PenmanNo. 150: Looking Eastward in Toronto

IMG_7573 (1)Penman for Monday, May 25, 2015

I FLEW out to Toronto in Canada a little over a week ago to take part in that city’s Festival of Literary Arts, possibly the first Filipino author to join that long-running festival, now on its 15th year. Previously, the festival had focused on South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), but has recently opened itself up to more representation from East Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, thus my inclusion in this year’s roster of invited writers and speakers.

Over a weekend, from Friday to Sunday (May 15-17), several dozen representatives from these regions and from Canada met in various venues on the scenic campus of the University of Toronto and its environs to tackle issues and problems besetting writers and publishers from outside the global centers. How does a writer from the periphery break through to the center? Or is that “periphery” its own legitimate center? Is yearning for publication and validation in the West a vestige of the colonial mindset, an experience shared by all the countries represented in Toronto?

Aside from these seminal discussions, of course, the meeting was first and foremost a festival, a sharing of the artists’ finest work, and I felt privileged to be introduced to authors and creations I would otherwise have totally missed or blithely ignored. With many of the authors coming from expatriate and postcolonial backgrounds, the offerings were rich and deeply nuanced, the talents outstanding. Among others, I discovered a major international writer in the festival director, the novelist M. G. Vassanji, who had been born in Tanzania in East Africa, and whose account of his pilgrimage to his ancestral roots across the ocean (A Place Within: Rediscovering India) is a modern classic of creative nonfiction—a sympathetic but unsentimental and often searingly critical chronicle of his encounter with the sprawling reality of India today.

The visit also allowed me to reconnect with some old Filipino friends who had migrated to Toronto and had built new lives there. I was very graciously taken out to a scrumptious dimsum lunch in Toronto’s fabled Chinatown by Patty Rivera and her husband Joe. Patty and I worked together 40 years ago as writers and editors at the National Economic and Development Authority (an unlikely Camelot for young writers and artists under the patronage and protection of then-Sec. Gerry Sicat).

Though trained and still active as an editor and journalist, Patty has since developed into an accomplished and prizewinning poet, with three volumes to her name. Her first collection, Puti/White, was shortlisted for the 2006 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Patty’s husband Joe, a former Ford executive who also wrote plays in the Philippines, became a lawyer in Canada and then, upon his recent retirement, turned to painting, an avocation in which he demonstrates a most unlawyerly exuberance. I also met and was happy to engage with some Alpha Sigma fraternity brothers led by Amiel “Bavie” de la Cruz, who now runs his own accounting firm in Toronto.

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Patty and Joe arranged a reading for me with a large and lively group of Toronto-based Pinoys (including Hermie and Mila Garcia, the moving spirits behind Canada’s longest-running Filipino newspaper, the Philippine Reporter, and expat poet Naya Valdellon); this was held in the very stylish apartment of writer-artist Socky Pitargue, and a great time was had by all as we threshed out the travails of Philippine literature and politics, two deathless topics that occupy me on every one of these overseas sorties.

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Yet another meaningful encounter I had, thanks to the festival organizers, was with two classes of high school students at the Mother Teresa Catholic School in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb with a high concentration of Asian students, including Filipinos. These teenagers had very likely never met a living writer before, let alone a Filipino one, and I was glad to try and show them that we do exist, and that we have something to say. I, too, learned something from their teacher Kathy Katarzyna, who ended our session with a terrific quote from the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything…. That’s how the light gets in.”

Many thanks to the Sri Lankan poet Aparna Halpe for taking me to the school. Of course, my thanks wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the help and support of my sister Elaine Sudeikis and her husband Eddie, who flew in from Washington, DC to join me at the festival and to show me Toronto and a bit of Ontario (most notably Niagara Falls—we walked over to the US side as well for my shortest visit to the US, ever). Ed’s dad Al—all of 92 but still feisty—also gave me a little taste of Lithuania in Toronto. And the visit would never have happened for me without the recommendation of Prof. Chelva Kanagayakam, an eminent scholar and festival founder whom I’d met in Manila, who tragically died of a heart attack a few months before the festival, on the very day he was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada.

I found Toronto itself to be a highly livable and largely safe city (guns are under strict control in Canada), with a vibrant ethnic mix. One out of every two Torontonians comes from somewhere else, and Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Puerto Rican restaurants stand cheek-by-jowl beside each other, not to mention a Chinatown noted to be among North America’s best culinary havens. (A Pinoy food store aptly named “Butchokoy” stood a block away from my lovely B&B—a three-storey house from 1853—on Dunn Street.) Victorian structures still in use by the university and the city government contrast sharply with ultramodern architecture in an eclectically energetic skyline. Seekers of the funky and the quirky can have their fill in the city’s counterculture-inspired Kensington Market.

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For someone schooled in Americana, this exposure to things Canadian was an interesting re-education—to think, for example, in terms of “Tim Hortons” instead of Starbucks or Seattle’s Best; of “Roots” instead of Gap; of “Hudson Bay” instead of Sears or JC Penney, etc.

But the most useful re-orientation took place for me at the festival itself, in reminding me that we have a lot to learn from South Asia as far as developing readerships in local languages is concerned, among other issues.

We Filipinos think we’re well traveled and globally savvy, but we actually don’t get around enough in terms of mixing with our fellow Asians, let alone Africans. We seek out Western—specifically American—tutelage and patronage, often to our own deep disappointment. It seems ironic that I had to learn this in Toronto—a true cosmopolis like New York—but sometimes you have to stand in the West for a better view eastward.

[Group photo from philippinereporter.com]

Penman No. 149: Advice to Freshmen

Penman for Monday, May 18, 2015

AFTER LAST week’s piece on “Why I’m not on Facebook,” I thought I should add or clarify that I’m not entirely off the grid, Web-wise. I do choose the websites or forums I frequent (and in case you’re wondering, I’ll explain the difference between forums and fora one of these days), to make sure that I deal only with things and people I’m truly interested in. For over a decade now, I’ve moderated the Philippine Macintosh Users Group (www.philmug.ph), and more recently the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); now and then you’ll also find me at the Philippine Watch Club (www.philippinewatchclub.org). I keep a blog at www.penmanila.ph, and send out an occasional tweet, usually about my poker fortunes and misfortunes, from @penmanila.

It was on one of these sites—Philmug, which has grown to become one of the world’s most active Apple user groups—that I came across a thread I’m tapping for my topic today. While Philmug is the place to talk about anything and everything Apple, it’s also a community that can spark very lively discussions about such motley topics as Manny Pacquiao, Manila traffic, where to stay in Hanoi, and what SIM cards to get in Europe. One such “offline” thread that perked my interest last week was one titled “College freshman tips,” started by a young member about to enter college. Was there anything, he asked, that his elders could tell him about college life?

It’s a thread that’s grown to ten pages long the last time I looked, and predictably, many Muggers (as Philmug members call themselves) recited that age-old mantra that all college freshmen know by heart (and sophomores even better): “Party hard, study harder!”

Other suggestions were more specific:

  1. Join student organizations and socialize, but choose which ones you’ll be joining wisely. These “orgs” could become networks for life, for both friendships and professional contacts.
  2. Avoid fraternities and such groups that employ physical initiation and advocate violence. You’re in college to study—not to maim or be maimed by other people.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone, and be a little more adventurous. Make friends with people who may be totally unlike you. That’s where a lot of learning happens—in knowing about how other people live and think.
  4. Manage your resources well—your budget and time, most especially. Learn how to take care of yourself, and consider taking a student job, both to earn and to learn some professional working habits.
  5. Master the freshman basics: the campus map, how to take notes, who the best (not necessarily the easiest) teachers are.
  6. Don’t confuse a college diploma with education. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.
  7. Don’t believe everything you hear, even from your professors. Learn how to argue, and argue well.
  8. Never plagiarize. It’ll never be worth it.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail. Go ask a girl out if you really like her. Failure is part of learning.
  10. Don’t try to do everything in your freshman year. You’ll find yourself being pulled in so many directions that it’s easy to lose focus. Map out a clear and unimpeded path to your sophomore year.

Some other suggestions were a bit more unusual, although no less practical. “Always sit beside a female classmate and you will never regret college life, because they are lifesavers (and your immediate supply of pens, paper, books, assignments, and exams),” proposed one member (who now just happens to be one of our smartest cops in the PNP). “They smell better than boys,” another member, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, agreed.

And what did I say? Quite a bit, but among them was, “Don’t bother playing mind games with your professor (as in ‘I’m smarter than this guy, and I’m going to prove it’). You will lose; even if you are smarter than your prof, you will lose… Learn how to argue and come across as being smart without being snarky. I’m a very gentle prof myself, but nothing makes me happier some days than to give some smartypants a dose of his own medicine.”

Now, of course, like many 16- and 17-year-olds, I didn’t follow all this sound and sage advice I’m giving and hearing.

In my freshman year in UP in 1970-71, I (1) joined a frat and got beaten black and blue; (2) joined a militant student organization and went to dozens of rallies, many of them violent; (3) joined the staff of the Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper; (3) met (and lost) my first girlfriend, and did what boys and girls do; (4) got a 1.0 in English and a 5.0 in Math (for absenteeism—I was a Philippine Science high grad and arrogantly thought that Math 17 was beneath me); (5) shifted courses, from Industrial Engineering to Journalism, I think; and (6) went up to the mountains of Quezon and Bulacan to do “mass work.” It was, to say the least, an interesting year.

Within another year or so, I would drop out and divide my time between my activism and a job as a newspaper reporter (I may have been the youngest regularly-employed newspaper reporter of my time, at 18); also at 18, I was in martial law prison; by my 20th birthday, I was married, and became a father before I turned 21.

Not surprisingly, it took me forever to get back to school and finish. I resumed my undergrad studies at age 27, and graduated with my AB in English, cum laude (you could still get honors then even with a failing mark if it wasn’t in your major—I had shifted to English by then—and if your GWA could sustain it) at age 30. I made up for lost time by finishing my Master’s by 34, and my PhD by 37. Some of us like to hurry… and then to take our time… and then to hurry again.

I suppose my ultimate advice to freshmen is just to hang in there and don’t do anything stupid like get killed before turning 20, unless you’re doing it for God and country. But don’t stay too safe, either, because the best things you’ll be learning from will be your most grievous mistakes. One of the wisest things I ever heard came from a friend, now departed, spoken over beer and stale cigarettes at 2 in the morning: “Everyone should be entitled to one big mistake.” Or, as my professor in German once put it, “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake.

We made a few, and have survived and maybe even prospered despite and because of them. For a Thursday throwback, I posted a picture in that thread of myself as a lanky freshman, beside activist leader and fellow PSHSer Rey Vea (now president of Mapua University), on a boat to a CEGP convention in Dumaguete ca. 1970. My only question was, where did all that hair and leanness go?

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Penman No. 148: Why I’m Not on Facebook

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2015

FOR THE umpteenth time, last week, another person asked me, with profound astonishment, why I wasn’t on Facebook. I told him that, in my seniorhood, I wanted to lead a quiet and peaceful life, and that Facebook was antithetical to that ambition.

From what I hear, Facebook is this century’s Colosseum, and that a fracas on Facebook can be far more entertaining than the event in real life. I knew that it had been a busy week, to say the least, on that website (or, I should say, in those millions of websites). There was that “literary tempest” that my fellow STAR columnist Scott Garceau adverted to in a recent piece, the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, and the Save-Mary-Jane-Veloso movement, among other contentious causes.

I learned about these things not because I’m on Facebook, but because my wife Beng is. She’s up in bed before me every morning, pecking away at her iPhone in the gathering light, responding to the planetary call for “likes” and “tags” and “status updates” and whatever else goes on in the FB universe. When she senses me stirring awake, she gives me the lowdown on the state of the world, leaving the less interesting and less important matters to CNN and the BBC.

That world would be much happier and more peaceful if more of humanity were like my bedmate, but it’s not. “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, for they are vexatious to the spirit,” counsels the albeit apocryphally attributed Desiderata—which is as good as saying, avoid Facebook, for it is the Republic of Vexation, the domain of loud and aggressive persons who would like nothing better than to get a rise out of you and spoil your day.

Of course I’m told it also exists for friendship and global harmony—the spirit in which Beng and some of her friends upload quotations from the Dalai Lama and such peaceable people—but I’m convinced that they’re in the distinct minority, for which a separate Facebook might as well exist. While we’re at it, let’s do a bit of taxonomy and map out the possible sub-Facebook realms out there, the establishment of which could lead to a more tolerable era of co-existence all around.

Facebook Lambs (or should that be Facebook Koi, for a more Asian touch?) could include everyone like Beng—the tree-huggers, the lifesavers, the Kumbaya singers, the people who will find goodness in the worst of places. Easy to please, they’re also easy to hurt, and when they hurt, they bleed.

Facebook Monkeys do what monkeys do: screech and thump their chests a lot, to say: “Look at me and at what I’m doing! Am having XXX brand of cornflakes and YYY brand of yogurt for breakfast, folks, and here’s five pics to prove it! Isn’t that interesting???”

Facebook Vipers do what vipers do: strike and bite at anything that moves, especially anything that gets within a whisker of their precious scales. Some days I imagine Facebook brimming with reptilian malice, filling me as well with illiquid emotions, until Beng pulls me over to show a child singing a heavenly carol on her FB page.

So why do I shun FB? (I’ve been told, by the way, that there’s a “Butch Dalisay” FB page, but I have nothing to do with it, and have no idea what it contains.) I’ve been asked this question many times before, and my serious and rather ironic answer has always been that I can’t abide using the word “friend” for people who really aren’t that. I do believe that one of the worst things that Facebook has done to language and to human relationships has been to cheapen the meaning of “friend” and, corollarily, introducing the notion of “unfriending” someone with a keypress, just like that.

I still prefer to make my friends over coffee, on a bus or a boat trip, laughing at the same silly movie, pulling for the same desperate cause, arguing the merits and demerits of some poem or passage of prose. And when you stop being my friend, I won’t even waste a sliver of bandwidth on it; a cosmic silence is all you’ll get (although my deepest friendships can endure years of stasis).

I said “ironic,” because it’s a bit odd that I find myself arguing for more human contact when, at this stage of my life, I actually want and seek less of it for myself. I’m not misanthropic, but I feel happy to keep company with just a very few people I can trust and relax with, mainly family. I hardly attend parties or big social events unless required to do so by work or inescapable obligation. I dread making and taking phone calls, especially any call beyond three minutes. (You’ll best get a response from me by email.)

But never mind me; I do recognize Facebook’s matchless utility for most people. I know that serendipitous connections can be made online that would have been impossible otherwise, and if you’re tracking down that crush you last saw in the 1970s—or 50 pounds in the blissful past—there’s nothing like FB to make that happen. Like a loaded gun, Facebook all by itself isn’t evil; it’s people who are, or can be, and FB is just another enabler of the dark side, as well as of its sunnier converse.

So it’s not even the malice I’m evading, because you’ll find that elsewhere anyway, or perhaps I should say, it’ll find you. It’s more likely the way Facebook—in all its goodness and badness, for better or for worse—can take over people’s lives, basically by engrossing them in the issues of the day (as in this hour, this minute) rather than troubling them with historical hindsight and such corn. (And who needs a lengthy editorial and well-considered opinion when you can offer up your precious gut feelings, along with your barangay’s, as a workable and certainly more credible substitute?)

There’s a facebookhaters.com, but I don’t see myself signing up with those folks. Facebookhaters.com is completely serious but unironic—I can just see it devising and promoting a 12-step withdrawal program—which isn’t the way to grapple with a hyper-sophisticated Hydra like FB.

I can’t and don’t actively hate Facebook, knowing how vital it is to the lives of millions; what would I do with Beng all those hours she won’t be on FB? As it is, I can play poker all night, knowing she’ll never be alone and idle, as long as she has her phone (a tip for spouses—get your mate an unlimited data connection, and you’ll never have to babysit them again). That’s one thing to thank FB for.

Penman No. 147: On Southern Seas

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Penman for Monday, May 4, 2015

“ON A CLEAR day, you can see Malaysia,” they said. And we did, from the waters off Balabac, on the southernmost tip of Palawan. At that point, approaching the lighthouse at Cape Melville, our guide pointed to a gray mass on the far horizon across the strait, and said, “That’s part of Sabah.”

We had arrived in Balabac the day before, after a six-hour ride by van from downtown Puerto Princesa to the station at Rio Tuba, and then another three- to four-hour trip by motorized boat to Balabac’s poblacion. It was an unlikely adventure for Beng and me, being the only seniors in our party that included our favorite traveling companions—my niece Susie, her husband Toto, my cousin Edith, and our good friends the Puerto-based expat innkeeper Herwig and his wife the chef and baker Theresa. We’ve been to Palawan pretty often—staying when possible with Herwig and Theresa, who run the very aptly named Amazing Villa in Aborlan just outside of Puerto—but had never been down to Balabac. An invitation from a Balabac native, Theresa’s lawyer Atty. Regidor Tulale, proved compelling enough to make us pack our bags and head out to our southern frontier.

I’ve always wondered why our tourists—both foreign and local—seem so fixated on Boracay when Palawan offers beaches just as spectacular, in contexts far more interesting than D’Mall, without the crush of tricycles and tourist vans depositing hordes on fellow visitors on the same crowded stretch of white sand. Puerto Princesa alone and the islands on Honda Bay offer enough pleasures and treasures for the urban straggler, but, as we would discover, the farther out you go, the closer you get to tropical nirvana.

There are buses that ply the 240-kilometer route from Puerto to Rio Tuba, the nickel-mining barangay in the town of Bataraza past Brooke’s Point, but it’s a trip best taken in an air-conditioned van, given the summer heat and the need—especially for the elderly—to stop at a gas station now and then for some private relief. It’s a long but pretty ride, not unlike the run up to Baguio from Manila in the distance and scenery, on a road flanked by views of cloud-topped mountains, and golden showers blooming riotously.

Rio Tuba itself seems as rough as mining towns tend to be, an impression little helped by a recent fire that gutted the area around the pier, the transit point for boats venturing on to Balabac. Nevertheless, there was a plucky, pick-me-up cheerfulness to the locals (the fire, they said, had started accidentally in one of the big stores in the neighborhood, and everyone was busy rebuilding what they had lost), and the pier at the end of a huddle of houses on the water bustled with traffic.

The boats they use in these waters are large motorized outriggers that can easily take 30 passengers, seated four or five to a row on wooden planks; they can theoretically reach Sabah in a few hours, but, we were told, these boats were prohibited from docking in Malaysian ports because their breadth took up too much berthing space; the sleeker and faster kumpit would be the vessel of choice for that voyage. There was clearly a lot of trade going on between Palawan and Sabah, judging from the stockpiles of Malaysian goods and groceries in Rio Tuba, and one had to wonder how much of that went through customs and other legal encumbrances, but we opted, I think wisely, not to ask too many questions.

The three-hour ride to Balabac itself, with one or two stopovers on the way, was smooth and pleasant. “Balabac” is the central island and town in the area, but it also broadly refers to a cluster of more than 30 islands, and you’re never too far from one of these. (“That’s owned by Senator XXX and by former President YYY,” our guide would tell us as we passed by one paradaisical isle after another.) The glassine sea challenged the poet to come up with all variables of blue and green, and with some luck—not that day—dolphins were known to swim alongside the boats.

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Balabac’s town proper was small and compact, with one main street along which shops selling clothes and groceries huddled; the largest and most impressive building in town, aside from the municipio, was the Coast Guard quarters, a sign of how important patrolling these waters was. The local tribe, the Molbog, are said to have migrated from North Borneo and have their own dialect, but what surprised me throughout this visit was how widely Tagalog (or, more accurately in a national context, Filipino) was spoken, even by the locals among themselves.

You won’t have any problems choosing a place to stay, because there’s only one public lodging house in Balabac, above and adjacent to the Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar. Maybe not the best prescription for a good night’s sleep, as some of my companions would discover, but for P300 per room a night with shared toilets and baths (P100 per extra person), you can’t complain.

What to do in Balabac, aside from shopping for Malaysian chocolates and biscuits? Why, island-hopping, of course, and dining on the plentiful fish, which we did the next day, taking a boat out to Candaraman Island and dipping into the cool clear water beside the small seaweed farms cultivated by the people for their livelihood. Unfortunately, the low tide prevented us from docking and marching up to the century-old lighthouse on Cape Melville, but we did get that glimpse of Malaysia along the way, in a day that culminated in one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen.

As the darkness deepened around us, we sat quietly along the dock, watching the southern summer sky. Above us blazed Venus, a solitary sparkle; down to its left, as if a genie had conjured it up with a wave of his hand, emerged a crescent moon. It was a long way from home, but a sight well worth the journey.

Penman No. 146: A Life in the Grand Manner

SEJA2013UPPenman for Monday, April 27, 2015

I’VE BEEN privileged to work with some of the most accomplished and interesting personalities in Philippine politics and business on their biographies—the accounting pioneer Washington SyCip, the brilliantly rebellious Lava brothers, the Marcos-era tycoon Rudy Cuenca, and the political maverick Tet Garcia, among others. This Wednesday, April 29, another biography I wrote—Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner, published by the University of the Philippines Press—will be launched at the Manila Polo Club, from 3 to 6 pm, and it’s focused on a man who will be remembered for many things in many ways, whose impact on our political, economic, and social life has been far greater than the headlines alone would suggest.

The man now known by many as SEJA (for Senator Edgardo J. Angara) courted consternation and even disdain from many people, including some old friends, when he stood by the embattled Erap Estrada into the last days of the latter’s doomed Presidency. He also confounded many of his own followers when, after leading the opposition, he signed up with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s senatorial ticket in 2007. The biography addresses those issues, and more—the Apeco issue in his home province of Aurora, for example, involving the conversion of land claimed to have been the ancestral domain of the Dumagats into an economic zone.

It also sheds light on some little-known but key moments in our political history, such as the peace agreement that Angara was able to negotiate, when he was Agriculture Secretary, with communist rebels in Negros. “That agreement continues to hold,” Ed told me. “It’s the longest-lasting agreement the Philippine government has achieved with insurgents.” The biography also narrates how Angara, still as Agriculture Secretary, was just about to conclude a rehabilitation plan for Camp Abubakar, in close consultation with the MILF leadership. “It would have been a historic breakthrough,” said Angara, “but it was opposed by the military, and ultimately dropped by President Estrada.”

My favorite portions of the biography have to do with his days as UP President, when he threw that famously independent and historically dissident institution into a tizzy by coming in from the cold and applying corporate governance to the academe.

Rumored to have been President Marcos’ choice for the UP job—something Angara strongly denies, attributing his selection to the support of the late Onofre D. Corpuz—Angara stepped into Quezon Hall from out of the blue, “the blue” being ACCRA, the law firm he had set up with some of the brightest young lawyers of his time. Angara would recall that “OD asked me to meet with him in the coffeeshop of the Mandarin. He brought up the UP presidency with me, and I told him that while it was certainly a great honor to be considered for such a lofty academic position, I simply wasn’t prepared for it. My only teaching experience was as a lecturer for two semesters, right after I had returned from Michigan. The School of Business Administration was looking for someone to teach corporation law, and I drove my Beetle from Makati to Diliman to teach my classes.”

His election by UP’s Board of Regents was no cakewalk: Angara faced a formidable and distinguished array of fellow candidates, including Secretary of Justice Vicente Abad Santos, Acting Budget Minister Manuel S. Alba, UPLB Chancellor Emil Q. Javier, Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities Rafael M. Salas, incumbent University President Emanuel Soriano, Economic Planning Minister Gerardo P. Sicat, Assemblyman Arturo M. Tolentino, and Assemblyman Ronaldo B. Zamora, among others. It was even rumored that First Lady Imelda Marcos herself was interested in the position.

In the end, the BOR elected the 46-year-old lawyer, and he lost no time wielding the broom—reorganizing and trimming down UP’s tangled and bloated bureaucracy, revamping its academic programs, and securing fiscal autonomy for the university. Some of these measures inevitably made him enemies, but also unlikely allies, such as the staunchly leftist professors Francisco Nemenzo and Roger Posadas.

Known to his colleagues as an irrepressible jokester, University Secretary Mart Gregorio probably wasn’t joking when he recalled a moment when he entered the campus with Angara, who observed a virtual menagerie of farm animals along University Avenue. “He asked me, ‘Why are there so many animals at the university entrance?’ I told him, ‘Ah, Mr. President, that’s the College of Veterinary Medicine. In other universities abroad, you might be welcomed by a beautiful arch or statue. Here we have cows, chickens, and goats.’ And then he asked, ‘What’s that other college there?’ I said, ‘That’s the College of Fisheries, sir.’ He said, ‘Fisheries—but we don’t even have an aquarium here!’ And right there, he said, ‘I think that should be transferred to UP Visayas.’ And it was. ‘Vet Med should be transferred to UP Los Baños.’ And it also was.”

I’m biased, of course, being a UP professor and former university administrator myself, but that’s the kind of anecdote that made this book a pleasure to write. It was also the realization that I was talking to the man responsible for many landmark bills that made a key difference in my own life, among many other millions of Filipinos—the Senior Citizens Act, PhilHealth, the Generics Act, and the creation of the Commission on Higher Education and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, aside from laws on Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization, the Free High School Act, the creation of TESDA and of a host of financial and educational reforms.

He has been a strong supporter of culture and the arts, and lately has been an avid Hispanist, but Ed’s emergence as a cultural champion came as a surprise to many people—even to Ed himself, who acknowledges that “I don’t even sing or dance, much to the frustration of my wife. I don’t do any artistic work.”

From Con-Con delegate, corporate lawyer, and UP President to senator, Senate President, Agriculture and Executive Secretary, SEJA’s life has certainly been one of the most storied hereabouts. “I will be the first to say that it has been a far from perfect life, fraught with challenge and accident,” he says in his foreword, “but in my 80th year I can only still feel privileged to have lived it the way I did. The title of this book may sound rather immodest—it draws on Justice Holmes’ admonition for the law to be taught and therefore practiced in the grand manner—but I would like to believe that in the end, this is the only standard we can be measured by, as we seek to reshape society itself and our nation’s future.”

See you, I hope, at the book launch.

Penman No. 145: Another Watch to Watch

Penman for Monday, April 20, 2016

KNOWING WHAT an Apple diehard I am, friends have been asking me about the forthcoming Apple Watch, and if I’m going to get one. So I’m going to make another little digression today to answer that question—although, arguably, technology is art and culture in contemporary society, particularly when it’s something close and familiar enough to wear on your person.

As half the planet now knows, Apple announced the Apple Watch last September 9 in a splashy event helmed by the company’s new and nimble CEO, Tim Cook. It’s due to be released this Sunday in the US, and preorders opened last April 10; within six hours, most models—about a million units—were sold out.

That’s the kind of first-day frenzy and manic marketing that Apple might as well take out a patent on, because no other company even comes close in making people line up on the sidewalk a week before the store doors open. It’s also what turns Apple haters—and there are more than a few—apoplectic, refusing to understand how the mere whiff of a new toy from Cupertino, California could leave a fourth of humanity in a hypnotic trance.

Well, the Apple Watch is finally here, heralding Apple’s entry into the fashion market—make that high-fashion, with its top-of-the-line, solid-gold model selling for a toe-curling $17,000 (base models start at $349, or about P15,500). It comes in two sizes and a number of finishes, with an array of attractive watchbands (attractive to most people, anyway, who sadly don’t include old leather-loving codgers like me.)

Given those numbers, it’s safe to conclude that the Apple Watch was made to do more than tell the time. While hardly in the same stratosphere of high-end watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, Apple hasn’t done too badly as a horological upstart. Designed to work best with an iPhone, the Apple Watch can receive your email and text messages, and show incoming calls. It can do Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most hyped of all, it can track your health stats. It can play your favorite tunes, and store some of your favorite pics. You can still use it without an iPhone for neat little tricks like Apple Pay (if and when that comes to our shores).

What are its downsides? It doesn’t have built-in GPS; you’ll need your iPhone for that. And with its touted 18-hour battery life, you’ll probably need to recharge it every night.

Many of these features, I should point out—except for the Apple-specific apps—were and are available on other smart watches, for a lot less than what Apple is charging for their sum total. Before the Apple Watch, Beng and I had some fun with our his-and-hers Pebble watches, which basically told the time and displayed our email and SMS messages on a monochrome screen. Eventually, we both got tired of charging the buzzing beasties, and went back to our analog Hamiltons.

Which brings me to my answer to my friends’ question. Am I getting an Apple Watch? Heck, no—and this will probably be the first Apple rollout since the Newton that I’ll be passing on. But why not?

I’ll admit that the price is a factor—the Pebble didn’t cost me more than $100, and it’s way below that now (feature-wise, of course, the Pebble can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch). But in truth, cost never did turn back the Apple masses, who seem convinced that the pricier and sleeker something with an Apple logo is, the more compelling it must be to possess.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of features, either, that I’m not in the buyers’ queue (where I was for the iPhone 6; I had ordered mine as soon as the online counters opened, and received it via UPS last September 19, the first day of delivery in the US). The Apple Watch is abundantly capable and versatile, and we’ve only seen the barest suggestion of all the lively apps that are going to be developed for this device.

Instead, I may have to admit, as I’ll do now, to the onset of what we might call digital fatigue—that awful sensation of drowning under an onrushing wave of 1’s and 0’s. I’ve never felt this before, and it must be my biological age showing, but it took the Apple Watch and its kaleidoscope of colors to tell me that I’ve had enough. Please, not another device to tether and feed like a pet goat, and one that will bleat mightily when some silly text message comes in selling a condo I can’t possibly afford, and one that will remind me with a smug chirp about how overweight I am.

I know that I can talk to the Apple Watch, which will be the coolest thing for my students to see since I stepped into class with a Nokia the size of a shoe strapped to my waist in the early ‘90s. But I have trouble enough talking to my phone; I hate making and taking phone calls, because they usually mean problems to deal with. My iPhone is, first of all, a camera, a jukebox, a browser, and a datebook; and then it’s a phone (come to think of it, it’s also and already a watch, and a damn good one).

As it is, I don’t even use my iPad often enough, and I have to remember to charge it after letting it idle for a couple of weeks in solitary stupor. There’s a nest of charging cables at the foot of my bed, with phones, power banks, and digital recorders huddled like suckling pigs; I can just see the Apple Watch joining that blue- and red-eyed menagerie—but again, I’d rather not.

The ultimate reason for my self-denial is, I guess, the romantic one. I love my vintage and my two-handed watches too much to trade them for some blingy upstart. I believe a watch’s first and only duty is to tell the time. I believe a watch should have a clear, round, and honest face, from which I can read the time at a glance, without breaking my train of thought. I believe a watch should have a soft and pliant strap, like good leather; it should be beautiful, but quiet and undemanding, except for the occasional turn of the crown.

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Kind of like the original Apple watch from 1995—I think the happiest watch ever designed—which everyone seems to have forgotten about in the mad rush to get the new one. I dusted mine off the other day, put a new battery in, and gave it to Beng. It tells the time, and puts a smile on your face. What more can you ask for?

[Apple Watch pic from wired.co.uk]

Penman No. 144: Postscript to the Palancas

Penman for Monday, April 13, 2015

FIRST OF all, let me express my belated thanks to Mrs. Sylvia Palanca Quirino and the Palanca Foundation for responding promptly to our recent appeal for them to reconsider and rescind what many writers thought were rather onerous rules for this year’s Palanca Awards competition. That has happened—we’re basically back to the old rules, which prospective entrants can read on the Palanca website. I do have to remind people to mind the check box on the entry form, where you need to indicate whether you’re giving your express permission for the Foundation to publish your work in full, in case it wins.

We can understand the Foundation’s desire not just to give away monetary prizes for literature as it’s done for over 60 years now, but also to develop a readership for good writing. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance between the authors’ rights to their work and the sponsor’s need to share some of that work with the public for whom it’s presumably being written. As someone who’s come to be associated, and happily so, with the Palanca community, I’m relieved that this little tempest was dealt with expeditiously and reasonably by the Palancas and their lawyers—with the personal and gracious intercession, of course, of Mrs. Quirino.

I should note that both sides came away with the clear understanding that the rules are a work in progress—as are the Palanca awards themselves—as the literary and publishing environment itself continues to evolve in ways no one could have predicted, say, 20 years ago. They will be reviewed and modified as the times require, but meanwhile, it’s back to the old rules (minus the retroactivity provision, which turns out to have been there before with hardly anyone noticing; at least the recent discussion surfaced that). Thanks, too, to other stalwarts in the literary community such as Krip Yuson, Karina Bolasco, and Andrea Pasion-Flores who also worked behind the scenes to help clarify and resolve issues.

On the sidelines, this brouhaha raised some old, perennial questions, mainly from younger writers. For example, I received another message on my blog asking if it’s absolutely important to join the Palancas and win a prize or two to gain literary recognition. My answer has always been, of course not—not absolutely. I’m sure that many accomplished authors never joined the Palancas nor won one of its many prizes; quite a few, both old and young, disdain the idea of joining for their own reasons, chiefly the distastefulness of seeming to curry favor with the literary Establishment.

From a practical standpoint—and I’ve always been a practical man—I have no doubt that a Palanca award or two, or better yet a dozen, can help perk up the CV and gain some attention from editors, publishers, and grant-givers (if that sort of thing is important to you at all, because it may not be and doesn’t have to be, if you’re independent-minded and/or have independent means).

That may sound a bit crass to the idealist, but it’s never really been just about the money—which is appreciable but not all that much in the grand scheme of things. It’s about the inner lift you get from a bit of validation from one’s peers and seniors (and again, if you don’t need or want that validation, feel free to look elsewhere).

And that, too, has practical effects, as the encouraged writer produces more (and, over time, hopefully better) work. Writing is a lonely job; there’s very little popular but credible criticism in this country that deals with contemporary literature, especially of work written by writers 40 and below. With very few readers and critics about, the only quick check you might get on your work could be that prize (ie, from your readership of three judges)—or its absence. It’s a sad thing to note, in a way, but that’s how it is.

Are the Palancas an infallible gauge of literary merit? Of course not. Any juried award involves people, and anything involving people is bound to be subject to human error and bias. You’ll hear ugly stories from some joiners about how they were cheated out of their well-deserved award by narrow-minded judges promoting their own favorites, but absent any direct proof, I’ll have to put this down to the natural quirks of the process. (I do respect the possibility that these plaints aren’t just griping by sore losers, but a reasoned critique of what some see as the ossification of an institution.)

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ll just say what it was like for me. When I began joining the Palancas in the mid-1970s, I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me. I was a college dropout, and hadn’t even gone to a writers’ workshop then. I took my chances, and lost more times than I won. I won a share of second prize the first time I joined, in 1975 when I was 21 (after which I naturally felt like God’s own child), but this was followed by a straight and miserable four-year losing streak.

Whenever I lost, I felt sick to the stomach and couldn’t wait for another year to roll over as quickly as possible. But I didn’t curse the heavens or the judges. After sulking for a week, I went back to my desk—reading writers I could learn from—and wrote more stories and plays (many of them lousy ones for sure, but even bad work strengthens some muscles) and joined and lost and joined again.

At some point, I began winning more often than I lost—yes, that felt good and it got addictive—but when I had won enough, I stopped joining and focused on more important things, like teaching. (Everyone’s free to join and seniorhood shouldn’t prevent anyone from duking it out with the youngsters—hey, we semi-retirees can still write about steamy sex!—but my personal sense is, there’s a time to look for other thrills.)

It comes down to this: one or two or even a whole raft of Palancas won’t make you a writer, or make you as a writer. They’ll give you a helpful leg up and make you feel like a king or a queen for a week—you’ll certainly be the most famous writer in your barangay—but ultimately, the awards will only be as good as you make them, as you parlay them into good, sustained writing and publishing.

Forget those three-person boards of judges and their foibles; worry about the faceless thousands of readers out there you’ll never see, but who will all have something to say about your work (or worse, prove indifferent). At some point, stop worrying about prizes; worry about your next book. That’s what people should best remember you by.

(This year’s competition will close on April 30. Check out www.palancaawards.com.ph for more information.)

[Image from gmanews.tv] 

Penman No. 143: A Foray into Fairyland (2)

IMG_7281Penman for Monday, April 6, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on “Fairlyand”—the mountain of Calatong in my home province of Romblon—elicited quite a bit of interest among my readers, and I was very pleased with the response until my mother, who grew up around the place, called my attention to a potentially lethal mistake I’d made in my retelling of my cousins’ and aunts’ stories about that enchanted kingdom. (I’m thinking that “lethal” might depend on whether you believe in spirits or not, and I don’t, but talk like this always reminds me of a conversation I had with a sharp old nun whom I met in one of my Italian sojourns, who said: “The question isn’t “Do you believe in God?’ but rather ‘Does God believe in you?’”)

The mistake I’d apparently made was in saying that eating quinta, or black mountain rice, was an antidote to fairy spells. “It actually works the other way around,” my mother told me in our little garden in Diliman. “They’ll offer you black rice, and if you eat even a handful of it, they’ll take you to Calatong and you’ll never be seen again.” So folks, be so advised; beware of strangers offering black rice, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing any soon. The last time I saw truly black rice was in an American grocery store in the Midwest, where it was being sold as Indian wild rice, and cost considerably more than any other exotic variety on the shelf. But then maybe that preciousness implies more than a smidgen of magic. If black rice banishes people to oblivion, I’d like to buy a sack of it, whatever the cost, to feed to certain politicians before 2016.

Which returns us to the more prosaic realities of modern-day Romblon. Not too many people, even Filipinos, know about Romblon, which if they ever board a ship for Panay they’re likely to pass unseen in the night, after Mindoro. It’s composed of three main islands—Tablas, Sibuyan, and Romblon—and was a sub-province of Capiz during Spanish times. As Philippine provinces go, it’s a pretty small one, with less than 300,000 people (excluding encantos), and my favorite quote about it comes from Jose Rizal via NVM Gonzalez (who was born in Romblon in 1915), who passed it on his way back to Manila from exile in Dapitan, remarking that it was “muy hermosa pero muy triste.”

Much of the hermosa part remains. On this first long visit home in two decades, we took an SUV around Tablas, a day trip I’d never taken before, and I was awestruck by how lovely the place was, fringed by one emerald cove after another. I lost no time in telling my friends to consider Romblon as a vacation alternative to Batanes, Palawan, and Boracay.

Indeed, Boracay’s a short hop away by motorized banca, and being on the other side of the same oceanic basin, Romblon is also blessed with many white beaches, most of them yet undiscovered. (All these islands and their people belong to one ecosystem, as it were, their languages familiar to one another, though subtly different; my paternal grandfather must have come from the Dalisays of Ibajay, Aklan, where a playwright named Marianito Dalisay Calizo wrote moro-moros in the mid-1700s.)

Some of these natural getaways have been found out, and the developers and entrepreneurs have begun streaming in, and foreigners with Filipino wives have been buying up prime beachfront property for a fraction of Boracay prices. (The best fish catch in Romblon still goes to Boracay, where it can fetch two to three times as much.)

One happy discovery we made was just a 15-minute ride from my hometown of Alcantara: Aglicay Beach, owned and managed by an affable balikbayan doctor, which offers a white-sand beach, great snorkeling, and spectacular hilltop views, all within a resort with the usual amenities, including conference facilities and wi-fi. You’ll have to pay the admission fee, though—all of 30 pesos. (To know more, check out www.aglicaybeachresort.com.)

The triste part, I don’t know. There’s certainly enough to be sad about, as much of Romblon remains painfully poor. On the other hand, the tougher things get, the harder many Romblomanons work, with their brains if not with their hands. I was puzzled by the knot of schoolchildren who gathered in front of our beachside house at dawn every morning—they carried their shoes rather than wore them—until I realized that they had walked over barefoot from a nearby island at low tide. I would later learn that one child, barely nine, had drowned this way when the tide came back in too quickly. But there was no fear in these survivors’ faces, only an insistent resolve that now and then would fracture into laughter.

We were roused one morning by the thump-thump-thump of techno music in the plaza. “They’re just testing the sound system,” said our host. “It’ll be fiesta soon.” They called the uncanny practice of waking every one up pag-di-diana, and I thought that it might have had something to do with Paul Anka’s karaoke staple.

A few other discoveries I learned on this trip were rather more personal. I had always wondered why I had spent such a long summer there as a ten-year-old in 1964—an experience I recounted in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place—and I learned that it was because we were then so hard up in Manila that we children had to be farmed out, as it were, to save some money. My aunts recalled me as a smart but prissy boy who wore long-sleeved shirts in a seaside village and who would recite long poems in English at the drop of a hat.

We also solved the mystery of why my grandmother Pinang left my Lolo Tolio in the mid-1920s shortly after marrying him and giving birth to my father Jose. It had been something of a forced marriage to begin with, and Pinang was a headstrong woman, but the story we heard was that she hated being made to serve hot chocolate when some constables came visiting one day, and took that as the last straw and left. (They would live a kilometer apart for the next 60 years, and would inevitably run into each other in town but never speak.) Now it emerged that Tolio was having a saucy little affair—an explanation that makes Lola Pinang much less petulant than the chocolate story would make her out to be.

Whether sad or funny, it felt good to hear and to understand these stories again in Romblomanon without having to defer to my wife’s more widely spoken Hiligaynon, to say udi instead of diri, basi instead of ngaa; it’s still palangga in both languages. I felt at home.

Penman No. 142: A Foray into Fairyland

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2015

LIKE I promised to do after an all-too-brief overnight sortie last January, I returned to my birth province of Romblon a couple of weeks ago—my first real visit home in almost 20 years—for a full week of catching up with a barangay of cousins, uncles, and aunts, some of whom hadn’t seen me since I was a boy.

But the family reunions and the endless festivities aside, what stood out on this trip was a foray into Fairyland—a highly unusual detour for this hardcore skeptic, who nevertheless went gamely along for the ride, and who came out richly rewarded with fairy tales if not with actual encounters with the other kind.

You won’t see it in any of the tourist guidebooks, and you might need to know the cousin of a cousin to navigate safely around the place. They call it Calatong—a word for which, in the local dialect of Guinbiraynon, there seems to be no precise translation, but it’s otherwise known even to the place’s youngsters as fairyland, the mountain inhabited by encantos, the enchanted ones. It dominates this corner of Romblon’s largest island of Tablas, both physically and culturally; from far at sea, Calatong’s tall hump offers an unmistakable landmark; by land, along the winding dirt road from Alcantara to Guinbirayan, it rises on your left, a massive mystery, although it might take some time and tuba to get the stories about Calatong flowing through the conversation.

I had seen and known about Calatong from my earliest years in Guinbirayan—my mother’s hometown—and even on this most recent visit, it was the first thing I would see outdoors when I stepped out of the house at daybreak, because the sun would emerge from behind it like a glowing crown above a dark and brooding head.

But I had never gone out there, although it seemed close enough to walk from where I stood on the shore. On this trip, at age 61, I told myself that it was now or never, and on the appointed morning we rode out to Calatong, but not before Letty, the retired schoolteacher who kindly hosted us, armed each one of us with a sliver of ginger. My mother Emy, now 86, had not been back to Calatong since she was a nine-year-old schoolgirl on a field trip with her class. “My teacher never let me out of her sight the whole time we were here,” my mother said as we parked the SUV as far up the dirt road as it could go. We walked up to the shore and took a banca over the glassine water—now turquoise, now emerald—to view the mountain from the sea, turning back only when the waves grew choppy.

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It’s said that during the War, when the Japanese flew over Calatong, they saw a brightly lit city, but then found nothing on the ground. This gave rise to the legend of Calatong as a ciudad, the name by which many of the locals still call it.

Somewhere in that sylvan cosmopolis was a waterfalls or a spring they called Labhang Dalaga, or “where the maidens washed,” from which flowed bubbly water, fragrant as if it had carried soap. We didn’t venture far enough inland to catch this frothy spectacle, but the rocks did sparkle in the sun in Calatong, as we were told they would; it was easy to see that the rocks were granitic, and contained liberal inclusions of quartz and mica, among other shiny minerals.

The mountain resists poachers and souvenir-hunters unless they’re locals who respectfully ask permission. They say that a woman who picked up a black rock and brought it home was horrified to find that the rock, left in her bathroom, had turned into a snake. A man who reportedly dug up oil and brought it out would find his precious discovery turning to water. There’s talk of siphoning water from Calatong to serve the nearby barangays, but already there’s grumbling about irregularities in the process, and about the likely consequences of displeasing the spirits.

The encantos, our cousins said, were fair-skinned, and one way of ascertaining who they were was to note the absence of a philtrum—that depression in the skin on your upper lip beneath your nose. The encantos liked to come to town to join the dances during the fiesta, when beautiful strangers typically appeared from nowhere, enjoying themselves and charming the locals. The encantos seemed to particularly favor the pretty nurses from far away who came to serve in Romblon as part of their martial-law-era YCAP duties. The antidote to their charms was to eat quinta, or black mountain rice; marriage to a local boy also seemed to ward off any further claims by the spirits—so swore my cousin Fred, who thereby met and married his wife Nanette.

You had to be careful about whom you made friends with, as a boy would realize when he accompanied his new friend home, and made the Sign of the Cross to be on the safe side of things—only to suddenly find himself hanging from the limbs of a tree. The townspeople would also see their neighbors jumping out their windows—and these neighbors would later return with fantastic stories about riding golden chariots over the mountaintops.

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The most persistent story also happens to be the most fantastic one, its incredibility only magnified by the insistence of the storytellers upon its veracity. Among those storytellers was an aunt-figure we’ve always known as Manang Munday, who recounted her story at the dining table, thusly:

One mid-afternoon in 1942, when she was in the fourth grade, Manang Munday heard a large commotion brewing and joined a throng of people rushing to the Guinbirayan shore. There, she says, she and the others saw a light-colored ship—the kind that plied the Romblon-Manila route—with the name “COSME YAP” brightly emblazoned in gold letters on its side. It sailed behind Calatong, but when the people tried to follow it and view it from afar, it was nowhere to be found. Years later the villagers would swear that they had heard the sound of an anchor chain being unwound in the night from the direction of Calatong.

Cosme Yap was my maternal grandfather, a merchant and a goldsmith, one of the richest citizens of Guinbirayan in his time. Lolo Cosme did own a sailboat, a batel as they call it in those parts, but it rather dramatically sank in a storm on its maiden voyage, Titanic-like (his wealth survived the catastrophe, but how it eventually vanished is another novel unto itself, albeit an unimaginatively prosaic one). The boat and the gold probably explain the persistence of this tale, and of its variations. Relatives say that when my Aunt Nieves was close to death, she had a vision of Lolo Cosme coming to fetch her in a golden airplane.

Again, unlike my sweet Beng who’s wired to the Universe, I don’t believe in spirits—but if something golden flashes before my eyes in my final hour, at least I’d have an inkling where that was coming from.

Penman No. 141: War and Remembrance

IMG_7163Penman for Monday, March 23, 2015

 

A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Ayala Museum with some good friends visiting briefly from the United States—the historian and professor Sharon Delmendo and her mother Judy, and the retired soldier, consul, and West Point lecturer Sonny Busa.

Both Sharon and Sonny were in town to do research—Sharon on President Quezon and the Manilaners, the Jewish refugees whom Quezon took in just before the War, and the Visayas-born Sonny on the guerrilla movement, for which he’s helping to seek more recognition in the US, especially those who may have fallen through the cracks of the American legal system. (Even Judy Delmendo proved to be a revelation, as I Iearned the story of how, as an idealistic young teacher, Judy signed up for the Peace Corps as soon as she heard JFK’s clarion call about doing something for one’s country. She was among the very first Peace Corps volunteers to ship out, and landed in Masbate, where she ended up marrying a handsome Filipino named Rene.)

Not surprisingly, history—both past and current—dominated our discussion. I’m not a historian myself, but have a keen interest in the subject, and might even have taken it up as my profession. (There was this fork in the road, more than 30 years ago, when I was returning to college from a long hiatus and was choosing between English and History as my major; pressed for time, I chose the path of less resistance.)

It must have been all those movies I saw and comic books I read as a kid, but I’ve been especially and inordinately fascinated by war and conflict—despite the fact, to which my friends will hopefully attest, that I’m a most unwarlike person, and have never fired a gun in all my 61 years. (In her college years, our daughter Demi was a proud member of UP’s rifle and pistol team.) I may be enthralled by the engineering that goes into a piece of weaponry, and I’m easily impressed and moved by tales of courage and heroism in battle, but I never for a minute forget that war is an ugly business, brutal and brutalizing, inevitably attended by grief and sorrow, and by the all-too-human impulse to wage even more war.

Sharon and Sonny had come to the Ayala Museum that morning not just to see me but also to take part in a conference on World War II, coinciding with an exhibit at the museum. I hadn’t known about the conference and couldn’t stay on for the rest of the day, but I did stay long enough to catch the first event, which was an exhibit on wartime Manila, particularly the uniforms worn by military personnel on both sides. The reason for this curious but interesting angle became apparent when we were soon surrounded by people dressed up as Japanese and American officers and soldiers, and also as nurses, guerrillas, and even a Makapili informer.

I turned around to see a familiar face, albeit in a totally unfamiliar context: that of the prizewinning sculptor Toym Imao, son of the late National Artist Abdulmari Imao and an accomplished artist in his own right. I’d last met Toym (so named because of the award his dad received) when he was a speaker at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation last year; he had been a Fulbright scholar in Maryland, honing his skills there. But now Toym the sculptor had transformed into Toym the tank commander, a figure right out of Fury.

“We started out as an Airsoft group,” Toym told me, “but we soon realized that it would be more interesting if we went for historical re-enactments using historically correct uniforms and costumes.” Thus was born the Philippine Living History Society, which had put up that morning’s special display. The society, which now has nearly a hundred members, counts HR managers, call center agents, and media professionals among others in its ranks; older persons, women, and children are also part of the group, which has staged re-enactments of famous battles or encounters (a mere costume parade, I learned, is simply an “impression”; members also have a term, “farb,” for historically inaccurate gear). Some of their uniforms and equipment are genuine artifacts—preserved, rediscovered and restored, or sourced from eBay; others are reproductions, but accurate down to the last button.

Despite their strong military bent, the society’s members are no warmongers. “We just want Filipinos to appreciate history better, and this is a good way of getting their attention,” Toym explained. They certainly got ours—even Sonny Busa, probably the only real soldier in the room (he had served with the US Army’s Special Forces before joining the diplomatic service), was caught up in the drama.

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Speaking of war and remembrance, I’d like to note the recent completion and turnover to the Philippine National Police Academy of a huge and breathtaking mural by the Erehwon Art Collective, a division of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Art World Corporation. We don’t have enough military art in this country, and quite apart from its powerful emotional appeal, this mural will be an important contribution to that genre. Let me draw on the description provided by Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez:

“Tagaligtas: Heroic 44 is a military mural that realistically depicts each and every member of the SAF 44 in their combat gear and uniform, portrayed as they are about to go into combat in realistic formations and stances. They gaze at the viewer with pride and fondness as comrades, sons, brothers, and fathers who have passed on into history. Portrayed across 182 square feet of canvas that measures 7 feet tall by 26 feet long, the SAF 44 are depicted in their various unit configurations, with the commanding officers and senior inspectors in front, middle ranking patrolmen in the middle, and junior-ranking patrolmen at the rear.”

Incredibly, the mural was completed in just three weeks by a talented and tireless team that included Grandier Gil Bella (head artist), Jerico de Leon, Neil Doloricon, Camille Dela Rosa; Lourdes Inosanto, Jonathan Joven, Othoniel Neri (assistant head artist), Emmanuel Nim, and Dario Noche (head researcher and photodocumentor); and Eghai Roxas. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) provided financial support for the project, while PSSupt Gilbert D.C. Cruz of the PNP-NCR Southern Police District provided technical advice. The mural design was conceptualized by Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete.

So whether through the theater of costumery or the quieter grandeur of a mural, the warrior lives on in our common memory.