Penman No. 138: On Wall and Paper

IMG_7127Penman for Monday, March 2, 2015

 

OF ALLl the forms of art, nothing catches the public eye quite like a mural—a painting on a wall. It isn’t just that murals tend to be massively larger than your usual living room portrait or still life. They very often seek to capture and represent the spirit and experience of a community, voicing the concerns and celebrating the values of that community. Starting with cave paintings, murals are also the oldest human art form, but they’ve survived surprisingly well into the 21st century, creatively adapting—often literally—to their physical and social environment. (For some of the world’s best contemporary murals, see here: http://www.cartridgesave.co.uk/news/the-50-most-stunning-wall-murals-from-around-the-world/)

In the Philippines, muralists like the late National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco have defined the content, style, and temper of the form, much like Diego de Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco did in Mexico. Informed by history and politics, their work also incorporates ethnic and religious elements, presented in a sweeping visual montage.

Given our colorful history and the need to inflame our people with greater patriotic fervor, you’d think we should have more murals adorning our many walls—think of the kilometer-long mural that snakes through downtown Hanoi, for example—but sadly, we don’t. Good murals take time, resources, and of course artistic talent and vision to make, not to mention the large blank spaces that are the muralist’s work- and play-ground.

Thankfully, the University of the Philippines—in cooperation with the UP Alumni Association and the Araneta Center Complex—has taken a major step to redressing that shortage, by commissioning 28 of the university’s top alumni artists to produce murals depicting various periods and aspects of Philippine history.

This distinguished roster includes Adonai Artificio, Armand Bacaltos, Adi Baen-Santos, Grandier Bella, Benjie Cabangis, Ben Cabrera, Angel Cacnio, Romeo Carlos, Cris Cruz, Denes Dasco, Gig de Pio, Simkin de Pio, Vincent de Pio, Neil Doloricon, Norman Dreo, Amado Hidalgo, Abdul Asia Mari Imao, Ben Infante, Gigi Javier-Alfonso, Aileen Lanuza, Romeo Mananquil, Norlie Meimban, Julius Samson, Jonahmar Salvosa, Randy Solon, Michael Velasco, Jun Yee, and Janice Young. The resulting exhibit, titled “” or Philippine History in Art—opened at the Araneta Center’s Gateway Gallery last February 18.

The murals—all of a uniform 6’ x 12’ size—cover the full range of Philippine history from pre-Hispanic times to the present, under the guidance of historian Dr. Luisa Camagay and project director and artist Dr. Gigi Javier Alfonso. To UP President Alfredo Pascual, the project is UP’s way of helping to promote a keener historical consciousness among Filipinos, especially the young. The Araneta Center in Cubao, which is marking its 60th anniversary, graciously agreed to host the exhibit in its new 5th-floor gallery.

Coming from a science background, a senior UP official whom I was touring the exhibit with asked me for my critique of the murals on show. I told her that while I was of course pleased with the project as a whole, with its intentions and execution, I personally preferred those works that went a step beyond the literal in their treatment of history, and that dwelt less on the big and obvious historical figures and more on pedestrian realities. I do understand that murals can’t be too abstract, lest they fail to connect with their intended mass audience; in any case, the murals did what they were meant to do, which is to provoke more thought and talk among their viewers.

FullSizeRender

On another front, and also in Quezon City which seems to be shaping up as the cultural center of the metropolis, a new exhibit of paper and paper-based art titled “Pumapapel” opened last week at the Erehwon Center for the Arts, probably the city’s most dynamic privately-operated art center.

This exhibition expands the possibilities of Filipino artistic expression by combining many fields of art making, from painting, drawing, printmaking, mix-media, sculpture and installation, to photography and book/graphic illustration by focusing on the unique qualities of paper as both ground and medium. Curated by UP professor Dr. Reuben R. Cañete, “Pumapapel” features the works of about 100 artists including those of National Artists Vicente Manansala and Benedicto Cabrera, as well as those of Philip Victor, Renato Villanueva, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Juvenal Sanso, and Manuel Ocampo. Also on the list are upcoming artists from the Cordillera, Cebu, Bacolod, and Mindanao, and photographers and graphic artists, among others.

“Pumapapel”’s focus on paper art brings us back, like murals do, to the earliest periods and forms of artistic human expression. From paintings to paper sculpture, this exhibit showcases the myriad possibilities of paper both as medium and material, and also not incidentally celebrates Erehwon’s third year as the upcoming place-to-be for QC-based artists.

Erehwon may not be the easiest place to get to (it’s located at 1 Don Francisco Street, Villa Beatriz Subdivision, Old Balara) but it’s served as a home not only for painters and sculptors but also for musicians, dancers, and writers, thanks to the generosity of its founder and president, Raffy Benitez, and the support of people like Erehwon Arts Foundation President Boysie Villavicencio. (I shouldn’t forget to mention my wife June, who serves as Boysie’s vice president and who has been spending many sleepless nights helping to put this exhibition together.) The Erehwon Center for the Arts’ new Dance Studio was also inaugurated last week.

Pay these exhibits a visit, and you’ll remember and understand how and why art means something to ordinary people, in extraordinary ways.

(Mural by Janice Young. Batik painting on paper by Maela Jose.)

 

Penman No. 137: The Other Filipino Values

Penman for Monday, February 23, 2015

 

DURING THIS most recent US visit, I had a chance to have a chat over a few beers with Ray Ricario, the older brother of our daughter Demi’s husband Jerry, and with some of Ray’s friends. Born in the US to parents from Albay, Ray’s a retired naval officer and an entrepreneur. He and his family are registered albeit moderate Republicans—as you might expect of Filipino immigrants steeped in a proud military tradition—and Ray knows that Beng and I are passionate liberals, so we have a lively but always civil conversation going about current events in the US, the Philippines, and around the world.

More often than not we end up agreeing on more things than we disagree on, especially when it comes to strengthening ties between Filipinos and Americans, and raising the profile of the Philippines in America. I always look forward to meeting with Ray, not the least because he and his wife Lorie are unfailingly gracious hosts and we both love beer and barbecue.

Our last conversation revolved around a common concern: the preservation of Filipino values and their transmission to the next generation of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. As the father of three children, Ray feels strongly about the need for them to have some vital cultural connection to the old country, even as they join—as they should and inevitably will—the American mainstream. The others around our table lamented how Filipino values seemed to be eroding among the Filipino-American youth, but were rightfully proud at the same time of their efforts to preserve them. One of the ways mentioned was the practice of taking the hand of one’s elder to one’s forehead in a gesture of respect—our famous and unique “mano po.”

That was fine and laudable, I said, but it also got me thinking about what other values we seek to pass on to our young, aside from the respect we expect and sometimes demand of them. I had to wonder what a young Filipino-American, told by his dad or mom to do mano to an older Filipino stranger entering the room, would be feeling at that moment of contact—would that be genuine respect, or a grudging sense of obligation, accompanied by a shudder at the external silliness of the deed?

The mano po is a wonderful tradition (even though, to be honest, you hardly see it being done anymore even in Manila), and those of us who still practice it know and understand that the value it embodies is respect for one’s elders. But how well is that value valued in such a place as America, where the native-born young—without necessarily meaning to be disrespectful or impertinent—might see things (such as authority) differently? How well can values and traditions carry over in another context—or sometimes, without the context that gave them meaning in the first place?

I suggested that perhaps “respect for elders” could itself be revisited and explained in a way that young people today (as we ourselves were, not too long ago) could better understand and accept. Having been social rebel in my own youth, I refuse to see “respect for elders” as the blind acceptance of the authority of the old; that will only ingrain resentment and resistance. I’d rather take and present it as a willingness to listen, an acceptance of the possibility (however remote it may seem to a 16-year-old) that this older person might actually have something sensible and useful to share with you. When I do the mano po, I accept you—in all my youthful arrogance—as my equal.

That brought me to other Filipino values—both of a philosophical and practical sort—that I don’t think we emphasize enough, whether in America or at home. I’d argue that principled resistance is one of them. We’ve had a long tradition of protest and rebellion against tyranny, injustice, and bondage, as our many revolutionary heroes will bear out—but instead we seem to emphasize acceptance and acquiescence, in the desire not to give offense or to create conflict. That’s why we wear our crown of thorns with misguided pride, sometimes reveling more in our capacity for suffering rather than addressing its causes.

Our table talk didn’t get this far, but I could have proposed two more—and truly practical values—to push among the young today on both sides of the Pacific.

The first is respect for food—especially in America, where so much of it goes around, and goes to waste. This can be one of the most personal and practical applications of a social conscience—don’t take or order more than what you can eat, and finish what’s on your plate. For Beng and me, that especially applies to rice, having which we always take as a privilege. If we can’t finish our meal at a restaurant, we have it wrapped up—even that half cupful of rice—and bring it home, or hand it over to some needier person on the street.

The second is cleanliness and tidiness. We Filipinos like to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean and neat, and it’s important that we do this by ourselves. Growing up as children, our day literally began by folding our mats and mosquito nets; even if we didn’t have much, we never saw poverty as an excuse for becoming slovenly. Want to promote democracy? Teach the señorito to clean up after himself; forget any thoughts of achieving national greatness if we can’t even discipline ourselves.

Knowing Ray and seeing what a wonderful family he has, I know that I’m not shouting in the wind when I bring up these notions. I wish he’d vote for Hillary, but that’s another topic for another day.

Penman No. 136: Back to the BlackBerry (Sort of)

IMG_6926Penman for Monday, February 16, 2015

 

THIS MONDAY, I’m going to take a break (and give my readers one as well) from my ponderous ruminations on Philippine culture and politics and revert from PenMan to GadgetBoy, that now-overaged fancier of technotoys who still nurses a naïve faith in technology as the savior of humanity, or at least the bringer of boxed delights.

One of those boxes (in matte black, natch) came my way last month on my US trip, when—shortly before my departure—I discovered that the LG clamshell that I had been using as my US Verizon phone had finally died, refusing to boot up after four years of faithful employment. I’m in the US at least once a year to visit family and attend conferences, so a dedicated US phone has been good to have, which I simply load with prepaid credit when I go there.

Like human life itself, the eventual death of anything digital is a foregone conclusion, but in the case of these gadgets, it’s a passing not necessarily met with lamentation; rather, it’s cause for relief and release, making possible that word that brings joy and profit to every technotoy maker’s heart, “Upgrade!” I was frankly glad to see the little LG go; it was SIM-less and locked to Verizon, and I wanted a US phone that I could use somewhere else. (My iPhone 6 is unlocked, but as my local mainstay, I can’t afford to switch it over to another network while I’m away. Note to Apple: how about a dual-SIM iPhone?)

Enter—or rather re-enter—the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry? Remember, that once-upon-a-time smartphone market leader and innovator, the darling of the business and political crowd? For those born around the time when the world worried not about ISIS but Y2K, the emergence of the BlackBerry and its kickass keypad tore us away from our beloved Palm Pilots and Treos… until the iPhone came along in 2007 and rendered everything else instantly obsolete. (Of course, the iPhone itself has since been periodically upstaged by some Android upstart or other—until the new iPhoneX is announced.)

So the BlackBerry and its shares of stock have languished in the dumps, experiencing a momentary spike only when rumors of a buyout (recently, supposedly by Samsung) skitter through the Web. Which brings up the obvious question: why would anyone still want to get a BB?

That was No. 1 on the mind of BlackBerry CEO John Chen, who in mid-December boldly announced the release of the company’s latest model, the BlackBerry Classic—or I should say, latest but not quite. The BB Classic is premised on the idea that the BlackBerry got to where it did because it stuck true to its most prominent design feature—the physical keypad—and that people still long for solid keys to punch rather than pecking away like mad chickens on a flat screen.

It’s a bold gamble, an appeal to our deepest retro urges, and the design of the Classic revives and reinforces everything we felt about the BlackBerry of old. The Classic, said John Chen, would bring back the old BB faithful who had deserted the platform for the iPhone and Android, typically the more mature business user who felt more comfortable with the tactile keypad, who didn’t mind if their phone came only in black, and who valued security in communications (note that Sony executives hit hard by the Interview hack resorted to BlackBerrys for their fallback). I listened to Chen saying all this to CNN’s Richard Quest and found myself mesmerized—yes, that business user was me, I’d been away from the BB too long, and I missed that keypad like my first serious girlfriend.

Convinced that I needed a new US phone anyway, I ordered an unlocked Classic off Amazon, and had it delivered to my daughter in California in time for my arrival in the US in mid-January. I got a T-Mobile prepaid nanoSIM and a 128GB SanDisk microSD card to complete the package, and was back in BlackBerry heaven.

Sort of. As a phone, the Classic is everything Chen touted it to be—rock-solid, a delight to use, and by far the best in its class (given that it’s a class that graduated six or seven years ago). Externally, it’s the bigger brother of the old BB Bold 9XXX, with the familiar belt, trackpad, and keypad, the square screen, and the rounded corners. It’s a bit heavier than the iPhone, but I don’t mind—my one complaint about the IP6 was that it was so thin I kept panicking to think it was lost. It’s perfect for one-handed operation. The screen is sharp and crisp, the sound is good, and with System 10, you don’t need to go through the old BIS provisioning routine—it’s plug and play.

The downside? As I’d been forewarned, apps are sparse, although the BB can now use many Android apps through Amazon’s AppStore, MobiMarket, and Snap. I was able to get decent versions of many of my favorite iOS apps (WorldMate is BlackBerry Travel, for example); Skype and Viber work just fine, and a free program called Navigation provides useful and accurate street-level guidance. I wanted to give it every chance to become my main phone in lieu of the IP6—but in the end, I just couldn’t do it, on two accounts: the BlackBerry still has no true equivalent for FaceTime, which for those of us with daughters and mothers in the US is the iPhone’s real killer app, and its camera can’t hold a candle to the iPhone’s, which I and many others use semi-professionally, forsaking our bulky DSLRs.

So I say welcome back to the BlackBerry, and the Classic does live up to its name; it’ll be a great backup phone, for a second or a US line. Buying one in 2015 is a bit like choosing a new car with manual transmission, but oldtimers like me know what fun that can be—sometimes.

(The BlackBerry Classic is now available in the Philippines from MemoXpress.)

Penman No. 135: Democracy and Cultural Expression

DSC_0024Penman for Monday, February 9, 2015

 

I SPENT the past two weeks as a Pacific Leadership Fellow at the School of International and Pacific Relations of the University of California, San Diego, and the highlight of my fellowship was a 40-minute talk I gave on the general topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting Modernization in the Philippines.” The PLF—usually a government or business leader from the Asia-Pacific region—is asked to make a public presentation to a large audience composed of academic and community representatives, to introduce and discuss major issues facing his or her society.

I felt it safer to presume that the non-Filipino members of my audience last January 28 knew very little about Philippine history and politics, so I began with a broad overview of that history, bringing things to the present and the medium-term horizon, considering both our strengths and resources—noting the robustness of our recent economic growth—but also the longstanding inequalities and structural weaknesses that continue to hold us back. Here’s a slightly edited excerpt from the rest of my talk:

We have to pause and wonder exactly what kind of democracy we have in the Philippines, and what needs to be done—particularly on the cultural front—to achieve a fuller sense of the word.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Philippine democracy a sham, because most Filipinos enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms absent in patently undemocratic societies—freedom of expression, of association, of mobility, of enterprise; the right to vote, and a presumptive equality under the law. But that presumption is also the weakest leg our democracy stands on, undermined by gross economic and social inequalities in our society showing Philippine democracy as more a democracy of style and spirit than one of substance.

Indeed, economically and politically, the Philippines has been ruled for more than a century by an elite, a roomful of families from the landed gentry and comprador capitalists who developed their wealth and power as agents and executors of colonization, and have taken turns at governing the country well into the present.

We cannot have true democracy without achieving a better balance in our economic and social structure, and its best hope in the Philippines could be in our enlarging middle class. They may not yet have the economic and political clout of the elite, but coming from the poor and aspiring in their own way to become more prosperous, they have the most at stake in creating a new regime of opportunity and fairness.

It is the middle class that has served as the voice of Philippine democracy, primed by its education to value freedom of thought and expression. It is the middle class that stands at the vanguard of modernization, having not just the desire but also the means—through education and entrepreneurship—to change the future.

… One out of every ten Filipinos now lives and works abroad in a decades-long diaspora that has kept the Philippine economy afloat through remittances amounting to more than $25 billion in 2013. But they bring home not only money but new ideas, and I feel confident that, in the long run and for all its social costs, this diaspora will have salutary effects because that domestic helper in Milan or plumber in Bahrain will no longer be simply a domestic helper or plumber when they come home. Tourists bring home snapshots of pretty places and exotic food; foreign workers bring home real learning, lessons in survival and getting ahead, and raised expectations of their local and national leaders.

This exposure to global culture and its elevation of local aspirations will be a major force in reshaping the Filipino future. And again, it is the middle class—the dwellers of the Internet and the Ulysses of this new century—that will lead in this transformation, just as they have led the most important movements for political and social reform in our history.

… One of the bright spots of Philippine society today is the fact that civil society is very much alive, constantly on guard against governmental or corporate abuse and wrongdoing, ever ready to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens and communities, and firmly rooted in those communities. It has stood at the forefront of the movement to fight corruption, which recently came to a new climax with the explosive revelation of a billion-peso pork-barrel scam going all the way to the Senate and even possibly higher.

One of the greatest challenges of our modernization may be that of electoral reform—not just a reform of the electoral process, but a reform of the voter’s mind—not to vote for popular candidates, but to vote wisely, to see the vote as a chance to short-circuit a historical process and to lay claim to one’s equality and patrimony.

And this is where culture comes in, as an instrument of social and political reform and modernization. If we look at culture more proactively not just as a way of living but a way of thinking, then there is much room for the promotion of true democracy through cultural expression.

By cultural expression I don’t mean simply the writing of stories, poems, plays, and essays, which is what I do most days, partly as my civic duty. I mean the use of all media at our disposal—the arts, the press, the Internet, whatever can influence the Filipino mind—to forge and sustain a set of core values, of national interests that cut across family, class, and region.

Of course, we can take “cultural expression” in its more popular and familiar forms—stories, poems, plays, music, painting, and dance, among others—as gestures toward the idea of a larger, national culture. After all, with every poem or painting, the artist seeks to palpate, from an audience of citizens, a sense of what is common and what is important—or to put it both ways, what is commonly important and what is importantly common. This has always been the social value and the political mission of art—not just as a means of self-expression, but of establishing, affirming, and promoting certain commonalities of thought and feeling.

… We need nothing less than a new cultural revolution—focused on the assertion of the ordinary citizen’s rights over power and privilege, on the importance of the rule of law, and on our understanding and acceptance of what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world. Forging that sense of national identity is crucial to securing our future, again in a world and in a part of the world where the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Americans seem to have very clear ideas about their roles and capabilities. In this ocean of resurgent nationalisms, we Filipinos need to redefine ourselves as more than America’s students and surrogates.

In sum, much remains to be done to lend more substance to Philippine democracy in terms of addressing age-old economic and social inequalities. But the first field of battle exists in the mind and spirit, and the first campaign in this battle, the first declaration of freedom, has to be an act of the imagination.

I prefer to see democracy as a process rather than a product; the aspiration can be as powerful as its actualization. This democracy is first formed by its assertion: by seeking democracy, we begin to achieve it, and this assertion is the task of our artists, writers, thinkers, and opinion makers, the imaginative shapers of our national identity.

Penman No. 134: Frontiers and Pioneers

IMG_6867Penman for Monday, Feb. 2, 2015

 

I’VE BEEN to California quite a few times over the past 30 years, on such varied missions as covering Steve Jobs and the iPod Shuffle in MacWorld 2006 and tracking Jose Rizal’s footsteps in San Francisco. Just last September, I was there again to interview a cohort of former activists from the First Quarter Storm.

California’s the kind of place that promises to never run out of surprises for the game and attentive visitor, and this time around—on this ongoing Pacific Leader Fellowship with the University of California in San Diego—I ran into more wonderful discoveries that straddled the past and the future.

My program allowed me to make specific requests for visits to places of personal interest, and after consulting with knowledgeable friends, I settled on two destinations that couldn’t be more different from each other: the old mining town of Julian, about an hour’s drive up the mountains away from downtown San Diego, and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), a cutting-edge facility overlooking the blue Pacific. This way I could encounter two extremes, from the museum to the laboratory, from the anciently analog to the dazzlingly digital.

I was accompanied on both visits by Mrs. Julie Hill, a good friend and old Manila hand whose life story and travels to dozens of countries I’ve been privileged to edit in three books, going on a fourth. We were graciously driven to Julian by Greg Mallinger, the coordinator of my program. I usually undertake a digital reconnaissance (meaning, I let my fingers do the walking on the keyboard) of points on my itinerary before the actual visit, but this time, I did no such thing, prepared to be surprised by whatever the place had to offer.

IMG_6837

The drive to Julian in itself proved a delight, with a view of wide valleys fringed by rolling hills dotted by huge boulders that might have been left by titanic geological upheavals but were now simply picturesque. A brief stop at Sta. Ysabel just before Julian led to a Spanish mission from 1818, recalling our own acceptance in the Philippines of the friars and their message; I had visited another California mission years ago, and had seen there a Chinese-eyed santo carved by a Filipino sculptor in the 1700s—so far, I thought, did Spain’s colonial reach extend.

Julian emerged on the road, a scenic huddle of tall-fronted houses along Main Street. It had experienced a brief boom in gold mining after the discovery of the precious metal there by a black man named Fred Coleman in the 1860s, but the miners have long since been replaced by tourists eager to sample the town’s new gold, its famous apple pie. We were met by the town’s historian, a retired engineer named David Lewis, who also operates the town’s museum (chock full of choice artifacts and very tidily maintained) with his wife.

IMG_6852

Our tour began in Julian’s windy hilltop cemetery, where David introduced us to Julian’s founding fathers and mothers—notably the Baileys who started a mine and the Robinsons who put up a hotel that still stands today—emphasizing the unusual role of African-Americans (such as the Robinsons) in the town’s development. The Julian Hotel is a living museum of 19th century charm—except that it now offers free wi-fi—and I made a mental note to bring my wife Beng there sometime, a wishful thought no doubt shared by the busloads of tourists who descend on the town every Wednesday.

IMG_6734

We met another kind of pioneer and another kind of frontier at the Scripps, an impressive complex of buildings devoted to biomedical research. Lying in La Jolla close to UCSD, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Scripps is a key part of a science complex probing the frontiers of medicine and leading the laboratory fight against AIDS, Ebola, cancer, influenza, and other deadly diseases.

Our first stop might have belonged to a Hollywood props or special effects studio—a special lab where what seemed to be colorful toys in all kinds of shapes were laid out on a table. David Goodsell—a professor at TSRI and a molecular biologist who also happens to be an accomplished artist—explained that they were physical models of cells and cellular structures, created by machine through 3-D printing, and creatively colored to be used by researchers and teachers for educational purposes. Dr. Goodsell has exhibited his fabulous watercolor illustrations and published them in a book titled The Machinery of Life (Springer, 2009).

IMG_6737

As beautiful as the structures of life may emerge from Goodsell’s work, TSRI scientists don’t forget for one minute that some of them are the very carriers and agents of diseases that can cripple and kill, understanding and defeating which is a major part of the institute’s mission. (TSRI is also looking into such varied areas as deafness, memory disorders, autism, aging, and stress.) They help discover and develop new drugs to combat diseases and correct disorders.

Those drugs include Zmapp, also developed in San Diego by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Zmapp gained prominence as the experimental drug used to successfully treat some Americans who had contracted Ebola. To better understand exactly how ZMapp worked, TSRI scientists employed electron microscopy to see how antibodies from the drug bound themselves to the Ebola virus.

IMG_6777

One of those scientists was Andrew Ward, an associate professor in his mid-30s who, when we met him in his lab, looked like he might have just stepped off the stage from playing with a grunge band. Dr. Ward heads a team of 14 scientists pulling long hours at TSRI’s electron microscopy lab, which has seven state-of-the-art electron microscopes, including a $7-million, 12-foot Titan Krios whose million-dollar camera (not part of the package) can see into the smallest corners of cells. Ebola was all over the news, so it was important to work on it, said Dr. Ward, but he emphasized how even more vital it was to lick influenza, a common disease that could kill milllions.

Stepping out of the lab, I remembered how, as a boy, I had marveled at the effects of the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, in which a miniaturized medical team ventures into the bloodstream of a man. That day at TSRI, I felt like that boy again.

Penman No. 133: Revolution in the Time of Facebook

B75xPtWCIAEFJJ4Penman for Monday, January 26, 2015

 

I’M BACK in the US for a few weeks, to give a series of lectures on Philippine culture and politics as a Pacific Leadership Fellow with the Center on Emerging and Pacific Economies at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) of the University of California, San Diego. The PLF is a post usually reserved for senior government officials and business leaders engaged in economic and political affairs, and it’s the first time they’re bringing over someone from the humanities; some years ago, I was preceded in this fellowship by former Central Bank Governor and NCCA Chairman Jimmy Laya.

I have a major talk coming up this week on the ponderous topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting the Challenge of Modernization in the Philippines,” but last Wednesday, I sat down with a group of graduate students from IR/PS for a more personal chat. The general topic was “The Youth and Social Reform,” and I decided to share some of my experiences as a former student activist in the 1970s and to observe how protest movements and actions have changed since then.

I began by talking about the First Quarter Storm—our own version of Tiananmen, to use a metaphor more familiar to my audience, and the subject of my current research—my arrest and imprisonment in 1973, and the novel that I wrote about that experience. I recalled the many friends and comrades I lost, remarking on the ironic truth that “If I hadn’t been arrested that cold January evening, I probably wouldn’t be here, or be writing novels; I’d very likely have long been dead,” because I would have gone up to the hills and, being totally unprepared for the life of a guerrilla, would have made an easy target for the military. Here’s part of the rest of my short talk:

It would be nice to think that these horrors belong to the distant past, that the world has become more civilized in this new century of Facebook and social media. Indeed, authors like Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) have argued that the world is actually a much safer place today than it was centuries ago, in terms of casualties of war and homicides, among other indices. That may be statistically true, but our street-level perception must surely be different.

It may be bright and sunny here in Southern California, but the world is full of dark and dangerous corners where bombs get strapped to ten-year-old girls who then get blown up in public places. I didn’t even need to tell you that, because it’s all over the evening news, before it all too quickly—and with much relief—gets brushed aside by the latest antics of Kim Kardashian and the latest gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. And why not? It seems grossly unfair in a way to be burdened by the misdeeds of others, by the ideological and ethical quandaries of a world one didn’t create, or even wanted to be a part of.

I’m not suggesting that young people today necessarily have it easier. Each generation has to confront its own demons, and those demons can be as large and as fearsome as you want them to be. You don’t have to live in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in Nigeria with the Boko Haram or in the Philippines with the Abu Sayyaf to know what terror is; you could be living in LA, New York, Columbine, or Ferguson to understand what fear or loss or danger means. In other words, we can never trivialize what other people may be going through.

But in another sense, youth and student activism today is rather different from what it was in my time, in my place. Today, people can pick their causes, instead of taking on the whole world. The starting point is the self, and what the self needs or wants, in a social and cultural climate that’s keenly focused on the here and now, with a very short attention span. Facebook promotes the self; Twitter and Instagram capture the unfolding present. We respond instantly to what we see, and do not necessarily work out of a comprehensive agenda for regime or global change. We don’t seek to save the world, but parts or aspects of it we care strongly about, whether it be whales and redwood trees or indigenous peoples or immigration reform or renewable energy.

In the Philippines, I’ve long maintained that the Communist Party lost much of the ground it had held back in the 1970s and 1980s not so much because of the success of the Philippine military on the battlefield, or even because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but because of the emergence of workable options for idealistic young people desiring social and political change, not necessarily by violent means. With almost 70,000 registered NGOs, Filipinos have a lot of causes to choose from.

For my generation, for all its flaws, we had only Marxism, which gave us a comprehensive world-view. Even though we felt in constant danger, that danger in itself was a comfort, an odd assurance or validation that we were on the right path, doing the right thing. It’s chilling to think that, while they may be very different in many ways, the young men and women joining ISIS today may be moved by a kindred spirit. There’s a frightening coherence and consistency to extremism, an inexorable logic strange to everyone else.

I ultimately opted out of Marxism because while we were convinced that everything was political, I came around to realizing that politics wasn’t everything. Also, as a creative writer, I could no longer abide by the need to observe the Party line.

What have I learned from all that?

First, compromise can be good and necessary. Second, I would not ask others to do what I could not do myself. Third, silence and reflection can result in better outcomes than strident shouting. Fourth, despair or cynicism is easy; hope is more difficult, and therefore the worthier challenge.

Indeed the darker aspects of life have never surprised me. It came as a deep disappointment to find comrades breaking under torture or other forms of duress, or even embracing outright betrayal for comfort and coinage—but that did not surprise me. It may have seemed very strange when I myself took up a job with the government shortly after my release from prison—but that, too, was almost inevitable, since all the old media offices had been shut down and the only real employer in town was the government. When people take the path of least resistance and adjust to new conditions to survive, I can understand that, having done it myself.

What keeps surprising me is courage, hope, goodness, and perseverance, which seem such old-fashioned notions but such necessary imperatives in these times. One no longer has to die for the things one values, but to live for them.

Even though, unlike most of my countrymen, I stopped going to church many years ago in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on many social issues, I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, particularly to the areas ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan. His affection for the poor was palpable, but equally moving was the strength and faith manifested by the poor—one young woman who had lost her right arm in the storm had walked many miles to see him, and what she said with a smile stuck with me: “I am often sad, because I cannot find a job, but life cannot be all sadness all the time.”

For your generation, in your time and in your place, you will have to find your own pathways to social reform, which may have to begin, first of all, with a clarification of your own goals, although a deeper personal transformation will surely take place within the process of social engagement itself. Studying for professional success cannot ever be a bad thing; but it can only be better when all that sharpness of intellect can mean something to the lives of others.

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.

Penman No. 131: Museums and Musicals (Part 2)

IMG_5928Penman for Monday, January 12, 2015

 

LAST WEEK I wrote about museums as a popular form of American entertainment and education, reporting in particular on my encounter with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. Musicals are arguably no less educational, except that they educate the heart and spirit rather than the mind.

There seems to be something fundamentally silly about people suddenly breaking into song in moments of high tension (in Bollywood, of course, they’d start shimmying and shaking), but the truth of the matter is (and the magic of the musical is) that it feels just right, and that the characters are singing exactly what we’re feeling. When Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” in “Oliver” or when Tuptim and Lun Tha bewail their lot in “We Kiss in a Shadow” in “The King and I,” we absolutely understand what’s going on, and root even for the most ill-fated love.

Sometimes silliness is pure fun: who could have resisted Mary Poppins (except her famously persnickety creator, P. L. Travers) trilling “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? Some songs just give you a lift to sing, like “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man,” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”

And then there are those rare and very strange moments when a song from a musical just walks into your life, providing the perfect refrain for the occasion. This happened to me 40 years ago, as I waited outside the maternity ward while Beng was giving birth; at that very instant, as if on cue, a song came on over the PA system, and it was the “My Boy Bill Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” where the expectant father wonders what it would be like if the son he expects turns out to be a girl… as our Demi was.

I don’t know what it was that drew me to musicals when I was a young boy growing up in Pasig, except the long hot summer afternoons better spent in a cool dark moviehouse than under a tin roof at home. Ours was a moviegoing family, and I’d already seen “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “West Side Story” in some theater downtown on Avenida Rizal, but the musical that got me hooked—maybe because it coincided with the onset of puberty—was “The Sound of Music.” What this chaste production full of nuns and Nazis had to do with adolescence could be answered by the doe-eyed Brigitta, aka Angela Cartwright, who was Penny in “Lost in Space”; of course I also nursed a crush on Julie Andrews, but she could’ve been my mom. I watched “The Sound of Music” six, seven times until I could recite the libretto and sing the songs by heart. (For fans of “The Sound of Music,” there’s a very interesting story about the writing of the song “Edelweiss” here: http://www.steynonline.com/6683/edelweiss.)

Prurient considerations aside, the old-fashioned Broadway musical (which we Pinoys got in the movie version) had something going for it that Westerns, thrillers, and spy movies hardly ever did: an insistent optimism, even in the darkest and direst of circumstances. “West Side Story” doesn’t end with just a death; it ends with the song “Somewhere,” and a plaintive hope for “peace and quiet and open air;” “Carousel” ends with the redemption of the likeable scoundrel Billy Bigelow, promising that “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Billy may have gone to heaven, but critics gave “Carousel” hell for changing the ending of the original play on which it had been based.) “Camelot” was probably the first musical I saw that didn’t come with a happy ending, but even Lerner and Loewe couldn’t possibly undo centuries of Arthurian lore.

In a time of AIDS, 9-11, tsunamis, and ISIS, the darkening of the American musical was probably inevitable if not mandatory. One of art’s most necessary functions is to provide relief to the distressed even by the mere recognition and reflection of pain, and today’s less melodic, more dissonant musicals do that, acknowledging that rainbows don’t come with pots of gold, and may not even come at all after a long day’s rain.

I watched my first live Broadway musical—Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was actually more of a revue—in 1980, from behind a post, the cheapest seat in the house. Since then I’ve been able to afford a few seats with a view, though not by much; as I reported in this corner a couple of years ago, my happiest hours in the musical theater came not on Broadway but in Melbourne, during a rousing Australian production of “South Pacific” that I watched from the topmost row where I sat all by my lonesome, to the amused consternation of the ushers, who urged me to move on down after the lights had dimmed. But I declined, because where I was, I could merrily sing along to “Dites-moi, Pourquois” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” Having outgrown Angela Cartwright, I now rank “South Pacific” my most favorite of musicals, with “West Side Story” a close second (Beng has a soft spot for “The King and I,” and never fails to cry when Mongkut dies).

On this most recent trip to the States, we caught “Evita” (my third favorite) at the Kennedy Center in DC and a trio of shows in New York: “From Burlesque to Broadway,” a revue of an art form that I wish I’d seen at a more responsive age; “The Bandwagon,” the revival of a forgotten art-about-art opus with three showstoppers (“You and the Night and the Music,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark”) and, finally, the Rockettes Christmas Special, classic Americana.

We stepped out of the theaters freezing in the cold but warm and dizzy with song, fortified against the inevitable anxieties and disappointments of another day.

 

[Images from flixster.com, childstar.com, musicalheaven,com, and amazon.com]

Penman No. 130: Museums and Musicals (Part 1)

Penman for Monday, January 5, 2015

 

IF THERE’S anything in America I keep returning to—aside from the flea markets and antique shops—it’s the two things I consider to be among the country’s prime cultural resources: its museums and its musical theater.

Both are, at heart, forms of popular entertainment. While museums are arguably more educational, the first American museums, we’re told, began as collections of curiosities that attracted entrepreneurs like the showman P. T. Barnum, who bought up bizarre objects and juxtaposed them with such live attractions as bearded ladies and exotic animals. The American musical, on the other hand, descended from burlesques and operettas imported from Europe, livened up by chorus girls and minstrel songs, until (notes theater historian Mark Lubbock) Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came up with Show Boat in 1927 and refashioned the musical as a play unto itself, beyond the pastiche of production numbers that it had been.

I suppose I should be adding “major-league sports” to this list. The NBA is, after all, one of America’s biggest exports, with a global cultural impact that extends far beyond the ballgame itself. As a graduate student in Milwaukee, I spent whole Saturday afternoons enjoying double-headers at the baseball park, and I once cut a class in Shakespeare to watch Michael Jordan pull off a last-second three-pointer to beat the hometown Bucks (and despite being Bucks fans, we all stood up and cheered). And then there’s Hollywood, America’s mammoth fantasy machine.

But sports and movies can now be had on satellite TV and even your iPhone. Museums and musicals—I’m thinking Broadway and off-Broadway here—are still best experienced live, despite the likely availability of much of the material online or on DVD. Many Americans themselves apparently agree. A 2008 article that came out on National Public Radio reveals an interesting statistic: the total combined attendance for all major-league sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) that year was estimated at around 140 million, against the estimated attendance at American museums, pegged at 850 million.

I landed in Washington, DC on my first American visit 35 years ago, and I’ve been returning to the Smithsonian Institution ever since, looking at but never tiring of the same old things: Abraham Lincoln’s hat, George Washington’s dentures, the Hope Diamond, the Space Shuttle, the giant squid. Every pilgrimage to the Smithsonian (and, in London, to the British Museum) transforms me into a wide-eyed boy, seized by the collar and shaken into speechlessness by the majesty of history.

On this last sojourn, as I reported last week, a visit to the exhibition of historic signatures at the National Archives Museum proved to be one of the highlights of our museum-hopping. But we visited other equally arresting exhibits, most notably the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

I’d always been fascinated by this monumental figure—who, like many monuments, came with more than a deep fissure or two. I was born too late to appreciate him as the liberator of occupied Philippines, but I’d always nurtured a vague memory of going to the Luneta as a boy to see him, one 4th of July, a day of floats and big horses. I later suspected that memory to be false, until I confirmed, online, that MacArthur had indeed made one last sentimental journey to the Philippines in July 1961, when I was seven.

Norfolk seems an odd place for a MacArthur Memorial; it’s a Navy town, and he was an Army man through and through, and West Point—where he had served as superintendent—would have been far more logical. But his mother’s family was rooted in Norfolk, and Douglas himself would have been born there had not his father Arthur, himself an Army officer, been assigned to Little Rock, Ark., where Douglas was born in 1880.

Some things surprised me at the MacArthur museum: first of all, the discovery that it was also his and his second wife Jean’s resting place. The first thing you notice upon entering the memorial, flanked by rows of flags from various campaigns (Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, Lingayen, and Manila are prominently cited), is the sunken crypt in which the two tombs lie side by side. Second, I was struck by the number of Philippine items and references in the place—perhaps logically so, because even Arthur himself had been a general in the forces that occupied Manila in 1898.

Third—although I should have expected this—there was absolutely no mention of Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, the Scottish-Filipino actress who became Douglas’ girlfriend in between his marriages (his first wife, Louise Cromwell Brooks, had been a socialite). A fourth discovery was of interest only to this hardcore fountain-pen collector: the famous Parker “Big Red” Duofold, already an iconic pen when MacArthur reportedly used one to sign Japan’s surrender papers with on the Missouri, turned out to be a smaller lady’s version loaned to him by Jean.

There were recordings of his speeches, and I listened closely. MacArthur spoke famously simple words. His “I shall return” pledge ranks among the most familiar of rhetorical refrains; less known but equally moving was his farewell to West Point, two years before his death in 1964: “When I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.” But the verbal simplicity came out of a complex man, one who could fearlessly take on what he saw to be the communist colossus (and be sacked for his perceived recklessness in Korea by President Truman) but who was, by many biographical accounts, a mama’s boy.

It was, all told, a most impressive exhibition, amplifying a figure already larger than life to begin with. I suppose my biggest surprise was my own continuing fascination with this Big White Man, in the way that I’ve often wondered about the postcolonial (or should that be neocolonial) chic we attach to names like “McKinley” and “Rockwell,” especially when they involve high-priced property.

Those of us who luckily came too late to experience the horrors of the Second World War can argue all day about the moral wrongs of American imperialism and the self-serving designs of America on the Pacific—and would very probably be right. But in these days of tension in the South China or West Philippine Sea, we might end up wishing a MacArthur were around to do what no pragmatic politician in Washington or Manila today would imagine doing.

Next week, the musicals.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 45: I Love My Pig

THERE’S SOMETIMES a thin line between handicraft and fine art, and I think that this wooden pig I picked up yesterday from a souvenir shop in Puerto Princesa, Palawan may have crossed that line.

It stood all by itself in a roomful of pretty and exquisitely carved objects, but something about its form appealed to me, even the roughness of its finish—that long rise up its spine and then the precipitous drop down its snout, which ends up as solid as a fifth foot, and here and there the little lumps and undulations suggesting bone and muscle.

It was when I lifted it that I knew I had to have it—it’s one hefty porker, having been carved out of ipil (Intsia bijuga), a local hardwood. My hands wrap nicely over its back and belly. This is one pig that’ll be rooting on my desk for a long time.