Penman No. 393: Room Without a Window

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Penman for Monday, August 2, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Penman No. 391: Trouble in Literary Wolf-land

 

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Penman for July 6, 2020

 

IT’S NOT every day that an old guy like me learns something almost totally new about what’s happening in my literary backyard, but your attention tends to wander over a long lockdown, and one day my eyes latched onto a headline from The New York Times, which announced that “A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question.” I had to do a double-take and ask (as you probably would) “Wolf-kink what???”

I sat transfixed as I read the story, which turned out to be about a legal battle over copyright issues in what my young Creative Writing students call “fan fiction” or “fanfic,” which is a genre of literature basically devoted to, well, making new stories out of old ones. Wikipedia defines it as “a type of fictional text written by fans of any work of fiction where the author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their writing.”

So you could begin with, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and write your own version of the play (or turn it into fiction), where Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?” because he’s a gay man dying to come out. Now, I seriously just made that up, but on a hunch, I Googled “Hamlet fanfic gay,” and guess what—there’s a story on Wattpad titled “I Gave You My Heart” where you can “follow the romance between Hamlet and his ‘friend’ Horatio.” Its portentous beginning goes thus: “Hamlet looked over at Horatio, shaking his head slightly. ‘Not here, not now,’ he thought, hoping Horatio understood. Horatio nodded slightly. He understood. They headed back to the castle. Hamlet held Horatio’s hand and led him down the hall toward his bedroom.”

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Nope, certainly not Will Shakespeare speaking there (all the poor guy could say was “To thine own self be true”), but you get the idea. Fanfic is a literary free-for-all.

Or maybe not so free. The “wolf-kink” brouhaha was about two fanfic authors—Addison Cain and Zoey Ellis—who both wrote novels about wolves having sex—or, to put it more dramatically, “In both books, Alpha men are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage. In both books, the women try and fail to suppress their pheromones and give in to the urge to mate.” Ellis was allegedly copying Cain, and the catfight was on, suit vs. countersuit, over pride and apparently quite a bit of money. Above the legal issues hovered the larger question of where does “originality” stop and begin? As the Times reported, “It’s hard to imagine that two writers could independently create such bizarrely specific fantasy scenarios. As it turns out, neither of them did. Both writers built their plots with common elements from a booming, fan-generated body of literature called the Omegaverse.”

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The “Omegaverse”? More research for another time. But the story got me thinking about how authors have indeed taken off from other people’s work to create something newish—and the “ish” there is important, because the “new” work depends precisely on the reader’s presumed familiarity with its model to make sense. But that connection is really a bonus, because the new work also has to be able to stand on its own if it’s to be any good, and, at the highest level, to be able to present new insights and to raise new questions about the original. This way, you achieve a kind of conversation across the centuries between authors and between their readers.

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One of the most popular of these “adaptations,” as some fanfic might actually be, is the Broadway musical West Side Story, with was based on Romeo and Juliet, with New York street gangs taking the place of Shakespeare’s feuding families.

I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but looking back, I was surprised to see how much of my own work was a kind of fan fiction. Remember James Joyce’s classic story “Araby,” which lent a memorable poignancy to the word “crush”? It’s become a masterplot which others have followed, among them NVM Gonzalez in his story “Bread of Salt.” In the early 1990s, I wrote my own version titled “Ybarra,” an “Araby” in reverse where the boy is now an old man.

Three of my plays were fanfic: “Mac Malicsi, TNT” was about a fleet-footed Pinoy in the US, taking off from Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” which in turn was an adaptation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” “Ang Butihing Babae ng Timog,” about bargirls and their patrons, was inspired by another Brecht play, “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” And “Kalapating Dagat,” in which Simoun returns to Manila on a ship from Hong Kong and meets a lady of the night named Augusta, relies heavily on the audience’s association of Simoun with Rizal’s protagonist in the Fili.

They may not be as exciting as Alpha and Omega wolves in heat coupling under a harvest moon, but at least no one’s sued me yet. I doubt that Brecht and Rizal or their estates would have bothered—at least until I make my first millions, which I’m still waiting for.

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman for Monday, May 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 49: Penmanship

In solidarity with fellow artists sharing their work to entertain others over the lockdown, I’m happy to present this copy of “Penmanship,” a short story I wrote in 1994 at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I was on a fellowship to write a book. As some readers know, there’s a story behind that story having to do with my serendipitous acquisition of a “grail” pen, a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy that figures centrally in the story.

Here’s the back story, from a column I wrote in 2009:

In 1994, on a writing fellowship in Scotland, I visited the Thistle Pen Shop in downtown Edinburgh, whose address I had found in the phone book. (Every time I travel to a new city, I look over the yellow-page listings for pen shops, resale shops, and antique stores.) On a lark, I asked the lady behind the counter, “Would you happen to have a 1930s Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red?” That pen, at that time, was my “Holy Grail” pen, something I had been fantasizing about since seeing its picture in a catalog. The lady beamed at me and said, “As a matter of fact, we do!” And then she whipped the pen out from under the counter, much to my great surprise, disbelief, and grief—grief, because I was sure I couldn’t possibly afford it, unless I went deep in debt via my credit card. And that, of course, was what happened. I carried that pen home with as much care and wonderment as I would have accorded a newborn baby, but I was almost immediately stricken with buyer’s remorse. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “how could I have spent a whole month’s salary—the rent, the groceries, the bills, etc.—on a single pen?” To soothe my throbbing conscience, I resolved to write a story about—guess what—a fountain pen. That was the story “Penmanship,” which later won a prize that made up for my precious Parker’s purchase price.

So here we go, and pleasant reading.

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THERE WAS nothing better on the earth that could write, he had often thought, than his Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, a brown-striped, gold-nibbed model made in 1938. It wasn’t him but the pen, gliding across the foolscap, filling in the vastness of the page with words that may not have meant all that much but which looked beautiful because of the personality and the infinite variety of their shape. 

            He was in love with his pen and his penmanship, and he exercised that love in letters to old friends and schoolmates, casual acquaintances, even anonymous business addressees—such as his memorial-plan company, when he missed a premium payment—surprising them with an old-fashioned grace that had long lost out to the perfunctory mechanism of typewriters and computer printouts. The typesetters had swirling fonts that looked elegant enough to most people in need of script for wedding invitations and that sort of rare emergency, but it still seemed too regular, too measured, for him who valued the spontaneity of wet ink insinuating itself into the barely visible fibers of the paper, like so much blood into so many veins. It was the only art he knew—he spent his days as a senior clerk at a government institute for blind and handicapped people, housed in a decrepit mansion along Harrison Street in Pasay—and now, close to retirement and facing not much more than an awesome blankness of years, he applied himself to it with a vigor that his recessive frame belied.

            “Dear So-and-So,” he would begin, “I was browsing through my books today, thinking to toss out some mangy paperbacks to free up space on the shelves, when I came across the copy of Salinger’s Nine Storieswhich you borrowed about eight years ago. What caught my attention was the receipt that you’d stuck in it, a restaurant bill (at the Selecta), for the dinner that we must have had when you returned the book—two soft drinks, a salad (for you), a chicken sandwich (for me), three cups of coffee (yours and mine) and a slice of cheesecake (yours), all for the glorious bargain of P69.50. And it all came back to me, how depressed you felt then about losing J. after all those years, and how someone like Salinger perked you up in the strangest ways. You’ll remember that he writes about depressed people all the time, but he manages to save some of them, usually with the entry of a child into the picture….”

            And he would go on and on for a few pages, not caring too much if So-and-So wished to be reminded of the darknesses of his or her distant past. The pen pushed him on to one word and another, creating a sudden and inescapable intimacy less between himself and So-and-So but between him and the paper, and he mailed these letters off almost as an afterthought, and at that with a twinge of sorrow, because he would never see them again.

            He was no calligrapher—his script was somewhat crabbed, and his terminal g’s and y’s had a tendency to spill over onto the next word—and he thought nothing of crossing out an offending word or line and writing on the margins. That was part of the whole game: to explore, to retreat and retrace one’s steps, to leap here and tiptoe there, to fall into a pit and crawl out grinning. The finished page was a record of his ventures, mishaps and all; perhaps he wanted them to see how he had triumphed in the end, to his very-truly-yourses.

HE MIGHT have become a writer, but never did. In his twenties, when things were better and his physician-father had given up on turning his son into another scribbler of prescriptions, he had come out of college with an English degree, thinking to teach and to write novels in his spare time. He taught for a while in a downtown university, preaching the timeless virtues of Joyce’s “Araby” to brown pug-nosed faces intent on becoming engineers and chemists, and resigned—or, some said, was kicked out—when he fell in love with an older, married co-teacher, who did not return his blathering affections and had complained to their superiors. Besides, he felt ill at ease with masses of people, who scratched their toes and dreamed aloud of Sundays while he tried to impress upon them the nuances of Joyce’s play with light and shadow. He found another job as a librarian for another college, staying there for years and revelling in the solitude of his corner desk in a quiet hall, until the school went bankrupt and closed down, disposing of all its books to the second-hand dealer, and of its employees to their various fortunes. He had begun a few stories at his desk, perhaps a novel even, but the towering proximity of the greats on the shelves humbled him—a modest man, otherwise—into incompletion, and he took to writing letters to newspaper editors in long, handwritten essays, paragraphs from which would get printed now and then in severely truncated form. His prose, he knew, was too quaint and longwinded for the papers, but it pleased him to flex his hand and to leave a record, somewhere, of his thoughts in passing, of his passing.

            “Dear Sir,” he would say—in a frame of mind that would admit no women to editorships—”Anent your editorial of June the 21st, it strikes me that the Guadalupe area might be better served by a bridge spanning the Pasig at a point helpful not only to the traffic overhead, but to river transport itself, the possibilities of which, I feel, have sorely been neglected since Rizal’s time….” Several paragraphs later, he would sign his name with a flourish, blow lightly over the hardening ink, wipe the Parker’s nib clean with a tissue, and screw the cap back on slowly, as if he were slipping a ring onto a woman’s finger, so as not to crush the thread.

            He took the utmost care of this pen. It was unusual in its design, even for fountain pens of its time, without a lever or a bladder; it was filled by unscrewing a nearly invisible cap in the rear of the barrel, and unlocking a pump that, with a diaphragm, drew a week’s worth of ink into the translucent cavity of the barrel itself. He had taken it in for servicing only twice in more than thirty years—there was still a shop on the Escolta that did repairs on such old pens, now run by a Chinese woman who inherited the place from her father. He sometimes wondered what would happen if that shop were to close down, as well; everyone was using ballpoints and rollerballs, and the shop’s business now consisted mainly in such garish conveniences. Or perhaps he would die first, and take his Parker with him, tucked into his breastpocket, unless the funeral-parlor attendant stripped its nib and clip off for their gold. It was one of his most distressing nightmares—not to die, but for the pen to be so savaged after him.

            The pen had been a gift from his father upon his graduation from high school—an heirloom, practically, as it had been used both by his father and his grandfather, who had been an accountant for a shipping firm in Binondo. His grandfather’s name was still imprinted faintly on the barrel, a three-part, Spanish-sounding name. That, and a magazine advertisement for a stationer’s company that he chanced upon in the stacks of the college library, told him exactly how old it was: 1934, a few years before he was born, when the large and airy house on Donato Street must have been spanking white, and his mother would have been swishing about in a terno, minding the lilies in the vases. All that was gone, but for the pen—his parents, the family wealth, the breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder. The house had long been torn down to make way for a grocery, and when he passed it by in a jeepney, the last time, he could barely recognize the lot, but for the ancient fire hydrant on the corner. 

            He had a few friends from college, mostly members of large, comfortable families and getting on in years themselves, with whom he kept up a lopsidedly unilateral correspondence. There was one phone in the office, but few would call, and he didn’t appreciate that as much as the occasional postcard from Paris, or Crete, or Jogjakarta, when they remembered him at all. So-and-So had been a woman who had lost her husband to a 19-year-old singer; she had been a bright young thing in college and he might have gone for her himself, but for his shyness. He had given her books of poetry, with lavish dedications, but she had not taken—or had refused—the hint. When he fell for that co-teacher, all caution, for once, flew out the window.

            “My sweet, my lovely Alice,” he would write, with all the ardor of his mid-twenties, “The mere sight of you in the cafeteria this morning warmed my cooling coffee, and I wished that I had been younger and been one of your students, not that Avogadro’s number interests me so much as your own child-bearing figure….”

            Now, in his fifties, he could not tell how and why he had been so brash. All the daring left in him went to his letters and his penmanship. He thought himself bold for suggesting that bridge, or a new way of determining the fitness of people for the civil service, or a theory—which he mailed to the police but which was never acknowledged nor acted upon—about who murdered the young wife, then six months pregnant, of a Bacolod sugar planter. In his thirties, he had sought and paid for the services of a few women—just after his father died and he came into some money—but they meant nothing to him; no challenge nor poetry nor romance there, just cash and urgent venery. Now he was content with occasionally relieving himself, or with nature and nighttime attending to him in bed. He was, in fact, losing his potency, not that it mattered to anyone else. He lived in a room in a boardinghouse on Dos Castillas Street in Sampaloc, two jeepney rides away. The other boarders—all of them men and mostly maritime engineering students—saw him to be a reclusive and mild-spoken bachelor uncle who preferred to wear Chinese-cotton boxer shorts, which he laundered himself and hung out to dry in the space behind the kitchen.

AND THEN, as it so happened, and against his better judgement, the penman fell in love again.

            She was one of the blind people his institute had taken to employing to offer public proof of its sincerity in assisting the disabled. Her name was Nora, and she was thin and pale-looking, and she had been blinded in an accident in her early twenties so that she retained a clear and powerful idea of what colors and figures were like; she had finished high school as a normal, sighted person, and would have gone on to a degree in law or economics, but for that accident. She had taught herself quickly to read Braille, to lose no time in adjusting to her physical circumstances, and now went through daily life without too much trouble. But she armed herself with the forwardness of those unjustly burdened to reclaim and to prove their worth.

            She was assigned to his charge, and when they first met they did not like each other all that much. He thought her an intrusive nuisance, and she thought him an overbearing fool. Her job was to help him organize the office files—very few things were computerized, and the only computer sat idly in the Director’s office—and his job was to train her, somehow, in knowing where everything was by sheer position and feel. The trouble, of course, was that he observed his own idiosyncratic filing system; that was part of his mastery of the place.

            “I know where everything is,” he told her from behind his desk. “Perhaps we can find something more useful for you to do.”

            “But you won’t be here forever,” Nora said, staring in the direction of his voice. “Someone else will need to know the system.”

            He adjusted some papers on his desk to avoid her eyes. “They’ll be giving you my job, are they?”

            “Oh, no—sir,” she answered quickly. “I can’t do that—obviously.” She looked away. An uneasy silence passed between them, during which he noticed that her hair was thick and shiny, and she noticed that his breathing was somewhat labored, although she could smell no trace of tobacco in the room. She heard a scraping of wood and knew that he was rising from his chair.

            “Well, then, let’s get to it. We have three filing cabinets in this room—here, here, to your left—and the files are arranged by subject rather than years. All invoices in the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, then personnel records—now we’ll need to put tabs in Braille on every file—I wonder what the use of all of this is,” he thought aloud, and immediately felt sorry when he saw her biting her lip. He never meant to be unkind, but his social graces had withered from disuse. “Would you like some coffee?” He kept an old thermos bottle of hot water and a jar of instant coffee behind his desk. 

            She seemed startled by his offer. “No, I—”

            “It’s nearly coffee break, anyway,” he said. “You can leave and come back in fifteen minutes, or you can have some coffee with me.” She heard the bottle being unscrewed and smelled the fragrance of steaming cork, but she remained in her chair. All by herself she would have spent those fifteen minutes sitting in another chair she knew in the lobby, listening to the traffic, to the rush of people and the streetside commerce; the afternoon tabloids would be out, but no one really shouted out the headlines anymore. She heard him making two cups of coffee with identical clinks of the teaspoon. “One teaspoon of sugar?”

            “Two. Thank you.”

            He paused briefly and she knew he was looking at her, surely wondering what misfortune had delivered her to this place, this room, this moment of utter pointlessness. There was a small scar on her right cheek, away from him, where they had made a suture that had healed badly, and her hand went up to it absently.

            “I’m sorry about your—your accident,” he said, depositing a cup beside her on the desk. She felt a whiff of vapor up her sleeve.

            “So am I,” she said, realizing with a great annoyance that he had been glancing at her own file, the papers that came with her and bared her unprotected to this absolute stranger. She went on the offensive and said, before sipping her coffee, “Please tell me something about yourself.”

            He seemed taken aback. “There’s—there’s not much to say. I’ve been working here for—oh, nine years now, and before that I worked in a library. I suppose I like quiet places, and—and quiet people, are you a quiet person, Miss—”

            “Nora. Have you ever gone abroad?”

            “No, why do you ask?”

            “I did, once, when I was young, my parents took me to Hong Kong. That’s all I remember, now.” It wasn’t true; she remembered many other things, but Victoria Peak and a large dark bird darting across the landscape burned in her memory.

            “You’re very lucky, then,” he said, and felt silly again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll do some work.” He reached for the pen in his pocket.

            “But breaktime’s just begun.” She could hear idle chatter from elsewhere in the building. Someone had opened a window somewhere and the dank heat lifting off the bay, from far off, trailed into her senses.

            “It isn’t really work, I just need to finish a letter.”

            “To whom?”

            “To no one interesting,” he said, to shut her up. He was suddenly glad that she was sightless, and could not know that he had begun a letter to the editor of The Manila Standard, outlining his views on a new plan to contain corruption in the armed forces. He drew the sheet out from his drawer, on which two paragraphs had been written; he needed a strong and witty closure. “… If those we pay to secure our welfare instead secure their own—” That was a neat septameter.

            She heard faint, scratchy motions; she was expecting him to peck away at a typewriter.

            “What are you writing with?”

            “A pen. I—”

            “It doesn’t sound like a ballpoint, it—it doesn’t skip—”

            “It’s not, it’s an old fountain pen—you know, it squirts ink when you press—” He sighed, putting the cap back on halfway, to keep the ink wet on the nib; she was going to be impossible.

            “I’ve never used one,” she said.

            “No, you wouldn’t have. They don’t use them anymore. This one’s older than I am.” Why did he say that, he thought.

            “How old are you—sir?”

            “Fifty-two. And you’re—ah, twenty-eight.” The file again. “You’re nearly half my age. I’ve lived twice as long.”

            “Was it a good life?”

            “It isn’t over, yet.”

            She could feel, almost see, him turn his back to her and scratch away at another table, a smaller one, most likely, where a typewriter might have been, which meant that he had lifted and put the typewriter down on the floor. That explained the soft clatter of metal bones.

            “I can type—perfectly. You’d be amazed. That’s why they sent me here.”

            Over his shoulder, he saw the glint in her eyes. He saw the mended scar. Suddenly he didn’t want to know too much more about her, and gently closed her file.

            “Thank you,” she said.

            “For what?”

            “You shut my folder. I felt the air stir, like a fan.”

            He crossed out a line furiously and put the pen down, uncapped. “It’s nearly three-fifteen,” he said. “It’s time to work.”

THE NEXT few days and weeks, she indeed amazed him with her uncomplaining industry and her prodigious memory. Under his direction, she put title tabs on all the files, and sorted them out by year within the drawers, and could produce a folder that he needed within two minutes. Twice or thrice, he’d tested her just to satisfy himself, and he had learned to rustle the papers afterwards, so as not to be found out. She no longer needled him for details of his private life, nor vexed him with strange, unbidden questions. During the coffee breaks, she sat out in the lobby, and he discovered that now and then she smoked, puffing deeply on Marlboros she kept in a skirt pocket. She wore large, dark-colored, formal-looking skirts and the same cut of blouse in white or beige or some dry pastel shade, and the kind of stubby shoes that nuns and nurses wore to their graves, and he began to wonder where or with whom she lived. There was a Paranaque address in her file, and he knew she took a jeepney in the afternoon, putting on a pair of shades; it was the only time she used a slender aluminum walking stick. He had to cross the street himself to get a ride going the other way, and he made sure not to linger on her side of the street too long, not wanting to upset her. But, having said his gruff goodbyes and crossed, he made sure that she was on a jeepney and safely seated, first, before flagging down his own. In the office, they spoke in low, almost formal tones, and it took a while for him to ask her to stay again for coffee.

            “You’ll be writing letters,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

            “Not today,” he said, quickly and very quietly returning the Parker to his pocket.

            “All right, then—two sugars—”

            “I remember.”

            He made the coffee while she sat in the same chair across his desk. He wondered if she wanted to smoke.

            “You can smoke, if you wish, there’s a saucer you can use for an ashtray—”

            “No, I don’t think I will, thank you. I don’t really want to, it gives me a headache—”

            “Then why do you?” He had bought a special blend, an imported instant, and hoped that she would like it.

            She laughed, smoothing out a crease on her skirt. “It fills up the time.” She felt for the handle on the cup and brought it to her lips. “You’ve been watching me in the lobby.”

            “I—I was getting water for the heater.” He kept a heating coil in a drawer; it was against regulations, but no one bothered him. “What do you think of, when you’re sitting down there?”

            “Nothing interesting,” she said, remembering. “You’ve changed your coffee—”

            “Yes, do you like it?”

            “Will you write me a letter?”

            “What—”

            “I mean, write a letter for me? With your pen. When you’re not too busy.”

            A drop of coffee had fallen on the sheet he would have written on, had she not stayed, and he put his cup down to blot it with a matted handkerchief.

            “Yes, of course, but—why? You’re a marvelous typist, you type better than me—”

            “I need something personal. I want something personal, like it’s been written by a real person. That’s what your letters look like, don’t they?”

            “I suppose so.” He sat in his chair and looked at the coffee stain, a pale yellow-hearted carnation with irregular brown edges.

            “Is your penmanship like a woman’s, would you say?”

            He thought he should feel offended, but did not. “It’s hard to tell. We were trained in school—it was a subject—we all wrote pretty much the same way.” He wanted to take her fingers and wrap them around his pen, to show her: this is how I write my T’s and B’s and G’s.

            “I’d do it myself but I’m clumsy with pens—”

            “I understand. Do you want me to write it now?” His fingers were poised on the Parker.

            She finished her coffee in a deep gulp that caused her to grimace. “There won’t be time. When you’re free, would you come with me to my place? It’s not too far—”

            “Yes, yes, of course, I’m free this afternoon.” He remonstrated with himself over the haste with which he answered, but it was true: there was only the room on Dos Castillas with its punched-out capiz shell windows and the laundry to do.

            “Thank you, you’re very kind,” she said. I haven’t had a chance to be, he thought, not for so long.

THEY ALIGHTED from the jeepney along a street not too far from where the international airport sprawled; a departing jetplane preened its wings in the sky. He had sat beside her during the ride, and she had not said very much beyond giving the driver instructions on where to let them off. When his forearm brushed hers, she trembled and he shrank away, as if embarrassed, as if it were the last thing in the world he would have wanted to happen. She sensed his discomfort and she nearly called the whole thing off, thinking of some dumb apology to make for having taken his time, but it was too late.

            She measured out the sidewalk, tapping her stick against familiar guideposts, and they stopped in front of a modest four-door, two-storey apartment with an iron gate and a large crack running up the mossy wall that separated it from a vacant lot on the other side, overgrown with grass. Greenish water slid through the crack. 

            “Watch your step,” she said. She knew that he wore leather soles; her own shoes had deep rubber grooves. She slid the key into the last door; another, older woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slitting eggplants. This woman seemed surprised to see him, and greeted him formally, which he returned.

            “Munying,” Nora said to the woman, in a tone he had never heard her use, “bring out some softdrinks, please, and leave us alone.”

            “Yes, manang,” Munying said in a schoolgirl’s voice, and did as she was told. Munying served them two bottles of Coke from a refrigerator on which the enamel had begun to crackle like an eggshell, and went out the door.

            He sat on a broad-armed wooden sofa with large floral patterns carved into the backrest. The apartment’s drab pink walls were bare, but for a painting of a nubile provincial woman bathing in a stream, her shoulders glistening forever. Nora had hung her walking stick onto a nail behind the door, and she lit up a Marlboro from her pack with certain, numbered moves, and when, unthinking, he slid the marble ashtray closer to her on the coffeetable, she said “No, please don’t,” and he understood. She had everything within reach, where she remembered them to be.

            “This is all that’s left,” she said, exhaling. “But I live simply—and there’s the job.”

            “What was there before?” he asked.

            “Property. A life.”

            “It isn’t everything,” he said weakly, remembering his own parents and the big house with the adelfa blooming by the gate. You and I, Nora, he was thinking, we have much more in common than you can imagine.

            For a moment she considered a scathing retort, but held back, knowing he was trying to be kind. She forced herself into a happy recollection of Hong Kong in mid-February, bright and chilly, the milk-glass whiteness of lychees, the seamless blue of sky and ocean. “We used to own this whole apartment building, and that lot next door. They’ll be building an office complex on it, soon. Munying said the architects were there, the other day. I just sold it last month, after all these years.”

            “Then you’re better off than I am. You have savings. You can put them in a time deposit, or in the stock market.” He felt slightly put off by her revelation, as though she had seen him all along to be a scrawny little man, as though she had been spending someone else’s time while hoarding her own.

            “That letter—”

            “Yes?” He would be glad to be done with it quickly, and leave.

            “Promise you won’t ask me any questions.”

            It hardly seemed fair, but yes, he promised.

            “There’s some paper on top of the refrigerator. Munying uses it to write her people in Ozamis.”

            Why didn’t you ask her, he thought, taking the blue-ruled pad of yellow paper. He settled back into his seat, positioning the pad on the armrest, and uncapping his pen. He gave it two taps in the air to let the ink out. He felt like a secretary taking dictation on her lunch break.

            “Are you comfortable?” she asked.

            No, he thought, but let’s have it.

            She took another drag and the smoke swirled around her face like a windblown scarf. She thought of a man, this other man, receiving and reading her letter in the hard, unpolluted light of another country, another season. Would he read it in the open meadow, or in his room, on the table with the gooseneck lamp—Munying had described the picture, many years ago, the very last one he had sent—and would he smile and keep it in his pocket, like a charm against evil and temptation, against forgetfulness and the plangent sorrows of separation?

            “Nora—”

            “Yes. ‘My dearest Mark,’“ she began to dictate, and shut her eyes.

            “‘Mark’?” he asked, involuntarily, and he knew there would be no answer.

            “‘—’You’ll be surprised to hear from me again, after all this time, and to see me writing—yes, with my own eyes and fingers’—” She paused, flinching at what she had brought herself to say, then smiling with the overspilling confidence of the damned. “—’With my own eyes and fingers, although they’ve changed, if you remember anything at all. I’ve changed’—please underline the ‘I’—in the most remarkable ways, since—since my operation in—in Hong Kong…. Oh, yes, I’ve been back there, many times, with Terry and Susan and some friends you never met….”

            “Is that ‘Terry’ with a ‘y’?” he asked, although he had already written it down, to give her more time, to suppress his own rampant disbelief.

            “—’It’s strange how things work out, and they do, they do…. You were afraid to know what would happen, weren’t you, but so was I. I’m sorry about all those letters then, things were so fresh, so confused, I could barely get myself to type your name…. My darkest fear—a bad pun, isn’t that?’—”

            “Are you asking me, or—or Mark?”

            “Please,” she said, and he wrote the phrase down. “—‘Was that of facing a wall or a fence I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t jump over them, you know, not knowing what was on the other side….’” She gave him time to catch up with her. She could hear the furious scratching of the nib, the dashes, the full stops and the commas. “‘I took this jump and here I am, whole and alive and well again, though a little short of breath…. Last summer I joined the girls on a weekend trip to Boracay. I’m sorry I can send no pictures, I gained some pounds where you don’t want them. I can’t show you everything just yet, can I?… A German tourist—an anesthesiologist, he said—flirted with us, but I remembered you. I’m thinking of taking a trip out to Germany, sometime—not to visit this tourist, silly—or somewhere in Europe, just to see the castles and cathedrals, the changing colors of the leaves, maybe Spain, maybe England—should I cross over the Atlantic and see you? Is it pretty in New Jersey? Maybe not just yet, don’t you think?… They say you’re a paralegal now, I suppose that means you’ll be a lawyer very soon like you’d always wanted to be…. That’s good, let nothing’—” She paused to crush the stub of her cigarette on the ashtray, and then lit up another one immediately. “—’Let nothing get in the way of what you want. That’s how I think, I wouldn’t have survived, otherwise. I want you to be happy. I, want, you’—’“

            His pen hovered above the paper like a dragonfly. He could not bear to look at her. She was shrouded in smoke, she willed the smoke to happen, to be there between them.

            “I want you to have a good life, and to think well of me. Always, with love, Nora.”

            He was about to cap his pen when she raised a finger, and he wrote again.

            “Just a short PS, please. ‘I’ve sent something to your account. I hope the number hasn’t changed. The market’s been doing very well, no need to be embarrassed, you’ll need it more than I do. I think I know how paralegals live in New Jersey. I can imagine’—Would you cross out that last line, please?”

            “‘I can imagine’?”

            “Yes.”

            He drew a line across the phrase but it was easy to read through. It seemed a fair compromise between saying and not saying. “Is that all?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you—would you like me to write out the address on an envelope?” He had seen no envelopes where the paper was.

            “No, thank you. I’ll… I’ll type out the address, he’ll be surprised when he opens it.”

            “We forgot the date.”

            “It doesn’t matter…. Do you think he’ll believe it was me?”

            He caught a blob of ink on the tip of the nib with his thumb. Old pens did that, when they were nearly empty, or when you took them up in airplanes, not having been designed to fly. “That depends on how much he remembers.”

            She thought that over and said, “I know he’ll think it was mine.”

            With everything to ask but nothing more to say, he put the Parker Vacumatic back in his pocket, and took his leave. Munying was at the gate, munching on a banana she had gotten from somewhere.

THAT NIGHT he could hardly sleep, wracked by a welling clamor in his chest. It was as if he was growing another pair of arms and hands within—all of them, all of him, wanting to hold her, then to shake her, then to clutch her tightly when she shook. Nora, Nora, he thought, what are you doing to yourself, what are you doing to me?

            He wondered what he would say to her when she came in for work in the morning. She would act, he was sure, as if nothing at all had happened. He would offer coffee, and she would decline, preferring the vacant lobby to his piercing gaze. He might play dumb, and wait until she imploded from the burden of her lie, but he could not. He despaired in knowing that she was stronger than he was.

            He sat up, against the wall, at the head of a tube-iron bed with flaking paint that might have come from a hospital. His shorts and the sheets were soaked in yellow by the 40-watt bulblight. His kneecaps shone like brass knobs, and his skin as well had begun to shine like a carapace. There was nothing much for her to see, and the sheer absurdity of what he was thinking made him want to chuckle, but his throat was too parched for even that. When a trio of boarders marched in past midnight from their post-exam carousing, joshing each other in the hallway about a go-go dancer who came this close to being scarred for life by their fingernails, he banged a fist against the wall, and they simmered down instantly.

            He rose from his bed and sat at the little table, by his books, with people like Eliot and Aeschylus and Fitzgerald at his elbow. Yet he would not have them now; they could not have been more dead. What lived in this night was a filthy hurt.

            He saw his pen beside his wallet on the table and angrily filled it with ink. He would write her a letter she would never read in his own hand, but no matter; he would, one morning, punch it out in Braille, or shout it to her face, or give up his own eyes for her to see what she had caused. He felt overcome with precious feelings.

            The Parker Vacumatic glinted in the room light, poised to strike. It was ringed with bands of gold, and promised a wealth of words. The merest pressure on its nib could deepen an emotion.

            The pen felt heavy, never felt heavier in his hand, but he could not even tell if he should call her “dear.”

(You can find “Penmanship” and 40 other stories of mine in Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, published by Anvil Publishing in 2019, and available from Anvil online and at National Book Store.)

PenmanNo. 385: Energems of Wisdom

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Penman for Monday, April 13, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

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

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

“Can we watch what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.