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.

Penman No. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

YOU KNOW that the pandemic has gone into triple overtime when you realize that it’s been two years since you got on a plane and did something more exciting than checking your temperature and waiting for Season 9 of The Blacklist on Netflix. For a guy who splurged on visiting nine countries right after he retired in 2019—something I will forever be happy to have done when I could—this long period of immobility should feel like prison. 

In some ways, it seems like it. I’ve worn nothing but a pair of Crocs flip-flops all these months. I’ve been to Makati no more than four, five times, and to Los Baños once for a wedding. My leather shoes have gone moldy, and my blazers musty. I have a couple of shirts I put on for Zoom meetings and replace on their hangers afterwards, and I wear long pants maybe once or twice a week.

To be honest, however, I’ve found the long lockdown more than bearable. The misery and depredations of the pandemic aside (and I acknowledge my uncommon position of privilege as a retiree), I’ve been able to use the time and enforced confinement to catch up with long-standing deadlines and get some new writing done. I know how lucky I am to be alive and functioning at all, and I can’t see any fun or relief in traveling under this regime of nose swabs and quarantines.

But that hardly means that my wanderlust—and that of my fellow footloose—is gone. Where the feet can’t go, the mind travels, imagining vistas yet unseen, horizons uncrossed, gateways opening to new adventures. Before the pandemic, Beng and I had been planning on visiting St. Petersburg, which was then offering free eight-day visas online, to see its famous Hermitage; that will have to wait for kinder times. But we can always revisit the past and take consolation in happy memory of journeys completed and challenges survived.

So I went on a daydreaming binge last week, going over my digital albums, posing a question that each of us will have a different answer to: “What’s the most beautiful place in the world you’ve ever been to?” Curious as to what other people had in mind in this respect, I put out an informal survey among my FB friends, and gathered an interesting and colorful list of places that might as well be a bucket list for others seeking their post-pandemic Shangri-la.

For National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, it had to be Petra, Jordan, “where we listened to a live symphony concert at the steps of the temple facade.”

For UK-based travel writer Wendy Daw, it was remote Tetiaroa in French Polynesia, where she stayed at The Brando, described as “the world’s most luxurious eco-resort.”   (Prices begin at $3,500/night for a standard room—I think I’ll have to stay on the beach, or the canoe.)

For children’s advocate Naida Pasion, Old Bagan in Myanmar exuded “an otherworldly beauty” she couldn’t forget.

For writer Alma Miclat, following in the footsteps of Jose Rizal to Litomerice in the Czech Republic in 2019 was bittersweet, as it would be the last trip abroad she would take with her husband Mario, before the pandemic set in and before Mario passed away shortly after.

For calligrapher Lorraine Nepomuceno, Carcassonne in southern France, with its medieval citadel overlooking the countryside, was the pinnacle of her many travels. 

For writer and professor Gerry Los Baños, Florence gave off a certain frisson, an electricity in the ubiquity of its art. (I know the feeling—you hardly know where to look—having had just a day to spend in Florence with Beng, after also just a day in Venice.)

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

For poet Joel Toledo, Oxfam regional director Lan Mercado, and—yes!—myself, it was Bellagio in northern Italy, where I woke up every morning for a month to a breathtaking view of Lake Como, silvered by the overhanging mist. (I was on a Rockefeller writing fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni as was Joel, after Krip Yuson, the late FSJ, and many other Filipino writers, but to tell the truth I got much less writing done than I would have in our humble abode in Diliman. Beauty can overpower the senses and I spent much of my time just enjoying the scenery—but for writers and artists, that qualifies as work.)

Of course, many others preferred settings much closer to home, if not home itself. For musician and Kontra-Gapi founder Edru Abraham, nothing can take the place of the Callao Caves in his home province of Cagayan; for writer Bebang Siy, Ermita’s sunset will never lose its charm; UP professor Roli Talampas met sublimity at the summit of Mt. Pulag at daybreak.

The number and range of responses I got suggested that I had released a wave of longing from friends who understood, as I did, that the world we knew had changed forever, and that the magic we felt in those encounters with ethereal places would have to last us for the rest of our lives. 

There will be other opportunities, for sure, after the pandemic, especially for the young. But we’re happy and fortunate to have seen the past, such as it was. Every life deserves a brush with beauty—whether under a shower of cherry blossoms in Tokyo or under the stars in Antipolo—and we had ours.

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

My Lifestyle column in the Philippine STAR, “Penman,” has now been moved to every other Sunday, to avoid the awkwardness (and extravagance) of having two of my columns appear in the paper on Mondays. My takeover of F. Sionil Jose’s “Hindsight” on the Op-Ed page debuts tomorrow.

I WAS sixteen years late to the party, but I finally gave in and opened a Facebook account last June under my name, initially just for family. A few weeks ago I began accepting “friends,” of which I now have about 600, and I don’t intend to add too many more, although time and tolerance could change that reticence as well.

I resisted joining Facebook all those years for all the reasons some of my real-life friends remain staunch holdouts. Foremostly, it seemed to diminish and commodify the idea of friendship, replacing what should have been forged over conversation, coffee, and even conflict with a few keystrokes. Even now, looking at the roster of my newfound “friends,” I know—and do not really regret—that less than half of them are people I have actually broken bread or raised a toast with.

Honest to God, not being a politician, I don’t need 5,000 friends; I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1,000 of them. If they all pledged to buy my next book, then maybe I’d reconsider and lower the bar by a foot or two, in the cause of promoting literacy and my Fountain Pen Rescue Fund.

And then of course Facebook is a total timesuck, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the void that gets created by engaging in an activity that seems like it will be short but ends up taking up huge amounts of time.” It’s just not human not to read and then not to respond to comments on your posts, and then not to read the posts of others and not to react to them.

Every “tag” might as well be a distress call; somewhere out there you’re being praised or reviled, and you just have to pause that report you’re drafting for the Board of Regents or that article you’re refereeing for the Journal of Linguistics to see what Cookie has been saying about that encounter in Boracay or Chef Dodo’s opinion of your dinuguan recipe.

As it is, even deciding who gets to be your Facebook “friend” or not raises all kinds of vexing and time-consuming moral dilemmas. I don’t know how others do it, but I review nearly every request I receive, going through that person’s profile—and not just our common “friends”—to see who and what’s behind the name. My rule of thumb is, if I really know you—and like you—then you’re in; if I know you by reputation, I might even feel honored, and click “confirm.” If I’ve never met or heard about you at all—which isn’t your fault or any fault for that matter—then I evaluate your application for virtual “friendship” using my shamelessly subjective criteria.

First, I check to see if you’re a real person, or that you are who you say you are. Early on in this “friendship” game, I received a slew of requests from impossibly pretty and shapely ladies, which made me wonder why I had waited sixteen years to enter paradise. (They all seemed to have one or two common “friends” with me, always the same persons, so I know who’s been extraordinarily amiable out there.) Out of curiosity (I swear!), I accepted one such request, and almost instantly got a private message that invited me to become her digital pen pal, because she was lonely and unoccupied in some far-off country. I wanted to tell her to buy my book of funny essays, or even my short stories, to relieve her boredom, but I had an inkling that creative nonfiction wasn’t going to be the bridge between us.

I checked out her posts—all of them suggestive of her good health and weight maintenance, and of her preference for clothes that did not consume too much fabric (kudos for sustainability)—only to notice that they had all been posted on the same day! My wonderment quickly turned to dismay, realizing that I, among other papas of the world, was being suckered into hell by this honeypot, who was very likely some ugly fellow like me named George or Brando. And so I sadly punched “delete,” as I did for the many others who would follow in Ms. Lonely’s wake.

Second, I check to see if you’re interesting and if we’ll get along. If all you can show me are endless updates of your profile picture—here’s me on the beach, here’s me with my dog, here’s me with a balloon, here’s me lifting weights—then we really don’t need each other, thank you. I have a soft spot for all kinds of artists, and I don’t necessarily just go for the famous or abundantly talented ones; I’ve signed in struggling young people because I admire honest effort.

If you’re a benign plantita proud of your grandkids, your succulents, and your muffins, you’re in—the world needs you! If you became my friend just to sell me something, you’re out (unless you buy my book first). Now here’s a killer: if I see even the slightest sign of you supporting dictatorship, book-banning, EJK, and fake news, you’re out. (I know we’re supposed to make friends across the political divide, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya,” but I didn’t join Facebook to get my daily dose of aggravation.)

Penman No. 429: Becoming Miss Demeanor

Penman for Monday, December 6, 2021

(Photo from Pageanthology 101)

IF YOU’RE still wondering what to give your teenager or 20-something this Christmas (older folks can count as kids), I can recommend a highly unique book that came into my mailbox recently from a former student, titled A Creativity Mix Book by Hilom Pagasa. 

We’re often told—and it’s true—that Filipinos are a highly creative people, full of ideas and passions waiting to be expressed in some artful way. But even the most creative persons sometimes need help to turn that spark into a flame—something wondrous and illuminating, without burning down the house. This book can be immensely helpful in making that happen, even for people who may not think of themselves as being creative. There’s an artist and a poet in you, and this book will help you find it.

Written for these challenging times, it’s full of exercises, artworks, essays, poems, and other materials meant to make our Covid-benighted world bright and exciting again. The author describes herself as “just a housewife who wants to heal,” having battled bipolar disorder, but the book is about you, not her. Check it out on Lazada and other places online.

ALTHOUGH NOT much of a beauty pageant fan, I was dismayed to read about the recent experience of Ms. Gianna Llanes, a lovely young Filipina who flew to Mexico to represent the country at the coronation night of “Miss Glamour International 2021”—only to realize, along with five other candidates, that the whole thing was bogus, with no judges and no sponsors to be found for the big event. How anyone could dash the hopes of these ladies so summarily is beyond me, and I can only wish better luck for Gianna in her future endeavors, whether or not they involve chasing after a glittery tiara.

That sad episode also piqued my interest in “Miss Glamour International” and all these other new and relatively little known pageants that seem to have appeared all over the planet since I last took a long, hard look at Miss Universe in 1994. A quick check of Wikipedia turned up a lot more contests I’d barely or never heard of: Miss Global, Miss Globe International, Miss Grand International, Miss Heritage, Miss Model of the World, Miss Supertalent, Miss Supranational, and Miss Intercontinental, among others. As it turns out, the Philippines has figured prominently in many of these pageants, which should come as no surprise.

Back in the day, there were really only three big beauty contests to speak of—Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss World (or four, if you add Miss Philippines, which was something of a prerequisite to all of the foregoing). It was, of course, Miss Universe that first captivated the Pinoy in 1952, when Armi Kuusela won the title and was promptly captivated by a Pinoy. (An aside I can’t resist making is the fact that Miss Kuusela, or Mrs. Hilario—she’s since become Mrs. Williams—attended a lecture I gave on the Philippines at the University of California San Diego fifteen years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but I guess I was too starstruck to take a selfie.) 

I don’t need to reprise the long, illustrious list of Filipina beauties who’ve won titles at these pageants, major and minor, especially as I’m familiar with only the older ones, who enlivened my juvenile fantasies and who must be grandmothers by now. I guess what fascinates and also depresses me is how something that used to be a happy-go-lucky joyride—a pretty girl gets nudged or cajoled into joining a pageant, which strikes her as a ridiculous idea that the Mother Superior would surely object to, but she does it anyway just to see what it’s like—has been turned into a full-blown industry, with fashion designers and coaches for every quarter-turn. It’s no longer enough just to be fresh-faced and wide-eyed; you’ll need to be trained like a Marine recruit at boot camp so you can sashay in high heels beneath a canopy of feathers for which a whole ostrich farm died and answer questions about climate change and racial discrimination like a PhD candidate.

Online, there are even sites like missacademy.com that promise to turn you into Miss Demeanor, or whoever it is you dream of becoming: “We apologize for interrupting your stereotypical programming, but news flash… pageantry is getting a MAJOR makeover! Say goodbye to the trends of yesteryear and hello to MISS Academy–the future of pageants. Our training will get you primped, primed, polished and prepped in every aspect of competition. The skills you develop at MISS Academy are sure to give you an edge above the rest, in any arena of life, long after you retire the crown.” Not to be outdone, crowndiva.com offers private lessons in ten areas of training ranging from “wardrobe and accessories consultation and selection” to “pageant-specific makeup and hair lessons” for the price of $175 per hour. 

I have absolutely no doubt that our ladies have been prepared well enough by life in the Philippines to surmount any hurdles on their path to international (or universal) fame. I’m more worried by the possibility that, the way things are going, pageant organizers will soon run out of names for their ventures. Well, there’s still Miss Multinational, Miss Globalization, Miss Galaxy, Miss Cosmos, Miss Supernova, Miss Milky Way, Miss Constellation….

Penman No. 428: Wenchworld

Penman for Monday, November 22, 2021

OKAY, SO The X-Files assured us “The truth is out there,” CSI showered us with “epithelials” and impressed “blunt force trauma” into our noggins, Narcos made it cool to be a “patron,” and The Blacklist (or what I’ve seen of this nine-season, 178-episode epic so far) keeps sending us back to the “post office” or some other “black site.” K-drama, on the other hand, will forever be memorable to me for its wanton use of the word “wench.”

I’m not confessing that I’m a K-drama addict—for that, you can indict my wife Beng, who also happens to be my bedmate, which means that whatever she watches, so must I. Vicariously, therefore, I have learned that it is possible in the K-Universe to go back and forth between North and South Korea by parachute or tunnel, and even to go back and forth between Joseon and the present by holding on to a pretty girl and falling over; that a family’s most precious heirloom, on which everyone’s happiness depends, can be its secret kimchi recipe; that tall and tiny hats maketh the man; that Korean mafiosi travel with at least 300 OOTDs, to be worn just once—plus, of course, someone to keep them immaculately pressed; and that kissing in the rain is better than kissing under energy-saving light bulbs.

But most of all, the K-Universe is peopled by men (half of whom seem to be “unfilial sons”) and women (the younger half of whom are “saucy wenches”). It’s the “wench” part that gets me, because it’s a word I haven’t heard since I was slogging through my grad-school classes in Elizabethan Drama more than thirty years ago. 

Most famously, of course, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio woos the intemperate Katherine: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!” From Love’s Labours Lost, we get “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The word is all over English in the 1500s and 1600s, embedded in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; Christopher Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, has his character Barabas trying to brush away his sinful past when he is accused of fornication: “But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.”)

While we’re in this sort-of-scholarly mode, let’s look up “wench” to see what it was supposed to mean then. Etymonline.com gives us this block of information: 

“Late 13c., wenche ’girl, young woman,’ especially if unmarried, also ‘female infant,’ shortened from wenchel ’child,’ also in Middle English ‘girl, maiden,’ from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol ’unsteady, fickle, weak,’ from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr’child, weak person,’ Old High German wanchal ’fickle’), from PIE *weng- ’to bend, curve’…. The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]. In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of ‘concubine, strumpet’ is attested by mid-14c. Also ‘serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class’ (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare’s day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wenchflax-wife, or flax-woman.”

Perhaps more helpfully, vocabulary.com tells us that “Wench used to mean young girl, so if you find someone describing a lovely wench in Shakespeare, it means a lovely girl. Wench comes from Middle English, and was a common word for girl, child, or servant. Over time it came to mean mainly serving girls, as in a bar wench, who serves drinks at a tavern. Eventually it came to mean prostitute. If you find wench in a love poem from the 16th century, think of it as an informal version of maiden. But if someone called you a wench last week, you should be insulted.”

Now, in the K-Universe, the use of “wench” transcends centuries, being equally useful in the period of the Three Kingdoms as it was under the Joseon dynasty, under Japanese annexation, and after the Korean War. (At a certain point, when you’ve watched hundreds of hours of K-drama—only because your wife is watching, mind you—you become something of an expert on Korean history, politics, and culture. I’ve even developed a taste for japchae, which I like to think of as Korean sotanghon.) It’s entirely possible for a Gangnam goon to call a confederate on his Samsung phone to say “Get rid of that insufferable wench!”

All that is probably because the Official Association of K-Drama Translators, at a crucial conference in Jeju, sat down to take up the word nyeon (“a term that refers to a female person in a degrading/derogatory manner”), with partisans debating fiercely between “bitch” and “whore.” The argument entered its second day, with tempers flaring and steel chopsticks dangerously stabbing the air, until the revered Dr. Sung Hyun-Lee, a fruit grocer by day and Confucian scholar and acupuncturist by night, woke up from his soju-assisted meditation and proposed the word “wench.” He had come across the word while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and thought it perfect to describe a passing ship in the night.

Since all K-drama heroines can be wenches (as long as they have doe eyes, porcelain skin, and wispy hair—but wait, doesn’t that sound like all K-boys as well?), “wench” seems to have lost its pay-for-play connotations on Netflix, and now simply means “any pretty and young Korean woman who attracts and then annoys a nasty man—a cruel Joseon prince, a North Korean general, or a Seoul crime boss.” Problem solved.