Qwertyman No. 8: The Secret

(Photo from dreamstime.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, September 26, 2022

“LOLO, LOLO, was martial law really bad? We took it up in class today!”

“Bad? Said who?”

“Our teacher, Ms. Landicho. She said that awful things happened back then that people have forgotten about.”

“How old is this—Ms. Landicho?”

“Oh, maybe in her thirties? She’s just about to be married—to Mr. Arnaldo, our Physics teacher! We’d been teasing her about it for months!”

“In her thirties? Then how would she know what the heck happened under martial law? She wasn’t even born then.”

“Were you around then, Lolo?”

“Of course I was. I’m seventy-three now, so fifty years ago I was a young man. I had just left my first job because my boss was a tyrant! So I moved to another bank and that’s where I met your Lola Auring, whom I would marry two years later. If I hadn’t made that move, you wouldn’t be here!”

“Was that the bank you now own?”

“The bank we own, hijo! That’s why I want you to go to Wharton after college. I’ll be there for your graduation, and then I’ll give you the keys to that Mercedes G you’ve always wanted—”

“Really, Lolo? But that’s at least ten years away! Golly, a Mercedes G….”

“I remember, my first car was a used and beat-up Datsun Bluebird that your Lola Auring wouldn’t even step into until I got it fixed, because the door kept opening on her side, hahaha! I spent half-a-month’s salary just replacing that door. Oh, the things we went through….”

“Ms. Landicho said her lolo died under martial law….”

“So? So did a lot of people. People die all the time—of heart attacks, diabetes, even slipping in the bathroom can kill you, like my friend Pepito—”

“She said her lolo was arrested by the soldiers, and then they tortured him and dumped his body under the mango trees in Cavite.”

“Well—he must have done something to deserve that. You go against the government, what do you expect? There was a war with the communists going on. War is ugly, wherever you go. Was that was your teacher said about martial law being bad? Did she also say how many crimes and strikes were averted, how clean, peaceful, and orderly everything was, with people following the law?”

“She said her lolo did nothing wrong—”

“Of course she’d say that. Nobody’s lolo does anything wrong—right, hijo? Haha.”

“Yes, Lolo!”

“I did all the right things. I stayed out of trouble, focused on getting my life and my future together, on raising my family and raising my income. And then I went into business for myself, so nobody could boss me around. I showed everyone what I was capable of. I didn’t care about what everybody else was doing. You listen well, hijo. In this world, you take care of yourself first, and then your family next. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your family.”

“You’ve always taken good care of us, Lolo. Papa always tells me, if not for you, I’d be taking the bus or the jeep to a public school—”

“Like I had to, at your age! We were poor as rats and sometimes I went to school with nothing but gas in my stomach. I made sure your papa never went through that. That’s why I had to succeed.”

“Mama also says that if not for the President, you wouldn’t have succeeded. She says that you worked for people who worked for the President—”

“Is that what she said? I have to talk to your mother one of these days. There’s a lot that woman will never understand. There’s a lot that women will never understand. What you have to do to keep yourself and your family afloat. Instead of gratitude, you get questions, questions, questions—”

“What did you do for the President, Lolo? I want to know! Was it a big job, a secret mission, something nobody else could do?”

“Well, I guess you could say, all of the above! Remember, I was still a very young man. But I realized—and my bosses did, too—that I was very good with numbers. And secrets! They could trust me with their lives. But shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!”

“Like what kind of secrets, Lolo?”

“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”

“Awww, Lolo, I promise not to tell anyone! You can trust me—like they trusted you!”

“Well…. All right. Since it’s been a long time and since the President himself is gone, I suppose I can share a secret with you—but just one secret, okay? And this will remain a secret between the two of us—never tell your mama or papa.”

“Okay! Cross my heart and hope to die! What’s the secret, Lolo?”

“I… took… care… of… the… President’s… money. There was a lot of it. I had to collect it and send it safely abroad.”

“Why you? Did you carry it in a bag? Couldn’t the Air Force or the Navy do that?”

“Hahaha, it’s not that simple, hijo, a 747 wouldn’t have been enough to carry everything! He had to keep it abroad because—there were bad people here who were after it. So I was sent on secret missions to make sure everything was okay…. I went to Hong Kong, to the United States, to Switzerland. I loved Switzerland most of all—oh, to be in my thirties again and to watch the fountain at Lake Geneva at sunset. Le Jet d’Eau est tres beau!”

“So that’s where you learned French!”

Juste un peu, mon garçon! If she were still here, I would have loved to take your Lola Auring there again. You must go to Geneva—after Wharton!”

“Lolo—Ms. Landicho said—she said the President stole a lot of money—”

“Wha—I pay so much for that school and they tell you this? Your teacher keeps saying things she knows nothing about! I was there! I saw no stealing! And let me tell you something—even if I did, presuming I did, it was none of my business. Making money was his business, keeping it safe was mine. That’s called compartmentalization. Remember that word—compartmentalization! You put everything in its box, just worry about the things you should worry about, and you’ll be all right. Understood? Comprenez vous?”

“Yes, Lolo…. So I’ll put the lolo I know in one box, and then my secret lolo in another box….”

“They’re one and the same person.”

“That, Lolo, will be my secret.”

Hindsight No. 20: Mindfulness and Memory

Hindsight for May 30, 2022

(Photo from toolshero.com)

WHEN I I unexpectedly slipped into a black pool of anxiety and depression a couple of years ago—another unwitting casualty of the pandemic—I learned a new word from my psychiatrist: “mindfulness,” defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

It’s a therapeutic technique to keep your mind from straying into dark forests and crevices, focusing instead on the pen in your hand or the chunk of melon you’re about to swallow. Accompanied by meditation and measured breathing, it slows and calms you down just long enough for you to understand that you’re alive, you’re safe, and you will be well. It puts you back in control of your runaway thoughts and emotions, giving you back the composure you need to face your problems for the day.

It works. Of course I still take my nightly dose of sertraline (your doctor might prescribe something else; don’t take my word for it), but even just the awareness that you can, on your own, stake out a little zone of peace and quiet around yourself is liberating. Paradoxically, it allows you to deal with the stress of the moment by putting you in the moment. It’s the anticipation of terrible things about to happen—especially bad for imaginative minds—that brings on the fear and anxiety. Mindfulness snaps you back from that bungee jump to despair.

I thought about this last week as I encountered many friends online still in shock and grief over their electoral loss, brimming with agitation over what political atrocities could be forthcoming, and eager to begin the campaign for 2028 pronto. The trolls are gleefully feeding this anguish: one prayed that VP Leni’s plane would crash, another declared all Kakampinks “enemies of the state” who deserve to be hunted down, and yet another—despite doing it herself—faulted the Robredos for the crime of taking graduation pictures. 

When I realize that this is the world we now live in, roiling with nastiness, idiocy, and barbarity, I feel like reaching for something stronger than Zoloft to ward off the bad vibes (I also have a prescription for Xanor, but haven’t touched it for a year). But then I remember the old Jedi mindfulness trick, take a few deep abdominal breaths, think about places the ogres can’t reach, and soon enough I’m functional again, capable of absorbing the absurdities and ironies of the hour.

One more thing about mindfulness: it works well with daydreaming of the positive and wishful kind. The writer Sam Brinson quotes the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: “A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal-driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.” Kaufman argues for a balance between focusing your thoughts and letting them stray, which is relaxing, and a relaxed mind is better at making creative connections.

I don’t know if you could call it daydreaming, but lately my mind has drifted back to my own “golden era”—a time when things felt good and I felt good, when the country was in a bouncy mood and seemed to be going in the right direction: the mid- to late 1990s, the FVR years. We had a lot of problems—a rash of brownouts among them—but you could sniff the optimism in the air. (Full disclosure: I was one of FVR’s speechwriters, so it’s possible that I drank the Kool-Aid and fell for my own prose.) 

Beng and I got ourselves a decidedly downscale apartment close to West Avenue where huge rats scurried overhead at night, and we bought our food from the talipapa down the street. Having brought up that memory, I realize that we like thinking and talking about the past mainly for the fact that it’s over, it already happened, which means that whatever it was, we survived, presumably for the better. I’m sure it wasn’t as rosy as I now make it out to be, and that I’m blocking out the less pleasant parts. But that’s the way the memory works, the way it protects us from pain and provides us with some sense of certainty, some clear point of reference, in these nebulous times.

Just recalling how it was ten, eleven years ago fills me with a combination of wistfulness and regret. It was a time when despots around the world—Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Khaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—were being toppled or dying; Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were still something of a joke; China was being rocked by pro-democracy protests; and a new platform called Friendster made waves on the Internet, where there were still pockets of innocence and honesty to be found.

It was a time when people and politics still retained a modicum of civility and intelligence, when the truth was nothing but the truth, when human rights were not to be cursed or spat upon, when bad leaders got their due, and when God seemed to be awake most of the time, sending a bolt of lightning here and a swath of sunshine there. It was the world before Covid, when all our friends and loved ones were still alive and laughing over their beer and sisig, when face masks were for the sick, when people danced and even kissed and made love without fear. The future sounded like it would be a wonderful place; technology and human genius would make sure of it.

When I woke up last week to the news that 19 schoolchildren and two teachers had been massacred in Texas, I tried to imagine what a mother there must have felt, how she would have given her own life to turn back the clock just one day. I was only beginning to be inured to the savagery in Ukraine, and now I saw that it was always possible for evil to become even crueller. For a minute, the aches left by May 9 felt dull and trivial.

There are things that Zoloft will not banish, but I know that mindfulness and the memory of a saner past can give me the cool head and steady heart that I will need for the long fight. Bring it on; we will survive, if not prevail.

Hindsight No. 17: The True Winner

Hindsight for Monday, May 9, 2022

(Photo from lumina.com.ph)

I HAD another column all lined up for today—Monday, the 9th of May, arguably the most important Monday of this year if not the next six years. But I’d forgotten that the ban on electioneering, which started yesterday, won’t end until midnight tonight, so I’ll shelve that piece for another time—with major revisions likely, depending on the outcome of today’s vote.

Maybe it’s just as well that that happened. It forced me to pause and simmer down for a while, just when emotions and tempers were rising to a boiling point and nothing else seemed to matter but politics and the colors of our T-shirts.

I’m sure I’ll be speaking for many of us—and even across the political divide—when I recall that just a year ago, we all led what seemed to be normal lives, or at least as normal as lives could get under a crippling pandemic. We were in deathly fear of a virus we couldn’t see, of getting infected by some pasaway neighbor or relative, and of dying by our lonesome in a strange hospital ward with a tube stuck down our throat. Our chief concern was survival—as individuals, as families, as communities. We walked around like inter-galactic travelers in face shields and face masks, soaked in 70-percent alcohol, hands raw from constant washing. We felt lucky to be alive, never mind that the cinemas were closed, restaurant food was takeout-only, and we all became talking heads in little Zoom boxes. Today we can afford to chuckle a bit at the memory of those days, even if we know—or have to be reminded—that those days are far from over. 

But just as the influx of vaccines brought a steep drop in Covid rates, another contagion appeared on the horizon—election fever. Its symptoms included not only indifference to other diseases like Covid, manifest in the sudden and universal disregard for “social distancing.” They also showed in an increased propensity for loudness and even bellicosity in public discourse—especially online, where sticks and stones came free by the ton. The emergence of candidates and choices meant the emergence, as well, of our long-cherished biases and preferences. 

Our candidate defined who we were, and because of that, we took everything personally, responding to every swipe and gibe as though not only civilization itself were under attack, but also our gut, the precious and tender core of our very being. We felt hot under the collar every time our champion was maligned, and often returned the gesture with equal vehemence, thankfully with a dash of Pinoy humor. Whichever side we were on, we believed that nothing less than the nation’s survival was at stake, something larger than ourselves. We could survive Covid, but the loss of one’s candidate seemed like an even graver existential threat. 

Many years from now, the drama of this election will be remembered for its intensity and divisiveness, for the rancorous fervor with which many partisans fought for their beliefs, or for their scripted spiels. Some operators showed us just how low and how nasty a campaign could go, with the leanest of morals and the fattest of budgets. Never has so much been spent on promoting falsehood and obscuring the truth. Never was the public’s intelligence valued less by candidates expecting to coast to victory without having to be asked difficult questions and to account for their liabilities. Never did surveys, scientific and otherwise, seem so opaque and perplexing, like hazy oracles supposed to convey some prophetic message. 

But it will also be remembered for its creativity, its outbursts of spicy wit, its spontaneity of generosity and the communal spirit. Never have we witnessed a campaign so heavily reliant on the kindness of strangers, who ceased to be strangers in an instant of mutual recognition. Never have we seen crowds so huge—wait, yes, we have seen multitudes mourning a martyr’s death, or forming a human tidal wave to sweep a dictatorship away—but not hundreds of thousands massed for the sheer joy of congregating for the good. Never have rallies—once gatherings devoted singularly to the expression of popular anger and dismay—been so uplifting and flush with hope, like a cathedral without a roof raising its prayers to the sky.

And whatever happens today and in the weeks and months to follow, those rival strains will remain in the air—the noxious fumes of the devil’s workshop and the cool and cleansing breezes coming down summits too high for us to see. I think we will realize and understand that this election, as titanic a clash of values as it was, is but another episode in the larger and longer story of our continuing quest for nationhood, another tentative answer to the question of who and what it is we want to be. That story and the conflict at its heart will go on for generations more, and every six years our people will have a chance to choose between right and wrong, between redemption and damnation, between wisdom and ignorance.

Those of us who feel that they chose rightly today have no cause to regret their action, regardless of the outcome. You voted not just for your candidate, but for the best Filipino in you, which can never be a loss; you have passed the test of faith in the good and just. It may take longer for others to reach that point of peace with oneself. The results might suggest that there are more of them right now than you—which only means that there is more patient work to do, and also more time to do it, beyond the frenzied crush of the past few weeks.

On a personal note, today my mother Emy turns 94. She is eager to cast her vote, knowing that it could be the last time she will choose a president to lead our people. She cares about who will win, for our sake. More importantly, she cares about choosing wisely, for the sake of her soul. She knows something many of us have forgotten in the flood of surveys and fake news: that the only true winner in these elections is the one who can show God his or her ballot with honest pride and joy.

Penman No. 438: The Girl from Guinbirayan

Penman for Sunday, May 8, 2022

THIS MOTHER’S Day is historic enough for happening on the eve of what’s certain to be the most important election we will be holding in generations. For my mother Emy, she won’t only be trooping to the polling station, with her three-footed cane in hand and her caregiver Jaja at her elbow; she’ll be celebrating her 94thbirthday as well, by casting her vote for the president she will be following on the news for the last six years of her first century. 

She’s hard of hearing and her eyesight is failing, and she might forget where she last left her glasses, but don’t make the mistake of calling her “senile” or some such word suggesting a softness in the brain. She’s up to date on the news, and will even call our attention to what this tinpot politician said and what happened yesterday in Ukraine; her opinions can be sharp and scathing, especially when it comes to Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots, and immodest fashions.

But everything else about her is grandmotherly in the usual way we know—white-haired, with streaks of the original black, freckled with age spots, slow-footed, and happy to be with little children. Her four-year-old great-granddaughter Ollie’s visits are the highlights of her weeks. Even our five-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, our housekeeper’s son and my sidekick, feels relaxed enough with her to play with the soft folds of skin under her arm, with neither of them noticing. Our daughter Demi’s Facetime calls from California are sure to make her Chinese eyes disappear in a crinkled smile. Demi, the first grandchild and the one who grew up with her, has inherited her UP class ring.

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This was the mother who raised the five of us on her meager salary, with my father’s earnest but inconstant contributions. Born bright but poor, he never finished college. The daughter of a merchant with some landholdings, she did—at the University of the Philippines at that, far away from the coconuts and carabaos of Guinbirayan in Romblon, the only one in their brood of twelve to do so. The youngest girl, she grew up her father’s favorite, accompanying him on his trips to the big city (he had a sailboat that capsized in a storm). She could ride a horse, and thought nothing of venturing into Kalatong, the enchanted mountain near her village, where fair-haired people were said to have been seen in chariots, where the rocks glittered, and where the unsuspecting vanished. Even without the fairies, she had a magical childhood, waiting in the afternoons at the water’s edge for the fishing boats to come in with their catch, teeming and leaping in silver arcs, or peering at the fat snakes sleeping on top of the tall rice bins. 

(Kalatong, left)

One day, she recalls, she was walking in Manila when she saw a sign saying that the UP High School was accepting students; so she walked in, applied, and was accepted, graduating the year before UP moved to Diliman, where she studied to be a teacher. But her college graduation would be delayed, because in the meanwhile, she had met and married my father Joe—the smartest guy in town, tall and deep-voiced. I think they met at the pier, waiting for other loved ones (Joe had a girlfriend then, whom I would meet much later, a pretty woman with sad eyes). 

One of my earliest pictures is that of me as a two-year-old, tugging unhappily at a stalk of grass outside the school where my mother was teaching. I must have been wondering why I had to share her attention with other children. Soon there would be other children right at home—my siblings Jess, Rowie, Elaine, and Joey, all born two years apart in Manila, to where we had moved. For a while, life was good; I went to a private boys’ school and learned English. My mother played “UP Beloved” and its flipside “Push On, UP” endlessly, to make sure I would go there and get a UP diploma myself (it took me 14 years, but it worked). 

And then my father lost his job, and the long hard years came. We must have moved around Manila a dozen times in three decades, with the household items on the moving truck getting older and fewer. Emy took a minimum-wage job as a postal clerk, and later as an employee at the Manila CFI and the Sandiganbayan. Plaintiffs and defendants would leave envelopes on her table, which she invariably returned, despite our constant need. When I dropped out of college to become an activist, it must have pained her deeply, but she and Joe supported me, even when I went to martial-law prison. When I married Beng, we shared what was basically a lean-to in Tandang Sora with my parents, my siblings, and a pig in the bathroom—and later, Demi, whom Beng was horrified to discover one morning, beset by a swarm of bedbugs. We were still hard up but happy. Joe had to work in Romblon, writing speeches for the governor; Beng and I found jobs, and one Christmas we gifted Emy with a new set of cheap plastic dinner plates to replace the ones that had warped or been scarred by cigarette burns, and I think she wept for joy, as did we.

Things got a bit better, and we moved to San Mateo, in two small but adjacent subdivision houses. And then my father—whom I had hero-worshipped despite his troubles—died from smoking, and for a while it seemed Emy would follow suit, coughing up blood from late-stage tuberculosis. Miraculously, thanks to care and medication, she survived, and soon discovered that she liked to travel—to America, where my sister Elaine lived, and where Emy even got a green card, to Europe, around Asia, and wherever her feet could take her. She was aging well.

One day I was surprised to find a thin book of poetry from the 1950s titled Diliman Echoes, a compilation of poems written by students—one of which was by “Emilia A. Yap,” a poem on “My Nipa Hut.” My mother was a poet, and I didn’t even know. I felt incredibly proud, but she just smiled at my discovery.

Today she occupies herself playing word games and puzzles on her iPad and iPhone, watching K-dramas on Netflix, following the news and hearing Mass on TV, and walking around the yard in the morning sun. Over meals, she tells us stories about the Guinbirayan of her youth; I had her write her memoirs in a notebook, so others can hear those stories.

When I think I’ve lost something and start yapping about where it could be, she’ll tell me, in that way only mothers know, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.” Even at 68, I will always be her boy, her first-born, her “Toto.” In a plastic bag, she’s left her instructions for the inevitable: no tubes down her throat, her funeral policy, what she’ll be wearing, and so on. She returned her green card after her last flight home. “I want to die here,” she tells us. I want to imagine that when that happens, she will dissolve into a cloud of gold dust, and join the fairies of Kalatong.

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. 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.)

My Wishes for the New Year

EVEN AS we all wish for a more benign 2022, free of Covid and conflict, we know deep within that our biggest battles lie ahead in the war between good and evil that it has always been—not between parties nor personalities nor platforms, but between those who will lie and steal and kill, and those who will fight for truth, justice, and prosperity for all.

Good and evil is as stark and simple as it gets, and no amount of spin or sophistry and certainly no surveys will change that. Even one good person in a roomful of the malignant and misled will still be right, and worthy of our praise and emulation.

And whatever happens in May, our struggles will not cease. Evil is a virus with infinite mutations. Our corrupt and power-hungry politicians are worse than Covid, and have infected the masses of our people with their lies and false promises. But they can be arrested and contained, with vigilance and resolve.

For myself, I cannot be a friend to anyone who willfully supports and benefits from those who will plunge our country into another six years of moral and economic ruin.

I look to 2022 as an opportunity to stand up and be counted among the forces of the good, whatever my personal faults and impairments may be. The only survey or judgment that will matter will be God’s, and I would like to be able to tell my Maker that I did the right thing when it mattered—that I managed to remember the difference between good and evil, and chose rightly.

I can only wish you feel the same, so we can have a truly happy and liberating New Year!

(Image from candles.lovetoknow,com)

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

I HAD a surprise visit—and present—this morning from one of the people I have always acknowledged to be my life mentors, Dr. Gerry P. Sicat, my former boss (and Beng’s) at the National Economic and Development Authority. He brought me a bound special issue of the New York Times Book Review from 1996, featuring the first reviews of such literary luminaries aa Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Woolf, Hemingway, Gordimer, and Updike. He had saved the copy for me back when he was still working in Washington, when he heard from his daughter that I was “doing well” in UP; somehow he had misplaced the copy for 25 years, finding it only recently, and thus today’s visit.

The “doing well” remark goes back to the long story of my ten years at NEDA (1973-83) and how GPS (or “DG” as we all called him, for Director-General) shaped my life at a crucial stage.

I was just 19 in August 1973 when I stepped out of martial-law prison. I had dropped out of UP at 18 with 21 units to my name, but I had already worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba as a reporter before my arrest for subversion. In Bicutan, I had studied drawing with the printmaker Orly Castillo, and upon my release I joined Orly at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines studio in Ermita to study and practice printmaking—something I would do for several years. It was at the PAP where I met Beng (I should say, met her again, as I had seen her in UP and admired her from a distance—she was a pretty senior on the Student Council, and I was a bumbling freshman), and within three months of our getting together, I told myself that I wanted to marry her. (Ours was a generation steeped in fire and blood—scores of comrades had died fighting the dictatorship, and we had come to be convinced that we were not going to see our 30th year, maybe not even our 25th. So if we had anything important to do—like marry and have children—the sooner we did it, the better.) 

I shared the bold announcement with my mom: I had met a nice girl and I was going to ask her to marry me. “Are you crazy?” she responded. “You don’t even have a job!” Well—I said—I suppose you’re right, I should find some gainful employment.

(Above, a drypoint print of Beng from 1973;
below, an aquatint and drypoint print of my grandmother Mamay from 1975. )

That same day I went to the PAP studio to work on some prints and to mull over my future. Printmaking was fun—and I got to hobnob with such brilliant (and real) artists as Bencab and Tiny Nuyda, among others—but it wasn’t something I could live off, let alone support a family with. A kind dealer came by every few weeks to buy prints from me and other PAP members for P15-25 each to serve as fillers for the frames she was selling to US servicemen in Clark and Subic. I needed a real 9-5 job.

That afternoon I walked around the Padre Faura neighborhood, and on the street I ran into an old friend and comrade, Jun Medina, who had been a newspaperman pre-ML and was now the PR chief at NEDA. He was so happy to see me—he had known I was in prison—that he literally emptied his wallet to give me whatever he had, a kindness I would never forget. He asked me if I was back working. “No,” I said. “In fact I’m looking for a job.” He lit up and said, “We’re looking for a feature writer! Why don’t you apply? Let’s go up and see the boss!” Sure, I thought, what’s there to lose?

(Puffing and dreaming–at my worst, I smoked four packs a day;
quit smoking with Beng cold-turkey in 1994.)

And just like that, a few minutes later, I was talking to NEDA Director-General Dr. Gerardo P. Sicat, whom I had never met before; he was only 38 then, trim and fit (he was a tennis player and marathoner), but cool and laid back, asking just a few questions to see if I had anything in my noggin. Jun vouched for me and my writing, and that apparently was enough. “Let’s start you at P700,” said GPS, and lightbulbs popped in my head; in 1973, P700 a month was good  money.

That night I went home and had the pleasure of informing my mother that “I found a job, and I’m getting married!”

Of course I had to ask Beng first, so I sat her down at the old Skorpios in Cubao and probably over batchoy and puto I got a napkin and scribbled some figures on it, starting with “700.” How much would an apartment cost? Food? Transportation? “We can get married!” I concluded, although I guess I turned that into a question, because she agreed (and would later tell me, “I don’t know why, but I did!”).

We met at the PAP in September; on January 15, 1974, on my 20th birthday, we were married by the CFI judge my mother worked for—took less than five minutes—and had a merienda cena reception at The Bungalow for less than a hundred people at P8 per head; when the management realized that we hadn’t made arrangements for a wedding cake, they hastily and kindly provided one.

So Dr. Sicat made that possible, but his unbidden intercessions wouldn’t end there. Knowing that I was barely a freshman when I left UP, he sent me to the UP School of Economics as a special student to attend the one-year graduate diploma Program in Development Economics, so I could learn something more substantial about the things I was writing about. That course introduced me to outstanding teachers (some of them just instructors back then) like Agustin Kintanar, Gon Jurado, Rosalinda Tidalgo, Dante Canlas, and Ruping Alonzo, and made lifelong friends of batchmates like Meynard Guevarra (now DOJ Secretary) and Vicky Bataclan and Libran Cabactulan (later DFA ambassadors), among others. Against all odds, the salimpusa passed. (And I was ever aware that my “special student” enrollment was vaguely anomalous, but I suppose there were advantages to GPS being a UP regent at that time.)

On the strength of that diploma, Dr. Sicat later endorsed me to the United Nations Development Programme office in Manila when the security watchdogs at NISA complained about my access to sensitive documents at NEDA, as an ex-detainee who still had to report regularly to the military authorities. GPS was sending me to the UNDP to cool off—they even had to create the position of “National Professional Officer” for me, which was later adopted by other UNDP offices in the system—and for a year, I did project evaluations and liaised between the UNDP and NEDA. I was even given a chance to move over to the FAO and to work with NEDA’s External Assistance Staff, but after a year of role-playing as the economist I truly wasn’t, I asked to return to my PR job at NEDA and to my creative writing, which was what I most enjoyed. (For a time, my closest friend and officemate at NEDA was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega, my Alpha Sigma fraternity brother and fellow playwright. Many other writers like Patty Rivera, Fidel Rillo, Lilia and Jess Santiago, and Eric Caruncho would join our Economic Information Staff.)

(With fellow playwrights Boy Noriega and Paul Dumol, ca. 1981.)

In 1980, GPS had another surprise for me: he was sending me to the US for three months on a USAID grant to study media operations—and I enjoyed and learned from that immensely, but I knew that GPS had really sent me out as a writer who needed to see a bit of the world outside, to broaden my horizons; it was something he routinely did for his young staff. I have since been to the US dozens of times—our daughter lives there—but that first visit remains incandescent in my memory: first snow, first tour of the Smithsonian, first glimpse of New York, Broadway, the raw material for my story “Oldtimer,” long walks in yellow forests. 

When I returned, I was filled with a fresh resolve to just go back to school, to study and write and perhaps to teach for the rest of my life, which I did. For two years, I shuttled between NEDA and UP, racing to get a proper AB English degree; I resigned from NEDA in 1983 as the political climate was heating up so I could focus on my studies full-time, graduating in 1984, with Beng working doubly hard to support us in the interim.

Also in 1984, Dr. Sicat left NEDA himself to take up a post with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Before leaving, he asked me and Boy Noriega to visit him at his home in La Vista, where he gave each of us 30 minutes to select ten books from his library. I was beside myself picking out those books—I recall choosing, among others, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I had read in high school and was deeply impressed by), the two volumes on the Philippine short story compiled by Leopoldo Yabes, and Mao’s Little Red Book (because mine had been confiscated upon my arrest). They remain with me to this day.

And then I took my MFA and PhD in the US on a Fulbright grant (basically just a plane ticket and a book allowance, because Fulbright funds were running low then—so I had to work, among others, as a cook for a Chinese fast-food) from 1986 to 1991, and returned to UP to teach full-time, become a professor, and publish more books. I suppose this was what Dr. Sicat’s daughter meant when she told her dad that his former recruit was “doing well.” 

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

When I retired in 2019, one of the guests I made sure would attend my retirement party was GPS, and shortly after I followed in his footsteps as Professor Emeritus. 

He must have been shaking his head—but smiling—when he left our place today. (Beng and I were—at 86, GPS looked a whole lot slimmer and fitter than my 67.) Many thanks, DG, for the job and the visit, and for everything in between.

(At my retirement party, with GPS, my friend Julie Hill, and EVP Ted Herbosa.)

Some Families, Very Large (A Christmas Story)

(I wrote and published this story twenty years ago for the Christmas issue of The Philippine STAR, and I’m posting it here as a Christmas offering to my readers, who may not have come across it yet.)

A FUNERAL parlor was the last place Sammy expected to be on Christmas Eve—especially since no one he knew had died. And despite his father’s assurances that the man who lay in the shiny white coffin was a distant uncle of his—maybe one of those people who had come over for games and drinks and had mussed his hair—Sammy could not remember the long, rat-like face in the picture that hung over the burial announcement. 

Sammy was only nine, but he had a good head for faces. The names escaped him—his father kept teasing him for being hard of hearing—but he made a game of attaching a face to something else: mud-caked shoes, yellow nails, pitted cheeks. Most of them were his father’s friends, and while he had seen very few of them between this Christmas and the last one, he felt reasonably sure he could recognize any of them again, if he met them on the street. They had walked many streets that morning, and he had seen many new faces, but he had met no one even vaguely familiar. 

Sammy also knew something about death and funeral wakes. When he was six, his playmate Leo had drowned in the black froth of the estero. He had watched from the bank as they fished out the boy’s body with a hook-tipped pole. Leo looked very fat and very oily, and his tongue stuck out of his mouth like a peeled banana. They had stuffed him into a coffin and set up a wake on the sidewalk, where the borrowed candelabra outshone everything else at night, and passersby threw coins into a plastic can, which Leo’s mother emptied into a large pocket in her apron now and then. Leo’s mother sold fish at the talipapa, like Sammy’s own mother, who sold vegetables when she wasn’t turning scraps of fabric into hand mops. 

But she was gone now, like many things they had let go of over the past few years: the motorcycle, his mother’s sewing machine, the television set, even a typewriter said to have been used by his grandfather, a writer of dramas for radio. Indeed, a small transistor radio was the only thing they had left over from the old times, and Sammy would sometimes imagine hearing his grandfather on it, saying all kinds of important, grown-up things, although the man had died many years before Sammy was born.

That morning, his father had shaken him awake with an unusual gleam in his eyes. “Eat and get dressed,” his father had said. “I’m taking you out.” 

Sammy shot up. “Where?” It had been weeks—months—since they had gone anywhere interesting, like the seawall or the basement of the mall, where there were all kinds of food—and rides, fabulous rides on pastel dragons and rampant horses and bug-eyed fish. That was the one time his father had won anything big—five thousand pesos, his father had said, although Sammy couldn’t imagine what five thousand pesos could buy. It certainly was enough for a few days of roast pork, fried rice, and noodles, and he could run to the corner store and ask for anything without having to mumble that word he had learned to dread, “Lista.” 

That moment came and went, replaced by the old routine of making his own meals—opening a can of sardines and dunking a piece of bread into the red mush, leaving the best parts for his sleeping father—before rushing off for the twenty-minute walk to school. He had never come around to hating his father, although he had many questions to ask. His child’s instincts told him that something was terribly wrong, but his father seemed to have an explanation for everything: Mama had gone back to her hometown, very far down south, to take care of her own dying father, and the government was having a hard time keeping her island from drifting farther away into the ocean; Papa lost his job as a filing clerk at the factory because someone didn’t like the way Papa cheered for his favorite basketball team; the kind and quantity of food on their table depended on one’s success at dilhensya, which was in turn dependent on one’s abilidad

These two words burned themselves into young Sammy’s brain: they were what got you ahead in the world, or at least what saved you from curling up in a spasm of hunger. That was a man’s most important job, Papa said: to put food on the table, no matter what. Sammy had some vague idea of what his father did: a classmate said that he had seen Sammy’s Papa at the jeepney stop, barking out destinations and herding passengers onto waiting rides. When Sammy asked him about it, the father said that he was actually a kind of policeman’s assistant, a volunteer enforcer of traffic rules and regulations. People needed to be told where to go, and how to get there fast. People paid for that kind of abilidad.

That day, they had visited three houses on opposite ends of the city. They waited all morning outside the gate of a large compound on Roberts Street in Pasay. Through a vent in the wall, Sammy could see a lawn as wide as the sea, and a fleet of cars and vans on the far side. There was an armed guard just inside the gate who spoke to them through perforations in the iron. “He’s my congressman,” his Papa said. “We were born in the same hometown. I voted for him in the last election. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas. I brought my son to greet him as well.” 

The guard snickered and said, “I’ll send him your compliments. Go home, he’s not here, he left very early.” A metal panel dropped in front of the holes. 

“I’ll wait! We’ll wait! He knows me, he shook my hand once at a wedding!” They stood outside and then sat on their haunches for another hour. 

“Let me tell you something. This guy,” his Papa whispered to Sammy, “this guy, I saw him hand out crisp new five-hundred peso bills during the campaign, like he was giving away mint candies. I know he’ll be good for something.” At a quarter to eleven, the heavy gate swung open, and a large Mercedes-Benz the color of midnight slid out. Father and son jumped to their feet. The Mercedes paused just out of the gate for a second as the guard exchanged words with the unseen passenger, then the car lurched forward and sped rightward, and the gate closed again before Sammy’s father could say anything. “I don’t think he recognized me,” the man said to the boy. “The last time he saw me, I was wearing a barong.”

They next went to Concepcion in Marikina to look for one of Sammy’s godfathers, whom neither Sammy nor his father had seen since his baptism, but when they got to the neighborhood and the address that Sammy’s Papa remembered, there was nothing there but the charred hulk of a plastics factory that hadn’t even been there the last time. Sammy’s father had only a hundred pesos left on him, and they used some of that for a lunch of two bowls of arroz caldo at a roadside stand. Sammy loved arroz caldo, and would have been happy to let the day end there, but his father had another address on his list. Sammy didn’t mind moving around—the rides themselves were interesting, and he marveled at how his father knew so many places. Even so he was getting tired and teary-eyed, his eyes and nostrils smarting from the dust and the gas fumes. Many jeepney transfers later, they reached Damar Village in Quezon City, where his father convinced the guard to let them into the village. 

They found the place they were looking for—a large white house with Roman columns and statues of fish with coins in their mouths. This, the father said, was the home of his former employer, Mr. Cua. Mr. Cua always had a soft spot for him and would not have let him go, he added, but too many people felt threatened by his smartness, and in the end Mr. Cua had no choice but to sacrifice him for the sake of industrial peace. Sammy’s father announced himself to another guard—this was, Sammy thought, truly a city of guards, and he wondered if his father had ever considered becoming one himself, seeing how they held the keys to everything—and again they waited while the guard checked them out with Mr. Cua. But even before the guard could get in the door, Mr. Cua himself emerged, wearing a Santa hat and leading a group of children out to the yard, where small tables had been set. Some of the children wore masks that made Sammy’s heart leap with envy—Batman, King Kong, and other cartoon and fairy tale characters he could only guess at. Sammy stared at a pigtailed Chinese-looking girl who stared back at him, and his father stepped forward to get to Mr. Cua before he could vanish. The guard still stood between the two men and Mr. Cua shrank back as if by instinct, but Sammy’s father began to speak. “Mr. Cua! How are you, sir? I was a clerk in your factory, remember me? My name is Felipe Dinglasan—” At this point the guard drew his gun and the children shrieked, and Felipe Dinglasan, not knowing what else to do, seized Mr. Cua’s hands and said, “I just came to say Merry Christmas, Mr. Cua! Look, I brought my son Sammy, he’s only nine, but he knows—I told him—what a great and generous man you are! Say good afternoon to Mr. Cua, Sammy!” The boy stepped forward and said, gravely, “Good afternoon, Mr. Cua.” The guard lowered his gun. Still shaking from what he thought might have been an assault on his life, Mr. Cua forced himself to laugh—to come up with his best Santa ho-ho-ho—and patted Sammy on the head. “Good afternoon, Sammy! Ho-ho-ho!” Sammy’s father sidled up to them and said. “Wait for your present, Sammy. Santa will give you a present.” Caught in the middle of another ho-ho-ho, the befuddled Mr. Cua reached for his wallet, looking desperately for small bills, but finding nothing smaller than a five hundred, he peeled out a bill and made a show of presenting it to the boy. “Merry Christmas, Sammy! Be a good boy!” All the children cheered as Sammy mumbled his thanks and as Mr. Cua glared at Felipe Dinglasan, who had the good sense to begin walking backwards, flashing his most non-threatening smile.

“What did I tell you, boy?” Felipe said as he flipped the five-hundred-peso bill between his hands, before folding it neatly and sticking it in his wallet. “All you need is a little ability—well, more than a little, more than a little!” Sammy got the feeling that he, too, had done something marvelous for the both of them, and the boy smiled in anticipation of a reward—a movie, perhaps, or, dare he say it, the one Christmas present he wanted most, the battery-powered laser sword he had seen at a Rizal Avenue shop window.

The sun had fallen now, and Sammy could imagine that incandescent saber cutting swaths in the gathering darkness.

But they walked past that store, and as large as the lump in his throat was, Sammy did not complain. “You must be getting hungry,” his father said, and Sammy nodded. “There’s this special noodle place I know, just around one of these corners, your mother and I used to go there. We deserve something special—special beef noodles, what do you say?”

“You’re the boss!” Sammy chirped, and they veered off into a warren of streets and alleys. Half an hour passed and still they could not find the noodle shop Felipe remembered. In the dark the streets looked even more alike. Sammy trudged behind his father, wishing, praying to be carried, but he was too big for such favors now, and he soldiered on as one alley led to another. Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers. Boys Sammy’s age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no let-up in business here. Sammy himself felt his senses quicken, awakened by the sweetness of caramelized sugar.

Felipe Dinglasan felt revived as well, for in a trice he had spotted a group of men in a corner, huddled over what he did not need to see to know. Breathing even more hoarsely than when he had been walking, Sammy’s father drew a ten-peso bill from his wallet—the remainder of his last hundred—and gave it to the boy. “Get yourself something to eat,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

The money was enough for a large glass of gulaman and a packet of cookies. Sammy watched his father insinuate himself into the group of men—at first watching, then chatting the others up, then finally taking a place in the circle, his back to Sammy. Once or twice, Felipe cast a furtive glance over his back toward his son, knowing the boy would never stray too far away. When Sammy approached him, wanting only to ask if they were waiting for someone again, Felipe excused himself from the game and quickly found themselves a solution. “Aniceto Navarrete,” read the sign on the door, but it meant nothing to the boy. “You wait here,” his Papa said. “I knew this man, he was a cousin of mine in Dipolog, it’s always good to meet new family at Christmas.”

And this was how Sammy—finally yielding to boredom and fatigue—found himself straying into the quietest and most desolate funeral parlor of the lot, the Funeraria Dahlia. Indeed there was no one and nothing in it but the white coffin when Sammy stepped in. A weak bulb kept flickering overhead like a solitary Christmas light. Sammy took one of the back pews, and soon fell asleep. 

When Sammy awoke hours later, jarred by the retort of a tricycle on the street, there was a woman seated beside him, holding a glass of milky coffee in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. A curl of lipstick marked the coffee glass. She had a large, hooked nose, and she looked much older than Sammy’s mother. She wore a collarless black dress, and her hair towered above them both in a pile of buns. The first things that struck Sammy were the bags under her eyes, and her broad red lips.

“What’s your name, boy?” the woman said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Sammy cried. “I was just waiting for my father!”

“I wasn’t telling you to go,” she said, flicking her ashes on the floor. “I was just asking who you were.”

“Sammy,” the boy said. “Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, bowing to the boy. “My name is Mrs. Concordia Navarrete, and that’s my son Necing over there. Do you want some coffee? Are you old enough for coffee? Go get something to eat.” There was a small table on one side of the room with a thermos bottle, a jar of coffee, three or four Chinese apples, and a tin of butter cookies.

“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, then, suit yourself. Where’s your father?”

“Out there, ma’am.” Sammy could see his father, still hunched over the card game. 

Mrs. Navarrete looked at the men and blew a cloud of smoke in their direction. “He’ll be there all night. Unless—”

“Unless what, ma’am?”

“Nothing. My son Necing, he was going to be a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A smart person—but never mind.”

“I know about smart persons, ma’am. My Papa is very smart.”

“Oh, is he, now?” Sammy noticed that Mrs. Navarrete’s eyebrows had no hair on them. “And just how did you find that out?”

Sammy began telling Mrs. Navarrete about his father, and the events of the day, as far as he understood them. When he got to the part about Mr. Cua and the guard with the gun, he giggled, although Mrs. Navarrete seemed very upset. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked.

“Well,” Sammy said, gesticulating breezily, “they were pointing a gun at Papa—and then they gave him lots of money!” It wasn’t how things worked—even Sammy knew that from the movies and from their games at recess.

“Well,” Mrs. Navarrete said, mulling over the story, “I suppose that’s funny. And where’s your mother, by the way?”

Sammy fell silent, and he looked fervently in Felipe’s direction, wanting to go home. The lady took his hand and her fingers felt like a bony animal perching on his. “Some families are large, very, very large,” she said. “Some families are small—very, very small.”

“My Papa says—” Sammy began, then paused, seized by a sudden doubt.

“Your Papa says?”

“My Papa says he knew your son. My Papa says they were cousins in Dipolog.”

“Is that soooo?” the woman said, arching her eyebrows again.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am. Samuel Occeña Dinglasan.”

“Dinglasan…. Weeell….. Like I said, some families are very large.  What else did your Papa say?”

“Papa says—”

“Papa says we should go home,” a voice behind them said, and there Felipe Dinglasan was, looking for all the world like he had lost everything, and while Sammy could not recall Mrs. Navarrete ever coming to their house, it did seem to him that she and his father had met before by the way she was sizing him up and his fortunes, that they were all relatives like he said, and therefore family. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering you—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Navarrete cried, getting to her feet. “Mr. Dinglasan, how good to see you, how nice of you to come and to pay your respects, it’s been such a long time!”

“But how—”

“Sammy here, of course, told me everything, reminded me of our connections—Dipolog, wasn’t it? Yes, Necing often told me about Dipolog, and how well he was treated by family when he came to visit. Please, have a seat—”

“But we really have to—”

“Go where, do what? It’s Christmas Eve—what should I call you again?”

“Ipe, ma’am—”

“Don’t call me ma’am, it’s always been Tita Connie. Lola Connie to you,” she said to Sammy. “But of course everyone forgot. That’s just how things are these days. I’m used to it. Tonight we meet, tomorrow no more, maybe never again. So take a look at your, uhm, cousin, go pay your respects—you, too, little boy, don’t be scared of the dead—while I make us some coffee.” Without taking another look at Felipe, she went to the small table and busied herself, lighting up another cigarette while pouring the water.

Sammy’s father lifted him up so he could see into the coffin, so they could both look very closely at Aniceto Navarrete for any kind of family resemblance. The dead man’s skin was very dark, and long thin whiskers stuck out stiffly from both sides of his mouth.

“You were right, Papa,” Sammy whispered. 

“Here, have an apple,” Mrs. Navarrete told Sammy when they regathered in the back row. “Rest up a bit and tell me stories, that’s all I ask, tell me stories. You, too, Ipe.” Leaning closer to him, she added, “And I’ll give you your fare in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Felipe croaked.

The woman made like she didn’t hear, and took the lid off the can of butter cookies. “Dunk these into your coffee, then close your eyes, and imagine you’re having ham and cake and grapes and cheese. The imagination, it’s a wonderful thing.” She demonstrated her technique with flair, holding the coffee and a cookie out as far as she could in front of her and shutting her eyes while joining the two.

“Yes!” Sammy shrieked, aping the woman. Even Sammy’s father found his own eyes closing.

The errant bulb flickered again and finally gave out, but not one of the three or the four of them knew it, not for a long moment.

(First published in the Philippine Star, December 24, 2001)

Penman No. 427: Lights and Loudspeakers

Penman for Monday, November 8, 2021

THE ELECTION season is upon us, and for Pinoys for whom Christmas begins in September, November 15 can’t come soon enough to start figuring out who they’ll be voting for on May 9, a full half-year down the road. That date should really have been October 8, the official deadline for the filing of candidacies, but given our penchant to further complicate the already-complicated, we just had to set the stage for the last-minute substitution dramas we expect to happen by next Monday.

What couldn’t wait for November 15 or even October 8 was the onset of the propaganda war—the long series of campaigns and battles for our hearts and minds, with the prize being the right to seat someone you think you know and who thinks they know you in the Palace by the Pasig. And if there’s anything we can depend on to display Pinoy character and creativity at their best and worst, it will be a political exercise like a presidential election, during which people who had been largely content with watching telenovelas, munching sweet corn, playing pusoy, and sharing some kakanin with the neighbors suddenly rediscover their convictions, prejudices, longings, and peeves, and jump onto one bandwagon or another, many with knives drawn. (Of course, there are others who had been suffering in silence and gritting their teeth for the past five years, just waiting for the trumpet to sound from the top of the hill.) 

As a boy in the 1960s whose father kept getting roped into some politico’s campaign, I reveled in the hoopla that heralded every election. The contending parties held rallies in the plaza or the bukid (depending, I guess, on whose side the incumbent mayor was), and places more often attended by dog poo and carabao dung were transformed into one-night circuses. 

The stages were festooned with banderitas, and the lights and loudspeakers promised an evening of entertainment, at least from the movie stars, singers, and comedians whom the people really came for, before the real jokers running for congressman or mayor came onstage. Bands played as pickpockets worked the crowd. They gave away fans, hats, key fobs, stickers, and anything they could stamp a candidate’s face on, and if you were lucky you got a T-shirt—flimsy as hell and reeking of paint thinner or whatever it was they used for silkscreening. I’m sure some folks got more than that, but being too young to vote, I missed out on the serious stuff backstage.

The speeches were loud and bombastic, and you stood in rapt attention, feeling like a droplet in a huge surging wave about to engulf the nation. (Decades later, someone would call this “astroturfing.”) One particularly artful speaker might weave a tale of woe, of how the people had only themselves to blame for all the misery they had sunk into, because they had cast their lot with the other party in the previous election. (Decades later, someone would call this “gaslighting.”) Every candidate promised the moon, the stars, and a galaxy or two of blessings dependent on his or her election: more artesian wells, more puericulture centers, free dental clinics, free coffins, and a lechon for every barrio’s fiesta (loud applause). At some point, some bags of rice and boxes of milk might even go around, the word “RELIEF” overstamped with its new donor’s name.

No self-respecting campaign today would not claim a party color or motif—pink, white, blue, checkered, etc. (What was that? Pink as well? Maybe I should have said “No self-respecting campaign today would claim another party’s color.”) Back in the day, this didn’t seem to be a big deal. The Nacionalista Party’s colors were red, white, and blue, while the Liberal Party’s colors were—well, red, white, and blue. At least, if you were a Liberal today and a Nacionalista tomorrow, which sometimes happened, you didn’t have to change your wardrobe or your paraphernalia.

Neither do I recall proprietary hand signs then, like the Cory-Laban “L” that helped to overthrow her predecessor, and FVR’s jaunty thumbs-up. Ferdinand Marcos flashed the “V” sign, but that had been around for ages, and is now more widely associated with young girls in white socks trying to look their cutest for the camera. I suppose it stands for “victory,” although the “V” word that springs to mind most quickly when I hear that particular name is “vaults.” (Is there such a word as “villions,” like a billion billions?) Mayor Isko has appropriated the “No. 1” sign, with the forefinger pointing up, as if to suggest he has nowhere else to go. (That other mayor who became President, which must inspire Isko, prefers raising the next finger.) 

Frankly Leni’s hand sign remains a bit of a mystery to me, and I haven’t seen one from the boxer and the police general. At any rate I doubt this election will be won with carpal contortions. After all, there are only so many things you can do with your fingers, and the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” hand salute is difficult enough to master.

The fight, as everyone says, has gone to the Internet and the airwaves, and while we may like to believe that everything has changed in half a century, the very players on the field tell us they haven’t—only the lights and the loudspeakers have. So now, as ever, truth, reason, and justice will remain the underdogs, and those who root and clap for the jokers will end up getting their pockets picked.

(Photo from asiatimes.com)