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. 

Penman No. 410: A Dimming of Lights

Penman for Monday, March 29, 2021

OUTSIDE OF immediate family, there comes to every life at least one figure whom we cannot owe and thank enough—a mentor, a cheerleader, a believer on whose every word of encouragement you wait, and whose rebukes or admonitions, albeit rare, strike you with chilling efficacy.

This past month I lost two such figures, a woman and a man who lived into their nineties and thus influenced not only me but generations of students and acolytes eager to learn.

The first was Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea—better known to many as the understandably proud mother of Smart founder Doy and Mapua president Rey, among other accomplished children. She was our English teacher at the Philippine Science High School, where she taught for many decades and became an institution.

For many decades now, I’ve boasted about being Mrs. Vea’s acknowledged pet. One of the things I quickly realized upon her passing was that it wasn’t true—we were all her pets.

Maybe I just felt special, because that’s what she made each of us feel. We were the third batch of PSHS students, long before the school came to be known as “Pisay.” But she did far more than teach us grammar and even literature. She taught us to think on our feet, to see beyond the obvious, and to enjoy ourselves doing it. She liberated our minds, and made a science high school feel like a playground for the imagination.

There are two episodes that have remained very clearly with me that happened when I was editor of the Science Scholar, and she was our adviser. Once, deadlines were falling due, but I was feeling lazy, so I told her I wasn’t in the mood to write. That was the only time I saw her get angry. I can’t recall exactly what she told me, maybe because it left me in total shock, but she made it clear that talent was worth nothing without discipline. I went to work right away.

Another time, in more pleasant circumstances, she took me aside to tell me something important. “Butch,” she said, “there are two young writers I want you to read, because both of them are very good. One is Joey Arcellana, and he edits the Philippine Collegian at UP. The other is still in UP High, and his name is Gary Olivar.” I think she was telling me that there were far better writers than myself, and that it was good to never forget that, if I was to continue learning. I took her advice, and because of it, within my first semester of entering UP two years later, I joined the Philippine Collegian, and also the Alpha Sigma fraternity, to which Gary and incidentally Mrs. Vea’s son Doy belonged.

But more than a teacher, she was a second mother to us, and I was especially touched by the memory of one of my batchmates, Ophelia Gaspay, who recalled how she was sitting all by herself in one of our school dances, watching the world go by. Suddenly, much to her surprise, someone went up to her to ask her for a dance—none other than Rey Vea, the dreamboat and heartthrob of the whole school. As they were twirling across the floor, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a beaming Mrs. Vea, her fairy godmother, who had apparently waved her magic wand.

The second mentor I lost was the writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton, who had a long and distinguished career in journalism. Literature majors should remember him as the author of the classic postwar short story “Clay,” which won first prize in the Palanca Awards of 1951. When I met him in the early 1990s, he was about as old as I am now, and had set up a speechwriting operation for President Fidel V. Ramos. He needed another hand; I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US, and was close to penniless. 

I learned not only graceful and effective speechwriting from Johnny, but also imbibed his intellectual curiosity, his love for the arts, and his generosity toward younger writers. Johnny held office at the painter Malang’s building on West Avenue in Quezon City, and every now and then Johnny hosted lunch for a train of literary luminaries who included Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Greg Brillantes, Rony Diaz, and Andy Cristobal Cruz; I was the proverbial fly on the wall, eavesdropping on another generation’s animated conversation.

In 1994, when I was a awarded a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (where I eventually wrote and completed Penmanship and Other Stories), instead of docking me a month’s pay for my absence, Johnny gave me the cash for pocket money and wished me well on my writing. Many years later, out of the blue and when he had also retired, Johnny asked me and the late Raul Rodrigo out to lunch just so we could chat about nonfiction and daydream about which National Artist’s biography we most wanted to write (I think I said Franz Arcellana, another mentor of mine, and Raul said Botong Francisco). 

The dimming of such lights, although inevitable, is deeply saddening, but we can only wish that we will be as sorely missed when our time comes.

Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him. 

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepeña. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach. 

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

PSHS.png

Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 379: Auf wiedersehen, Beetle!

IMG_1633.jpegPenman for Monday, January 20, 2020

 

BEFORE WE get to the truly serious (read: tearful) stuff, let me inform my readers in academia that the deadline for the submission of abstracts to the 11th International Conference on Philippine Studies (ICOPHIL), which will be held from September 21 to 23 at the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, has been moved to January 31. This conference, which happens only once every four years, is the world’s largest gathering of both Filipino and international experts on all things Pinoy, from literature and the performing arts to politics, economics, and history. Having attended the 2012 meeting in Michigan, I hope to participate in Alicante again, to learn far more than my modest contribution to the discussions. For more information, please visit http://www.facebook.com/ICOPHIL11.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF Filipino culture, there are few things more cherished by Pinoys aside from movie stars and basketball than their cars. I don’t care much about artistas and basketbolistas, but I plead guilty to doting on my four-wheeled babies, the tiniest dent or scratch on any of which can spark a day-long fit. Even in my dotage, I belong to two online chat groups devoted to the Subaru Forester and the Suzuki Jimny, my current rides—the one for daily business and the other as the off-road toy, although “off-road” to me means the service road to the mall. But there was a time when we all had just one car for all seasons and purposes, and for me that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

I must have received half a dozen messages from friends a couple of weeks ago, all pointing to an animated video clip bidding the venerable bug “an emotional goodbye” (you can watch it here). Eight decades and 23 million cars later, Volkswagen had shut down the Beetle’s production line. That touched a nerve in me, because I had said my own goodbye to my Beetle of 38 years just a few months earlier.

That white Beetle was technically my second car (the first, a yellow Datsun Bluebird, had died an ignominious death, riddled with bullet holes after being stolen—another long sad story). I had bought it very slightly used in 1981, a repossessed unit, for the grand total of P36,000 amortized over a few years. While I had learned to drive in the Datsun, it was the Beetle I really grew up as a driver on, using it for almost 20 years until its first demise (like a cat, this Bug has had many lives).

In the early ‘80s, I would pick up our daughter Demi from school for merienda at Ma Mon Luk Cubao, and she slept in the back for the long drive home to San Mateo. It saw the best and the worst of times, getting us down to join EDSA in ’86. A drunken friend once slept and peed in the front seat, fogging up the windows.

The Beetle had a chronic problem its owners soon discovered: its back seat was prone to bursting into flames. If enough pressure (read: a fat passenger, or too many passengers) was put on it, the metal springs touched the battery terminals, literally forming a hot seat. My Beetle caught fire this way at least three times, until I had the good sense (duh) to slip a rubber mat in between. Worse was yet to come: driving off to lunch with a friend, we heard a thud, and the car went dead. Looking behind us, we saw that the battery had fallen through the rotted floor. We gamely picked it up, reattached the battery (cradled by my friend) and drove on. It would continue to host the likes of Franz Arcellana, Bienvenido Santos, and certain less estimable passengers.

For the next few years the Beetle lay fallow on a curb in Project 4, nested and peed in (again) by cats. Coming into some money, thanks to a writing fellowship, I splurged on a ground-up restoration that today could still get me a new car, and the Bug won Best of Show at the VW Club’s powwow in 2000.

It served me for many more years, and in its showroom prime I loved driving it up to five-star hotels and passing the key on to the stupefied valet. And then it began to sit quietly at home again, for far too many days and years, until Beng and I decided that the time had come to find it a new home with someone who could care for it for the next thirty years—a young couple, not too far from us, who had been dreaming of owning a Beetle.

In 2004, on a visit to Germany, I finagled a side trip to the Volkswagen plant and museum in Wolfsburg. At the museum, I ogled the very first Beetle ever made. “Please don’t touch it!” my minder begged. But of course I did. I touched the Beetle, the same way it had touched me. Auf wiedersehen, mein lieber Freund!