Saturday, August 23, 2008

The new racism

Tom Wolfe in his novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, has touched a subject that is both delicate and disingenuous. This subject isn’t the real story in his book but it glosses over a political and social issue that still reverberates with disdain among the conservative section in our society.

Two former high school classmates and friends meet at home during their Christmas break from college. Laurie from NC State U is talking to Charlotte, the book’s principal character and a student at Dupont U, about her school. Laurie says:

“At State, everybody calls diversity dispersity. What happens is, everybody has their own clubs, their own signs, their own sections where they all sit in the dining hall – all the African-Americans are over there?... and all the Asians sit over't these other tables?...except for the Koreans?...because they don’t get along with the Japanese, so they sit way over there? Everybody’s dispersed into their own little groups – and everybody’s told to distrust everybody else?....Anyway, the idea is, every other group is like prejudiced against your group, and no matter what they say, they’re only out to take advantage of you, and you should have nothing to do with them – unless you’re white, in which case all the others are not prejudiced against you, they’re like totally right, because you really are racist and everything, even if you don’t know it? Everybody ends up dispersed into their own like little turtle shells, suspicious of everybody else and being careful not to fraternize with them”

If you’re moulded in the objectivist mind of Ayn Rand, its philosophical guru, what Wolfe referred to in his novel as dispersity is simply racism in a politically correct disguise. Objectivists have no tolerance for ethnic diversity, which they consider a complete sham. This is why objectivists continue to defy the diversity movement in schools or in society as a whole. To them you cannot extinguish racism and build tolerance of differences by teaching students that their identity is determined by skin colour, or by advocating to society to celebrate the differences of its members based on racial identity.

A vociferous critic of the diversity movement in American colleges wrote: “One cannot espouse multiculturalism and expect students to see each other as individual human beings....One cannot teach collective identity and expect students to have self-esteem...The purpose of a university is to impart knowledge and develop reasoning, not to be a demographic mirror of society.”

But Ayn Rand’s followers clearly miss the real gist of multiculturalism or diversity. Multiculturalism derives its significance from the belief that all cultures are equal, that every group in society can keep their identities, their pride in their ancestry, and yet still have a sense of belonging. It is not race that determines one’s culture. One ethnic group may not be equal with another, say with white Anglo-Saxons, but this inequality is not rooted in racial inferiority. Their unequal status could be due to their lower political or economic leverage in participating in public or policy decisions. Most members of Parliament or the local council are white because of their superiority in English as the main language, come from politically or financially well-entrenched families, or have better access to election campaign funds. Nobody’s pinpointing the blame to racial dominance, but the reality is, while everybody may be culturally equal, there are still inequalities in the distribution of economic power and political influence.

Multiculturalism, however sanguine, nonetheless carries a lulling effect. It is not enough for ethnic groups to celebrate their cultural heritage without being able to access opportunities in the corridors of political and economic power. Too much dosage of culture and tradition only for the sake of celebration or entertainment will not help multiculturalism achieve the ultimate objective of equality.

Filipinos in Toronto, for example, are so intoxicated with their annual or periodic cultural celebrations that sometimes even simultaneous events are being held for the same audience, which may have the effect of promoting rivalry or competition among various groups. The worst thing these celebrations can do is to give a false sense of euphoria, to make a group consign itself to the petty role of being a purveyor of social events that have nothing to do with raising their stature as citizens of the larger community.

Multiculturalism or diversity offers ethnic groups the portal to civic engagement, an opportunity for their members to become decision-makers or leaders. If ethnic groups will continue to restrict their attempts to achieve equality to mere celebrations of their heritage in parades and festive gatherings, the real value of multiculturalism is reduced to being a contributor to the collective fantasy that everybody is equal. Sadly, multiculturalism could also be a kind of collective bribe the government and those who have control of political and economic power dole out for ignoring the real causes of inequality and to keep the restive masses in check.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A woman dictator in the making

Have you ever heard of a woman dictator? Is there such a thing as a military strongwoman?

Throughout history, there have been a number of great women rulers, from Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt during the 15th century B.C. to Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of England of the modern day era. We could mention the names of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France, 122-1202, Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty of ancient Egypt, Isabella I of Castille, Queen of Spain, 1451-1504, who together with Ferdinand of Aragon, became joint rulers of the whole of Spain, or Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, 1729-1796, who deposed her husband and proclaimed herself as sole ruler of Russia. Perhaps a number of these women, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, could be considered female tyrants, but all of them have been monarchs from centuries ago.

The closest the modern world has ever had to a female despot perhaps was Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India. Gandhi suspended India’s democracy in 1975 during the infamous “emergency period” when she adopted dictatorial powers, including the ability to rule by decree. In that two-year emergency period, Gandhi almost wiped out all her political enemies by sending them to jail on false charges, imposing censorship of the press, dismissing state officials perceived to be hostile to her rule, while at the same grooming her sons Sanjay and Rajiv to succeed her. Believing the emergency period brought economic recovery to India, Gandhi called for new elections in 1977, but she miscalculated and was soundly defeated by her opponents. Her return to politics produced disastrous results to her party before she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984.

Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto’s stint as leader of her country that was notorious for dictatorships pales in comparison with Gandhi’s dictatorial rule in India. Although she seemed to recapture her popularity upon returning from exile, she was gunned down before she could regain the top post she used to occupy in Pakistan.

Not even Hillary Clinton could come close to Gandhi’s stature, assuming she had won her party’s presidential nomination and the presidency of the United States of America. Ridiculous as it seems to imagine a female dictator rising from American politics, Hillary had no chance to fill in Indira’s shoes.

The only female head of her country that seems to be following in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the fourteenth president of the Republic of the Philippines. Could this diminutive political dynamo become heir to Gandhi’s throne?

The Philippines is not a stranger to dictatorial rule. Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected to the presidency in 1965 continued to rule the country for almost 20 years, way beyond the constitutional two-term limit or eight years by imposing martial law in 1972. He ruled the country by issuing letters of instructions, general orders and presidential decrees, which still have a significant impact on the minds of the current crop of Filipino politicians whose sense of civic duty and political responsibility has been shaped by the ideals of the New Society envisioned by Marcos. Many of today’s politicians in the Philippines grew up and were nurtured with the values of the New Society under the Marcos regime. These politicians also belong to the same families who benefited from the Marcos dictatorship, the same families that continue to control the levers of economic power and political authority in their local fiefdoms. Nowadays, their loyalty has shifted to the current occupant of Malacanang.

Every pundit in Manila seems to agree that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is hell-bent to continue beyond her tenure as president which ends in 2010. There are at least two clear indications of her desire to stay in power. First, a resolution was recently initiated in the Senate seeking to convene Congress as a constituent assembly in order to adopt a federal system of government which will overhaul the structure of government, thus giving Arroyo the opportunity to hold on to power as leader of her party in a federal political system. It is not a secret that Arroyo has always desired a constitutional change that will allow her the opportunity to stay in power. Marcos did the same thing by adopting a new Constitution in 1973, which, to his eyes and to his loyal supporters, gave legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Arroyo’s opponents see her attempt to change the present government into a federal form simply as a ploy for her real objective, which is to remove the present provision in the Philippine Constitution that bars her from re-election. Just like the earlier failed initiatives to amend the Constitution, the current attempt in the Senate to convene a constituent assembly among the members of Congress to accomplish this task will surely not pass. So, Arroyo needed another ruse.

This brings us to the other sign of Arroyo’s desperation to stay in power. By signing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Moro National Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) creating the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (JBF) in Mindanao and Palawan, Arroyo has planted the seed for national division, thus renewing hostilities in Southern Philippines. In effect, Arroyo signed in to something that is doomed to fail, without regard to the present Constitution, a recipe to bring the whole country into a state of war, thus giving her the legitimate cover to declare a national emergency and martial law, just like what Ferdinand Marcos accomplished in 1972.

Arroyo’s desperate political move to appease the MILF is tantamount to fanning the flames of Moro-Christian conflict and renewed armed hostilities in strife-torn Mindanao. While the Philippine Supreme Court ruled earlier in favour of a petition that prevented the government and the MILF from signing the Memorandum of Agreement, it still has to make a decision on whether to allow the signing of the agreement. There is already a massive refugee exodus in the south, indicating the renewal of hostilities between government forces and Islamic separatists in the region. Social welfare officials have warned of a potential humanitarian disaster as the fighting between government troops and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front threatened to spill over to other areas.

It looks like the events in the Philippines are unfolding the way Arroyo exactly wanted them. Arroyo is creating the biggest crisis of her leadership in a country that has been plagued by graft and corruption, a government that has continuously betrayed the interests of the Filipino people – and a crisis that would precipitate declaring a national emergency, and eventually another dictatorship. This time, for a woman dictator who has emulated the leadership set by her own father Diosdado Macapagal when he was president of the country in the 1960s.

In her speech before the Manila Overseas Press Club in April 1997, Arroyo said this of her late father: “He believed that a primordial requirement in the drive against corruption in government was to set the example at the top.” Indeed, Arroyo has set the bar for the most corrupt president in the history of the Philippines. This was confirmed by a survey conducted by Pulse Asia that found Arroyo beating former strongman Ferdinand Marcos for being the most corrupt leader in the country’s history.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why so many laws?

Since the Magna Carta of 1215 became the foundation for the rule of law for constitutional democracies, laws and hundreds of thousands of them have been enacted over the centuries. Even dictatorial or autocratic regimes arguably could be said to be ruled by laws, except that these laws could be changed on the whims of the ruler whose powers are absolute and could not be restrained by anyone, and which by no means is the intent of the doctrine of the rule of law.

In addition to laws enacted by Parliament or Congress, there are also ordinances, by-laws, and regulations passed by city or municipal governments and their local councils. And we’re just talking about public laws, exclusive of those rules adopted privately by corporations or nongovernmental organizations.

The Canadian government, for instance, is planning to table legislation in Parliament this fall for laws to toughen sentencing for crimes committed by young offenders. As if we didn’t have enough laws on crime already. The federal government is responsible for the Criminal Code and of 16 or more related statutes such as the Canada Evidence Act, Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, DNA Identifications Act, and Firearms Act. In addition to federal laws on crime, the provinces have their own statutes on offences concerning driving on roads and highways, sale and consumption of liquor, parking and standing on streets, littering and loitering, and a thousand more that either restrict or regulate what individuals or corporations can or cannot do.

Why are we so law-driven? This impulse to enact a law every time a human activity needs to be either expanded or restricted seems irrepressible. We are addicted to laws, and making more laws seems like an effective performance-enhancing drug.

In the past, the Bible, the Koran, or codes or decrees issued by kings or emperors, or even the Golden Rule, were sufficient to govern human conduct. Even in much earlier times, tribal councils or an assembly of elders simply used common sense, and the very basic concepts of fairness and justice in resolving conflicts among their members. There was no necessity to record their decisions and codify them into say, laws of the tribes that can be referred to in determining future conflicts. Life then was so simple and human problems required straightforward answers.

As societies progressed through the centuries, written laws became necessary to define the limits of government, the rights of individuals and corporations, and to draw limits to socially-acceptable human behaviour, beyond which penalties such as imprisonment or fines would be imposed as punishment for crossing those limits.

Progress brought prosperity, but along with it came a host of new problems. For every new problem is an equal response in the form of a new law, rule or regulation. This new law could then be repealed if it became obsolete and unresponsive to the needs of the time, thus giving birth to newer laws. So the process of lawmaking continues every time there is a need or demand which, of late, seems to never run out.

But there is an irony in this pattern of societal growth. The more we grow as a society, the faster we jettison our fundamental concepts of fairness, justice and even common sense in reining in our excesses as human beings. At this stage of our human development, we should by now be cognizant of those acceptable standards and boundaries of human behaviour. We should, by this time, also be capable of self-policing or self-regulating our conduct like children who have grown to maturity and sound mind.

Take the Golden Rule, for example. This ancient rule is still very much considered as the foundation of human rights legislation. No matter what our religious belief is, it makes sense to treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. But the benefits of economic progress have never been equitably distributed; thus, whoever has the gold makes the rules. In other words, those who have more economic and political clout would have greater access to lawmaking and law enforcement. Most of the time, these are the very same people who would instigate the repeal of a law and the enactment of more laws as they see the utility of these laws for their own private benefit.

If the Golden Rule were to be applied as a universal standard for resolving conflicts, granting for argument’s sake that it would be adapted to every culture, then it could more than adequately cover for our insatiable hunger for more laws. Why do we need more laws when human conduct can easily be governed by reciprocity? There is an inherent fairness and justice in the Golden Rule and all that we need is to practise it more often in our daily lives. The ethic of reciprocity demands that we treat other nations the way we expect them to treat us. No country will invade another if it wants peace.

We will not continue to stockpile nuclear arms because we understand their lethal capability, and we don’t want other countries to drop a nuclear bomb in our own backyard. We will not try to cheat the government by understating our income or overstating our deductible credits so we can get a bigger refund, knowing that less revenue for the government means a reduction in services or fewer roads will be repaired or more hospitals will be closed. The CEOs of big corporations will not engage in creative accounting to paint a healthy financial picture of their companies because the impact of their loss is much greater on their employees and the consumers at large.

But centuries of making laws and enacting rules to govern human conduct and to define its limits have never left us the important lesson of learning from our mistakes, of moderating our excesses. We comfort ourselves with our ability to re-enact newer laws whenever the old laws are not working. This is not because the old laws have become obsolete, but rather that lawmaking has become our convenient excuse for our natural inability to correct ourselves. So, if there is a new electronic crime that involves hacking on a bank’s database of preferred customers through text messaging, we urge or lobby our legislative body to enact a statute outlawing sending text messages, say longer than seven letters, for example. Rather than correcting our deficiencies, we try to outlaw and punish any attempt to exploit opportunities around our weaknesses. We have many laws or regulations of this type in the books, many of them arcane, hardly of significant value, and largely unfamiliar to many people or even to our own lawmakers.

Who keeps track of the new laws, anyway? How many really read them when they come out of Parliament or Congress or our local legislative bodies? If nobody knows the laws our country is turning out every time, then how can we be expected to follow them? May be, in this context, ignorance of the law is a perfectly good excuse.

We don’t need any more laws to tell us what we can or cannot do. What we need is a moratorium or, if this is asking too much, may be a cooling off period of 100 years even before considering enacting new legislation.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

BS is nothing without the shit

Without the word “shit,” bullshit is nothing but bull.

Pity the bull. Why, of all animals, has this beast of burden together with its excrement become the most popular expletive in the English language today? Of course, we have heard the use of horse, pig or chicken as apt derogatory substitutes, but nothing surpasses bullshit.

Why the bull would take the particular honour of dignifying its waste over other animals beguiles many. The word bull has both positive and negative connotations. A bull could be an exceptionally strong and aggressive person or a business optimist who buys commodities or securities in anticipation of a rise in prices. Used as slang, bull could mean foolish, deceitful or boastful language, or insolent talk or behaviour. Or it could refer to an official document issued by the pope. Or perhaps, a gross blunder in logical speech or expression, or a ludicrously self-contradictory or nonsensical statement.

The use of the word “bull” to refer to nonsense dates back to the 17th century, and may have been derived from the old French word boul, meaning, “fraud, deceit.”

But combined with the word “shit,” the word “bullshit” becomes vulgar, referring to something worthless, deceptive or insincere. Used as a verb, bullshit means to speak insincerely or without regard for fact or truth.

The most popular consensus is that the term “bullshit” was first used sometime in 1910 when T.S. Eliot was said to have mistakenly sent either to Wyndham Lewis or Ezra Pound a copy of his bawdy verse called “Bullshit and the Ballad of Big Louise.” The 1916 version of this Eliot's poem was called The Triumph of Bullshit. As an American slang, “bullshit” came into popular usage during World War II.

The word bullshit has also become the subject of a philosophical treatise, or to some perhaps a nauseating dialectic, by Harry G. Frankfurt, a renowned moral philosopher and professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. Frankfurt’s book, On Bullshit, is a compact little book consisting of a mere 67 pages. Judging by its spare appearance, and without reading its content, it can appear to be a very deceptive book.

In his analysis of bullshit, Frankfurt compared the word with Wittgenstein’s disdain of “non-sense” talk and connected it with the popular concept of a “bull session” where participants exchange unusual views without commitment or belief in what they are saying. Statements made in a bull session, he wrote, are like bullshit in that they are both unconstrained by a concern with truth.

Bullshit is unavoidable, said Frankfurt, whenever someone is required to talk without knowing what he is talking about, something that is very common in public life. Apparently, he was referring to politicians who have obligations or opportunities to speak about topics which they may have no knowledge of relevant facts. A recent example which comes to mind is George W. Bush when he talked about the necessity and justification of the war in Iraq. Although Bush might appear to be lying, he, in fact, was bullshitting.

Frankfurt wrote that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” The essential nature of bullshit is when a statement is made without concern with the truth, that it need not be false. But because the bullshitter does not pay attention to the truth at all, Frankfurt opined that “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

There is so much bullshit around us and Frankfurt acknowledged it as one of the most salient features of our culture. Why is there so much bullshit? As we communicate more, due to a proliferation of different media by which we are able to express whatever we want, the line between what is true and what is false oftentimes becomes blurred. This also undermines the value of objective inquiry, which drives us from the pursuit of truth to saying things just to satisfy others who believe we have opinions about everything. Thus, we have all sorts of political spins or whatever takes you call them about almost everything from the conduct of our country’s affairs to who’s the next American Idol.

Perhaps, we have stooped down so low that we have forgotten our commitment to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. We are quick to make judgments or express opinions by regurgitating what we hear from CNN or TV talk shows, or from YouTube or the Internet that we find it so convenient to brush aside our obligation to ourselves to inquire and verify all the bullshit that is being fed to us. What we don’t know is that we might be disregarding the meat and the substance from these various sources, and instead ingesting the real shit.

At the end of the day, as the clich√© goes, there will be no more bull left around but shit. The word “shit” may be the ultimate survivor of this popular invective that so enamoured people from all walks of life, including philosophers, poets and politicians. It’s shorter but may cover every conceivable situation, and it is also less impolite and not as offensive than the other four-letter expletive in common usage.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Why we don’t read as much anymore

When television was invented, critics warned it would destroy reading. Since then, computers have come along and ushered in the biggest revolution in electronic media technology through the Internet. Information becomes instantaneous, available almost in nanoseconds. More hours are spent prowling the Internet; people, old and young create their blogs where information can be exchanged and read at dizzying speeds. DVDs, MP3 players and cell phones with instant messaging capabilities became vogue. All these new hi-tech activities, some argue, have diminished literacy, destroying attention spans and ruining a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

With the rapid expansion of access to and use of computers and the Internet, sales of computers to homes have also skyrocketed. Many families in the United States, according to a study made by the Kaiser Family Foundation, have two or more computers at home, with the proportion of children with home computers going up from 73% to 86% during the last five years. It is estimated that nearly a third of young people in America now have a computer in their bedroom, while the average time spent on a computer outside of school work has more than doubled.

We’re not even counting how much time our kids spend on their DVDs, MP3s or cell phones, not to mention computer games and other entertainment options available on line.

No wonder, our children are not reading books anymore. There’s no time left for books.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a detailed study showing Americans were reading fiction, poetry, drama, and books in general at significantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years ago. The decline in reading was most pronounced among young adults.

The report highlighted three very worrisome conclusions:
  • Americans are spending less time reading
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Decline in literary reading was observed to be significant in a period of Internet use. Even if reading has occurred, it competes with other media like TV-watching, video computer game-playing, instant messaging, e-mailing or web surfing. This suggested less focused engagement with a text such as checking e-mail, searching for music videos on YouTube, looking for something on Google, or simply spending time on or browsing

Educators, researchers and even parents are now engaged in a passionate debate about how reading may be changing on the Internet. What does it mean to read in a digital age?

While those who believe in the potential of the Web do not deny the value of books, they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read To Kill a Mockingbird or Pride and Prejudice for fun. They say that children who prefer staring at a television or pushing buttons on a game console can still benefit from reading on the Internet. Some literacy experts even say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs, prodding some Web adherents to suggest that children should also be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet and not only for their print-reading comprehension.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, warn that digital reading is “the intellectual equivalent of empty calories...Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.”

The study made by the National Endowment of the Arts has also gathered evidence showing that advance readers tend to amass personal, professional and social advantages over deficient readers. Good readers generally have more financially rewarding jobs while less advanced readers report fewer opportunities for career growth. According to the study, literary readers are more than 3 times as likely as non-readers to visit museums, attend plays or concerts, and create artworks of their own, thus concluding that good readers play a crucial role in enriching our cultural and civic life.

But proponents of the Web are not to be deterred, suggesting reading itself needs to be redefined, especially in a digital age. They say that interpreting videos or pictures may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem. Some literacy experts say that today’s children are using sound and images to create a world of ideas that are not necessarily language-oriented.

The future of reading will depend on how parents, children and educators continue to make decisions and choices in light of the expanding menu of leisure goods and activities made available by the Internet revolution. How easier it would be if we only we could all be like Groucho Marx who once said: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Sunday, August 03, 2008

There is joy in a simple meal

In his book, Near a Thousand Tables, historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto wrote:

“One of history’s longest and most luckless quests has been the search for the essence of humanity, the defining characteristic which makes human beings human and distinguishes them collectively from other animals ...Cooking is at least as good as all the other candidates as an index of the humanity of humankind....”

It is therefore not surprising that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has described French cuisine as “the best gastronomy in the world” and has supported his country's bid to UNESCO to add it to the world’s list of intangible cultural treasures. Naturally, the Italians were not thrilled because to them, “Italian gastronomy takes priority,” said top Italian cook Massimo Mori.

So Italy teamed up with Spain, Greece and Morocco to get UNESCO to pick the traditional Mediterranean diet, whose abundant use of olive coupled with moderate wine consumption is said to be the healthiest in the world.

Could cooking really be a good indicator of our humanity that the French and the Italians are seriously offering their bids to have their national cuisine enshrined as a UNESCO world cultural treasure?

My very first stab at serious cooking was when I was in law school and my children had nothing to eat when they came home from school. Like my children, I was also hungry; except for the usual snacks, there was nothing cooked on the table to eat. We could not wait for my wife to come home and cook for us every afternoon. She was working full-time and supporting the entire family while I struggled to become a lawyer, a dream I had always wanted to accomplish even before coming to Canada. So I decided to cook, a decision that almost ripped my ego and machismo apart. Where I came from, the women always took charge of the kitchen, so it was an unusual decision to take on this chore, but someone had to start the revolution.

I pulled out all the cookbooks from our small library and started browsing over the different gourmet recipes and menus. Le Cordon Bleu’s Classic French Cookbook immediately caught my attention because of its glossy cover and beautiful full-colour photographs of authentic French dishes: from appetizers to fish, poultry, meat and game main courses to delicious desserts. I set the book aside. It was impossible for someone with very little taste for good food to start something monumental like mastering the French way of cooking; in no manner was it for beginners.

Then I chanced upon Julia Child’s From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Intimidation took the better of me, however. Not French cuisine again, and put the hefty book back on the shelf. Just then, another book, not as grandiose or as formal as Child’s, caught my eye. It was this fairly old-looking book, frayed with its cover missing, that my wife bought for fifty cents from one of her sorties to those garage sales which became a convenient outlet whenever she wanted respite from me and the children. The book’s title captivated me, The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey. I told myself this one would be a piece of cake—something close to heart—and the recipes looked quite easy to cook. When I started to browse through the pages, I was again floored, another French cookbook. But this time, I tried to muster every bit of courage that lined my hungry stomach and, of course, remembered the images of my hungry and ready-to-start-a-revolution children begging me to cook dinner already and not to wait for their mom.

The good thing about Franey’s book was its eclectic arrangement. It started with poultry; chicken has never intimidated me, and I knew I would have very little difficulty trying one of the chicken recipes. And strangely, for a French chef’s cookbook, it offered as its opening salvo an Italian recipe. The recipe carried an interesting title, Poulet Scarpariello, meaning chicken shoemaker-style. It made me laugh after reading Franey’s comment that the lowest compliment one can pay a French chef is to say, “He cooks like a shoemaker.”

After reading the recipe about ten times and committing it to memory, I drove with my children to the supermarket to buy the chicken (a whole week’s supply of chicken) and the rest of the ingredients to go with it, including a bottle of dry white wine, lemons and sprigs of parsley. The following day, I cooked Cuisses de Volaille a la Diable, aka devilled chicken legs, and the next day, a little more complicated recipe, Poulet Saute Provencale or sauteed chicken with tomatoes. What do you know, after my first month with the chicken recipes came fish, beef, pork, and pasta, until it was time to renew my acquaintance with Le Cordon Bleu and Julia Child.

One of my Cordon Bleu favourites is Veau Saute a la Marengo, a dish that took its name from the Battle of Marengo in 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s chef, Dunand, first created it in celebration of the French victory over the Austrians. It’s a classic recipe for saut√©ing veal chunks with tomatoes and mushroom stew with its traditional garnish of crayfish, deep-fried eggs, and croutes. I have also cooked from this cookbook Pot au feu de Pintade (braised Guinea fowl with baby vegetables,) and Homard et Poireaux Tiedes a la Badiane (warm lobster and leek salad with star anise).

Self-taught only through my own readings of cookbooks idly lying at home, I have also ventured outside the French kitchen by looking with a keen eye on Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Oriental cuisines. I have rediscovered my own roots too by recreating my own mother’s traditional favourites: adobo, sinigang, kare-kare, and binagoongang baboy. These days, I am into Asian fusion or the fusion of Asian and continental cuisines such as the dishes made popular by Susur Lee.

All my children are grown now, and each one can whip up a mean dish or two on their own, but they still come home once in a while to graze on my home cooking. Our friends whom I have invited on lazy weekends always come back to savour my home-grown gastronomic efforts. If they can be considered my food critics, then I can boast I have satisfied their palates.

Julia Child once wrote that a good cook is not born; one learns by doing. One can cook one’s native dishes or borrow a recipe from a great chef’s cookery, but the end result will always bring delight and ecstasy whenever you see your family or friends enjoying the fruits of your labour. The smell of chopped thyme and rosemary, or pungent onions, braising sauce, and even perhaps a dash of curry powder, all bring out the aromas and flavours of the kitchen.

Well, will it be the French or the Italian cuisine that should be on the UNESCO list? Jean Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer and politician known as both an epicure and gastronome, wrote in his famous work, The Physiology of Taste, “The destiny of nations depends upon the manner in which they are fed.” The simplest meal satisfied Brillat-Savarin, as long as it was executed with artistry. I rest my case.