Hindsight No. 13: The Imperfect Good

Hindsight for Monday, April 11, 2022

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 William Blake

I’VE RECENTLY come across a number of posts online by people complaining about the “self-righteousness” of campaigners for a certain candidate to explain why they might, or will, vote for the other guy—yep, the tax evader, debate dodger, academic cipher, political under-performer, and, if the surveys are to be believed, our next President. 

Now, I can understand their irritation. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong to their faces, or have the truth shoved down their throats. 

I can just hear someone muttering: “How can you be so sure of your manok? Don’t you know she’s an airhead, lost in space, a Bar flunker, an unwitting decoy for the (choose your color—Reds or Yellows)? There may not be much I can say for my bet—and okay, I’ll admit I don’t really know or care what he thinks because he’s not telling—but I prefer him to your insufferable assumption that you and your 137,000 friends are torchbearers for the good, the right, and the just. (And you’re such a hypocrite, because I know what you pay your maids, which isn’t more than what I pay mine, but at least I don’t pretend to be some crusading reformer.) To be honest, it’s you I can’t stand, not since you put on that silly all-pink wardrobe and plastered your gate and walls with pink posters. But guess what—you’ll lose! All the polls say so, and I can’t wait to see you crying your eyes out on May 10.”

Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, I’ll bet my favorite socks (which I haven’t worn for the past two years) that you know someone on the other side who’s thought of or verbalized what I just wrote. The forthcoming election has become a test not just of friendships, but of how far some of us are willing to pretend that all politicians are the same, all opinions are equal and should be equally respected, XXX number of people can’t be wrong, and that whoever wins, democracy will, as well.

This presumes a parity of political, financial, and moral power that just doesn’t exist and probably never did, at least in this country. The playing field is far from even. It’s been horribly distorted by disinformation, vote-buying, intimidation, and who else knows what can happen between now and May 9 (and the days of the vote count, after). The dizzying game of musical chairs that preceded the final submission of candidacies to the Comelec last October (resulting, ridiculously, in the ruling party being frozen out of serious contention for the top two slots) was but a preview of the seeming unpredictability of Elections Ver. 2022. I say “seeming” because there may be outfits like the former Cambridge Analytica that will presume to be able to game everything out and bring a method to the madness that will ensure victory for their clients.

What we know is that this will be the first presidential election, at least in recent memory, where the presumptive frontrunner refuses to be questioned about important issues, faces legal liabilities that would crush anyone less powerful, campaigns on little more than a vapid slogan, ignores China’s encroachment into Philippine territory, claims to know next to nothing about his parents’ excesses, and takes no responsibility for them. Even more alarmingly, his lead in the polls suggests that these issues don’t matter to many voters, thanks to miseducation and disinformation. 

So, no, not all politicians are the same, and not even all elections are the same. But for all its surface complications, May 9 truly and inevitably comes down to a simple choice: that between good and evil—between those who stand for truth, freedom, justice, and the public interest and those who side with falsehood, dictatorship, oppression, and corruption. If you can’t distinguish between the two, or refuse to, or prefer to obfuscate the matter by repackaging it into, say, a war between families or between winners and losers, then you have a problem. 

This isn’t just self-righteousness; it’s righteousness, period. You can’t justify preferring evil because of some perceived shortcoming in the good. It’s in the nature of things that “the good” will forever be imperfect, forever a work-in-progress. It can be clumsy, patchy, plodding, long drawn out, and sometimes, if not often, it will lose skirmishes and battles to the enemy; fighting for it can be wearying and dispiriting. On the other hand, evil is well thought-out, comprehensive, well-funded, and efficient; it can attract hordes to its ranks, and promise quick victory and material rewards. Evil is often more fascinating and mediagenic, from Milton’s Lucifer to Hitler and this century’s despots. But none of that will still make it the right choice. 

Commentators have pointed out that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s embattled president, may not be the shining hero that the media has served him up to be, because he had repressed his enemies before the Russian invasion and had established links with neo-Nazi groups. Now that may well be true, although it will be hard to believe that the Zelensky that emerges out of this crisis—if he does—will be the same man he was before.

But none of that excuses Vladimir Putin’s murderous rampage, nor elevates his moral standing, nor permits us to turn our eyes away from the carnage in the smoking rubble. The “Western media” and “Big Tech”—the favorite targets of despots, denialists, and conspiracists—may have their problematic biases, but only the radically lobotomized will accept the alternative, which is the Chinese, Russian, and North Korean interpretation of what constitutes journalism, and of an Internet within a net. 

We cannot let the imperfections or even the failures of the good lead us to believe that evil is better and acceptable. You don’t even have to be saintly to be good. If you’ve led a life of poor decisions, making the right one this time could be your redemption. There are far worse and darker crimes than self-righteousness in others.

Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

Penman for Saturday, April 2, 2022

IT’S NOT very often that I stumble on a new source of beauty and wonder, especially not too far from where I live in Quezon City. But sometime last month my wife Beng and I drove out for just about half an hour to a place on the periphery of old Cubao and stepped back three-quarters of a century into a line of work that hasn’t changed much in all that time. What was especially delightful about this encounter was that, as a collector of all kinds of old things, this was new to me.

If you’ve ever looked around in church to see a fat little cherub on a pillar, or spent quiet time in a garden mesmerized by water cascading down a wall fountain, or walked down the stairways and corridors of old buildings appreciating the corbels and the balustrades—the fine, graceful touches of a bygone age—then you’ve seen the products of The House of Precast, the pioneer and still the leader in its field.

From the outside, its new office building along E. Rodriguez Avenue speaks of the modern efficiency with which its business is conducted, but its interiors quickly lead to the heart of the ancient art that still thrives within: the crafting and production of precast, or molded concrete, for architectural ornamentation and other uses. Behind the building can still be found the postwar home and workshop that started everything.

“This place dates back to 1948,” said Martin C. Galan, who runs The House of Precast with his lovely wife Michelle. Martin had met Michelle when they were both law students at UST. (Martin’s grandfather was the distinguished lawyer-banker Miguel Cuaderno.) How they got into the business is a story unto itself. Michelle’s dad, Conrado de Leon, was the son of master artisan Inocencio de Leon, who had worked with the renowned sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, a contemporary of Rizal’s. When the Americans came, they brought concrete, which Tampinco and his associates began to use for their commissions. 

A student of architecture, Conrado apprenticed with Don Isabelo’s son Vidal and later with Guillermo Tolentino, learning the craft and imbibing the high standards of quality and craftsmanship he would bring to his own trade. “He worked for Tolentino on the Bonifacio Monument. They used each other as models. They slapped on the clay and the old man finished it up. The statues were bronze but everything began as clay. They made a mold, which was brought to Europe for casting,” Martin explained. Another important mentor was the Italian sculptor Francisco Monti, who escaped the brownshirts in Italy and was on his way to Australia when he was enticed to go to the Philippines instead. “Monti had his own studio, but he came here to work so Conrado could make his molds for him. There were chickens here, so Monti would get six eggs and drink their contents, and start flinging mud as he sang an operatic aria.”

In 1950, Conrado opened The House of Precast where it remains today, and began filling orders for such premium clients as Malacañang Palace and the mansions of New Manila, Bacolod, and Davao. “When he did well, Conrado hired Vidal Tampinco, as a way of thanking him for his earlier mentorship, and also to learn more secrets of the trade,” said Martin. 

Conrado de Leon died in 1988, and was followed shortly after by his wife; by this time, Martin had married Michelle, and at her deathbed, Michelle’s mother implored the young couple to carry on the business. Despite coming from a very different background and knowing next to nothing about precast, the couple agreed, and have been at it ever since. “We began with a month’s capital and five old employees. We faced many challenges. No one knew us except the old architects. Internally, I had to deal with resistance to change, to modern techniques and methods of management.” 

Martin brought in new knowledge, and also began training a new generation of apprentices. “When Michelle and I went to London in the mid-‘90s, I took the opportunity to learn how to make a rubber mold. Today I use three types of rubber as well as cement, and sometimes I mix wood, rubber, and cement. It depends on the job. You can innovate—you can use glass fiber instead of jute–but the basic processes remain the same. Our advantage is that we still know how to do it the old way. I made sure of that.”

The idea of precast can be traced to as far back as the Romans, who used a form of it for their famous buildings, but its modern version really takes off in the late 1890s and early 1900s with the growing use of precast and prestressed concrete in construction and ornamentation (the first recorded use of reinforced concrete, by Joseph Monier in 1867, was for a flower pot). The larger part of the precast industry today involves the production of structural elements for bridges and other infrastructure, so Martin’s and Michelle’s corner of it—architectural ornamentation—is relatively small, but the combination of tradition and technology that it demands also allows for the kind of artisanal care and excellence that only love and practice can create.

“The basic idea behind precasting is to make the object somewhere else and then bring to the site,” explained Martin. “The architects or clients can show us their designs, and we make their vision a reality. We make molds out of concrete, plaster, or rubber. Some molds are for one-time use—the molde perdido, or lost mold. But we can do what others can’t. Today we use CAD, and we work interactively with the client in developing the project. We have references for things like columns and capitals—there are equations and formulas for these classical forms. But for things like how a leaf should turn, our people rely on direct observation. Others might use pictures, and the two-dimensionality shows. To make a good mold, your mind has to think in three dimensions. You’re doing it in reverse—you’re making a negative. So we talk about the alsa and lubog, the rise and fall of the figure. We ask, what does the leaf want to do?”

Quality is The House of Precast’s topmost consideration. “We don’t scrimp on materials, and we abide by international standards.” This quality is evident in the high-ceilinged office that also showcases some of their finest creations.

But the workshop at the back, beside the old house and garden, is the heart of the operation, where skilled hands turn plaster and water into cherubs, columns, and capitals, among dozens of other shapes, familiar adornments often taken for granted that please the eye and tease the imagination. Stepping into it, I began to understand the Galan couple’s commitment to their craft, and to sustaining it into a future more concerned with cost than culture. 

The pandemic hit the business hard—“We’re ornamental, so we’re an expendable item in the budget,” Martin said—but they’ve survived and should recover. Their son Diego—a familiar figure in the watch and pen forums online—is learning the ropes. Martin has ambitious plans for the new building, which he wants to transform into “a venue for the humanities.” He has another business as a consultant in acoustics, and swears that he can see sound moving around in space—nothing strange for a man who fusses about how leaves should curl and open in nature. As long as the Galans find wonder in the world around them, so will we.

Hindsight No. 9: Only the Stupid

Hindsight for Monday, March 14, 2022

(Image from the diplomat.com)

MY BELATED foray into Facebook and the whole FB notion of “friends” led me to ask myself if—in these contentious times—it would be wise to apply a political filter to the many “friend requests” I receive every day, 90% of which come from total strangers.

My simple, old-fashioned liberalism said no. Keep it open. If I were confident in my beliefs, values, and principles, then I shouldn’t fear the presence of contrary ideas, which could be a springboard for a lively and high-minded discussion of alternative futures. 

Maybe I could even make fast friends from the other side, people who were equally concerned about our country’s situation and the need for capable leadership. Maybe we could even meet sometime for coffee or a few beers, engage in playful joshing about other’s politics, and end the day with a soulful rendition of “Kumbaya” around a bonfire. We could show the world the true meaning of unity, love, compassion, and all those nice words politicians can’t resist mouthing every five seconds.

It sounded good—at least in theory. Agree to disagree, turn the other cheek, and all that. Embrace the enemy, and the burrs, bumps, and other imperfections of democracy. Celebrate political diversity as a strength. Accept whatever happens in May as the sovereign will of the people, and yield gracefully to the new president’s wisdom. 

I wish I could say that that I took that high road—but I didn’t; I couldn’t. I did leave the door wide open on my first month on FB, during which I said yes to practically every request that came my way, and kept all my posts public. Soon enough, as my political preferences became obvious, I began to be cursed and trolled. Okay, par for the course—you express an opinion, you expect blowback. I tolerated it for a while, and then I asked myself—do I really want or need this, in my personal space? Were these silly comments enlightening me in any way, except to prove how much savagery you can draw from the tiniest scrap of brain? 

And so I learned the other side of Facebook that everyone else seemed to be adept at: delete, block, mute, unfriend. I began screening every “friend” request to reject dubious characters outright, including and especially those openly campaigning for candidates perpetually too busy to attend public debates. Now, I realize I’m being politically suicidal that way, by hunkering down in my hermit’s cave and refusing to participate in the time-critical mission of conversion. So please don’t do what I did, and be nice. 

But forget the trolls—that’s like talking to your toilet. So far, my toilet’s been telling me this: “Our guy will win. Look at the polls. It’s over. Only the stupid think otherwise.” I flush it all down, but it keeps floating back up. 

Seriously, going beyond paid-by-the-click trolls, I want to find an intelligent, articulate supporter of He Who Will Not Debate and ask just one question: “Why?” 

Do such people exist? They certainly do—I’ve personally known quite a few. Brilliant, eloquent, educated in the world’s best schools, well-traveled, at the top of their professions. They will claim to have been there, done that; some may even have been torchbearers and ideologues for the Left. Somewhere along the way, for reasons known only to them, they make a complete about-face, declare liberal causes dead, and cast their lot with the same people they once found repugnant. They become the gurus of the Right, the stylists of a fashionable authoritarianism they try to invest with narrative inevitability. 

Odd as it may seem, like Franco and his fascists, they will profess to be servants of God, and can be judged only by Him. They are not in it for the money, they will insist, although they live very comfortably. They affect a carapace of cynicism—they support He Who Will Not Debate, not out of love nor confidence in his admittedly mediocre talents, but because he will win, like it or not, so they are already thinking ahead to how he can be manipulated by his No. 2, their real horse. They are in it for the long game.

Sure, they’re smart, or seem to be. The only problem is, they’ve lost a fundamental sense of right and wrong. They’re beyond outrage. Proficient at turning fiction into “fact,” and inflated by their proximity to power, they mistake cleverness for conviction, and survival for salvation. In the end, they believe in nothing but themselves; they are their own echo chambers. “I don’t care what people think about what I think,” one such pundit told me, and it told me enough. 

So if and when I ask these people “Why him?”, I don’t expect a gush of praises for the fellow’s virtues, but rather a PowerPoint lecture on why he will win, regardless of everything. “Only the stupid,” they will remind me, “look at elections in terms of good and evil.” 

Even academics can over-analyze things and ignore or forget the basic question: Is it the right and the good thing to do? “Realpolitik”—a pet word of cynics—is no excuse for resignation and acceptance. 

All the scholarly explanations for Vladimir Putin’s Russo-centric world view can’t justify Russian aggression. Putin may have a right to feel threatened by a pro-NATO Ukraine, but he still doesn’t have a right to invade it and shell it to pieces. And we need to say so. As so often happens, to pose as “neutral” in this case (ostensibly because we have no dog in this fight) is to support the oppressor. We do have a dog, and it isn’t so much Ukraine itself but justice. 

So when I choose my Facebook friends, I choose people who still believe passionately in truth, freedom, and such things as the strategists of the Dark Side find foolish and irrelevant. I choose people who will restore and reinforce my faith in humanity, and who will remind me that we, too, are in this for the long fight, way beyond May 9.

“Only the stupid” may refuse to surrender in the face of looming annihilation, but I’ll take the Zelenskys of the world anytime over its Putins. 

Penman No. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

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

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

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

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

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

TO THE chorus of voices mourning the passing of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose, let me add my own.

For a very long time, Manong Frankie and I were not what could honestly be called friends. I had said hurtful things about him and his work, and I could feel that he took that to heart. 

But we did begin on a very high and encouraging note. In 1983, he selected me and a few other Filipino writers—Rey Duque, Marj Evasco, and Fanny Llego among them, as far as I can remember—to attend a writer’s seminar in Bali that he and his friend the late Takdir Alisjabanah had organized to bring young Southeast Asian writers together. It was my first big international conference, and it was exhilarating to be talking literature on the fringe of a crater lake. I deeply appreciated that gesture on Manong Frankie’s part; through him I met such luminaries as Edwin Thumboo, Shirley Lim, and Cecil Rajendra. At that point I had read and appreciated The Pretenders and many of FSJ’s short stories.

Some years later, I was in America studying for my MFA in Michigan and then my PhD in Wisconsin, and at some point I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Philippine literature—I can’t recall why, or why me (it was probably just after EDSA, when the world’s eyes were upon us, and I was conveniently available)—and when FSJ’s name came up I indelicately repeated what I thought was the prevalent opinion then (and until much later) of his work among my fellow writers in English: that while he wrote about all the right things, his prose was far too plain and lacking in certain qualities. (It was an opinion that would understandably provoke a backlash from FSJ’s supporters who valued his substance more than his style.)

That must’ve gotten back to Frankie because—whether I just imagined it or not—I felt that I got the cold shoulder from him from then on. It didn’t help that he seemed to have a bone to pick with UP and creative writing workshops, and held the notion that we were out to create clones of our snooty selves, detached from the harsh realities of life on the ground. I (and many others) continued to be exasperated by his cantakerousness (I even called him “cranky Frankie”) and groaned at his propensity to lecture young writers to the point of scolding them for one shortcoming or other.

But even so no one could deny his massive and meaningful contributions to our literature and to the idea of a literature grounded on history and social reality. When I happened to serve on the preliminary committee vetting candidates for the National Artist Award the year he eventually won it, I had no problem putting my minor misgivings aside and voting for him.

I’m not sure when the thaw in our relationship began, but it must have been when we were both invited in 2017 to an NCCA-sponsored seminar in La Union where I was asked to give a talk on Manuel Arguilla. I knew he was going to be listening, and I have to admit that I wrote my lecture with him specifically in mind, wanting to reassure him that I wasn’t some city-boy snob who didn’t know one end of a carabao from the other and who couldn’t write about anything but professors sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks. Through Arguilla, I wanted him to know that I felt and understood—and indeed wrote about—his concern for common and unarticulated lives.

Later that year, when I spoke at the annual Palanca Awards dinner about how writers in our society often have to write for others for a living but also need to redeem themselves through their art, he approached me from below the podium and extended his hand to congratulate me, and I knew we had reconciled.

We were brought even closer when he and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara founded the Akademyang Filipino, asking me to serve as a trustee along with such stalwarts of civil liberties as former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales. He would remind me, among the most junior members of that board, to make sure the Akademya survived him, pleading his age. (His daughter Jette, who sadly died just weeks before Frankie, was our very capable executive secretary.)

He and Manang Tess would invite me and Beng for dinner, and he was very happy and surprised when I presented him once with a copy of the maiden issue of Solidarity, which he had lost. In private, he told me something that assured me that we had, again, become friends.

Still, for all that, his mercurial politics continued to confound me. Separated by the Covid lockdown, our meetings stopped, although even if we had met I probably would not have been able to ask him to his face how he could reconcile his loathing of dictatorship with his approval for Marcos’ successor. Not I nor anyone else could have changed his mind. It was sad to see him savagely reviled for his contentious remarks about ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa, among other issues, but I suspect that there was a part of him that courted and reveled in the notoriety.

And that was what I learned about F. Sionil Jose: you had to take him as he was, all of a package, or reject him outright, which would also be a pity. Nearly all great writers had their quirks and imperfections, but it’s their work that survives and surpasses all our momentary misgivings.

Farewell, Manong!

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

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

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

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

Penman No. 424: The Analog Revival

Penman for Monday, September 27, 2021

TWO YEARS ago, just before the Covid pandemic turned the world upside down, another and much less noticed reversal took place. Ending a 33-year trend, vinyl records outsold CDs—1.24 million records toting up $224 million in global sales, according to Music Times. You’d think that grandparents the world over had launched a conspiracy to buy out the remaining stock of Mantovani, The Lettermen, and the Ray Conniff Singers, but no—70 percent of the buyers were millennials under 35.

Audiophile Eric Teel says that “Music lovers have long treated vinyl with a kind of mysticism, using terminology like ‘warmth’ to describe a special intangible quality that some say eludes digital recording technology. Getting the most out of a vinyl record requires more effort than the simple huff of warm breath and a wipe on the t-shirt that many of us (shouldn’t, but do) give a CD to wipe off fingerprints before sticking it in a player.” In other words, there’s the sound, and there’s the ritual of choosing, cleaning, and playing the record—all before putting one’s feet up on a stool and sipping coffee.

Even earlier, in 2014, someone named Alex Lenkei wrote an essay on medium.com about another kind of hole he had fallen into—manual typewriters. Explaining why he found his way back to typewriters in the age of the Internet, Alex said:

“Like people, no two typewriters are the same. Each one feels distinctly different and has a different history of grade school assignments, covert love letters, prose and poetry, government propaganda, and wartime memos. The coldness of the keys under your fingers feels like the only truth in the world and the smell of metal and grease when you dig your nose into the typebars, the cavity of the machine, feels like the home of a serious writer.

“A typewriter is a miraculous tool for disconnecting in a time when we are all constantly connected to our smartphones or tablets. When I’m sitting down at a computer, I don’t know what I’m going to do next; I can get distracted very easily. In today’s increasingly connected world, production and focus in writing are being sacrificed for Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts. There are a thousand distractions. But with a typewriter, I know I’m writing.”

The third analog instrument that’s made a comeback is—you guessed it—the fountain pen. According to the Washington Post, “In the 1990s, high-end, limited-edition pens took off…. The recession of 2008 dried up the ink on those for a while. The current fountain pen revival, penfolk agree, has been driven by an unlikely group: millennials. Yes, a generation that wasn’t taught cursive and whose members do most of their writing on a keyboard or smartphone screen has breathed new life into the old-fashioned fountain pen.

“’There’s less writing now, but when they do write, they want a good experience….’ That means premium pen, nice paper, unusual ink—stuff that looks good on Instagram…. A lot of the pens are used for keeping something called a dot journal or a bullet journal, which is basically a fancy to-do list.”

It’s obvious from these testimonials what’s been happening, aside from the fact of genuine oldtimers like me hanging on to their tools and toys: a whole new generation has reached far into the past for a new experience unavailable in the digital world—something tactile, something hands-on, something requiring more personal investment than a keystroke or tapping on “Play.” 

That’s nowhere more evident than in our local pen fanciers group, Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (fpn-p.org), which since its establishment in 2008 now counts over 11,000 members online. I’d say at least 70 percent of active members are below 40. The group’s original focus was fountain pen collecting, especially vintage pens, and old guys like me were happy just to ogle our pen-filled boxes and occasionally write some lines with black or blue-black Quink.

Our newest and younger members are clearly more excited by swatching colorful inks that shimmer and sheen, by learning calligraphy and journaling, and by just getting together as a community to enjoy a newfound passion. In other words, it’s not so much the object but the experience that matters most, asserting oneself in a digitized universe.

I also help moderate the Filipino Typewriter Collectors group on FB, and we’ve passed more than 1,000 members in less than a year. As with pens, most of our members are young, artistically inclined, expressive, and fascinated by using old tech to do 21st-century tasks. Again, I’m the crusty hardware guy who appreciates the machines as artifacts (having written books with them ages ago), while our newbies can still be thrilled by the clatter of keys on a platen and by the words they can form on a blank sheet of paper.

I grew up with vinyl, but came relatively late to the collecting party. We have a small, private Viber group that exchanges tips on where to find certain LPs cheap. We’re not learned enough to consider ourselves audiophiles fussing over “curve” and “coloration”; we just want to relive our youth by listening to the Beatles, Brasil ’66, and Marianne Faithfull. What’s surprising is, we have some teenage members who are discovering this music for the first time on vinyl, and liking it. Suddenly, their lolos and titos are cool again. There’s hope for the future yet!

Penman No. 421: Giving Spirit: A Requiem for Riel

Penman for Monday, August 16, 2021

WHEN I woke up to the sound of my wife Beng crying as she clutched her phone, I knew instantly what had happened in the night: “Riel is gone,” she said. “Riel” was Ronald Jaramillo Hilario, a sculptor and fellow alumnus of the UP College of Fine Arts. 

No institution in this country has been spared by Covid—every school, office, factory, and hospital will have more than one sad story to tell of unexpected loss and bereavement, of someone who was there with them one minute, laughing and shooting off on the issues of the hour, and then gone seemingly in the blink of an eye.

For the UP College of Fine Arts, it has been an exceptionally terrible year. One after the other, it lost artists and faculty members such as Jak Pilar, Leo Abaya, Joey Tañedo, and Neil Doloricon, and alumni Virgie Garcia and Riel Hilario. The arts community was still reeling from the passing of Neil—one of the stalwarts of social realism in Philippine art—when news of Riel’s death came through, and as she had done much too often since the pandemic began, Beng wept again.

Oddly, neither Beng nor I had actually met Riel—he lived in Lucban with his muse Joyce Campomanes—but he had quite a large digital footprint, from which I gleaned enough, and Beng became a kind of tita figure to him, always ready to lend an ear, albeit online. He was one of those rare artists (Neil Doloricon was another one) who was extraordinarily articulate, and who didn’t hesitate to let the world know what he thought. 

“Art is my religion, and I am a priest of that faith,” he asserted, and his life offered ample proof of that sacerdotal devotion to art—to its creation, its study, and its promotion in a society threatened by destructive and diabolical forces. 

Indeed he looked every inch the part of an avenging angel (and his name summons those winged, sword-bearing creatures), bearded and muscular, with piercing eyes that seemed like they could see right through falsehood and deception. (Lorenzo Gabutina described him as “warrior, sultan, larger-than-life… a Pinoy Thor.”) His sense of mission, his critical intelligence, and his expressiveness may not have made him the easiest person in the room to sit with, but his seriousness was a reminder that art involves far more than decorating the homes of the rich, even as he created playful objects and rebultos that drew on native folklore and religion.

His formal résumé was more than sufficiently impressive. Coming out of the woodcarving tradition of Ilocos Sur, Riel went on to the Philippine High School for the Arts and UP, transitioning from painting to full-time sculpture in 2008. He undertook residencies and explorations in the US and Europe and served as curator for the Boston and Pinto art galleries. He also co-founded Artinformal, an art-education collective. In 2012, he was the winner of the Ateneo Art Awards-Fernando Zóbel Prizes for Visual Art, and in the same year was named one of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists. 

Wood sculpture, he told Glenn Martinez, “served as my self-directed therapy following a debilitating episode of manic-depression in 2007. I had schizoid visions and dreams that were terrifying and disturbing. I felt the need to find an outlet that was more tactile than painting or writing. The following year I started carving wood sculptures based on the tradition of the rebulto, but following the urgings and suggestions of my visions. The practice had a cathartic effect and also helped me refocus my cultural work to do research on the craft.”

But as brilliant and productive as his own art was, Riel was also appreciated by his fellow artists for his advocacy of artists’ rights and his generosity toward others. A Facebook page dedicated to his memory and maintained by his relative and close friend Paul, “The Feathered Angel: A Tribute to Riel Hilario (1969-2021),” is full of testimonials to that giving spirit. Riel was on a mission to make sure his fellow artists were never taken advantage of by galleries and dealers, and for them to get their due recognition and respect. (In one recent episode, he recounted how he and Joyce had been turned down by a prominent bank’s branch in Antipolo when they tried to open an account, allegedly because artists can’t show proof of regular income; outraged, he recalled how solicitous the teller was in New York when he presented a $50,000 check for deposit.)

He was still brimming with ideas and plans for the future—having taught at PHSA, he was thinking of teaching at UP—when both he and Joyce were stricken by the virus. From Lucban came desperate calls for help—especially for oxygen—to friends like Glenn Martinez, Jason Moss, and Ricky Francisco. Glenn did what he could from Metro Manila to coordinate assistance, and Riel and Joyce were brought to a hospital in Lucena. But it was too full to accommodate them, and they were sent home. 

Joyce survived; Riel did not. But as one of Riel’s favorite sayings (and mine, from Hippocrates) goes, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—art is long, art endures, as short as our lives may be.

(Images courtesy of Joyce Campomanes)

Penman No. 414: Full of Foolish Song

Penman for Monday, May 24, 2021

AMID THE lifting gloom of the pandemic—“lifting” perhaps for those of us who’ve had at least their first vaccine shots—a blast of sunshine came into our lives two weeks ago. We had been busy marshalling our limited resources and those of our network of senior titos and titas in aid of community pantries, anti-Covid measures, and sundry causes and charities, not expecting anything back but smiles and good vibes. And then a friend popped up in our driveway with a surprise gift that made my day.

I’d been friends with Jim (let’s call him that) for 50 years, since we met in UP and became student activists in the same organization. We were actually batchmates in grade school, but it was in our work for the anti-Marcos resistance that we grew closer, tooling around in his white Renault to this and that exploit. After EDSA, Jim served in the government, and when he left, he established a private art-related company that became hugely successful and is now a leader in its field.

For all that and more, Jim announced that he had drawn up a short list of guy-friends whom he was gifting with a very special surprise—a package comprising a turntable, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers. “Just a starter set,” he said apologetically, but as far as I was concerned it was a little bit of heaven—Sixties heaven, to be more specific.

I have to confess that I’m no audiophile, despite my proclivity for vintage fountain pens, typewriters, old watches, antiquarian books, and generally anything older than me. I have everything in the house—my mini-museum—from a 1905 Hammond typewriter and a ship captain’s navigational guidebook that traveled the world in the 1700s to boxes of pens from the 1920s, pocket watches that clocked railroad traffic a century ago, and a red rotary telephone—but not a turntable.

It’s not that I don’t like music, or vinyl records and turntables in particular. I grew up playing 45s and 78s (33s weren’t that plentiful then) in our big cabinet-like player that had glowing tubes in the back. Not having TV until I reached high school (for that we stuck our snotty faces into a neighbor’s window), I became quite adept at playing records, mesmerized by the sight of them stacked and dropping on the platter, and by the tonearm finding its way to the first groove. Hiss, hiss, pop, pop—and then a trumpet blast or a guitar riff, and off you went to dreamland, an adult kind of place you couldn’t fully understand as a kid, but which sounded like fun—full of stardust, cherry pink and apple blossom white, love letters in the sand, swallows in Capistrano, amore, and teenage señoritas.

Despite those happy associations, I never bought a record player even if I could, maybe because I knew it was going to be a very deep and expensive rabbit hole (I should’ve told myself that about pens and typewriters). I’d seen friends whose houses and cars had been taken over by hyper-expensive sound systems, and whose vocabularies now sprouted words like “attenuator,” “circum-aural,” “impedance,” and “sibilant,” and I just couldn’t get into that—I was into music, not sound. When cassette tapes, CDs, Walkmans, and iPods followed, I gladly went along, content to enjoy my favorite tracks on earphones.

But Jim’s gift, so thoughtfully given, was too nice to refuse, and I have to admit to a flutter of excitement about reconnecting with my childhood through a technology that requires a bit more deliberation than skimming through a digital playlist with your thumb. At our age, approaching our seventies, the notion of sitting on your favorite chair with your feet up, glass of wine in hand, and being enveloped in a cloud of happy sound (say, Chet Baker crooning “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) is an appealing one indeed—“full of foolish song,” as Chet put it.

I hadn’t played a record in over half a century, so I had to be taught the basics all over again. I’m deathly certain I’m going to break something one of these days, but that will be part of the re-education. Most days I’ll still probably be using my earphones with iTunes, but with the speakers in Jim’s array, I can’t say how long that will last. Jim also presented me with some starter LPs, knowing what I liked: Dionne Warwick, Astrud Gilberto, and a choice between the Byrds and America. (So what do you think I chose? Any true-blue ‘60s guy will choose the Byrds, of course!) 

What else did I want, Jim asked. Oh boy. Off the top of my head—Spiral Starecase, Chet Baker, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Eumir Deodato, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Simon and Garfunkel, any and all Sinatra, the original Broadway “Hair,” my favorite Broadway musicals (“South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” “The King and I”—sorry, boys and girls, no “Rent” or “Hamilton” there), and any album with the songs that just won’t go out of my head: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” “Amapola,” “Non ti scordar di me,” and “Sabor a mi.”

And no, this won’t be a new addiction. I just don’t have the space. I’m sure of it. Truly. I swear.