Penman No. 407: Fifty Februaries

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021

FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.

I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.

I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).

Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits. 

But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.

To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.

They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:

AT SEVENTEEN

At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky

And held, in my right hand, 

A bottle filled with gasoline—

And far more flammable,

Admixtured faith and folly,

Courage and a thumping fear

That my life would not last much longer than

That hour, at once so still and pensive,

The tall grass around my outpost

Silvered by some distant light.

A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called

That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice

Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel

Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,

And my right hand, the young elastic limb

That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky

Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,

Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect

Oblation of that fraught age.

I was, I told myself, prepared to die

And perhaps I might have even 

Believed the lie. 

I never threw that bomb, nor any other

Of the kind. The enemy was more

Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear

Just then—although I’ve seen him since, 

In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—

And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,

Do I know you?” because I thought I did.

The intrepid and unwary die.

The articulate survive, to write poems

And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands

While their left fingers cradle Marlboros

Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems

Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.

These days I hold nothing

More menacing than hat and cane.

I should have feared, at seventeen,

That I would live this long, that I would know

Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—

And still, from time to time, looking down

The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,

Feel barricades of salvaged wood

And gathered stone rising in my chest.

Penman No. 405: A Serenade of Crickets

Penman for Monday, January 18, 2021

EVERY MORNING, I wake up to the sound of hundreds if not thousands of crickets chirping in my ears. I will hear them for the rest of the day—every second of every minute of every hour—until I fall asleep. There is practically no escape—not earplugs, not even the “white noise” prescribed by websites, unless it (or some music) is played at intolerably high volume. Pressing my palms against my ears merely adds a percussive instrument to the orchestra, the thump-thump-thump of my beating heart.

We live on the UP campus in Diliman, in the shade of towering mango trees. For some time I simply assumed that there were, indeed, choirs of crickets up in those branches, making love or at least just making noise, as crickets are supposed to do. And then one day I undertook a foolish experiment—foolish, because what hadn’t been a problem suddenly became one. I went to a place where I was totally sure no crickets would be found, or no external sounds would get through—and I still heard the same relentless hum. It was in me, with me, wherever, whenever.

A small voice in me says I should be panicking and screaming. I remember an old horror movie I saw on TV as a boy, where an insect—which I would later learn was an “earwig”—crawls into a man’s ear and stays there, deep in his ear canal, and burrows into his brain, until it turns him into a raving lunatic. A doctor performs a delicate operation and—much to the man’s relief—takes the wriggler out. At that point, the doctor holds up the dead insect in his pincers, and gravely announces that “It’s a female—and it seems to have laid its eggs.” The patient screams, and screams.

There have been times, these past many months under lockdown, when I’ve felt that way, as if some dark fluid monster had insinuated itself into my brain, my body, and indeed my spirit. I emerged from sleep drowning in a huge flood compounded of fear, sorrow, and regret over everything in general and nothing in particular. The mere mention of another friend’s death or intubation sent my imagination spinning, asking questions for which I had no answers, like “What will be worse—passage into a black void with no consciousness whatsoever, or into immortality, forever aware of every little thing in the universe, and also forever alone?” I knew what people would be telling me—have faith in a heaven, in angels, in the enveloping welcome of a blinding grace, and as a good Christian schoolboy I found comfort in those pastel promises of deliverance. But it was hard to believe anything in the state I found myself in, where even familiar walls and ceilings seemed inescapably malignant. 

It probably didn’t help that as the long lockdown began, I resolved to use the time to catch up on a heavy backlog of writing jobs going back years, and against all odds managed to complete the drafts of five book projects within five months in a dizzying frenzy. I felt superhuman, until I woke up one morning feeling all hollowed out.

Before long, I realized and had to admit that I was going through bouts of anxiety and its flipside, depression. This came as a huge surprise to someone who had prided himself on his wakefulness and presence of mind. In my last job before retirement as my university’s VP for Public Affairs, I had been constantly on call to the media and to the community at large, explaining our policies and positions with what I hoped was clarity and composure. Suddenly all that coolness vanished; I felt uncertain, tentative, unmoored.

A call to a psychiatrist-friend led me back on the slow road to wellness; I’m still on it, managing from day to day with a combination of medication, exercise, prayer, and time for nothing but nothing (ie, Netflix, fountain pens, old books, and typewriters). Beng and I dream idly of our next adventures in faraway places—St. Petersburg, before the Covid curtain fell. I find it relaxing to watch an hour-long YouTube video on “codicology,” the archaeology of old books, as well as another on the recovery and restoration of a 1937 Bugatti Atalante. I am nourishing my sense of wonderment again, finding reassurance in a remembered past to which we all hope to belong.

The only downside to my recovery has been this case of tinnitus, this constant ringing in my ears, listed as a rare side effect of my antidepressant. I recall from my graduate studies that the ancients posed a theory about the “Music of the Spheres,” supposedly the harmonious hum produced by the movement of celestial bodies in space, imperceptible to the human ear. Fancifully I imagine that perhaps I had broken through some dimensional barrier and was hearing this orbital buzz.

But a serenade of crickets seems just about right, and may be a tolerable price to pay for a patch of sanity. Turning 67 last week, I thought of all the books I have yet to write in the time I have left, and for which I have to stay sensible and alert. The crickets remind me there is time, and no need to hurry toward that inevitable infinitude of absolute silence just ahead.

Penman No. 399: Teacher’s Travails

Penman for Monday, October 26, 2020

WE CAN’T let this month pass without remarking that World Teachers Day came and went last October 5—the same day that 22 million public school students forcibly entered the digital age in the Philippines, many probably kicking and screaming, or more likely staring at a spinning wheel on a tablet screen or a blank wall.

Covid has wrought what two decades of wishful thinking on the part of some futurists could not—a mass migration to distance education, with students responding to their teachers’ questions from a hundred kilometers away. No more long commutes, no more packed lunches, no more fooling around at the malls after (or during) class. 

At least that’s the dreamy theory. As millions of Filipino parents are discovering, being housebound with their kids, tethered to a tablet or laptop and doing Math and Reading with a child more interested in recess, isn’t exactly a recipe for familial harmony. 

We know this for a fact because our resident apu-apuhan Buboy, now in senior nursery (how can a four-year-old be in any way “senior”?), has been showing all the signs of juvenile rebellion, ducking beneath his chair and the study table we’ve set up for him, while his classmates dutifully recite their ABC’s and 123’s, to the dismay of his mom, our faithful housekeeper Jenny, who keeps him company throughout his 90-minute class. Buboy also finds great delight in seemingly making fun of whatever Teacher says, repeating his own exaggerated version of “Children, be kind!” and similar admonitions.

It’s not that Buboy can’t handle technology. Like many kids today, he’s a digital native, able to turn on an iPad and navigate YouTube on his own. When the Internet is slow, he’ll tell his Tatay Butch that the “signal” is weak and that the image is “loading.” He can’t read yet, but he knows what “USB” is and, perhaps dangerously, can jam a USB device into its port, properly oriented. I’ve heard him trying to coax Alexa into singing the ABC song, and my daily playtime with him invariably includes putting him in the driver’s seat of the Suzuki Jimny, from where he punches all the buttons within his reach, wrangles the wheel and gearshift, and pretends we’re driving to Bicol (the only other place he knows, aside from Cavite, his grandparents’ domiciles). I’ve promised to give him the Jimny when he grows tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals—for which he first has to eat a lot of rice and vegetables—and I have no doubt he’ll hold me to that pledge, when the time comes.

It’s not that he’s inattentive, either, because Jenny says that Buboy regurgitates the day’s lessons in his bugoy way when they’re alone after class, as if to say, “I was listening, okay? I just wasn’t that interested.” Younger than most of his classmates, Buboy has to catch up on reading and arithmetic, but we’re not worried—the learning will happen sooner or later, one way or another, and the more important thing is for him to have fun in school, not an easy thing when all you see are faces on a screen. The onus of keeping Buboy and his like focused and occupied is on moms like Jenny, who now have to be co-teachers on top of everything else.

The other person at home adjusting to the new normal is my wife Beng, who is teaching at UP for the first time in her long career. She’s done many hands-on workshops before, but teaching Art Conservation online is a bit like learning cooking by reading the recipe. Beng was literally in tears when she was cobbling her coursepack together before the semester started, wondering what she had gotten herself into, but peeking over her shoulder during her biweekly classes (she calls me her “Assistant Emeritus”), I can see that she and the kids are having a grand time, despite the weak wi-fi and the inevitable absences.

So all this will pass, as we’re constantly being reassured, and maybe it will. I just happen to have a copy of the October 1932 issue of the Philippine Teacher’s Digest, and one of its US-based articles speaks of “The Maintenance of School Services During the Period of Economic Depression”:

“The school program is being restricted. It is being proposed in many communities that the schools can get along with less music and art. The health service has been crippled or abolished. Opportunities in the industrial and household arts have been removed from the curriculum. The work in physical education is less adequately provided. Indeed, there are those who propose that a return to the curriculum of a past century is the solution to the problem of the support of education.”

Eighty-eight years later, some of that still sounds distressingly familiar, as does this refrain from another article in the same issue: “Teachers strongly protest against any radical action to reduce the teachers’ salaries. They believe that the reduction of teachers’ salaries will drive from the service many efficient teachers and promising applicants…. In general, teachers are underpaid.”

Very true, but for all that, I’m pretty sure that Buboy’s teacher, his mom Jenny, and his Nanay Beng will do everything they can do stare this pandemic in the eye to make sure there’s more to his fourth year of life than cartoons, TikTok, and Gummi Bears.

Penman No. 393: Room Without a Window

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Penman for Monday, August 2, 2020

 

AT THE desk where I work at home—in my library-cum-man-cave—I face a wall without open windows, which can be confining and depressing, except that it’s the way I like things to be, if I want to get anything done. In my light-headed moments, I think that it would be nice to have a home office perched on top of the house, overlooking everything else, preferably water on one side and a grove of trees on the other. But I’ve lived long enough to know that faced with such beauty, I’d most likely just sit back and drift off to fitful slumber, or get distracted by some unfolding action, a moving blip that will quickly become an excuse to put off the inevitable for another day.

As I might have related here before, this “writer-in-paradise” scenario has happened to me too many times to realize that, alas, it doesn’t work. Like every young writer, I once swore that all I needed was time off in some faraway place, with a view of islands or green rolling hills and a blanket of fog, with an endless supply of coffee—and, all right, a bottle of wine and in those days a carton of Marlboro Reds—to produce the novel that would put a book with my name on the spine in every thinking person’s library.

As it happened, well—it happened. As if I’d stumbled on a fat and over-indulgent genie, I got most of my wishes (except for my Great Gatsby, not yet), in the form of writing fellowships to many of the world’s dreamiest destinations: a cliffside castle in Scotland, a Roman villa in Lombardy, and a 15th-century fortress in Umbria; in my longest engagement, I spent nine months in a Norwich apartment with a huge window that opened to what the English call a “broad,” a small lake dotted with black swans.

You’d think that visual majesty like this would beget a torrent of prose and poetry, and to be fair to my sponsors and to myself, I did eventually produce what I had been expected to. At Hawthornden in Scotland, for example—where I had been preceded by the likes of Ricky de Ungria, Krip Yuson, and Marj Evasco—I was able to write four stories in four weeks, including “Penmanship” and “Voyager,” which became the title-pieces of story collections.

Over the other stays, I labored on drafts which I completed in a mad hurry only after I had returned to Pinoy suburbia and its familiar smog, to the racket of jeepneys and tricycles and the inescapable fragrance of mangoes and bagoong. When you’re in a hostel in Paris or on a boat in Lake Como, the last thing you want to do is write; you tell yourself, in all honesty, “Right now, I just want to live,” so you breathe in the foreign air and step on the grass and imbibe the local brew (or, as I did when I first encountered the Atlantic on the Jersey shore, dip your finger into the ocean and taste it). I did a lot of living, with the writing to follow after.

All that blessed laziness would catch up with me later, in sternly immobile deadlines that consume me with what truly drives me to write and deliver—a deep and abiding sense of guilt, of having enjoyed myself too much with too little to show for the experience (even 40-plus books later, the guilt lingers). And then I turn into a writing machine, in my small room filled with the kind of knickknacks—the old typewriters, the Mabini seascapes, the Rizal bust, the box of chocolates, chips, and crackers—that tell me I’m home and relatively safe, with no one to bother me but Beng and our three-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, who has diplomatic license to disturb me anytime.

I may have no windows where I work, but in front of me are two paintings—a nude by E. Aguilar Cruz from 1975 and another by C. V. Lopez from 1950 (which prompted Buboy to ask, “Why do they have no clothes?”, to which I could only say, “Because it’s hot!”); a large print of the Strait of Basilan from the 1840s; two hand-colored maps of the Philippines from the 1750s by Jacques Bellin; a map of my home province, Romblon, from the Atlas de Filipinas of 1899; and a poster of the Parker Duofold Centennial fountain pen from 2000. When I look at them, horizons open in my mind.

I don’t have a large collection of maps (it’s one of those little voices telling me “Don’t go there!”), but I do like this view of islands, which substitutes for all the pretty landscapes I’ve seen outside my windows elsewhere, reminding me at once of home and of the world beyond. The fact that they are centuries old assures me, like my musty books, that there was a past, that history happened—that there will be a reckoning, and that the books will be written by people like me.

And then I feel the guilt lifting, replaced by an urge to write, and even an incipient pleasure at knowing that whatever I type will survive me, be it trash or treasure, so I have to do a good job of it, now, while I’m still awake and alert to every minute ticking by.

 

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

FOR SOME people, getting stuck in Covid lockdown with loved ones has turned out to be a test of just how “loved” one can remain after months of social non-distancing. In our case, Beng and I have gotten used to empty-nesting since our unica hija Demi went off to California to get married many innocent years ago. We’d stir awake around seven, shrug the sleep off our bodies, and stagger into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and the morning news. That was, until a few months ago, coinciding with the early closure of school amid the growing scare of coronavirus.

These days, we get woken up by three loud raps on the door, which then flies open whether or not we scream “Wait a minute!” or “No, stay away, we’re still sleeping!” In pops a tyke, barely three feet tall, who responds to the name of “Buboy” and who has grown up believing—with some justification—that our bedroom is as much his as ours (at least the bed, which—as soon as I yield ground and slink away—becomes his trampoline).

I’ve written about Buboy here before—our three-year-old apu-apuhan, the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, and younger brother to his Ate Jilliane. Jilliane is a special child, sweet in her own non-verbal way, and even at his young age Buboy realizes that he’s going to have to take care of her down the road. “Ate can’t talk,” he tells me matter-of-factly—in Filipino, of course, because we’ve never been an Inglisero household, not even with Demi. As if to compensate for his Ate, Buboy talks—a lot.

Our working day begins right after breakfast—he sits beside me and we raise a toast of calamansi juice—when we “go to Bicol.” That’s my code word for bringing him to the “big car” in the garage (a Suzuki Jimny, “big” because it sits tall and I have to lift him aboard). Like all boys, Buboy loves cars, and I’ve promised him he’ll get the big car when he grows up—which can only happen if he eats enough rice, fish, and veggies (so he does). He likes using the remote to open the Jimny before clambering aboard. He has me turn on the ignition, the aircon, and the radio, while he switches on the dome light and honks the horn. And then we’re “off to Bicol,” where his grandparents live, and where his Papa Sonny used to dive for fish. “I don’t like swimming,” Buboy complains. “It hurts my eyes.” After three minutes of “vroom-vroom!”, we’re back home, and then it’s time for TV—the Power Rangers (on our fourth rerun of Season 1) and Simon the super-rabbit.

Like me, the guy’s a gadget freak. Where Beng balks at digital controls she doesn’t recognize, Buboy has no qualms about pressing buttons and asking questions later—just to see what will turn on, light up, or start blaring. In one of those intuitive modes that you develop around rambunctious kids, I grew suspicious when the room with Buboy in it became deathly quiet, and when I popped back in, there he was in front of my laptop, eyes big as saucers at getting caught—with my Apricorn USB stick, a specially encrypted security device, plugged in. How he found that stick and even figured the proper plug-in orientation defies me up to now; had he decoded it, I would have paid for his ticket to Caltech. He can call me on his own on Facetime or Google Duo on his mother’s phone, and using its camera is a snap. “Tatay, let’s take a selfie” is one of his favorite commands, and he likes watching himself (and his papa) gyrate on TikTok. One day I was surprised to find that I had sent a message saying “#2hjjjjjnd67edhwekd]]]” to a Viber group. We’ve just brought Alexa into the household, and I just know I’m going to have to Buboy-proof her unless we want to listen to “The Alphabet Song” all day.

Beyond digital smarts, Buboy likes to think he has a firm grip on reality. Like any three-year-old, he’s still terrified of the moo-moo, which is what he calls the shadows cast on the wall behind me by the light, and which I employ to gain some leverage on his behavior. But when we watch snakes and sharks on National Geographic and I try to scare him with them, he shrugs dismissively and says, “That’s only TV!” When once I couldn’t find the remote (which he routinely hides), he sighed and fished it out with a comment: “Tatay is blind.” He asked me about the luggage rack on top of the Jimny: “What’s that for?” It’s for bags, I said—do you want to go up there? “I’m not a bag,” he shot back.

To make sure he doesn’t overdose on technology, Beng has begun to teach him drawing and painting, believing that there’s nothing like art to stretch the imagination. And what a stretch he’s making, showing me his drawing of a tree—basically a long line with some fuzz on top. He can sense I’m underwhelmed. “Draw me something else, something more,” I say. Like what, he says. Like, uhm, a monkey—what does a monkey eat? A banana, he says. So draw me a monkey eating a banana. I already did, he says. Where, I ask? He’s up there, in the tree.

He brings a teddy bear to bed, along with a bag of his favorite toys. One day he asked us, “Tatay, is Nanay your toy?” Beng’s brows shot up, as eager to know the answer as Buboy; I had to be very careful. “Yes, Buboy, Nanay is my toy—my teddy bear.” I should’ve stopped there, but I added, “A big one.” He giggled, but she didn’t like that at all.

I dread to think what he’ll start asking when he turns four in September, but by that time his nursery class should have resumed, albeit online. He’ll be part of the first generation of Zoom-schooled kids, but I suspect we can do better than Zoom. 

Penman No. 388: To Fall in Love with the World, Again

Penman for Monday, May 25, 2020

THE TERRIBLE loss of lives and jobs aside, the one thing that Beng and I will miss the most in whatever “new normal” emerges out of this Covid crisis is travel, whose contours, protocols, and costs we can only begin to guess at. We are, of course, deeply grateful and relieved just to be alive and well (so far) and adequately fed (so far), lifting us up far above the lot of millions of Filipinos who cannot even venture into the next municipality for their livelihood and sustenance. 

In this light, travel and everything we associate with it—dining, entertainment, shopping, sports (even given that for Beng and me, it’s mostly just museums, flea markets, and street food)—would seem utterly frivolous. But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t dream of frivolity and indulgence, even and especially in the most trying of times, if only to convince ourselves that tomorrow will be better and worth waking up for.

At about this time last year, Beng and I returned to Manila from a two-week romp across Scotland, London, and Norfolk, a sentimental journey that reprised, on a smaller scale, a nine-month stay in the UK twenty years earlier. I had just retired that January from 35 years of teaching, and at 65, I figured that Beng and I had maybe another ten good years to spend together, to poke our noses into the flea markets of Hell’s Kitchen, Spitalfield, Panjiayuan, Encants, and Clignancourt. We’re cheap and easy to please; I’d say the highlight of our traveling life was a one-day tour of Venice on the vaporetto, because that was all the time and the money we had, delighting simply in the magic of being together amid such breathtaking beauty, K-drama-style.

As it happened, 2019 turned out to be the busiest travel year of our lives. Starting the week after I retired, we went off on a crazy spree that would have collapsed many younger people: Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey (a grueling 3,000-km overland tour), the US, Singapore again, Macau, and Singapore again, not to mention local sorties to Davao and Dipolog.

We had been debating between doing it all in one year, or phasing the trips over a couple of years. Our friends and family began worrying about the strain on our bodies and budget, despite our assurances that we were managing ourselves quite well, even if—such as when we spent a day at New York’s MoMA, redeeming a pledge to see Chagall together—we had to pause on every floor to catch our breath.

We know now that if we didn’t do it when we could, we never would. We had the happiest time together, and if we never go on another plane, we will have enough memories to last us to the end. But even as those memories please me, I grieve for the fact that we will never travel again the way we did. Even those extra security measures then, which we used to complain about—the endless X-rays, the unbuckling of belts and watches—seem carefree now. 

Wearing a mask for a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight? Dousing myself in alcohol at the hotel? Mistrusting every door handle and faucet, every driver and waiter, every open mouth and extended hand? And even if we do get to fly again, it will be a changed world we will be landing in—forbidding, even hostile, still desperate for your money but not much else.

Late last year, before anyone had ever heard or minded the word “coronavirus,” Beng and I planned our travel year—not much, we said, let’s stay at home and get back to work, but we did have two destinations on the wish list: St. Petersburg in Russia, which was offering free e-visas to Filipinos for eight-day stays, and Alicante in Spain, where a big conference in Philippine Studies was to take place in September. They will not happen now nor anytime soon, and frankly I don’t regret that as much as other kinds of less tangible but also deeper losses. 

I mourn, for example, the loss of intimacy—not the bond between two people who sleep together, which has to survive all viruses—but the more casual kind between friends at table in a restaurant or even strangers on a train, the kind that says “I’m OK, you’re OK, I won’t hurt you and you won’t hurt me”—indeed the loss of casualness itself. 

The younger folks among us can still look forward to something vaguely resembling 2019 by, say, 2024. They might even be laughing then at the memory of “that Covid thing” as they take their partner’s hand and mingle with the crowd in Seoul or San Francisco before diving into their favorite restaurant. For those of us now close to 70, that will probably not happen; even if the world forgets and relaxes once again, we could be too old by then. 

In this time of too many “never agains,” I can only thank God there was a 2019, and that we made as full use of it as we could. But life’s a long road with many unexpected turns, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from our journeys, it’s those turns off the tourist map that have led to the most wonderful discoveries. If not St. Petersburg, if not Alicante, I trust something will come up, perhaps in our own backyard, to make us fall in love with the world again, as we so badly need to do.

PenmanNo. 385: Energems of Wisdom

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Penman for Monday, April 13, 2020

 

LIKE ANYONE with access to a TV, mobile phone, and computer these lockdown days, I’ve acquired a new vocabulary associated with “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” peppered by such words and phrases as “PPEs,” “hydroxychloroquine,” and “co-morbidities.” With time on my hands, I’ve even gone back to dig up the etymology of relevant words like “influenza,” which apparently began—in its Italian form in the 1500s—as a description of a kind of fever brought on by the influence of the stars on the human body. By 1743, the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine was reporting that “AN Article from Rome informs us that a Sort of Plague has broke out there, which destroys Abundance of their People, and they call it the Influenza.” On the other hand, I learned that “cholera” shares a Greek root with “gutter,” so that it “came to mean a pestiferous disease during which fluids are forcefully expelled from the body, resembling a gutter.”

There’s an urge to study and to learn that comes with enforced isolation, and there’s no better place to look for proof than prison, which is about as locked-down as you can get. You could study birds, like the homicidal Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who even wrote a book on the Diseases of Canaries. Or you could study law, become a first-rate lawyer, and even become a professor of law at Georgetown University, like bank robber Shon Robert Hopwood. If you were more inclined to write behind bars, you could follow in the footsteps of convicted embezzler William Sidney Porter a.k.a. O. Henry, who used his three years in prison to produce 14 stories, or of Jack Abbott, author of the celebrated In the Belly of the Beast, who was let out from prison following his literary celebrity, only to kill again six weeks after his release.

Of course, what we’re calling “enhanced community quarantine” is hardly prison, with which I had some intimate acquaintance as an 18-year-old marched off to martial-law “detention,” Marcosian parlance for what would now be “super-mega-extreme ECQ.” Our Fort Bonifacio brig was probably where St. Luke’s or S&R now stands in BGC, and I was “quarantined” there for more than seven months in 1973. Unfortunately I did and learned nothing brilliant there, although I suppose I was—as some writers explain what they do when they’re doing nothing—“gathering material” for the martial-law novel I eventually published 20 years later.

Our present period of semi-voluntary confinement should be long enough by now to yield some scholarly dividends, which is why I’m happy to report that I have encountered some gems of wisdom these past two weeks—“Energems,” to be more specific. In case you haven’t heard, there are ten of them in as many colors (eleven if you include the elusive Dark Energem), whose “incredible power transcends space and time, good and evil.” That’s according to my source, known only as The Keeper, whose apprentice Zenowing warns that the Dark Energem is compounded of pure evil, and alone can override the powers of the other ten Energems.

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That’s what you learn when you’re quarantined with a three-year-old named Buboy who barges into your room at 7 in the morning and demands, with all the cuteness a toddler can muster, that you turn Netflix on so he can watch Power Rangers Dino Charge. Season 1 has 22 episodes, and he’s been through all of them, so we’re doing the logical thing, which is rerunning Episode 1, 2, and so on.

Buboy—as I’ve written here before—is the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny, but in the absence of our unica hija Demi (who’s locked in on her own in otherwise sunny California), he’s our adoptive grandson and pet. While he pretty much has diplomatic immunity around the house and can rummage through my possessions for anything resembling or convertible into a “toy” (his favorite word—e.g., a long plastic shoehorn becomes a sword), he’s amazingly well-behaved, knows when to say “please” and “opo,” and takes his elders’ hands in blessing (in this household, that’s a lot of hands to mano po). We’ve sent him to nursery school and have pledged to endow him on to a PhD, subject only to good behavior, but with school out all of a sudden, then Beng and I are his teachers as well, alongside his Mama Jenny and Papa Sonny.

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So when Buboy jumped into our bed after a perfunctory knock on the door and made a polite but firm request with that impish smile to watch his favorite show (we’ve already seen The Lion King twice, and I’ve heard enough nursery rhymes to recite “No more monkeys jumping on the bed” in my sleep), who was his “Tatay” to say no? I may have had plans of reading my long-neglected copy of Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence by Giulia Calvi (U. of California Press, 1989), but with Netflix on, baroque Florence had to give way to the Amber Beach Dinosaur Museum….

And that, my friends, is how I’ve acquired a rather exotic expertise in Energems, Dino-charged Zords, Vivix, the 65-million-year-long engagement of Sledge and Poisandra, and Dr. Runga. Can’t wait for Season 2 for more, uhm, enlightenment—with or without Buboy.

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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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