Penman No. 428: Wenchworld

Penman for Monday, November 22, 2021

OKAY, SO The X-Files assured us “The truth is out there,” CSI showered us with “epithelials” and impressed “blunt force trauma” into our noggins, Narcos made it cool to be a “patron,” and The Blacklist (or what I’ve seen of this nine-season, 178-episode epic so far) keeps sending us back to the “post office” or some other “black site.” K-drama, on the other hand, will forever be memorable to me for its wanton use of the word “wench.”

I’m not confessing that I’m a K-drama addict—for that, you can indict my wife Beng, who also happens to be my bedmate, which means that whatever she watches, so must I. Vicariously, therefore, I have learned that it is possible in the K-Universe to go back and forth between North and South Korea by parachute or tunnel, and even to go back and forth between Joseon and the present by holding on to a pretty girl and falling over; that a family’s most precious heirloom, on which everyone’s happiness depends, can be its secret kimchi recipe; that tall and tiny hats maketh the man; that Korean mafiosi travel with at least 300 OOTDs, to be worn just once—plus, of course, someone to keep them immaculately pressed; and that kissing in the rain is better than kissing under energy-saving light bulbs.

But most of all, the K-Universe is peopled by men (half of whom seem to be “unfilial sons”) and women (the younger half of whom are “saucy wenches”). It’s the “wench” part that gets me, because it’s a word I haven’t heard since I was slogging through my grad-school classes in Elizabethan Drama more than thirty years ago. 

Most famously, of course, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio woos the intemperate Katherine: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!” From Love’s Labours Lost, we get “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The word is all over English in the 1500s and 1600s, embedded in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; Christopher Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, has his character Barabas trying to brush away his sinful past when he is accused of fornication: “But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.”)

While we’re in this sort-of-scholarly mode, let’s look up “wench” to see what it was supposed to mean then. Etymonline.com gives us this block of information: 

“Late 13c., wenche ’girl, young woman,’ especially if unmarried, also ‘female infant,’ shortened from wenchel ’child,’ also in Middle English ‘girl, maiden,’ from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol ’unsteady, fickle, weak,’ from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr’child, weak person,’ Old High German wanchal ’fickle’), from PIE *weng- ’to bend, curve’…. The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]. In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of ‘concubine, strumpet’ is attested by mid-14c. Also ‘serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class’ (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare’s day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wenchflax-wife, or flax-woman.”

Perhaps more helpfully, vocabulary.com tells us that “Wench used to mean young girl, so if you find someone describing a lovely wench in Shakespeare, it means a lovely girl. Wench comes from Middle English, and was a common word for girl, child, or servant. Over time it came to mean mainly serving girls, as in a bar wench, who serves drinks at a tavern. Eventually it came to mean prostitute. If you find wench in a love poem from the 16th century, think of it as an informal version of maiden. But if someone called you a wench last week, you should be insulted.”

Now, in the K-Universe, the use of “wench” transcends centuries, being equally useful in the period of the Three Kingdoms as it was under the Joseon dynasty, under Japanese annexation, and after the Korean War. (At a certain point, when you’ve watched hundreds of hours of K-drama—only because your wife is watching, mind you—you become something of an expert on Korean history, politics, and culture. I’ve even developed a taste for japchae, which I like to think of as Korean sotanghon.) It’s entirely possible for a Gangnam goon to call a confederate on his Samsung phone to say “Get rid of that insufferable wench!”

All that is probably because the Official Association of K-Drama Translators, at a crucial conference in Jeju, sat down to take up the word nyeon (“a term that refers to a female person in a degrading/derogatory manner”), with partisans debating fiercely between “bitch” and “whore.” The argument entered its second day, with tempers flaring and steel chopsticks dangerously stabbing the air, until the revered Dr. Sung Hyun-Lee, a fruit grocer by day and Confucian scholar and acupuncturist by night, woke up from his soju-assisted meditation and proposed the word “wench.” He had come across the word while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and thought it perfect to describe a passing ship in the night.

Since all K-drama heroines can be wenches (as long as they have doe eyes, porcelain skin, and wispy hair—but wait, doesn’t that sound like all K-boys as well?), “wench” seems to have lost its pay-for-play connotations on Netflix, and now simply means “any pretty and young Korean woman who attracts and then annoys a nasty man—a cruel Joseon prince, a North Korean general, or a Seoul crime boss.” Problem solved.

Penman No. 425: Red Light, Green Light

Penman for Monday, October 11, 2021

THOSE OF you who smiled when you read the title know what I’m talking about: none other than Squid Game, which is set to become the most viewed Netflix production of all time.

I’m still groggy from two nights of binge-watching, after making sure that my wife Beng was already asleep. She’s a Korea-novela fan—and I guess you can call me a reluctant convert, having little choice but to follow the travails of star-crossed lovers getting wet in the rain, slurping ramyeon, or running slow-motion into each other’s arms on a beach at sunset. But for some reason, Beng likes romance, not gore, and she steadfastly refused to reciprocate my constancy by watching Squid Game with me. 

She can’t understand it when I explain that violence relaxes me, releases the lion in my pussycat, exhausts my latent desire to pulverize my enemies and split a few skulls, and leaves me refreshed for another day of, well, typing. Beng’s favorite expression—which she uses several times a day, usually when watching the news or some TV drama, or when we’re driving past a mangy dog—is “Kawawa naman!” If she were a street in UP Village, it would be “Mahabagin.” 

That’s why, you see, she couldn’t possibly get through even one episode of Squid Game. The violence hadn’t even begun—Gi-Hun was just getting warmed up as the quintessential loser, trying to play good dad to his 10-year-old daughter—when I heard Beng mutter her first “Kawawa naman!” Rather than subject myself to a night-long litany of laments for pitiful souls, I agreed to switch channels and watch contestants try to outdo each other in applying hideous makeup onto hapless models. Beng couldn’t see me wincing in the dark, my tender aesthetics feeling the vicious assault of mascara wands and lipstick applicators.

But let’s get back to the show. After its release less than a month ago, Squid Game became a global sensation in no time at all, and it’s easy to see why. Even the venerable Washington Post intones that “Squid Game (is) much more than a gory dystopian thriller. It’s a haunting microcosm of real life, unpacking the many implications of inequality, which has in some way drawn each of the players to this battle for their lives.” 

Parents will be horrified to find that their kids can buy Squid Game soldier outfits online, complete with black masks and pink track suits, submachine guns optional. (When I clicked the link, I got a message saying “Sorry! This product is no longer available.” That can mean only one of two things: first, that the seller developed a conscience and pulled the item out, or second, that stocks were sold out—you win a prize of a trip to Busan if you guess the correct answer.)

So let’s get this clear, especially if you’re thinking of gathering the family around the TV for some quality time watching people’s shirts turn a splotchy red: Squid Game isn’t for kids, okay? The whole point of it is that it wants people to think they’ll be playing kids’ games—which is true, except that (this is hardly a spoiler now, after all the publicity), the losers die.

I’m not going to go into the kind of sociological soul-searching that will be the stuff of dissertations over the next five years, with titles like “Competition Theory: Neoliberalism, the State, and Squid Game in the Philippines, 2016-2022.” (If you want an honest-to-goodness, semi-academic chat about the show, the UP Korea Research Center will be hosting an online forum on Squid Game on Friday, October 15, at 3:30 pm.) 

I’m tempted more by the idea of staging our version of the game here, with life’s “winners” instead of losers as players, for a change. The reward will be—let’s see, what might the rich and powerful still want that they don’t already have? More money? Too easy; they have enough stashed away in the British Virgin Islands (legally, mind you—they did nothing wrong) to last three lifetimes. More happiness? Which means what—more likes on Instagram, more cover shots in the glossies, Ivy League placements for the kids, one mistress more, a new Lamborghini Huracan, another Patek Philippe, a new calling card saying “Senator of the Republic,” or something even loftier? Eternal life? Some families already have that—35 years after EDSA, you-know-who are still around.

How about this: the prize will be absolution for one’s sins, which technically will qualify one for entry into heaven, no matter what terrible things one may have done in life—stolen billions, murdered thousands, lied 90 percent of the time, cursed God and half the saints, you supply the rest. 

It could be voluntary, of course, because most of the players we’d like to nominate will never admit to sinning nor to needing forgiveness; they have willfully accepted damnation, and their choice must be respected. But I think it will be more fun if, in the 2022 elections, we took a special poll to vote for 456 politicians, public officials, generals, bigtime drug lords, profiteers, car-loving pharmaceutical executives, troll masters, and other crooks to constitute the players. 

How thrilling it would then be to put on a black mask, look over the track-suited multitude, appreciate the anxiety in their puzzled faces, and announce: “Green light!… Red light!” Boom. Boom. Boom. Sorry, Beng, hindi sila kawawa, and I could watch this all day.

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. 418: Hello, Goodbye

Penman for Monday, July 5, 2021

YESTERDAY, JULY 4, marked the 55th anniversary of the controversial visit of the Beatles to the Philippines in July 1966. 

I was 12, in transition between grade school at La Salle Green Hills and the Philippine Science High School, when the Beatles came to Manila. I can still remember that day, the 4th of July, quite clearly. We were living in Pasig, and my mom and I took a bus to Quiapo, from where we were going to take a jeepney to go to the Rizal Coliseum. She was going to take me to see the Beatles, perhaps as a treat for having made it to the PSHS, a school for smart kids. I certainly felt smart. I knew all the Beatle songs by heart. We didn’t have a record player, but I listened to them on the radio, and sometimes on our neighbor’s TV, when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. We didn’t have tickets, but I was sure we could buy them at the gate. 

We got off at Quiapo, in front of a new theater that had just opened: the Cinerama, which boasted something called “Sensurround,” guaranteed to make you feel an earthquake in your seat. The theater’s inaugural offering was a war movie titled “The Battle of the Bulge.” My mom stopped on the sidewalk, looking up at the marquee. “Let’s watch this instead,” she said. And so we did, and so I missed seeing the Beatles; you could say that I almost saw them standing there.

I was in grief, although to be fair to my mom, the movie was fun, full of tanks and military mayhem.

Not long after came the news that the Beatles were being chased out of the airport by an angry mob, and the story I got was that they had failed to show up at Malacañang for what would have been a command performance. I could imagine Bongbong—three years younger and a few grades behind me at La Salle—standing forlorn on an empty stage, waiting for the stars that never came. I felt torn between sympathy for him and my allegiance to the Fab Four. I thought that the rude send-off was too much, but I also couldn’t understand why the Beatles couldn’t have swung by the Palace and sang a song or two. How hard was that? 

Today, more than 50 years later, I think I can understand that ambivalence. In 1966, Ferdinand Marcos was very much the good guy—heck, he was the guest of honor at our graduation in La Salle! (Incidentally, the sons of his presidential opponents—Diosdado Macapagal and Raul Manglapus—were also in the same school.) He had just assumed the presidency, and still exuded the charisma of a winner. While a private impresario had brought the Beatles over, they were—in some fuzzy official sense—guests of the Republic, hosted by no less than the President of the Philippines. They were ambassadors of goodwill, of the Republic of Liverpool or wherever they came from, and it would have been a normal courtesy to pay a visit to Malacañang for some polite chit-chat and indulge their hosts with a song or two. 

John could have leaned over to ask the young Bongbong, “What’s your favorite song of ours?” while Imelda looked on with a glowing smile, and Bongbong could have shyly answered, after some prodding, “She loves you ye-ye-ye….” Whereupon John would have winked at Paul, who would have protested “But John, we didn’t bring any instruments with us,” leading Papa Ferdinand to pull a curtain aside to show a full array of Gibson and Rickenbacker guitars and Ludwig drums. And that would have led to one, two songs, the obligatory encore, with Imelda and Ferdie launching into an impromptu dance, and cheers and laughter all around, culminating in a Rajah Sikatuna award or some such for the quartet.

But of course none of that happened. The Palace invitation went unanswered, the catered leche flan cooled and curdled, and the tapping of Ferdie’s and Imelda’s fingers on their hardwood armrests telegraphed disbelief, then irritation, then anger. A dejected Bongbong might then have muttered, “I like the Rolling Stones more, anyway….” Ferdie would have whispered a few words to an aide; Imelda would have stood up, and with a wave of a hand ordered all the dish covers and warmers shut—“Serve it to the dogs!”—and retired in a huff to a drawing room. Meanwhile the Palace aide would have gone down to the Beatles fans gathered at the gates below, and ordered them to go home: “They’re not coming. They snubbed the President!… Who do they think they are?”

“More popular than Jesus,” of course, John had said in an interview with a London newspaper just four months earlier, commenting on the general decline of faith in modern life more than anything else, but now was a perfect time to lift that out of context and expose the Beatles as heathen ingrates. Southern Baptists burned their records and the Ku Klux Klan picketed their US concerts. Some Pinoys chased them to their plane—as many others wept, just to make that clear; to them, the Beatles were certainly more popular than Marcos.

Penman No. 416: Tips for Freelancers

Penman for Monday, June 21, 2021

A GROUP of freelancers—people who write for a living but who prefer not to be tethered to any single employer—recently asked me to share some advice on how to get the most out of their job. Even in normal times, freelance writing has never been easy. You are basically on your own, dependent on your network of contacts and on your resourcefulness to get that next assignment and get that story published. While the Internet may have opened up new opportunities, it has also intensified competition and imposed new demands. 

Having been a professional writer and editor for almost 50 years, I was happy to give them these tips:

1. Broaden your interests. If your main interest is arts and culture, learn something about science and technology. Know your history, and gain even a basic understanding of economics. Don’t be choosy. As long as the job pays fairly and will not harm you in any way, do it because it will be another learning experience and will add more value to your résumé. 

2. Expand your capabilities. Learn the basics of good photography and invest in a good camera (even a good smartphone), as it will add value to your articles and make them easier to sell. Learn to write bilingually, especially as many clients will need scripts or articles in Filipino. Expand your genres, so you can write not only features but scripts, speeches, reports, and other marketable materials. Master the language, so you can also do editing work. Learn the basics of web design. 

3. Know the market. Writing single articles can be fun, but I doubt that they will make you enough to support yourself and your family. The physical magazines have shrunk to almost nothing, and while there may be money to be made online doing nearly mechanical work, you will want something more engaging and more remunerative. In my experience, a freelance writer can make the most from writing commissioned books. 

4. Learn to market yourself. This means you have to put yourself and your name out there, meeting people from all backgrounds. You may have to attend art exhibit openings, book launches, anniversaries, and other functions to make contacts and get to know what’s going on. Get on the mailing and invitation lists of embassies. Make friends with key media people. You may even have to do a few “freebies”—free publicity—just to get known. Maintain a blog that will display both your writing and your photography—indeed, your style—so potential clients can have an idea of how you write and how you will treat their material. Write a book—that will be the best way to get yourself noticed as a writer. Ask yourself: if someone were to Google my name, what will they find? Provide a positive answer to that. 

5. Be thoroughly professional. Be mindful of appointments, contracts, deadlines, accreditation, receipts, and taxes. Treat every job, no matter how small, as your first, last, and only job. Attend meetings promptly, dress smartly, speak knowledgeably—all of these contribute to the impression your client will make of you. Digitally record all interviews, after asking prior permission; never rely on handwritten notes. Back up your files to the Cloud and to an external drive. If the job is big enough, ask for a written contract, or at least a signed conformé to your proposal. 

6. Treat your work as a business. You will get more—and also more substantial—writing jobs if you are able to issue official receipts. This means getting properly registered as a business enterprise with the SEC, the BIR, and other agencies. To get government contracts, you need to be accredited with PhilGEPS, or the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System. These accreditation processes can be tedious and expensive; you will also have to file taxes every year and do your own bookkeeping. But if you want to write for a living for the rest of your life, it’s an investment that will pay for itself in the long run. 

7. The writing life can be full of delightful freebies. I’m not telling you to reject them outright—Lord knows your professional fees are small enough, so these can be taken as compensation in kind—but don’t lie, and don’t be a party to fraud or misrepresentation. If you can’t write honestly about a product or a service, don’t take any favors coming your way. Like they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch—but make sure your lunch isn’t poisoned and will kill you later.

8. Maintain your integrity. As I said, don’t be too choosy and too proud, especially if you’re starting out and trying to build a name. But don’t undersell yourself, either, and try not to get exploited. I say “try,” because in practice, at some point or other, someone will exploit you, whether you’re aware of it or not. Learn to say “No” if and when you have to. Compromise is good and even often necessary, but draw a line in the sand beyond which you will not go. Money is important, but it is not everything. Other and better projects will come. Unless you are desperate, do not take on jobs that will not make you happy; at least, make them pay well for your unhappiness. 

Penman No. 415: Stay Curious!

Penman for Monday, June 7, 2021

OVER THE past month, I was asked to speak to two groups—one an assembly of teachers, and the other of students—to share my ideas about college education, and specifically the kind of liberal, interdisciplinary education being offered at the University of the Philippines and other progressive universities.

Rather than talk about curricula and theories of education—never my strong suit—I opted to look back on my 36 years of teaching and on my own experience as a student to figure out what I truly learned from that crucial period in every young person’s life, beyond the books we read. Some of these realizations came long after college—which was all right, since one of the things that college should teach us is that education is a lifelong process that goes beyond degrees earned and seminars attended.

So I came up with a 12-point wish list of what I as a teacher want my students learn—whether in my classes or outside of them, at school and in life. 

I phrased these 12 statements as simply as possible, without too many elaborations, because I didn’t want to sound like a research paper. Rather, I wanted my listeners to think of these statements as provocations, things to keep at the back of their minds, and for the students to remember four or five years hence when they graduate from college. Here goes:

1. You don’t have to understand everything right away. In any case, you can’t. Some things in life will forever remain mysteries—some of them wonderful, some of them perplexing. Staying curious is what matters to the lifelong learner. Boredom is often just the absence of curiosity.

2. Engagement helps—and by engagement, I mean investing yourself, putting in your time, effort, and maybe even money behind some belief or idea or activity that means something to you. Sometimes engagement is the best way of knowing, learning, and finally understanding. 

3. Not everything has to have practical value—at least not yet, or maybe ever. Value can mean more than utility or money. Delight and discovery are their own rewards.

4. You are not the center of the universe. Not everything has to do with you. However, every connection you can make to the world around you leaves a mark that you were here—and that, in your own way, you mattered.

5. Learn to see time in years and centuries, not seconds or hours. If you want to foretell the future, look back to the past. We may seem to be headed for the future, but in fact we will all inevitably be part of the past. How will you want to be remembered?

6. Intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and wisdom are very different things. Knowledge without values is worthless and even dangerous. The middling student who has a sense of good and bad and right and wrong is worthier than the summa cum laude who doesn’t.

7. The first thought that comes to your mind may not be the best one. Pause and think before you speak or write, especially in these days of Facebook and Twitter. Speech but also silence can require courage and good judgment.

8. Learn to love something larger than yourself, your family, and your prized possessions. “Nation,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” are very attractive ideas, but you have to learn to bring these big words down to earth, in concrete forms, actions, and decisions. Can you accept that you are your housekeeper’s equal as a human being? 

9. Be prepared to take risks and to make mistakes—and even to fail. You can learn more from failure than from over-performance. Everybody—even the very best of us—will fail sometime, and it will be good to believe that we are all entitled to at least one big mistake in our lives.

10. Be prepared to change your mind. As you grow and learn, some things will become more simple, and others more complex. You are not a fixed entity; you are changing all the time, and you can change faster than the world around you. 

11. Technology can be deceptive. It can lead us to believe that the world is changing very fast and for the better. That may be true for some of us and for the way we live. But for many others left behind, the world is no better than it was a hundred years ago.

12. Competition is good, but cooperation or even compromise is often better—and necessary. Poems are written by solitary genius, but bridges, cathedrals, and nations are built by many minds and hands. The best way to deal with loneliness is to find meaning in the many—to learn from and to contribute to the experience of others.

With that, I wished the students the best on their next adventures in college, and just as Steve Jobs told us to “Stay hungry, stay foolish!”, I urged them to stay curious, so they will always enjoy learning, inside or outside of school.

Penman No. 413: My YouTube Playlist

Penman for Monday, May 10, 2021

WITH A lockdown stretching well into its second year, I came to the crushing conclusion some time ago that I had practically exhausted everything I wanted to watch on Netflix, at least until Season 5 of “The Crown” and Season 3 of “New Amsterdam” show up. I’ve even signed up with other streaming services like Curiosity Stream (a great trove of fascinating documentaries, for a small fee) and Tubi (free, but basically B-movies with stars you never heard of). But even there, as with Netflix, I’m close to hitting “Watch it again.”

That’s when I rediscovered YouTube, which had been there all along—it was founded in 2005—but which I’d always looked upon as a depository for mostly juvenile and silly or funny videos. Five years ago, I uploaded a video I took of the aftermath of the Faculty Center fire in UP, but most often, I’ve gone to YouTube with our apu-apuhan Buboy to find his favorite Mr. Bean or Spiderman cartoons. (A digital native, this tyke can’t even read yet, but knows his way around buttons and icons; “Tatay, press X!” he’d tell me.)

It’s estimated that 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube per minute. Its stock of 800 million videos gets 1 billion views per day. That’s an awful lot of things to watch, and we’d have died of old age before we finished exploring even 1 percent of this platform. 

My fascination with YouTube began when I discovered that Beng and I could watch hours and hours of Broadway musicals and old movies on it. I guess that’s what old folks like us think of as “entertainment,” especially in these dreadful times—a singalong marathon that ends with an uplifting tune like “Somewhere” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Think of it as 1950s TikTok, only 360 times longer.) I also realized that YouTube’s a good place to exorcise your worst fears—such as when I had to have my gall bladder taken out; watching the whole procedure first on YouTube calmed me down. 

But certainly there have to be more pleasant subjects than a cholecystectomy to enjoy on your big TV. Over the past few months of YouTubing, I’ve settled on a few favorites—my YouTube playlist, shall we say—that fill up my bedtime hours while I’m working on my laptop, until I actually shut my eyes around midnight. In no particular order, they are:

1. Crime and punishment. It’s a horrible truth, but few things are more absorbing than why people go bad—very bad. Real-crime and forensics shows indulge our curiosity about evil and its discovery—which, let’s admit, can be strangely satisfying. (A Pinoy version of “Unsolved Mysteries” can go on forever.)

2. Mudlarking. Beng and I have had this longstanding fantasy of foraging for coins, bottles, and Churchill’s pen on the banks of the Thames, but a plethora of mudlarking channels will do for now. (We’d probably die of sepsis if we did that on the Pasig.)

3. Car restoration. This includes barn finds, car auctions, junkyards, and the perennial question: “Will it run again after 50 years in the mud?” I’m convinced that in some old bodega on some southern island, a dusty Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost or Bugatti Atalante lies waiting—if it hasn’t been converted to a jeep yet.

4. Antiquing. I could spend another year in lockdown just watching “Antiques Roadshow” and “Salvage Hunters,” guessing at the prices of lamps, vases, oil cans, and trinkets. So far, I haven’t spotted any “Weapons of Moroland” or oversize spoons and forks.

5. Art forgeries. Repeat these names after me: John Myatt, Tom Keating, Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, and Walter Beltracchi. You may never have heard of them before, but you won’t forget them once you see what they were able to do, which is what we all secretly dream of: fool the experts. 

6. Military excavations. Must be the boy in me that can’t help gawking at helmets, medals, machine guns, ammunition belts, and yes, human skulls and bones coming out of the mud in some corner of Latvia or Poland. War is terrible—and mesmerizing.

7. Royalty. Q: We all know they’re flawed human beings and probably an unhappier lot than us—so why do we keep following the travails of the royals? A: Because we want to be sure they’re flawed human beings and probably an unhappier lot than us.

8. Gemstones. Seeing all those fist-sized opals and emeralds makes me want to rush out to our backyard with a shovel, but all we ever get there is dog and chicken poo. 

9. Old Manila. You can feast on many videos showing Manila at its prewar prime and in the postwar ‘50s—with clean, wide streets, graceful architecture, and well-dressed, well-behaved people—and weep.

10. Abandoned houses. They call it “urban archeology,” presumably a semi-legal form of housebreaking, as long as you don’t take anything but pictures. Beng and I are always astounded by what people leave behind—knowing that if our akyat-bahay experts went through the place, they’d leave it clean as a whistle.

Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.

Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

Penman No. 404: Delightful Duos

Penman for Monday, January 4, 2021

I CONSIDER myself an interloper if not an informal settler in the world of art, having dabbled in printmaking, married a painter and art conservator, and collected midcentury landscapes. Back when we could travel freely, my wife Beng and I made a beeline for the art museums of whichever cities we were visiting, as eager to enjoy our old favorites (Matisse, Turner, Calder) as to discover new ones (Yayoi Kusama, Judy Chicago). 

Artistic preferences are of course entirely subjective; even within one’s range, and price tags aside, the art you admire may not necessarily be the art you want to hang on your wall and look at every morning. There’s art that you know is important (or at least that’s what the critics tell you) and which you might even be able to understand and write essays about, but which you also know will give you an enormous headache. 

I’ve often remarked in this column about how so much of contemporary art (yes, Philippine art, to which we might as well add Philippine literature) seems unrelievedly dark and depressing—no huge surprise, given our dystopic times. But surely art can do more than mirror or illustrate what we already, profusely, know: life is hard, and often painful and cruel.

That’s why I had to do a double-take when I came upon a painter online whom I’d never heard of (no offense meant) whose works, one after the other, exuded joy, delight, and wonder, and not in a fake-fiesta sort of way. Not since Beng and I encountered the teenage and already brilliant Jason Moss did I feel so genuinely intrigued by the figures that leapt out of this painter’s canvases. The artist’s name was Bayani Acala, and I was curious enough to write him and his wife Karen to ask, basically, how a painter could seem so happy and even serene in such unsettling times.

His paintings almost invariably depict couples in courtship—delightful duos who, if they are not in love, might shortly be. His favorite motifs include music, food, and dance, all things best done with someone else, but nothing too overtly sexual. His faces and bodies are unabashedly Filipino, romantic but unromanticized. Benignly curvy Volkswagen Beetles and Kombis dot his landscapes. When I look at a painting of his, Bayani Acala provokes in me that rarest of responses from a museum-hopper: not a sigh of awe or a pang of sorrow, but a big, wide smile.

Born in 1975 to a family of schoolteachers in Paete, Laguna, Bay grew up immersed in that town’s strong sculptural traditions. Graduating from UST in 1996 as an advertising major, he took a series of jobs as a graphic artist before freelancing. In the meanwhile, he was racking up awards and citations from Shell and Metrobank; the 2000s saw him joining a series of exhibitions, including shows in Singapore, Chicago, and China, and winning more prizes—most recently for sculpture and woodcarving, returning to his Paete roots.

“I grew up watching wood workers,” Bayani says, “not knowing the difference between woodcraft and sculpture. The workers in the shop didn’t allow us to play with chisels, so we played with mud and sawdust and molded them into saints.” Like any well-schooled artist, he admires Chagall, Botero, Munch, Lautrec, Kahlo, and Manansala, but he calls Amang Ibyok Pasawa, a Paete papier-mache folk artist, his hero, and counts the sculptor Angelo Baldemor and painter Gig de Pio among his mentors. (The reference to the Colombian painter Fernando Botero is especially useful; his voluptuous and colorful figures invited charges of triviality, which the artist countered by maintaining that “Art should be an oasis, a place of refuge from the hardness of life.”)

Happiness, Bay says, is essential to his passion; there’s already too much sadness around and he prefers to look past it. His artmaking makes him happy, and so he puts some of that back into his work. He describes himself as a simple man who enjoys biking, playing music, telling stories, and spending time with Karen and their daughter Ava. That may sound too plain and boring to those who expect if not demand agony of the true artist, but I assure you that many tortured artists will find that normalcy a blessing.

(While we’re at this, it’s interesting to note that academic studies have established that—believe it or not—artists tend to be happier than most other people. While the anguished examples of Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath may stick in the mind, research at the University of Zurich and Vanderbilt University suggests that creatives report higher job satisfaction than other professionals, although they also tend to suffer in terms of unstable employment.)

In Bayani Acala’s case, surely that happiness is owed in significant measure to his wife Karen, a computer programmer who has also taken up painting and with whom Bay has had two exhibitions. She’s the most avid promoter of Bay’s work online, which was how I came across his work in the first place. That makes them Delightful Duo No. 1.