Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

THIS TOPIC wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about if I hadn’t come across—in my meanderings online as a collector of antiquarian books and papers—a copy of a slim pamphlet published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1936, titled “Courtesy Appeals by the President’s Committee on Courtesy.” But as soon as I saw that title, I knew I had to get that pamphlet and reflect on the observance (most likely in the breach) of its prescriptions today.

To be honest, I never even heard of a “committee on courtesy” in UP. Neither, as a former student and professor, did I ever instinctively attach the word “courtesy” to UP, although I will not agree to any collective condemnation of “Iskos” and “Iskas” as boorish and uncultured. Granted, UP lore is rich with tales of what we’ll call youthful insolence toward their elders, in ways that would make even millennials cringe. (Who was that young poet who, in a writers’ workshop, supposedly stole a famous lady poet’s underwear—don’t ask me how—and strung it up a flagpole or hung it on a line, prompting her friend—another professor known for her fiery temper—to curse the laughing fellows: “I wish your mothers had aborted you!”) 

Meekness may not be one of a UP student’s strongest suits, because we teach them to assert themselves. But we also teach them to criticize or comment with style and intelligence, as when a young wit responded to a customary recitation of then President Carlos P. Romulo’s kilometric list of honorary degrees by saying, “Why, Mr. President, you have more degrees than a thermometer!” (In fairness to CPR, that fellow went on to an illustrious career accompanied by much—and some say self-generated—pomp and circumstance.)

Courtesy, of course, is not about sticking out but about staying in—behaving oneself for social acceptability and harmony, living up to someone else’s expectations by observing a strict code of do’s and don’ts. At least that’s how it was appreciated in the 1930s, when President Jorge Bocobo created the committee that came out with the prescriptions in the pamphlet. Although he served as one of UP’s most hardworking and effective presidents—someone who pushed UP students to go out and serve the masses—Bocobo was also known to be a rather prudish disciplinarian. He had been on the committee that censured Jose Garcia Villa for publishing his “obscene” and “ultramodernistic” poem “Song of Ripeness,” leading to Villa’s suspension and hastening his departure for more liberal America. He also cut down on the popular student dances that Rafael Palma allowed, and enforced the rule for student uniforms. When Guillermo Tolentino presented his design for the Oblation statue, Bocobo had one important comment: protect its modesty with a fig leaf, which was done. Not surprisingly, although again a bit too simply, he was called “the gloomy dean” by the editorialists of the time.

In 1936, when the pamphlet came out, Jorge Bocobo was almost midway through his presidency (1934-39). I learned that 8,000 copies were printed to be handed out to all students, and teachers were required to discuss its contents—all 20 pages of them—in class.

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

“A young lady of social position does not go to a ball without a chaperon.”

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, he does not extend his hand first. It is the lady’s place to show whether she wants to shake hands or not.”

“When a lady leaves a gentleman to whom she has been introduced, she never says she is ‘glad to have met him’ or that she ‘hopes to see him again.’’

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

“Annoying the ladies by staring at them or making remarks about them as they pass cannot be countenanced.”

“Avoid being a bore by talking too much. Be a sympathetic listener.”

Some would be difficult to enforce:

“It would be nicer if gentlemen should remove their hats on entering a building.”

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

“(Do not) thrust the individual knife into a butter dish or the individual fork into a pickle dish.”

“Bananas are peeled into a plate and taken with the fork.”

I was amused, as many of you would be, but these social commandments (yes, they were far more than “appeals,” and students and faculty were disciplined for disobeying them) invited me to wonder how we look at courtesy today or even think about it, let alone practice it. Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet and to a toxic political environment, rudeness if not obnoxiousness seem to have become the norm. It’s almost customary to assume that the other fellow is uninformed, hostile, stupid, or just plain wrong, and I have to confess to thinking this of many people I encounter for the first time, especially online. 

I’ve been on the receiving end of these assumptions as well. An expat American—a Trumper—once tried to convince me that I knew nothing about America, as did an expat Brit who lectured me about the monarchy like I’d never read a book (I could’ve lectured him back on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, but he could have been just a regular fellow who didn’t know anything about me, and why should he, so I desisted and let it slide).

Courtesy today clearly involves more than etiquette or protocol, more than observing antiquated codes of behavior requiring you to use this fork or that spoon. It’s more a matter of attitude toward other people, of assuming them worthy of respect and an intelligent and civil response (until they prove otherwise, as many inevitably do, especially in politics). 

Unfortunately we also too easily conflate courtesy with external manners, with opening doors for ladies (which I still do, although my wife Beng sometimes has to remind me there’s a door in front of us). On a higher order of behavior, aren’t profligacy and ostentation extreme forms of discourtesy to a people struggling to make ends meet? Do arrogance and impunity invite respect, or resentment and disdain?

What could a “Courtesy Appeals” for 2023 read like? “Do not waste the people’s hard-earned money” seems like a good place to start.

(Some factoids mentioned here come from an unpublished, unofficial history of UP. You can check them out against an official history published recently by the UP Press.)

Qwertyman No. 24: Barangay Magulang

Qwertyman for January 16, 2023

(“Smishing: the fraudulent practice of sending text messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers; a form of phishing.”)

MANG KANOR had a problem. He was a contractor for a scamming operation that involved using 50 burner phones to ferret out people’s personal details with, which he ran from the basement of his house in Bgy. Magulang. It was all going well, thanks to his wife Fely, who also happened to be the barangay kapitana, and who could guarantee the peace and quiet his business needed. No one really understood exactly what the boys and girls hired by Kanor were doing—and to be honest, neither did Kanor, who could barely text a message to Fely, let alone spell “phishing” or explain what it meant. But the barangay loved them, because they employed Mang Tining’s son and Tita Ruby’s daughter, and even Sgt. Choy’s handicapped nephew.

It was their teenage son Boogie who had everything figured out, who had introduced the scheme to his parents for them to finance. He had dropped out of the novitiate, realizing that his true calling lay elsewhere, in the world of Dota, Tiktok, and Instagram. When Mr. X offered him a smishing franchise after seeing how adept he was at computers, he jumped at the opportunity. He would harvest personal data and turn it over to Mr. X, who mined it for money.

But he needed capital, and only his mother—who had a steady revenue stream from jueteng—could provide that. She bankrolled him for the 50 phones, three computers, and the ten high-school graduates he needed to man them, plus their snacks of bottomless iced tea and banana cue. His father Kanor provided the muscle—building the cubicles, laying out the wiring, and fronting as the shop’s manager.

The money poured in—Mama Fely was immensely proud of her baby’s entrepreneurial bent—until Kanor ran in one way, panting and waving a newspaper in Fely’s face.. “Boogie! Fely! Have you heard? They’re now requiring all SIM cards to be registered! They want the names and addresses of all SIM card owners. No registration, no activation!”

“Whatever for?” cried Fely. 

“It says here that they want to weed out scammers—people who use prepaid phones to get into other users’ accounts and take their money—I think they mean us!”

“But we just get their information, someone else takes their money, it’s not fair! We’re not subversives, we have privacy rights—”

Boogie didn’t seem bothered. “I’ve been telling you, if we expanded, we could do both, end-to-end—get data and make money. Then we wouldn’t need Mr. X anymore.”

“Are you crazy?” shrieked Fely. “That’s asking for trouble! You’d need protection all the way to the top, which we can’t afford. We’re only good for this barangay.”

“That’s the problem with us, Ma! We think too small. If we go bigger, you could become the mayor!”

“Wait, let’s solve this SIM problem first!” said Kanor, who was easily rattled by things he couldn’t understand.

“Leave it to me, Pa. I’ll look into it. From what I’ve seen on TV, there isn’t a law in this country without a loophole! You can even get away with murder if what they call the ‘chain of evidence’ is broken!”

“Oh, you’re such a smart boy,” gushed Fely. “If you’d gone on to become a priest you could be the Pope! But I’m glad you didn’t because we need grandchildren to continue the proud family tradition—”

“Ma, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m gay!”

“Oh, you’ll get over it, don’t worry. I’m setting you up next week with Mareng Siony’s daughter Olive. She’s sweet and sexy.”

“Wait, what will we do with this SIM law?” Mang Kanor screamed.

A few days later, Boogie had an answer. “I tried the system, and it’s pretty simple. You go to your provider’s website, and they ask for your name, address, official ID, and photo. That’s it, your SIM is registered to you.”

“So they’ll know it’s us who are running this racket? That’s not a solution, that’s the end of our business! Son, you have to do something. I don’t want to have to go back to chopping up cars—this is my first decent job!”

“Don’t worry, Pa, I have it all figured out. We can get around the system.”

“Really? How?” asked Fely.

“What else? By registering.”

“You mean, we go honest?” Kanor couldn’t believe it.

“Of course not, Pa. If they want names, addresses, IDs, and photos, we’ll give it to them.”

“And risk being caught? I’m a respected and responsible public official, son, I can’t afford the scandal!” said Fely.

“They’d be chasing ghosts. Can’t you see, Ma, Pa? All we need to do is to fake everything! There’s nothing in the system that checks to see if what you’re saying is true. So we just fill in the blanks, and we’re done.”

Kanor tried to wrap his head around the plan. “Do you mean we cheat the system?”

Boogie laughed. “Is it cheating if we give it what it’s asking for?”

“But how and where do we get the names and the pictures and so on? What about the IDs?” asked Fely.

“Ma! We’ll make up the names of people. Who was that councilor who called you a crook? We’ll use his family’s names. And which barangay was it that dumped their garbage here? We’ll use addresses there.”

“Oooh, that sounds like fun! But what about the IDs and the selfies?”

“What’s the computer for? We can copy any school, office, or senior ID you want. As for pictures, we can scan yearbooks, wedding albums, Facebook profiles—we can even create a whole new person through artificial intelligence! We can do anything, Ma!”

Doubts persisted in Kanor’s mind. “Surely they’ll verify the entries? What if they find out?”

“Find out when, Pa? Let me ask you—you and Ma applied for your National IDs, right?”

“Yes. Three months ago.”

“Well, do you have them?”

“No, not yet.”

“There you go. Everything in this place takes at least three months to happen. In three months, we buy new SIMs, and do the same thing all over again.”

“Why, if we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for others, for a fee—tell Mr. X!” said Kanor.

“You’re a genius, son! Oh, I love this family. I can’t wait for you to meet Olive! She’s studying accounting—your kids will be so cute and so smart!”

Qwertyman No. 23: The Glass Sibuyas

Qwertyman for Monday, January 9, 2023

(With apologies to some of our readers who might not catch the reference to Benoit Blanc. A little Googling will help.)

THE INTERNATIONALLY famed detective Benoit Blanc knew immediately what he was up against the minute his airport limousine stopped in Manila’s infernal traffic and he found himself staring at a Burger Queen outlet with an unusual sign: “NO ONIONS TODAY.” It seemed inconceivable that Wimpies could be sold anywhere in the world without onions, but here it was, the living proof of the mystery he had been engaged to figure out. He had initially declined the assignment, being more interested in the case of a dusky Brazilian heiress who had gone missing on a yacht off St. Tropez after imbibing vodka laced with one-carat diamonds—that sort of intrigue being more down his alley—but the anonymous party who had hired him (wiring a million euros into his Bahamian account) had been persistent. 

The sudden shortage of onions in the Philippines was proving to be nothing short of a national embarrassment that was threatening the stability of the new government, and it had to be explained. Local law enforcement could not be trusted because they had long been in the pocket of the onion lobby, explained the other party (whose voice had been digitally distorted, but whose cadence of speech—punctuated with many uhms and uhhs—sounded strangely familiar to Blanc when he looked up some YouTube videos on the Philippines). Blanc didn’t bother to verify his suspicions; detectives of his caliber could not afford to be distracted by politics, which was messier but also simpler than murder, with the perpetrator often in plain sight, and where crime was rarely followed by punishment.

On the first of his three days in Manila, Blanc put on his best disguise as a French tourist in search of the best onion soup in the city. Even in the poshest hotel, all he could find was a tepid bowl of caramel-colored water with a few token rings of the spice and the grainy evidence of flavored powder. When he queried the chef about the omission, the exasperated man urged Benoit to go to the public market and see for himself what the real situation was. 

So the detective got his driver to park a block away from Farmers Market; he could go no further, because large and noisy crowds had massed around the block, bearing placards decrying the severe shortage of onions and demanding social justice. A fat lady in a polka dot dress emerged from within the market nervously clutching a big bag that was clearly marked “RICE,” but the little round bulges in the bag gave the ruse away and before she could make it to her car, the crowd pounced on her and her bag like a pack of wolves, spilling onions that rolled onto the ground, for which grandmothers and little boys socked each other to grab. Benoit gasped as he saw one onion being thrown like a football from a quarterback to a receiver, only to vanish into the heart of chaos as the latter was tackled by a chorus of slipper-shod defensive linemen. Goodness me, said Blanc, something terrible is happening in this country. If I can’t unravel the mystery of the missing onions soon, a bloody revolution could follow.

The following day, Benoit Blanc visited with Dr. Luzvimindo Bimbo, Chief Research Scientist of the Omnibus Institute, to get a more scientific handle on the problem. Dr. Bimbo flashed a series of PowerPoint slides onscreen to orient the detective. “Among 151 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 135th among 151 countries in onion consumption per capita, varying from an all-time low of 0.42 kilos in 1964 to 2.47 kilos in 2018, according to Helgi Analytics. Compare that to the Americans, whose consumption rose from 5.53 kilos in in 1982 to just over 9 kilos in 2018. And even that’s nothing compared to the Libyans, who couldn’t survive without consuming 30.3 kilos per person—the highest in the world. On average, people eat 6.2 kilos of onions every year.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Blanc. “So we can safely conclude that Filipinos actually don’t consume onions as much as most other countries in the world.” 

“Certainly not,” said Dr. Bimbo. 

“And yet there’s a shortage?”

“Apparently so, as we can see from the onion riots that have now led to five deaths and countless injuries. Part of it may be artificial demand—when people hear something’s in short supply, the more they want it—but that doesn’t explain the lack of onions at Burger Queen. Even my wife can’t get onions for my bistek Tagalog!”

“Bustique Tagawhat? Never mind…. Someone’s been hoarding the commodity, for nefarious reasons we have yet to establish. Who, why, where?”

Later that day, Benoit mulled over the possibilities as he nursed his Hennessy in his hotel suite overlooking Manila Bay. Quite likely, the solution was in plain sight—like a many-layered glass onion which you still could see straight through. The plain-sight answer was profit—someone was making a killing retailing the stuff at P1,000/kilo—but it seemed too simple, too prosaic, for him to have been brought into the picture. 

But as the sun dipped into the horizon in a spectacular display of radiance, Benoit forgot all about onions as his memories drifted to another sunset he had spent with his girlfriend in the Maldives, just before he flew off to another mystery in Copenhagen, and before the tsunami struck. His eyes welled with tears at the thought—and then he realized he had his answer.

The next morning, before packing his bags for his flight home, the detective called the number of the one who had engaged him to report on his findings. Again he was answered in a raspy digital voice, but Blanc knew exactly who it was. “You already know who has all the onions, probably stockpiled in a high-security warehouse next to a top-secret manufacturing facility. Syn-Propanethial-S-oxide. Onions release this chemical irritant to produce tears. I estimate that with the onions taken out of the market, you would have synthesized a metric ton of the substance by now. Why did you need to bring me in?” he asked with obvious annoyance.

“Because I wanted someone else to appreciate my predicament,” said the voice after a pause. “It gets very lonely when you and you alone can’t cry. Where have all my tears gone, Mr. Blanc? Answer me that, and I’ll give you another million euros.”

Benoit thought of saying something like “Where has your heart gone?” but it felt too mushy for someone of Blanc’s sangfroid, and he decided that his job here was done, and shut his suitcase for the next flight to Dakkar.

Qwertyman No. 22: The Boss

Qwertyman for Monday, January 2, 2023

(This week, our story deals with two security guards chatting between Christmas and New Year about money, power, and ambition.)

“RUDY! YOU’RE thirty minutes early. My shift doesn’t end until two.”

“Nothing much to do at home, Oca. My wife keeps nagging me about our Christmas bonus—”

“What Christmas bonus? The one we never got? Haha!”

“She thinks I’m keeping it to myself—or worse, spending it on another woman.”

“Which is what you would have done if you got it—”

“And why the hell not? What’s a bonus for but for, uhm, something special? But damn, it’s almost the New Year and I’m not only broke, I’m in the hole by five thousand, which I borrowed from Pedring for noche buena. Of course I had to put something on the table, or Marita would’ve complained even more.”

“Five thousand? That’s a lot of food.”

“Couldn’t be just food, you know how it is…. I tried to see if I could pay it off right away with a few bets at the races, but I swear those horses hate me. At least I had enough left for some small presents for the kids, for Marita, a bottle of perfume, you can get these from Daiso for a few hundred, and I got some pancit and roast chicken and pineapple juice. Everybody was happy, even Marita, and she smelled good, too, all night long, so good I couldn’t believe it was her lying next to me—until she woke up in the morning and asked me for more money, and I had to confess that I’d just borrowed some from Pedring. So she got mad because you know how Pedring is—if you don’t pay up in a week, he or his boys will come over and grab your TV or cellphone or whatever they can get their hands on, or they break your bones to teach you a lesson—”

“Didn’t you use to be one of Pedring’s boys?”

“Yes. I was. No need to remind me, Oca. It was a bad time in my life. Some days, it still is.”

“At least you now have a real job. The both of us. I don’t know what I’d be doing myself if the agency didn’t take us in.”

“Yeah, the both of us. But the big difference is, I have six mouths to feed, and you don’t. You get to keep all of your salary, and to blow it on whatever you want.”

“I’m just not there yet, but who knows, I’ll want a family, too.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking for, Oca. Me, all I ever wanted was to be a boss.”

“Like Pedring?”

“Why not? I’m smarter than Pedring. But I want to be something way bigger than Pedring. I want to be a big boss, like Cong Mando—”

“You want to be a congressman? Representing what? You told me that there are people in your province who would kill you if you ever showed your face there again!”

“Party list, man, don’t you know what a party list is? I can represent people like us—security guards. If not for us, where would people like Cong Mando be, huh, you tell me that. We keep the world safe for people—”

“Even people like Cong Mando, right?”

“Yeah! You and me, Oca, we put our lives on the line every day and every night so he can go to bed with his starlet of the month without worrying about his political enemies—”

“Or worse, his wife!”—”

“Barging through the gate, haha! Over my dead body—our boss should know that, how brave and loyal we are. You know, pards, if Cong Mando was really smart, he should have hired us directly, instead of going through the agency.”

“It’s cheaper for him to pay the agency, which his brother owns.”

“But we could be his bodyguards. We should be the ones with the Uzis, not that idiot Gardo and his gang. Why are we even carrying these silly .38s? We could show them and show the boss what security really means—whap, bak, bam! Bababadabadap!”

“I’m happy I’ve never had to shoot mine. I wonder if it still even works.”

“We deserve real guns, Oca. Like the ones the boss has in his arsenal. I heard he uses them for target practice back in the province. I even heard—don’t tell anyone you got this from me—I even heard he used them on some people he didn’t like. Tied them up to coconut trees and shot them from the hood of his Range Rover. That’s real power, pards—to do that, and to get away with it.”

“So that’s why you want to be a congressman? To show people how powerful you are?”

“That’s the problem with you, Oca—you don’t think big, you’re happy being small and meek and being ordered around. You don’t know how to command other people. That’s why you’ll never be a boss!” 

“I guess not.”

“You need to be more assertive, or people will think you’re a patsy and push you around. That’s why I want to be Cong Mando’s bodyguard and carry some real firepower, so I can get even with people like Pedring who make life difficult for people like me…. Oh God, if I don’t pay him back the five thousand by Friday, he’s going to kill me. You know he’s capable of doing that, Oca. I’ve seen him do it. I’ve helped him do it. I just wanted to get out of that but it seems I can’t, ever…. Can you help me? I’m sure you’ve saved up a bit, you hardly spend on anything—I’ll pay you back as soon as I can—”

“So that’s why you came early tonight? To ask me for some money which both you and I know I’m never going to see again?”

“Since when have I ever let you down, pards? I know I owe you a couple of hundred here and there but what’s that between friends? Come on, Oca, you’re the only decent person left that I know.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m signing the logbook and I’m going home.” 

“For God’s sake, Oca! It’s only five thousand. Come on, I know you have the money, You said you were saving up for a new phone— what kind of a friend are you? Going home to watch porn and jerk off by your lonesome while—”

“I’ll give you the money, Rudy.”

“What? Really? You’re not kidding me? Oh, you’re such a good man, Oca!”

“On one condition—“

“Sure! I know how this goes. Look, I’ll pay you six thousand in one month, I promise….”

“It’s not the money, Rudy. I just want you to do something for me.”

“Name it!”

“I want you to kneel in front of me, and say, ‘Thank you, boss’.”

Penman No. 446: Our Oldies

Penman for Sunday, January 1, 2023

IT’s BAD enough to be out of touch with the present, so it must be worse to be out of touch with the past—or at least, someone else’s past. 

Nothing reminded me more starkly of the great divides that exist between generations than last month’s Eraserheads reunion concert, hailed by its attendees as nothing less than the Second Coming. “A spectacle unto itself. It was like mix-mashing the Super Bowl’s half-time show and a rock concert. Except it went one better as it was also like one four-hour-long karaoke set,” wrote reviewer Rick Olivares in the Inquirer. “The four-hour, three-part show was filled with nothing but singing our hearts out, jumping for joy, and all the while taking in the fact that yes—this is the Eraserheads, and we are ever so lucky to hear them live again,” gushed Nikka Olivares on GMA-7. 

What struck me was how so many of my younger friends—writers, artists, and teachers now in their 40s and 50s—posted pictures of themselves waving their concert tickets like some generational badge of honor. And indeed it was, if the reported crowd of 75,000 that drove out to the reunion was to be believed. It was a paean to the 1990s and to Generation X, to 486-DX PCs and clunky cellphones, to mixtapes and dressing down, to self-reliance and partying on. (Hold it—why is this so familiar? Now I know why I should know—our daughter Demi, born 1974, is a card-carrying Gen-X’er. “I caught up with the Eraserheads in UP,” she told me from California, “and I used to watch them at the UP Fair at the Sunken Garden!”)

I’ll take my former students’ word for it and believe that the Eraserheads were the best Pinoy band of their time, and that their songs captured the heartbeat of their generation. I’m sure that there’s a thesis or dissertation to be written there somewhere, if it hasn’t been done already—a project that will go far beyond melody and rhythm to dissect the E-heads’ contributions to political and social commentary (not much fun, but academia is the land of the morose). 

For Demi’s mom Beng and me, however, much of that remains a mystery, because it all begins with the music, which somehow went past us. “Do we know any of their songs?” Beng asked me. “Well, yes, one of them,” I answered, “the one that goes ‘Magkahawak ang ating kamay at walang kamalay-malay….’” And I went on to hum the tune for her, and she remembered. “I think its title is ‘Ang Huling El Bimbo,’” I added helpfully. Totally geriatric dialogue, but there we were, trying to figure out a context for that snippet of a song. Of course we knew the original El Bimbo dance, where your conjoined arms opened like a fan, but that was about it. We were lost in this strange territory.

That reminded me of that time, maybe thirty years ago or more, when drove Demi to school in our VW, and turned the radio on. Demi asked if she could change the station, because she wanted to hear some “oldies.” Oh, great, I thought, finally, my daughter’s wising up to the classics—maybe to some Sinatra? And then she played Earth, Wind, and Fire. “Do you remember, the 21st night of September…” (I remembered another September 21!)

So, all right, my oldies aren’t your oldies, and we respond to music on different wavelengths. There’s nothing that unites us more than music—think Christmas carols, church hymns, fight songs, and national anthems—and also nothing that divides us more than music.

I suppose we Boomers can be typecast as Beatles fans, and that won’t be unfair, as it was de rigueur for teenagers of the ‘60s to know the Beatles songs by heart if not to play them on a Lumanog guitar, with the aid of a chord book. But to be even fairer, I don’t think our taste in music could be pegged to any one band or genre. The fact is, we were incredibly eclectic, and liked everything from crooners like Tony Bennett, folk singers like Joni Mitchell, and bossa-nova masters like Antonio Carlos Jobim to rock bands like Queen, divas like Barbra Streisand, and disco kings like VST & Co. And let’s not forget the birth of OPM at the first Metro Pop festivals, with the Circus Band and the New Minstrels.

Life was a big jukebox, and you had a song and a singer for certain moods and certain days. (That probably explains the Beatles’ popularity—they could go from soulful ballads like “Michelle” and “She’s Leaving Home” to barnburners like “Rock ‘N Roll Music” and “She Loves You.”) Feeling, more than idea, was key to a song’s full enjoyment, and much of that feeling was generated by the melody and arrangement. 

Bottom line, a song had to be singable. (The master of singability for me was Burt Bacharach.) For a while back there, we might have put on snooty airs and publicly disdained cheesy acts like ABBA—only to embrace them and warble along at their revival. Danceability was another important factor. The shift from the ‘70s to the ‘80s was the golden age of disco, spurred on by “Saturday Night Fever.” (Miserably, my dancing skills never went beyond the jerk and the boogaloo, so doing the hustle with Beng remains on the bucket list.)

I guess this all means we have a lot of “reunion concerts” to look forward to—the only problem being, most of the singers we’d like to hear have croaked their last. The last one Beng and I attended, a few years ago at the Araneta Coliseum, was that of the Zombies (yes, they were big, cool, and British). Instead of 75,000 screaming fans, ours was a crowd of several hundred white-haired, well-behaved seniors, happily humming along to “The Way I Feel Inside” and “She’s Not There.” Maybe we forgot the lyrics here and there, but hey, we were feeling groovy, as we might have said back in 1969. So, kids, here’s to the next Eraserheads reunion, sometime in 2042. 

Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

I’M SURE you’ve noticed—with much envy in my case—how so many of your friends have been traipsing around the world these past few months on what’s been called “revenge travel,” that perfectly human impulse to flee the cage after years of imposed isolation. 

And whether you’re guzzling down a pint of beer in Munich, chasing pintxos in San Sebastian, or crossing a bridge in Kyoto, the chances are you’ll be happy with a raft of digital photographs to show for your adventures. Many will want to post about their tours on their blogs, while a much smaller group will—perhaps months later—sit down to reflect on their experience and write about it in an effort to make better sense of what they went through. 

That’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and so I thought of sharing some notes for the prospective travel writer—not just of the usual travel feature we produce for commercial media, but of a more personal kind of travel essay, one focused as much on the traveler as on the place itself. Beyond reportage citing facts and figures, this is writing that implicates and engages the traveler, the writing persona, and makes him or her a character in the piece. 

At my age, I consider myself a fairly well-traveled person, but one of the first things I want to say about good travel writing is that it’s really not about where you’ve gone or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s not about quantity, but quality of experience, perspective, and insight. The challenge isn’t to go to what to most Filipinos would be an exotic place like Paris or Tahiti. It’s to go there and to find and to tell us something about it that millions of other visitors or tourists have never seen.  

And when I say “something others have never seen,” it’s not about looking for obscure places, new bars, strange customs, or unique souvenirs. They could all be part of a great story because they’re intrinsically interesting, and if all you want to do is a standard feature story for a magazine, that would be all right. You could even make a good and exciting living writing these travel features, because the industry travel constantly needs them and they sell. 

For many of us, that would be a dream job: fly off to faraway destinations and to first-class hotels with all your expenses paid, just to write about how wonderful the place and the experience was. In my two decades as a columnist for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Star, I was lucky to have had a taste of that kind of luxury, having been sent on special assignment to the US, Germany, Israel, and Malaysia, among many other places. When I traveled for academic or professional conferences, which was quite often, I wrote those up too as travel pieces.

But—putting on my creative writing teacher’s hat—I also want you to think of travel writing not just as a function of place, but rather a function of mind. I want you to realize that you don’t need to go to an African safari or to ride a gondola in Venice to be a good travel writer—or a good writer, period. I want you to be able to turn a place you may have been to a thousand times or even lived in—say, Cubao—into a travel destination, and to explore not just its surface but its culture and subcultures, its inhabitants, its range of markets, its daytime and nighttime versions.

There are always two tracks embedded in a good travel essay: the story of the place itself, and the story of the traveler. To put it another way, there is the external journey, and the internal journey. 

The external journey is the story of the journey itself—the purpose of the travel, the choice of destination, the mode of travel, observations along the journey, reaching the destination, first impressions, engagements with the local people, sights, food, experiences, and other vignettes until departure time. 

The internal journey is the story of the traveler’s life situation at the start of the travel—his or her expectations, anxieties, distractions—and then his or her reactions to the unfolding environment, his or her interactions with the place and people, and his or her terminal thoughts and feelings about the whole experience, whether explicitly stated or implied. Very often, the internal journey involves some kind of quest—a search for something beyond the place itself, or some object in it, but an answer to some personal question, which gives meaning to the visit and the encounter with the place. 

That question could be “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” or “What do I really want?” or “Is there hope?” As the travel progresses, the answers to these questions begin to be formed or revealed. Thus do the external and internal tracks run parallel or congruent until they bend and meet at a certain point. Indeed, it can be argued that the external track, the travelogue itself, is simply an excuse or a device to tell the personal story, which emerges as the true point of interest in the piece. 

The internal track could also be subtle and subdued, embedded in the main narrative, and palpable only upon closer reading. Nevertheless it will be there, the result of a place or an experience’s impact on a person. In the travel essay, therefore, it is the interaction between person and place and the insight that comes from it that is the real, unified story. 

As the great travel writer Pico Iyer put it, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

So when you write your next travel story or travel essay, don’t just tell us about what you’re looking at, which many thousands of visitors before you have already seen. Try to look at it from another angle, or find an interesting detail that’s been paid little attention to, and reflect on what it says to you. Your perspective is as important as the place itself; it may not be shown or expressed too strongly, but it will be there and should be there, for the work to be truly yours, truly unique, and truly worth doing. Happy trails!