Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

FOR SOME people, getting stuck in Covid lockdown with loved ones has turned out to be a test of just how “loved” one can remain after months of social non-distancing. In our case, Beng and I have gotten used to empty-nesting since our unica hija Demi went off to California to get married many innocent years ago. We’d stir awake around seven, shrug the sleep off our bodies, and stagger into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and the morning news. That was, until a few months ago, coinciding with the early closure of school amid the growing scare of coronavirus.

These days, we get woken up by three loud raps on the door, which then flies open whether or not we scream “Wait a minute!” or “No, stay away, we’re still sleeping!” In pops a tyke, barely three feet tall, who responds to the name of “Buboy” and who has grown up believing—with some justification—that our bedroom is as much his as ours (at least the bed, which—as soon as I yield ground and slink away—becomes his trampoline).

I’ve written about Buboy here before—our three-year-old apu-apuhan, the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, and younger brother to his Ate Jilliane. Jilliane is a special child, sweet in her own non-verbal way, and even at his young age Buboy realizes that he’s going to have to take care of her down the road. “Ate can’t talk,” he tells me matter-of-factly—in Filipino, of course, because we’ve never been an Inglisero household, not even with Demi. As if to compensate for his Ate, Buboy talks—a lot.

Our working day begins right after breakfast—he sits beside me and we raise a toast of calamansi juice—when we “go to Bicol.” That’s my code word for bringing him to the “big car” in the garage (a Suzuki Jimny, “big” because it sits tall and I have to lift him aboard). Like all boys, Buboy loves cars, and I’ve promised him he’ll get the big car when he grows up—which can only happen if he eats enough rice, fish, and veggies (so he does). He likes using the remote to open the Jimny before clambering aboard. He has me turn on the ignition, the aircon, and the radio, while he switches on the dome light and honks the horn. And then we’re “off to Bicol,” where his grandparents live, and where his Papa Sonny used to dive for fish. “I don’t like swimming,” Buboy complains. “It hurts my eyes.” After three minutes of “vroom-vroom!”, we’re back home, and then it’s time for TV—the Power Rangers (on our fourth rerun of Season 1) and Simon the super-rabbit.

Like me, the guy’s a gadget freak. Where Beng balks at digital controls she doesn’t recognize, Buboy has no qualms about pressing buttons and asking questions later—just to see what will turn on, light up, or start blaring. In one of those intuitive modes that you develop around rambunctious kids, I grew suspicious when the room with Buboy in it became deathly quiet, and when I popped back in, there he was in front of my laptop, eyes big as saucers at getting caught—with my Apricorn USB stick, a specially encrypted security device, plugged in. How he found that stick and even figured the proper plug-in orientation defies me up to now; had he decoded it, I would have paid for his ticket to Caltech. He can call me on his own on Facetime or Google Duo on his mother’s phone, and using its camera is a snap. “Tatay, let’s take a selfie” is one of his favorite commands, and he likes watching himself (and his papa) gyrate on TikTok. One day I was surprised to find that I had sent a message saying “#2hjjjjjnd67edhwekd]]]” to a Viber group. We’ve just brought Alexa into the household, and I just know I’m going to have to Buboy-proof her unless we want to listen to “The Alphabet Song” all day.

Beyond digital smarts, Buboy likes to think he has a firm grip on reality. Like any three-year-old, he’s still terrified of the moo-moo, which is what he calls the shadows cast on the wall behind me by the light, and which I employ to gain some leverage on his behavior. But when we watch snakes and sharks on National Geographic and I try to scare him with them, he shrugs dismissively and says, “That’s only TV!” When once I couldn’t find the remote (which he routinely hides), he sighed and fished it out with a comment: “Tatay is blind.” He asked me about the luggage rack on top of the Jimny: “What’s that for?” It’s for bags, I said—do you want to go up there? “I’m not a bag,” he shot back.

To make sure he doesn’t overdose on technology, Beng has begun to teach him drawing and painting, believing that there’s nothing like art to stretch the imagination. And what a stretch he’s making, showing me his drawing of a tree—basically a long line with some fuzz on top. He can sense I’m underwhelmed. “Draw me something else, something more,” I say. Like what, he says. Like, uhm, a monkey—what does a monkey eat? A banana, he says. So draw me a monkey eating a banana. I already did, he says. Where, I ask? He’s up there, in the tree.

He brings a teddy bear to bed, along with a bag of his favorite toys. One day he asked us, “Tatay, is Nanay your toy?” Beng’s brows shot up, as eager to know the answer as Buboy; I had to be very careful. “Yes, Buboy, Nanay is my toy—my teddy bear.” I should’ve stopped there, but I added, “A big one.” He giggled, but she didn’t like that at all.

I dread to think what he’ll start asking when he turns four in September, but by that time his nursery class should have resumed, albeit online. He’ll be part of the first generation of Zoom-schooled kids, but I suspect we can do better than Zoom. 

Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

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Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

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I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

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As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

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That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

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(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.

 

Penman No. 376: The Other Pepe

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Penman for Monday, December 9, 2019

 

THIS COLUMN started out in my mind as an account of a return visit to Dapitan, where my wife Beng and I had first gone eight years ago to pay homage to Jose Rizal, who had lived there in exile for four years between 1892 and 1896, until shortly before his arrest in Europe and his trial and execution in Manila. It was by many accounts a happy and productive interlude, during which he practiced his skills as physician, teacher, poet, and scientist, a period highlighted by his romance with a young woman named Josephine Bracken, whom he would later marry at death’s door.

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Indeed there’s no way you can visit his beachfront estate named Talisay, now a national shrine, without being swept up by the epic drama of Rizal’s last years—a drama wrought not in the theater of armed combat, but in the innermost recesses of his spirit, torn as he was by many loves and longings, successively losing a stillborn son, his freedom, and then his life. Again I looked at his clothes, his letters, and his artworks, trying to see the man beneath the trees, or on the water’s edge pointing something out to Josephine in the gathering dusk. (I keep a plaster bust of Rizal, crafted in 1961 by Anastacio Caedo, in my home office, and often find myself staring at it and asking, “What are you thinking?”)

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We had gone down to Dapitan via Dipolog, where the airport is, to enjoy a weekend with old friends from our time as the elves and acolytes of Dr. Gerry Sicat at the National Economic and Development Authority, back in the 1970s. Our boss at the Economic Information Staff, Frankie Aseniero, and his wife Nanette had graciously invited us to visit them in Dipolog, where Frankie, now retired but not quite, was a gentleman-farmer planting cacao and milling coco sugar and vinegar for the export market. With Beng and me were Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer-physician Ginny Pineda Garcia and her husband the photographer Oliver Garcia and the poet Fidel Rillo.

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We’re all friends now in our seniorhood, but I have to admit, with some shame, that in our rebellious twenties we gave Frankie a hard time at the office, so let me make up for some of that by talking about his other talents, beyond business and management, as well as his fascinating family history. As it happens, Francisco Aseniero, Jr. is also one of our country’s most celebrated tenors who never fails to make us swoon every time he launches into “Stranger in Paradise” or “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”; he has concertized all over the world and continues to lend his voice to programs benefiting worthy causes.

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How Frankie’s story connects with Rizal and a later phase of our history brings us back to Talisay, where Frankie’s grandfather Jose, then a boy of eleven or twelve, became a student of the other Pepe. So devoted was the boy to his teacher that he accompanied Rizal to Manila, hoping to be educated further in the big city, but events quickly overtook both master and pupil, and the young Jose had to suffer the harrowing experience of witnessing his hero’s execution. He had joined Rizal’s mother and sister on the eve of his death, and had seen and copied Rizal’s farewell poem, according to Frankie’s brother George, a philosopher and historian. Jose Aseniero went on to serve as governor of Zamboanga before the war. At one point he also acquired some of Rizal’s belongings, among which is the four-poster bed that can still be found in the Asenieros’ ancestral home.

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The story is no less interesting on Frankie’s maternal side. His grandfather there was a Swedish engineer named Charles Gustaf Carlson who migrated to the United States in 1895, and shortly after became a Protestant missionary to the Philippines, arriving in 1902 and being counted among the “Thomasites” who taught English to Filipinos. Charles became principal of the Industrial Trade School in Zamboanga, where he married a former student, Eugenia Enriquez. Among their six children was Ingeborg Eughenia, who met and married Francisco Aseniero, Jose’s engineer-son.

But what brought the whole experience together for me was a story that Frankie told us on our last day, as we were winding down, about one of his concerts in a small town in Bulacan. He and some friends had been invited to sing there, and he had obliged as usual. “I was surprised to find that in such a small place, the people thronged to see us, dressed in their Sunday best,” Frankie recalled. “We felt like we owed it to them to sing our hearts out, and we did.” He found himself singing like he would have done in London, Vienna, or New York, and the crowd responded with utmost appreciation as Frankie and his party offered up Broadway and operatic classics. “It was a magical moment, and seeing the people enjoying the music made my hair stand on end!”

How Jose Rizal himself would have loved that, having brought his world-honed talent to Dapitan, enriching and ennobling its soil for other and lesser Pepes like us following in his footsteps.

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Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

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Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

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I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

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Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

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Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

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There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas

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Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019

 

FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.

 

 

 

Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 365: “Tenderness Is Radical”

49686189_10155871898421881_8712630533357568000_n.jpgPenman for Monday, August 5, 2019

 

A RECENT talk of mine to the graduates of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines seems to have gone viral, but what people don’t know is that there were several of us who addressed the graduates that night—it was a testimonial dinner, not the commencement ceremony itself. All the other speakers shared delightfully inspiring remarks, but one impressed me in particular—Hannah Reyes Morales, a young but already globally renowned documentary photographer who graduated with a Speech Communication degree from UP just eight years ago. Hannah has done prizewinning work for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic, some of which you can find on www.hannah.ph. I asked for and got her permission to share excerpts of her talk.

Today, I want to talk to you about building the possible.

When I left these halls I was a scrawny 20-year-old, putting herself through the last four semesters of school by selling ukay clothes online and photographing drunk people in bars on weekends near Tiendesitas as an event photographer. I couldn’t join my friends in eating out because I couldn’t afford it, I owed rent money to the building in Xavierville where I lived, and my mom was convinced that any dreams I had for a career in the arts and photography were a quirk and a passing fancy, and that after graduation I should apply for a job as a teller in a bank.

I honor this part of my journey. It was during this period that I learned to speak with strangers, to hustle for each paycheck, and what the true necessities were. I learned to be efficient with my time, but I never, ever lost sight of the work my heart wanted to do.

I hope that you figure out how to build a home where your creativity, your curiosity, your sense of purpose, and your wildness can keep growing. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that the world needs more safe hands working towards better.

As a photographer I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s spaces. I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask people to help me understand things I couldn’t quite grasp.

Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that I get to confront the world. Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that the world confronts me, and tells me the truth.

I’ve been offered meals by people who were hungry, allowed into moments of great vulnerability. I’ve photographed people swept up in conflicts that they had nothing to do with. I’ve seen people driven from their homes. I’ve witnessed loss and devastation.

And in the midst of horrors I saw how beauty and kindness persist. People with incredible grace, reminding me that the world doesn’t owe me anything. I met Puti, a young girl in extreme poverty, who called herself a queen. I carry her story with me every day, I hold it in my heart.

Their truths have informed my own. I hope when you meet people with a vastly different reality that their truths might also inform yours.

And when you’ve finally built towards freedom, use it to plant gardens around you, to build bridges and safe spaces. Manila can be a hostile place for artists and for dreamers. I don’t know what I would have done without people who make it less so.

My life is only possible because of the love that my friends embrace me with, the safety that enables me to do more, to dream bigger, to imagine all that is possible yet.

My own strength stems from love, my bravery blooms from the tenderness of others.

As artists our hearts and minds are needed by our land. Our gaze, and our ability to think differently are needed in envisioning better for our country, and our world.

Our generation—yes, I’d like to think that I’m still part of this generation—inherits a future that needs visionaries. Climate change, refugee crises, the rise of impunity are all realities that await outside these doors.

When I opened my eyes what I saw brought me to tears. But I always knew that closing my eyes again would not make the adversity stop. There will be those who will tell you to just keep them shut, to care a little bit less. They will tell you that you will be happier if you didn’t give a damn.

It took me a while to own that that was never who I was. It took me a minute to understand that sensitivity wasn’t a weakness. That tenderness is radical.

There is a line from Audre Lorde that I hold on to, very fiercely.  ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’

So today I implore you to use your strength—whatever form it takes—in the service of your vision. Make your time here count. Pay attention to that which makes you feel awake, and living—the hard work will come.

And lest we forget: the good, the beautiful, the wild, and the miraculous await outside these doors, too. Keep them alive.