Penman No. 438: The Girl from Guinbirayan

Penman for Sunday, May 8, 2022

THIS MOTHER’S Day is historic enough for happening on the eve of what’s certain to be the most important election we will be holding in generations. For my mother Emy, she won’t only be trooping to the polling station, with her three-footed cane in hand and her caregiver Jaja at her elbow; she’ll be celebrating her 94thbirthday as well, by casting her vote for the president she will be following on the news for the last six years of her first century. 

She’s hard of hearing and her eyesight is failing, and she might forget where she last left her glasses, but don’t make the mistake of calling her “senile” or some such word suggesting a softness in the brain. She’s up to date on the news, and will even call our attention to what this tinpot politician said and what happened yesterday in Ukraine; her opinions can be sharp and scathing, especially when it comes to Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots, and immodest fashions.

But everything else about her is grandmotherly in the usual way we know—white-haired, with streaks of the original black, freckled with age spots, slow-footed, and happy to be with little children. Her four-year-old great-granddaughter Ollie’s visits are the highlights of her weeks. Even our five-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, our housekeeper’s son and my sidekick, feels relaxed enough with her to play with the soft folds of skin under her arm, with neither of them noticing. Our daughter Demi’s Facetime calls from California are sure to make her Chinese eyes disappear in a crinkled smile. Demi, the first grandchild and the one who grew up with her, has inherited her UP class ring.

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This was the mother who raised the five of us on her meager salary, with my father’s earnest but inconstant contributions. Born bright but poor, he never finished college. The daughter of a merchant with some landholdings, she did—at the University of the Philippines at that, far away from the coconuts and carabaos of Guinbirayan in Romblon, the only one in their brood of twelve to do so. The youngest girl, she grew up her father’s favorite, accompanying him on his trips to the big city (he had a sailboat that capsized in a storm). She could ride a horse, and thought nothing of venturing into Kalatong, the enchanted mountain near her village, where fair-haired people were said to have been seen in chariots, where the rocks glittered, and where the unsuspecting vanished. Even without the fairies, she had a magical childhood, waiting in the afternoons at the water’s edge for the fishing boats to come in with their catch, teeming and leaping in silver arcs, or peering at the fat snakes sleeping on top of the tall rice bins. 

(Kalatong, left)

One day, she recalls, she was walking in Manila when she saw a sign saying that the UP High School was accepting students; so she walked in, applied, and was accepted, graduating the year before UP moved to Diliman, where she studied to be a teacher. But her college graduation would be delayed, because in the meanwhile, she had met and married my father Joe—the smartest guy in town, tall and deep-voiced. I think they met at the pier, waiting for other loved ones (Joe had a girlfriend then, whom I would meet much later, a pretty woman with sad eyes). 

One of my earliest pictures is that of me as a two-year-old, tugging unhappily at a stalk of grass outside the school where my mother was teaching. I must have been wondering why I had to share her attention with other children. Soon there would be other children right at home—my siblings Jess, Rowie, Elaine, and Joey, all born two years apart in Manila, to where we had moved. For a while, life was good; I went to a private boys’ school and learned English. My mother played “UP Beloved” and its flipside “Push On, UP” endlessly, to make sure I would go there and get a UP diploma myself (it took me 14 years, but it worked). 

And then my father lost his job, and the long hard years came. We must have moved around Manila a dozen times in three decades, with the household items on the moving truck getting older and fewer. Emy took a minimum-wage job as a postal clerk, and later as an employee at the Manila CFI and the Sandiganbayan. Plaintiffs and defendants would leave envelopes on her table, which she invariably returned, despite our constant need. When I dropped out of college to become an activist, it must have pained her deeply, but she and Joe supported me, even when I went to martial-law prison. When I married Beng, we shared what was basically a lean-to in Tandang Sora with my parents, my siblings, and a pig in the bathroom—and later, Demi, whom Beng was horrified to discover one morning, beset by a swarm of bedbugs. We were still hard up but happy. Joe had to work in Romblon, writing speeches for the governor; Beng and I found jobs, and one Christmas we gifted Emy with a new set of cheap plastic dinner plates to replace the ones that had warped or been scarred by cigarette burns, and I think she wept for joy, as did we.

Things got a bit better, and we moved to San Mateo, in two small but adjacent subdivision houses. And then my father—whom I had hero-worshipped despite his troubles—died from smoking, and for a while it seemed Emy would follow suit, coughing up blood from late-stage tuberculosis. Miraculously, thanks to care and medication, she survived, and soon discovered that she liked to travel—to America, where my sister Elaine lived, and where Emy even got a green card, to Europe, around Asia, and wherever her feet could take her. She was aging well.

One day I was surprised to find a thin book of poetry from the 1950s titled Diliman Echoes, a compilation of poems written by students—one of which was by “Emilia A. Yap,” a poem on “My Nipa Hut.” My mother was a poet, and I didn’t even know. I felt incredibly proud, but she just smiled at my discovery.

Today she occupies herself playing word games and puzzles on her iPad and iPhone, watching K-dramas on Netflix, following the news and hearing Mass on TV, and walking around the yard in the morning sun. Over meals, she tells us stories about the Guinbirayan of her youth; I had her write her memoirs in a notebook, so others can hear those stories.

When I think I’ve lost something and start yapping about where it could be, she’ll tell me, in that way only mothers know, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.” Even at 68, I will always be her boy, her first-born, her “Toto.” In a plastic bag, she’s left her instructions for the inevitable: no tubes down her throat, her funeral policy, what she’ll be wearing, and so on. She returned her green card after her last flight home. “I want to die here,” she tells us. I want to imagine that when that happens, she will dissolve into a cloud of gold dust, and join the fairies of Kalatong.

Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

Penman for Saturday, April 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 436: A New Blooming at Milflores

Penman for Sunday, March 6, 2022

CHAIRMAN MAO’S dictum about letting “a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend” must have been on the mind of former activist, writer, retired UN official, and later gentleman-farmer and entrepreneur Antonio “Tony” Hidalgo when he founded Milflores Publishing in 1999 to publish books that would “meet the needs and wants of the Filipino masses.” His wife, the celebrated author Cristina Pantoja “Jing” Hidalgo, could not have been more pleased. Aside from building a lovely heritage home in San Miguel, Bulacan with a cock farm for Tony behind it, the Hidalgos were eager to do their part for Philippine literature beyond teaching and writing. 

Milflores would go on to publish 80 titles on such varied subjects as suburban living, cockfighting, and 20th-century masculinity, on top of the usual fiction. It was beginning to make a mark as a small but quality press—and then Tony sadly and suddenly died in 2011, leaving a devastated Jing to carry on with distributing their titles. Busy with her own professional life, Jing soldiered on as far as she could, until 2020 when a white knight entered the picture in the form of Andrea Pasion-Flores, who had been her student (and mine) at UP many years earlier. 

Since graduation, Drea—a fine fictionist in her own right—moved on to become a lawyer, then executive director of the National Book Development Board, then our first international literary agent, and until 2020 general manager of Anvil Publishing. Post-Amvil, Drea was looking for fresh challenges and opportunities, and she found it in Milflores. Her husband Javi, also a lawyer, put her up to it: “Javi and I thought about starting a new publishing company, which might’ve been cheaper. But Javi gave me the idea of buying Milflores. First, because of the name—it fits with ours. Second, it already had some goodwill that would be a shame if it were forgotten. Third, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Jing if she had any plans for it. In a heartbeat, she said yes.”

Since that takeover, Milflores has already come out with an impressive list of titles that herald a new blooming for both the company and Philippine literary publishing as a whole. Against all the odds thrown her way by the pandemic, the tenacious Drea managed to secure publishing rights from top-drawer Filipino authors such as Charlson Ong, whose wild and wacky novel White Lady, Black Christ became Milflores’ flagship offering in May 2021. As Charlson’s agent, Drea had already sold an earlier novel of his to a Malaysian publisher, so this was a natural follow-through.

This was followed by a new edition of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga. Drea had also sold NJ to Penguin Classics. “I wanted this book more than anything because, as Ambeth Ocampo said, the book went out of print the moment it was published because the government gave it out as a souvenir during the centennial of Rizal’s death in 1996, and was never reprinted.” Drea pulled out all the stops, and went for a hardcover edition. “If I was to deserve this book, there would be no cutting corners. I had to make people realize the value of this book. It had to be an object to be desired. And, as Ambeth told me, we both made sure it came out well because we both felt NJ deserved no less. When I die and go to book heaven, I want to hear Nick and Rizal tell me, I did well by them, haha!”

Simeon “Jun” Dumdum’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes on as It Does, a small collection of poetry, was another risk worth taking. “Knowing I wouldn’t be raking in millions with this book, why did I want it? Because anyone who reads his poetry will be uplifted. It’s a book to treasure, really. Jun Dumdum was so game with whatever we did with it, even if we said we’d like the book to be neon pink and green. He was onboard! I like those kind of writers.”

Writer and noted bookseller Padma Perez brought Milflores its biggest book yet, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, co-published with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Most books with a political agenda tend to be preachy and off-putting, but Harvest Moon is unique in its concept and execution. Twenty-four writers from around the world were given evocative photographs as prompts, with the further stipulation that they were to avoid buzz words and phrases such as “sustainability” and “climate change.” The result is visually and textually moving, investing the project with deep personal insight. This book is being sold at a deep discount, thanks to a subsidy from ICSC.

Drea Pasion-Flores has followed these up with other provocative projects, including many more in the pipeline. Robby Kwan Laurel’s Ongpin Stories is a timely reprint; former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s biography by Eric Ramos is a gripping narrative of a man who rose from doing other people’s laundry and selling in the market to become a general and senator, and one of the heroes of EDSA 1; David Guerrero’s The Crap Ideas Book is an inspirational book on creativity; the bedridden Nick Carbo’s new book of poems, Epithalamion, is, says Drea, his “shot at immortality.”

Milflores also has something lined up for younger readers: Kat Martin’s debut novel At Home with Crazy is the story of a 14-year-old girl dealing with the stress of living with a mother with a mental illness. Internist-oncologist William Liangco’s Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Essays is a hilarious romp through the travails of med school in a charity hospital. Drea will also publish two graphic nonfiction books by the feminist Swedish graphic illustrator Liv Stromquist and a cookbook by artist and cancer-fighter Robert Alejandro.

“I have big dreams for Milflores,” says Drea. “I want to try to bring a Philippine company out there, not just here. I’m guessing it’s not going to be the next Coca-Cola Company. It’s going to take time and lots of good books, but I have no doubt I can get there—or somewhere close to it.” (More information at milflorespublishing.com)

Penman No. 435: A Dying Swan at Midnight

Penman for Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU’VE BEEN reading about some of my book-buying adventures and the most unlikely places I’ve found some of my most valuable books—like a 1551 book of English essays under a lamppost in Cubao, a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart at Jollibee on Commonwealth Avenue, and an 1868 two-volume facsimile of Don Quixote at a McDonald’s on that same road.

Now here’s an incredible story that happened to me one night a couple of weeks ago—very late that night, just as I was about to go to bed. Beng had just finished another episode of another interminable K-drama, and I was too sleepy to switch to my own program (typically some violent crime show, which gives me a good night’s sleep). And then as I always do, I checked my messages on my laptop before moving from the La-Z-Boy to the bed, and I saw something that instantly woke me up again.

Let’s backtrack a few days earlier to another idle moment when I was poking around the usual FB sites for garage-sale and Japan-surplus flotsam and jetsam—the “antique” Coke trays (probably China-made), the Ambassador furniture sets, the bobblehead figurines, the wooden fruit bowls, etc. And then I came across a rack of paintings being sold for just P1,000 each—most of them quite awful and not even worth the price, even to a bottom-feeder like me.

But then I spotted a painting that had rather intriguing lines and colors, one that was clearly different in theme and treatment from the nipa huts and carabaos that populated the other canvases. 

In the foreground was a young woman in a white dress—a dancer immediately came to my mind—set against what first seemed to me a backdrop of the sea, a huge curling wave threatening to envelop her. But there was another element, aside from the strange shape of the “water”, that didn’t make sense: an orange something near the woman’s face.

And then it all snapped into place: the background figure was a swan with one wing outstretched and the other practically smothering the woman, and the orange thing was its beak. What sprang to my mind was Leda and the Swan, the old Greek myth that has been one of art and literature’s most reinterpreted and most referenced stories (where Zeus, in the guise of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda, and has two children by her). 

This could not have been done by a naif painter; it took some education and sophistication to take on a subject like that, and to represent it with both grace and power. This painting could not have been a recent work; its strokes and colors belonged to another age. It felt old, in a good way. I thought that it had to be decades old, possibly even pre-war.

I immediately messaged the seller to reserve the painting for me. For P1,000, it was a no-brainer. Usually the seller would respond within minutes, and we would do the GCash and Lalamove song-and-dance within the hour. But the day passed with no response. I messaged him again that night, and next morning I still heard nothing back. Another day passed; I had saved the picture of the painting on my phone and returned to it now and then, stewing inside, increasingly annoyed by the seller’s silence.

And then I got the message: did I want it? Of course, I messaged back quickly. It will cost you P1,000, he said. Sure, I said, give me your GCash number. I hope you can book it for pickup now, he said, because I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning—unless you want to get it in the afternoon. No, no, I said—I’ll book it right now. It was 11:30 pm, and Beng was sound asleep. 

And so it happened that just past midnight, a Lalamove rider roared up to my gate to deliver the painting, which I examined immediately. It had been very badly framed, with ragged edges of the painted canvas hanging over the back. Since the edges had been pulled over, I could find no signature. Still it was every bit as powerful as I had thought it to be, the colors laid on in a thick impasto. 

So the mystery was, who painted it, and when? I posted it on FB the next morning, and immediately the writers and artists in my group identified it with Leda and the Swan. I felt vindicated. And then my Toronto-based friend, the poet Patty Rivera (whose husband Joe also paints), posted a link to a story from South Africa, where a painting by a Russian-born artist named Vladimir Tretchikoff was up for auction. It was titled “The Dying Swan,” from the ballet by Mikhail Fokine; Tretchikoff had even persuaded the great ballerina Alicia Markova to pose for him in 1949, when he began the work (one of two he gave that title).

So my midnight acquisition was a copy done by a local painter in the 1950s, possibly by an amateur or even a student. Was I disappointed? How could I be, especially for the price I paid? Tretchikoff’s original was clearly much finer and more radiant; but my rougher copy, in Patty’s words, showed more “torment and despair.” When Beng restores this and we have it reframed, it will have its own life and energy, and the swan will die, over and over again, which means it never will.

Penman No. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

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

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

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

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

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

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

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

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

Penman No. 430: Rizal’s Typewriter

Penman for Monday, December 20, 2021

NOW THAT I have your attention, let me backtrack quickly and clarify that title: I’m talking about a typewriter that Jose Rizal or the Katipunan could have used, had they been tech-savvy enough and infected with 19th-century FOMO.

Early this month, a box I had been eagerly awaiting arrived from England, where I had found the machine on—where else?—eBay, selling for a reasonable price (“reasonable,” that is, to oddball collectors like me). Inside the box was a wooden case, visibly old, with a latch on each side. I undid both latches and the case opened to reveal what I expected to see: “an antique Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter with spare typewheel in original oak case,” according to the ad I saw. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t the machine itself—it was the fragrance of oak, still embedded in the wood after more than a century.

Why did I even want the Blick, as the typewriter invented by the American George Canfield Blickensderfer came to be known? By the time the first Blick was patented in 1891, the typewriter had been on the market for about 17 years (many prototypes preceded the Sholes and Glidden, but were never mass-produced, except for the sci-fi-worthy Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1870). But most were big and bulky, and—surprise—wrote on the other side of the typist, who couldn’t see what he or she was typing. 

The Blick No. 5 was the first typewriter that could truly be called a portable, with a keyboard and a front-facing platen or paper roller, much like its modern counterpart. Think of it as the MacBook Air of its time. It looked like an insect with a big head and spindly legs, and even more strikingly, it employed what its inventor called the “scientific” DHIATENSOR keyboard—those bottom-row letters supposedly figuring in 85 percent of the words in English. QWERTY had already established itself as the standard layout early on, and later Blicks would use it, but I preferred the quirkiness of DHIATENSOR.

The Blick No. 5 was given its public debut at the 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a monumental event meant to showcase such novelties as a moving walkway, AC electricity, and the Ferris wheel. The small, lightweight typewriter became a hit, helped along by the fact that it sold at a third of the 100 dollars that most other typewriters cost at the time.

So I wanted one in my collection for historical purposes; prior to this, my earliest machine was a larger and grander-looking Hammond 12 from around 1905. That Hammond got to me, also in its original wooden case and all the way from Ohio, luckily in one piece. 

That’s the trouble with collecting any machine with scores of tiny parts a hundred years old—iron corrodes, rubber shrinks, wood warps, paint fades; screws come off, joints get fused solid, whole sections vanish, and often all you have left is a rusty lump of metal better tossed into the garbage. 

Most Blicks and other old typewriters you can find on eBay will manifest at least a few of these problems. Missing parts—obscure and ancient—can be hard to find; thankfully a global network of typewriter enthusiasts exists to offer help and advice online. Reviving a machine with frozen typebars is another major chore; but again expert repairmen still remain to come to the rescue. (Among them is our own Quiapo-based Gerald Cha, whom I’ve written about, through whose hands all my machines pass for the requisite CLA—cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment.) Shipping is yet another potentially harrowing complication—fragile, valuable, and irreplaceable machines can be turned into scrap with one drop of a poorly padded box.

It was a miracle that the Blickensderfer turned up at my doorstep whole, complete, and needing just a bit of lubrication. When Gerald typed out its first few letters in script, it was as though a mute singer had found her voice after a century.

But one more ritual had to be performed: dating the machine to the year it was manufactured (mine was an English model, made in America but sold out of Newcastle-on-Tyne). For this, typewriter collectors have an online resource to fall back on: typewriterdatabase.com, which has been painstakingly crowdsourcing and cataloguing the serial numbers of hundreds of brands of typewriters. I first had to locate the number on my Blick; it was there on the upper right of the bottom of the frame—68403. A quick check yielded the year it was made: 1896. More than liking the Blick, I now stood in awe of it.

I’d like to fantasize that some of these machines made their way to Manila and figured, somehow or other, in the Revolution, although I do have to admit that the standard image of Rizal poised to write “Mi Ultimo Adios” with a quill pen in hand is much more appealing than him pecking away at a keyboard. 

(Image from joserizal.com)

I asked Ambeth Ocampo about it, and he said that while he hadn’t come across any connection between Rizal and a typewriter, our hero surely would have encountered it in his many travels abroad. Rio Almario seems to recall having seen a copy of the Katipunan’s Kartilya in typescript, but we can’t be certain when that was made. With the Americans came the Remingtons—and it’s no small coincidence that the same company made the firearms that subdued us and the typewriters we began writing in English on. I can only stare at my Blickensderfer No. 5 and wonder what stories sailed across its paper horizon.

Penman No. 429: Becoming Miss Demeanor

Penman for Monday, December 6, 2021

(Photo from Pageanthology 101)

IF YOU’RE still wondering what to give your teenager or 20-something this Christmas (older folks can count as kids), I can recommend a highly unique book that came into my mailbox recently from a former student, titled A Creativity Mix Book by Hilom Pagasa. 

We’re often told—and it’s true—that Filipinos are a highly creative people, full of ideas and passions waiting to be expressed in some artful way. But even the most creative persons sometimes need help to turn that spark into a flame—something wondrous and illuminating, without burning down the house. This book can be immensely helpful in making that happen, even for people who may not think of themselves as being creative. There’s an artist and a poet in you, and this book will help you find it.

Written for these challenging times, it’s full of exercises, artworks, essays, poems, and other materials meant to make our Covid-benighted world bright and exciting again. The author describes herself as “just a housewife who wants to heal,” having battled bipolar disorder, but the book is about you, not her. Check it out on Lazada and other places online.

ALTHOUGH NOT much of a beauty pageant fan, I was dismayed to read about the recent experience of Ms. Gianna Llanes, a lovely young Filipina who flew to Mexico to represent the country at the coronation night of “Miss Glamour International 2021”—only to realize, along with five other candidates, that the whole thing was bogus, with no judges and no sponsors to be found for the big event. How anyone could dash the hopes of these ladies so summarily is beyond me, and I can only wish better luck for Gianna in her future endeavors, whether or not they involve chasing after a glittery tiara.

That sad episode also piqued my interest in “Miss Glamour International” and all these other new and relatively little known pageants that seem to have appeared all over the planet since I last took a long, hard look at Miss Universe in 1994. A quick check of Wikipedia turned up a lot more contests I’d barely or never heard of: Miss Global, Miss Globe International, Miss Grand International, Miss Heritage, Miss Model of the World, Miss Supertalent, Miss Supranational, and Miss Intercontinental, among others. As it turns out, the Philippines has figured prominently in many of these pageants, which should come as no surprise.

Back in the day, there were really only three big beauty contests to speak of—Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss World (or four, if you add Miss Philippines, which was something of a prerequisite to all of the foregoing). It was, of course, Miss Universe that first captivated the Pinoy in 1952, when Armi Kuusela won the title and was promptly captivated by a Pinoy. (An aside I can’t resist making is the fact that Miss Kuusela, or Mrs. Hilario—she’s since become Mrs. Williams—attended a lecture I gave on the Philippines at the University of California San Diego fifteen years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but I guess I was too starstruck to take a selfie.) 

I don’t need to reprise the long, illustrious list of Filipina beauties who’ve won titles at these pageants, major and minor, especially as I’m familiar with only the older ones, who enlivened my juvenile fantasies and who must be grandmothers by now. I guess what fascinates and also depresses me is how something that used to be a happy-go-lucky joyride—a pretty girl gets nudged or cajoled into joining a pageant, which strikes her as a ridiculous idea that the Mother Superior would surely object to, but she does it anyway just to see what it’s like—has been turned into a full-blown industry, with fashion designers and coaches for every quarter-turn. It’s no longer enough just to be fresh-faced and wide-eyed; you’ll need to be trained like a Marine recruit at boot camp so you can sashay in high heels beneath a canopy of feathers for which a whole ostrich farm died and answer questions about climate change and racial discrimination like a PhD candidate.

Online, there are even sites like missacademy.com that promise to turn you into Miss Demeanor, or whoever it is you dream of becoming: “We apologize for interrupting your stereotypical programming, but news flash… pageantry is getting a MAJOR makeover! Say goodbye to the trends of yesteryear and hello to MISS Academy–the future of pageants. Our training will get you primped, primed, polished and prepped in every aspect of competition. The skills you develop at MISS Academy are sure to give you an edge above the rest, in any arena of life, long after you retire the crown.” Not to be outdone, crowndiva.com offers private lessons in ten areas of training ranging from “wardrobe and accessories consultation and selection” to “pageant-specific makeup and hair lessons” for the price of $175 per hour. 

I have absolutely no doubt that our ladies have been prepared well enough by life in the Philippines to surmount any hurdles on their path to international (or universal) fame. I’m more worried by the possibility that, the way things are going, pageant organizers will soon run out of names for their ventures. Well, there’s still Miss Multinational, Miss Globalization, Miss Galaxy, Miss Cosmos, Miss Supernova, Miss Milky Way, Miss Constellation….

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.