Penman No. 442: Yes, You Cane!

Penman for Sunday, September 4, 2022

AS IF I didn’t have enough junk filling up every corner of the house, I’ve lately gone on another collecting binge, for which the only justification I can offer is that, well, it’s age-appropriate. 

I’m talking about collecting canes and walking sticks (we’ll use those terms interchangeably for this article, although there are technical differences between them), accessories we now associate with the onset of decrepitude or some other infirmity. I’m not quite there yet—although, at 68, I should need no excuse for carrying a cane, especially for my periodic attacks of gout—but I thought it prudent to prepare now for the inevitable, and acquire artful and functional canes while I’m still sentient enough to know between wood and plastic.

I’m not sure when this newfound diversion began for me. I’d been using the familiar, adjustable metal canes you can buy at drugstores for my gout, which Beng has also leaned on for her arthritis. At some point—as with my other follies—I must have said to myself, “If I’m going to carry this around all day, it might as well be nice. No, forget nice, it might as well be grand!”

And so began my hunt—online, in Japan-surplus shops, and wherever else you can find them—for the perfect cane, which, as soon as you say it, you realize is an impossibility, because the next one is always going to be better, or at least different.  That’s just how it is for collectibles, and how my few working fountain pens grew to 400 at one point (now trimmed down to a more modest 150). 

To bring some reason into this passion, let’s go back to the utilitarian roots of walking sticks and canes, supposedly in the long sticks or poles that shepherds carried to protect themselves and their flocks from predators like wolves. The same sticks were used as walking aids, to climb up hills and mountains with, as well as for taking measurements. By the 1500s, with the use of cane for the shafts, the word “cane” entered popular usage.

Meanwhile, beyond saving you from a bad fall, these wooden sticks found a new and loftier purpose in the hands of men (and some women) who ruled over vast kingdoms and had to show something for it. They became scepters for emperors, kings, and queens—bishops also took to holding even longer staffs—and as such had to look the part, acquiring embellishments of silver, gold, and precious gemstones. When you had to say something like “Off with his head!”, it seemed more convincing to do it with an upraised stick. Moses, of course, had the most potent rod of all, good for getting water out of rocks and for smiting down the detested Amalekites. 

(Image from 123rf.com)

All that pomp and pageantry associated with carrying sticks must have rubbed off on the bourgeoisie, who took to canes as fashion accessories, one more way of showing (or showing off) how prosperous and important one was. Carrying a cane didn’t mean you were lame; to the contrary, it suggested that you wielded power as a bona fide member of the gentry. Genteel ladies had their own versions, some of which had secret compartments for perfumes, combs, fans, and even mirrors; the men liked theirs with swords, knives, and guns—these multipurpose sticks were called “system” canes.

In the London of the 1700s, according to one history of canes, “A gentleman had to procure licenses for the privilege of carrying canes. It was expected that they would abide by certain rules or risk loss of the privilege. The authorities actually policed rules for canes and walking sticks vehemently. It was considered an extreme violation of manners to carry a walking stick under one’s arm, to brandish it in the air, drag it on the ground or to lean on it while standing.”

Thankfully today no such licenses are required, and the etiquette of canes is observed mainly in the breach. Canes are back to being the implements of the sick and the aged, and eyebrows will rise if you appear on the street or in your workplace sporting an antique derby (a popular style with a short wavy handle) or a shillelagh (a cane made from a rough piece of wood with a knob on top).

As a senior, I consider myself exempted from all licenses, excuses, and medical prescriptions in this regard. I collect canes because, like my pens, they’re both tools and works of art, relics from an age of manners and elegance. That they’re out of fashion is an even bigger plus, because it means very few other people want them, and their prices will be reasonable. 

The Philippines is a great place to start collecting canes, because we have very fine antique and vintage ones, made of kamagong or some other hardwood, intricately carved with mother-of-pearl inlays. Some others have silver pommels, handles, bands, and ferrules (the metal caps at the tips) and fine repoussé (hammered) work on the silver. Japanese canes often come in bamboo, which can be very expressive at their bent handles. 

What I’ve looked for outside of our region are canes from Europe and the US, which employ horn, silver, brass, and other materials for their handles, which can be elaborately carved and decorated with animals, skulls (not my thing), and whatever floats the owner’s boat. Vintage canes can also come with bands or badges that denote provenance, such as the owner’s monogram or his military service. There are many websites online devoted to this hobby, and eBay is always a rich source for canes (new but vintage-style ones made in India can be had for not too much). It’s important, by the way, to trim your canes down to size—your hand should be just resting lightly over the handle beside you—not bent upward or reaching down. I do this myself with a hacksaw, and use one of those rubber plugs sold in True Value for chairs to cap the bare tip.

I’m not waiting for my next bout with gout to enjoy my walking sticks. Having resumed my walks around the UP campus, I’ve found that carrying a cane not only supports me but improves my balance and rhythm (I swing it out in front of me like a pendulum). Beng, who needs them more (and who has her own mini-collection), has also discovered that being a cane-carrying senior has its advantages: people are more courteous, service is faster, and seats miraculously appear. I’ll try that the next time we fly!

Qwertyman No. 4: Subversive Sisters Having Fun

Qwertyman for Monday, August 29, 2022

(Image from danbooru.donmai.us)

“WHY IS IT,” asked Sister Edwige as she threw a couple of green chips into the pot to call Sister Augustinha’s raise, “that every time we nuns have a little bit of fun, someone out there screams like we were indulging ourselves in some carnal revelry?”

“Sister Edwige!” said Sister Loreto, as she put her hand on her cheek, a sure tell that she had some pretty valuable cards in the hole, like a pair of jacks or an ace-king. “People might think that you—that we actually knew what you were talking about!”

“It’s no crime to know what we’re not supposed to be doing,” said Sister Edwige, who was wondering whether Sister Loreto was going to reraise, or was going to play it dumb, like she held the lowest pair. Some sisters were so transparent, which was why they chose to play Scrabble or bake muffins during their recreation hour instead of facing the likes of Sister Edwige at Texas Holdem, but with Sister Loreto, even letting on that she had a superior hand when she very possibly did not was part of the game. “Crafty” was the word for her, Edwige decided, something not necessarily malicious but with the possibility of being so.

“So are you going to call or fold?” Sister Augustinha said, annoyed that Edwige apparently didn’t feel threatened enough by her raise, and that Loreto might even move all-in.

“I’ll… just call,” Loreto said, whereupon the remaining sister, Sister Maryska, tossed her cards down, sensing imminent disaster. Acting as the dealer, Maryska drew the turn card—the king of clubs—eliciting a groan of agony from the playacting Loreto.

“Do you think it’s possible they’ll haul us off to prison and then try us for witchcraft, like they did in the old days?” asked Edwige with a chuckle.

“But whatever for?” said Maryska. In a previous life, she had been a nursery-school teacher, but had chosen to enter the order when the Virgin Mary appeared to her from a kaimito tree. “Everything we’ve done has been for the greater glory of God, hasn’t it?”

“Check!” said Sister Augustinha.

“Check!” said Sister Edwige.

“Hmmm…. Let’s make a tiny bet, shall we? Say, two hundred? Just to keep things exciting?” Sister Loreto ever so slightly pushed two even stacks of chips into the pot.

“Two hundred!” said Sister Maryska! “Why, that’s more than I can spend in a week on cookies and three-in-one coffee!”

“It’s only play money, Sister Maryska,” said Augustinha dryly. “It’s not like you or anyone here will starve to death if she makes a dumb call—which I’m not doing!” She folded her hand. “This is pretend-poker. We’re pretending that we’re escaped convicts disguised as nuns, that we stole these habits from a convent’s clothesline, and since our funds are running low and our runaway car is out of gas, we have to stake everything on a game of poker at the local bar, against the woman they know as… Madame Stolichnaya, a retired pediatric nurse and reputed mistress of the Master Demon himself, Dom Athanasius.” A shiver swept the table as Augustinha’s voice descended into a raspy whisper.

“Oooh, that’s exciting!” said Sister Maryska. “Tell us more! What did we do to become prison convicts?”

Before she joined the nunnery, Augustinha had been part of an avant-garde theater group known for its complete lack of inhibitions onstage and offstage, and it was rumored among the novices peeling potatoes in the kitchen that Augustinha had led a blissfully debauched life, complete with boyfriends, banned substances, and (dare they say it) aborted babies. That she was now one of the order’s most devout and dedicated sisters—the one who bathed lepers and tended to terminal patients—could not dispel the impression that she knew more about life than one was reasonably entitled to. 

“I fold!” said Sister Edwige, finishing the hand and letting Loreto scoop up the pot. “I think Sister Augustinha’s game is more fun. Let’s play that instead!”

“Awww, just when I was winning!” said Sister Loreto, pouting at her suddenly worthless chips. 

“Did we rob a bank?” asked Maryska. “Did someone get killed?”

Loreto said, “What do we know about robbing banks? Even if we did get some money, what would we have used it for? We made a vow of poverty—” 

“No, no,” said Edwige, “we didn’t make any vows, we’re not sisters, although we later pretend to be so. We’re villains, we like money, we like spending it on cars, houses, perfumes, vacations to Paris—” 

“Men? Did we spend on men?” asked Loreto.

“I don’t even know what it means to spend on men,” sighed Maryska. “Does that mean you—you buy them nice things, like watches and shoes and iPhones—”

“Or you can just buy them,” said Augustinha with a shrug.

“Really? For what?” said Maryska.

Edwige laughed. She had three brothers—an airline pilot, a cryptocurrency trader, and a police captain—all of whom had been left by their wives and girlfriends for various reasons. “So you can keep them as pets, snuggle up to them on rainy days, smell their body hair—”

“Ewww, I don’t even want to think about, please, please, take that thought away!” said Loreto, shaking her hands in the air. “No wonder we got caught! We had all of these impure thoughts! We robbed a bank so we could get and do all of these nasty things!”

“Technically, the bank robbery alone was enough to land us in jail. The motive doesn’t matter. We could’ve robbed a bank to give its money away to the poor. We’d still be criminals in the eyes of the law,” said Augustinha.

“It must be fun to be bad—sometimes,” said Sister Maryska, looking out into the garden, where other sisters were watering the begonias and watching the clouds turn pink.

“Do people even know what bad means anymore?” said Sister Edwige. “Or good, for that matter?”

Sister Loreto shuffled the deck of cards and said, “Let’s play another hand! And somebody close that window—I can feel a chill coming.”

Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Penman No. 441: The Mystery of the Word

Penman for July 31, 2022

TO BEGIN with a small personal note: this week marks my 22nd anniversary writing Penman for the Philippine STAR, an adventure that began on August 5, 2000 with a piece about my recent writing fellowship in Norwich, England, working on the novel that eventually became Soledad’s Sister (Anvil Publishing, 2008). I’ve kept every column I’ve written since then in my digital files, now numbering over 1,100 pieces; a couple of years ago, I selected what I thought were the ones worth reading again (not every column is, to be perfectly honest) and put 110 of them together in a book titled A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays (UP Press, 2020, still available on Shopee and Lazada). 

It’s hard to believe that 22 years and 1,100 columns later, I’m still at it, and perhaps even harder yet to believe that I’m enjoying it with the same sense of discovery and delight, looking forward to seeing my text in print with a cub reporter’s enthusiasm. Much of that I should credit to my editors, Millet Mananquil, along with Igan D’Bayan and now Scott Garceau, who have been extremely supportive, sometimes to the point of indulgence (such as when I stray far beyond the normal bounds of art and culture). I’ve since learned to moderate myself, to stay within the zone, and to proactively seek out less known but worthy cultural endeavors to publicize. (The eager beaver in me has made sure that my editors never have to worry about my meeting deadlines; my columns are usually done the week before.)

I began reporting and writing for the old Philippines Herald at age 18, in 1972; at 68, I still remind myself that writing for a national broadsheet, even in this age of Facebook, is a tremendous privilege, so I still respect my editors, my deadlines, and my readers’ intelligence. I can only hope that our younger writers—who now have the freedom and capability to write whatever they like whenever they want on their blogs—will understand that journalism is also a community of shared values (by which I don’t simply mean pakikisama, although there’s a lot of that), and that no matter how brilliant you may think you are, you still have to earn your union card, so to speak, to gain the goodwill and respect of others (and if those things don’t matter to you, then you have a problem, and good luck with that). 

Moving on to other fruitful friendships and associations, I was elated to attend the Parangal for our newest National Artists at the CCP Main Theater last month. The eight new laureates were Agnes Locsin for Dance; Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor) and Ricardo “Ricky” Lee for Film and Broadcast Arts; Gemino Abad for Literature; Fides Cuyugan-Asensio for Music; and posthumously, Antonio “Tony” Mabesa for Theater, Salvacion Lim Higgins for Fashion Design, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya for Film and Broadcast Arts.

I was proud to note that I had worked with or for many of them, and was well aware of their exceptional talent and dedication to their craft. I had never met Nora Aunor, but had written a script for her, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,” directed by the late (and also National Artist) Lino Brocka. Lino regaled me with stories about how amazingly good a natural actress Nora was, and I thought so myself, watching her onscreen. I had many issues with former President Rodrigo Duterte’s governance, but I have to credit him for not interfering—unlike many of his predecessors—with the National Artist selection process, particularly in Nora’s case, which everyone knew had been previously held up because of her alleged drug use.

I had worked with directors Tony Mabesa and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, sadly both of them now gone. Tony directed several of my plays and always managed to get just the right tone I wanted to come across. Marilou directed my script which eventually became “Ika-11 Utos: Mahalin Mo Asawa Mo” (someone else always made up these more marketable titles, for which I had absolutely no talent), a crime and domestic drama that received respectable reviews but didn’t win any prizes. But what I observed in Marilou was her work ethic and her methodical approach to the material. I had been used to churning out one-week wonders for Lino, but with Marilou, the scripting process took months, because she would pause and analyze every scene and snippet of dialogue for its political and philosophical implications. 

I was gratified to have made the right call in the cases of Jimmy Abad and Ricky Lee; I had privately predicted, before the results were announced (and with no inside information whatsoever) that the two would be very strong contenders (I also mentioned Lualhati Bautista and Pete Lacaba, among those still living; for the record, I was also nominated, but it was more to make my 94-year-old mom proud and happy, which she was, and so I was). I had known Ricky for a long time, both of us being Lino Brocka’s go-to’s when he needed a script done fast. Ricky, of course, was more than fast; he was good. And while I wandered off into many other kinds of writing, Ricky turned screenwriting into the art and profession it deserved to be, not just for himself but for scores of acolytes. We used to ask each other, half-jokingly, why Pete seemed to get all the choice, festival-bound assignments; and we decided that it was because, by his own admission, Pete was the slowest scriptwriter among us, and therefore got to work on the long-gestating projects.

But I was happiest of all for my former professor and dear friend Jimmy Abad, whom I felt should have received this honor at least ten years earlier, given his elevated poetry, outstanding scholarship, and generous mentorship to generations of writers. For someone who began by studying to be a farmer at UP Los Baños and who then entered the Jesuit seminary (when he left after three years, he recalls, “The first thing I did was to look for a store and smoke a cigarette!”), Jimmy found his true calling in unraveling the Mystery of The Word, of language and how it shapes our view of life. I can think of no writer more purely dedicated to his art than Jimmy, the classic absent-minded professor who drives up one-way streets and whom I had to remind of his exact age. When it comes to words and their meanings, he is ever-aware, ever-present, and ever-caring. A true National Artist, indeed. Heartiest congratulations to all!

Hindsight No. 25: The Museum of Suffering

(Photo from philstar.com)

Hindsight for July 4, 2022

PEPITO FANCIED himself a museophile, a lover of places where old and fascinating objects were exhibited for the public’s delectation. Having achieved a certain level of leisure in his life, he had been able to indulge in a bit of travel, the highlights of which were invariably visits to local museums and galleries. While other tourists spent time posing before the Eiffel Tower or throwing coins into the Fontana di Trevi, Pepito preferred to wander the hallways of more obscure attractions such as the Musée de la Magie, where golden swans and painted ballerinas moved as if of their own accord, or the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari, where he could follow eight centuries of pasta-making across the globe. 

He was an omnivore, as far as interests were concerned. He could spend hours poring over Etruscan vases, Masamune katanas, deep-sea organisms, and Calder mobiles. Being something of a self-taught snob (he had a degree in civil engineering, but had never built a bridge or even a bungalow after he married into his late wife’s family), he liked to play guessing games—observing objects without reading their captions, making inspired surmises about their origins or back stories. 

Once, staring at a death mask from the Lambayeque culture of Peru, he voiced his suspicion to the docent beside him that “The red paint on this mask could have been human blood,” to which the docent replied, rather dismissively, “A lot of people say that, but there’s no proof, so it’s likely just cinnabar.” Years later, he was overjoyed to find vindication in a scientific report on analyticalscience.wiley.com that “The blood proteins serum albumin, immunoglobulin G, and immunoglobulin kappa constant were all identified, strongly indicating the presence of human blood in the red coating of the mask….” Pepito wanted to print out that page and mail it to the docent—in a real, stamped envelope, so the poor fellow could appreciate the materiality of the truth.

He could have been a docent himself, of course—one of those doddering retirees with nothing better to do than recite memorized scripts to glaze-eyed visitors about patinated silver and the importance of ruffles to Elizabethan gentlemen—but he found more pleasure in trailing them and the tour groups they shepherded around museums to pounce on an overheard mistake or to add his own little flourish. “There’s no proof that Jesus was born on the 25th of December,” he told some Japanese tourists examining an 18th-century belen. “Scholars calculate that he was actually born between 3 and 6 BC—before himself!” He expected them to chuckle with him, but their interpreter seemed annoyed at his intrusion and kept quiet.

No matter; truly, he didn’t care what others thought. They were all opinions, from small, provincial minds. He declared the present uninteresting, a jiggly kind of frame for the past, and politics the folly of idealists who kept hoping that communal inventions like government would get better, against obvious evidence to the contrary. He had long resigned himself to accepting whatever came, keeping his head low, vanishing into the woodwork, luxuriating in his connoisseurship of the strange and wonderful. People came and went, but things survived, and the most interesting of them were to be found in museums.

When he received the hand-lettered invitation to attend the soft opening of the new Museum of Suffering in San Miguel, Manila, Pepito wondered if they had made a mistake. Although he had posted his museum sorties on Facebook and had amassed 31,629 followers (he accepted no friends), he did not think of himself as a social media celebrity. But with vloggers now covering the President in the Palace, he figured he had been found out and finally recognized for his expertise on—well, anything and everything.

He took a cab to the address indicated on the card—about 45 minutes through the traffic, according to Waze—and tried to guess what the Museum of Suffering might feature. Pepito had to admit to a special attraction to the grotesque—to medieval instruments of torture (Prague, Toledo, Amsterdam), medical curiosities (Philadelphia, Boston), and even cannibalism (San Diego, Onnekop). This new museum had to be something of the sort, in a Philippine setting—exhibits of massacres, famines, imprisonment, floods, volcanic eruptions, locust infestations…. He looked at his driver and saw the crusty scab on the man’s neck, which probably began as an insect bite. 

He was met at the door of the refurbished mansion by—of course—a docent, but a woman not a year older than he was, wearing a pink dress with a Chinese collar to go with her dimpled smile. “Mr. Tanglaw? I’m so glad you could come. My name is Winnie, and I’ll be your guide for this tour…. Oh, don’t be surprised, we arranged this just for you, given your followership. This way, please.” Pepito looked around, expecting to be led to a roomful of specimens under glass, but instead an apple-green Vios appeared at the driveway and Winnie led him to the back seat before sitting in front. “Tikoy, let’s go,” she told the driver.

“Where are we going?” Pepito asked as the Vios eased into the traffic. 

“To the Museum of Suffering,” Winnie said. “That was just our meeting point.”

“Is it far?” Pepito asked after they had crossed three traffic lights, headed south.

“We’re low on gas,” Tikoy butted in, and slid behind a long queue of cars and jeepneys at a gas station. “Prices go up tomorrow, so everyone’s here. It was on the radio.” He turned the radio on and settled on a program where the hosts discussed tax evasion. 

Pepito looked at the prices per liter and saw nothing but numbers. He watched a truck driver wiping his face with a soiled towel. Winnie was explaining something about rice importation, but all he could think of was the olfactory testing game he played at the end of his tour of the Musée du Parfum Fragonard. He struggled to recall the scent of Belle de Nuit. He wanted out of this place. “Is it far?” he asked, gasping. “Is it far?”

Penman No. 440: A Classic Reborn

Penman for Sunday, July 3, 2022

I’VE LONG believed that my late friend and contemporary, Bienvenido “Boy” M. Noriega, Jr., was one of our very best modern playwrights, and indeed worthy of a National Artist Award. I—and many who knew him and his work—had been hoping that he would get that distinction this year, but too much time may have passed since he left us 28 years ago for critics to recall just how good he was.

Still, there’s great news today for Boy’s fans, and for everyone eager for the return of great theater to the Philippine stage. The seminal Noriega play, “Bayan-Bayanan,” which premiered at the CCP’s Little Theater in 1975 and won that year’s Grand Prize for the Full-Length Play in the Palancas, is going to be shown again in Manila this month, rendered as a new musical, “Bayan Bayanan: Letters from Home.”

Directed by Dr. Anton Juan and produced by the Erehwon Center for the Arts with support from the Embassy of France, the updated play promises to offer fresh insights into the OFW experience, having been originally written and presented long before overseas Filipino workers came to be known as OFWs. Back in the early ‘70s, as martial law descended on the country, they were all just exiles, migrants, transients, and vagabonds, some by choice, others by the lack of it. In Europe, and specifically in Geneva where the play is set, Filipinos tended to be middle-class professionals drawn there by their work, as Boy Noriega himself was as a government economist in his early 20s attending global trade negotiations. 

As I’ve written about before, Boy and I were very close friends—and fervid contest competitors—in those days. We were UP Alpha Sigma fraternity brothers who found ourselves working in literally the same office at NEDA Padre Faura. He was two years older than me, so I looked up to him as a mentor, and when he went to Harvard for graduate school and then began flying to all these conferences abroad, he wrote me long letters to share his exhilaration at studying our heroes like Chekhov and Ibsen (he was enrolled in Public Administration, but took side courses in Drama). When he came home, we spent many lunch hours talking about the plays we were writing or wanted to write. 

Boy announced himself to Philippine theater in the most spectacular way—by writing “Bayan-Bayanan” and having it presented at the CCP almost at the very start of his playwriting career. Immediately you knew that you were witnessing a major talent unfolding. His kind of drama was quiet, thoughtful, cumulative in its impact. Writing under martial law and being somewhat more politically engaged, I resorted to historical allegory, but Boy took the present head-on, albeit from another angle, of the young Filipino discovering the world in both geographical and emotional terms.

When I heard that Erehwon was planning to revive “Bayan-Bayanan” as a musical, I was delighted and at the same time a bit concerned how Boy’s material was going to be handled almost half a century down the road. But my worries lifted when I learned that the revival was going to be directed by none other than Anton Juan, who knows the play better than anyone else around, having directed it in Athens, London, Geneva, Paris, Chicago, and Toronto, and having himself been the kind of global traveler that Boy dwells on. “I have directed this play many times before in Europe, and each time there is always something new,” Anton says. “It grows like a pearl, takes shape in the memory and hearts of those who perform it and those who watch it: why? Because it is real. It is grounded on real characters we can identify with, in all their beauty and vulnerability, in all their strengths and their weaknesses.”

Anton Juan composed some of the new songs for the play, along with Cleofe Guangko-Casambre, who had composed for the play “‘Rizal’s Sweet Stranger;” Russ Narcies Cabico, also a theater and television actor and singer; pianist-composer Andrew Bryan Sapigao; and composer-musical arranger Jonathan Cruz.

The cast comprises a mix of veterans and newcomers. Professional theater actress and singer Banaue Miclat-Janssen portrays the central character Manang, while Dino—the “Boy” in the play—is portrayed by theater actor and classically trained singer Carlo Mañalac. Supporting them are Ava Olivia Santos, Roxy Aldiosa, Carlo Angelo Falcis, Jacinta Remulla, Richard Macaroyo, Greg de Leon, and Jane Wee. Of special note is the participation of French-Filipino actress Uno Zigelbaum, through the sponsorship of the French Embassy.

The role of the Erehwon Center for the Arts (of which Anton is Creative Director) is also noteworthy. Founded by another old friend of mine, Raffy Benitez, Erehwon has established itself firmly in our country’s cultural landscape as a sponsor of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and writers, who have come to see Erehwon’s Quezon City headquarters—also its performance and exhibition venue—as a haven for the arts at a time when cultural budgets everywhere have fallen. Funded largely by Raffy’s own generosity and by some other patrons, Erehwon hopes that this collaboration with the CCP and the French Embassy will lead to other significant projects that can ultimately be self-sustaining. 

The play will premiere on  the evening of July 15, followed by a 7 pm evening show on July 16 and a 3 pm matinee on July 17, at the CCP’s Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo. Tickets are available at Ticketworld. See you there!

Hindsight No. 21: Mr. Secretary

Hindsight for Monday, June 6, 2022

(Note: This could be the strangest thing you will ever see on an Op-Ed page, a new genre I’m going to call “editorial fiction,” observations of the current scene rendered as short stories. No direct references are intended.)

THE CALL came at a little past one in the morning, well after bedtime for George and his wife Trina. Trina stirred in their bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulder in a gesture of irritation, but as soon as she gathered whom George was speaking with, she froze and tried to capture every word that was being said, over the hum of the aircon and the occasional screech of late-night traffic along the boulevard twelve floors below. She had wanted a unit as close to the penthouse as they could get, but the price was just beyond their reach, so they settled for a 14th-floor corner suite—the 13th floor, of course, was non-existent for superstition’s sake—with a broad view of the bay on one side and a long thread of highway on the other, fading into the southern suburbs.

George should have been annoyed as well to have been called so late, but he was not. He had not even been asleep, having watched an episode of The Blacklist without paying too much attention to what Raymond Reddington was whispering into Elizabeth’s ear. He had been swilling his Cragganmore, not bothering with his usual routine of adding a few drops of water to unravel its complexity; his taste buds felt dull and flat. Life itself suddenly seemed tentative and purposeless. He had been staring at his phone for an hour, checking its battery status, thumbing through his messages to make sure he had not missed anything important. 

When the phone rang he had to gulp down the whisky with which he was simply wetting his throat, utterly without pleasure, but instantly he straightened up in bed and took the call, curling a conspiratorial palm over his mouth, as if a spy lived on the 15th floor.

“Good evening—good morning—sir!… Oh, no sir—I was still awake—I mean, I read the newspaper and was surprised to see my name there, but…. Yes, of course, I mean, I wasn’t expecting anything, since you know how I feel about—well, about… things, things that happened in the past…. The future, of course, the future, I agree…. I appreciate that, I honestly never imagined that I would be talking to—oh, no, sir, no ‘doctor’ or ‘professor,’ please, just call me George, George is fine, everybody calls me George…. Haha, yes, I’m older than you by four years, but you’re the president! Or will be—I mean, in a few weeks…. I’m deeply, deeply honored, sir, of course I am….Uhhh…. Sir, could you maybe give me some time, a couple of days, just to talk it over with Trina?”

At this point, Trina had dropped all pretenses of trying to sleep and was watching George intently, making words with her mouth that George couldn’t be bothered to read. But George looked in her direction and continued talking as if she wasn’t there. In the background, at the other end of the line, he could hear people laughing and shouting, and the pounding rhythm of a Village People tune. His friend Estoy who had texted him earlier to expect a call was probably there; Estoy had been a consistent flunker in college, but now he seemed unusually adept, even prescient. 

“Yes, sir, Trina, Katrina Palileo, the sorority sister of your cousin Angie…. Our two children are both in the States…. She’s retired now but still consults for—oh, no, no, I don’t think it will be a problem…. 48 hours, thank you, sir, I’ll talk to her and get back to you…. Many thanks again, sir, and good morning!”

George slumped into his bedside chair, threw his phone on the bed, and poured himself a fresh shot. He grinned at the hapless Trina, waiting for her to pop the question.

“So? So what did he say? Did you get the position?”

George tried to put on a straight face, without much success. “I said I would think about it—I said I would ask you first.”

“Idiot!” Trina said, laughing, and threw a pillow at him, almost hitting his shot glass. “You call him right back, right now, and tell him I approve! Of course I approve, 110 percent!” She picked up his phone and held it out to him. “Call him now, while he’s still awake, and before he changes his mind!”

George brushed the suggestion away, turning pensive. “No, no, I shouldn’t look too eager, like I really, really want it—”

“But you do, right? I mean—a week ago I never would have thought this would happen, but when your name came up in the news, I thought, oh my God, really?”

“That’s what I’m asking—why. Why me?”

“And why the hell not? Nobody knows the field more than you, you’ve published zillions of academic papers, people hold you in enormous respect, you’re better appreciated in London and Geneva than you are here, and you were never known to be his flunkey!”

“No,” said George, “I never was. That’s why I think he wants me. Maybe I could change things.” He looked at Trina, who was about forty pounds heavier than when they first met, across a barbed wire fence in martial-law prison. He himself had been thin as a rake, having had very little to eat in their Marikina safehouse. He took it as a blessing to have been arrested in a raid; there was more food in prison, and he would have died within a week of scaling the mountains. And there was Trina, whose pageboy bob had been replaced by shoulder-length curls dyed some shade of sunset. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to forget what she had gone through, and he never brought it up. To survive and to live well—that alone was sweet revenge.

“We used to talk a lot about the future—is this it? How did this happen?”

She put her arms around him and pulled him back to bed. “You think too much,” Trina said, and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Congratulations and good night, Mr. Secretary! Let’s call the kids in the morning!”

Out the window, the lights of a tanker flickered on the pitch-black bay, the only way to tell that there was a horizon.

Hindsight No. 8: Who Owes What to Whom

Hindsight for March 7, 2022

A COUPLE of weeks ago, an unattributed article in another newspaper titled “National artists owe it all to Marcos” berated five National Artists—Bencab, Virgilio Almario, Alice Reyes, Ramon Santos, and Ryan Cayabyab—for proclaiming their support for VP Leni Robredo’s presidential bid. They were, said the unnamed writer, ingrates for forgetting the fact that the National Artist Award had been created by Ferdinand Marcos, implying further that they owed their fame and fortune to Manong Ferdie, without whose patronage they would be nobodies hawking their wares at streetcorners. “Prior to his being named national artist in 2006, Cabrera was not as well known as he is today in the national art scene. Today, his paintings sell in the millions of pesos.”

That’s odd because as far as I knew, Bencab, along with the others, was already famous within and outside Philippine artistic circles well before he was proclaimed National Artist. In fact, didn’t he become one because of his impressive body of work? Or did I get it wrong? According to that article, it was the NA Award that made these people, and since Manong Ferdie established it, then, well, they were forever indebted to him for their professional success. That should go as well for such luminaries as Jose Garcia Villa, Vicente Manansala, Amado Hernandez, F. Sionil Jose, Jovita Fuentes, and Atang de la Rama, among many others. 

The article dutifully reminded the reader that “To recall, on 27 April 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1001 creating the Order of National Artist of the Philippines, to recognize outstanding Filipino artists. Under the Marcos proclamation, a national artist is entitled to a cash award of P100,000, a handsome monthly stipend, yearly medical and hospitalization benefits, life insurance coverage, a place of honor in state functions and national cultural events, a state funeral, and burial space at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.”

Wrong. There were no such benefits under that proclamation, only the honorific title. (Go on, look it up.) The emoluments came later, in the form of the aforementioned one-time cash award and a P2,000 monthly stipend, raised much later to P10,000 and then P50,000 (on the government pay scale, equal to about Salary Grade 19, just one grade above sub-professional supervisors). Since National Artists typically get chosen in their 70s or even posthumously, that’s not much of an outlay. 

I would have been more enthralled by Manong Ferdie’s magnanimity if it had been his personal finances that paid for the package. But that was always the people’s money. And even his personal finances had a way of being traced back to some public source.

Where else did our taxes go? Why, to the recipients of the CCP International Artist Award, which I’ll bet most of us never even heard of. The book Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation by Christi-Anne Castro (Oxford University Press, 2011) chronicles how the First Lady instituted this award—which came with an unspecified life pension for such laureates as Van Cliburn and Margot Fonteyn—in June 1973 “as a personal gift from Imelda Marcos as well as a small incentive for international performers to make the long journey to the Philippines to perform at the CCP.”

(Photo from philstar.com)

The article chides “anti-Marcos” creatives for dreaming of becoming National Artists and for accepting its conferment. But since when did the award—or any credible award for that matter—require fealty to its originator or sponsor? Were the victors at the 1936 Berlin Olympics expected to genuflect before Hitler? Should Nobel Prize winners espouse arms sales, as Alfred Nobel once did? 

I don’t dispute the claim that the Marcoses supported the arts and culture through the creation of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Folk Arts Theater, and the Manila Film Center, as controversial as they were (and in the case of the Film Center, as tragically ghoulish, with as many as 169 workers’ bodies reportedly entombed in the concrete). Favored artists were set for life. 

But cultural patronage is a PR expense. The art shows decorated and sanitized the regime, and made it appear to whoever cared to look that the Philippines was one big, colorful, glittery stage. For the National Artist Award to be taken seriously, they had to recognize serious artists—even those who weren’t Palace toadies, like Nick Joaquin (who accepted the award in 1976 only on condition that his friend the journalist Pete Lacaba, then in prison after being brutally tortured, be set free). After the Marcoses, the NAA was revived and expanded—the National Scientist and National Social Scientist Awards were also established—but it never quite shook off the stigma of political favoritism. Most notably, in 2009, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo played dagdag-bawas and anointed four of her personal choices NAs, prompting a suit from the real NAs and many other petitioners, which ultimately prevailed. 

If you want to get political about utang na loob, even Rodrigo Duterte acknowledges that it was Cory Aquino who jumpstarted his political career when she appointed him OIC mayor of Davao after EDSA 1 when his mother “Nanay Soling”—among the few staunch anti-Marcos activists in Davao—declined the offer. He later said in an interview that he was not going to dishonor his mother’s memory “by following the persons that she helped shut down.” But then in 2016, against widespread opposition, he allowed Ferdinand Marcos to be interred as a hero. That should have earned him a cache of pogi points with the Marcoses, who then jumped the gun on Inday Sara’s own presidential ambitions—or whatever Tatay Digong had in mind for her—by pushing Junior for No. 1. Of course, my pro-Sara friends (I do keep a handful, for our mutual entertainment) insist that Sara is going her own way and isn’t answerable to her dad. So this puzzle of who-owes-what-to-whom gets more and more difficult to figure out. Does it even matter in Pinoy politics?

And if we’re serious about debt collection, how about the P125 billion in ill-gotten Marcos wealth that the Philippine government still has forthcoming? Sounds more like the Marcoses owe it all to the Filipino people.

Hindsight No. 6: A Cultural Agenda

Hindsight for Monday, February 21, 2022

(Botong Francisco’s “Pista sa Angono”)

NOTABLY ABSENT from the platforms of nearly all candidates for the presidency is any mention of culture and the arts as a vital element in our quest of nationhood. Everyone has an opinion about the economy, the pandemic, corruption, peace and order, foreign relations, infrastructure, the environment, and countryside development, but you can hardly hear anyone speak—beyond the usual generalizations and platitudes—about what makes us Filipino, what it means to live as an archipelago with over 100 languages, and why and how we can be so similar in some ways and yet so different in others.

These are all matters of culture, which are often given tangible expression in the arts—the songs that make us weep, the paintings that brighten our walls, the stories that make us wonder about what’s important to us, the dances whose gestures take the place of words. At their best, culture and the arts rehumanize us, remind us of our truest, noblest, and also most vulnerable selves.

Unfortunately, we have been brought up to see them as little more than adornments, passing entertainments, intermission numbers to play in between presumably weightier and more consequential concerns. On an official level, culture has been treated as an adjunct of other ventures such as sports and tourism, culminating in beauty contests and street dances. 

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) have had active programs for funding the arts and for sponsoring performances and exhibitions, but despite many previous initiatives, efforts to set up a formal Department of Culture to oversee a broader cultural agenda have failed, again because of the low priority accorded to the sector.

Many studies have shown, however, that the arts—transposed into the creative industries that produce cultural products covering everything from books, movies, and TV shows to music, food, advertising, and advertising—create a large economic footprint.

Citing UNCTAD figures, a report commissioned by the British Council some years ago noted that “Depending on how they are defined, the Creative Industries are estimated to represent anywhere from 3% to 12% of global GDP.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P660 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from less than 5 percent in 2006 to more than 7 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to over 14 percent four years later. Surely these figures have risen much higher since then.

But the most important argument for a clear and strong cultural agenda remains the moral one. Culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

That understanding of who we are and why we think and act the way we do should be the end-goal of our education, grounded in an appreciation of our history. But as recent questions have highlighted, the DepEd’s decision to integrate Philippine history into other areas of learning effectively diluted and diffused its teaching in high school, a critical period in the formation of young minds.

For these reasons, a group of Filipino artists, writers, scholars, and cultural workers have organized the Katipunan sa Kultura at Kasaysayan (KKK) to present the leading presidential candidates with a cultural agenda for the next administration. The key items on that agenda include the promotion of a liberative, creative, and innovative culture; support for the study, appreciation, and critical interpretation of Philippine history; the promotion of cultural and creative industries, and Filipino products; the promotion of democratic education and programs to raise literacy nationwide; and serving the health and welfare interests of cultural workers. (Full disclosure: I work with National Artist Virgilio Almario in this organization.) We presented that agenda to all the leading candidates but heard back from only one, who endorsed it warmly: VP Leni Robredo. We were not surprised.

It’s not surprising, either, that those who understand Filipino culture best are those intent on exploiting its fractures and contradictions. The manipulation of public opinion and political outcomes thrives on knowing how people and groups behave, what emotional levers to pull, and which buzzwords to propagate. 

The confused and fragile state of our culture can be easily seen in how susceptible our people are to fake news. A recent SWS survey showed that 51 percent of Filipinos—every other one of us—find it difficult to tell real news from fake. The traditional sources of what most people have deemed the truth—the government, the Church, the traditional media, the schools, law enforcement, and even scientists—no longer carry the same trustworthiness they used to. Their places have been taken over by social media, cable TV, and micro-networks that can spread disinformation at lightning speed.

When I heard the New Society theme “May Bagong Silang” being played at Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally, I recalled how music, theater, and art were harnessed by the martial-law regime to create spectacle, a key instrument of enthrallment and intimidation, from imperial Rome’s circuses to Nazi Germany’s torchlit parades. That’s culture at the service of dictatorship, belying Leonard Bernstein’s claim that music was one art “incapable of malice.” 

I’ve often noted, in my talks on this topic, how ironic it was that the only presidency that put culture and the arts at the forefront was Marcos Sr.’s, and today even the staunchest of Imelda’s critics will grudgingly acknowledge the value of the CCP. But there was an ulterior agenda to that, which makes it even more urgent to promote a culture that will uphold truth, reason, and justice as a basis for national unity, instead of being used as a glitzy curtain to mask wanton murder and thievery.

Penman No. 435: A Dying Swan at Midnight

Penman for Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU’VE BEEN reading about some of my book-buying adventures and the most unlikely places I’ve found some of my most valuable books—like a 1551 book of English essays under a lamppost in Cubao, a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart at Jollibee on Commonwealth Avenue, and an 1868 two-volume facsimile of Don Quixote at a McDonald’s on that same road.

Now here’s an incredible story that happened to me one night a couple of weeks ago—very late that night, just as I was about to go to bed. Beng had just finished another episode of another interminable K-drama, and I was too sleepy to switch to my own program (typically some violent crime show, which gives me a good night’s sleep). And then as I always do, I checked my messages on my laptop before moving from the La-Z-Boy to the bed, and I saw something that instantly woke me up again.

Let’s backtrack a few days earlier to another idle moment when I was poking around the usual FB sites for garage-sale and Japan-surplus flotsam and jetsam—the “antique” Coke trays (probably China-made), the Ambassador furniture sets, the bobblehead figurines, the wooden fruit bowls, etc. And then I came across a rack of paintings being sold for just P1,000 each—most of them quite awful and not even worth the price, even to a bottom-feeder like me.

But then I spotted a painting that had rather intriguing lines and colors, one that was clearly different in theme and treatment from the nipa huts and carabaos that populated the other canvases. 

In the foreground was a young woman in a white dress—a dancer immediately came to my mind—set against what first seemed to me a backdrop of the sea, a huge curling wave threatening to envelop her. But there was another element, aside from the strange shape of the “water”, that didn’t make sense: an orange something near the woman’s face.

And then it all snapped into place: the background figure was a swan with one wing outstretched and the other practically smothering the woman, and the orange thing was its beak. What sprang to my mind was Leda and the Swan, the old Greek myth that has been one of art and literature’s most reinterpreted and most referenced stories (where Zeus, in the guise of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda, and has two children by her). 

This could not have been done by a naif painter; it took some education and sophistication to take on a subject like that, and to represent it with both grace and power. This painting could not have been a recent work; its strokes and colors belonged to another age. It felt old, in a good way. I thought that it had to be decades old, possibly even pre-war.

I immediately messaged the seller to reserve the painting for me. For P1,000, it was a no-brainer. Usually the seller would respond within minutes, and we would do the GCash and Lalamove song-and-dance within the hour. But the day passed with no response. I messaged him again that night, and next morning I still heard nothing back. Another day passed; I had saved the picture of the painting on my phone and returned to it now and then, stewing inside, increasingly annoyed by the seller’s silence.

And then I got the message: did I want it? Of course, I messaged back quickly. It will cost you P1,000, he said. Sure, I said, give me your GCash number. I hope you can book it for pickup now, he said, because I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning—unless you want to get it in the afternoon. No, no, I said—I’ll book it right now. It was 11:30 pm, and Beng was sound asleep. 

And so it happened that just past midnight, a Lalamove rider roared up to my gate to deliver the painting, which I examined immediately. It had been very badly framed, with ragged edges of the painted canvas hanging over the back. Since the edges had been pulled over, I could find no signature. Still it was every bit as powerful as I had thought it to be, the colors laid on in a thick impasto. 

So the mystery was, who painted it, and when? I posted it on FB the next morning, and immediately the writers and artists in my group identified it with Leda and the Swan. I felt vindicated. And then my Toronto-based friend, the poet Patty Rivera (whose husband Joe also paints), posted a link to a story from South Africa, where a painting by a Russian-born artist named Vladimir Tretchikoff was up for auction. It was titled “The Dying Swan,” from the ballet by Mikhail Fokine; Tretchikoff had even persuaded the great ballerina Alicia Markova to pose for him in 1949, when he began the work (one of two he gave that title).

So my midnight acquisition was a copy done by a local painter in the 1950s, possibly by an amateur or even a student. Was I disappointed? How could I be, especially for the price I paid? Tretchikoff’s original was clearly much finer and more radiant; but my rougher copy, in Patty’s words, showed more “torment and despair.” When Beng restores this and we have it reframed, it will have its own life and energy, and the swan will die, over and over again, which means it never will.