Qwertyman No. 19: The Real Maria Ressa

Qwertyman for Monday, December 12, 2022

I WAS very honored to speak last Saturday at the launch of Maria Ressa’s new book, How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (Harper, 2022). I’d read an advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago, and to cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of buying a book to read for the holidays or to gift to friends, look no further. This book, for me, is among the year’s best in nonfiction.

I have to emphasize that word—nonfiction. As we all know we live in times when fiction has taken over as the most influential form of human discourse, particularly in the political arena. As a practicing fictionist, I should be happy about that, but I’m not and I can’t be, because so much of it is bad fiction, crudely written—and surprisingly, infuriatingly effective, at least with a certain kind of reader. 

Maria’s book cuts through all that. It’s undisguised, old-fashioned, in-your-face truth-telling, told in the same voice and tone we’ve become familiar with over the years of listening to her reportage over CNN. I’m sure that, like me, many of you wondered the first time you heard her: “Who was this little brown-complexioned woman speaking with an American accent?” She looked Filipino, but how come we’d never seen her before?

This was all before she rose to prominence—some would say notoriety—as the moving spirit behind Rappler, and subsequently to global fame as a Nobel Prize winner for Peace. We identified with her travails, shared her anger and sadness at the abuse she has received, and rejoiced in her victories, whether in the courts or in the larger sphere of public opinion. 

But how well do we really know Maria Ressa, and whatever drives her to be who and what she is? This book takes us to the person behind the phenomenon, and answers many questions we may have had about her and her stubborn advocacies.

The book’s title sounds like that of an instruction manual—which it is, and also is not, being part autobiography, part journalism, and part testimonial. As a manual for freedom fighters, it emphasizes the need for collaborative and collective action against seemingly insurmountable forces. Those forces now include the Internet, which, as Maria documents with both precision and profound dismay, has morphed from a medium that once held all kinds of liberative promises into a medium for mass deception and targeted assault. She draws her counsel not from some esoteric guru or academic paradigm, but from some very basic values that have informed her own life—the Honor Code she followed in school, and the Golden Rule.

“That’s what I lay out in this book,” she says, “an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have—over time—become instinctive but thoughtful decisions.”

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the personal and the political—and at some point they become inextricably fused—that forms the fiber of Maria’s narrative and gives it strength. Her convictions are grounded in personal experience; they have not been paid for—as the hacks in the journalistic trade will allege, seeking to bring her down to their own level—except in the coin of personal suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment and violence.

But we learn from this book that trauma is nothing new to Maria. (We also learn that Maria Ressa wasn’t the name she was born into, but to find out her birth name, you’ll have to buy the book.) From her abrupt relocation from Manila to America at the age of ten, to her journalistic immersion in the horrors of conflict and disaster in Indonesia and Ormoc, the book chronicles Maria’s quest for truth, meaning, and purpose in her life, and that of others. She stresses the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present, quoting TS Eliot’s phrase, “the present moment of the past.”

And so can we, she seems to suggest, even in these times of high anxiety, when we can see the vultures hovering over such once-sacrosanct treasures as our pension funds, while billions more go to feed the dogs of an increasingly untenable counter-insurgent war. The big words we have become used to tossing around—truth, freedom, reason, justice, democracy—they all come down to a personal choice to do the right thing, and the courage to do it. 

Nowhere is this matter of choice more evident than in the fact that Maria is here in the Philippines, having willfully subjected herself to our brand of justice, however imperfect it may be, instead of escaping to the safety of America or another haven, which her dual citizenship if not her celebrity can certainly afford her. She will see her own story through to the end, in the locale where it matters, among the people to whom it matters most.

I’ve often remarked, as a creative writer and professor of literature, that in this country, the writers most in danger of political persecution and retribution are really not fictionists or poets like me. Not since Rizal has a Filipino novelist been shot dead for what he wrote. For sure, we have lost many brilliant writers to the struggle for freedom and democracy—Emman Lacaba, and most recently Lorena Tariman and her husband Ericson Acosta. But they were killed by the State not for what they wrote—the State is illiterate when it comes to metaphor—but for what they allegedly did.

Rather, the most imperiled writers in the Philippines as in many other places are the journalists who speak the language of the people and of their plaints in terms too clear to ignore. They could be radio announcers like Percy Lapid, or the victims of wholesale murder in Maguindanao, or high-profile and exemplary targets such as Maria Ressa. It would have been easy for her to lash back at her critics and tormentors with the same viciousness. But, she says, “I will not become a criminal to fight a criminal. I will not become a monster to fight a monster.”

That, too, is a difficult choice, and one I am sure we are often tempted to cast aside. But Maria’s equanimity in the face of savagery shames us back into our better selves. It will be that kind of quiet resolve that we will need to survive and prevail. After all, we survived martial law. We can survive this regime—with agility, patience, and courage. But don’t take my word for it. Read Maria’s book to know that we can, and why we must.

Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qwertyman No. 12: The Changing of the Colors

Qwertyman for Monday, October 24, 2022

(Image from esquiremag.ph)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight No. 20: Mindfulness and Memory

Hindsight for May 30, 2022

(Photo from toolshero.com)

WHEN I I unexpectedly slipped into a black pool of anxiety and depression a couple of years ago—another unwitting casualty of the pandemic—I learned a new word from my psychiatrist: “mindfulness,” defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

It’s a therapeutic technique to keep your mind from straying into dark forests and crevices, focusing instead on the pen in your hand or the chunk of melon you’re about to swallow. Accompanied by meditation and measured breathing, it slows and calms you down just long enough for you to understand that you’re alive, you’re safe, and you will be well. It puts you back in control of your runaway thoughts and emotions, giving you back the composure you need to face your problems for the day.

It works. Of course I still take my nightly dose of sertraline (your doctor might prescribe something else; don’t take my word for it), but even just the awareness that you can, on your own, stake out a little zone of peace and quiet around yourself is liberating. Paradoxically, it allows you to deal with the stress of the moment by putting you in the moment. It’s the anticipation of terrible things about to happen—especially bad for imaginative minds—that brings on the fear and anxiety. Mindfulness snaps you back from that bungee jump to despair.

I thought about this last week as I encountered many friends online still in shock and grief over their electoral loss, brimming with agitation over what political atrocities could be forthcoming, and eager to begin the campaign for 2028 pronto. The trolls are gleefully feeding this anguish: one prayed that VP Leni’s plane would crash, another declared all Kakampinks “enemies of the state” who deserve to be hunted down, and yet another—despite doing it herself—faulted the Robredos for the crime of taking graduation pictures. 

When I realize that this is the world we now live in, roiling with nastiness, idiocy, and barbarity, I feel like reaching for something stronger than Zoloft to ward off the bad vibes (I also have a prescription for Xanor, but haven’t touched it for a year). But then I remember the old Jedi mindfulness trick, take a few deep abdominal breaths, think about places the ogres can’t reach, and soon enough I’m functional again, capable of absorbing the absurdities and ironies of the hour.

One more thing about mindfulness: it works well with daydreaming of the positive and wishful kind. The writer Sam Brinson quotes the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: “A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal-driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.” Kaufman argues for a balance between focusing your thoughts and letting them stray, which is relaxing, and a relaxed mind is better at making creative connections.

I don’t know if you could call it daydreaming, but lately my mind has drifted back to my own “golden era”—a time when things felt good and I felt good, when the country was in a bouncy mood and seemed to be going in the right direction: the mid- to late 1990s, the FVR years. We had a lot of problems—a rash of brownouts among them—but you could sniff the optimism in the air. (Full disclosure: I was one of FVR’s speechwriters, so it’s possible that I drank the Kool-Aid and fell for my own prose.) 

Beng and I got ourselves a decidedly downscale apartment close to West Avenue where huge rats scurried overhead at night, and we bought our food from the talipapa down the street. Having brought up that memory, I realize that we like thinking and talking about the past mainly for the fact that it’s over, it already happened, which means that whatever it was, we survived, presumably for the better. I’m sure it wasn’t as rosy as I now make it out to be, and that I’m blocking out the less pleasant parts. But that’s the way the memory works, the way it protects us from pain and provides us with some sense of certainty, some clear point of reference, in these nebulous times.

Just recalling how it was ten, eleven years ago fills me with a combination of wistfulness and regret. It was a time when despots around the world—Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Khaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—were being toppled or dying; Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were still something of a joke; China was being rocked by pro-democracy protests; and a new platform called Friendster made waves on the Internet, where there were still pockets of innocence and honesty to be found.

It was a time when people and politics still retained a modicum of civility and intelligence, when the truth was nothing but the truth, when human rights were not to be cursed or spat upon, when bad leaders got their due, and when God seemed to be awake most of the time, sending a bolt of lightning here and a swath of sunshine there. It was the world before Covid, when all our friends and loved ones were still alive and laughing over their beer and sisig, when face masks were for the sick, when people danced and even kissed and made love without fear. The future sounded like it would be a wonderful place; technology and human genius would make sure of it.

When I woke up last week to the news that 19 schoolchildren and two teachers had been massacred in Texas, I tried to imagine what a mother there must have felt, how she would have given her own life to turn back the clock just one day. I was only beginning to be inured to the savagery in Ukraine, and now I saw that it was always possible for evil to become even crueller. For a minute, the aches left by May 9 felt dull and trivial.

There are things that Zoloft will not banish, but I know that mindfulness and the memory of a saner past can give me the cool head and steady heart that I will need for the long fight. Bring it on; we will survive, if not prevail.

Hindsight No. 7: Disinformation and Democracy

Hindsight for Monday, February 28, 2022

(Image from designtaxi.com)

LAST FRIDAY—the 36th anniversary of EDSA 1—I spoke to a group of university students who wanted to know what I thought of Filipino democracy. 

I told them that at EDSA, along with millions of other Filipinos, I jumped for joy at the news that Ferdinand Marcos had fled with his family. We did not know—and might not have cared too much then—that they had brought two planeloads of gold and cash with them to Hawaii. All we wanted to hear was that they were gone, presumably for good, and that we were off to a fresh start at peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity. The darkness of the past twenty years would lift, and a new Philippines would emerge, truly democratic and firmly opposed to any form of despotism.

Today we realize what a fantasy that was, what a temporary reprieve. Under Rodrigo Duterte, if the polls are right, most of our people have once again embraced authoritarian rule, implicitly accepting its attendant excesses. The dictator’s son is back, and may even become our next President—to the delight of his supporters for whom martial law never happened; or if it did, then it was a golden age to which we will soon be returning, an age of new roads and bridges, clean streets, industrial peace, Miss Universe pageants, and eternal sunshine. 

Indeed it would be as if the past half-century between 1972 and 2022 were a confused and hazy dream, and now we were waking up where we had left off yesterday, when Ferdinand E. Marcos was poised to “save the Republic and build a New Society.” His son is making sure that we don’t miss the connection by heralding his entrance at his campaign rallies with the anthem of martial law, “May Bagong Silang.” Most of his followers today have never heard that song, or understand its chilling context, or the price we paid—in blood and in billion-dollar loans—for that “new dawn.” To them, it is a catchy jingle, in marching tempo. It comes with the smell of money and power in the air, the promise of a shower of gold for the hopeful masses. 

This, of course, is also a fantasy, but a powerful one—and I think I will be correct to surmise that many of the students I addressed, and even their teachers, fully believe it. And why not? They were never taught in school about the horrors of martial law. Instead, they were told that those were good times, that the Marcoses were good leaders who were deposed by their enemies and the CIA, that rich people don’t steal, and that the Marcos billions came from the gods, Yamashita, and anywhere but the Philippine treasury. That diet of lies has now become a catered banquet. 

The biggest enemy of democracy today—more than at any other time in our or even the world’s history—is disinformation: the willful distortion or fabrication of information to create false beliefs or impressions in the minds of people, turning bad to good, wrong to right, and vice versa. 

This is happening not only here in the Philippines, but in many other places around the world—including America, where Donald Trump has been pushing the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, despite the lack of any credible evidence. Even earlier, in what has by now become a cliché, Josef Goebbels thundered that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. 

During and after WWII, military experts engaged in what was called “psywar” or psychological warfare to weaken the enemy’s mental defenses, lower morale, and make people switch sides. This was done through radio, leaflets, newspapers, and other media available at the time.

Today the prevalence of the Internet and social media has magnified the means for disinformation by a magnitude of millions. And this is scary, because according to a recent survey, every other Pinoy can’t tell real news from fake. How can a society so prone to disinformation—to fake news—function well as a democracy?

Last month, the Akademyang Filipino (on whose Board of Trustees I serve) sponsored a forum on the topic of “Can Democracy Win in May 2022?” Most such questions are meant to be rhetorical, with obvious answers. But this time, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its actual complexity. The problem, I realized, is that we no longer have a clear and common idea of what “democracy” means.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are politicians eager to appropriate it. “Democracy” has to have been one of the most ambiguous and most abused words of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When a brutal totalitarian state like North Korea styles itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” you know something somewhere has gone awfully wrong. Dictators will call their actions democratic—as Ferdinand Marcos and Muammar Ghaddafi did—by asserting that they are acting on behalf of the people, a responsibility that presumably entitles them to extraordinary powers and compensations.

In my layman’s understanding, democracy is the rule and exercise of power by the people through representatives they choose by a free and fair election. It seems simple, but immediately we can see how vulnerable this definition of democracy is to interpretation and manipulation. What is a “free and fair” election? Does it simply mean an election free of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud?

If a candidate wins more than 51% of the vote without obvious coercion or cheating, then will that candidate have won a democratic election? But what if those voters had been fed provably false information? What if they willingly believed that information to be true, and voted on the basis of it? Would this still be democracy at work? 

Arguably, yes, because democracy never promised only intelligent outcomes. Elections are emotional, not rational, exercises. This disturbs me deeply, but again I have to ask myself, am I idealizing democracy as something that can be perfected? Or should I just accept that democracy, like society itself, is inherently messy, mercurial, and manipulable? 

What kind of democracy do we Filipinos have, and what kind of democracy do we want? The vote this May will help provide the answer. 

Persian Rose

(Some years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of “sudden fiction”—short stories no more than about 500 words each—and at that time I had just found two bottles of a very rare Sheaffer ink from the 1950s called Persian Rose, although sadly one bottle was spoiled, so I decided to write a story about it, and here it is.)

HIS HANDS trembled with excitement when the parcel arrived; it had taken three weeks to cross the Pacific—and a few days more before that to find its way to the main PO in Los Angeles from someone named W. Kiffin in Broken Bow, Nebraska. He had no idea who “W. Kiffin” was, if “W” was a man’s or a woman’s name; he usually knew his eBay sellers, and got his vintage pens and inks from established dealers with positive feedbacks of 1000+. These were aggregators for whom pickers trawled the backwoods of Kansas and Wisconsin for that burgundy 1937 Parker Senior Maxima in mint condition, very possibly a gift put away in a drawer and soon forgotten. Why? Did the owner die—a plane crash, a ferry accident, a bullet in Iwo Jima? Each old pen hobbled in with a story, and there were hundreds of them now in his collection, from a continent and sometimes a century away. By the time he had run the pen through the ultrasonic cleaner, put in a new rubber sac, and polished the cap and barrel, the pen looked new and the stories were gone down the drain.

This time he had bought a Lady Duofold in jade green and a bottle of ink from W. Kiffin. Kiffin was new on eBay, had a feedback of 6, and had apparently been disposing of his or her grandmother’s effects. That’s what the advertisement said: “Nana’s stuff, found in a drawer.” It was the ink more than the pen that excited him: a possibly unopened bottle of Sheaffer’s Persian Rose, a bright purplish pink from the 1950s much sought after by connoisseurs the way wine collectors prized something like a Petrus 1947. A small bottle of Persian Rose could sell for as much as $85, and he had bagged the ink and pen for just $16.50 both, plus shipping.

As he opened the Jiffy bag he saw that the pen had browned with age, as he expected. Its nib was stubbed and well used; Nana had probably written with it to the last. But the ink was still in its original box, which was a little frayed but intact. Eagerly he opened it and slowly uncapped the bottle; Persian Rose was always a question—would it keep fresh, retain its vivid hue? What drove Nana to get it? A flush of joy? An expectation of many long letters to be written over that summer in Broken Bow? 

The cap came off with a slight twist and he realized it had been opened—maybe once or twice. The ink looked darker than blood. He dipped a clean new pen into the liquid and wrote a line on the sheet he had laid out for the ceremony: the ink was spoiled. He shuddered with disappointment and put the bottle away.

Later, he worked on the Duofold, and ran the nib under tap water. The brightest rush of pink bled out of the nib—the truest Persian Rose, dried out for longer than he had been alive—and vanished in a floral swirl, like Nana’s last breath.

Penman No. 430: Rizal’s Typewriter

Penman for Monday, December 20, 2021

NOW THAT I have your attention, let me backtrack quickly and clarify that title: I’m talking about a typewriter that Jose Rizal or the Katipunan could have used, had they been tech-savvy enough and infected with 19th-century FOMO.

Early this month, a box I had been eagerly awaiting arrived from England, where I had found the machine on—where else?—eBay, selling for a reasonable price (“reasonable,” that is, to oddball collectors like me). Inside the box was a wooden case, visibly old, with a latch on each side. I undid both latches and the case opened to reveal what I expected to see: “an antique Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter with spare typewheel in original oak case,” according to the ad I saw. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t the machine itself—it was the fragrance of oak, still embedded in the wood after more than a century.

Why did I even want the Blick, as the typewriter invented by the American George Canfield Blickensderfer came to be known? By the time the first Blick was patented in 1891, the typewriter had been on the market for about 17 years (many prototypes preceded the Sholes and Glidden, but were never mass-produced, except for the sci-fi-worthy Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1870). But most were big and bulky, and—surprise—wrote on the other side of the typist, who couldn’t see what he or she was typing. 

The Blick No. 5 was the first typewriter that could truly be called a portable, with a keyboard and a front-facing platen or paper roller, much like its modern counterpart. Think of it as the MacBook Air of its time. It looked like an insect with a big head and spindly legs, and even more strikingly, it employed what its inventor called the “scientific” DHIATENSOR keyboard—those bottom-row letters supposedly figuring in 85 percent of the words in English. QWERTY had already established itself as the standard layout early on, and later Blicks would use it, but I preferred the quirkiness of DHIATENSOR.

The Blick No. 5 was given its public debut at the 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a monumental event meant to showcase such novelties as a moving walkway, AC electricity, and the Ferris wheel. The small, lightweight typewriter became a hit, helped along by the fact that it sold at a third of the 100 dollars that most other typewriters cost at the time.

So I wanted one in my collection for historical purposes; prior to this, my earliest machine was a larger and grander-looking Hammond 12 from around 1905. That Hammond got to me, also in its original wooden case and all the way from Ohio, luckily in one piece. 

That’s the trouble with collecting any machine with scores of tiny parts a hundred years old—iron corrodes, rubber shrinks, wood warps, paint fades; screws come off, joints get fused solid, whole sections vanish, and often all you have left is a rusty lump of metal better tossed into the garbage. 

Most Blicks and other old typewriters you can find on eBay will manifest at least a few of these problems. Missing parts—obscure and ancient—can be hard to find; thankfully a global network of typewriter enthusiasts exists to offer help and advice online. Reviving a machine with frozen typebars is another major chore; but again expert repairmen still remain to come to the rescue. (Among them is our own Quiapo-based Gerald Cha, whom I’ve written about, through whose hands all my machines pass for the requisite CLA—cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment.) Shipping is yet another potentially harrowing complication—fragile, valuable, and irreplaceable machines can be turned into scrap with one drop of a poorly padded box.

It was a miracle that the Blickensderfer turned up at my doorstep whole, complete, and needing just a bit of lubrication. When Gerald typed out its first few letters in script, it was as though a mute singer had found her voice after a century.

But one more ritual had to be performed: dating the machine to the year it was manufactured (mine was an English model, made in America but sold out of Newcastle-on-Tyne). For this, typewriter collectors have an online resource to fall back on: typewriterdatabase.com, which has been painstakingly crowdsourcing and cataloguing the serial numbers of hundreds of brands of typewriters. I first had to locate the number on my Blick; it was there on the upper right of the bottom of the frame—68403. A quick check yielded the year it was made: 1896. More than liking the Blick, I now stood in awe of it.

I’d like to fantasize that some of these machines made their way to Manila and figured, somehow or other, in the Revolution, although I do have to admit that the standard image of Rizal poised to write “Mi Ultimo Adios” with a quill pen in hand is much more appealing than him pecking away at a keyboard. 

(Image from joserizal.com)

I asked Ambeth Ocampo about it, and he said that while he hadn’t come across any connection between Rizal and a typewriter, our hero surely would have encountered it in his many travels abroad. Rio Almario seems to recall having seen a copy of the Katipunan’s Kartilya in typescript, but we can’t be certain when that was made. With the Americans came the Remingtons—and it’s no small coincidence that the same company made the firearms that subdued us and the typewriters we began writing in English on. I can only stare at my Blickensderfer No. 5 and wonder what stories sailed across its paper horizon.

Penman No. 426: A Provinciano Comes Home

Penman for Monday, October 25, 2021

THIS THURSDAY, October 28, a small and socially-distanced book launch will be held at the Development Bank of the Philippines in Makati to honor one of the DBP’s guiding lights, and one of the most distinguished and accomplished economists and diplomats of his time. I was privileged to have been asked to write this book, titled O, Ilaw: The Life and Legacy of Leonides S. Virata, by the late Leo’s son Luis Juan or Buboy, himself a highly successful businessman.

Few people below 65 will remember Leo Virata now, which was one reason why the book, published by the Cavite Historical Society, was written. For Buboy, it was to make sure that his children and grandchildren will know his father the way he did, and to introduce Leo to a new generation of Filipinos now sadly too used to seeing government officials and businessmen as crooks. 

Leo Virata was, in various phases of his life, both a public servant and a pillar of the business community. Born in Imus, Cavite in 1918 to the family that bred his eldest brother Enrique and Enrique’s son Cesar, Leo was an academic standout from grade school to college, graduating cum laude in Business Administration from the University of the Philippines before being sent on to Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University for graduate studies. Caught by the war in the US, Leo then became Gen. Carlos P. Romulo’s indispensable aide, all the way to the United Nations. 

He returned to the Philippines after the war to set up the research department at the new Central Bank, a convergence point for the best and brightest young economic minds of the time, including Horacio Lava, Benito Legarda Jr., and Sixto K. Roxas. He then moved to Philam Life in 1952 as financial vice-president and vice-chairman of its investment committee, spearheading the company’s support for vital economic projects, including Filoil, Far East Bank, Bacnotan Cement, and Manila Doctors Hospital, among others. 

After almost two decades in the private sector, Leo was taken in by President Marcos in 1969 as Secretary of Commerce and Industry, before being appointed chairman of the DBP in 1970. The bank was then saddled by bad loans, but Leo cleaned up the mess as best he could and reoriented the bank to support countryside development. Tragically, he died in 1976 aged only 58 of lung cancer, and was universally mourned for his brilliance, his dedication to public service, and his integrity (when he took over the DBP, he explicitly ordered his relatives not to visit him at his office).

When Buboy asked me to write his father’s biography a few years ago, I had heard of the name but knew very little of the man himself, and immediately I realized how difficult it would be to reanimate the character of a subject who had been gone for over 40 years. Almost always, in my previous assignments, I had had the luxury of working with subjects who were still very much alive and blessed with elephantine memories (as Wash SyCip was) or had roomfuls of catalogued materials gathered over the decades waiting to be sorted out (as Ed Angara did). Family members are a great resource, and Buboy and his wife Libet gave me all the help they could, but sadly Leo’s wife Bebe Lammoglia Virata—a renowned art collector—and Buboy’s sister Vanna had passed on. 

Thankfully, some luminaries whom Leo mentored or influenced were still around—among them, the journalist Jake Macasaet, and businessmen and public officials such as Manny Zamora, Louie Villafuerte, Cesar Zalamea, Titoy Pardo, and Johnny Litton—from whom I was able to get the most interesting vignettes about Leo and his times. (Among other things, Leo did not let his relationship with Marcos intrude into his decisions, and could say no to the man; the Viratas had lost land to the Marcoses, recovered only after EDSA.)

Writing a biography requires more than fleshing out someone’s Wikipedia entry. I always remind my clients that I’m a novelist rather than a professional historian, so my interest lies in capturing a character inside and out, trusting the story to reveal the subject’s strengths and weaknesses without having to editorialize on his or her behalf.

My writing stalled for about a year as I struggled to fill in gaps about Leo’s professional and personal life. Impossible as it seemed, I wanted to hear the man himself; Leo was a prodigious speaker and crowd-pleaser (the title of the book adverts to his favorite kundiman, which he would sing at the drop of a hat). I got a terrific break when Buboy unearthed two scrapbooks bulging with Leo’s memorabilia and notes from his years in the US, as a student and as CPR’s right-hand man. Finally, in this collection of postcards, concert tickets, restaurant menus, and such ephemera—alongside his correspondence with CPR—the person emerged, standing on the verge of an outstanding career, finding his footing in a world wracked by war, thousands of miles away from the groves of Imus.

Despite having traveled the world and having married an Italian mestiza, Leo remained a provinciano at heart. When Leo died, hundreds of townsfolk and schoolchildren lined the road leading to his grave in his hometown, which considered him a hero. I wonder how many of our leaders today will deserve that kind of farewell.

Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.