Qwertyman No. 17: A Crying Boy

Qwertyman for Monday, November 28, 2022

WE ALL cheered two weeks ago when nine-year-old Bince Rafael Operiano—a boy from Oas, Albay—came home with medals from the 6th Eastern Asia Youth Chess Championship in Bangkok, Thailand, where he finished on top of the Under-10 category and sixth overall. 

But then we were saddened by the news that Bince had had to struggle not just with his opponents in the early rounds, where he lost, but also with loneliness, because his father was not around, having had to wait for his plane ticket from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC). Bince was said to have been crying. Fortunately, according to Albay Rep. Fernando Cabredo, Bince’s father caught up with Bince just in time to cheer him on to victory. 

So all’s well that ends well, right? Not according to an anonymous “Grandmaster” (possibly an alias) who posted on Viber that things were even more complicated than that. This “GM” alleged that Bince’s parents had received donations for the kid, but that the money had been spent on paying off debts and other expenses. The Operianos, he said, were “making drama” to raise even more money; Bince, he added, wasn’t even that great a player, and that other Filipinos had performed even better in the tournament, to much less publicity. 

I don’t know who “Grandmaster” is, or if he is even a real GM (we now have at least ten Filipino GMs on record, all of them male, which is why I’m defaulting to “he/him”); the post strongly suggests that he’s someone on the inside, in the know, the guy with the goods.

All right, that he may be. But even assuming that everything he says is true, my question is, so what? The journalists (and the “Mariteses”) in us might respond to the possibility that the boy and his story are being manipulated for money with dismay if not righteous outrage, and demonize the parents for their greed, or for being what we Pinoys would call “mukhang pera.”

But honestly, who isn’t “mukhang pera” in this society of ours, where profit-seeking—quite often at someone else’s expense—has become the accepted norm? Of course, when developers buy farmland on the cheap from desperate farmers, they don’t get called out for being “mukhang pera”; they might even get voted to high public office. When someone secures an apologetic write-off for billions in unpaid taxes, that’s not being “mukhang pera.” When favored government offices get billions in “intelligence funds” with nary a question, that’s just business as usual, nothing to do with “mukhang pera.”

But let’s get back to Bince and his story. Clearly the family was in dire straits, or they wouldn’t have used whatever cash they raised to pay off debts. Clearly the father wanted to accompany his son, or he wouldn’t have followed him to Bangkok, albeit too late for the opening round. Someone out there will almost surely berate them for not handling their donations “responsibly,” and they could be right, but poverty and sudden money can addle the mind and one’s priorities (so can huge wealth, for that matter).

These are matters of adult concern. I suggest that it will be better and more fair to put ourselves in young Bince’s shoes. You’re nine years old in a foreign country, probably on your first plane ride overseas. You know some people on your team and you know how to play chess, but everything else is strange and bewildering. You’re looking at your chessboard and at your opponent who’s just as old as you are—the two of you should be playing in the sun outside but you’re here to demolish him or her. The other kids have their parents watching on from the gallery, and you can see your opponent’s eyes dart now and then to his or her parent, for comfort if nothing else. After the game, they will share hugs, maybe even an ice cream, and tour a mall. 

You think of Papa, whom you left at the airport. He promised he’d follow, but there’s still no sign of him, and you panic; you feel like crying but you can’t do that while you’re playing. Your opponent can feel your distress and seems torn between pitying you, or killing you outright. He/she moves his/her rook to c4 and you know you’ve lost. You quickly shake hands like you’ve been trained to do, then you run away and go to a corner and cry. It doesn’t bother you anymore that some people can see you crying. They probably think you’re just a sore loser. You want to tell them, it’s not the game, it’s Papa, I miss Papa, and Mama, and our home in Oas. I know they told me not to think about them too much, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I really tried. Please don’t get angry with me. I’ll do better when I see Papa, I promise.

That’s the issue, from Bince’s point of view. Whatever other people may be making of his case is beyond him, and should be. As he grows older, he’ll begin to feel and understand the real pressures he’s under—to succeed for his family’s and country’s sake, with little support; he will have to get used to being alone. 

Some will say, that’s par for the course, that’s the way champions are made; you forge them like steel in the hottest of fires. His very hardship will be the source of his power. But still I have to ask, must it always be this way for the children of the poor? As fortunate as the Operianos may be to even have the option, why must Bince see sport as a way out of poverty than just a wonderful game to play? 

But to end on a happy note, let’s report as well (with thanks to Rappler for the data) that Christian Gian Karlo Arca topped the Under-14 and gained a Master title; Lexie Grace Hernandez won the Under-18 crown and took a Woman International Master title while April Joy Claros placed second but was the top Under-16 player, winning a Woman Master title and one Woman International Master norm. Jemaicah Mendoza topped the girls’ Under-12, and won a Woman Master title. (Bince is supposed to get a Master title when he turns ten.) May the best of futures come to you all.

Qwertyman No. 16: Prisoner Y

Qwertyman for Monday, November 21, 2022

PRISONER Y was still chewing on a tasty strip of cartilage that clung to the meatless rib he had fished out of the soup when he felt Cortes’ breath on his nape and heard his wheezing voice: “The warden wants to see you. Now.” He stood up, tossed the rib back onto his tray—a hand quickly grabbed it from nowhere—and turned to follow the guard. He wondered what the warden wanted this time. 

Nearly all the fans in the mess hall were out of commission and the inmates’ sweat mixed in the air with the fat curdling in the lukewarm broth, and Prisoner Y looked forward to the air-conditioning in the warden’s office, although he was sure the warden didn’t call him in for a conversation. The last couple of times, in fact, it was the warden’s secretary who had spoken to him, and he barely glimpsed the warden through the half-open door. 

The first time, he was picked up just outside the service gate by three men in an SUV, who brought him to a warehouse in Parañaque, where a man was trussed up, his head in a sack, screaming in a language Prisoner Y couldn’t make out. One of the men handed Prisoner Y a .45 and nodded; another man pointed another .45 at him; the third man held up his phone and recorded everything. Prisoner Y aimed at the victim’s head and fired; the body spasmed and stopped writhing. They drove him back to the prison, where Cortes met him at the gate and ushered him back to his cell. 

When his cellmates asked where he had been—now and then one of them would be gone like that for a day—Prisoner Y said that the warden had asked him to do some carpentry at his home; he had been a handyman in his past life, before the debts piled up and he learned to do other things with his hands. When someone asked him why he didn’t make a break for it while he could, and someone else remarked how all he wanted was an hour at the mall to savor the cool air and watch the salesgirls bending over, Prisoner Y said—truthfully, recalling how humid that warehouse was and how it reeked of stale oil and some shapeless menace—that he felt safer inside.

On his wife’s next visit that Sunday, she was deliriously happy. A man had come by their house, she said, and had dropped off some money in an envelope, saying that it was something owed her husband for a job he had done inside the prison. What did you do, she asked, did you build a house for the warden? It was enough to buy a new stove and a smartphone for Carmela, who needed it for school. I worked on the prison chapel, he lied, knowing it would make her happy; the old roof was leaking and you know the chapel is the warden’s pet project.

The second time it was different, because he had to ride on the back of a motorcycle that one of his handlers drove, and shoot his target on the run. The man, he realized to his horror, was the prison chaplain, walking the street in a Hawaiian shirt and slacks, as though on his day off, in search of a special meal or a movie to watch. Instantly Prisoner Y understood—the chaplain had spoken to the media about how prisoners complained to him about their food, how the prison officials skimmed a percentage off every sack of rice and kilo of stringy pork that entered the kitchen; there was talk of an investigation, although the inmates doubted anything would come out of it. He was there to make sure. It should have been easier to do with the priest in common garb, shorn of his soutane, but then the priest turned toward him as he fired and he could see the man’s terminal expression, one more of resigned acceptance than anything else. Despite himself, Prisoner Y muttered a prayer for forgiveness as they sped away.

Today Cortes led him past the secretary straight into the warden’s office and closed the door behind them. The warden was on his cellphone, a cigarette in his other hand; some ashes drifted onto his barong and he shot up from his seat to stub the cigarette into an ashtray and flick the ashes off without any change of voice in his phone conversation. “Of course, pañero, you don’t even need to ask, send my love to Mercy and the girls.” He shut his phone off and turned to Prisoner Y, who remained standing with his hands behind him. “How’s your wife? Is she happy? You know what they say—happy wife, happy life!” Prisoner Y murmured something like “Yes she is, thanks,” but the warden was already coming over to his side of the table. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “I want to talk about your future.” What was there to talk about? The future was his life sentence for murder.

In his six years in the penitentiary, Prisoner Y thought he had seen everything, every grimy corner of it, even the luxury suites inhabited by the drug lords and out-of-power politicians, but now the warden led him past the kitchen down a corridor he had assumed led to cold storage, and he was right; when Cortes unlocked the doors and pulled them open, a blast of cold air stung his nose, along with an acrid curl of some potent chemical. 

The warden flicked the light switch on and Prisoner Y saw them: a swarm of cadavers—some on raised platforms, many just on the floor, under browning blankets that could not cover everything. He could see fingers withered dry. “Stabbings, cancer, TB, chokings—they all end up here, the ones without family, the ones no one will miss. We should just burn these but there’s a budget for their maintenance. I’ve made sure of that.” 

“Why did you bring me here?” 

The warden nudged the edge of one blanket with his foot. “Your next job will be so important that it will have to be done by someone who might as well be dead.” Prisoner Y rubbed his arm and said, “I still have a family.” The warden looked at him calmly and said, “I know. You do. That’s why we’re here.” Prisoner Y shivered from a chill colder than bare ice.

Qwertyman No. 15: The Next UP President

Qwertyman for Monday, November 14, 2022

AFTER FOURTEEN straight Mondays of producing what I’ve called “editorial fiction”—make-believe vignettes meant to poke fun at the issues of the day, the prose version of editorial cartoons—I’ll take what will be the occasional break to engage more frontally with a concern of deep personal and professional interest.

Over the next few weeks, the Board of Regents of the University of the Philippines will select the 22nd president of our national university to succeed President Danilo L. Concepcion, whose six-year term ends in February next year. (Let me add quickly, for full disclosure, that I was President Concepcion’s Vice President for Public Affairs until I retired in 2019, and held the same position under former President Francisco Nemenzo in the early 2000s.)

Whether or not you graduated from UP or have a child or a relative there, this is important for every Filipino, because—like it or not—UP produces an immoderate majority of the people who make up our political, economic, and social elite. Its leadership, therefore, is a matter of national consequence. Since its birth in 1908, UP’s alumni roster has counted presidents, senators, congressmen, CEOs, community leaders, artists, writers, scientists, and, yes, rebels and reformers of all persuasions. 

There are six candidates on the BOR’s ballot, some of them, to my mind, more qualified—beyond what their CVs say—than others. The Board of Regents has eleven members—the CHED chairman, the incumbent president, the chairs of the Senate and House committees on higher education, the alumni regent, three Malacañang appointees, and three so-called sectoral (faculty, student, and staff) regents; it will take six of them to elect the next president. 

Whoever that choice is, he will be certain to have a challenging six years ahead, especially considering the present political regime, which he will have to contend and to some significant extent work with. UP remains dependent on the national government for its budget, for which it has to make its case before Congress every year, like any other agency. 

Prickly issues will face No. 22. There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about UP’s standards supposedly falling, with too many cum laudes graduating even as its international ranking has reportedly dropped. Indeed these should give rise to public concern, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, and UP’s level of service to the nation (think PGH in the pandemic) hasn’t flagged.

Historically, the relationship between the Philippine president and the UP president has been a testy if not an acrimonious one—most notably that between Quezon and Palma—because of the university’s role as social critic. But Malacañang now has much to do with choosing the latter through the power wielded by administration representatives on the BOR. What the Marcoses will do with UP remains to be seen; will the next UP president, for example, be given free rein to pursue the martial law museum project that’s already been approved for construction? It may not be the most important item on the agenda—more support for research and faculty development should be, if we want to shore up our ratings—but it will be strongly indicative of how the Palace will deal with Diliman.

What I’ve observed is that the role of the UP president has greatly evolved since Palma’s time. While many of us would like to see an ideological firebrand at the helm, UP is a broad and diverse community whose survival and growth will require keen diplomatic skills to negotiate between the university’s external and internal publics. (And yes, even firebrands can do that, against all expectations; Dodong Nemenzo did.) University presidents worldwide have increasingly been more of resource generators and managers than thought leaders—perhaps boring, but they deliver the goods. What’s important is for them to be able to practice and defend the academic freedom that also allows the university to become the best it can be. I pray our regents will bear that balance in mind in its deliberations.

ALSO, A word on my chosen approach to editorial commentary. I know that some of you can’t make heads or tails of my fictionalized renditions of our political and social culture, but I think you will, with just a little more effort. Maybe it’s the literature professor in me, but I believe readers should be challenged to figure out the sense of things, and not just have it served to them on a platter. 

We’ve fallen into the groove of letting others reach our conclusions for us, so all we need to do is nod affirmatively. Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, that only contributes to sloppy, second-hand, copy-paste thinking. In my pieces, I try not focus on just one person or one target—other and sharper columnists can do that. I’m more interested in the culture of our politics—in the way groups of us think and feel about what’s in our best interests—and in our complicity in bad governance. Sure, we have rotten eggs in high public office—every administration has had them. At this point, I’m much less bothered by the fact that we live in a world of despots than by the fact that we (or many of us) put them there, we keep them there, and we just pinch our noses when they stink.  

Another columnist (who actually writes wilder fiction than me and my feverishly imaginative friends) even complained that fiction has no place in the op-ed page. Excuse me? All fiction is opinion, and always has been; the critical commentary of fiction even preceded journalism. In earlier times, our op-ed pages even offered poetry—political commentary in verse—at a time when our poets were patriots, and our patriots were poets. Sadly those times and those exceptional commentators are gone, replaced by hacks producing not only dishonest and soulless but dishwater prose. 

I’m not a poet, so the closest I can get to that is fiction, which pretends that some things happened that didn’t (but then again, in another sense, really did—and that’s what some readers find confusing). One thing I must confess I do like about fiction is that, unlike factual commentary that readers today tend to forget after a week, a good story sticks around. Sadly for its implicit targets, fiction is forever. You can shoot me dead, but my work will survive me—and, for that matter, you.

Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley was in a quandary once again. He had struggled with his maiden speech, but thanks to the timely assistance of his rumored girlfriend and sometime girl Friday Yvonne Macahiya, he had delivered a brilliant address on “Culture and the Environment: Shared Survival through Values Education,” which the footnotes failed to say had been Yvonne’s term paper for her Political Science 104 class at the Western Aklan Institute of Technology. 

It didn’t matter that most of his esteemed colleagues were absent or nodding off when he gave his speech with all the passion he exuded back when he was “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero of the typhoon-flooded, the earthquake-shaken, and the fire-singed. When Yvonne’s press release came out, it was just like he had spoken before the UN General Assembly, the world’s grandest stage; never mind that some audiences there weren’t too hot, either. 

“We are the world’s most disaster-prone country not because we are weak,” he said, thumping his fist on the lectern before letting his gaze travel across the gallery to turn up the drama, “but because disasters visit other countries less. The Lord Almighty has brought these disasters upon us to test our faith, to strengthen our spirits, and to breed true champions of the desperate and the dispossessed!” Again he paused for dramatic effect, but all he heard was the snorting of a venerable gentleman from a northern province, dreaming of Lamborghinis landing in his Special Economic Zone.

Still, something from his speech must have registered in someone’s mind—the word “education”?—because Sen. Dooley found himself appointed to the Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, which to him sounded like the wimpiest assignment anyone could get. He had expected to be named chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change (that went to a real estate developer), or the one on Public Information and Mass Media (that went to a retired general), or to something that could have used his mestizo heritage, like the Committee on Foreign Relations (that went to a Chinoy movie producer). 

Basic education? Other than passing grade school, what did he know about classrooms and curricula? But then the committee also covered Arts and Culture, so, hmmm, maybe that was what they saw in him, his stellar career as a singer-dancer-TV show host, the way the ladies swooned when he winked at them at the end of his “Buchikik” song. Arts and Culture was entertainment, right? It was about keeping people happy, so they could smile through Covid, unemployment, EJKs, 60-1 peso-dollar rates, and P300/kilo pork. 

There wasn’t much he could do about those things—blame it on the pandemic, on Ukraine (he did have some important foreign-policy views: those darned Ukrainians should just have given over some potato fields to the Russians instead of endangering world peace with their silly resistance), and on troublemakers who even won Nobel prizes for having nothing good to say about hardworking despots.

But now, the Hon. Victor M. Dooley had to come up with a program that would leave his indelible mark on Philippine culture, and he convened an ad hoc committee composed of himself, his chief of staff Roy, the indispensable Yvonne, and a special guest who sashayed into the room and planted wet kisses on both of Vic’s cheeks, much to his embarrassment and to Yvonne’s utter surprise. 

“Ms. Terry! I never thought you would respond to my invitation!” 

“Why ever would I not? How long has it been, dearie? The last time  I saw you, you were still a struggling singer trying your best to hold your note—so I held it for you, hihihi.  And look at you now, an honorable Senator of the Republic!”

“And who, may I ask, might you be?” interjected Yvonne.

“Ah! Yvonne, this is Ms. Terry, who sponsored my entry into show business many years ago. I asked him—I mean her, ahaha, we better get our preferred pronouns right, especially after that gender-sensitivity workshop we all had to take—to come and help us devise a program for our country’s cultural revival.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Yvonne. “I could’ve called on some of my National Artist friends—”

“What’s a National Artist?” asked Vic.

“Never mind. Welcome aboard, Ms. Terry—oh, I get it now, mystery herself! I’m Yvonne, the congressman’s Chief Political Affairs Officer. Can we offer you some coffee?”

“If you have low-acid coffee with non-dairy creamer and gluten-free scones, I’d much appreciate it. But I’ll take what you have.”

“Our Chief of Staff here makes an excellent three-in-one and I’m sure he hasn’t finished all the Sky Flakes.” Yvonne cocked an eyebrow at Roy, who slunk away muttering. “Now let’s get down to business. The senator wants a new program with strong popular appeal that will raise our people’s spirits, promote national unity, and put Philippine culture on the global map. You said you have some ideas?”

“I do! Two, in fact. One, boy bands. We should undertake a nationwide search for cute mop-haired boys from the age of six up and train them in a camp for singing and dancing. Two, a cooking competition for girls, who don’t know how to cook anymore. We’ll have regional and then national contests for the best pinakbet, sinigang, and adobo. We can even have a Fil-Am edition, but let’s do it in West Covina so I can visit my cousin there. What do you think?”

“Nice, but I have an even more inspired idea!” said the senator. “To promote our own, let’s ban all Korean shows for a year. Tama na mga K-drama, P-drama naman. Nakakainis na, e!”

Yvonne groaned. “Are you crazy? Do you want to bring the wrath of the BTS Army down on you, not to mention my mama who’s in love with Hyun Bin?” Yvonne turned to their guest. “I like your ideas, Ate! I think you and I will make a great team—between you and me, we can make Vic Dooley the oppa of Philippine culture!”

“Thanks, but what’s an oppa?” asked the senator.

Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

A FEW weeks ago, for the first time since the pandemic, my wife Beng and I took a plane out of the country, and I can’t tell you how liberating that felt after three years of being landbound. I’d had few complaints about the long lockdowns, because I’m used to working and writing in isolation, and have become much less sociable as I age. But I did miss the travel, the foreign air, the view from the other side of the ocean. 

Just before the pandemic hit, Beng and I had spent my first year in retirement (and a good chunk of my retirement kitty) gallivanting around seven countries, against the advice of family and friends who thought that we were overdoing it; perhaps we were, but now we know that the world we saw then will never be the same again, and that we ourselves—in or approaching our seventies—will never be able to do that again. And so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our flight to San Diego, where our daughter Demi has been living with her husband Jerry for the past 15 years. We’d visited San Diego often before, but probably not with this much anticipation, having been away for years. 

Sitting on the Mexican border, San Diego isn’t the first place most Filipinos would choose when they think of visiting America, unless, like us, they have personal reasons to go there. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be more exciting places, have large Fil-Am communities, and have long been the ports of entry for Pinoys landing on the West Coast. (Our Japan Airlines flight was that rare straight flight via Tokyo to San Diego.) But San Diego has its own charm and its own attractions, most notably Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Comic-Con, that annual extravaganza of pop culture that draws about 150,000 fans from around the galaxy. (Much to my young students’ chagrin, I’ve been to Comic-Con twice, happily ignorant of much of what I was looking at.) 

And whether you’ve lived there for decades or are just passing through, San Diego will always give you a taste of home, with dozens of Pinoy foods stores and restaurants, especially in National City and Chula Vista where you can shop at Seafood City for daing na bangus and Chocnut and at Goldilocks for your party cake while dropping packages off at LBC—or you can run to Mira Mesa for your Jollibee fix. (For me, an American sojourn would be incomplete without a trip to Arby’s and Red Lobster.)

Inevitably San Diego also has its own spotted history of East-West relations, in which Filipinos have figured; the better part of that history was celebrated last month as Filipino-American Heritage Month in the city. The worst part remains in the archives, in the memories of early immigrants such as Emeterio Reyes, who recalls that “I asked the driver if he could take me to a Catholic church. As soon as we got there, I told him to wait for me because I had a funny feeling I might not be welcome at this church. As I entered the door, a priest approached me and told me that the church was only for white people. That moment, I wanted to cry and die!” 

When Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay on November 10, 1602, he found that he had “arrived at a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for, besides being protected on all sides and having good anchorage, it is in latitude 33½o. It has very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds, many of which we caught with seine and hooks. On the land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds. On the 12th of the said month, which was the day of the glorious San Diego, the general, admiral, religious, captains, ensigns, and almost all the men went ashore. A hut was built and mass was said in celebration of the feast of Señor San Diego.”

As a major port facing the Pacific, San Diego has long been home to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, its base harboring over 50 ships. The naval presence defines much of San Diego’s character, and provides a good part of the reason why about 200,000 Filipino-Americans live there today. Since early in the American occupation, Filipinos have signed up with the US Navy as their passport to what they hoped would be a better life and to a bit of adventure. 

I just learned, for example, that the first Filipino to have joined the US Navy, back in 1903, was a seminarian in Manila named Potenciano Parel who snuck out of his vows to be a sailor, but not having the right papers, he used those of a friend and assumed his identity, Tomas Dolopo; the Dolopos continue to be San Diegans. Demi’s late father-in-law, Ric Ricario, joined in 1957; his eldest son, Ray, followed him into the Navy; Ray’s brother Jerry met and married Demi. And so we find ourselves now tied by blood to that long tradition, as did many thousands of others before us.

Despite having visited San Diego many times before, and having enjoyed its more popular attractions, we felt more acutely aware of history this time around. We finally stepped into the city’s Maritime Museum, a complex of many ships from various centuries that allows visitors a hands-on experience at traveling the world on water. The ships on display range from a full-size and fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon ca. 1542, the San Salvador, to the world’s oldest sailing ship, the grand, mid-1800s Star of India, to a ca. 1970s submarine that still holds the record for the deepest dive, the USS Dolphin. For just $15 for seniors and just slightly more for others, you can hop from one ship to another, and imagine what it was like to cross a tempestuous ocean with only the stars to light the way and nothing to eat but stale bread and salted pork. 

We enjoyed history of another kind by having dinner with our in-laws in a National City dive that our son-in-law Jerry chose for its unique ambience, which you can either call seedy or loaded with character. (There was a famous sailor’s bar in the area called the Trophy Lounge, Jerry told us, that used to be run by ladies from Olongapo…. But that’s another story, and San Diego has books of them, yet to be told.) La Maze is the kind of leatherbound ‘50s restaurant that the Rat Pack and other Hollywood celebrities frequented when in San Diego, and you can still order the same great steaks they had. A local band played dance music, and to the tune of “Solamente Una Vez,” I took the pretty silver-haired fox next to me to the floor and slow-dragged the night away. 

Qwertyman No. 13: Something Good

Qwertyman for October 31, 2022

MINISTER QUAQUA was having a bad day—a very bad day, probably the worst since he was appointed to his post by President Ongong after they had finished two bottles of Balvenie Portwood, with boiled peanuts and chicharon bituka on the side. Quaqua had brought the chicharon bituka to the Palace as a gift to the President, ostensibly as a sample of his company’s latest R&D. A self-professed man of science, the President was known to be interested in cutting-edge research. 

Pork was highly coveted by Kawefans, but was now considered contraband, because of a longstanding ban on pork and pork products forced by the great swine flu epidemic of 1986. Some Kawefan families, including the Quaquas, had made fortunes by creating and marketing fake pork—veggie-based substitutes for adobo, barbecue, and sisig. Pork smuggling was therefore big business, and naturally the Quaquas had a finger in that pie, too. The anti-pork law allowed for a tiny sample of real pork to be imported for research purposes, for producers of the fake stuff to run taste tests of their bogus bolognas against. The rumor was that pork was coming into Kawefo by the ton, and even more alarmingly, that the Quaquas kept a top-secret pig farm in the distant province of Suluk-sulukan under armed guard, producing Chinese ham, chicharon bituka, and tocinofor the most select clients, including the First Family. 

Quaqua had come to the Palace not just to share some pulutan with an old friend, but to advise him against yielding to the strong pro-pork lobby, which argued for the legalization of pork, so every Kawefan could enjoy his or her rightful taste of inihaw na baboy. It was a popular initiative, certain to gain the ruling party more votes in the next election. But Quaqua had a strong counter-argument: legalizing banned substances not only negated decades of established jurisprudence (he was a lawyer, after all), but would put legitimate producers of healthy substitutes out of business—and, he didn’t need to add, abolish the black market in pork altogether. 

“Just look at what those fools in Bukolandia did with drugs,” he told Ongong as he poured the Balvenie. “To take care of the drug problem, they legalized drugs, so not only is the whole country now on a high, but the economy is down because there’s no business to be made, with people planting weed and cooking up meth in their own backyards. We can’t allow that to happen—imagine, if people bred their own pigs, how common the taste of lechon and chicharon would be. Fake pork can take care of that demand without turning our country into a stinking pigsty. True pork has to remain—” and here he munched on a morsel of bituka—“a restricted commodity.”

There must have been something more than MSG in what Quaqua fed the President, because he was appointed Minister of Justice on the spot, as he had been praying novenas for. Now, he could tell the Kawefan Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to spend its time on worthier pursuits like chasing after subversive authors and professors instead of bothering with peripheral issues like pork smuggling.

But barely had he warmed his seat when his first crisis exploded. One of the President’s peskiest critics, Dr. Fofo, a radio broadcaster from way down south, had been shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. That wasn’t the problem—after all, presidential critics died all the time. They should’ve read the news and shut up if they knew what was good for them. The problem was that Dr. Fofo’s killers stupidly got caught when a piglet sprang from out of nowhere—likely an escapee from an illegal farm—and enticed the duo to chase it, until their motorcycle hit a post. In police custody, the two boasted of their connections and were threatening to out their mastermind if they weren’t released soon. Social media was on their case.

“We can’t let these idiots cause a fuss,” Quaqua told his assistant, Vice Minister for Public Affairs Zhuzhu. “They screw up, they pay the consequences. That’s justice!… Hoy, are you listening? I just said—”

“Sir, Mr. Minister, we have a bigger problem!” The assistant was on his mobile phone and looked deeply worried.

“Why? What happened?”

“Sir—your wife—Mrs. Quaqua was just arrested!”

“What? Where? Why?”

“At the airport. They booked her for—uhm—stealing the silverware in business class. They say they found several pairs of spoons and forks in her handbag.”

“Are they crazy? Does that airline want its landing rights revoked? Taking home spoons and forks from airplanes is an old Kawefan custom! Get me the airport manager—”

“Uh, it wasn’t in our airport, sir,” said Zhuzhu. “Your wife just landed in Paris, to attend Fashion Week—”

Oooh, that’s right, said Quaqua to himself—they’d had a spat over his latest mistress Gigi, and he’d given her the usual blank check to placate her. Still, it was embarrassing.

“Then get me the French ambassador! Let’s see if they’ll risk diplomatic relations on account of some—some stupid cutlery!”

“Uhm, the spoons and forks are innocent, sir—they’re not sentient beings,” said Zhuzhu, his eyes downcast. “I learned that in our Employee Development Seminar on Eastern Philosophy, sir.”

“Tell them to have seminars on gun cleaning and pest control!” Quaqua made a note to himself: “I swear, Zhuzhu, as soon as this blows over, I’m going to get me a retired general to take your place.”

Zhuzhu held up his phone to show his boss a news clip from CNN. “It’s on CNN now, sir. They’ve even posted a mug shot of Mrs. Quaqua holding up the forks and spoons.”

“What?!” The justice minister fell back into his chair and looked out the window. “They didn’t even blur her face? The inhumanity, the incivility…. What has mankind come to? Where’s understanding and tolerance when you need them? Whatever did my dear wife do to deserve this?”

“According to the great masters, sir, we sow what we reap, our past actions affect our present ones, so Mrs. Quaqua did something, like for example, she married you—”

Just then Zhuzhu’s phone rang again and Quaqua couldn’t wait to hear the news. “Did they release her? Did they come to their senses? What’s up?”

Zhuzhu looked sad. “I’m afraid it’s about something else, sir. About those two suspects in the murder of Dr. Fofo? I’ve just been told that they’re both dead. They had an argument and—well, they strangled each other to death in their cell.”

Quaqua’s eyes lit up. There was a God. “Then I must have done something good in my past life, Zhuzhu!”

“What about the madame, sir?”

“Alas, it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” Quaqua sighed, thinking of Gigi’s perfume. “Let French justice take its course.”

(Image from eatlikepinoy.com)

Qwertyman No. 12: The Changing of the Colors

Qwertyman for Monday, October 24, 2022

(Image from esquiremag.ph)

PITONG STARED out the window of his Chicago apartment to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and watched the usual Sunday crowd of families with small children in colorful tracksuits and seniors plodding nowhere at half a mile per hour on their adjustable canes. It was getting later into the fall, and the colors were exploding all over the city from Lincoln Park to Promontory Point; at the Botanic Garden in Glencoe the Japanese maples blazed a vivid red. Pitong remembered that it was at a time like this, almost twenty years earlier, when he and Marietta had arrived in the United States, and they could not believe what a transformation the seasons induced in the chlorophyll and carotenoids of leaves. 

He felt intensely drawn to his postgraduate studies, which was what they came to America for—“To explore,” as he wrote in his application, “new ideas for the energization of the Philippine economy, particularly through the deregulation of key industries, including power and telecommunications.” 

With a US-minted PhD, Pitong thought he could return to a professorship if not a deanship at a top university, or a directorship at NEDA or Foreign Affairs. So immersed did Pitong become in his anticipated future that he forgot about Marietta, who had given up a promising career in pharmaceuticals to join him as his bedmate and cook, until he began to doze off after interminable arguments online about the American capacity for policy reform. 

She snuggled up to him in the deep of winter, and he was colder than ice. In their second spring she volunteered to usher with the local symphony; by that summer she had fallen for a clarinetist, and by the fall she had found her happiness, while Pitong continued to stew in his darkening pot of theory and counter-theory, of the sticky explanations how, in the post-9/11 world, security and economic concerns were inextricably intertwined and indeed congealed in the individual consciousness.

Pitong returned home alone when he failed his dissertation defense, while Marietta began a family in California, to where her clarinetist had moved to join a new orchestra. Almost immediately, through an old friend on the Left—yes, he had had more than a passing dalliance with that crowd, although he now denied it—Pitong found himself a job in the Palace, drafting speeches for Madame President and getting close enough to hold up an umbrella for her at the slightest drizzle. He began to project some political weight and smiled at whispers to the effect that he would soon become her spokesman. When he brushed his teeth in the morning, he ended by frowning at the mirror, as if the republic were about to collapse, and elocuting in his whiny voice, trying to sound as gruff as he could, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the media.” 

And then the republic did collapse, or rather Madame President did, in a scandal that whittled down her stature even more severely, and rather than desert her like those scoundrels did, Pitong made noisy pledges of allegiance to her—while secretly negotiating, on the side and through the same old comrades (the Left had influence in any government, he would realize), an accommodation with the new regime. When they laughed him out of the place, he fled the country in humiliation, hooked up with his alumni network, got a job handling loan applications in a small bank, and prayed every night that a sinkhole would devour the Palace he left behind and all of its cursed occupants.

For his own entertainment, he opened a blog under the title of “Batang Recto,” a play on the Manila street where he picked up cheap textbooks and on all the connotations of “right,” which he embraced. He took every opportunity to lambast anything that had to do with Family “A,” communists, female empowerment, abortionists (he was convinced that Marietta had purposely lost their baby, not that he wanted to care for one), drug users, hippies, Barbra Streisand, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (and 95% of his race), hip-hop, gun control, and climate change. 

He now proudly identified himself as an American citizen—he felt deeply insulted when someone asked if he was a “Pacific Islander,” like he paddled a dugout in his three-piece suit—and bristled when Pinoys from Pateros or Pagadian questioned his opinions on American issues like “birtherism,” as if they knew anything about American politics. But at the same time he felt perfectly free to dispense political wisdom to the islanders, because they seemed hopelessly lost in their fantasy of a liberal democratic paradise, which they failed to realize had been cooked up by a cabal in Washington since the days of Quezon and Cordell Hull to protect American economic and military interests in the Philippines for the next half-century. 

Pitong no longer relied on or believed in scholarly research to establish the truth; so much of it was produced and propagated by an academic elite intent on perpetuating its hegemony, against the challenge of intuitive thinkers like himself and a few other brave souls he had come into contact with. Together, on private networks, they reviewed and reconstructed history, and plotted a chart for human survival and development. The plan recognized the existential threats posed by liberal retardates still tied to obsolete notions like racial and gender equality, which accounted for their weakness at the core.

When a Pinoy strongman and his American counterpart became presidents of their countries, Pitong heard his angels sing. The world was clearly waking up to what he had known for many years—that there was genius latent in resentment, prejudice, and suspicion, in the politics of self-interest, the purest of human motivations. One stalwart was cheated out of re-election, but another was replaced by an even more reliable autocrat. When Russian bombs fell on Ukraine, he felt his logic justified—having denied Russia’s destiny and gone to bed with the West, Ukraine had no one else to blame for its misery but itself. Batang Recto was always right.

Pitong slept soundly on the pillow of these beliefs. He felt most virile after savaging some pink fool on his blog, and sometimes he woke up with a woman next to him, with whom he did not care to exchange names, mindful of security. When he looked out the window at the changing of the colors and at the people on the lakefront, he felt no irony, no loneliness, no remorse. He was never stronger, never surer. He tingled with anticipation at the coming of The Storm that would sweep all the liberals, tree-huggers, and Mariettas of the world away. It was the closest thing he felt to happiness.

Qwertyman No. 11: Good-Better-Best

Qwertyman for Monday, October 17, 2022

DOLANDS COULDN’T believe his good fortune; he had received his third SMS message that day offering him a bonus for playing pusoy online. Pusoy—also known as “good-better-best” to its players—was Dolands’ game of choice, allowing him to exercise what he believed was his sharply analytical mind. Dolands was one of those people who felt that life kept dealing him the wrong cards, obscuring his true potential, and he kept waiting for the opportunity to prove himself—to his Papang, to his friends, and to that snooty waitress Letty, who wouldn’t give him the time of day—that he was an achiever.

Today Dolands worked as a troll—a “social media specialist”—in an operation run by the famous Madame Venus, and while the pay was good, the job itself felt mechanical, involving nothing but the methodical execution of orders from the managers in the loft upstairs. Dolands wanted to turn “good” into “better” by becoming one of those necktied managers himself; but “best” was to be his own man, enriched by nothing but his talent, and the online gambling offers he kept receiving seemed to open that door. Sometimes Dolands suspected that his supervisors thought he was stupid, by the way they frowned at his haircut and at his fake Crocs shoes. 

Dolands was amazed that whoever texted him knew his full name and had used it in the message: “Rolando Quibuyen, now’s your chance! Here’s a P500 bonus for joining our 24-hour game of Cyber Pusoy at bahaybaraha.com. More prizes await you, including a 2023 Riva Riviera 2.0 in our grand raffle draw. Sali na!” Now, being a troll, Doland of course knew how it easy it was to get hold of mega-lists of people’s names, phone numbers, and email addresses; he knew that Madame Ventura even kept a special roster of influencers’ data for personalized messages, including death threats masked as hypothetical questions. But as lonely and lowly as he felt, Dolands wanted to believe that someone had actually taken the trouble of getting to know him and his penchant for pusoy, to craft a special message for him, and to throw him a lifeline across the water. Never mind that it was probably a bot, a faceless algorithm racing through a library of names and numbers; someone or something out there thought him worthwhile enough to bait; he existed.

He was itching to respond to the text and to click the link on his phone to start playing, but his shift wouldn’t be over for another four hours and any private use of his office computer was strictly prohibited. The managers upstairs not only had a birds’ eye view of the floor, but they could and did tap into any terminal to see what was going on. It was no different from the BPO outfit Dolands had been recruited from, except that that other job was more tedious because you had to talk people into buying this and that, which involved reason, whereas trolling played to the imagination, to what people believed and feared in their deepest of hearts. Everyone wanted to feel a sizzle of power, to say something outrageous without facing the consequences, and the trolls gave them the words for that. It was a lot more fun during the pre-election campaign when Dolands and his gang could attack a candidate’s daughters or the candidate herself with gleeful malice; today, defending the winner’s son or the winner himself when they did or said something incredibly stupid was boring and dulling. Doland looked forward to more challenging assignments where he could prove his mettle, and now he was about to get a taste of that.

“Quibuyen!” said his supervisor on the headphones. “Come up to the loft for a minute. Madame Ventura wants to talk to you.”

Dolands felt a lightning bolt shoot up his spine. He had never gone up to the loft before, nor had the madame ever spoken to him. He wondered what they needed him for, but today was truly his day to shine (although it was just past midnight, so his days were always dark). Things just got better.

Dolands fidgeted as Madame Ventura assessed him from behind her trademark dark glasses and wisp of smoke. He wished he had worn something other than the Nirvana T-shirt a US cousin had bequeathed him, to project a more professional vibe, but it was too late for that. They had to take him for what he was.

“They say you worked for the card verification and security service of a bank? You can spot fake numbers and accounts?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did, but—but I was just testing some software when—when they said, when they claimed, that I was misusing numbers—” Dolands began to sweat, amazed that they had found that sordid detail about his past that he had tried to bury and forget. 

“You mean you didn’t actually steal anything?” Madame Ventura sounded disappointed.

“No, ma’am—I mean, I just wanted to prove it could be done, so I did it.” He stole enough to buy a new car with, but he had to give it all back to escape prison, plus plugging all the digital holes he had punched into the system.

She blew another cloud of smoke into his face. “Can you still do it? Work with numbers and fake identities? Are you still that good?”

“Well—if you put it that way—”

“Let me tell you why, Mr., uh, Quibuyen. They just passed a new law requiring all SIM cards to be registered, to be attached to names of people with official IDs. We need SIMs—but we don’t want to bother real people to line up for us. So we need an official-ID generator to go with names, birthdates, addresses, maybe even pictures. Is this something you find interesting?”

“Uhm—yes—at least as proof of concept—”

“Forget concept. I want you to produce IDs for 100,000 SIM cards, just for starters. I know many people who will need this service. You do it and do it well, and I’ll make you a manager in charge of your own division. I think it’s about time we branched out from calling ugly people pretty, and vice-versa.”

Multicolored starbursts popped in Dolands’ mind—shiny shoes, flowery neckties, citrusy colognes. It was like he had been dealt 13 cards that broke down into a straight flush, a full house, and a high pair. I can’t believe I almost fell for those effing scammers, Dolands thought. This was good-better-best in real life.

Penman No. 443: A Hairy Experiment

Penman for Sunday, October 2, 2022

FOR THE first time in my 68 years, I tried something new these past two months: grow a mustache and a beard. It began when Beng caught Covid—thankfully the rather benign Omicron variety—and I followed suit, which required us to self-isolate for at least a week. Either out of laziness or perhaps to give some purpose to my enforced enclosure, I didn’t shave until I woke up one morning to find some whiskers germinating on my upper lip and chin, and decided to wait some more. 

No one in my family has ever sported facial hair, for good reason—our forefathers must have been chasing wild goats in the forest when they handed out genes for abundant hair. They got home just in time to catch some scraps, which was why my two brothers and I enjoyed luxuriant mops on our tops in our younger days, only to lose much of it to male-pattern baldness in our senior years. We grow hairy chests and bristly forearms only in our deepest sleep—in other words, we morph into Tom Selleck (or maybe Chewbacca)—and wake up to the pathetic reality of a pimple forming right where a respectable thicket’s supposed to be.

Much to my surprise, a perceptible fuzz did grow around my mouth, and for a minute back there I entertained the possibility of doing a Hemingway (for which I already have the girth), until I had to accept the fact that the Lord was already being exceedingly generous in making me feel like Johnny Depp for a day (hey, we even have the same initials). 

It was nothing to crow about (a Facebook friend admitted to shaving off his incipient mustache when someone remarked that “I have more hair around my anus”), but I was happy. I looked different, and—okay—I felt just a bit different, maybe a tad more writerly, as if anything coming out of my mouth was going to sound like godly wisdom. It was comforting to know that while I’m never going to grow a mohawk on top, I can still go bald and whiskered, Yoda-like. Additionally, I thought that Beng would be tickled and thrilled to be kissed by a new man in her life (tickled, yes, thrilled, no).

All this has led me to explore the history of the mustache (“moustache” is its British version). The BBC’s “The Moustache: A Hairy History” gives a fascinating account of the ups and downs of facial hair (and even a new word: “pogonotrophy,” the art of its cultivation). The highlights include Peter the Great’s “beard tax,” which led to shaved chins and flowery mustaches; Lord Byron’s preference for the pencil-thin trim; the association of bushy beards with bacteria, and the subsequent falling out of fashion of the hirsute look (also, World War I gas masks didn’t work with grizzly faces); the resurgence of the handlebar mustache (strictly no beards) postwar; and the now-popular “Movember” charity event in November, for which men grow mustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues (a most noble excuse, to my mind).

Since Samson established the link between hair and testosterone, mustaches and beards have also implied more masculinity, about which The Gentleman’s Journal has an interesting story. When the British colonized India, the native men—who brandished their mustaches like scimitars—looked down on their clean-shaven sahibs as wimps, forcing the white masters to grow their own, and bringing the fashion back to England with them. (The e-zine also offered up this etymology: “‘Mastax’, a Greek word, was stolen by the Scottish and turned into ‘Mystax’, with both meaning ‘jaws, mouth or lips’. The Medieval Greeks took the word back, and that ‘Moustakion’ grew out into the Italian ‘Mostaccio’ — before the French combed it into submission, giving us ‘Moustache’ around 1580, with a final definition of: ‘The hair that grows on the upper lip of men’.”)

The history of beards seems just as complicated; at one point, says Beardpilot, you could pay off a debt with your beard. Ancient societies punished erring men by cutting off their beards. In the Middle Ages, touching someone else’s beard could be cause for a duel. Before Peter the Great, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I also taxed beards. Of course, wherever you went, hair on your face meant virility and wisdom. What it did not guarantee was money, if one recent survey is to be believed, claiming that “Ninety-eight percent of the men on the Forbes 100 list of the world’s richest individuals are clean-shaven.”

Me, I’d rather be wise than virile at 68 (and should I say wealthy rather than wise?), but I’m just trying to get used to feeling something furry and sometimes wet beneath my nose, especially when I’m slurping soup or sneezing. I’ve learned to trim what passes for a mustache where I can touch it with my tongue, and to snip off vagabond whiskers from my scraggly beard. Beng seems indifferent to my experiment, in fair exchange for me not saying anything untoward about her pixie cut (I miss her bangs). I told our apu-apuhan Buboy that his Tatay Butch was going to be a pirate, but he appears unimpressed; I’m not menacing enough, needing to put more growl into my act. I hope Demi agrees that the bearded-guru effect makes her dad look smarter than he is.

One of these days I’m sure I’ll say that I’ve had enough, and reach for a razor—but not just yet. I’m just getting the hang of pogonotrophy, and while I guess I’m never going to be as shaggy as a Wookiee, I’d like to have fun playing Johnny Depp just a little bit longer, before the dementia gets real.

Qwertyman No. 10: Monkey Poo

(Image from deviant art.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, October 10, 2022

THE WATER was still dripping from a leak in the ceiling of the office, caught in a pink plastic pail behind his swivel chair, when Gov. Tingting got the call from the Office of the President on the satellite phone. It was only a secretary on the line, but Tingting stood at attention as if he were speaking to the man himself, mumbling “Yessir, yessir” although it was a “ma’am” giving him instructions. 

He felt immensely relieved to have taken, at his aide Atty. Noknok’s pleading, the call which he had first presumed to be a prank, because he couldn’t imagine why President Ongong would be interested in him or his humble dominion. Well, of course there was that supertyphoon Digoy, which ravaged Suluk-sulukan among other provinces in Kawefo’s benighted southeast, but hundreds routinely died in Suluk-sulukan’s annual floods without getting more than a passing mention from the capital media, much less a call from the Palace.

Suluk-sulukan was a province best known for not being known. It occupied an island of the same name, and was reachable by a two-hour flight from Metro Kabugaw to the adjacent province of Lagunsoy, followed by a three-hour ride by pumpboat, and then another hour by bumpy tricycle from the pier to the capital town of Maunggoy. Its chief industry should have been tourism, given the abundance of its forests, nature trails, and beaches, but it came with one huge disincentive: the mountains of monkey poo that lined the roads and clogged the waterways, raising an infernal, ammoniac stink that the locals had gotten used to and barely noticed but which repelled tourists, invaders, and potential investors alike. The floods drained some of it out into the ocean but it was back as soon as the sun shone. 

Even the free face masks given out at the pier, imprinted with Gov. Tingting’s smiling face and the slogan “Beauty right under your nose” did little to encourage the intrepid to stay. Political dynasties had risen and fallen on the monkey-poo crisis, and Tingting—who had won on a promise to exterminate the monkeys—was surviving only because the bales of face masks they had airdropped on the island in the midst of the pandemic offered a temporary reprieve.

“So what did the President say, Gov?” Atty. Noknok asked, eager to absorb every snippet of political gossip, to affirm his status as “the little gov.”

“He asked me to come to the capital!” said Tingting, his eyes still glazed over with disbelief.

“Really? Will he hand you a check for disaster relief? I can take the picture, Gov! I’ll make sure it comes out in the papers.” Suluk-sulukan had exactly one paper, The Maunggoy Times, published by Tingting’s sister Mingming; there had been two, until the other paper’s editor was shot by a pair of motorcycle-riding gunmen whom witnesses could not identify because they looked too much like the governor’s bodyguards.

“What disaster relief are you talking about?” said the governor. “This is something much bigger! He’s inviting me to watch the Presidential Cup race with him, in the presidential box, at the Santa Mama racetrack! It’s the biggest race and social event of the year—remind me to get the missus one of those big, floppy, feathery hats. Imagine me, the governor of an obscure and godforsaken province, sitting beside the President!”

“What does he want—aside from, uh, the pleasure of your company?” Atty. Noknok didn’t get to where he was by being stupid. He was astute enough to know that every conversation in politics was a transaction. The President already had Suluk-sulukan’s 150,000 votes—there were more monkeys in the place than registered voters, and there was no shortage of simians willing to vote—so that wasn’t the issue. 

And then Noknok remembered: a delegation of businessmen and engineers from the great country of Wannamia had come to visit the President to talk about Suluk-sulukan’s deposits of mahalikite, reputedly the next big thing in semiconductors. Mahalikite was found in impacted monkey poo and was still a very rare mineral, but the Wannamese implied that they had found the technology to extract it from the raw stuff. Noknok had brought it up with his boss at one meeting, but Tingting was an old-school warlord whose interest in technology didn’t go far beyond guns and calibers, and so he dismissed the report as just so much chatter. 

“Nothing,” said the Gov. “He says he just wants me to have some fun, knowing how difficult it’s been for me and my family. We lost two houses and three SUVs to Digoy! Oh my God, I still shiver when I think about it. The pain of watching that Cayenne go under the bridge….”

“So you’re bringing your family?”

“Of course. I think it’s about time my boys inhaled the fine, industrial air of Metro Kabugaw, to prepare them for the challenges of urbanization.”

“Uhm, Gov—I hate to bring this up, but—won’t it look bad for you to be out there in the capital, betting on the horses, while thousands of Suluk-sukeños still don’t have enough food and are living in makeshift tents?”

“Are you my adviser or my enemy’s? That’s why I’m also taking you along—to provide PR cover and to find something good to say about my trip.”

“You are? Well—why didn’t you say so, haha, thanks! Of course, Gov, that’s elementary. We can always say that the real business in Kawefo takes place in the presidential box of the President’s Cup, and obviously, President Ongong has serious matters to discuss with you.”

“He does?” The gov sounded rather disappointed.

“Sure! I wouldn’t be surprised if he also invited the Wannamese to talk to us about large-scale exports of monkey poo for mahalikite extraction. I talked to you last month about it, but—you were too busy—”

“Of course I was! I’m always busy looking after the welfare of every Suluk-sukeño. So what were you telling me?”

“Well—we bring in the Wannamese, they take out our monkey poo, and for every metric ton, we impose a small tax, part of which will go to your, uhm, intelligence fund, which I’ll administer. It’s a win-win deal for all.”

“I like that—for the first time in our history, we can breathe poo-free air! They’ll build statues of me as the Great Liberator! What about the President? What’s in it for him?”

“He gets the bigger chunk, of course, for his intelligence fund. No worries—there’s a lot of poo to go around.”

A drop of rainwater fell on the gov’s brow, which he took to be a sign. “Forget extermination. I want you to think of a monkey-feeding program!”