Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

THIS TOPIC wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about if I hadn’t come across—in my meanderings online as a collector of antiquarian books and papers—a copy of a slim pamphlet published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1936, titled “Courtesy Appeals by the President’s Committee on Courtesy.” But as soon as I saw that title, I knew I had to get that pamphlet and reflect on the observance (most likely in the breach) of its prescriptions today.

To be honest, I never even heard of a “committee on courtesy” in UP. Neither, as a former student and professor, did I ever instinctively attach the word “courtesy” to UP, although I will not agree to any collective condemnation of “Iskos” and “Iskas” as boorish and uncultured. Granted, UP lore is rich with tales of what we’ll call youthful insolence toward their elders, in ways that would make even millennials cringe. (Who was that young poet who, in a writers’ workshop, supposedly stole a famous lady poet’s underwear—don’t ask me how—and strung it up a flagpole or hung it on a line, prompting her friend—another professor known for her fiery temper—to curse the laughing fellows: “I wish your mothers had aborted you!”) 

Meekness may not be one of a UP student’s strongest suits, because we teach them to assert themselves. But we also teach them to criticize or comment with style and intelligence, as when a young wit responded to a customary recitation of then President Carlos P. Romulo’s kilometric list of honorary degrees by saying, “Why, Mr. President, you have more degrees than a thermometer!” (In fairness to CPR, that fellow went on to an illustrious career accompanied by much—and some say self-generated—pomp and circumstance.)

Courtesy, of course, is not about sticking out but about staying in—behaving oneself for social acceptability and harmony, living up to someone else’s expectations by observing a strict code of do’s and don’ts. At least that’s how it was appreciated in the 1930s, when President Jorge Bocobo created the committee that came out with the prescriptions in the pamphlet. Although he served as one of UP’s most hardworking and effective presidents—someone who pushed UP students to go out and serve the masses—Bocobo was also known to be a rather prudish disciplinarian. He had been on the committee that censured Jose Garcia Villa for publishing his “obscene” and “ultramodernistic” poem “Song of Ripeness,” leading to Villa’s suspension and hastening his departure for more liberal America. He also cut down on the popular student dances that Rafael Palma allowed, and enforced the rule for student uniforms. When Guillermo Tolentino presented his design for the Oblation statue, Bocobo had one important comment: protect its modesty with a fig leaf, which was done. Not surprisingly, although again a bit too simply, he was called “the gloomy dean” by the editorialists of the time.

In 1936, when the pamphlet came out, Jorge Bocobo was almost midway through his presidency (1934-39). I learned that 8,000 copies were printed to be handed out to all students, and teachers were required to discuss its contents—all 20 pages of them—in class.

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

“A young lady of social position does not go to a ball without a chaperon.”

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, he does not extend his hand first. It is the lady’s place to show whether she wants to shake hands or not.”

“When a lady leaves a gentleman to whom she has been introduced, she never says she is ‘glad to have met him’ or that she ‘hopes to see him again.’’

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

“Annoying the ladies by staring at them or making remarks about them as they pass cannot be countenanced.”

“Avoid being a bore by talking too much. Be a sympathetic listener.”

Some would be difficult to enforce:

“It would be nicer if gentlemen should remove their hats on entering a building.”

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

“(Do not) thrust the individual knife into a butter dish or the individual fork into a pickle dish.”

“Bananas are peeled into a plate and taken with the fork.”

I was amused, as many of you would be, but these social commandments (yes, they were far more than “appeals,” and students and faculty were disciplined for disobeying them) invited me to wonder how we look at courtesy today or even think about it, let alone practice it. Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet and to a toxic political environment, rudeness if not obnoxiousness seem to have become the norm. It’s almost customary to assume that the other fellow is uninformed, hostile, stupid, or just plain wrong, and I have to confess to thinking this of many people I encounter for the first time, especially online. 

I’ve been on the receiving end of these assumptions as well. An expat American—a Trumper—once tried to convince me that I knew nothing about America, as did an expat Brit who lectured me about the monarchy like I’d never read a book (I could’ve lectured him back on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, but he could have been just a regular fellow who didn’t know anything about me, and why should he, so I desisted and let it slide).

Courtesy today clearly involves more than etiquette or protocol, more than observing antiquated codes of behavior requiring you to use this fork or that spoon. It’s more a matter of attitude toward other people, of assuming them worthy of respect and an intelligent and civil response (until they prove otherwise, as many inevitably do, especially in politics). 

Unfortunately we also too easily conflate courtesy with external manners, with opening doors for ladies (which I still do, although my wife Beng sometimes has to remind me there’s a door in front of us). On a higher order of behavior, aren’t profligacy and ostentation extreme forms of discourtesy to a people struggling to make ends meet? Do arrogance and impunity invite respect, or resentment and disdain?

What could a “Courtesy Appeals” for 2023 read like? “Do not waste the people’s hard-earned money” seems like a good place to start.

(Some factoids mentioned here come from an unpublished, unofficial history of UP. You can check them out against an official history published recently by the UP Press.)

Qwertyman No. 24: Barangay Magulang

Qwertyman for January 16, 2023

(“Smishing: the fraudulent practice of sending text messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers; a form of phishing.”)

MANG KANOR had a problem. He was a contractor for a scamming operation that involved using 50 burner phones to ferret out people’s personal details with, which he ran from the basement of his house in Bgy. Magulang. It was all going well, thanks to his wife Fely, who also happened to be the barangay kapitana, and who could guarantee the peace and quiet his business needed. No one really understood exactly what the boys and girls hired by Kanor were doing—and to be honest, neither did Kanor, who could barely text a message to Fely, let alone spell “phishing” or explain what it meant. But the barangay loved them, because they employed Mang Tining’s son and Tita Ruby’s daughter, and even Sgt. Choy’s handicapped nephew.

It was their teenage son Boogie who had everything figured out, who had introduced the scheme to his parents for them to finance. He had dropped out of the novitiate, realizing that his true calling lay elsewhere, in the world of Dota, Tiktok, and Instagram. When Mr. X offered him a smishing franchise after seeing how adept he was at computers, he jumped at the opportunity. He would harvest personal data and turn it over to Mr. X, who mined it for money.

But he needed capital, and only his mother—who had a steady revenue stream from jueteng—could provide that. She bankrolled him for the 50 phones, three computers, and the ten high-school graduates he needed to man them, plus their snacks of bottomless iced tea and banana cue. His father Kanor provided the muscle—building the cubicles, laying out the wiring, and fronting as the shop’s manager.

The money poured in—Mama Fely was immensely proud of her baby’s entrepreneurial bent—until Kanor ran in one way, panting and waving a newspaper in Fely’s face.. “Boogie! Fely! Have you heard? They’re now requiring all SIM cards to be registered! They want the names and addresses of all SIM card owners. No registration, no activation!”

“Whatever for?” cried Fely. 

“It says here that they want to weed out scammers—people who use prepaid phones to get into other users’ accounts and take their money—I think they mean us!”

“But we just get their information, someone else takes their money, it’s not fair! We’re not subversives, we have privacy rights—”

Boogie didn’t seem bothered. “I’ve been telling you, if we expanded, we could do both, end-to-end—get data and make money. Then we wouldn’t need Mr. X anymore.”

“Are you crazy?” shrieked Fely. “That’s asking for trouble! You’d need protection all the way to the top, which we can’t afford. We’re only good for this barangay.”

“That’s the problem with us, Ma! We think too small. If we go bigger, you could become the mayor!”

“Wait, let’s solve this SIM problem first!” said Kanor, who was easily rattled by things he couldn’t understand.

“Leave it to me, Pa. I’ll look into it. From what I’ve seen on TV, there isn’t a law in this country without a loophole! You can even get away with murder if what they call the ‘chain of evidence’ is broken!”

“Oh, you’re such a smart boy,” gushed Fely. “If you’d gone on to become a priest you could be the Pope! But I’m glad you didn’t because we need grandchildren to continue the proud family tradition—”

“Ma, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m gay!”

“Oh, you’ll get over it, don’t worry. I’m setting you up next week with Mareng Siony’s daughter Olive. She’s sweet and sexy.”

“Wait, what will we do with this SIM law?” Mang Kanor screamed.

A few days later, Boogie had an answer. “I tried the system, and it’s pretty simple. You go to your provider’s website, and they ask for your name, address, official ID, and photo. That’s it, your SIM is registered to you.”

“So they’ll know it’s us who are running this racket? That’s not a solution, that’s the end of our business! Son, you have to do something. I don’t want to have to go back to chopping up cars—this is my first decent job!”

“Don’t worry, Pa, I have it all figured out. We can get around the system.”

“Really? How?” asked Fely.

“What else? By registering.”

“You mean, we go honest?” Kanor couldn’t believe it.

“Of course not, Pa. If they want names, addresses, IDs, and photos, we’ll give it to them.”

“And risk being caught? I’m a respected and responsible public official, son, I can’t afford the scandal!” said Fely.

“They’d be chasing ghosts. Can’t you see, Ma, Pa? All we need to do is to fake everything! There’s nothing in the system that checks to see if what you’re saying is true. So we just fill in the blanks, and we’re done.”

Kanor tried to wrap his head around the plan. “Do you mean we cheat the system?”

Boogie laughed. “Is it cheating if we give it what it’s asking for?”

“But how and where do we get the names and the pictures and so on? What about the IDs?” asked Fely.

“Ma! We’ll make up the names of people. Who was that councilor who called you a crook? We’ll use his family’s names. And which barangay was it that dumped their garbage here? We’ll use addresses there.”

“Oooh, that sounds like fun! But what about the IDs and the selfies?”

“What’s the computer for? We can copy any school, office, or senior ID you want. As for pictures, we can scan yearbooks, wedding albums, Facebook profiles—we can even create a whole new person through artificial intelligence! We can do anything, Ma!”

Doubts persisted in Kanor’s mind. “Surely they’ll verify the entries? What if they find out?”

“Find out when, Pa? Let me ask you—you and Ma applied for your National IDs, right?”

“Yes. Three months ago.”

“Well, do you have them?”

“No, not yet.”

“There you go. Everything in this place takes at least three months to happen. In three months, we buy new SIMs, and do the same thing all over again.”

“Why, if we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for others, for a fee—tell Mr. X!” said Kanor.

“You’re a genius, son! Oh, I love this family. I can’t wait for you to meet Olive! She’s studying accounting—your kids will be so cute and so smart!”

Penman No. 446: Our Oldies

Penman for Sunday, January 1, 2023

IT’s BAD enough to be out of touch with the present, so it must be worse to be out of touch with the past—or at least, someone else’s past. 

Nothing reminded me more starkly of the great divides that exist between generations than last month’s Eraserheads reunion concert, hailed by its attendees as nothing less than the Second Coming. “A spectacle unto itself. It was like mix-mashing the Super Bowl’s half-time show and a rock concert. Except it went one better as it was also like one four-hour-long karaoke set,” wrote reviewer Rick Olivares in the Inquirer. “The four-hour, three-part show was filled with nothing but singing our hearts out, jumping for joy, and all the while taking in the fact that yes—this is the Eraserheads, and we are ever so lucky to hear them live again,” gushed Nikka Olivares on GMA-7. 

What struck me was how so many of my younger friends—writers, artists, and teachers now in their 40s and 50s—posted pictures of themselves waving their concert tickets like some generational badge of honor. And indeed it was, if the reported crowd of 75,000 that drove out to the reunion was to be believed. It was a paean to the 1990s and to Generation X, to 486-DX PCs and clunky cellphones, to mixtapes and dressing down, to self-reliance and partying on. (Hold it—why is this so familiar? Now I know why I should know—our daughter Demi, born 1974, is a card-carrying Gen-X’er. “I caught up with the Eraserheads in UP,” she told me from California, “and I used to watch them at the UP Fair at the Sunken Garden!”)

I’ll take my former students’ word for it and believe that the Eraserheads were the best Pinoy band of their time, and that their songs captured the heartbeat of their generation. I’m sure that there’s a thesis or dissertation to be written there somewhere, if it hasn’t been done already—a project that will go far beyond melody and rhythm to dissect the E-heads’ contributions to political and social commentary (not much fun, but academia is the land of the morose). 

For Demi’s mom Beng and me, however, much of that remains a mystery, because it all begins with the music, which somehow went past us. “Do we know any of their songs?” Beng asked me. “Well, yes, one of them,” I answered, “the one that goes ‘Magkahawak ang ating kamay at walang kamalay-malay….’” And I went on to hum the tune for her, and she remembered. “I think its title is ‘Ang Huling El Bimbo,’” I added helpfully. Totally geriatric dialogue, but there we were, trying to figure out a context for that snippet of a song. Of course we knew the original El Bimbo dance, where your conjoined arms opened like a fan, but that was about it. We were lost in this strange territory.

That reminded me of that time, maybe thirty years ago or more, when drove Demi to school in our VW, and turned the radio on. Demi asked if she could change the station, because she wanted to hear some “oldies.” Oh, great, I thought, finally, my daughter’s wising up to the classics—maybe to some Sinatra? And then she played Earth, Wind, and Fire. “Do you remember, the 21st night of September…” (I remembered another September 21!)

So, all right, my oldies aren’t your oldies, and we respond to music on different wavelengths. There’s nothing that unites us more than music—think Christmas carols, church hymns, fight songs, and national anthems—and also nothing that divides us more than music.

I suppose we Boomers can be typecast as Beatles fans, and that won’t be unfair, as it was de rigueur for teenagers of the ‘60s to know the Beatles songs by heart if not to play them on a Lumanog guitar, with the aid of a chord book. But to be even fairer, I don’t think our taste in music could be pegged to any one band or genre. The fact is, we were incredibly eclectic, and liked everything from crooners like Tony Bennett, folk singers like Joni Mitchell, and bossa-nova masters like Antonio Carlos Jobim to rock bands like Queen, divas like Barbra Streisand, and disco kings like VST & Co. And let’s not forget the birth of OPM at the first Metro Pop festivals, with the Circus Band and the New Minstrels.

Life was a big jukebox, and you had a song and a singer for certain moods and certain days. (That probably explains the Beatles’ popularity—they could go from soulful ballads like “Michelle” and “She’s Leaving Home” to barnburners like “Rock ‘N Roll Music” and “She Loves You.”) Feeling, more than idea, was key to a song’s full enjoyment, and much of that feeling was generated by the melody and arrangement. 

Bottom line, a song had to be singable. (The master of singability for me was Burt Bacharach.) For a while back there, we might have put on snooty airs and publicly disdained cheesy acts like ABBA—only to embrace them and warble along at their revival. Danceability was another important factor. The shift from the ‘70s to the ‘80s was the golden age of disco, spurred on by “Saturday Night Fever.” (Miserably, my dancing skills never went beyond the jerk and the boogaloo, so doing the hustle with Beng remains on the bucket list.)

I guess this all means we have a lot of “reunion concerts” to look forward to—the only problem being, most of the singers we’d like to hear have croaked their last. The last one Beng and I attended, a few years ago at the Araneta Coliseum, was that of the Zombies (yes, they were big, cool, and British). Instead of 75,000 screaming fans, ours was a crowd of several hundred white-haired, well-behaved seniors, happily humming along to “The Way I Feel Inside” and “She’s Not There.” Maybe we forgot the lyrics here and there, but hey, we were feeling groovy, as we might have said back in 1969. So, kids, here’s to the next Eraserheads reunion, sometime in 2042. 

Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

I’M SURE you’ve noticed—with much envy in my case—how so many of your friends have been traipsing around the world these past few months on what’s been called “revenge travel,” that perfectly human impulse to flee the cage after years of imposed isolation. 

And whether you’re guzzling down a pint of beer in Munich, chasing pintxos in San Sebastian, or crossing a bridge in Kyoto, the chances are you’ll be happy with a raft of digital photographs to show for your adventures. Many will want to post about their tours on their blogs, while a much smaller group will—perhaps months later—sit down to reflect on their experience and write about it in an effort to make better sense of what they went through. 

That’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and so I thought of sharing some notes for the prospective travel writer—not just of the usual travel feature we produce for commercial media, but of a more personal kind of travel essay, one focused as much on the traveler as on the place itself. Beyond reportage citing facts and figures, this is writing that implicates and engages the traveler, the writing persona, and makes him or her a character in the piece. 

At my age, I consider myself a fairly well-traveled person, but one of the first things I want to say about good travel writing is that it’s really not about where you’ve gone or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s not about quantity, but quality of experience, perspective, and insight. The challenge isn’t to go to what to most Filipinos would be an exotic place like Paris or Tahiti. It’s to go there and to find and to tell us something about it that millions of other visitors or tourists have never seen.  

And when I say “something others have never seen,” it’s not about looking for obscure places, new bars, strange customs, or unique souvenirs. They could all be part of a great story because they’re intrinsically interesting, and if all you want to do is a standard feature story for a magazine, that would be all right. You could even make a good and exciting living writing these travel features, because the industry travel constantly needs them and they sell. 

For many of us, that would be a dream job: fly off to faraway destinations and to first-class hotels with all your expenses paid, just to write about how wonderful the place and the experience was. In my two decades as a columnist for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Star, I was lucky to have had a taste of that kind of luxury, having been sent on special assignment to the US, Germany, Israel, and Malaysia, among many other places. When I traveled for academic or professional conferences, which was quite often, I wrote those up too as travel pieces.

But—putting on my creative writing teacher’s hat—I also want you to think of travel writing not just as a function of place, but rather a function of mind. I want you to realize that you don’t need to go to an African safari or to ride a gondola in Venice to be a good travel writer—or a good writer, period. I want you to be able to turn a place you may have been to a thousand times or even lived in—say, Cubao—into a travel destination, and to explore not just its surface but its culture and subcultures, its inhabitants, its range of markets, its daytime and nighttime versions.

There are always two tracks embedded in a good travel essay: the story of the place itself, and the story of the traveler. To put it another way, there is the external journey, and the internal journey. 

The external journey is the story of the journey itself—the purpose of the travel, the choice of destination, the mode of travel, observations along the journey, reaching the destination, first impressions, engagements with the local people, sights, food, experiences, and other vignettes until departure time. 

The internal journey is the story of the traveler’s life situation at the start of the travel—his or her expectations, anxieties, distractions—and then his or her reactions to the unfolding environment, his or her interactions with the place and people, and his or her terminal thoughts and feelings about the whole experience, whether explicitly stated or implied. Very often, the internal journey involves some kind of quest—a search for something beyond the place itself, or some object in it, but an answer to some personal question, which gives meaning to the visit and the encounter with the place. 

That question could be “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” or “What do I really want?” or “Is there hope?” As the travel progresses, the answers to these questions begin to be formed or revealed. Thus do the external and internal tracks run parallel or congruent until they bend and meet at a certain point. Indeed, it can be argued that the external track, the travelogue itself, is simply an excuse or a device to tell the personal story, which emerges as the true point of interest in the piece. 

The internal track could also be subtle and subdued, embedded in the main narrative, and palpable only upon closer reading. Nevertheless it will be there, the result of a place or an experience’s impact on a person. In the travel essay, therefore, it is the interaction between person and place and the insight that comes from it that is the real, unified story. 

As the great travel writer Pico Iyer put it, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

So when you write your next travel story or travel essay, don’t just tell us about what you’re looking at, which many thousands of visitors before you have already seen. Try to look at it from another angle, or find an interesting detail that’s been paid little attention to, and reflect on what it says to you. Your perspective is as important as the place itself; it may not be shown or expressed too strongly, but it will be there and should be there, for the work to be truly yours, truly unique, and truly worth doing. Happy trails!

Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley was in a quandary once again. He had struggled with his maiden speech, but thanks to the timely assistance of his rumored girlfriend and sometime girl Friday Yvonne Macahiya, he had delivered a brilliant address on “Culture and the Environment: Shared Survival through Values Education,” which the footnotes failed to say had been Yvonne’s term paper for her Political Science 104 class at the Western Aklan Institute of Technology. 

It didn’t matter that most of his esteemed colleagues were absent or nodding off when he gave his speech with all the passion he exuded back when he was “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero of the typhoon-flooded, the earthquake-shaken, and the fire-singed. When Yvonne’s press release came out, it was just like he had spoken before the UN General Assembly, the world’s grandest stage; never mind that some audiences there weren’t too hot, either. 

“We are the world’s most disaster-prone country not because we are weak,” he said, thumping his fist on the lectern before letting his gaze travel across the gallery to turn up the drama, “but because disasters visit other countries less. The Lord Almighty has brought these disasters upon us to test our faith, to strengthen our spirits, and to breed true champions of the desperate and the dispossessed!” Again he paused for dramatic effect, but all he heard was the snorting of a venerable gentleman from a northern province, dreaming of Lamborghinis landing in his Special Economic Zone.

Still, something from his speech must have registered in someone’s mind—the word “education”?—because Sen. Dooley found himself appointed to the Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, which to him sounded like the wimpiest assignment anyone could get. He had expected to be named chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change (that went to a real estate developer), or the one on Public Information and Mass Media (that went to a retired general), or to something that could have used his mestizo heritage, like the Committee on Foreign Relations (that went to a Chinoy movie producer). 

Basic education? Other than passing grade school, what did he know about classrooms and curricula? But then the committee also covered Arts and Culture, so, hmmm, maybe that was what they saw in him, his stellar career as a singer-dancer-TV show host, the way the ladies swooned when he winked at them at the end of his “Buchikik” song. Arts and Culture was entertainment, right? It was about keeping people happy, so they could smile through Covid, unemployment, EJKs, 60-1 peso-dollar rates, and P300/kilo pork. 

There wasn’t much he could do about those things—blame it on the pandemic, on Ukraine (he did have some important foreign-policy views: those darned Ukrainians should just have given over some potato fields to the Russians instead of endangering world peace with their silly resistance), and on troublemakers who even won Nobel prizes for having nothing good to say about hardworking despots.

But now, the Hon. Victor M. Dooley had to come up with a program that would leave his indelible mark on Philippine culture, and he convened an ad hoc committee composed of himself, his chief of staff Roy, the indispensable Yvonne, and a special guest who sashayed into the room and planted wet kisses on both of Vic’s cheeks, much to his embarrassment and to Yvonne’s utter surprise. 

“Ms. Terry! I never thought you would respond to my invitation!” 

“Why ever would I not? How long has it been, dearie? The last time  I saw you, you were still a struggling singer trying your best to hold your note—so I held it for you, hihihi.  And look at you now, an honorable Senator of the Republic!”

“And who, may I ask, might you be?” interjected Yvonne.

“Ah! Yvonne, this is Ms. Terry, who sponsored my entry into show business many years ago. I asked him—I mean her, ahaha, we better get our preferred pronouns right, especially after that gender-sensitivity workshop we all had to take—to come and help us devise a program for our country’s cultural revival.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Yvonne. “I could’ve called on some of my National Artist friends—”

“What’s a National Artist?” asked Vic.

“Never mind. Welcome aboard, Ms. Terry—oh, I get it now, mystery herself! I’m Yvonne, the congressman’s Chief Political Affairs Officer. Can we offer you some coffee?”

“If you have low-acid coffee with non-dairy creamer and gluten-free scones, I’d much appreciate it. But I’ll take what you have.”

“Our Chief of Staff here makes an excellent three-in-one and I’m sure he hasn’t finished all the Sky Flakes.” Yvonne cocked an eyebrow at Roy, who slunk away muttering. “Now let’s get down to business. The senator wants a new program with strong popular appeal that will raise our people’s spirits, promote national unity, and put Philippine culture on the global map. You said you have some ideas?”

“I do! Two, in fact. One, boy bands. We should undertake a nationwide search for cute mop-haired boys from the age of six up and train them in a camp for singing and dancing. Two, a cooking competition for girls, who don’t know how to cook anymore. We’ll have regional and then national contests for the best pinakbet, sinigang, and adobo. We can even have a Fil-Am edition, but let’s do it in West Covina so I can visit my cousin there. What do you think?”

“Nice, but I have an even more inspired idea!” said the senator. “To promote our own, let’s ban all Korean shows for a year. Tama na mga K-drama, P-drama naman. Nakakainis na, e!”

Yvonne groaned. “Are you crazy? Do you want to bring the wrath of the BTS Army down on you, not to mention my mama who’s in love with Hyun Bin?” Yvonne turned to their guest. “I like your ideas, Ate! I think you and I will make a great team—between you and me, we can make Vic Dooley the oppa of Philippine culture!”

“Thanks, but what’s an oppa?” asked the senator.

Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

A FEW weeks ago, for the first time since the pandemic, my wife Beng and I took a plane out of the country, and I can’t tell you how liberating that felt after three years of being landbound. I’d had few complaints about the long lockdowns, because I’m used to working and writing in isolation, and have become much less sociable as I age. But I did miss the travel, the foreign air, the view from the other side of the ocean. 

Just before the pandemic hit, Beng and I had spent my first year in retirement (and a good chunk of my retirement kitty) gallivanting around seven countries, against the advice of family and friends who thought that we were overdoing it; perhaps we were, but now we know that the world we saw then will never be the same again, and that we ourselves—in or approaching our seventies—will never be able to do that again. And so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our flight to San Diego, where our daughter Demi has been living with her husband Jerry for the past 15 years. We’d visited San Diego often before, but probably not with this much anticipation, having been away for years. 

Sitting on the Mexican border, San Diego isn’t the first place most Filipinos would choose when they think of visiting America, unless, like us, they have personal reasons to go there. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be more exciting places, have large Fil-Am communities, and have long been the ports of entry for Pinoys landing on the West Coast. (Our Japan Airlines flight was that rare straight flight via Tokyo to San Diego.) But San Diego has its own charm and its own attractions, most notably Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Comic-Con, that annual extravaganza of pop culture that draws about 150,000 fans from around the galaxy. (Much to my young students’ chagrin, I’ve been to Comic-Con twice, happily ignorant of much of what I was looking at.) 

And whether you’ve lived there for decades or are just passing through, San Diego will always give you a taste of home, with dozens of Pinoy foods stores and restaurants, especially in National City and Chula Vista where you can shop at Seafood City for daing na bangus and Chocnut and at Goldilocks for your party cake while dropping packages off at LBC—or you can run to Mira Mesa for your Jollibee fix. (For me, an American sojourn would be incomplete without a trip to Arby’s and Red Lobster.)

Inevitably San Diego also has its own spotted history of East-West relations, in which Filipinos have figured; the better part of that history was celebrated last month as Filipino-American Heritage Month in the city. The worst part remains in the archives, in the memories of early immigrants such as Emeterio Reyes, who recalls that “I asked the driver if he could take me to a Catholic church. As soon as we got there, I told him to wait for me because I had a funny feeling I might not be welcome at this church. As I entered the door, a priest approached me and told me that the church was only for white people. That moment, I wanted to cry and die!” 

When Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay on November 10, 1602, he found that he had “arrived at a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for, besides being protected on all sides and having good anchorage, it is in latitude 33½o. It has very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds, many of which we caught with seine and hooks. On the land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds. On the 12th of the said month, which was the day of the glorious San Diego, the general, admiral, religious, captains, ensigns, and almost all the men went ashore. A hut was built and mass was said in celebration of the feast of Señor San Diego.”

As a major port facing the Pacific, San Diego has long been home to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, its base harboring over 50 ships. The naval presence defines much of San Diego’s character, and provides a good part of the reason why about 200,000 Filipino-Americans live there today. Since early in the American occupation, Filipinos have signed up with the US Navy as their passport to what they hoped would be a better life and to a bit of adventure. 

I just learned, for example, that the first Filipino to have joined the US Navy, back in 1903, was a seminarian in Manila named Potenciano Parel who snuck out of his vows to be a sailor, but not having the right papers, he used those of a friend and assumed his identity, Tomas Dolopo; the Dolopos continue to be San Diegans. Demi’s late father-in-law, Ric Ricario, joined in 1957; his eldest son, Ray, followed him into the Navy; Ray’s brother Jerry met and married Demi. And so we find ourselves now tied by blood to that long tradition, as did many thousands of others before us.

Despite having visited San Diego many times before, and having enjoyed its more popular attractions, we felt more acutely aware of history this time around. We finally stepped into the city’s Maritime Museum, a complex of many ships from various centuries that allows visitors a hands-on experience at traveling the world on water. The ships on display range from a full-size and fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon ca. 1542, the San Salvador, to the world’s oldest sailing ship, the grand, mid-1800s Star of India, to a ca. 1970s submarine that still holds the record for the deepest dive, the USS Dolphin. For just $15 for seniors and just slightly more for others, you can hop from one ship to another, and imagine what it was like to cross a tempestuous ocean with only the stars to light the way and nothing to eat but stale bread and salted pork. 

We enjoyed history of another kind by having dinner with our in-laws in a National City dive that our son-in-law Jerry chose for its unique ambience, which you can either call seedy or loaded with character. (There was a famous sailor’s bar in the area called the Trophy Lounge, Jerry told us, that used to be run by ladies from Olongapo…. But that’s another story, and San Diego has books of them, yet to be told.) La Maze is the kind of leatherbound ‘50s restaurant that the Rat Pack and other Hollywood celebrities frequented when in San Diego, and you can still order the same great steaks they had. A local band played dance music, and to the tune of “Solamente Una Vez,” I took the pretty silver-haired fox next to me to the floor and slow-dragged the night away. 

Qwertyman No. 13: Something Good

Qwertyman for October 31, 2022

MINISTER QUAQUA was having a bad day—a very bad day, probably the worst since he was appointed to his post by President Ongong after they had finished two bottles of Balvenie Portwood, with boiled peanuts and chicharon bituka on the side. Quaqua had brought the chicharon bituka to the Palace as a gift to the President, ostensibly as a sample of his company’s latest R&D. A self-professed man of science, the President was known to be interested in cutting-edge research. 

Pork was highly coveted by Kawefans, but was now considered contraband, because of a longstanding ban on pork and pork products forced by the great swine flu epidemic of 1986. Some Kawefan families, including the Quaquas, had made fortunes by creating and marketing fake pork—veggie-based substitutes for adobo, barbecue, and sisig. Pork smuggling was therefore big business, and naturally the Quaquas had a finger in that pie, too. The anti-pork law allowed for a tiny sample of real pork to be imported for research purposes, for producers of the fake stuff to run taste tests of their bogus bolognas against. The rumor was that pork was coming into Kawefo by the ton, and even more alarmingly, that the Quaquas kept a top-secret pig farm in the distant province of Suluk-sulukan under armed guard, producing Chinese ham, chicharon bituka, and tocinofor the most select clients, including the First Family. 

Quaqua had come to the Palace not just to share some pulutan with an old friend, but to advise him against yielding to the strong pro-pork lobby, which argued for the legalization of pork, so every Kawefan could enjoy his or her rightful taste of inihaw na baboy. It was a popular initiative, certain to gain the ruling party more votes in the next election. But Quaqua had a strong counter-argument: legalizing banned substances not only negated decades of established jurisprudence (he was a lawyer, after all), but would put legitimate producers of healthy substitutes out of business—and, he didn’t need to add, abolish the black market in pork altogether. 

“Just look at what those fools in Bukolandia did with drugs,” he told Ongong as he poured the Balvenie. “To take care of the drug problem, they legalized drugs, so not only is the whole country now on a high, but the economy is down because there’s no business to be made, with people planting weed and cooking up meth in their own backyards. We can’t allow that to happen—imagine, if people bred their own pigs, how common the taste of lechon and chicharon would be. Fake pork can take care of that demand without turning our country into a stinking pigsty. True pork has to remain—” and here he munched on a morsel of bituka—“a restricted commodity.”

There must have been something more than MSG in what Quaqua fed the President, because he was appointed Minister of Justice on the spot, as he had been praying novenas for. Now, he could tell the Kawefan Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to spend its time on worthier pursuits like chasing after subversive authors and professors instead of bothering with peripheral issues like pork smuggling.

But barely had he warmed his seat when his first crisis exploded. One of the President’s peskiest critics, Dr. Fofo, a radio broadcaster from way down south, had been shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. That wasn’t the problem—after all, presidential critics died all the time. They should’ve read the news and shut up if they knew what was good for them. The problem was that Dr. Fofo’s killers stupidly got caught when a piglet sprang from out of nowhere—likely an escapee from an illegal farm—and enticed the duo to chase it, until their motorcycle hit a post. In police custody, the two boasted of their connections and were threatening to out their mastermind if they weren’t released soon. Social media was on their case.

“We can’t let these idiots cause a fuss,” Quaqua told his assistant, Vice Minister for Public Affairs Zhuzhu. “They screw up, they pay the consequences. That’s justice!… Hoy, are you listening? I just said—”

“Sir, Mr. Minister, we have a bigger problem!” The assistant was on his mobile phone and looked deeply worried.

“Why? What happened?”

“Sir—your wife—Mrs. Quaqua was just arrested!”

“What? Where? Why?”

“At the airport. They booked her for—uhm—stealing the silverware in business class. They say they found several pairs of spoons and forks in her handbag.”

“Are they crazy? Does that airline want its landing rights revoked? Taking home spoons and forks from airplanes is an old Kawefan custom! Get me the airport manager—”

“Uh, it wasn’t in our airport, sir,” said Zhuzhu. “Your wife just landed in Paris, to attend Fashion Week—”

Oooh, that’s right, said Quaqua to himself—they’d had a spat over his latest mistress Gigi, and he’d given her the usual blank check to placate her. Still, it was embarrassing.

“Then get me the French ambassador! Let’s see if they’ll risk diplomatic relations on account of some—some stupid cutlery!”

“Uhm, the spoons and forks are innocent, sir—they’re not sentient beings,” said Zhuzhu, his eyes downcast. “I learned that in our Employee Development Seminar on Eastern Philosophy, sir.”

“Tell them to have seminars on gun cleaning and pest control!” Quaqua made a note to himself: “I swear, Zhuzhu, as soon as this blows over, I’m going to get me a retired general to take your place.”

Zhuzhu held up his phone to show his boss a news clip from CNN. “It’s on CNN now, sir. They’ve even posted a mug shot of Mrs. Quaqua holding up the forks and spoons.”

“What?!” The justice minister fell back into his chair and looked out the window. “They didn’t even blur her face? The inhumanity, the incivility…. What has mankind come to? Where’s understanding and tolerance when you need them? Whatever did my dear wife do to deserve this?”

“According to the great masters, sir, we sow what we reap, our past actions affect our present ones, so Mrs. Quaqua did something, like for example, she married you—”

Just then Zhuzhu’s phone rang again and Quaqua couldn’t wait to hear the news. “Did they release her? Did they come to their senses? What’s up?”

Zhuzhu looked sad. “I’m afraid it’s about something else, sir. About those two suspects in the murder of Dr. Fofo? I’ve just been told that they’re both dead. They had an argument and—well, they strangled each other to death in their cell.”

Quaqua’s eyes lit up. There was a God. “Then I must have done something good in my past life, Zhuzhu!”

“What about the madame, sir?”

“Alas, it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” Quaqua sighed, thinking of Gigi’s perfume. “Let French justice take its course.”

(Image from eatlikepinoy.com)

Penman No. 443: A Hairy Experiment

Penman for Sunday, October 2, 2022

FOR THE first time in my 68 years, I tried something new these past two months: grow a mustache and a beard. It began when Beng caught Covid—thankfully the rather benign Omicron variety—and I followed suit, which required us to self-isolate for at least a week. Either out of laziness or perhaps to give some purpose to my enforced enclosure, I didn’t shave until I woke up one morning to find some whiskers germinating on my upper lip and chin, and decided to wait some more. 

No one in my family has ever sported facial hair, for good reason—our forefathers must have been chasing wild goats in the forest when they handed out genes for abundant hair. They got home just in time to catch some scraps, which was why my two brothers and I enjoyed luxuriant mops on our tops in our younger days, only to lose much of it to male-pattern baldness in our senior years. We grow hairy chests and bristly forearms only in our deepest sleep—in other words, we morph into Tom Selleck (or maybe Chewbacca)—and wake up to the pathetic reality of a pimple forming right where a respectable thicket’s supposed to be.

Much to my surprise, a perceptible fuzz did grow around my mouth, and for a minute back there I entertained the possibility of doing a Hemingway (for which I already have the girth), until I had to accept the fact that the Lord was already being exceedingly generous in making me feel like Johnny Depp for a day (hey, we even have the same initials). 

It was nothing to crow about (a Facebook friend admitted to shaving off his incipient mustache when someone remarked that “I have more hair around my anus”), but I was happy. I looked different, and—okay—I felt just a bit different, maybe a tad more writerly, as if anything coming out of my mouth was going to sound like godly wisdom. It was comforting to know that while I’m never going to grow a mohawk on top, I can still go bald and whiskered, Yoda-like. Additionally, I thought that Beng would be tickled and thrilled to be kissed by a new man in her life (tickled, yes, thrilled, no).

All this has led me to explore the history of the mustache (“moustache” is its British version). The BBC’s “The Moustache: A Hairy History” gives a fascinating account of the ups and downs of facial hair (and even a new word: “pogonotrophy,” the art of its cultivation). The highlights include Peter the Great’s “beard tax,” which led to shaved chins and flowery mustaches; Lord Byron’s preference for the pencil-thin trim; the association of bushy beards with bacteria, and the subsequent falling out of fashion of the hirsute look (also, World War I gas masks didn’t work with grizzly faces); the resurgence of the handlebar mustache (strictly no beards) postwar; and the now-popular “Movember” charity event in November, for which men grow mustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues (a most noble excuse, to my mind).

Since Samson established the link between hair and testosterone, mustaches and beards have also implied more masculinity, about which The Gentleman’s Journal has an interesting story. When the British colonized India, the native men—who brandished their mustaches like scimitars—looked down on their clean-shaven sahibs as wimps, forcing the white masters to grow their own, and bringing the fashion back to England with them. (The e-zine also offered up this etymology: “‘Mastax’, a Greek word, was stolen by the Scottish and turned into ‘Mystax’, with both meaning ‘jaws, mouth or lips’. The Medieval Greeks took the word back, and that ‘Moustakion’ grew out into the Italian ‘Mostaccio’ — before the French combed it into submission, giving us ‘Moustache’ around 1580, with a final definition of: ‘The hair that grows on the upper lip of men’.”)

The history of beards seems just as complicated; at one point, says Beardpilot, you could pay off a debt with your beard. Ancient societies punished erring men by cutting off their beards. In the Middle Ages, touching someone else’s beard could be cause for a duel. Before Peter the Great, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I also taxed beards. Of course, wherever you went, hair on your face meant virility and wisdom. What it did not guarantee was money, if one recent survey is to be believed, claiming that “Ninety-eight percent of the men on the Forbes 100 list of the world’s richest individuals are clean-shaven.”

Me, I’d rather be wise than virile at 68 (and should I say wealthy rather than wise?), but I’m just trying to get used to feeling something furry and sometimes wet beneath my nose, especially when I’m slurping soup or sneezing. I’ve learned to trim what passes for a mustache where I can touch it with my tongue, and to snip off vagabond whiskers from my scraggly beard. Beng seems indifferent to my experiment, in fair exchange for me not saying anything untoward about her pixie cut (I miss her bangs). I told our apu-apuhan Buboy that his Tatay Butch was going to be a pirate, but he appears unimpressed; I’m not menacing enough, needing to put more growl into my act. I hope Demi agrees that the bearded-guru effect makes her dad look smarter than he is.

One of these days I’m sure I’ll say that I’ve had enough, and reach for a razor—but not just yet. I’m just getting the hang of pogonotrophy, and while I guess I’m never going to be as shaggy as a Wookiee, I’d like to have fun playing Johnny Depp just a little bit longer, before the dementia gets real.

Penman No. 442: Yes, You Cane!

Penman for Sunday, September 4, 2022

AS IF I didn’t have enough junk filling up every corner of the house, I’ve lately gone on another collecting binge, for which the only justification I can offer is that, well, it’s age-appropriate. 

I’m talking about collecting canes and walking sticks (we’ll use those terms interchangeably for this article, although there are technical differences between them), accessories we now associate with the onset of decrepitude or some other infirmity. I’m not quite there yet—although, at 68, I should need no excuse for carrying a cane, especially for my periodic attacks of gout—but I thought it prudent to prepare now for the inevitable, and acquire artful and functional canes while I’m still sentient enough to know between wood and plastic.

I’m not sure when this newfound diversion began for me. I’d been using the familiar, adjustable metal canes you can buy at drugstores for my gout, which Beng has also leaned on for her arthritis. At some point—as with my other follies—I must have said to myself, “If I’m going to carry this around all day, it might as well be nice. No, forget nice, it might as well be grand!”

And so began my hunt—online, in Japan-surplus shops, and wherever else you can find them—for the perfect cane, which, as soon as you say it, you realize is an impossibility, because the next one is always going to be better, or at least different.  That’s just how it is for collectibles, and how my few working fountain pens grew to 400 at one point (now trimmed down to a more modest 150). 

To bring some reason into this passion, let’s go back to the utilitarian roots of walking sticks and canes, supposedly in the long sticks or poles that shepherds carried to protect themselves and their flocks from predators like wolves. The same sticks were used as walking aids, to climb up hills and mountains with, as well as for taking measurements. By the 1500s, with the use of cane for the shafts, the word “cane” entered popular usage.

Meanwhile, beyond saving you from a bad fall, these wooden sticks found a new and loftier purpose in the hands of men (and some women) who ruled over vast kingdoms and had to show something for it. They became scepters for emperors, kings, and queens—bishops also took to holding even longer staffs—and as such had to look the part, acquiring embellishments of silver, gold, and precious gemstones. When you had to say something like “Off with his head!”, it seemed more convincing to do it with an upraised stick. Moses, of course, had the most potent rod of all, good for getting water out of rocks and for smiting down the detested Amalekites. 

(Image from 123rf.com)

All that pomp and pageantry associated with carrying sticks must have rubbed off on the bourgeoisie, who took to canes as fashion accessories, one more way of showing (or showing off) how prosperous and important one was. Carrying a cane didn’t mean you were lame; to the contrary, it suggested that you wielded power as a bona fide member of the gentry. Genteel ladies had their own versions, some of which had secret compartments for perfumes, combs, fans, and even mirrors; the men liked theirs with swords, knives, and guns—these multipurpose sticks were called “system” canes.

In the London of the 1700s, according to one history of canes, “A gentleman had to procure licenses for the privilege of carrying canes. It was expected that they would abide by certain rules or risk loss of the privilege. The authorities actually policed rules for canes and walking sticks vehemently. It was considered an extreme violation of manners to carry a walking stick under one’s arm, to brandish it in the air, drag it on the ground or to lean on it while standing.”

Thankfully today no such licenses are required, and the etiquette of canes is observed mainly in the breach. Canes are back to being the implements of the sick and the aged, and eyebrows will rise if you appear on the street or in your workplace sporting an antique derby (a popular style with a short wavy handle) or a shillelagh (a cane made from a rough piece of wood with a knob on top).

As a senior, I consider myself exempted from all licenses, excuses, and medical prescriptions in this regard. I collect canes because, like my pens, they’re both tools and works of art, relics from an age of manners and elegance. That they’re out of fashion is an even bigger plus, because it means very few other people want them, and their prices will be reasonable. 

The Philippines is a great place to start collecting canes, because we have very fine antique and vintage ones, made of kamagong or some other hardwood, intricately carved with mother-of-pearl inlays. Some others have silver pommels, handles, bands, and ferrules (the metal caps at the tips) and fine repoussé (hammered) work on the silver. Japanese canes often come in bamboo, which can be very expressive at their bent handles. 

What I’ve looked for outside of our region are canes from Europe and the US, which employ horn, silver, brass, and other materials for their handles, which can be elaborately carved and decorated with animals, skulls (not my thing), and whatever floats the owner’s boat. Vintage canes can also come with bands or badges that denote provenance, such as the owner’s monogram or his military service. There are many websites online devoted to this hobby, and eBay is always a rich source for canes (new but vintage-style ones made in India can be had for not too much). It’s important, by the way, to trim your canes down to size—your hand should be just resting lightly over the handle beside you—not bent upward or reaching down. I do this myself with a hacksaw, and use one of those rubber plugs sold in True Value for chairs to cap the bare tip.

I’m not waiting for my next bout with gout to enjoy my walking sticks. Having resumed my walks around the UP campus, I’ve found that carrying a cane not only supports me but improves my balance and rhythm (I swing it out in front of me like a pendulum). Beng, who needs them more (and who has her own mini-collection), has also discovered that being a cane-carrying senior has its advantages: people are more courteous, service is faster, and seats miraculously appear. I’ll try that the next time we fly!

Qwertyman No. 4: Subversive Sisters Having Fun

Qwertyman for Monday, August 29, 2022

(Image from danbooru.donmai.us)

“WHY IS IT,” asked Sister Edwige as she threw a couple of green chips into the pot to call Sister Augustinha’s raise, “that every time we nuns have a little bit of fun, someone out there screams like we were indulging ourselves in some carnal revelry?”

“Sister Edwige!” said Sister Loreto, as she put her hand on her cheek, a sure tell that she had some pretty valuable cards in the hole, like a pair of jacks or an ace-king. “People might think that you—that we actually knew what you were talking about!”

“It’s no crime to know what we’re not supposed to be doing,” said Sister Edwige, who was wondering whether Sister Loreto was going to reraise, or was going to play it dumb, like she held the lowest pair. Some sisters were so transparent, which was why they chose to play Scrabble or bake muffins during their recreation hour instead of facing the likes of Sister Edwige at Texas Holdem, but with Sister Loreto, even letting on that she had a superior hand when she very possibly did not was part of the game. “Crafty” was the word for her, Edwige decided, something not necessarily malicious but with the possibility of being so.

“So are you going to call or fold?” Sister Augustinha said, annoyed that Edwige apparently didn’t feel threatened enough by her raise, and that Loreto might even move all-in.

“I’ll… just call,” Loreto said, whereupon the remaining sister, Sister Maryska, tossed her cards down, sensing imminent disaster. Acting as the dealer, Maryska drew the turn card—the king of clubs—eliciting a groan of agony from the playacting Loreto.

“Do you think it’s possible they’ll haul us off to prison and then try us for witchcraft, like they did in the old days?” asked Edwige with a chuckle.

“But whatever for?” said Maryska. In a previous life, she had been a nursery-school teacher, but had chosen to enter the order when the Virgin Mary appeared to her from a kaimito tree. “Everything we’ve done has been for the greater glory of God, hasn’t it?”

“Check!” said Sister Augustinha.

“Check!” said Sister Edwige.

“Hmmm…. Let’s make a tiny bet, shall we? Say, two hundred? Just to keep things exciting?” Sister Loreto ever so slightly pushed two even stacks of chips into the pot.

“Two hundred!” said Sister Maryska! “Why, that’s more than I can spend in a week on cookies and three-in-one coffee!”

“It’s only play money, Sister Maryska,” said Augustinha dryly. “It’s not like you or anyone here will starve to death if she makes a dumb call—which I’m not doing!” She folded her hand. “This is pretend-poker. We’re pretending that we’re escaped convicts disguised as nuns, that we stole these habits from a convent’s clothesline, and since our funds are running low and our runaway car is out of gas, we have to stake everything on a game of poker at the local bar, against the woman they know as… Madame Stolichnaya, a retired pediatric nurse and reputed mistress of the Master Demon himself, Dom Athanasius.” A shiver swept the table as Augustinha’s voice descended into a raspy whisper.

“Oooh, that’s exciting!” said Sister Maryska. “Tell us more! What did we do to become prison convicts?”

Before she joined the nunnery, Augustinha had been part of an avant-garde theater group known for its complete lack of inhibitions onstage and offstage, and it was rumored among the novices peeling potatoes in the kitchen that Augustinha had led a blissfully debauched life, complete with boyfriends, banned substances, and (dare they say it) aborted babies. That she was now one of the order’s most devout and dedicated sisters—the one who bathed lepers and tended to terminal patients—could not dispel the impression that she knew more about life than one was reasonably entitled to. 

“I fold!” said Sister Edwige, finishing the hand and letting Loreto scoop up the pot. “I think Sister Augustinha’s game is more fun. Let’s play that instead!”

“Awww, just when I was winning!” said Sister Loreto, pouting at her suddenly worthless chips. 

“Did we rob a bank?” asked Maryska. “Did someone get killed?”

Loreto said, “What do we know about robbing banks? Even if we did get some money, what would we have used it for? We made a vow of poverty—” 

“No, no,” said Edwige, “we didn’t make any vows, we’re not sisters, although we later pretend to be so. We’re villains, we like money, we like spending it on cars, houses, perfumes, vacations to Paris—” 

“Men? Did we spend on men?” asked Loreto.

“I don’t even know what it means to spend on men,” sighed Maryska. “Does that mean you—you buy them nice things, like watches and shoes and iPhones—”

“Or you can just buy them,” said Augustinha with a shrug.

“Really? For what?” said Maryska.

Edwige laughed. She had three brothers—an airline pilot, a cryptocurrency trader, and a police captain—all of whom had been left by their wives and girlfriends for various reasons. “So you can keep them as pets, snuggle up to them on rainy days, smell their body hair—”

“Ewww, I don’t even want to think about, please, please, take that thought away!” said Loreto, shaking her hands in the air. “No wonder we got caught! We had all of these impure thoughts! We robbed a bank so we could get and do all of these nasty things!”

“Technically, the bank robbery alone was enough to land us in jail. The motive doesn’t matter. We could’ve robbed a bank to give its money away to the poor. We’d still be criminals in the eyes of the law,” said Augustinha.

“It must be fun to be bad—sometimes,” said Sister Maryska, looking out into the garden, where other sisters were watering the begonias and watching the clouds turn pink.

“Do people even know what bad means anymore?” said Sister Edwige. “Or good, for that matter?”

Sister Loreto shuffled the deck of cards and said, “Let’s play another hand! And somebody close that window—I can feel a chill coming.”