Penman No. 242: A Husband’s Purpose

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Penman for Monday, March 13, 2017

 

 

I’M NOT a dog person—next to my wife Beng, my marmalade tomcat Chippy was my best friend for twelve years until he meowed goodbye in 2012—but when I saw the trailer for this new movie A Dog’s Purpose, I just knew that I had to take Beng out to see it.

Beng loves dogs; at any given time, she has six or seven of them running around the yard. Her favorite, Bunso, invariably greets her when we get out of the car with a yelp and raises his paws for a shake and head rub, maybe even a sloppy kiss. I cringe when I see that, especially the part where the pooch’s wet tongue flicks across a cheek I might be visiting myself. For Beng, it’s just one more proof that dogs are more faithful than men, never mind that we don’t have tails to wag to flaunt our extravagant affections.

Of course, Beng knows the names of all her dogs, and who sired whom three generations removed. To me, they’re all noisy little mongrels distinguished by the fact that some are white, some are brown, and some are black. As you can imagine, over the years, we’ve given away scores of puppies to neighbors and relatives who thankfully couldn’t see beyond the cuddly cuteness to where certain recessive genes assert themselves. I become vaguely aware that the litter (and I suspect that’s where the word’s other meaning came from) is gone when a deep and abiding silence descends upon the household, at least until the other dogs demand their share of the food budget.

I’m not sure where my indifference to dogs comes from. Discounting guppies in water bags and terminally ill mayas in bamboo cages, we didn’t have pets as children—my four smaller siblings were a handful enough for my mom—so that’s probably one reason. My one dog memory from childhood involves a barking bitch and her pup whom I met on the street; I was nine years old and summering in my provincial hometown, but even at nine I had begun to read a lot, and one of the things I read was “Barking dogs don’t bite.” Well, this one did, and I grew up to be a skeptic from that point on.

At the same time, and strangely enough, I was a big fan of Lassie, and became something of a pest in the eyes of our TV-owning neighbor, parking myself in front of their TV nearly every afternoon in anticipation of another episode of Lassie chasing down scumbags and finding her way home after straying 200 miles. So I knew dogs were smart, and maybe that’s where the problem was—there could be only one top dog in the house, and as far as I was concerned, that position was already taken.

But back to the movie. Beng and I see a lot of movies, usually after a foot massage and a panciteria dinner. It’s as predictable as Tuesday, but life’s like that when you edge past 60; you don’t want too many surprises messing up your week. At least I don’t; now and then Beng makes mewling sounds about trying out new dishes or even new restaurants, and to be gracious I’ll say, “Okay, since we’ve had the miki bihon in this place half a dozen times now, let’s see what it tastes like across the street!” This is how we’ve survived 43 years together—understanding, compromise, and a little generosity.

The G word was on my mind last week when I suggested that we watch the damned dog movie. Usually we subsist on some iteration of Fast & Furious—that’s how I get my kicks, by watching cars crash into concrete walls and skulls get smashed by sledgehammers (“Isn’t violence relaxing?” I ask Beng over the popcorn). Once in a while, typically when a new iPhone hits the market, I treat Beng to a movie without Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Vin Diesel in it. I scored big with La La Land; you know she had fun when she asks you to look for the soundtrack, which is what the house will sound like for the next week, over the woofs and the whimpers of our canine company.

Beng likes movies like Hidden Figures and Sunday Beauty Queen where strong, smart women are smiling as the closing credits roll, where good people go to heaven, and where frogs turn into princes (she’s still waiting for that to happen). Whether it’s a happy or a sappy ending, she’s likely to cry over something. (She was probably the only person on the planet who wept when the Soviet Soyuz rocket ship docked with the Space Station—“Isn’t world peace wonderful?” I remember her saying.)

So I knew she was going to weep buckets when I took her to the dog movie; for me, watching her watching the movie makes it all worthwhile. Now this is going to be a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that A Dog’s Purpose is all about canine reincarnation, and about finding your way home (which, again, is apparently on every presumptive Lassie’s script).

I lined up for our tickets—we usually get D15 and D16, about midway across the theater—but dozens of families had also come out for the mutt show, and now only V15 and V16 were available, way up in the balcony where all the young couples nested. When I showed Beng the tickets, she giggled and said, “Are we going to neck?” I mumbled some incoherent, noncommittal reply, suddenly feeling very frog-like. She thought it was a funny idea, and threatened to call our daughter Demi in California, to tell her that her parents were going to go necking in the moviehouse.

Thankfully the movie started, and soon enough, as one dog died after the other, Beng was pulling out her tissues and sniffling serially, and I touched her on the cheek to assuage her grief. I could’ve licked her right there, but I could imagine Demi going “Ewwwww!” I left it to Bunso to do the licking later—having, for that day, served my husbandly purpose.

 

Penman No. 238: A Little Carillon Music

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Penman for Monday, February 13, 2017

 

 

IT’S BEEN a bit nippy these past few mornings on the campus of UP Diliman, where I’ve not only taught for the past 33 years but where we’ve also lived for almost 14 years now, in a house once occupied by one of the most beloved icons of the English department, the late Prof. Concepcion “Ching” Dadufalza. I inherited the bungalow on Juan Luna Street when Miss Dadufalza moved out to be with her sister. She could have stayed in it forever as Professor Emeritus—one of the loftiest distinctions a lifelong teacher could aspire for—but she merited better care and companionship in her old age, as only her family could give her. In a sense, of course, the university was Ching Dadufalza’s family—and they would come and visit her in Juan Luna, stalwart wards like the poet Jimmy Abad, her eternal student and virtual son.

Campus housing is one of those few perks of university life that professors look forward to, given the crippling rentals in the metropolis and, just as insufferable, the traffic you have to plow through to get to your classroom in time. Beng and I actually owned a small house in San Mateo (which we’ve since sold to raise funds for a newer car), but the commuting crushed us, so we stayed for many years in a succession of apartments closer to UP until the opportunity arose to live on campus.

That opportunity came when I was appointed Vice President for Public Affairs by President Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo in 2003. I was chair of the English department then and still eager to tickle young minds in the two classes I taught. I felt no great urge to take on a heavier administrative burden—the position came with the kind of prestige that only my UP-alumna mother could boast about to her Tuesday-Circle friends, and very little otherwise by way of extra emoluments. I would end up sending the office’s pockmarked Corona to the body shop for a spray-over at my own expense, figuring that the university’s chief spokesman and lobbyist deserved a veneer of respectability.

But being on call to the President and the office 24/7 was also a good argument to live on campus, and when Miss Dadufalza moved out of Juan Luna, her former home was assigned to me. As far as I was concerned, that privilege of campus housing was my true salary for serving as VP. Whether the larger bungalows for senior faculty or the walk-ups for young instructors, it’s prized not only because it’s affordable and hard to get, but also because… well, let me explain.

Ching’s house had a gazebo put up in the yard for her by her loving students, and when the giant mango trees overhead were fruiting, you could hear mangoes drop on the roof in soft thuds, and pick up the fruits and eat them after a quick wash.

By day, on the job, I would dash off across the city in the old Toyota for meetings with cranky politicians and even crankier students over the proposed new UP Charter. But I came home to sweet mangoes, fragrant papayas, and birdsong in the branches, to the enveloping coolness, the cadena de amor, and the carillon music that had defined Diliman for me since I began roaming the campus as a boy in the early ‘60s, hoping to someday study there. I had never imagined becoming a professor, much less a poobah, and now here I was in a starched barong, defending and propagating the legacy of Rafael Palma and Salvador P. Lopez.

But I began by saying how cool it’s been in Diliman this February. Beng and I have been taking five-kilometer walks every other day to savor the air. Two years short of retirement, I could stop here at the Sunken Garden and just enjoy the dewy scenery.

One afternoon last week, I embarrassed myself in my American Lit class by talking about that scenery, and then uncharacteristically weeping. I told my students that I had just been asked to serve, once again, as VP for Public Affairs, and I wanted to say no because I knew I was going to be sorry when the workload hit and when the problems started streaming in, but I couldn’t, because it was UP asking, and because my mother would be happy, and because UP had given me, quite literally, a good home. So here I am again, brushing my shoes and counting my barongs, a little carillon music tinkling between my ears.

 

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And now let me put in a word for a friend, the writer and translator Chichi Lizot who, as it turns out, had quite a lively and a lovely youth. She wrote me to recall that “My seven-year stint as a flight attendant was perhaps the most daring thing I had ever done. I joined Philippine Airlines when it was still a small family, in 1974. I was barely eighteen!  I naturally think of the late Chona Kasten, epitome of elegance, grace, and class. I flew during her time when many of us regarded her as very much like the head mistress of a revered finishing school that was not easy to get into.”

Chichi wants her fellow PAL alumni to know that on Saturday, February 18, a reunion of over 600 PAL ex-personnel from all departments and indeed from all over the world will take place at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. Latin Night is sponsored by the Association of Former Flight Attendants of Philippine Airlines for the benefit of Tahanan ni Maria, a home for the aged in Carmona, Cavite. Naty Crame Rogers, 94 years old, who began flying in 1946, will show her juniors how to salsa during this Latin-inspired evening of dinner, dance, a fashion show of PAL uniforms through the years, a raffle of great prizes, and many more.

For tickets, please call AFFAP Chairman Christie Altura at 0917-8478117 or AFFAP President Avelyn Jahns at 0917-8199018.

 

Penman No. 237: A Singular Honor

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Penman for Monday, February 6, 2017

 

 

I’VE HAD the pleasure and the privilege of winning a number of awards for my writing and teaching, but none of them has been as personally overwhelming for me as a recent honor bestowed upon me by my university and by a private benefactor.

At its 1323rd meeting last December 16, the University of the Philippines Board of Regents approved the creation of the One UP-Jose Yap Dalisay Jr. Professorial Chair in Creative Writing, to be awarded once every three years to a deserving professor (an assistant professor at the minimum) in the Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) who has distinguished himself or herself in creative writing and its teaching.

The awardee will receive a grant of PHP 120,000 per year for a three-year period, and will be selected based on criteria set for One UP professorial chairs and by a committee of the DECL.

The chair will be funded by a donation of PHP 4.15 million contributed by a donor based in the United States, who wishes to remain anonymous and to be identified only as “a longtime friend of the Philippines.” The donation was coursed through the Friends of the UP Foundation in America (FUPFA), with the assistance of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the UP Foundation.

My department and I are profoundly grateful for this great honor which, until it happened, was something I never imagined would fall on me, especially within my lifetime—and while I’m still in active service, two years’ short of retirement. Professorial chairs are usually set up by wealthy families or corporations in their own names. We have several endowed chairs in the humanities at UP, but this is our first for creative writing, and it will go a long way toward ensuring that young Filipino writers and their work get due recognition. (And just to make it clear, I myself won’t be seeing a single centavo of this generous grant—but that’s all right and as it should be, as I hold another chair.)

I have to admit that I do know the anonymous donor—a dear friend who spent many years in the Philippines and who has written about her experiences here with deep affection and insight. I’ve helped her bring those experiences to fruition as the editor of her books and, she says, her mentor, and later her friend. She could just as easily and more logically have named the chair after herself or her family, as I had urged her to do when she first broached the idea of endowing a chair at UP, but she insisted that it be in my name until I could no longer demur. While she has had no personal connection to UP, her late husband’s developmental work involved UP, and she and her late husband had many friends there—Carlos P. Romulo, Salvador P. Lopez, and Cesar Virata among others—so the chair recognizes those valuable relationships as well.

I can say that while our donor is by no means a Bill Gates or a Rockefeller—she lives modestly by herself in her advancing years—she is unfailingly generous and hospitable whenever Beng and I pay her a visit, and she knows the world (and I do mean the whole wide world, beyond the Worldwide Web) more intimately and more wisely than most people do.

The plans for the chair were put together over the past few months, and we have to thank outgoing UP President Fred Pascual, Vice President for Academic Affairs Giselle Concepcion, UP Foundation Executive Director Gerry Agulto, Friends of the UP Foundation in America Vice-Chair Polly Cortez, and DECL Chair Lily Rose Tope for facilitating the process. (Yes, folks—if you have friends and fellow UP alumni in the US who may want to give donations to UP for various causes, these can be coursed through Ms. Cortez at fupfa.org).

I know she doesn’t want too much of a fuss to be made about this, but once again I’d like to thank my friend for this singular honor, which will long outlive both of us. At current rates, the chair will be endowed for 34 years, although we’ve provided for the necessary adjustments to be made to account for inflation and other supervening circumstances. I look forward to the imminent selection of the first chairholder, who will also be expected to produce a book-length work and to deliver a lecture over his or her tenure. A life in academia has few pleasures, but this is one of them, and one of the best ones—for the recipient, the donor, and the honoree alike.

And this is as good a time as any to say thank you as well to Fred Pascual, Giselle Concepcion, and the other members of the UP System administration, whose six years in service will end with the turnover of the university’s reins to incoming President Danilo “Danicon” Concepcion and his team on February 10. I’m amazed by and rather sad at how quickly those six years have passed. Being a non-academic, Fred Pascual assumed the presidency as a relative unknown and got off to a rocky start, and I was among the vocal critics of some early missteps that could have been avoided with better advice.

But I came to be impressed by how hard Fred and Giselle worked over the years to raise UP to global standards (an initiative still not without its critics, UP being UP) and to expand its reach and resources. And while I never sought or held office under this administration other than the directorship of the Institute of Creative Writing, I was glad to be of some quiet service to Fred and his people when I could. We citizens of the Diliman Republic wish them well, as we look forward to even more achievements (let’s hear it for those Maroons!) under President Danicon and returning UPD Chancellor Mike Tan. Push on, UP!

Penman No. 235: High Time at the Henry

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Penman for Monday, January 23, 2017

 

A COUPLE of weekends ago, against all odds, Beng and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary and not coincidentally my 63rd birthday. It seemed like an inspired idea at the time to get hitched as I turned 20, but over the years I’ve wondered if I should have given each day its proper due, and doubled my presents that way. But I soon realized that I was never going to get or find a better gift than Beng—patient, forgiving, and gentle Beng—so January 15 has largely been a day for two.

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Around Christmas I start thinking about how and where best we can spend the day, and this year, with UP having shifted its academic calendar to begin the school term in mid-January, we could have opted, funds permitting, to fly out to some exotic destination like Penang or Pattaya (or, heck, why not Paris?).

Instead, after some Googling, we ended up in the most unlikely of romantic locales—Pasay City, at the Henry Hotel along F.B. Harrison, to be more specific, where the magic begins once the gate opens.

I’d read about the Henry somewhere before and had seen pictures of the place—a visual and sentimental journey back to the 1950s, with its stately main house and sculpted gardens, and I remember being amazed even then by the fact that such a sylvan hideaway could exist in the heart (or less kindly the armpit) of the metropolis. It was high time we checked in for a weekend staycation; the saved airfare alone would answer for the room. And being staunch northerners, we barely knew the southern sector of the city, except for visits to the Cultural Center and the Luneta area. We hadn’t even reconnoitered the cavernous Mall of Asia except again for the briefest sorties.

But again that’s not entirely true, because I had actually grown up in Pasay in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in a house on P. Manahan branching off F.B. Harrison. It was a neighborhood interlaced with catwalks, off one of which I once fell into the fetid water while showing off my brand-new cowboy outfit, which I had probably received for my fifth or sixth birthday.

That bit of unpleasantness aside, I could still remember afternoons swimming in Manila Bay and lounging on the long beach chairs by the sea wall, riding the double-decker Matorco buses up and down what was still Dewey Boulevard, and munching on foot-long hotdogs at the Brown Derby.

So this weekend in Pasay was something of a homecoming for me, even if all the old landmarks were gone. What’s now the Henry was already there when I was humming the Tom Dooley song, but it wasn’t a hotel yet then but a sprawling compound of large squarish but stylish wooden houses flanking a white concrete main house, amid greenery tamed and teased by Ildefonso P. Santos, who would go on to become a National Artist for Architecture.

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The 32-room Henry was built by its new owners out of that layout, preserving as much of the old while providing such modern amenities as wi-fi and air-conditioning. A long gravel driveway leads to a fountain and a roundabout fronting the main house, past a curtain of angel’s-hair vines; a swimming pool glows opalescent blue amid the verdure; the main house stands proud but welcoming.

I’ll report that we had a most pleasant and restful stay, helped along by an unobtrusively efficient staff. We luxuriated in the fluffy pillows and the hot shower. It was a bonus to discover that the art gallery of an acquaintance, Albert Avellana, occupied one of the houses in the compound.

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But our anniversary weekend wasn’t meant to be spent cooped up in a room, however charming the ambience. We’ve lately been used to taking 5-7 kilometer walks as part of our seniors’ exercise regimen, so we gamely walked for our bangus and salad breakfast to a restaurant near MOA, and walked many kilometers more within the mall itself.

Staying at the chic Henry was in a way the compleat anti-mall experience, but Beng and I have never pretended to be anything but pedestrian, so that for us was the exotic treat. The mall, like all markets, was familiar territory.

We took in a couple of action movies, buying more popcorn than we could ingest, and oohed at all the nice clothes that wouldn’t fit us. When we had lunch of ukoy and suam na halaya at the KKK restaurant, Beng loudly let the manager know that we were celebrating our 43rd, snagging us a free dessert of leche flan. Hankering for a sushi dinner, we misread Chinese for Japanese and stumbled into Masuki, which served huge bowls of my all-time favorite, Ma Mon Luk-style mami.

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The literal highlight of our weekend had taken place earlier that afternoon. We had asked ourselves, the night before, “What kind of cheap, mindless fun haven’t we tried in a long time?” (Not that, naughty boys and girls.) We paid P150 each the next day for the answer: an eight-minute joyride up and down the MOA Eye, the big white Ferris wheel from whose apex we took selfies before tumbling out of our pod, giggling, to rejoin teeming humanity and the surefooted ordinariness of things.

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Penman No. 213: Artisanal Delights at Salcedo

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Penman for August 22, 2016

 

LIKE MANY Manileños, my wife Beng and I had heard of the famous and fabulous Salcedo Weekend Market in Makati but had never gone there, being staunch northerners who refuse to brave the EDSA traffic, even on weekends, if we could avoid it. But curiosity and circumstance finally forced us to relent a few Saturdays ago, the circumstance being a friend’s offer of a room at a nearby hotel that she and her husband weren’t going to be using.

That sounded to us like “Staycation!” so we jumped at the chance. This same friend—she’s in the travel business and gets around—had done us a similar favor a few months earlier as a Valentines’ Day treat for a pair of arthritic lovebirds. Since the room was huge and free, Beng promptly called her sister Mimi and Mimi’s kids and granddaughter Sophie to share the day with us, the idea being to walk a couple of blocks to the Salcedo Market, pick out whatever we wanted for lunch, then lay it all out on the long table and dive in.

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And that’s exactly what happened. The Salcedo Market opens at 6 and closes at 2, so Beng and I decided to take a sneak peek right after breakfast, before the rest of the family arrived all the way from Tierra Pura. Sure enough, even at that hour and with a slight drizzle threatening, scores of vendors had already set up shop under canvas tents spread out on what, on weekdays, is a parking lot close to the Makati Sports Club.

As I often point out in this corner, I’m no foodie—I’m an instant-ramen and canned-sardines sort of fellow for whom a trip to a food market might be like that of a heathen to the Vatican—but I’m addicted to food shows on TV the way some people can’t get their fill of horror movies, and am always curious to see what’s out there. Beng, on the other hand, will try and eat anything short of the rotten shark that seems to be all the rage in Iceland, and she has to catch me in a good mood so I can graciously agree to step into a restaurant where they serve pizza (I hate cheese), so the Salcedo Market sortie was, for her, sheer, exultant liberation.

What immediately struck me, despite what I just said about my aversion for fine dining, was how many options there were for plain-food folks like me on offer—burgers, lechon, smoked fish, pancit, siopao, barbecue, and such familiar staples. What lifted them above the ordinary was the freshness and sometimes uniqueness of the ingredients—many were cooked on the spot—and the assurance that you weren’t going to make hourly runs to the bathroom later in the day. Knowing that I had a mound of work waiting for me in our hotel, I loaded up on lechon, corn on the cob, fresh jackfruit, and breadsticks to nibble on, while Beng chose the fresh Chinese lumpia. Mimi and her brood arrived, and I let the sisters drool over the fish curry, the lamb kebab, the laing with daing, the vodka tinapa, the malunggay pesto, and the other more exotic fare.

That was the Salcedo market scene for the most part—good food done well (and whether I liked it or not was irrelevant; seeing Beng’s eyes light up at the culinary pageant was well worth the trip), and home-cooked and artisanal food you just can’t order from a fastfood joint. I hate to think about what had to happen to produce my take-home kilo of tapang usa—Beng didn’t appreciate my Bambi jokes—but it was heaven on the tongue.

This was where a short walk back to the dinner table rounded out our Salcedo experience. There’s a cluster of tables in the center of the weekend market where you can gorge instantly on your selections, but given how many of us there were and how much food we’d amassed, we appreciated the luxury of a long table with complete cutlery in our lodgings just minutes away.

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That abode, not incidentally, was Fraser Place Manila—and to call it a “hotel” frankly wouldn’t do it justice. Sometimes you just want a room, any room, to crash into for the night. Some other times, you want more than just a hotel—a place not just to stay but to actually live in, for a few days to weeks to months, maybe even years. (I’d learn from the staff that a couple upstairs checked in ten years ago—and liked the place so much they never left!)

The Fraser—part of a Singapore-based global chain—calls itself a “serviced apartment,” and as soon as we stepped into our two-bedroom suite, we could see why: the 180-sqm enclave was really a virtual house, with a complete kitchen, laundry, three toilets and baths plus another john for guests, and quarters for a housekeeper or caregiver. All your needs were attended to by the staff, the wi-fi was free and strong, and aside from the Salcedo Weekend Market, a host of other restaurants and facilities could easily be accessed in the neighborhood.

But who needs restaurants when, like us, you could bring in loads of choice take-out meals and groceries? It made me smile to see a guest cross the lobby with a bag of veggies and what could have been fresh fish—as only a hotel with a full kitchen could allow. (I also heard dogs yapping faintly in the hallways—the Fraser is pet-friendly, but no cobras please.)

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There were a couple of downsides to consider, and it’s best to put them out front. Fraser Place Manila isn’t exactly located in what you’d call Makati’s trendiest corner. It stands across a row of office buildings, separated from them by a parking lot. It doesn’t have a penthouse bar or restaurant with a 360-degree view where you can party with your gang until the wee hours. (Cravings does operate a restaurant on the 33rd floor, beside the pool.)

But it’s these very “minuses” that guarantee peace and quiet, which Beng and I appreciated later that evening after our visitors had left and as I typed away on a book project and Beng worked on a painting for a forthcoming exhibit. It also means (of course I had to ask) that we could’ve gotten our princely suite for less than what we recently paid for a small room at an airport hotel near LAX.

Some days, Makati might as well be as far as LAX for us Dilimanians, but we’ll be sure to be back for more of Salcedo. Watch out, Bambi!

 

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Penman No. 211: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (2)

IMG_8346.jpgPenman for Monday, August 8, 2016

 

THE SAN Diego Convention Center’s ground-level exhibit hall covers more than half a million square feet—about the same acreage as the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—and Comic-Con occupied every inch of this territory and more, spilling over to more meeting rooms upstairs and to the adjacent hotels.

The throngs of attendees and kibitzers also fill up the streets and parks outside the venue, all the way to San Diego’s picturesque Gaslamp district, which turns into party town at night after the convention—a mammoth “Star Wars” bar scene, with throngs of costumed characters downing tequilas and exotic cocktails whipped up just for the occasion. You can have your pick of convention specials like the Katniss Kiss at Bang Bang (gin, honey, ginger, rose water), the Kryptonite Martini at Spike Africa’s (Svedka vodka, pepperoncini peppers, olive brine), or the Walking Dead at Searsucker (Hamilton’s Jamaican rum, Bacardi Light, pineapple juice, cinnamon simple syrup, Fee Brother’s bitters, fresh lime, Lemonhart 151, topped with ginger beer).

And you can choose to have that drink with Chewbacca or Captain Kirk, because Comic-Con’s strongest and most colorful attraction is, of course, cosplay, that not-too-subtle subterfuge by which anyone can be a superhero or super-villain for a day.

In this regard, Comic-Con 2016 more than met our expectations. There were Storm Troopers, Trekkies, Ghostbusters, and Batmen galore on the convention floor, even a Hulk, a Dumbledore, and a Silver Surfer or two. And as a couple of plus-size Supergirls demonstrated, you didn’t even need the prescribed physique to indulge your fantasy—just the costume, which the wearers had more than likely sewn up themselves, with a little help from suppliers like BuyCostumes.com (where you could be Spiderman for $44.99, or Queen Arwen for $59.99—Darth Vader will cost you more, with just the mask selling for $149.99). A day before Comic-Con opened, Demi’s nephew Matt was still busy preparing his costume and homemade weapon as the Soldier:76 character from “Overwatch,” with key components being shipped in by express courier from Hong Kong.

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If you didn’t care to dress up as a Sith Lord but had always wanted one to park behind your bar, you could take a life-sized Darth Vader home for about $7,000, for a tenth of which you could get a silicone mask of the Ice King from “Game of Thrones.”

Comic-Con, in other words, was merchandise mania, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hardcore fans staggering out of the venue with huge boxes and bags of souvenirs. Some may have addictions that will seem very peculiar to you and me—like the people who line up at midnight for special editions of the bobble-head Funko figurines—but beyond being a passion, it’s also a business that can see a Funko character that nominally sells for $15 be worth ten times that much on eBay the morning after (more on this later).

In a corner devoted to comic-book auctions, the cover art for an August 1977 issue of Conan the Barbarian had a pre-auction estimate of $12,000—a bargain compared to $20,000 for a Watchmen page. Being oldies and cheapskates, all Beng and I could sport were our black Star Wars T-shirts, which Demi had snapped at a sale (there wasn’t much demand, predictably, for T-shirts that invited you to “Join the Dark Side!”).

 

It’s all about fads and fashions, and those preferences are set on a screen somewhere—the movies, TV, the Internet, the mobile phone, the vast global domain of popular culture (which is to say, still largely Hollywood). The biggest draws this year included “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Wonder Woman,” “Teen Wolf,” “Snowden,” “Suicide Squad,” “Aliens” (marking its 30th anniversary), “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but there’s never a lack of fans (and merchandise) for perennials like “Superman,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Ghostbusters.”

But all these blockbusters begin with a writer and an artist—a “creator,” in industry parlance, along the lines of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee—and as another main feature of Comic-Con, these creative geniuses were gathered at the far end of the hall in the Artists’ Alley. Tipped off by my younger friends at Philmug (who were attending Comic-Con vicariously through their former chairman), I made a beeline for the booth of Whilce Portacio, one of the most accomplished Filipino-Americans in the comic-book industry.

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Born a Navy brat in Sangley Point, Whilce had moved to the States as a baby and had grown up in Hawaii, where his artistic talent was nurtured by supportive teachers. He came home in 1978 and studied Fine Arts at Philippine Women’s University under Ibarra de la Rosa. Not speaking Tagalog and feeling very much alone, Whilce spent the time honing his craft, and by the time he flew back to the US a few years later, he was ready for his big break—where else but at Comic-Con, which was then a much smaller event but already the place to be if you were a gifted young artist with a portfolio to show.

A Marvel editor named Carl Potts (who also had some Filipino blood) took Whilce under his wing and from there on, there was no turning back. Whilce (a shortening of William Joyce) would go on to work on Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn, among many other major projects, moving up from basic inking and penciling to becoming a creator himself of such characters as Bishop in X-Men and the Pinoy superhero Grail in Wetworks.

Following in the footsteps of such Filipino comics pioneers in the US as Alex Niño (who also had a booth at Comic-Con, but hadn’t checked in yet when I was there), Whilce sees himself as part of a series of waves of Filipinos who’ve excelled in the global industry. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to set up a studio on Balete Drive, where he discovered and trained the next wave, which now includes such standouts as Leinil Yu and Philip Tan.

Indeed, another booth at Comic-Con featured the works of Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. While it took lucky breaks and personal contacts for people like him to succeed, Whilce says that “Today, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set for everybody.” (I know I promised to report on my long and very interesting interview with Whilce, but it would be a pity to summarize, so I’ll save that for another time. Better yet, come and see him in person when he flies in to Manila to grace our version of Comic-Con—the AsiaPOP Comicon, which will happen on August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center, with tickets starting at just P550 for a one-day pass.)

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To cap my Comic-Con 2016 experience, and by another stroke of luck, our daughter Demi conjured a special pass to a live taping of Conan O’Brien’s show at the historic Spreckels Theater downtown (Conan has been a Comic-Con regular for some years now). Did I want to go? The featured guests were a surprise—the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones,” with Hodor, killed off in Season 6, getting the warmest applause. I’d have to admit that being a documentary and car-show freak, I’ve never been a fan of the series. But I had a great time watching Conan, the total pro, and every member of that audience left the theater with a Funko Conan Storm Trooper doll, which touts tried to buy at the door for a paltry $8.

Were they kidding? The dolls showed up on eBay the next day for as much as $300. I gave mine to Demi, which was the least her Tatay could do thank her for the treat of a lifetime.

 

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Penman No. 210: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (1)

 

IMG_8370.JPGPenman for Monday, August 1, 2016

 

 

IT WAS a millennial geek’s fantasy come true, except that it happened to a doddering senior with the good luck to be in the right place at the right time. As I reported last week, Beng and I were in the US last month to attend the launch of the foundation behind the prospective American Museum of Philippine Art (AMPA) in Los Angeles, and also to visit our unica hija Demi in nearby San Diego, where she’s been living and working with her husband Jerry for the past nine years.

We save up for these visits, which usually take place every year sometime in October during what used to be our semestral breaks. But with the shift in our academic calendar to the international (okay, the US) model, we timed this year’s trip for July in conjunction with the AMPA event, the sum of which was that we found ourselves in Southern California during the third week of July.

And what’s so special about that week—one marked by 90-degree-plus temperatures, water shortages, and brush fires in California’s sunbaked hinterlands? Well, as every pop-culture-savvy 30-year-old from Pandacan to Pasadena knows, it’s the time when Comics Convention International—better known as Comic-Con—takes place in San Diego, where it began 46 years ago.

So what exactly is Comic-Con, and what’s all the fuss about this annual pilgrimage attended by hordes of Earthlings, as well as presumptive superheroes and extraterrestials? It’s an exhibition, a convention, an academic conference, a parade, a pageant, a marketplace, and a film festival all at once—the world’s largest and best-known pop-cultural mecca.

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You might say that at 62, I had no right to be there at all, and I wouldn’t have argued, even if I’d been a staunch DC Comics fan in the ’60s who battled the Marvel masses in lunchtime chalk fights. I could easily think of half a dozen people just in my department in UP who would’ve given their right arms to be in my place, having followed every twist and turn of “Game of Thrones” and having memorized the names of every Jedi Master and Sith Lord in the Star Wars universes (the official and the expanded). These guys (and gals) take their fantasy seriously, and some of them go on from buying every issue of Batman to writing ponderous academic essays for such tomes as It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon, edited by Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014).

In his foreword to that book, Matthew Pustz would recall that “When I got off the trolley in downtown San Diego, I knew just how to find it: follow the guy in the Green Lantern t-shirt. After a short walk, there it was—Comic-Con International, with the huge convention center sitting in the sun. Waiting to enter were tens of thousands of fans—all with their own strategies for making the most of what has become one of the largest popular culture events in the world. This was the summer of 2007, and I had traveled to San Diego all the way from Boston to attend something that I had dreamed about for a long time. I had attended comic book conventions before, in Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis. But San Diego was different, bigger, more important. This was San Diego—the Super Bowl of comic book conventions—and I was on the comic book fan’s holy pilgrimage, the trip that all fans must make at least once in their lives. This was the Gathering of the Nerd Tribes, Fanboy Woodstock.”

“Comic-Con is a fan event, but it is also a money-making extravaganza where all manner of creators, artists, and corporate owners of media products can sell and promote them to their exact target market. And this target market is one that can be virtually guaranteed to take the ‘buzz’ of Comic-Con back with them to to Iowa or Boston or Tokyo so they can ‘sell’ those products to their friends back home. Comic-Con is the ultimate merging of culture and commerce, and that makes it the perfect place to study how popular culture works in the twenty-first century.”

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While there are many other fantasy and pop-culture conventions—Dragon Con, for example, is a big cosplay event that takes place every year in Atlanta, Georgia on Labor Day weekend—Comic-Con is a San Diego original, run by “a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” WonderCon, a comic-book-focused event, is held in Los Angeles.

The first Comic-Con—then known as the Golden State Comic Book Convention—was held in August 1970 at the US Grant Hotel (the grande dame of San Diego hotels, where our daughter Demi works), but it’s since moved on to the sprawling San Diego Convention Center (where Hall H alone, reserved for the biggest events, fills up its 6,000 seats) and to nearby hotels.

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Over its four-day run, Comic-Con 2016 was projected to draw 130,000 attendees from all over the world (and the galaxy), each of whom was also likely to spend at least $1,000 in San Diego, making it the city’s top annual grosser. Movie stars fly in to promote their projects and some celebrities like Conan O’Brien have made Comic-Con a regular item on their calendar.

Getting into Comic-Con used to be a matter of flying into San Diego and walking in through the convention door, but not anymore. According to the organizers, “Although we strive to make attending our show as easy as possible, obtaining a Comic-Con badge can require the persistence of Superman, the patience of a Watcher, the ingenuity of Tony Stark, and the readiness of Batman.” It’s hard to think of any other conference where the rules include the following:

  • All costume props and weapons must conform to state and federal law.
  • Projectile costume props and weapons must be rendered inoperable. Functional (real) arrows must have their tips removed and be bundled and zip-tied to a quiver.

Tickets to Comic-Con were sold out months ago, as were all hotel rooms in San Diego, at peak prices (“Comic-Con attendees book their rooms for next year before they leave,” Demi told us.) You don’t really buy a Comic-Con ticket but a “badge,” and to get a badge you have to pre-register online for a membership ID, with which you can then apply for a badge using a code that entitles you to a slot—well, you get the idea.

So how exactly did we get in? All I’ll say is, it pays to have a daughter in a hotel in San Diego in July. It wasn’t really in our vacation plans, but Demi decided to give a pair of seniors a special treat one morning by announcing that she could get the three of us into Comic-Con. Were we interested? You bet we were!

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Penman No. 204: Sojourn in Seoul (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

 

AS MY regular readers well know by now, I have a habit of taking off to parts unknown with my wife Beng at the slightest excuse, and one such occasion came up three weeks ago when Beng marked her birthday (her 36th, it seemed to me—as it seemed to me last year as well, and the year before). Of course I’d known for months ahead that her birthday was coming up, so as early as January, I booked us a flight to and a hotel in Seoul, for the first week of June. (That’s how Beng and I get our kicks—we jump on early-bird budget fares and commit ourselves to travel months in advance, the better to plot the year ahead.)

Why Seoul? Simply because Beng had never been to Korea, except for stopovers in Incheon, and I’d pledged years ago to take her everywhere I’d ever been. I visited Korea in 2007 on assignment for the STAR, to cover Hyundai’s shipbuilding and carmaking operations, and we stayed for a day or two in Seoul before moving on to Busan and Jeju, but I could hardly remember anything of Seoul except for the stately palaces and the enormous beef-barbecue dinners. I could do with another and more relaxed visit, on my own time and schedule, and Beng’s birthday in early June seemed perfectly timed, with our semester in UP just having ended.

I also suspected that a sojourn in Seoul would satisfy Beng’s yearnings to see, with her own eyes, the locales of her favorite Boys Over Flowers and the birthplace of Lee Min-ho, if not Lee Min-ho himself sauntering down an alley in Myeong-dong.

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The planning was the easy part. Like I always do, I went online—to skyscanner.com for the plane fares and to booking.com and tripadvisor.com for the hotel. AirAsia had a good deal for the period, and I was able to locate a small, affordable hotel at a great location in central Seoul with four-star reviews—the Hotel Kyoung Dong in the Namdaemun/Namsan Park area.

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Because of the fare structure, we signed up for a six-night, Tuesday-Monday stay—a tad longer than our usual four-day getaways. But this would open, as I’ll report next week, more fruitful possibilities beyond sightseeing and shopping. This week, I’ll focus on the personal impressions of a casual tourist, hoping they’ll be of some help when you, dear reader (and dear reader’s husband/wife/partner) make your own plans for Seoul.

Yes, we Pinoys need visas for Korea, but if you’ve done a bit of traveling before or can prove you can pay for your own kimchi, then it shouldn’t be a problem (until the end of this year, and by special arrangement, BPI Gold cardholders practically get a free pass to a three-year multiple-entry visa).

It’s a four-hour flight to Seoul and ours left around 7 am, which was perfect for avoiding the horrendous traffic around NAIA and for arriving at Incheon International Airport at midday (Korean time is one hour ahead). I’d already exchanged my pesos for Korean won at the money changer in NAIA (P1,000=W25,000), so we headed straight for the express bus shuttle to downtown Seoul, a little over an hour away. Immediately Beng was struck by how clean and modern everything looked—no litter, no “informal settlements,” no traffic—and I had to give her a spiel about how it hadn’t always been like that, and how Korea had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse within a couple of generations.

Our bus dropped us off at Namdaemun Market—which was like dropping off Beng at the portals of paradise, shopping-wise. As we would realize not too long after, Namdaemun is like Greenhills multiplied by ten—and it was hardly alone, as there was also Dongdaemun to contend with, among other emporia.

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But first, we had to locate our hotel. I usually roam on my phone, so we would have depended on Waze or Google Maps to get us there, but for some reason, I couldn’t get online, so we had to resort to the old-fashioned way: asking for directions—which, in non-Anglophone Korea, isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. (And as every wife knows, men would rather walk a mile the wrong way before asking for directions, which is why I always bring Beng along.)

And here we made our first pleasant discovery—that contrary to the notion that Koreans are rude, those we met were invariably kind and helpful. Amid a flurry of gestures and grunts, a parking attendant pointed us in the right direction, and an old man took over on the other side of the street and delivered us to our hotel’s doorstep. On the super-efficient Seoul Metro (the arrival of whose trains are heralded by a trumpet flourish you might hear at the Kentucky Derby), we would routinely see younger commuters yielding their seats to their elders, including us (haplessly incontrovertible proof of our visible age).

The last time I was in Korea, everything had been briskly orchestrated by our hosts, with nary a moment for exploring on our own, but now, with a long, lazy week stretching out ahead of us, we had hours to fill with markets and museums, parks and palaces, porcelain-cheeked nymphets in baby-doll dresses (and sometimes even more smartly coiffed young men), impeccably good food, and streetside bargains that gratified our pedestrian desires.

Beng and I didn’t sign up for any tours, nor did we venture out too far from the heart of the city. This vagabond pair of seniors decided that they would go as far as their subway tickets and their feet would carry them, spend an hour on a park bench just enjoying the scenery while munching on a slice of sweet green melon or a cob of corn (each for 1,000 won, or 40 pesos), and save our energy for the flea markets that, truth to tell and next to the museums, are always our prime targets wherever we go, and Seoul has half a dozen of them on the weekends.

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This, Beng and I acknowledged with a sigh and a smile, was tourism senior-style, punctuated by Zantac instead of ziplines, by moisturizer instead of, well, moisture. Some of our happiest moments were the quietest ones—watching the sunset from the peak of Namsan Hill, and the ducks and the carp at Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This brings up one of our small but vital complaints: as wonderful as the city was, Seoul can be hilly in parts, making for long, punishing climbs. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to deter the posses of ajummas—bag-toting Korean matrons sporting broad-brimmed visors—from marching to the markets for their daily dose of retail therapy, or perhaps even just the company of the similarly disposed. Had we lived there, we might have done the same.

Next week, I’ll report on less geriatric topics: culture, literature, and community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 200: Memoirs of a Teenage Maoist

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Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016

 

 

A SMALL item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.

Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”

What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.

How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.

Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”

It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.

In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.

Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.

It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)

Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”

And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.

I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.

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[Image from chineseposters.net]

Penman No. 195: In the Afterglow

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Penman for Sunday, April 10, 2016

 

 

AS MANY of you know by now, in the early hours of April 1st, a Friday, the UP Faculty Center went up in smoke. I was playing poker at my usual haunt, the Metro Card Club in Pasig, when I got a flurry of text messages from Krip Yuson, who had just heard of the fire on Facebook. Distraught, Krip sent me pictures of the unfolding scene—flames were billowing out of the FC’s upper floors, and it was clear that nothing and no one could possibly survive such a catastrophic event. I thanked Krip for the heads-up, put my cards down, and drove off to UP to see the fire for myself.

We live on campus, in a faculty bungalow on Juan Luna Street, a ten-minute walk from the FC, so UP was literally home for me. But I also held office at the FC, in the English Department, and the FC had been my official address for over 30 years since I began teaching in 1984. As I drove to Diliman I thought of my room, FC 1036, which I had had to myself since I came home from graduate school in 1991; before that, I’d shared FC 1012 with the late Angelito Santos and Ernie Bitonio, who became a lawyer and labor official.

Anyone who’s studied at UP Diliman would have gone through the FC at one point or another, and the place was rife with tales not only of intellectual and political adventure, but also of mischief of a baser, if more entertaining, nature. My favorite one, possibly apocryphal, had to do with an eminent lady professor going out on the window ledge and hanging on for dear life to spy on a neighbor whom she suspected of having an assignation with a student. Another hand-me-down scene involved two feuding scholars—one delivering a professorial chair lecture in CM Recto Hall while her nemesis handed out a vitriolic flyer at the door to anyone coming in.

It’s funny how the tragic can provoke the comic—and the professorial life certainly doesn’t lack for evidence of human frailty and folly—but it’s as good a response as any to personal loss, which was what the FC fire was really about. True, we lost a campus landmark and an academic institution. But buildings can be rebuilt—and the half-century-old FC was long overdue, anyway, for a massive renovation.

The FC’s subdivision into departments and then into individual rooms and cubicles guaranteed that each little corner would become treasured (and jealously guarded) personal space—not just mini-offices but mini-libraries and mini-galleries, showcases of both tradition and individual talent. Aside from the usual family pictures and diplomas (of which I actually saw precious few on display, perhaps in tacit admission of the silliness of flaunting one’s PhD in a boatload of them), shelves full of precious books and walls hung with choice art described the typical FC room, and each room’s state of order or chaos indelibly imprinted the tenant’s character on the visitor’s mind.

In UP, with historically low salaries and precious few incentives, a room of one’s own is an earned privilege. Professors are kings, and their offices are their castles and citadels, open to students and colleagues but impregnable to the unwelcome (except during martial law, when the military marched into the FC willy-nilly in search of Redheads). During the Diliman Commune in 1971, we’d renamed the place “Amado Guerrero Hall,” after the nom de guerre of Joma Sison, who had been an instructor with the English department.

Once aflame with revolution, now it was literally on fire, and three hours after the fire began, I watched as an eerie orange glow illuminated its interior. The text messages had shown tongues of fire curling out the windows, but the blaze had mellowed down a bit when I got there. Had I arrived at its peak, I would have been too excited to feel pain, but its muted state invited contemplation, which invited melancholy. I stood outside the building facing our department, facing my corridor, and understood that very little, if anything, would survive. (And of course the scene was not without its black—or should I say its blackened—humor; I overheard an exhausted fireman asking, “Does anyone have a cigarette?” I can’t write this account without thanking the dozens of firemen from all over who battled that inferno—you all deserved a good puff afterward.)

As my fellow FC denizens would do in the coming days, I began taking stock of what I was losing even as I watched: a Joya nude (one of two that Beng had saved from her days at Fine Arts; thankfully we had given one to our daughter Demi); a large giclée print of lilies gifted to us by Jaime Zobel; two paintings we had bought from a young Jason Moss; a National Book Award trophy by Agnes Arellano in the shape of a typewriter, my favorite among all my illustrious paperweights; my TOYM trophy by Napoleon Abueva, which, meaning no disrespect, did double duty as a hat rack; two of Beng’s serene waterscapes, which I had commandeered from her exhibitions; and a drypoint portrait that I had made myself (in another life as a printmaker) of her whom I was yet courting.

There were the books: among many others, a first edition of Without Seeing the Dawn, signed by its first owner, the novelist Zoilo Galang; a signed copy of Villa Magdalena by Bienvenido Santos; more first editions of NVM Gonzalez, Nick Joaquin, and F. Sionil Jose; and a copy of Ninoy Aquino’s prison testament, which Cory Aquino had signed and gifted to me in thanks for some speeches I had happily done for her pro bono.

And then of course there were my own books and papers—file copies of nearly all my books, and assorted publications, including 20 copies of the first printing of Penmanship, whose special paper I treasured and therefore hoarded; and my only copy of my dissertation. Luckily I had left only one of my fountain pens in the office, a Conklin desk set from around 1925, and a handsome crystal inkwell from Barcelona. Most of these could be replaced, but not the letters of friends and students over 30 years, nor the cane chair handmade by my late father-in-law, on which I took many a siesta.

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In the end, I found myself mumbling, “It’s all just things,” but of course it wasn’t. Men don’t grieve well, and over the next few days I grew increasingly sullen and irritable. Last Monday I joined a supervised foray into the burnt-out premises, just to see what we could recover. Almost everything we knew and owned had turned to mounds of char, which remained warm and smoky beneath our booted feet. From my blighted corner I picked up a ceramic mug that had lost its bottom. I also rescued a porcelain guan yin that belonged to Jing Hidalgo, and the ravaged hulk of a Royal typewriter I had given Isabel Mooney two decades earlier. We staggered out with our loot, laughing, and then the desolation hit us.

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My grandmother Mamay used to sing us a lullaby which Ilonggos will recognize, about how life and sweet things will simply drift up and away in bitter smoke, and that weekend some of that life and some of that sweetness rose up into the air.

“We Pinoys are disaster-proof,” I tweeted at some point, mindful of how small our plaints seemed compared to a Yolanda. I do believe that, and we literary types have probably used up all our phoenix metaphors in the fire’s afterglow. But I’ve also always believed in proper goodbyes, so before we haul in the new furniture into the inevitable new FC, here’s mine, to ash-covered memory.

(If you want to tour the aftermath of the FC fire with me, see the video here.)