Qwertyman No. 27: The Maalikaya Health Fund

Qwertyman for February 6, 2023

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley, once again, was in a quandary. At the end of his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, he was brimming all over with enthusiasm, eager to prove to his constituents that the money spent for his first-class ticket (and for his Chief Political Officer and rumored girlfriend, Yvonne Macahiya) had not been wasted. 

There was a long list of sessions he had planned on attending, identified for him by Yvonne as strategically important, with titles like “What’s Next for Monetary Policy?”, “How to Turbocharge Development Finance”, “Living With Risk,” and “Mapping Russia’s Trajectories.” She had prepared briefs for him, along with a list of intelligent questions he could raise in the open forum, so they could take a picture of him, in his bespoke Senszio suit that he had ordered during his last junket in Brussels, on the floor. But as it happened, strolling up the Promenade on his way to the forum, Sen. Dooley found himself staring at a new Omega Seamaster 300 Co-Axial Master Chronometer at the window of a watch shop. He must have stood there for a very long time, because an unusually friendly salesman stepped out of the shop to invite him in. 

Guten Tag! Bonjour! Buongiorno!” the man said in the city’s three languages. “Good morning! Are you Indonesian?” This year, the Indonesians had put up a large national pavilion along the Promenade. 

“No, no!” cried Victor. “I’m Filipino!” 

“Ah, Filipino! Magandang umaga!” said the salesman. “We love Filipinos! Many of them come to Davos! Many of them come to my store. Come in, come in!”

Victor allowed himself to be ushered into the boutique, which, he had to admit, was warm and pleasant compared to the bitter cold outside. Last night, as he cuddled in bed with the snoring Yvonne, he had wondered why the WEF (which he would often misquote as “WTF,” to Yvonne’s dismay) insisted on holding the forum in the dead of winter rather than in some nice summery spot, like that lakeside place he had seen on “Crash Landing on You.” Why would people even want to talk about something as boring as economics in all that snow? Davos was meant for cuddling—which, sadly, was all he could now do with Yvonne, much to the latter’s dismay, unless he took an overdose of the little blue pills, which dismayed Yvonne even more.

But of course the Hon. Victor M. Dooley couldn’t refuse the President’s invitation. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Basic Education, Culture, and the Arts, he frankly had no idea why he was going to an economic forum in Switzerland, except that he was sure the President’s appointments secretary had a crush on him, and added his name to the list, as she had done for him in Belgium; surely his movie-star looks couldn’t hurt the delegation. 

Naturally, Yvonne found and crafted a plausible reason for him: “Education, culture, and the arts are indispensable in shaping the new post-pandemic economy, especially given the global transition to online instruction and the response of creative industries to new opportunities created by this expanded platform. We cannot underestimate the importance of human creativity to economic growth. If traditional economics concerns itself with supply and demand, then creative industries can exert a powerful influence at both ends—creating new needs, new producers, and new resources that can only spur economic development, especially among sectors often marginalized by industrial homogenization. I would urge all our leaders here in the WTF—most notably those from the developed West—to look to the Philippines for new ideas, particularly in the fields of design, fashion, animation, music, indie filmmaking, food, and graphic arts. These are the growth industries of the 21st century, endeavors that our predominantly young populations can relate to with vigor and enthusiasm.”

Victor had to admit that it sounded good, although he had to have Yvonne explain “industrial homogenization” to him by pointing out that his Lexus looked like Congressman Tungkod’s Genesis G70, which also looked like Mayor Lanzones’ Audi A5, at which point Victor felt deeply depressed. But Yvonne pulled him out of his funk by having him memorize his spiel before a mirror—warning him, like a good coach, not to count off “design, fashion, animation, etc.” on his hand starting with his pinky finger, as Filipinos were wont to do. Victor felt energized; he couldn’t wait to fly to Davos and spring his little speech on the unsuspecting WTF’ers.

But now he was staring at the Omega Seamaster, glowing like a hypnotic planet. The salesman had taken it off the display shelf to cuff him with, and he felt locked to it for life, as if it belonged to him and he belonged to it forever. Why, it was James Bond’s watch, it went to the moon, and the price—well, surely Yvonne could free up half a million from his intelligence fund in the name of cultural diplomacy, which a little Filipino-Swiss transaction promoted. 

“It’s worthy of a president,” the salesman whispered in his ear. 

“I’m only a senator—yet,” said Victor. His throat felt dry. 

“Then it will lead you to your destiny.”

That evening, at the dinner for the delegation, Sen. Dooley was chagrined to find that two other senators and even the president’s third cousin sported the same new watch. And everyone around the table was talking about some “sovereign wealth fund” that was going to save the country, which Victor, sans Yvonne who was consigned to dine with the secretaries, was clueless about.

“I know all about it,” she told him later at the hotel, as they packed for the flight home. “The secretaries told me. It’s big, and it’s as good as done.”

“And I’m not part of it? I have to announce something when we get home!”

“Are you sure you want to? According to ChatGPT, sovereign wealth funds are subject to risk tolerances, liability matches, and liquidity concerns. As it’s my job to protect you, let’s think of something else.”

As they cuddled on their last night in Davos, and as he watched the seconds tick by on his Seamaster, Victor felt an old stirring under the blanket, going back to his misspent youth, that revived long-dormant memories of simpler pleasures. 

“I think I have it!” he told Yvonne. “This will be for everyone’s physical and mental health. We will train hundreds of thousands of masseurs and masseuses. Every Filipino, man or woman, will get a free massage after a hard day’s work.”

Yvonne seemed genuinely surprised. “Hmmm, that’s original!”

“We’ll call it the Maalikaya Health Fund. Our slogan will be ‘Every Filipino deserves a happy ending!”

Penman No. 447: A Tertulia and Tinio

Penman for Sunday, February 5, 2023

WE CELEBRATE National Arts Month in February in the Philippines, but it came a little early for me this year, in a January packed full of memorable cultural events that reminded me of how much we’ve missed during the long pandemic. 

First off was a trip to Bacolod for a preview of the celebrated theater director Anton Juan’s new film, Amon Banwa Sa Lawud (Our Island of the Mangrove Moons). I’d known, of course, of Anton’s stellar work in theater for many decades now, but this was the first foray of his into cinema that I was aware of, and I—and the select audience that attended the preview at the Negros Museum’s Cinematheque—was not disappointed. 

Set and shot in the island-community of Subac in the city of Sagay, and based loosely on Thornton Wilder’s seminal play “Our Town,” the film chronicles the lives of villagers whose fortunes are inextricably wedded to the sea. Isolated from many of society’s most basic comforts, they survive through hard work, faith, and ambition, despite the many threats they face—among them, roving bands of pirates and, not too subtly suggested by a floating buoy, Chinese vessels encroaching on their fishing grounds. 

Shot in ten days with a mostly amateur cast, the film is a tribute to Pinoy industry and courage, and also of the sense of community that seems to have frayed for our people on a national scale. I remarked after the screening that most of us have lost touch with our maritime culture—the sea hardly figures in our literature, for example, except as a romantic backdrop—despite the fact that ours is a country of many islands like Subac. Anton’s film offers hope—but also delivers a stern warning about the dangers hovering on our national horizon. Kudos to the Erehwon Center for the Arts and to its founder Raffy Benitez, among other producers and sponsors, for making this film possible.

The second event that my wife Beng and I were privileged to attend was a musical tertulia at the historic Acosta-Pastor ancestral home in Batangas City, hosted by everyone’s musical tito, Atty. Tony “Tunying” Pastor. Every year, during the city’s fiesta, Ka Tunying sponsors a performance of renowned artists at his family’s home, which is a living museum of sorts, with a full-sized caruaje greeting visitors on the first floor.

This year, thanks to an invitation from the writer-curator Marian Pastor Roces, we were treated to a special program presented by the famed soprano Rachelle Gerodias, her tenor husband Byeong In Park, and tenor Nohmer Nival, fresh from their performances in last December’s “Turandot.” As was his wont, Ka Tunying—a music graduate from UP—joined the trio on the piano, and even sang gamely along. 

The repertoire comprised crowd pleasers like “Mutya ng Pasig” and “Nessun Dorma,” and the audience responded warmly, with more spontaneity than they could have shown at the CCP or some such venue. Somehow, the classics felt right at home in the 140-year-old house, which had resonated with music for decades, whose bright wooden floors had welcomed generations of guests eager for a day of revelry and good food (which was served downstairs, after the mini-concert). 

Most fascinating, however, was an evening we spent in Manila late in January with an old friend, the tenor and businessman Francisco “Frankie” Aseniero. In his other life as a bright young economist, Frankie had been our boss at the National Economic and Development Authority in the 1970s, where NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat perhaps unwittingly nurtured a corps of writers and artists in his staff, including the late playwright Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega. 

When we met Frankie again recently to welcome home another officemate, the prizewinning Filipino-Canadian poet Patty Rivera, I asked him about his music, as he now spends most of his days as a gentleman-farmer in Dipolog, where his family has roots. (One grandfather was a student of Rizal, while another was a Swedish-American Thomasite—but that’s another long story.) He has concertized all over the world, was active with the UP Concert Chorus and the Madrigal Singers, and at one point had to choose between music and economics for further studies. He took the pragmatic option and joined NEDA, but never really let go of his singing.

One very interesting thing I learned during that chat with Frankie was how, back in the 1970s, he sang and recorded Filipino translations of classical and popular operatic pieces by the late Rolando Tinio. “We would be having lunch, and Rolando would just write his translation over the score on the table, and it would be perfect,” recalled Frankie’s wife Nenette. Tinio, of course, was a genius, for which he was rightfully named a National Artist, albeit a difficult person for some others to deal with (there’s an explosive episode recounted by the film director Mike de Leon in his two-volume memoir Last Look Back about an encounter with Tinio at the 1978 Metro Manila Film Festival). I had the privilege of having one of my plays directed by Tinio at the CCP as a young playwright, but thankfully escaped the edge of his scathing derision. At any rate, I was enamored of his Filipino translations for Celeste Legaspi in the mid-1970s—it’s an album I’ll never tire of listening to, especially the soaring “Langit Mo, Ulap Mo” (Michel Legrand’s “Summer Me, Winter Me”)—and learning that he also translated operatic and Broadway pieces intrigued me.

Frankie obliged by inviting us to his home for a soiree and a personal concert, featuring such popular favorites as “Yakap Mo’y Aking Napangarap” (“I Have Dreamed” from “The King and I”), “Wari Ko’y Di Ko Kaya ang Mag-isa” (“Stranger in Paradise” from”Kismet”), and “Ganiyan ang Aking Giliw” (“And This Is My Beloved” from “Kismet”). We had a good laugh over “Laging Nag-iiba Pusong Babae,” better known as “Donna e Mobile” from “Rigoletto.”

I can only wish that Frankie (and other Filipino singers) would make a studio recording of these Tinio translations for commercial release. It’s hidden treasure I was lucky to stumble on, but it deserves to be heard and enjoyed by many millions more.

Qwertyman No. 23: The Glass Sibuyas

Qwertyman for Monday, January 9, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Certainly not,” said Dr. Bimbo. 

“And yet there’s a shortage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 446: Our Oldies

Penman for Sunday, January 1, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qwertyman No. 21: AI in the House

Qwertyman for Monday, December 26, 2022

I’D BEEN wanting to write about this for a long time, since last year when my artist-friends first alerted me to the amazing new possibilities being opened by artificial intelligence (AI) in such traditional fields as painting. Before that, like many people, I’d thought of AI in terms of subjects like warfare, medicine, and gaming. It had to be only a matter of time before the technology was ported over to the arts—not just to painting, but to creative writing and music, among other pursuits.

If you don’t know how AI works, just think of it this way (which is the way a lot of people, many of them not even artists, are having fun these days). You download a software program called an “AI generator” (such as starryai for painting, Rytr for creative writing, and AIVA for music), then put it to work by demanding that it produce “a portrait of Jose Rizal in the style of Van Gogh.” Minutes later (or just seconds if you pay), you’ll get what you asked for. What your computer (or in fact, many other computers working together) just did was to run a search for all the images of “Jose Rizal” it could find, then establish what “the style of Van Gogh” means in terms of brush strokes, colors, and so on, and apply one to the other. It’s all about “algorithms” or instruction sets that get sent out and executed until the desired outcome pops up.

That sounds like harmless entertainment, and much of AI is or appears to be, but it isn’t hard to see how even a touch of mischief (not to mention loads of malice) can quickly change the complexion of things. Driven by a fear of computing or what we might call Faustian science, popular culture is replete with examples of AI gone berserk, from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the master kidnapper Sark in Tron. But positive applications such as those employed in medicine, where AI helps analyze CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays with a sharper eye than a human radiologist sees with, continue to push AI research forward. IBM itself declares that “At this point, there is little doubt that AI will become a core part of the digital health systems that shape and support modern medicine.”

My own first brush with AI happened last week when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times titled “A New Chat Bot Is a ‘Code Red’ for Google’s Search Business.” Intrigued, I read on and found out about ChatGPT, one of many new programs that are threatening to replace Google’s famous search engine. We all know how Google works: you enter a search term, you get a long list of links to possible answers. Chat bots cut through that mess and give you a short, clear, grammatically correct answer (although nobody can guarantee that the answer itself is correct). That’s good if you want a quick reply to a question, but I can just imagine the epidemic of college term papers cutting and pasting unsourced chat-bot answers with gay abandon. 

All this led me to wonder how chat bots would respond to truly important questions, so I decided to download ChatGPT to my iPhone, and to ask it some test questions that would tell me about itself as much as what I was asking about. Below are my questions and the answers that artificial intelligence produced, verbatim (I purposely asked the first question to see if AI was capable of some kind of self-awareness):

1. Q. What are the dangers of artificial intelligence? A. 1. Unintended Consequences – Algorithms designed to reach specific goals could have unintended consequences that produce unforeseen results. 2. Job Loss – AI could displace workers by automating jobs, leading to severe economic disruption in the near future if nobody is trained to take over for the machines. 3. Black Box AI – AI systems are often difficult to understand, making it hard to debug the system when something goes wrong. 4. Over-Reliance on AI – Dependency on AI could lead to cognitive laziness, where humans rely too heavily on algorithms for decision-making and problem-solving. 5. AI Biases – AI systems trained on biased data and algorithms can end up replicating the same flawed assumptions and stereotypes. 6. Security Breaches – Malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in AI systems to commit cyber-attacks, data breaches and fraud.

2. Q. What’s wrong with the Philippines? A. The Philippines faces a wide range of problems that must be addressed in order to progress forward. These issues include corruption, overpopulation, environmental destruction, poverty, inequality, and unequal access to education. Additionally, Filipino infrastructure and public services are in dire need of improvement in order to create a more livable and equitable society. Other issues such as illegal drugs, crime, and terrorism also remain major problems facing the Philippines.

3. Q. When should a country have a sovereign wealth fund? A. A country should have a sovereign wealth fund when it has a large amount of assets (such as revenues from oil exports) that can be used for investments and for stabilizing government finances during economic downturns.

4. A. How can we reduce corruption in government? A. The best way to reduce corruption in government is to increase transparency and accountability. This could include strengthening laws and regulations to ensure that government officials are held to high standards, creating independent oversight and auditing systems, and engaging civil society and community members in governance processes. Additionally, investing in training for government officials on ethics, anti-corruption policies and procedures, and proper financial management can help to reduce corruption. Finally, engaging the public to report and discuss any allegations of corruption can help to both curb and address existing instances of corruption.

5. Q. Can volcanoes be punctured? A. No, volcanoes cannot be punctured. Volcanoes are made of molten rock, known as magma, that is too hot and too deep to be pierced with any known tool.

Now, you tell me if those answers sound any worse than the malarkey we’ve been hearing from some of our esteemed senators and congressmen, who cost billions to maintain, feel unbound by the rules of logic and grammar, and can take forever to give you a straight answer. Of course, they can well afford to buy a program like ChatGPT in aid of legislation (it’s free for three days, then P499/mo.). But then, why resort to chat bots when there’s already so much artificial intelligence going around in both august chambers?

Qwertyman No. 17: A Crying Boy

Qwertyman for Monday, November 28, 2022

WE ALL cheered two weeks ago when nine-year-old Bince Rafael Operiano—a boy from Oas, Albay—came home with medals from the 6th Eastern Asia Youth Chess Championship in Bangkok, Thailand, where he finished on top of the Under-10 category and sixth overall. 

But then we were saddened by the news that Bince had had to struggle not just with his opponents in the early rounds, where he lost, but also with loneliness, because his father was not around, having had to wait for his plane ticket from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC). Bince was said to have been crying. Fortunately, according to Albay Rep. Fernando Cabredo, Bince’s father caught up with Bince just in time to cheer him on to victory. 

So all’s well that ends well, right? Not according to an anonymous “Grandmaster” (possibly an alias) who posted on Viber that things were even more complicated than that. This “GM” alleged that Bince’s parents had received donations for the kid, but that the money had been spent on paying off debts and other expenses. The Operianos, he said, were “making drama” to raise even more money; Bince, he added, wasn’t even that great a player, and that other Filipinos had performed even better in the tournament, to much less publicity. 

I don’t know who “Grandmaster” is, or if he is even a real GM (we now have at least ten Filipino GMs on record, all of them male, which is why I’m defaulting to “he/him”); the post strongly suggests that he’s someone on the inside, in the know, the guy with the goods.

All right, that he may be. But even assuming that everything he says is true, my question is, so what? The journalists (and the “Mariteses”) in us might respond to the possibility that the boy and his story are being manipulated for money with dismay if not righteous outrage, and demonize the parents for their greed, or for being what we Pinoys would call “mukhang pera.”

But honestly, who isn’t “mukhang pera” in this society of ours, where profit-seeking—quite often at someone else’s expense—has become the accepted norm? Of course, when developers buy farmland on the cheap from desperate farmers, they don’t get called out for being “mukhang pera”; they might even get voted to high public office. When someone secures an apologetic write-off for billions in unpaid taxes, that’s not being “mukhang pera.” When favored government offices get billions in “intelligence funds” with nary a question, that’s just business as usual, nothing to do with “mukhang pera.”

But let’s get back to Bince and his story. Clearly the family was in dire straits, or they wouldn’t have used whatever cash they raised to pay off debts. Clearly the father wanted to accompany his son, or he wouldn’t have followed him to Bangkok, albeit too late for the opening round. Someone out there will almost surely berate them for not handling their donations “responsibly,” and they could be right, but poverty and sudden money can addle the mind and one’s priorities (so can huge wealth, for that matter).

These are matters of adult concern. I suggest that it will be better and more fair to put ourselves in young Bince’s shoes. You’re nine years old in a foreign country, probably on your first plane ride overseas. You know some people on your team and you know how to play chess, but everything else is strange and bewildering. You’re looking at your chessboard and at your opponent who’s just as old as you are—the two of you should be playing in the sun outside but you’re here to demolish him or her. The other kids have their parents watching on from the gallery, and you can see your opponent’s eyes dart now and then to his or her parent, for comfort if nothing else. After the game, they will share hugs, maybe even an ice cream, and tour a mall. 

You think of Papa, whom you left at the airport. He promised he’d follow, but there’s still no sign of him, and you panic; you feel like crying but you can’t do that while you’re playing. Your opponent can feel your distress and seems torn between pitying you, or killing you outright. He/she moves his/her rook to c4 and you know you’ve lost. You quickly shake hands like you’ve been trained to do, then you run away and go to a corner and cry. It doesn’t bother you anymore that some people can see you crying. They probably think you’re just a sore loser. You want to tell them, it’s not the game, it’s Papa, I miss Papa, and Mama, and our home in Oas. I know they told me not to think about them too much, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I really tried. Please don’t get angry with me. I’ll do better when I see Papa, I promise.

That’s the issue, from Bince’s point of view. Whatever other people may be making of his case is beyond him, and should be. As he grows older, he’ll begin to feel and understand the real pressures he’s under—to succeed for his family’s and country’s sake, with little support; he will have to get used to being alone. 

Some will say, that’s par for the course, that’s the way champions are made; you forge them like steel in the hottest of fires. His very hardship will be the source of his power. But still I have to ask, must it always be this way for the children of the poor? As fortunate as the Operianos may be to even have the option, why must Bince see sport as a way out of poverty than just a wonderful game to play? 

But to end on a happy note, let’s report as well (with thanks to Rappler for the data) that Christian Gian Karlo Arca topped the Under-14 and gained a Master title; Lexie Grace Hernandez won the Under-18 crown and took a Woman International Master title while April Joy Claros placed second but was the top Under-16 player, winning a Woman Master title and one Woman International Master norm. Jemaicah Mendoza topped the girls’ Under-12, and won a Woman Master title. (Bince is supposed to get a Master title when he turns ten.) May the best of futures come to you all.

Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley was in a quandary once again. He had struggled with his maiden speech, but thanks to the timely assistance of his rumored girlfriend and sometime girl Friday Yvonne Macahiya, he had delivered a brilliant address on “Culture and the Environment: Shared Survival through Values Education,” which the footnotes failed to say had been Yvonne’s term paper for her Political Science 104 class at the Western Aklan Institute of Technology. 

It didn’t matter that most of his esteemed colleagues were absent or nodding off when he gave his speech with all the passion he exuded back when he was “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero of the typhoon-flooded, the earthquake-shaken, and the fire-singed. When Yvonne’s press release came out, it was just like he had spoken before the UN General Assembly, the world’s grandest stage; never mind that some audiences there weren’t too hot, either. 

“We are the world’s most disaster-prone country not because we are weak,” he said, thumping his fist on the lectern before letting his gaze travel across the gallery to turn up the drama, “but because disasters visit other countries less. The Lord Almighty has brought these disasters upon us to test our faith, to strengthen our spirits, and to breed true champions of the desperate and the dispossessed!” Again he paused for dramatic effect, but all he heard was the snorting of a venerable gentleman from a northern province, dreaming of Lamborghinis landing in his Special Economic Zone.

Still, something from his speech must have registered in someone’s mind—the word “education”?—because Sen. Dooley found himself appointed to the Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, which to him sounded like the wimpiest assignment anyone could get. He had expected to be named chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change (that went to a real estate developer), or the one on Public Information and Mass Media (that went to a retired general), or to something that could have used his mestizo heritage, like the Committee on Foreign Relations (that went to a Chinoy movie producer). 

Basic education? Other than passing grade school, what did he know about classrooms and curricula? But then the committee also covered Arts and Culture, so, hmmm, maybe that was what they saw in him, his stellar career as a singer-dancer-TV show host, the way the ladies swooned when he winked at them at the end of his “Buchikik” song. Arts and Culture was entertainment, right? It was about keeping people happy, so they could smile through Covid, unemployment, EJKs, 60-1 peso-dollar rates, and P300/kilo pork. 

There wasn’t much he could do about those things—blame it on the pandemic, on Ukraine (he did have some important foreign-policy views: those darned Ukrainians should just have given over some potato fields to the Russians instead of endangering world peace with their silly resistance), and on troublemakers who even won Nobel prizes for having nothing good to say about hardworking despots.

But now, the Hon. Victor M. Dooley had to come up with a program that would leave his indelible mark on Philippine culture, and he convened an ad hoc committee composed of himself, his chief of staff Roy, the indispensable Yvonne, and a special guest who sashayed into the room and planted wet kisses on both of Vic’s cheeks, much to his embarrassment and to Yvonne’s utter surprise. 

“Ms. Terry! I never thought you would respond to my invitation!” 

“Why ever would I not? How long has it been, dearie? The last time  I saw you, you were still a struggling singer trying your best to hold your note—so I held it for you, hihihi.  And look at you now, an honorable Senator of the Republic!”

“And who, may I ask, might you be?” interjected Yvonne.

“Ah! Yvonne, this is Ms. Terry, who sponsored my entry into show business many years ago. I asked him—I mean her, ahaha, we better get our preferred pronouns right, especially after that gender-sensitivity workshop we all had to take—to come and help us devise a program for our country’s cultural revival.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Yvonne. “I could’ve called on some of my National Artist friends—”

“What’s a National Artist?” asked Vic.

“Never mind. Welcome aboard, Ms. Terry—oh, I get it now, mystery herself! I’m Yvonne, the congressman’s Chief Political Affairs Officer. Can we offer you some coffee?”

“If you have low-acid coffee with non-dairy creamer and gluten-free scones, I’d much appreciate it. But I’ll take what you have.”

“Our Chief of Staff here makes an excellent three-in-one and I’m sure he hasn’t finished all the Sky Flakes.” Yvonne cocked an eyebrow at Roy, who slunk away muttering. “Now let’s get down to business. The senator wants a new program with strong popular appeal that will raise our people’s spirits, promote national unity, and put Philippine culture on the global map. You said you have some ideas?”

“I do! Two, in fact. One, boy bands. We should undertake a nationwide search for cute mop-haired boys from the age of six up and train them in a camp for singing and dancing. Two, a cooking competition for girls, who don’t know how to cook anymore. We’ll have regional and then national contests for the best pinakbet, sinigang, and adobo. We can even have a Fil-Am edition, but let’s do it in West Covina so I can visit my cousin there. What do you think?”

“Nice, but I have an even more inspired idea!” said the senator. “To promote our own, let’s ban all Korean shows for a year. Tama na mga K-drama, P-drama naman. Nakakainis na, e!”

Yvonne groaned. “Are you crazy? Do you want to bring the wrath of the BTS Army down on you, not to mention my mama who’s in love with Hyun Bin?” Yvonne turned to their guest. “I like your ideas, Ate! I think you and I will make a great team—between you and me, we can make Vic Dooley the oppa of Philippine culture!”

“Thanks, but what’s an oppa?” asked the senator.

Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qwertyman No. 13: Something Good

Qwertyman for October 31, 2022

MINISTER QUAQUA was having a bad day—a very bad day, probably the worst since he was appointed to his post by President Ongong after they had finished two bottles of Balvenie Portwood, with boiled peanuts and chicharon bituka on the side. Quaqua had brought the chicharon bituka to the Palace as a gift to the President, ostensibly as a sample of his company’s latest R&D. A self-professed man of science, the President was known to be interested in cutting-edge research. 

Pork was highly coveted by Kawefans, but was now considered contraband, because of a longstanding ban on pork and pork products forced by the great swine flu epidemic of 1986. Some Kawefan families, including the Quaquas, had made fortunes by creating and marketing fake pork—veggie-based substitutes for adobo, barbecue, and sisig. Pork smuggling was therefore big business, and naturally the Quaquas had a finger in that pie, too. The anti-pork law allowed for a tiny sample of real pork to be imported for research purposes, for producers of the fake stuff to run taste tests of their bogus bolognas against. The rumor was that pork was coming into Kawefo by the ton, and even more alarmingly, that the Quaquas kept a top-secret pig farm in the distant province of Suluk-sulukan under armed guard, producing Chinese ham, chicharon bituka, and tocinofor the most select clients, including the First Family. 

Quaqua had come to the Palace not just to share some pulutan with an old friend, but to advise him against yielding to the strong pro-pork lobby, which argued for the legalization of pork, so every Kawefan could enjoy his or her rightful taste of inihaw na baboy. It was a popular initiative, certain to gain the ruling party more votes in the next election. But Quaqua had a strong counter-argument: legalizing banned substances not only negated decades of established jurisprudence (he was a lawyer, after all), but would put legitimate producers of healthy substitutes out of business—and, he didn’t need to add, abolish the black market in pork altogether. 

“Just look at what those fools in Bukolandia did with drugs,” he told Ongong as he poured the Balvenie. “To take care of the drug problem, they legalized drugs, so not only is the whole country now on a high, but the economy is down because there’s no business to be made, with people planting weed and cooking up meth in their own backyards. We can’t allow that to happen—imagine, if people bred their own pigs, how common the taste of lechon and chicharon would be. Fake pork can take care of that demand without turning our country into a stinking pigsty. True pork has to remain—” and here he munched on a morsel of bituka—“a restricted commodity.”

There must have been something more than MSG in what Quaqua fed the President, because he was appointed Minister of Justice on the spot, as he had been praying novenas for. Now, he could tell the Kawefan Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to spend its time on worthier pursuits like chasing after subversive authors and professors instead of bothering with peripheral issues like pork smuggling.

But barely had he warmed his seat when his first crisis exploded. One of the President’s peskiest critics, Dr. Fofo, a radio broadcaster from way down south, had been shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. That wasn’t the problem—after all, presidential critics died all the time. They should’ve read the news and shut up if they knew what was good for them. The problem was that Dr. Fofo’s killers stupidly got caught when a piglet sprang from out of nowhere—likely an escapee from an illegal farm—and enticed the duo to chase it, until their motorcycle hit a post. In police custody, the two boasted of their connections and were threatening to out their mastermind if they weren’t released soon. Social media was on their case.

“We can’t let these idiots cause a fuss,” Quaqua told his assistant, Vice Minister for Public Affairs Zhuzhu. “They screw up, they pay the consequences. That’s justice!… Hoy, are you listening? I just said—”

“Sir, Mr. Minister, we have a bigger problem!” The assistant was on his mobile phone and looked deeply worried.

“Why? What happened?”

“Sir—your wife—Mrs. Quaqua was just arrested!”

“What? Where? Why?”

“At the airport. They booked her for—uhm—stealing the silverware in business class. They say they found several pairs of spoons and forks in her handbag.”

“Are they crazy? Does that airline want its landing rights revoked? Taking home spoons and forks from airplanes is an old Kawefan custom! Get me the airport manager—”

“Uh, it wasn’t in our airport, sir,” said Zhuzhu. “Your wife just landed in Paris, to attend Fashion Week—”

Oooh, that’s right, said Quaqua to himself—they’d had a spat over his latest mistress Gigi, and he’d given her the usual blank check to placate her. Still, it was embarrassing.

“Then get me the French ambassador! Let’s see if they’ll risk diplomatic relations on account of some—some stupid cutlery!”

“Uhm, the spoons and forks are innocent, sir—they’re not sentient beings,” said Zhuzhu, his eyes downcast. “I learned that in our Employee Development Seminar on Eastern Philosophy, sir.”

“Tell them to have seminars on gun cleaning and pest control!” Quaqua made a note to himself: “I swear, Zhuzhu, as soon as this blows over, I’m going to get me a retired general to take your place.”

Zhuzhu held up his phone to show his boss a news clip from CNN. “It’s on CNN now, sir. They’ve even posted a mug shot of Mrs. Quaqua holding up the forks and spoons.”

“What?!” The justice minister fell back into his chair and looked out the window. “They didn’t even blur her face? The inhumanity, the incivility…. What has mankind come to? Where’s understanding and tolerance when you need them? Whatever did my dear wife do to deserve this?”

“According to the great masters, sir, we sow what we reap, our past actions affect our present ones, so Mrs. Quaqua did something, like for example, she married you—”

Just then Zhuzhu’s phone rang again and Quaqua couldn’t wait to hear the news. “Did they release her? Did they come to their senses? What’s up?”

Zhuzhu looked sad. “I’m afraid it’s about something else, sir. About those two suspects in the murder of Dr. Fofo? I’ve just been told that they’re both dead. They had an argument and—well, they strangled each other to death in their cell.”

Quaqua’s eyes lit up. There was a God. “Then I must have done something good in my past life, Zhuzhu!”

“What about the madame, sir?”

“Alas, it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” Quaqua sighed, thinking of Gigi’s perfume. “Let French justice take its course.”

(Image from eatlikepinoy.com)