Flotsam & Jetsam No. 28: Traveling Companions

AM DOWN in Jakarta for a conference this week and brought two workhorse pens with me for signing books: my ever-reliable 1993 MB Agatha Christie and a 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, the classic “Big Red.”

I originally bought the Big Red for resale, but decided to keep it when I saw how clean it was. Look how sharp the milling is on the black hard rubber part of the cap:

Penman No. 65: Tried and Tested

Penman for Monday, Sept. 23, 2013

LAST WEEK’S piece on the kind of open-book exam I give my students reminded me of the toughest exams I myself had to take as a student. It’s been more than two decades since I last stepped into a classroom and sat opposite the professor’s table and chair, but the memory of those exams remains vivid—in some cases, distressingly so.

I have to declare, at the outset, that unlike most students, I liked exams, especially in subjects that I knew I would do well in. I got a thrill from being tried and literally tested; I saw the exam as a game of wits between me and my professor, and while my professor certainly knew much more than I did about the subject, I was always on the lookout for angles and insights that my professor might never have considered, and would therefore appreciate as something fresh. I disdained what professors call “spitback”—the rote regurgitation of points already discussed in class—knowing that many of my classmates were going to do just that.

I was, in other words, something of a smartass, and like all the annoying smartasses you remember and loved to hate from high school and college, I deserved and got my occasional comeuppance. Returning to college after a ten-year absence, I thought I could wing it in my Lit classes, but instead got the loudest wake-up calls I possibly could, from two professors known to be formidable “terrors” in the English department—Filonila Tupas and Damiana Eugenio—both of whom gave me a “5.0” in the objective quizzes that they began the semester with. Thankfully these were diagnostic quizzes, and the diagnosis was clear: I had to hit the books to do well, so I became a textual bloodhound, memorizing odd details and references (plants from Shakespeare: wild thyme, oxlips, woodbine, eglantine). I would not embarrass myself again—or so I thought.

Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age became a passion for me, a period fraught with dark political intrigue and steeped in grime yet also ennobled by some of the most sublime poetry ever written. It wasn’t even Shakespeare so much as the lesser poets and dramatists around him—Sidney, Wyatt, Webster, Middleton, Marlowe—who piqued my interest, thanks to a teacher who took kindly to an older student making up for lost time (I was 27 when I returned as a freshman to UP; my Paulinian colegiala classmate, Judy Ick—who would go on to become Dr. Ick, the real Shakespeare expert in the department—was just 17).

That teacher was the impeccably fashionable Prof. Sylvia Ventura, commended (as Shakespeare himself might have put it) by all the swains but feared by most of her students for the spot-passages exams she gave. (A spot-passage exam gives you nothing but an obscure passage drawn from the text of a play or a poem, for you to identify, contextualize, and discuss.) I thought I was doing pretty well in her class until the final exam, when I ran into a passage that might as well have been Greek. Knowing that I had absolutely no chance of identifying the passage correctly, I gathered my wits and used Shakespeare himself to explain my predicament, beginning my answer (whatever it was) with a quote from Act I, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So quick bright things come to confusion!” Apparently it worked, because I escaped with a 1.25.

The toughest teacher I had in UP, however, was the legendary Wilhelmina Ramas, whose final exam on “The Idea of Tragedy” took us five hours and several bluebooks to finish—a herculean effort rewarded, in my case, with a niggardly (and probably accurate) 1.75. Soon after, I flew off the US for graduate school, and it was only then that I appreciated the rigor that my UP “terror” profs had put me through. Their American incarnations were tweed-suited dons rather than coiffed matrons, but they were no less demanding. I had come well prepared.

In my Shakespeare class at Michigan, taught by the pipe-smoking Russell Fraser, I felt like I had orchids coming out of my ears when Dr. Fraser commended me for being the only one in class to be able to answer his question about differentiating “hypotaxis” from “parataxis” (no, it has nothing to do with paid transportation). That still didn’t save me from the pain of Fraser’s final exam: a spot-passage exam, employing two totally unheard-of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays, with one question to answer: “Which is early and which is late Shakespeare, and why?” This was also an open-book exam that we had one day to complete; we were free to roam the library and to read Shakespeare from end to end.

Now, mind you, this was 1986, well before the Internet and Google; students were still using 5.25” floppy disks, if they were using computers at all (I wasn’t; I’d dragged my Olympia portable with me across the Pacific). Today my students would take seconds to find the answer to “early” and “late”, and maybe an hour to cough up a reasonable “why.” Back in ’86, it was all intelligent guesswork, knowing that no amount of speed-reading and cramming could possibly turn up those passages, let alone contextualize them. And Fraser knew that; whether we had the “early/late” part of the question right or wrong, he wanted to see us reasoning our way through our answers, given what we knew from class of the younger and the older Shakespeare. (Only later, in the age of Google, would I discover that Fraser was then at work on two books: Young Shakespeare, and Shakespeare: The Later Years.) I can’t recall how I scored on that exam—I passed the course with an A-minus—but it was the kind of exam that was both gut-wrenching and exhilarating at the same time; I loved it.

Still later, now doing my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I had a professor in Bibliography and Research named James Kuist. As mild-mannered as he was, Dr. Kuist had a fiendishly difficult task for us to complete. His exam question went like this: “The year is 1663 and I am a Fellow of the Royal Society. What books would be on my bookshelf?” So off we went to the library on a wild goose chase, and like an eager labrador retriever, I enjoyed the hunt, searching the stacks for the spoor of these antiquarian volumes.

Now that I’m the one giving the exams, I hope to come up with questions and problems that my students will remember 20 years from now, and still get a bit of a headache from—or let’s make that the pleasant buzz, the distant refrain, of an unusually agitated mind.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 27: My iOS7 Home Screen

IT WAS time to move to Apple’s iOS7 this week. I think the new, simplified icons actually work best against a black or plain background. I’ve retained my old wallpaper (a shot of one of my pocket watches) for the lock screen, but for my home screen, I use plain black (you just take a pic in the dark, or shoot a dark colored object and save the pic).

Come to think of it, it’s not much different from how my very first iPhone screen looked like (yes, I saved this image from Oct. 8, 2007, nearly six years ago!):

Penman No. 64: The Outsider in the Story

Penman for Monday, Sept. 16, 2013

AS MY literature students know, there’s only one kind of exam they can expect me to give them—a 90-minute, essay-type, open-book exam. This means that, over a class period, they’ll be answering two or three questions with short essays that they can compose with the help of their notes, their readings, and their brains.

The first time they hear this, some students will cheer, thinking that an open-book exam will be a walk in the park, and that they can catch up on two month’s worth of reading and comprehension with 15 minutes of furtive cramming. (As they like to say on Pawn Stars, “That’s not going to happen.”) The smarter ones know that the best way to get my attention from this point on will be to say something fresh, beyond spitting back what we’d already said in class or quoting some ponderous French critic.

Just like answering them, writing exam questions is something of an art. Ideally, you want to frame questions that are hard to answer but easy to check—in other words, you should be able to sense, within a couple of paragraphs, if the student has a handle on the material or not. You also want questions for which there are no set or obvious answers. In this way, literature and the humanities are different from math and the sciences, in that there is no one correct answer that, with diligence and practice, everyone can theoretically arrive at. I grade responses based on the student’s appreciation of the problem and his or her reasoning; sometimes I might even give a high mark to an answer that doesn’t directly answer the question, but which sets up and pursues such an interesting tangent or dissent that I find myself provoked and educated by it.

Over the years, I’ve built up a battery of questions that I periodically revisit, tweak, and let loose on a new batch of students. Today, I’m taking one of those questions out of commission by putting it out here in the open, and answering it myself. It’s a question I used a few weeks ago for my midterm exam in my course on The Short Story, and while I may change the phrasing from time to time, it basically runs this way: “The Irish writer Frank O’Connor once described the short story as ‘the story of the outsider.’ Using at least three of the stories that we’ve taken up in our reader, discuss how and why O’Connor could have made this statement about the short story.”

What am I looking for when I ask that question? The bottom line, of course, is evidence that the student has read and understood the stories in the syllabus—this is where my passing grade begins—but beyond that, going from competence to brilliance, I look for insight and (this being, after all, a course in literature) articulation. In the case of the O’Connor statement about the short story and the outsider, two immediate possibilities present themselves: one, the outsider as the typical or ideal protagonist in the short story; and two, the short story as the ideal form for the depiction and development of the outsider-character. So we’re looking both at substance or subject and form, both of which the Lit major and budding creative writer should have a keen feel for. (And before anyone lectures me about ending my sentences with prepositions, that’s one of those mythical no-no’s, like the split infinitive, that have been elevated by sheer repetition into dictum.)

Taking the outsider as subject, it’s not too difficult to find and cite instances where the protagonist in the short story is an outsider in society—a nonconformist, a rebel, an outcast. Perhaps the best known example of such a character I can cite is that of Sammy in John Updike’s 1962 story “A&P,” a 19-year-old clerk in a convenience store who quits his job when the conservative store manager admonishes three girls who come into the store in bathing suits, the beach being not too far away. Sammy seems to come to the girls’ defense—ironically, the girls don’t even notice his chivalry—but the girls are really just an excuse, a catalyst for an explosion that had been long brewing within Sammy, who sees most of his customers as “sheep” and who feels oppressed by his environment. So he dramatically, heroically, quits his job, but realizes almost immediately that a nonconformist’s life is not going to be an easy one, as the story’s ending unequivocally states: “… my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” (Having taught it for nearly 30 years now, I’ve been using “A&P” as a kind of litmus test to sense the drift of the current generation. My own First Quarter Storm cohort would have roundly applauded Sammy’s idealism; not surprisingly, most of my present students thought he was irresponsible if not stupid to have quit his job to make a point.)

Another example of such a character is Paul from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” Although published in 1905, the story could easily be transported to the “selfie” present, given 16-year-old Paul’s egotism and high ambition; he thinks himself well above his peers in intelligence and taste, and imbibes the world of the theater, even if his only role in it is that of an usher. When Paul suddenly finds himself with several thousand dollars entrusted to him by his father for depositing in the bank, Paul runs away with the money to New York, lives the life of a prince for a week, then—with the long arm of the law just about to reach him—he hurls himself in front of an oncoming train. Here, the outsider willfully chooses to be one, the exclusion achieved by arrogance and self-delusion (or, to be more generous, by indulging the high-romantic impulse that most of us will suppress).

The outsider might also become one not by choice but by social fiat; Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is one such outcast, one who feels herself to be in the very center of things, observing people in a park with directorial authority, only to be spurned by that society. Society can also exert its pressures subtly but no less firmly, as in the case of Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin,” where a thirtyish spinster’s longing for a man’s touch overrides her primly preserved composure.

The more difficult part of the answer involves form and technique: what in the short story qualifies it as ideal for the exploration of the outsider-character?

The short story’s relative brevity, for one, compels the action to be focused on a crucial moment, often a decision to be made by the protagonist, that will reveal the truth of his or her character. In this sense, short story characters live in a pressure cooker; at some point, we expect them to crack and break, and it’s these moments of rupture that yield the most valuable insights into the human condition, whether it’s the extent of human greed or of our capability for love and self-sacrifice. Arguably, these moments create departures from the norm and transform the protagonist into something other than he or she was, rendering the protagonist an outsider unto himself or herself.

But the best answer I got in the midterm exam was something I hadn’t even thought of: the short story brings out the outsider in us, the readers, by creating sympathy for characters in situations that our ordinary, rational selves would probably avoid. And that’s the magic and the power of literature—its ability to transform and transport us into other realms and possibilities, so that, for one brief moment, we stand on the outside looking in, and see things about ourselves that we never saw before.

Flotsam and Jetsam No. 26: Handmade Heaven

You can find many wonderful things handmade by artisans on etsy.com, and that’s where I went to get this matched pair of saddle-leather cases for my iPhone and iPad mini. It took some time and it wasn’t cheap (but then I’ve spent sillier money on pens), but these cases will outlast the gadgets in them, and maybe even the user:

You can find more from the maker here.

Penman No. 63: A Poet Speaks

CBautistaPenman for Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

NOW 72, Cirilo F. Bautista towers over the writers of his generation. Though primarily known as a poet in English, Cirilo—“Toti” to his friends—also writes formidable fiction in both English and Filipino. His books of poetry alone number a dozen, and have won the country’s most prestigious prizes, including the Centennial Prize in 1998. Until his retirement, he was a full professor and writing guru at De La Salle University, and had, at some time or other, taught at other major universities here and abroad. His poetry is deep and complex, conscious of the need to separate the emotional from the intellectual—difficult to many—but not without wit and humor.

Bautista has been nominated for the hallowed title of National Artist, and it’s an honor he would richly deserve and invest with the necessary achievement and gravitas. I can only hope that the bestowers of this award will take this view—shared by many in our literary community—when they sit down next to consider our National Artist awardees. I can be fairly sure that there will be great rejoicing and little dissension when that happens, unlike the controversy that met the last batch of dagdag-bawas “laureates.”

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to hear Cirilo speak at the 63rd Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature at the Manila Peninsula. He had been asked by the contest sponsors to be evening’s guest of honor. Although forced to use a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy, Cirilo showed no sign of slowing down where his mind was concerned. That night, in a mixture of polemic and poetry reading, Cirilo lamented the diminished role of the poet (by extension, the artist) in Filipino society, diminished since the days of Jose Rizal, when poets were heroes and heroes were poets.

With his permission, I’m excerpting portions of his speech, in the hope that more Filipinos will take notice of their poets in general, and of one named Cirilo F. Bautista in particular. What follows are his remarks:

Small as the Philippines is, smaller still is its literary community—poets and fictionists caught in the bright dream of making a difference in its aesthetic and cultural development. Some are good, many are terribly bad. I speak of the good ones only since charity has no place in the critical evaluation of artistic excellence. To those who live with words, who are engaged in the art of counting syllables and harmonizing metaphors, whose constant fear is not finishing their work, to be poets in the Philippines is to live in a surreal world whose stress and strains shape their concept of existence. People regard you as a specimen of some strange thing to encounter, to examine, even to touch. But not of something to take seriously. You live on the border, on the periphery, on the edge of society, considered unique, but nothing more. The institution that you represent—the world of fine writing—has not made the priority list of any government in the history of the country, whatever our political fathers may say about the importance of cultural advancement. Poetry receives no significant financial allocation, no institutional support, no artistic infrastructure. Not that the poets should depend on the government, but that since the government is tasked with the overall progress of the people, certain measures must be taken to insure that poets do not wallow in the quagmire of neglect.

… Now we see manifestations of the absence of support for the poets. Poets are generally unknown in their own country. Few read them but in the lingering and strengthening vestiges of colonialism prefer the work of Western writers. We are led by the nose by American capitalist interest in the arts. We read what they give us, and have not been sincere and brave enough to assert our own taste and preferences.  Our culture is a borrowed culture, disguised as modernistic simply because it arrived on the Internet. But of the values that assert our roots, they seem to have been devoured by TV novelas and rock concerts. Our taste is largely a mixture of truncated native idealism and borrowed Western adventurism. That we adapt to them may be our virtue, given difficult times; that we are controlled by them may be our downfall. But like them we do. They appeal to that inexplicable part of us that needs to resolve the ironies and contradictions of our existence. And it is in this that, quite strangely enough, the poets seem naturally equipped to provide explanations.

… I am a veteran poet; as I have said, I have published some 12 books of poetry. None of them made a print run of one thousand copies. By American standards I should be rich from the sale of these books, but I am not. It seems they are read only by the inquisitive and misdirected. On a few occasions when, feeling generous, I give my books to relatives and acquaintances, they ask me why I am punishing them. Those who don’t like reading poetry considering reading it a punishment; that’s the only way of interpreting the situation. And poetry becomes a burden to society which has reached a certain stage of insensitivity to the stark harmonies of the soul. This baffles me. I can’t understand why in an affluent society like ours (we are called Third World only by the political elite who handle the greater portion of our national budget for self-improvement and establishing political dynasties), a true literary resurgence cannot take place, or why we cannot remedy the effects of a fractured culture and mismanaged patrimony. The elite in society do not buy Filipino books but patronize foreign ones. It is their pride to be amongst the first to have the work of this or that European poet or novelist, but they will ignore the works of their countrymen. Is this colonial mentality or crab mentality? They still find it difficult to believe in Filipino excellent artistry, or they will down to lower ground Filipinos who exhibit excellent artistry. I find this prevalent among the young who regard foreign shores as sources of cultural inspiration. Always the Filipino is never first in their appraisal.

… It is of course an error to belittle our poets. They have proven that they can compete with the best in the world, given certain assistance and patronage. Their works appear in international publications, they have won important prizes, they are invited to global conferences and festivals of art, they exchange ideas with prominent figures of contemporary literature. Why then are they not patronized in their own country? As I said, I’m baffled by this, short of saying what I don’t want to say—that like crabs we pull down those we perceive to be making names for themselves, and consign to neglect the products of those names. Some are even proud not to be readers of Filipiniana.

… We are proud to point to a poet as our national hero. A poet laureate reflects a country’s coming to terms with the importance of poetry in the overall conduct of its affairs, but mostly with the progress of its artistic sensibility. Poetry is a civilizing factor that drives away the rudeness and coarseness of practical existence. It confers on the individual a high sense of being-ness and a true perspective of life. The poet laureate serves as a bridge to connect the people’s aesthetic education and spiritual well-being. It is seeing their world in another way, and making connections with realities that seem hazy at the start. A moon is not a moon, flying is not leaving the ground—but something else. What? That’s the exquisite area of poetic discovery that only the knowledgeable may enter.

(Photo courtesy of the Cultural Center of the Philippines)

Penman No. 62: A Letter to the Philippines

Penman for Monday, Sept. 2, 2013

I RECEIVED a very interesting message in my mailbox last week from a good friend now based in Singapore, the American writer Robin Hemley, who serves as Director and Writer-in-Residence of the Yale-NUS Writing Program at the National University of Singapore. Robin and I have been to many conferences and workshops together, breaking bread and chugging beer not too long ago in Hong Kong, Michigan and Melbourne.

Just retired from Iowa, Hemley’s one of the world’s foremost experts on creative nonfiction, and a mean writer of fiction himself; I teach one of his stories, a very funny piece titled “Reply All,” in my class. He’s a frequent visitor to Manila—not surprisingly, since his wife Margie is Filipino. But Robin has been more intimately engaged with Philippine culture and society than his family ties would suggest. Fairly recently, he found himself stranded on a remote island in one of the Babuyan Islands while doing research for a novel. That’s my kind of writer—someone who immerses himself in his material to the point of self-endangerment.

Thus being no stranger to risk, Robin didn’t surprise me when he sent me a copy of a letter he had written in the wake of the pork barrel scandal, by which he had been deeply disturbed. It was addressed to no one in particular—he had titled it “A letter to the Philippines”—and Robin asked me what I thought of it, and if it would be worth sharing with others. I read the letter, and immediately wrote Robin to say that I thought it was worth publishing, and that I would be happy to do the honors in this column, with his approval—which came shortly after, with his thanks.

That creative writers and other artists respond to the day’s political issues is something we’ve learned to expect, if not encourage, although our responses more often take the form of our art itself, with its necessary mediations and interpretations. When we respond directly—like Beng and I did in joining the Million People March last Monday—it’s more as citizens than as artists. And that’s actually a relief and a reminder of sorts, that we can act as ordinary people, with ordinary people, away from the pressures of performance.

I decided to publish Robin’s letter to acknowledge his participation, if not his citizenship, in our society. Surely there are many others like him, though few perhaps as articulate, who feel deeply invested in our affairs but who, out of caution or a sense of propriety, have decided to keep quiet. Robin’s letter will also surely upset some Filipino readers who may feel that the pork barrel scam—or whatever wrongdoing takes place here—is none of a foreigner’s business. And that, I think, would be a sad thing, because if evil is universal and cuts across countries and cultures, so should the outrage that it deserves to be met with. Here’s Robin’s letter to us:

I want to preface my remarks by stating that although I am a foreigner, I have nothing but love and respect for the peoples of the Philippines. I’m married into the culture, have written extensively about it, and consider it my second home. If I could, I would become a citizen of the Philippines, but becoming a citizen of the RP is much more difficult than becoming a citizen of the U.S., which my wife did a few years back, not because she loves her country any less, but for logistical reasons, i.e. visa-free travel, as much as anything.

The most recent scandal in the Philippines, involving Janet Napoles and a number of prominent politicians, has prodded me to think more deeply about the privilege of citizenship. Unfortunately, politicians in almost all countries seem to think the number one qualification for any public position is the fearless ability to betray the public trust. Political scandals in the Philippines are nothing new. In fact, they seem to occur with such frequency that the Philippines’ famously free press ironically seems to exacerbate the ability of these officials to sink to ever lower depths of betrayal by giving the public a safety valve to impotently express their outrage. The hard-working public, the people who pay taxes, have become so inured to the corruption of their public officials or so resigned to it, that the frequent scandals in the papers become so much public theater, producing little in the way of results.The latest scandal seems so egregious that it has rightfully sparked enough outrage to bring people into the streets. If I were in the Philippines right now, I would join them, but I’m living in Singapore at the moment, a country that doesn’t have the same free press as the Philippines, but that has also a low tolerance for corruption of public officials.

I wonder if I would be welcome to join the protests in the Philippines. I know my friends would welcome my presence, but Filipinos by and large are sensitive to foreigners criticizing them, and for many good reasons which I respect. But I’ve also been to Cuba several times in the last few years, and I was impressed by the willingness of the Cuban people, almost from the beginnings of their fight against the Spanish, to enlist the support of sympathetic foreigners. Che Guevara, probably the most revered figure of the Cuban revolution, was Argentinian. And there have been many others, though I hasten to add that I’m not making any comparisons here other than this observation. I’m not communist and I don’t look good in a beret or a moustache.

Still, I think of the young Dutchman, himself apparently a communist sympathizer who famously made a policeman cry and then was deported from the Philippines for being obnoxious. This seems to me a serious blunder of the Philippine government, displaying a lack of maturity at best. While the Dutchman was undoubtedly immature himself, I’m not sure that his act warranted deportation. In principle, I should say I’m not opposed to making policemen cry. Not that I’m against the police of the Philippines. My late father-in-law was an honest policeman in Mindanao, and lived relatively modestly his entire life, but led a life of dignity because he refused to take a bribe, a temptation many of his fellow police couldn’t resist. He taught his children to be honest, too, a couple of them who have become lawyers and who refuse to enter politics because they don’t want to be corrupted. One, who works for the government, also refuses to take bribes, though they are routinely offered. And this of course makes me proud of the family into which I’ve married.

These are the people who should be in politics, but they’re too wise to do so. To me, they are the real patriots, the people who will never grab headlines, but who choose to live a life of quiet dignity serving the people and their homeland in the small ways available to them.

Instead of deporting critics of the Philippines, no matter how annoying they might be, no matter whom they make shed tears, perhaps the real villains of the Philippines should finally be called to account for their multiple betrayals. To set up fake NGOs, and contribute millions to their coffers in the name of the public good while cynically using this money for their own gain, seems to me to be a new nadir of betrayal. If found guilty, perhaps these politicians should lose what they should have valued most from the start: their citizenship.