Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

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But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:  “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released anti-republic films and TV dramas that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were reviewing an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

THE LAST time I visited Bacolod was more than a decade ago, when I was writing the centennial history of the De La Salle Brothers in the Philippines and had to look into their work in that southern city, an enterprise that began in 1952. Before that I had made occasional sorties to it, on short ferry rides from Iloilo and once, memorably, on a long pre-martial law ride across the mountains to Dumaguete with a busload of fellow activists, expecting to be stopped any minute by the paramilitary forces then lording it over the countryside.

Last week I returned on a far more civil mission, on research for another book I’m writing on a sometime icon of the sugar industry. That part of it was interesting enough—interviews with history’s participants and witnesses can be exhausting (especially in the transcription) but always fascinating for me—but as often happens on these out-of-town excursions, the sidelights proved no less engrossing.

Bacolod and its environs, of course, have always offered stellar attractions for visitors and tourists, and indeed my wife Beng and her high-school barkada of four lovely ladies were flying into town with me on their own itinerary. I was there for work, but the women had booked a day tour of the fabled old houses of nearby Silay. (You can find these heritage tours on Klook, among other places online.)

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While Beng’s party enjoyed Silay’s architectural treasures—among them Balay Negrense and the Ramon Hofileña ancestral home—I was many kilometers away in Bago City, treading carefully on the crumbling ruins of the Ma-ao sugar central. Opened in 1919 on a 56-hectare estate, the central was typical of the enterprise that turned Negros into Sugarlandia, creating fabulous wealth for an elite that held sway over the region’s history and politics over much of the 20th century. Over my three days in Bacolod I would learn more than I ever imagined I could know about sugar, its production, and, inescapably, the society it fed and bred.

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Indeed, from the airport in Silay on to the fringes of the city, the landscape is dominated by swaths of sugarcane greening at the foot of Mts. Mandalagan and Kanlaon, broken only by the occasional mall or hardware store, the signposts of the new commerce. “This is the best land for sugar in the province right here,” said my guide and driver, “and it’s owned by the Lacson family. There are two main streets in Bacolod, named after two generals of the Revolution: Juan Araneta and Aniceto Lacson, who forced the surrender of the Spanish forces through a clever ruse. They had nipa palms cut to resemble guns from a distance, and the Spanish general surrendered to avoid what he thought would be a bloodbath.”

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Such stories roll easily off the Negrense tongue, on this land watered by blood and champagne. As we drove on the highway, I recalled a passage in a biography of Rafael Salas—another native son, from Bago—that I had co-written last year with Menchu Sarmiento, about the horrific murder in 1951 of Moises Padilla, who had found the gall to run for mayor against the local kingpin: “They toured from town to town beating and torturing Padilla, displaying him in a public square while one of the boys announced: ‘Here is what happens to people who oppose us.’” At the same time, I couldn’t help recalling the story of that period’s loveliest and yet also saddest bride, the legendary Susan Magalona, at whose star-crossed wedding it was reported that champagne flowed from a fountain. (Millennials who’ve never heard of this story would do well to Google it, if only to learn something about the virtues of “non-consummation”.)

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In American literature, which I used to teach, these bizarre but also compelling comminglings of decay and grotesquerie on the one hand and beauty and the fantastic on the other took on the label of “Southern gothic,” a genre with such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers among its avatars. Somehow I felt that I was in its presence here, too, in the rusted machinery and the tall grasses, out of which you half-expected some apparition in gauzy white to emerge. In the very middle of Lopez Jaena Street stands perhaps the quaintest cemetery in the country: the mausoleum of the Luzuriagas (photo below from steemit.com), where the traffic of life, you might say, comes to a perfect standstill.

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Inevitably I would hear a story about ghosts, in a place that would have been incomplete without them: the celebrated Daku Balay (“Big House”), Bacolod’s first and largest Art Deco mansion built on Burgos Street by Don Generoso Villanueva in 1936. We were lucky to get a private tour of this exquisitely sculpted home, thanks to our friend the American writer Craig Scharlin and his wife Lilia Villanueva, Don Generoso’s granddaughter, who have taken it upon themselves to preserve it for posterity. Craig told me how visitors who had strayed into the upper floors had found themselves being escorted by a charming couple—none other than the long-departed don and his wife Paz.

These specters were, at least, benign, and if I had lived in Daku Balay, with its helical staircase, nautical motifs, and Scagliola floors, I would have wished to inhabit it forever.

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Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

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Penman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

MOST MILLENNIALS will probably miss the title’s reference to that 1960s TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel” starring Richard Boone as the soft-hearted gun-for-hire Paladin, but I’m happily appropriating it for this week’s piece on travel, given that summer is practically here and many of us are packing our bags for the year’s big sortie to parts unknown.

Global travel has become such a big part of the Filipino lifestyle that it’s changed our culture in all kinds of ways, from our food and fashion preferences to our outlook and attitudes. Of course we can’t forget that most Pinoys still travel for work—for back-breaking jobs far away from home and family—rather than for leisure.

Indeed my wife Beng and I were too poor when we got married 45 years ago to go anywhere farther than Baguio, and come to think of it I can’t even remember when we sat side by side on a plane for the first time to see a bit of the world together—it certainly wasn’t on our honeymoon, because we never had one. But we’ve since made up for lost time by traveling up a storm, especially since I made a vow a decade ago to bring Beng to every place I’d ever been, having had more opportunities to get around as a writer and academic. Except for Myanmar and Brunei, we’ve now been all over Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, Australia, and of course the US.

I was filling up our visa application forms for the UK a week ago—I love the UK, where Beng and I lived for almost a year in 1990-2000 when I was a writing fellow at Norwich, but Christ Almighty, their forms are a pain to fill up, being 12 pages long and asking for your travel history for the past 10 years. That’s when I realized that I’d traveled more than 50 times since 2009—most often in 2012, when I took nine trips, mainly to conferences.

I know people will ask, how could we afford all this on a professor’s salary? Well, more than half the time, it’s someone else paying when I’m invited to conferences (I pay Beng’s way, of course, when she tags along). Also, we’ve been empty nesters for the past ten years since our daughter Demi got married in California (another good reason to save up for a US visit every year). We never had much by way of savings, except for emergencies, because Beng and I decided long ago that money was better spent on having fun together now.

And when we travel on our own, it’s strictly on a budget—meaning boutique hotels, 7-11s, and local buses and subways all the way. I plan out our flights months in advance on Skyscanner.com.ph, and find our hotels on Booking.com. No room service, no Michelin restaurants, no High Street shopping, just museums, flea markets, and hawker stalls. That’s why I love traveling with Beng, because she’s easy, and between the two of us, I’m the picky one, in an odd way—she’s adventurous and will try anything, but I’m a creature of habit and insist on having my noodles and canned sardines, even in the middle of Europe.

Beng’s going to be a septuagenarian soon (though she doesn’t look 60, but for the white hair), but she still clambers up scaffoldings to restore huge murals (most recently a 36-foot-long one by Manansala owned by a big bank). I’m beginning to feel the aches of age and have to stop and even take short naps on our museum tours. But the fact that we’re seniors, and that we could be on canes and wheelchairs not too long from now, only intensifies our desire to go see places together while our knees and feet can take it.

Some young people going out on their first trips recently asked for travel tips on a forum, and this was what I shared with them from all those years of gallivanting. I may be an old guy, but I’ve been a big fan of digital travel since the world went online.

  • I take pictures of all important documents—passports, visas, prescriptions—and store them on my phone. I take pics as well of hotel addresses and vicinity maps, just in case I can’t make a live online connection.
  • I always carry a spare unlocked phone and buy a local SIM at the airport.
  • Since 1999, I’ve been using a free app called Metro (regularly updated) for using the subway or metro in any city I visit. Mastering the local transport system saves on Uber, Grab, and taxis.
  • I usually just withdraw cash from the local ATM and forget about money changers—there’s a surcharge, of course, but it’s safer, more convenient, and easier to track. At the end of a trip, I don’t convert foreign currency back to dollars or pesos, but keep it for my next trip. It’s always good to land with taxi fare in local money, and small bills for hotel staff. I always check Google about local tipping practices.
  •  I always take out travel insurance (online) for long trips. I’ve thankfully never had to use it, but you never know.
  • Like I mentioned earlier, I always look for cheap or good flights on Skyscanner.com.ph and book my hotels on Booking.com. Remember that in booking flights or hotels, cheapest doesn’t always mean the best bargain. Times and locations matter. That said, happy trails and safe travels!

Penman No. 340: Wowwow, Mingming, Peepeep

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Penman for Monday, February 11, 2019

 

FOR REASONS still not too clear to me, since I had a great relationship with my late Dad, I never really wanted a son, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when Beng popped out a baby girl named Demi 44 years ago. Demi turned out to be everything we could wish for—bright, caring, and generous, an exemplar at her job in a major hotel in California, where she lives with her husband Jerry, another proud addition to our small family.

I may not have minded a grandson, but The One Who Knows Better decided that we were all going to be happier by ourselves, so Beng and I and Demi and Jerry have enjoyed our foursome, traveling together whenever possible and achieving what we could in this life without worrying too much about the future.

We couldn’t have imagined that in our later 60s, Beng and I would have to learn grandparenting a boy—a two-year-old named Buboy, the son and second child of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, who have been living with us for many years in our campus home. Beng and I thought that everyone could work better if we kept the family together instead of stranding half of it in faraway Bicol. So Buboy was born here, and has known nothing but our large yard and the falling mangoes, treating our noisy guard dogs as his friends.

Buboy wakes us up in the morning by banging his tiny fists on the door, and when no one opens it, he turns the knob himself and barges in with a ta-da smile. He likes to climb up our bed, which he thinks is his playground—and a trampoline.

He eats breakfast with us every morning, dragging his high chair and clambering on board even before I get to sit. He loves rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg. Beng taught him how to pray before meals—something I tend to mutter if not forget, but Buboy’s instruction forces me to do as he does and make the Sign of the Cross with exaggerated flourish, although Buboy seems to think that tapping just one shoulder will do as nicely.

We speak to him in Filipino, just like we did with Demi—we’ve never believed in raising a kid in a foreign language, which school and society will take care of at some point—but he’s picked up a few favorite English words on his own: “no” (often used as in “Nononono!”), “fish” (“pish,” the Pinoy way), and “shoes” (which he can get picky about). He has his own plastic glass, and we make a toast and gulp our water down together, like drinking buddies.

Breakfast is followed by half an hour of cartoons, but what he really wants is for Beng to open his favorite book—one about a forest whose creatures are endangered by bad people.

I’m Tatay and Beng is Nanay. All dogs are Wowwow. All cats are Mingming. All cars and trucks are Peepeep (and he knows how to run back to his Mama when he hears a Peepeep rumbling down our street). When I’m away on a trip, he points to planes when they fly overhead, although I don’t know where or how he made the connection. A true tyke of his generation, he’s pretty good at figuring out how knobs and buttons work—twist this, press that.

When you ask him how old he is, he raises his two pointy fingers—he can’t make the V sign yet. What happens when he turns three? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. He likes to swipe three colored poker chips from my bedside, and we’re using those to get him to count to three. Some folks expect their toddlers to do calculus, speak French, and play the piano; this boy will not be rushed by us into any prodigious feats, although we see him absorbing knowledge like a sponge. It’s enough that he knows how to do the manowith every elder he meets, to pick up things that fall on the floor and put them in the wastebasket, and to return objects where he got them from. He’ll soon learn “po” and “opo.”

His Ate Jilliane is a special child, years older but just as innocent as he is, and he seems to sense her specialness. They fight, of course, like anything over anything, but he can be sweet and gentle, offering her a share of such goodies as he can finagle from us. He probably doesn’t yet understand what we keep whispering in his ear, trusting in subliminal suggestion to work its magic: “Buboy, be good, be smart and study hard, so you can take care of Ate when you grow up.”

As empty nesters and with our own dear daughter well cared for, Beng and I have pledged to see to it that Buboy gets a proper education, in school and at home, for as long as we can help his family help themselves. Other retirees adopt causes and NGOs; he will be our mission, of course with his parents’ cooperation and support.

When our friend Julie visited recently from the States and had a few pesos left over, she bought a stuffed cat to give to Buboy, which he promptly embraced and named, of course, Mingming. It does take a village to raise a child, but it doesn’t take too much to make one happy.

 

 

Penman No. 337: A Perfect Ending

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Penman for Monday, January 21, 2019

 

I RETIRED last week after 35 years of service at the University of the Philippines, and I celebrated the special day with UP friends at a dinner graciously hosted by UP President Danilo Concepcion at his official residence, the newly renovated Executive House.

Standing in a wooded corner of Diliman close to C. P. Garcia, the Executive House was built by President Vicente Sinco in the late 1950s, and in its early years no president really lived there, but it became the venue for lively faculty colloquia, involving such intellectual stalwarts of the time as O.D. Corpuz, Ricardo Pascual, Cesar Adib Majul, Leopoldo Yabes, and Concepcion Dadufalza. When President Salvador P. Lopez decided to move with his wife into the place in 1969, they were reportedly met, in typical UP fashion, by a posse of protesters insisting on certain demands.

These historical precedents were thronging in my mind when I stepped into the EH last Tuesday evening for an all-UP dinner which, unlike all the other big events I had attended there, was being held in my honor—it was a trifecta of sorts, being my 65thbirthday, retirement day, and our 45thwedding anniversary.

Long before I became Vice President for Public Affairs, it had been my dream to end my service in UP with a small party for my closest and dearest UP friends at the EH, and that came true. Of course that dream began with entering UP itself, and it was my mother Emilia—BSE 1956, the only UP graduate among her 12 siblings—who fired that ambition. When I was a small boy, she would play a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” flipsided by “Push On, UP.” I guess you could say that my future was laid out for me that early, and I grew up without any doubt whatsoever that I would enter UP someday. She was with us that evening, lovely and graceful at 90. (Our daughter Demi, BA Art Studies 1995, joined us in spirit from California.)

In my farewell remarks, I also thanked my sweet wife Beng, from the UP College of Fine Arts, my 45 years of togetherness with whom was for me the better reason for the festivities. Aside from my friends in administration, teaching, and writing, some seniors and mentors obliged me with their presence—Dr. Gerry Sicat, who took me in off the street and employed me as a writer at NEDA in 1973, sent me back to school to learn some Economics, and sent me to the US on my first trip abroad in 1980 to expose a young writer to the outside world; former President Dodong Nemenzo, whom I had served as VP many years ago; National Artist Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, my professor in playwriting; Dr. Manny Alba, as debonair as ever; and dear friend Julie Hill, whose four books I have been privileged to edit, and who flew in all the way from California to be with us.

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I also noted that VPs and even presidents come and go, but UP is unique and in some ways immutable. The University is bigger than any one or even all of us. It has a life and an integrity of its own.

We need to keep fighting for a UP truly worthy of its founders’ dreams—a UP governed by merit rather than by patronage, and led by men and women of impeccable intelligence, ability, and most of all, integrity. Honor and excellence must be more than slogans to us but a way of life—honor even more so than excellence, which is easily found in a community of intellectually brilliant minds, but also easily compromised and corrupted by power.

While every day we need to recognize and to make the pragmatic decisions that keep the University afloat, every once in a while, we need to remember what makes us different from just another school, and uphold idealism over realism, principle over practical result, excellence over expediency.

I ended with a few appeals, addressed mainly to the friends I was leaving behind—foremostly, to keep the University’s liberal spirit alive. I have often argued that the true heart of UP lies neither in the authoritarian Right nor the doctrinaire Left, but in that great liberal middle, which—despite all of its confusions, contradictions, vacillations, and weaknesses—most honestly represents the search for truth, reason, freedom and justice in our society. I would much sooner trust someone who remembers and respects the value of doubt than those—like our despots and ideologues—who insist that they have the answer to everything.

I also asked the administration take special care of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which I was privileged to serve as director for eight years. It is a truly world-class institute whose work no one else in Asia is doing. For a relatively small investment, the UPICW keeps the literary imagination and the truth itself alive in this age of fake news and demagoguery.

It was a perfect albeit bittersweet ending to my formal career. I retired saddened to miss the company of people I had come to respect and love, but gladdened by the opportunity to serve our University and people in more creative ways—in a manner, at a time, and at a pace of my own choosing.

Beng and I expect to travel much and travel far together, ngunit malayong lupain man ang aming marating, din rin magbabago ang aming damdamin.

(The 3D-printed Mini-Me up there was a parting gift from my staff at the OVPPA. Many thanks, all!)

Penman No. 336: Goodbye to All That

 

IMG_8927.jpegPenman for Monday, January 14, 2019

 

TOMORROW, THE 15th of January 2019, I retire from the University of the Philippines after 35 years of teaching, a few of them spent in administration as department chair, institute director, and most recently on my second stint as Vice President for Public Affairs.

As I write this, a week in advance, the impact of departure hasn’t hit me yet. My schedule is still bursting with meetings and appointments, I’m still shining my shoes, and the guard at our building still opens the door for me, despite my daily gesture for him not to bother getting up from his seat.

I occupy a pretty large office on the ground floor of Quezon Hall, UP’s Greek-columned administration building. Erected in 1950, Quezon Hall was renovated recently, and I was among the first beneficiaries of that facelift, stepping two years ago into the same space I had used when I first served as VP in 2003-2005, but now spruced up and modernized in all kinds of ways.

I’m really a simple guy—I can get work done with just a laptop on, well, my lap—so I can appreciate the finer things in life more than someone born to them. I still remember, like most retirees would, my first office desk back in the early 1970s, when I joined the National Economic and Development Authority as a writer, and the sense of fulfillment that one felt just to have a table and typewriter of one’s own.

Having such a nice and well-appointed office—with its own restroom, conference table, sofa, bookshelves, air conditioning, electronic security, sprinklers, and strong wifi—didn’t only make me feel privileged, but also more responsible, knowing that public money had been spent to make me feel comfortable, work efficiently, and look dignified. Indeed, I had to dignify the office, by acting as I imagined a university official should—with respect and consideration for whoever came in to see me, and with prompt attention for any piece of paper in my tray, or any message in my inbox.

The first thing I did when I moved in was to personalize the place, mainly by bringing in the best of my private collection of paintings, pens, and antiquarian books. Having lost three decades’ worth of precious items in my Faculty Center office in the 2016 fire, I resolved that my new office was now the safest place to store my baubles, although I had nothing of too great a monetary value to attract thieves.

Aside from my favorites among my wife Beng’s own watercolors, the paintings consist of midcentury landscapes by the likes of Jorge Pineda and Gabriel Custodio, accomplished minor masters but nowhere as auctionable as Amorsolo or Kiukok. I have books, maps, and manuscripts dating back to 1490 (a page from a Latin breviary, my one example of true incunabula), but who else seriously wants to sniff handwritten letters from the 1600s, or musty English periodicals from the 1700s? Now and then I get a respectful question from visitors about my curios—let’s not forget the 1970s Olivetti Valentine and 1923 Corona folding typewriter stashed in a corner—but usually they don’t even notice that the magazines on my coffee table go back to the 1930s.

That’s been perfectly fine by me, because the office was always more of a shelter than a showcase, a cabinet of curiosities for my own inspection and enjoyment, particularly in moments of stress and anxiety, as any PR job inevitably entails. Confronted with the crisis of the hour, I’d leaf through the marvelous illustrations in a 200-year-old book of world travels, or patiently clean a Parker Duofold pen that Henry Ford or Manuel L. Quezon might have used, or gaze at an indelibly orange sunset from the 1940s, and feel reassured by the certainty that all the kinks and creases of today will get smoothened out by the sheer passage of imperial time.

I’m doubtlessly going to miss this mini-museum that I’ve cobbled together. I’ll be bringing the items home, or putting them away in safe storage, but it will be the place itself that I’ll be looking back on wistfully, knowing that, unlike many less-blessed employees trooping joylessly to their cubicles, I loved going to the office and working there, in the mute but expressive company of my favorite things. (I have a home office, of course, similar in some ways but much smaller and less carefully curated.)

In my fondest dreams, I wish that UP would someday accept my best books, manuscripts, and paintings as a donation and house them in a properly ventilated reading room, so that more generations of students can appreciate what I’ve enjoyed putting together and poring over. It was, after all, for the looks of surprise and delight on my students’ faces that I first bought these old books and brought them to class—not just to be ogled, but to be held and leafed through, so they could appreciate the materiality of literature, indeed of things before their time, in this now-centered world.

As I join that past and become, myself, an antiquarian artifact, let me say goodbye to all that, thanking my lucky stars and all the people who made UP the best possible workplace and second home to this writer-cum-bureaucrat. No bigger and brighter office to next step into than the future itself.

Penman No. 323: Cooling Off on the Island of Fire

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Penman for Monday, October 15, 2018

 

AS THINGS heated up last week over military charges of communist inroads in our universities—an issue the University of the Philippines, in particular, has dealt with for over 70 years, under every administration—I decided to take advantage of my leave credits and spend a few days in a zone of true peace and quiet, away from TV and certain “loud and aggressive persons… vexatious to the spirit,” as the Desiderata put it.

As it happened, I’d presciently I’d booked a trip to Camiguin last November (we routinely do this—book blind months in advance and hope for the best) and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Lanzones Festival was coming up (we were going to miss it by a week), which meant a surfeit of the sweet fruit on the market.

But I’d always been intrigued by Camiguin, like Batanes (an itch I scratched some years ago); I was born on a small island in Romblon, so islands hold a special charm for me, as does the sea, which I dream about often in all its varied moods, from tranquil to terrifying.

From what I’d heard, Camiguin was all that—mostly tranquil, sometimes terrifying, being home to no less than seven volcanoes, with the best-known of them, Mt. Hibok-Hibok, still considered active, tagging it as “The Island of Fire.” But all of this was just stuff you see on Wikipedia, and I was raring to see Camiguin and its natural splendor with my own eyes.

On the lower fringe of the Bohol Sea, Camiguin is technically part of Northern Mindanao, so a popular way to get there is by ferry from Cagayan de Oro, but we took the plane from Manila to Cebu, leaving close to midnight, and then a smaller plane from Cebu to Camiguin early in the morning. If you know how to manage your time, this gives you a whole day of exploration from the very start, but being seniors, Beng and I dozed off upon arrival, had lunch, then hit the sack again.

Barangay Yumbing, a few minutes’ ride by tricycle from the airport (P150 for tourists, P30 for locals), seemed to be the locale of choice from what I’d read online, so I booked a room in a cottage-type hotel there. Yumbing is on the beach facing White Island, a sliver of sandbar that’s one of Camiguin’s must-sees, which explains the cluster of lodging houses along the strip.

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We booked online at one of the cheaper places for around P800/night—clean and comfortable, but without hot water, and you bring your own toiletries—but we soon realized that a range of choices could be had, climaxing with the impressive Paras Beach Resort right on the waterfront. We had dinner (tinolang tuna) there, and after a glorious sunset, a swarm of what must have been thousands of chattering swifts descended on the trees above us. Another high-end option specializing in Asian cuisine was the smartly designed Guerrera, set on the edge of a ricefield between the sea and the towering Hibok-Hibok; Vietnamese spring rolls fringed by five special sauces and adobo made for a perfect lunch here.

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We decided to spend the second of our three days touring the island, and for this we hired (P1,500) a multicab, a small van with narrow seats, comfortable enough if there’s just two of you in the back so you can stretch out your legs. Our driver Rey and his wife Grace took us to the most popular spots on our side of the island. We passed on the first stop—the Walkway, featuring 14 Stations of the Cross halfway up to the top of Mt. Vulcan—because after a few steps, we realized that each station was going to be punishment for our sins. The Old Spanish Church was far more pleasing, albeit sobering, as this huge enclosure of limestone and coral—set against a pretty arbor along the shore—was the skeletonized hulk of what remained after a devastating eruption of Hibok-Hibok in 1871, the very one that created Mt. Vulcan.

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More traces of the island’s volcanic past emerged in the Sunken Cemetery, reclaimed by the sea and now reachable by a short boat ride. Tuasan Falls and Katibawasan Falls offered not just spectacular views but cool green waters begging you to jump in for a swim. Indeed, cool and hot seemed to be the theme for the day, with pools and springs of either variety to be found all over, culminating in the suitably named Ardent Hot Spring on the foothills of Hibok-Hibok, where we rested our tired feet by dipping them into the water for half and hour.

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Cutting across the island allowed us to gaze more closely up Hibok-Hibok (whose summit is a popular destination for younger and more intrepid hikers, about a five-hour trek from the hot spring). That’s the full-time job of the Phivolcs Observatory, well worth a visit because of its pictorial display of the island’s tumultuous past (Hibok-Hibok’s last eruption in 1951 killed more than 3,000 people).

An unexpected bonus was a tip from our driver Rey to have lunch at the Orange Pie restaurant in the capital town of Mambajao, where the P180 eat-all-you-can deal featured tuna kinilaw, fried chicken, pork adobo, pancit, steamed grouper, veggies, and fruits and cakes for dessert. Indeed, Beng and I had most of our meals, lutong-bahay-style, in roadside carinderiasfor about P50 each. And of course, everywhere we went, we saw groves of lanzones trees heavy with fruit (yours for P50-60 a kilo).

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We spent the best part of our final day splashing in the indescribably clear water around White Island, a short hop away by pumpboat (all yours for P450 back-and-forth). You might want to spring another P100 to rent a beach umbrella, because there’s absolutely nothing on this sandbar, most of which disappears at high tide. And that’s the blessedness of it—nothing but sea and sky, and the best view of the island from afar.

“Camiguin—come again!” our driver Rey quipped as he dropped us off at the airport. We will!

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Penman No. 296: My Past as a Printmaker

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Penman for Monday, April 2, 2018

 

EVERY NOW and then I get a reminder from somewhere very far that, at one point in my past, I led a very different life and might have gone down another path altogether.

Last month I received a message from a gentleman in England, asking me if I knew the artist of a print he had acquired, an etching of a water buffalo with a bird perched on his back, dated 1974, titled “Katuwaan Lang,” and signed by a “j y dalisay jr.” I received similar inquiries from two ladies in the States back in 2008 and 2015, who both sent me pictures of prints I hadn’t seen in decades.

Yes, I told them all, once upon a time I worked as a printmaker, and it happened this way.

In January 1973, I was arrested by the military for alleged subversion—I was 18, a college dropout, and a fledgling reporter for the Philippines Herald and Taliba—and was thrown, along with a couple hundred other inmates, into a detention camp somewhere in what people now smartly call Bonifacio Global City. Back then it was just the Ipil Rehabilitation Center, a repurposed Army barracks enclosed in barbed wire.

Among my fellow detainees—aside from the likes of Jojo Binay, Orly Mercado, and Zeus Salazar—was the artist Orlando “Orly” Castillo, who organized an Artists’ Group which conducted sketching sessions and painted and sold little souvenir items to our Sunday visitors. Not knowing how long we were going to be detained—I for one was never arraigned or tried in court, although I was interrogated and beaten up—I signed up with the group, having done a bit of drawing since grade school.

As it turned out, I would be released after seven months (“Go pack your bags, we have nothing on you,” said the officer). Instead of returning to school in UP—which I found deathly quiet and unconducive to learning—I sought out Orly, who had been released earlier, and joined him and a group of new friends at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio and gallery at 1680 Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, Manila.

It was really little more than a big box at the far end of a lot, but it housed an etching press, and I learned printmaking on that press just by watching the regulars going through the motions of coating zinc plates with asphalt “ground,” drawing their designs on the ground, soaking the plates in a bath of nitric acid, inking the plates, and printing copies of the artwork off them under the rolling press. I looked over the shoulders of people like the late Manolito Mayo, Tiny Nuyda, Joel Soliven, Bing del Rosario, Fil de la Cruz, Ronald Veluz, and Emet Valente. (Yes, most of the regulars there were guys, although Petite Calaguas, Adiel Arevalo, and Ivi Avellana-Cosio would also come by.) Sometimes Bencab dropped in, and I was very happy when he remarked kindly on one of my etchings of a boat in Romblon harbor.

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I did etchings like everybody else, but my preferred technique was drypoint, which meant scratching and digging the design straight onto the zinc plate with nothing more than the needle of a compass. My fingers would get so sore they nearly bled, but drypoint lent the work a certain delicacy of line that you couldn’t get with nitric acid. For inspiration, I turned to the pages of E. S. Lumsden’s 1926 classic The Art of Etching, a copy of which I still keep.

I became a printmaker for a while, not just because I loved the craft and the company, but because I was jobless. Selling prints in bulk to a dealer who sold them framed to US servicemen sustained me through that lean season. The prints sold for maybe just 15 or 20 pesos each, but a few hundred went a long way then.

At some point I won an honorable mention for the drypoint print of a farmer, and served as Vice President of PAP under Lito Mayo—not for any abundance of artistic talent (I was way too conservative to amount to much), but, I suspect, because of my way with words, a facility I have found useful to this day. But inevitably life’s other challenges caught up.

It was at the PAP where I met my wife to be, a pretty girl named June, and I courted her with letters handwritten with a Mars Lumograph and, of course, a drypoint portrait I made of her. A few months after we met, we were married—but not before I managed to find a more stable job, at my mother’s insistence, this time as a writer for the National Economic and Development Authority, just around the corner.

The PAP has long left J. Bocobo and all I have from those days is a small album of about a dozen stray prints, but I still feel a surge of fraternity whenever I meet Bencab, Tiny, Ivi, and the other true masters of the art. I like to think that I’ve ported over my sense of imagery and detail to my writing. We can always hope that here or elsewhere, in whatever form, the art will survive the artist; ars longa, vita brevis. (That’s my grandmother Mamay below, in and etching with drypoint and aquatint.)

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