About penmanila

A Filipino collector of old fountain pens, disused PowerBooks, '50s Hamiltons, poker bad beats, and desktop lint.

Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

James_Scott_collage.jpegPenman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 340: Wowwow, Mingming, Peepeep

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Penman for Monday, February 11, 2019

 

FOR REASONS still not too clear to me, since I had a great relationship with my late Dad, I never really wanted a son, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when Beng popped out a baby girl named Demi 44 years ago. Demi turned out to be everything we could wish for—bright, caring, and generous, an exemplar at her job in a major hotel in California, where she lives with her husband Jerry, another proud addition to our small family.

I may not have minded a grandson, but The One Who Knows Better decided that we were all going to be happier by ourselves, so Beng and I and Demi and Jerry have enjoyed our foursome, traveling together whenever possible and achieving what we could in this life without worrying too much about the future.

We couldn’t have imagined that in our later 60s, Beng and I would have to learn grandparenting a boy—a two-year-old named Buboy, the son and second child of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, who have been living with us for many years in our campus home. Beng and I thought that everyone could work better if we kept the family together instead of stranding half of it in faraway Bicol. So Buboy was born here, and has known nothing but our large yard and the falling mangoes, treating our noisy guard dogs as his friends.

Buboy wakes us up in the morning by banging his tiny fists on the door, and when no one opens it, he turns the knob himself and barges in with a ta-da smile. He likes to climb up our bed, which he thinks is his playground—and a trampoline.

He eats breakfast with us every morning, dragging his high chair and clambering on board even before I get to sit. He loves rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg. Beng taught him how to pray before meals—something I tend to mutter if not forget, but Buboy’s instruction forces me to do as he does and make the Sign of the Cross with exaggerated flourish, although Buboy seems to think that tapping just one shoulder will do as nicely.

We speak to him in Filipino, just like we did with Demi—we’ve never believed in raising a kid in a foreign language, which school and society will take care of at some point—but he’s picked up a few favorite English words on his own: “no” (often used as in “Nononono!”), “fish” (“pish,” the Pinoy way), and “shoes” (which he can get picky about). He has his own plastic glass, and we make a toast and gulp our water down together, like drinking buddies.

Breakfast is followed by half an hour of cartoons, but what he really wants is for Beng to open his favorite book—one about a forest whose creatures are endangered by bad people.

I’m Tatay and Beng is Nanay. All dogs are Wowwow. All cats are Mingming. All cars and trucks are Peepeep (and he knows how to run back to his Mama when he hears a Peepeep rumbling down our street). When I’m away on a trip, he points to planes when they fly overhead, although I don’t know where or how he made the connection. A true tyke of his generation, he’s pretty good at figuring out how knobs and buttons work—twist this, press that.

When you ask him how old he is, he raises his two pointy fingers—he can’t make the V sign yet. What happens when he turns three? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. He likes to swipe three colored poker chips from my bedside, and we’re using those to get him to count to three. Some folks expect their toddlers to do calculus, speak French, and play the piano; this boy will not be rushed by us into any prodigious feats, although we see him absorbing knowledge like a sponge. It’s enough that he knows how to do the manowith every elder he meets, to pick up things that fall on the floor and put them in the wastebasket, and to return objects where he got them from. He’ll soon learn “po” and “opo.”

His Ate Jilliane is a special child, years older but just as innocent as he is, and he seems to sense her specialness. They fight, of course, like anything over anything, but he can be sweet and gentle, offering her a share of such goodies as he can finagle from us. He probably doesn’t yet understand what we keep whispering in his ear, trusting in subliminal suggestion to work its magic: “Buboy, be good, be smart and study hard, so you can take care of Ate when you grow up.”

As empty nesters and with our own dear daughter well cared for, Beng and I have pledged to see to it that Buboy gets a proper education, in school and at home, for as long as we can help his family help themselves. Other retirees adopt causes and NGOs; he will be our mission, of course with his parents’ cooperation and support.

When our friend Julie visited recently from the States and had a few pesos left over, she bought a stuffed cat to give to Buboy, which he promptly embraced and named, of course, Mingming. It does take a village to raise a child, but it doesn’t take too much to make one happy.

 

 

Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 338: Back to Balangiga

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Penman for Monday, January 28, 2019

 

THE RECENT return of the fabled bells of Balangiga from the American West to their home in Samar reminded me of my fleeting involvement years ago in the effort to draw renewed attention to that traumatic episode of the Philippine-American War.

Sometime in 2001, the late film director Gil Portes called to ask me to work with him on a project that would focus on what people—echoing the American view—were then calling the “Balangiga massacre,” culminating of course in the loss of the bells (hardly the event’s most tragic outcome, considering the slaughter of innocents that the Americans undertook in the attack’s aftermath).

I suppose we were still basking in the afterglow of the Philippine Centennial, and directors were eager to take on historical subjects, long before Heneral Luna would prove that history artfully told could do well at the box office. In fact, our project ran alongside a similar one being put together by the formidable tandem of director Chito Roño and screenwriter Pete Lacaba. (Pete and I were good friends and knew what the other was doing.) The main difference was that our version was going to be a Filipino-American co-production, with the script in English, for a global audience.

I can’t recall now who our producer was, but I knew that Gil was in conversation with US-based financiers, and I did get a down payment for the sequence treatment and the script itself, so we were seriously engaged in the project—seriously enough that Gil and I went on a reconnaissance visit to Balangiga.

Balangiga is a small fourth-class municipality in Eastern Samar, reachable by surprisingly good roads (at least that long ago) from Tacloban across the San Juanico Bridge and past Basey. When we went there, we were billeted in the only “hotel” in town, where the rooms cost P100 a night and I tried to read my notes under a 10-watt lamp. But we were able to find and interview the descendants of Valeriano “Bale” Abanador, the town’s chief of police who led the attack in retaliation against American repression. I was even shown the wooden stick that Abanador was supposed to have waved as a signal to begin the attack that morning of September 28, 1901.

Sadly, after all the research and three drafts of the script, and despite rumors that Sony was going to be involved and that the likes of John Malkovich were being considered for the lead roles, our project fell through, as did the other one. One reason I heard was that in the wake of 9/11, it was proving difficult to bring a battalion of American actors over. Years later, Gil asked me for a copy of the script, thinking to revive the project, but then Gil himself died suddenly two years ago.

I don’t pretend to be a Balangiga expert, although I drew heavily on the writings of such real Balangiga scholars as UP Prof. Rolando Borrinaga and writer Bob Couttie, who have sorted much of the fiction from the facts of the event. I did fictionalize my treatment, as I was expected to do for dramatic purposes, without altering the basic facts as they were known to me. My chief conceit was to create a character named Ramon Candilosas, the fictional son of the bell ringer Vicente, who was a teenager when the attack happened.

My treatment opened this way:

SEQ. 1. Intro. EXT/INT. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Day.

 An old man, around 70, walks across the yard in Fort Warren, Wyoming, to where they keep the Balangiga bells. He pauses before one of them, takes off his hat, and reaches out with a trembling hand to touch one of the bells.

 Later, we see him signing his name with a scratchy fountain pen on a guestbook; a CLOSE-UP reveals his name: RAMON CANDILOSAS. “I do not know everything,” his voice begins to intone. “This is only what my father told me, and what I imagine to have happened in our hometown, in a war over a hundred years ago. It is a war we have forgotten, a war we find difficult if not impossible to believe.”

 Indeed, as I often remark to my American friends, I can understand if few Americans remember the Philippine-American War (downplayed for the longest time in American annals as the Philippine Insurrection). What’s sad is how few Filipinos do. At least writers like the US-based Gina Apostol are reviving that memory through her most recent and highly acclaimed novel Insurrecto, a complex and contemporary take on that century-old event.

But I’m glad for history’s sake that the bells are back, and that, for once, the fact has overtaken the fiction.

Penman No. 337: A Perfect Ending

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Penman for Monday, January 21, 2019

 

I RETIRED last week after 35 years of service at the University of the Philippines, and I celebrated the special day with UP friends at a dinner graciously hosted by UP President Danilo Concepcion at his official residence, the newly renovated Executive House.

Standing in a wooded corner of Diliman close to C. P. Garcia, the Executive House was built by President Vicente Sinco in the late 1950s, and in its early years no president really lived there, but it became the venue for lively faculty colloquia, involving such intellectual stalwarts of the time as O.D. Corpuz, Ricardo Pascual, Cesar Adib Majul, Leopoldo Yabes, and Concepcion Dadufalza. When President Salvador P. Lopez decided to move with his wife into the place in 1969, they were reportedly met, in typical UP fashion, by a posse of protesters insisting on certain demands.

These historical precedents were thronging in my mind when I stepped into the EH last Tuesday evening for an all-UP dinner which, unlike all the other big events I had attended there, was being held in my honor—it was a trifecta of sorts, being my 65thbirthday, retirement day, and our 45thwedding anniversary.

Long before I became Vice President for Public Affairs, it had been my dream to end my service in UP with a small party for my closest and dearest UP friends at the EH, and that came true. Of course that dream began with entering UP itself, and it was my mother Emilia—BSE 1956, the only UP graduate among her 12 siblings—who fired that ambition. When I was a small boy, she would play a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” flipsided by “Push On, UP.” I guess you could say that my future was laid out for me that early, and I grew up without any doubt whatsoever that I would enter UP someday. She was with us that evening, lovely and graceful at 90. (Our daughter Demi, BA Art Studies 1995, joined us in spirit from California.)

In my farewell remarks, I also thanked my sweet wife Beng, from the UP College of Fine Arts, my 45 years of togetherness with whom was for me the better reason for the festivities. Aside from my friends in administration, teaching, and writing, some seniors and mentors obliged me with their presence—Dr. Gerry Sicat, who took me in off the street and employed me as a writer at NEDA in 1973, sent me back to school to learn some Economics, and sent me to the US on my first trip abroad in 1980 to expose a young writer to the outside world; former President Dodong Nemenzo, whom I had served as VP many years ago; National Artist Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, my professor in playwriting; Dr. Manny Alba, as debonair as ever; and dear friend Julie Hill, whose four books I have been privileged to edit, and who flew in all the way from California to be with us.

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I also noted that VPs and even presidents come and go, but UP is unique and in some ways immutable. The University is bigger than any one or even all of us. It has a life and an integrity of its own.

We need to keep fighting for a UP truly worthy of its founders’ dreams—a UP governed by merit rather than by patronage, and led by men and women of impeccable intelligence, ability, and most of all, integrity. Honor and excellence must be more than slogans to us but a way of life—honor even more so than excellence, which is easily found in a community of intellectually brilliant minds, but also easily compromised and corrupted by power.

While every day we need to recognize and to make the pragmatic decisions that keep the University afloat, every once in a while, we need to remember what makes us different from just another school, and uphold idealism over realism, principle over practical result, excellence over expediency.

I ended with a few appeals, addressed mainly to the friends I was leaving behind—foremostly, to keep the University’s liberal spirit alive. I have often argued that the true heart of UP lies neither in the authoritarian Right nor the doctrinaire Left, but in that great liberal middle, which—despite all of its confusions, contradictions, vacillations, and weaknesses—most honestly represents the search for truth, reason, freedom and justice in our society. I would much sooner trust someone who remembers and respects the value of doubt than those—like our despots and ideologues—who insist that they have the answer to everything.

I also asked the administration take special care of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which I was privileged to serve as director for eight years. It is a truly world-class institute whose work no one else in Asia is doing. For a relatively small investment, the UPICW keeps the literary imagination and the truth itself alive in this age of fake news and demagoguery.

It was a perfect albeit bittersweet ending to my formal career. I retired saddened to miss the company of people I had come to respect and love, but gladdened by the opportunity to serve our University and people in more creative ways—in a manner, at a time, and at a pace of my own choosing.

Beng and I expect to travel much and travel far together, ngunit malayong lupain man ang aming marating, din rin magbabago ang aming damdamin.

(The 3D-printed Mini-Me up there was a parting gift from my staff at the OVPPA. Many thanks, all!)

Penman No. 336: Goodbye to All That

 

IMG_8927.jpegPenman for Monday, January 14, 2019

 

TOMORROW, THE 15th of January 2019, I retire from the University of the Philippines after 35 years of teaching, a few of them spent in administration as department chair, institute director, and most recently on my second stint as Vice President for Public Affairs.

As I write this, a week in advance, the impact of departure hasn’t hit me yet. My schedule is still bursting with meetings and appointments, I’m still shining my shoes, and the guard at our building still opens the door for me, despite my daily gesture for him not to bother getting up from his seat.

I occupy a pretty large office on the ground floor of Quezon Hall, UP’s Greek-columned administration building. Erected in 1950, Quezon Hall was renovated recently, and I was among the first beneficiaries of that facelift, stepping two years ago into the same space I had used when I first served as VP in 2003-2005, but now spruced up and modernized in all kinds of ways.

I’m really a simple guy—I can get work done with just a laptop on, well, my lap—so I can appreciate the finer things in life more than someone born to them. I still remember, like most retirees would, my first office desk back in the early 1970s, when I joined the National Economic and Development Authority as a writer, and the sense of fulfillment that one felt just to have a table and typewriter of one’s own.

Having such a nice and well-appointed office—with its own restroom, conference table, sofa, bookshelves, air conditioning, electronic security, sprinklers, and strong wifi—didn’t only make me feel privileged, but also more responsible, knowing that public money had been spent to make me feel comfortable, work efficiently, and look dignified. Indeed, I had to dignify the office, by acting as I imagined a university official should—with respect and consideration for whoever came in to see me, and with prompt attention for any piece of paper in my tray, or any message in my inbox.

The first thing I did when I moved in was to personalize the place, mainly by bringing in the best of my private collection of paintings, pens, and antiquarian books. Having lost three decades’ worth of precious items in my Faculty Center office in the 2016 fire, I resolved that my new office was now the safest place to store my baubles, although I had nothing of too great a monetary value to attract thieves.

Aside from my favorites among my wife Beng’s own watercolors, the paintings consist of midcentury landscapes by the likes of Jorge Pineda and Gabriel Custodio, accomplished minor masters but nowhere as auctionable as Amorsolo or Kiukok. I have books, maps, and manuscripts dating back to 1490 (a page from a Latin breviary, my one example of true incunabula), but who else seriously wants to sniff handwritten letters from the 1600s, or musty English periodicals from the 1700s? Now and then I get a respectful question from visitors about my curios—let’s not forget the 1970s Olivetti Valentine and 1923 Corona folding typewriter stashed in a corner—but usually they don’t even notice that the magazines on my coffee table go back to the 1930s.

That’s been perfectly fine by me, because the office was always more of a shelter than a showcase, a cabinet of curiosities for my own inspection and enjoyment, particularly in moments of stress and anxiety, as any PR job inevitably entails. Confronted with the crisis of the hour, I’d leaf through the marvelous illustrations in a 200-year-old book of world travels, or patiently clean a Parker Duofold pen that Henry Ford or Manuel L. Quezon might have used, or gaze at an indelibly orange sunset from the 1940s, and feel reassured by the certainty that all the kinks and creases of today will get smoothened out by the sheer passage of imperial time.

I’m doubtlessly going to miss this mini-museum that I’ve cobbled together. I’ll be bringing the items home, or putting them away in safe storage, but it will be the place itself that I’ll be looking back on wistfully, knowing that, unlike many less-blessed employees trooping joylessly to their cubicles, I loved going to the office and working there, in the mute but expressive company of my favorite things. (I have a home office, of course, similar in some ways but much smaller and less carefully curated.)

In my fondest dreams, I wish that UP would someday accept my best books, manuscripts, and paintings as a donation and house them in a properly ventilated reading room, so that more generations of students can appreciate what I’ve enjoyed putting together and poring over. It was, after all, for the looks of surprise and delight on my students’ faces that I first bought these old books and brought them to class—not just to be ogled, but to be held and leafed through, so they could appreciate the materiality of literature, indeed of things before their time, in this now-centered world.

As I join that past and become, myself, an antiquarian artifact, let me say goodbye to all that, thanking my lucky stars and all the people who made UP the best possible workplace and second home to this writer-cum-bureaucrat. No bigger and brighter office to next step into than the future itself.

Penman No. 335: Senior Moments

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Penman for Monday, January 7, 2019

 

BEFORE ANYTHING else, I’d like to put in a word of praise for the only movie that my wife Beng and I really wanted to see among the entries to the recent Metro Manila Film Festival, Joel Lamangan’s Rainbow’s Sunset, a film about two gay old men on the brink of death and of the family around them. I’ve often said that in our youth- and gimmick-centered culture, we don’t have enough movies (or books and songs, for that matter) about old people, and not enough intelligent movies, either.

 Rainbow’s Sunset satisfies both criteria, offering a sensitive, often comic, in-your-face portrayal of the undiminished decades-old love between two men—and of the woman who loves them both—without losing sight of the very real complications it creates for others, no matter how sympathetically inclined. It’s a project that could very easily have given in to caricature and condescension, but it doesn’t. The acting performances are solid and engaging, both individually and as an ensemble. Aside from the lead actors Eddie Garcia and Tony Mabesa, of course, Gloria Romero and the three children—Tirso Cruz, Aiko Melendez, and Sunshine Dizon—are a delight to watch.

It’s far from a perfect movie—I find the title a bit strained (I get it, I get it) and there are a few off-key notes in the drama—but the minor flaws shouldn’t take much away from its overarching achievement. It will probably be gone from the mainstream theaters by the time this comes out, but it deserves more than passing notice, and I hope it leads to more good movies about seniors, who should know a thing or two about love and life.

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SPEAKING OF seniors, I started the New Year in the best and the worst possible way: by buying an old pen, I suppose as a late Christmas or early birthday gift to myself, but whatever the excuse, I’m happy, because it was one of the last of what we collectors call our “grail” pens (as in “Holy Grail”), something I had been dreaming about for, oh, thirty years.

I woke up early on January 1, and like most of us do, I picked up my phone to scan my messages—nothing too interesting there beyond the predictable plethora of New Year greetings. And then, unlike most of us, my digits drifted off to the fountain pen sites, just to see what people could be possibly up to. There is such a thing as a global fountain-pen community (just as there’s an antique typewriter community, a wristwatch community, a Japan-surplus community, and an Apple community—and yes, I belong to all of those, too), and it’s become my virtual hangout online.

Unlike real friends, with whom you have to chug beers and trade miserable stories that inevitably involve retirement options, Metformin, and political sleaze, these thing-centered, Web-based communities offer mostly good cheer and kind intentions. Sure, we get our share of jerks and trolls, but they’re pretty easy to weed out with a few keystrokes. These sites are the best distraction I can find from the front-page news (let’s not get started on that, shall we?), and they offer something often lost in today’s Twitter-driven dystopia: a sense of wonder and discovery, and for an aging romantic like me, an enchantment with things past. I know that we keep bemoaning how consumerism has turned us into heartless, mindless brutes, but you’ll be surprised how people can be their nicest, most civil, and most helpful selves when talking about flexing vintage Waterman nibs, locating the tension lever on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and using Stage Light in Portrait Mode on an iPhone X.

But all that’s a long excuse for treating myself in my creeping old age—I’ll hit 65 and retire in two weeks—with a new old pen. “Senior moments” are supposed to be about forgetting things, but they should also be about remembering things, chiefly that life is short and keeps getting shorter, which means that any treats you deserve or expect had better come sooner rather than later.

The fountain pen I grabbed when I saw it was a (hold your breath) Wahl-Eversharp Personal Point Gold Seal Deco Band Oversize in woodgrain ebonite with a factory 14K stub nib—meaning a large, fancy, impressive-looking pen with gold trim, great for loopy signatures and maybe for stabbing malevolent strangers in the dark (but with a stub or flat nib, it won’t do much damage). A 25-peso ballpoint will probably write better for most people, but with all due respect to most people, I’m a bit odd in some ways.

In its time, the W-E Deco Band was among the classiest of them all, alongside the Parker Duofold Senior and the Waterman Patrician—think Duesenbergs, Auburns, and Bugattis in terms of 1920s cars. This pen I got survived wars (and worse, people with clumsy hands), and given a few weeks, it will make its way from Pennsylvania to California and then to me. It won’t write a novel—maybe it’ll sign a few greeting cards—but even just sitting in my pocket, it will make a boy from Romblon feel like the Great Gatsby, for once in his Nick-Carrawayish life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 334: A Literary Yearender

 

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Penman for Monday, December 31, 2018

 

TWO BIG events rounded out the literary year for me, both of them related in some way to the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), which not incidentally marked the 40th anniversary of its founding earlier this month.

The first was Writers Night last November 23, effectively an annual reunion and pre-Christmas party of the Filipino literary community. But more than a social bash, Writers Night also marks two important points on the literary calendar: the announcement of the winner of the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award (given in alternating years to books in Filipino and English) and the launch of the latest issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature.

Now on its 18thyear, the MGBFBA’s awarding is highly anticipated, not just because of the P50,000 cash prize but also because, miraculously, the UPICW has done a pretty good job of keeping the winner’s name secret until the proverbial opening of the envelope itself. This year’s winner was Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa, published by Adarna Books, which went on to win a National Book Award the very next day.

Rappler’s Margie de Leon describes the work thus: “The first few pages alone of komikera Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa will take your breath away. Depicting local mythology’s creation of the universe, each page is a luscious spread of lively lines and bold colors….The next chapters are a narrative feat, interspersing short stories between pairs of Filipinos and the geological birth of the nation. The tangled tales between each pair of characters serve to personify the actual physical shifts that occurred in our geography millennia ago.”

The second highlight of Writers Night was the launch of the Likhaan Journal, and this year being a milestone, we launched not one but two issues—the regular journal containing 20 of the year’s best and previously unpublished works in Filipino and English, and a similar collection, edited by me, which we called 40@40, featuring new works by our top writers in Filipino and English—the difference being that the 40@40 writers all had some connection to the UPICW as former fellows, panelists, or members of the board.

As I noted in my introduction to the volume, when the UP Creative Writing Center was set up in December 1978, the country was firmly in the grip of martial law, which had been declared in 1972 and six years later had settled into a certain stability, or at least the appearance thereof, buttressed by new governmental institutions such as the Batasang Pambansa, the Ministry of Human Settlements, the Ministry of Public Information, and the National Media Production Center.

Martial law—particularly martial law of “the smiling kind” that the Palace liked to tout—had to create its own fictions, chiefly that Filipinos were free to express themselves and that Philippine culture and literature could find no better sponsor than the present regime, which had after all established the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. The establishment of the UPCWC—which became the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) in 2002—may have been part of that liberal façade, the notion that all was well in the New Society. It began as a small office where university-based writers and their friends converged for spirited chats over smuggled beer and gin (itself an act of subversion, as the university banned such libations), with no defined function graver than running the annual Writers Workshop and the occasional lecture or forum.

But over the years, and especially over the decades after the overthrow of the dictatorship at EDSA, the UPICW has grown into a truly writer- and university-driven institution, overseeing mid-career and novice writers workshops as well as seminars for teachers and translators, running an online portal to Philippine literature at Panitikan.com, conducting outreach programs, representing Philippine writing overseas, and encouraging writing in other Philippine languages beyond Filipino and English.

Even within UP, not too many Filipinos seem to appreciate the fact that the UPICW is a trailblazer and a leader in the region, indeed in all of Asia, in terms of what it does.

This proved true again in 2018’s last big literary event, the annual gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators held December 5-7 at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia. A contingent of seven Filipinos, most of them affiliated with the UPICW, represented the Philippines—possibly the largest national contingent aside from the Australians themselves.

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APWT is the region’s largest and most active literary network, and we hosted its annual conference in 2015. I sit on its advisory board, and I was accompanied in Australia by UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, writers Vlad Gonzales, Luna Sicat Cleto, Marby Villaceran, and Deedle Tomlinson, and my wife Beng. We held a very well attended panel discussion on Philippine literature, which remains a mystery to many of our neighbors who belong to the Commonwealth loop. APWT will move to Macau in 2019, and we expect an even stronger Philippine presence there.

 

Penman No. 333: An Academy of Our Own

DSC_9291.JPGPenman for Monday, December 24, 2018

 

EXACTLY A month ago, in the auditorium of the newest campus of the University of the Philippines at Bonifacio Global City, an event of great historical significance took place—the first general assembly and forum of the newly organized Akademyang Filipino, the first Philippine academy of arts, sciences, and the professions.

Conceived together by National Artist F. Sionil Jose and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, the independent and non-partisan Akademyang Filipino was set up for three main goals:

“To recognize and bring together, in one chamber, the best of Filipino minds and spirits, accomplished representatives of the Filipino arts, sciences, and professions, imbued with love of country and the spirit of service to the nation;

“To uplift the material and moral lot of the Filipino people, to define, promote and defend the best interests of the Filipino nation, and to find and nurture new sources of hope and inspiration for the Filipino youth; and

“To provide a forum for the rational discussion of pressing issues and the exploration of pathways to a better future.”

In other places, such academies have had somewhat more focused roles. The venerable Academie française is devoted to being the authority on the French language; the Taiwan-based Academia Sinica covers a broad range of disciplines but supports advanced research.

In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the collective name of the three honorific academies in those disciplines. Since its founding in 1863, these national academies have pledged “to marshal the energy and intellect of the nation’s critical thinkers to respond to policy challenges…. When faced with a complex question, we bring together experts from across disciplines to look at the evidence with fresh eyes and openness to insights from other fields. These study committees survey the landscape of relevant research, hold public meetings to gather information, and deliberate to reach consensus, which results in a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.” Studies and advice by the National Academies have covered such diverse topics as fixing the Hubble telescope, preventing wrongful convictions, and preparing young Americans for careers in science and engineering.

This is probably closer to what the Akademyang Filipino aims for—to repeat, “a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.”

In our first forum, Justice Carpio gave a masterful presentation of the history of China’s claims to Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea, using ancient maps to prove—as a good lawyer might be expected to do—the paucity of those claims. A panel of Akademya members and West Philippine Sea experts—De La Salle University’s Renato Cruz de Castro, UP’s Jay Batongbacal, and author and columnist Richard Heydarian—discussed the current Philippine government stand on the disputes was and warned against a policy of appeasement and surrender.(The DFA was invited but apparently declined to send a representative to the forum.)

The Akademya’s 100-plus founding members—a roster that could grow as more names are vetted—were selected by an interim board composed of NA Frankie Jose, National Scientist Angel Alcala, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Sen. Sonny Angara, former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Atty. Felipe Gozon, Dr. Lydia Echauz, Ms. Doris Magsaysay Ho, and myself. We also elected Justice Carpio Morales our chairperson, and NA Jose as Chairman Emeritus.

Some easily recognizable faces at the launch included former UP President Emerlinda Roman, former Education Sec. Armin Luistro, former Foreign Affairs Sec. Delia Albert, former National Historical Commission Chair Maris Diokno, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, historian Dr. Ricky Soler, Mapua University President Rey Vea, businessman Jack Ng, novelist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, sculptor Toym Imao, and Anvil Publishing chief Andrea Pasion-Flores.

A smaller group had met less formally for the first time in February last year, when Sen. Ed Angara was still around and very much involved in getting the academy off the ground alongside NA Frankie Jose. It still called itself the “Academia Filipina” then, but later changed its name in deference to an existing Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española.

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This was the first but certainly not the last of our forums, and we intend to have several of these large assembly-type meetings every year for issues of great and general significance, concerning not just politics and business but also science and the arts. We need to create new interdisciplinary points of intersection and interaction. Our artists and scientists hardly ever get heard by our policy makers. With all due respect to the lawyers and the businessmen, they too might benefit from the insights of these other disciplines, so that we do not get mired in the kind of cynical pragmatism that drives too many of our decisions today, and remember to value such abstractions as beauty and logic.

The dues we collect will help support a very small back room and also our future activities. Sponsorships are of course needed and welcome, for so long as they do not compromise the independence of our association.

On that note I would like to thank, once again, aside from our speakers, our sponsors for the Akademyang Filipino event, including the UP College of Law, whose Dean, Fides Cordero-Tan, also happens to be the Executive Director of UP-BGC. I’d also like to thank the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Sen. Jun Magsaysay, and other donors who prefer to remain anonymous for their assistance. My special thanks go to our Executive Director, Ms. Jette Jose Bergkamp, and my UP team from the Padayon Public Service Office and the Media and Public Relations Office.

Penman No. 332: Southern Surprises

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Penman for Monday, December 17, 2018

 

MY RECENT forays to southern Taiwan—the first to Tainan, and the second to Kaohsiung—reminded me that while we Pinoys love to chuckle and even snicker at how the Chinese (among others) mangle English, the economic and technological leaps they’ve made (using their own language, let’s not forget) are no laughing matter, unless you’re a Chinese entrepreneur or engineer on his or her way to the bank.

This occurred to me as I was flipping through the local travel and leisure magazines in my hotel room in Tainan between sessions of the academic conference I was attending. Typical of the prose was this advertisement for a resort on the island: “Join the exclusive equestrian sports of the aristocrats, so that parents can easily experience the price of the people, the wonderful and rich itinerary, you can easily lick the children without going far! Let you play and don’t want to go home anymore.”

I could imagine some snooty Filipinos, more English than the English, rolling on the floor and thinking that people who write that way can’t possibly go anywhere, but I would’ve liked to bring those people to the exhibits downstairs showcasing Taiwan’s state-of-the-art research in biomedical engineering, solar power, and materials science, including an interesting project aimed at improving your basketball skills through “a virtual reality basketball tactic training system.”

I don’t know how close that project will bring Taiwan to a world basketball championship, but I could see, from the presentations I was listening to, that they were going all out to become world-class champions in research and development. Our host, the National Cheng Kung University, had almost US$145 million to spend on R&D in 2017, mostly from the government. (That’s about half of the University of the Philippines’ budget for everything.)

Thankfully, we did have a break from all the S&T reports on the last day of our Tainan conference, and we were given a choice of tours between visiting a museum or an aquaculture farm. Now, I love fish as much as you do—it’s often the first thing I eat in the morning—but I wanted to have a closer look at Taiwan’s culture and history, so I hopped on the museum bus. What we saw was, well, anything but Taiwanese—unless you take the act of presenting the thing itself as an expression of Taiwan’s place in the world today.

Our destination was the Chimei Museum, named after the company that’s now the world’s largest maker of ABS resin, which goes into the making of popular plastics such as computer keyboards, auto body parts, and bicycle helmets.

The Chimei Museum is an imposing if rather odd homage to Western art and artisanship. Located on the outskirts of Tainan, it was built in 1992 by the billionaire industrialist Shi Wen-long. Now 90, Shi never got a college degree. But he’s also a passionate amateur violinist who’s played with Yo-yo Ma. That, plus his personal fortune, has allowed him to put together a stunning collection of vintage musical instruments—including priceless violins by Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati—that are now on display at the museum, in an exhibition that recreates the workshop of a master luthier or violin maker.

The Chimei’s other showstopper—aside from the Rodin gallery and some masterpieces of French realism—is its exhibit of ancient arms and armor, from the time of the Greek hoplites and medieval knights to the Japanese samurai and English crossbowmen. I have to admit to a boy’s fascination with weaponry, and having visited many of the world’s best museums, I’d have to say that the Chimei’s collection was comprehensively fearsome. These were the real things, folks, not cheap or 3-D printed replicas.

Indeed, there’s hardly anything Chinese in the design of the Chimei or in its exhibits. The large, neoclassical, Corinthian-columned museum—set off from the street by a long walkway flanked by tall statues of the Greek gods and goddesses—could have stood anywhere in Europe or the US, and comes off as a statement, as if to say, “We could have given you the chinoiserie you expect, but we chose to acquire and to present the best of the West.”

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And I can’t let this column end without mentioning the other surprise I came across in southern Taiwan, in the port city of Kaohsiung, where I also attended a conference on distance education. Our host, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, made use of a free afternoon to introduce us to the city in a most unconventional way—by giving us tickets to take the I-Ride, Kaohsiung’s so-called “flying theater”—kind of like a rollercoaster in an Imax—powered by the homegrown Brogent Group’s 3D technology, which it has exported to Hollywood and other amusement capitals worldwide. If I needed to be impressed by Taiwan’s engineers, this was the best way to do it, screaming my head off, feet dangling in the air, as we swooped over a Buddhist temple then plunged into the ocean.

While travel to Taiwan remains visa-free for Pinoys, I’m definitely returning as a tourist to Kaohsiung with my wife Beng, if only to have her  experience the exhilaration of the I-Ride and maybe take her on a cruise on the Love River, feasting on the sweet giant atisuntil our eyes bulge. As they say, in Taiwan, “you can easily lick the children without going far”—whatever that means, it sounds like fun!