Loakan that’s really haunted, it seems like the concrete pine tree harbored more ghosts than any other -- and it looks like it will continue to haunt us for a while longer.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Take it easy... and be careful

If you’re an artist, particularly a male one who wears your hair long, sadly, for the rest of us, you probably smoke pot. And if you happen to live in Baguio, then the odds get higher, this city unfortunately being known, especially by out-of-towners, to be a source of cheap, good quality toinks, as some locals call it. Not entirely true of course, but also not an entirely unjustified presumption. Having a good number of artists who in fact cannot function without a head, a high, does not help disprove that notion, and having a good number of that good number justifying (usually rather passionately) their need for some mind alteration to exist at all just does it. Though I must say that the need to be high to be creative is not unlike Barry Bonds risking shrinking his family jewels and inflating his head with performance enhancing drugs – it’s plain cheating.
But hey, I don’t blame them, nor do I judge them. I’m just lucky enough to have legal substances as my addictions – cigarettes, coffee and the occasional fermented stuff, preferably bourbon. And don’t get me wrong, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale, and again, luckily for me, I never really liked it.

I have heard the justifications all my life: that alcohol is actually more dangerous than marijuana; that drunks are more likely to commit violence than those high on grass; cannabis sativa is organic while alcohol manufacturers put all sorts of poison in their brews; etc. Here’s another one from “Marijuana is psychoactive because it stimulates certain brain receptors, but it does not produce toxins that kill them (like alcohol), and it does not wear them out as other drugs may. There is no evidence that marijuana use causes brain damage.” The website also claims that “There is no existing evidence of anyone dying of a marijuana overdose. Tests performed on mice have shown that the ratio of cannabinoids (the chemicals in marijuana that make you high) necessary for overdose to the amount necessary for intoxication is 40,000:1.”  And further adds that “For comparison's sake, that ratio for alcohol is generally between 4:1 and 10:1. Alcohol overdoses claim approximately 5,000 casualties yearly, but marijuana overdoses kill no one as far as any official reports.” You want to know more about the benefits of marijuana? Well, what better website to visit than, on whose homepage is a welcome note that says “the Physical benefits of marijuana are far-reaching, widespread, and long-term?”

On the other hand, another website,, claims that “Within a few minutes after smoking marijuana, the heart begins beating more rapidly and the blood pressure drops,” and that “Because of the lower blood pressure and higher heart rate, researchers found that users' risk for a heart attack is four times higher within the first hour after smoking marijuana…”  It is also claimed that “the active ingredient in marijuana, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, acts on cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells and influences the activity of those cells…" And that “Many cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.”  And marijuana, when eaten/digested rather than smoked, causes “hallucinations, delusions, impaired memory and disorientation.” On top of all that, some argue that marijuana is a gateway drug – once you get addicted to it, there’s a bigger chance that you’ll want to try stronger drugs.

Now what? I don’t care as much about the pros and cons of marijuana as I do about the fact that right now, right here, as in most other places in the world, possession, selling and taking of marijuana is against the law. Fact is, whatever the pros and cons, you can go to jail for it. A newspaper reported the other day about the arrest of a young lady by a security guard at a popular mall. Never mind how the fact that she smokes marijuana, assuming that she actually does and she didn’t just happen to have it in her possession, could affect her for the rest of her life, but I can’t help thinking about how that fateful moment when the guard discovered the illegal substance in her purse could affect the rest of her life. We live in a country where getting caught in possession of a small amount of marijuana can result in a long prison term. Before 2006, possession of over 500 grams resulted in the death penalty. I’m not so sure about it but I assume that since the death penalty has been abolished, today, that could mean life in prison.  So I won’t pose the question to those who are already on it, I can only hope you do know what’s good for and what’s not. But to those who aren’t hooked on it yet, those who haven’t tried it yet, those who are thinking of trying it or wondering what it’s like to be high… is it worth it?

I know, it’s just so much easier to cross the road wherever convenient, instead of using the overpass or walking the extra few meters to get to the pedestrian lane; it is much easier to make an illegal u-turn than to drive the few extra blocks to get to where you’re going; and perhaps a few grams of marijuana, the occasional high, really is no big deal. But the fact is, these are illegal, and going against the law brings with it a lot of risks.

I do have my addictions on top of those already mentioned above: staging plays even if it’s been the cause of my financial woes for most of my life; good, albeit unhealthy food even if I am already unhealthily overweight; being online a lot even if it has resulted in countless of wasted hours making status updates and answering stupid survey questions and commenting on comments on comments; watching the series Friends, NCIS and Big Bang Theory over and over again until late at night even if it has resulted in a lack of sleep and fatigue. I always tell myself to take it easy on these, and to be careful.
I do know people, some close to me, some I love, who smoke pot. At times I myself have been an enabler – either by not doing anything at all or making it easier for them to satisfy their cravings. I myself have at times justified their addiction, mostly by believing their own arguments about the “harmlessness” and “benefits” of marijuana. A lot of them have told me to back off, to never tell them what they’re doing is wrong. To them, what can I say?

Be careful, be very careful. Crossing the road where you’re not supposed to is very risky. And sometimes it may well just be worth walking the few extra meters to the pedestrian lane after all.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chaplin & Baguio's Outstanding Citizens

I chanced upon this DVD containing several movies of the great Charlie Chaplin a few days ago, and it almost hasn’t been removed from our DVD player since then. I am not complaining. Not even about my kids arguing in mock-German owing, I guess their favorite among all the movies in the disc is “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s only “talkie.” Until that movie, he refused to use sound, a new technology then, in his movies. He believed that using dialogue in his films would only result in a much smaller audience – his silent flicks can be seen by audiences from Zamboanga to Zimbabwe and people would still be able to know what’s going on.

Chaplin belongs to my list of the greatest actors, nay, artists, of all time. A gifted comic gifted with a deep understanding of the human being and a brilliant mind that can command a very agile body to do just about anything. He played one character in almost all of his movies – the Tramp, yet through that one character he was able to express the whole range of human emotion. The tramp was a desperate, oppressed, jobless man on the street in “Modern Times,” a struggling, loving parent in “The Kid,” a persecuted amnesiac Jewish barber in “The Great Dictator,” and in each of his films we feel his sadness, aspirations, failures and triumphs.

But what made him great, more than his talent, was his passion for his craft, his vision and, most of all, sense of responsibility. He knew the power of his medium, and he did not waste a single frame on mediocrity, on the inane. He knew that he could make the world a better place, or at least that one man in the back row a better human being, with his stories. While the rest of the world then, and even now, honor Ford for inventing the production line, “Modern Times” showed us the evils of capitalist greed. At a time when most of the world thought nothing much of Hitler’s saber rattling, “The Great Dictator” showed us the dangers of Nazi Germany’s vision of a new World Order where a superior race reigns over everyone else.

He was labeled a Communist by the American Government, particularly by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI who saw him as a threat to the “American way of life.” He was thrown out of the country and forced to flee to Switzerland where he lived for the next 20 years after his banishment. Eventually, just before he died, he was invited back to the country and was honored by his peers at the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

I remember Chaplin now not only because of the drone of Ragtime music at home whenever the children put on one of his films (to digress a bit, the kids didn’t even notice the film was in black and white until we pointed it out to them, and then now they can’t comprehend why they couldn’t put color on film images back then), but also because it’s Baguio’s Charter Day once again, the city’s 101st, and the City Government has given out awards to outstanding citizens of Baguio for the year 2010. There were four awardees last Wednesday – Karen Navaratte-Anton (dancer, choreographer), Lourdes Florendo Bello (educator, entrepreneur), Zoraida C. Clavio (physician) and Julian Chees (martial artist). They are all Chaplins to me, in the sense that they did not succumb to mediocrity and instead rose above social convention and used their respective talents and humanity to uplift the lives of people in the city. A dancer, a teacher, a medical researcher and a karatista, so what, right? There are thousands like them in our city alone, but just as there’s only one comic like Chaplin, there’s only one of them in their respective fields during their time who showed us that we all have that spark of heroism in each of us.

Sure we have comics up there in City Hall, but fankly, what we need up there are more Chaplins. But ones who would go beyond sporting a funny mustache just like one beloved retired councilor.