Hindsight 14: Weaponizing the Youth

Hindsight for Monday, April 18, 2022

ONE OF the most troubling episodes of the war now raging in Ukraine happened a couple of weeks ago not in Kyiv or the eastern region—where ghastly atrocities have taken place—but in Penza, a city in western Russia. A 55-year-old teacher named Irina Gen was arrested after a student reportedly taped her remarks criticizing the Russian invasion; the student’s parents got the tape, and turned it in to the authorities, who went after Ms. Gen. She now faces up to ten years in prison for violating the newly minted law against “spreading fake news” about Russia. Earlier, in the city of Korsakov, students also filmed their English teacher Marina Dubrova, 57, for denouncing the war; she was arrested, fined, and disciplined.

That the Russian state is punishing its critics is nothing new. It’s reprehensible, but you expect nothing less from the place and the party that invented the gulag, that frozen desert of concentration camps where millions suffered and died over decades of political strife and repression, mainly under Joseph Stalin. 

What I found particularly alarming was the role of students as informants, a virtual extension of the secret police that are the staple of repressive societies. This, too, is nothing new. Throughout modern history, despots have drawn on their nations’ youth to lend a semblance of energy and idealism to their authoritarianism, ensure a steady stream of cadres, and at worst, provide ample cannon fodder.

In Russia, the Komsomol rose up in 1918 to prepare people between 14 and 28 for membership in the Communist Party. Four years later, the Young Pioneers took in members between 9 and 14, and just to make sure no one who could walk and talk was left out, the Little Octobrists were organized in 1923 for the 7-9 crowd. 

The Hitler Youth was preceded and prepared for by youth organizations that formed around themes like religion and traditional politics, and it was easy to reorient them toward Nazism. An all-male organization matched by the League of German Girls, the Hitler Youth focused on sports, military training, and political indoctrination, but they soon had to go far beyond marching in the streets and smashing Jewish storefronts. Running short of men, the Germans set up a division composed of Hitler Youth members 17 years and under, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. It went into battle for the first time on D-Day in June 1944; after a month, it had lost 60 percent of its strength to death and injury.

Chairman Mao relied on China’s teenage cadres—the Red Guards—to unleash the Cultural Revolution in 1966 against the so-called “Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, which came to be personified in elderly scholars and teachers who were beaten to death or sent off to prison camps for “re-education”). 

Under Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s martial law, the Kabataang Barangay was created by Presidential Decree 684 in 1975 to give the Filipino youth “a definite role and affording them ample opportunity to express their views.” That sounds innocuous enough, and indeed the KB would go on to engage in skills training, sports, sanitation, food production, crime prevention, and disaster relief, among other civic concerns, under the leadership of presidential daughter Imee. 

At the same time it was clearly designed to offset leftist youth organizations like the Kabataang Makabayan and the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan by drawing on the same membership pool and diverting their energies elsewhere—more specifically, into becoming the bearers and defenders of the New Society’s notions. (Full disclosure: I was an SDK member, but my younger siblings were KB.)

I would never have thought that the “Duterte Youth” meant something else, but it does; evidently, it’s just shorthand for “Duty to Energize the Republic through the Enlightenment of the Youth Sectoral Party-list Organization.” Organized in 2016 to support the Davao mayor’s presidential campaign and later his policies as President, the Duterte Youth have affected quasi-military black uniforms and fist salutes. Its leader, Ronald Cardema, reportedly brushed off comparisons with the Hitler Youth by pointing out that the Germans had no patent on the “youth” name, which he was therefore free to use. (Uhmm… okay.)

Adjudged too old to represent the youth in Congress (his wife Ducielle took over his slot), Cardema was appointed to head the National Youth Commission instead, from which perch he then directed “all pro-government youth leaders of our country… to report to the National Youth Commission all government scholars who are known in your area as anti-government youth leaders allied with the leftist CPP-NPA-NDF.”

I acknowledge how Pollyannish it would be to expect young people and even children to be shielded from the harsh and often cruel realities of today’s world. The war in Ukraine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the pandemic are just the latest iterations of conflicts and crises that have turned 12-year-old boys into executioners in Sierra Leone and child miners in Bolivia, Madagascar, and, yes, the Philippines. 

Their enlistment in political causes—of whatever orientation—is another form of maltreatment or abuse for which we have yet no name, but few governments or anti-government rebels will let them be. Their minds are soft and malleable, their fears obvious and manipulable, their rewards simple and cheap. With the right incentives and punishments, it can be easier to turn them into monsters or machines than to safeguard their innocence. They can be weaponized.

I’ve mentioned this in another column, but there’s a scene in the classic movie Cabaret, set in the Nazi period, where a handsome and bright-faced boy in a brown uniform begins to sing what seems to be an uplifting song about “the sun on the meadow.” But as it progresses we realize that it’s a fascist anthem which is picked up by ordinary folk with chilling alacrity. Watch this on Youtube (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) and then look at your son or nephew, or the children playing across the street. If you want, you could vote to have them marching and singing a similar tune in a couple of years.

(Photo from Rappler.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. 424: The Analog Revival

Penman for Monday, September 27, 2021

TWO YEARS ago, just before the Covid pandemic turned the world upside down, another and much less noticed reversal took place. Ending a 33-year trend, vinyl records outsold CDs—1.24 million records toting up $224 million in global sales, according to Music Times. You’d think that grandparents the world over had launched a conspiracy to buy out the remaining stock of Mantovani, The Lettermen, and the Ray Conniff Singers, but no—70 percent of the buyers were millennials under 35.

Audiophile Eric Teel says that “Music lovers have long treated vinyl with a kind of mysticism, using terminology like ‘warmth’ to describe a special intangible quality that some say eludes digital recording technology. Getting the most out of a vinyl record requires more effort than the simple huff of warm breath and a wipe on the t-shirt that many of us (shouldn’t, but do) give a CD to wipe off fingerprints before sticking it in a player.” In other words, there’s the sound, and there’s the ritual of choosing, cleaning, and playing the record—all before putting one’s feet up on a stool and sipping coffee.

Even earlier, in 2014, someone named Alex Lenkei wrote an essay on medium.com about another kind of hole he had fallen into—manual typewriters. Explaining why he found his way back to typewriters in the age of the Internet, Alex said:

“Like people, no two typewriters are the same. Each one feels distinctly different and has a different history of grade school assignments, covert love letters, prose and poetry, government propaganda, and wartime memos. The coldness of the keys under your fingers feels like the only truth in the world and the smell of metal and grease when you dig your nose into the typebars, the cavity of the machine, feels like the home of a serious writer.

“A typewriter is a miraculous tool for disconnecting in a time when we are all constantly connected to our smartphones or tablets. When I’m sitting down at a computer, I don’t know what I’m going to do next; I can get distracted very easily. In today’s increasingly connected world, production and focus in writing are being sacrificed for Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts. There are a thousand distractions. But with a typewriter, I know I’m writing.”

The third analog instrument that’s made a comeback is—you guessed it—the fountain pen. According to the Washington Post, “In the 1990s, high-end, limited-edition pens took off…. The recession of 2008 dried up the ink on those for a while. The current fountain pen revival, penfolk agree, has been driven by an unlikely group: millennials. Yes, a generation that wasn’t taught cursive and whose members do most of their writing on a keyboard or smartphone screen has breathed new life into the old-fashioned fountain pen.

“’There’s less writing now, but when they do write, they want a good experience….’ That means premium pen, nice paper, unusual ink—stuff that looks good on Instagram…. A lot of the pens are used for keeping something called a dot journal or a bullet journal, which is basically a fancy to-do list.”

It’s obvious from these testimonials what’s been happening, aside from the fact of genuine oldtimers like me hanging on to their tools and toys: a whole new generation has reached far into the past for a new experience unavailable in the digital world—something tactile, something hands-on, something requiring more personal investment than a keystroke or tapping on “Play.” 

That’s nowhere more evident than in our local pen fanciers group, Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (fpn-p.org), which since its establishment in 2008 now counts over 11,000 members online. I’d say at least 70 percent of active members are below 40. The group’s original focus was fountain pen collecting, especially vintage pens, and old guys like me were happy just to ogle our pen-filled boxes and occasionally write some lines with black or blue-black Quink.

Our newest and younger members are clearly more excited by swatching colorful inks that shimmer and sheen, by learning calligraphy and journaling, and by just getting together as a community to enjoy a newfound passion. In other words, it’s not so much the object but the experience that matters most, asserting oneself in a digitized universe.

I also help moderate the Filipino Typewriter Collectors group on FB, and we’ve passed more than 1,000 members in less than a year. As with pens, most of our members are young, artistically inclined, expressive, and fascinated by using old tech to do 21st-century tasks. Again, I’m the crusty hardware guy who appreciates the machines as artifacts (having written books with them ages ago), while our newbies can still be thrilled by the clatter of keys on a platen and by the words they can form on a blank sheet of paper.

I grew up with vinyl, but came relatively late to the collecting party. We have a small, private Viber group that exchanges tips on where to find certain LPs cheap. We’re not learned enough to consider ourselves audiophiles fussing over “curve” and “coloration”; we just want to relive our youth by listening to the Beatles, Brasil ’66, and Marianne Faithfull. What’s surprising is, we have some teenage members who are discovering this music for the first time on vinyl, and liking it. Suddenly, their lolos and titos are cool again. There’s hope for the future yet!

Penman No. 418: Hello, Goodbye

Penman for Monday, July 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 414: Full of Foolish Song

Penman for Monday, May 24, 2021

AMID THE lifting gloom of the pandemic—“lifting” perhaps for those of us who’ve had at least their first vaccine shots—a blast of sunshine came into our lives two weeks ago. We had been busy marshalling our limited resources and those of our network of senior titos and titas in aid of community pantries, anti-Covid measures, and sundry causes and charities, not expecting anything back but smiles and good vibes. And then a friend popped up in our driveway with a surprise gift that made my day.

I’d been friends with Jim (let’s call him that) for 50 years, since we met in UP and became student activists in the same organization. We were actually batchmates in grade school, but it was in our work for the anti-Marcos resistance that we grew closer, tooling around in his white Renault to this and that exploit. After EDSA, Jim served in the government, and when he left, he established a private art-related company that became hugely successful and is now a leader in its field.

For all that and more, Jim announced that he had drawn up a short list of guy-friends whom he was gifting with a very special surprise—a package comprising a turntable, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers. “Just a starter set,” he said apologetically, but as far as I was concerned it was a little bit of heaven—Sixties heaven, to be more specific.

I have to confess that I’m no audiophile, despite my proclivity for vintage fountain pens, typewriters, old watches, antiquarian books, and generally anything older than me. I have everything in the house—my mini-museum—from a 1905 Hammond typewriter and a ship captain’s navigational guidebook that traveled the world in the 1700s to boxes of pens from the 1920s, pocket watches that clocked railroad traffic a century ago, and a red rotary telephone—but not a turntable.

It’s not that I don’t like music, or vinyl records and turntables in particular. I grew up playing 45s and 78s (33s weren’t that plentiful then) in our big cabinet-like player that had glowing tubes in the back. Not having TV until I reached high school (for that we stuck our snotty faces into a neighbor’s window), I became quite adept at playing records, mesmerized by the sight of them stacked and dropping on the platter, and by the tonearm finding its way to the first groove. Hiss, hiss, pop, pop—and then a trumpet blast or a guitar riff, and off you went to dreamland, an adult kind of place you couldn’t fully understand as a kid, but which sounded like fun—full of stardust, cherry pink and apple blossom white, love letters in the sand, swallows in Capistrano, amore, and teenage señoritas.

Despite those happy associations, I never bought a record player even if I could, maybe because I knew it was going to be a very deep and expensive rabbit hole (I should’ve told myself that about pens and typewriters). I’d seen friends whose houses and cars had been taken over by hyper-expensive sound systems, and whose vocabularies now sprouted words like “attenuator,” “circum-aural,” “impedance,” and “sibilant,” and I just couldn’t get into that—I was into music, not sound. When cassette tapes, CDs, Walkmans, and iPods followed, I gladly went along, content to enjoy my favorite tracks on earphones.

But Jim’s gift, so thoughtfully given, was too nice to refuse, and I have to admit to a flutter of excitement about reconnecting with my childhood through a technology that requires a bit more deliberation than skimming through a digital playlist with your thumb. At our age, approaching our seventies, the notion of sitting on your favorite chair with your feet up, glass of wine in hand, and being enveloped in a cloud of happy sound (say, Chet Baker crooning “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) is an appealing one indeed—“full of foolish song,” as Chet put it.

I hadn’t played a record in over half a century, so I had to be taught the basics all over again. I’m deathly certain I’m going to break something one of these days, but that will be part of the re-education. Most days I’ll still probably be using my earphones with iTunes, but with the speakers in Jim’s array, I can’t say how long that will last. Jim also presented me with some starter LPs, knowing what I liked: Dionne Warwick, Astrud Gilberto, and a choice between the Byrds and America. (So what do you think I chose? Any true-blue ‘60s guy will choose the Byrds, of course!) 

What else did I want, Jim asked. Oh boy. Off the top of my head—Spiral Starecase, Chet Baker, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Eumir Deodato, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Simon and Garfunkel, any and all Sinatra, the original Broadway “Hair,” my favorite Broadway musicals (“South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” “The King and I”—sorry, boys and girls, no “Rent” or “Hamilton” there), and any album with the songs that just won’t go out of my head: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” “Amapola,” “Non ti scordar di me,” and “Sabor a mi.”

And no, this won’t be a new addiction. I just don’t have the space. I’m sure of it. Truly. I swear. 

Penman No. 413: My YouTube Playlist

Penman for Monday, May 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 405: A Serenade of Crickets

Penman for Monday, January 18, 2021

EVERY MORNING, I wake up to the sound of hundreds if not thousands of crickets chirping in my ears. I will hear them for the rest of the day—every second of every minute of every hour—until I fall asleep. There is practically no escape—not earplugs, not even the “white noise” prescribed by websites, unless it (or some music) is played at intolerably high volume. Pressing my palms against my ears merely adds a percussive instrument to the orchestra, the thump-thump-thump of my beating heart.

We live on the UP campus in Diliman, in the shade of towering mango trees. For some time I simply assumed that there were, indeed, choirs of crickets up in those branches, making love or at least just making noise, as crickets are supposed to do. And then one day I undertook a foolish experiment—foolish, because what hadn’t been a problem suddenly became one. I went to a place where I was totally sure no crickets would be found, or no external sounds would get through—and I still heard the same relentless hum. It was in me, with me, wherever, whenever.

A small voice in me says I should be panicking and screaming. I remember an old horror movie I saw on TV as a boy, where an insect—which I would later learn was an “earwig”—crawls into a man’s ear and stays there, deep in his ear canal, and burrows into his brain, until it turns him into a raving lunatic. A doctor performs a delicate operation and—much to the man’s relief—takes the wriggler out. At that point, the doctor holds up the dead insect in his pincers, and gravely announces that “It’s a female—and it seems to have laid its eggs.” The patient screams, and screams.

There have been times, these past many months under lockdown, when I’ve felt that way, as if some dark fluid monster had insinuated itself into my brain, my body, and indeed my spirit. I emerged from sleep drowning in a huge flood compounded of fear, sorrow, and regret over everything in general and nothing in particular. The mere mention of another friend’s death or intubation sent my imagination spinning, asking questions for which I had no answers, like “What will be worse—passage into a black void with no consciousness whatsoever, or into immortality, forever aware of every little thing in the universe, and also forever alone?” I knew what people would be telling me—have faith in a heaven, in angels, in the enveloping welcome of a blinding grace, and as a good Christian schoolboy I found comfort in those pastel promises of deliverance. But it was hard to believe anything in the state I found myself in, where even familiar walls and ceilings seemed inescapably malignant. 

It probably didn’t help that as the long lockdown began, I resolved to use the time to catch up on a heavy backlog of writing jobs going back years, and against all odds managed to complete the drafts of five book projects within five months in a dizzying frenzy. I felt superhuman, until I woke up one morning feeling all hollowed out.

Before long, I realized and had to admit that I was going through bouts of anxiety and its flipside, depression. This came as a huge surprise to someone who had prided himself on his wakefulness and presence of mind. In my last job before retirement as my university’s VP for Public Affairs, I had been constantly on call to the media and to the community at large, explaining our policies and positions with what I hoped was clarity and composure. Suddenly all that coolness vanished; I felt uncertain, tentative, unmoored.

A call to a psychiatrist-friend led me back on the slow road to wellness; I’m still on it, managing from day to day with a combination of medication, exercise, prayer, and time for nothing but nothing (ie, Netflix, fountain pens, old books, and typewriters). Beng and I dream idly of our next adventures in faraway places—St. Petersburg, before the Covid curtain fell. I find it relaxing to watch an hour-long YouTube video on “codicology,” the archaeology of old books, as well as another on the recovery and restoration of a 1937 Bugatti Atalante. I am nourishing my sense of wonderment again, finding reassurance in a remembered past to which we all hope to belong.

The only downside to my recovery has been this case of tinnitus, this constant ringing in my ears, listed as a rare side effect of my antidepressant. I recall from my graduate studies that the ancients posed a theory about the “Music of the Spheres,” supposedly the harmonious hum produced by the movement of celestial bodies in space, imperceptible to the human ear. Fancifully I imagine that perhaps I had broken through some dimensional barrier and was hearing this orbital buzz.

But a serenade of crickets seems just about right, and may be a tolerable price to pay for a patch of sanity. Turning 67 last week, I thought of all the books I have yet to write in the time I have left, and for which I have to stay sensible and alert. The crickets remind me there is time, and no need to hurry toward that inevitable infinitude of absolute silence just ahead.

Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

Penman No. 376: The Other Pepe

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Penman for Monday, December 9, 2019

 

THIS COLUMN started out in my mind as an account of a return visit to Dapitan, where my wife Beng and I had first gone eight years ago to pay homage to Jose Rizal, who had lived there in exile for four years between 1892 and 1896, until shortly before his arrest in Europe and his trial and execution in Manila. It was by many accounts a happy and productive interlude, during which he practiced his skills as physician, teacher, poet, and scientist, a period highlighted by his romance with a young woman named Josephine Bracken, whom he would later marry at death’s door.

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Indeed there’s no way you can visit his beachfront estate named Talisay, now a national shrine, without being swept up by the epic drama of Rizal’s last years—a drama wrought not in the theater of armed combat, but in the innermost recesses of his spirit, torn as he was by many loves and longings, successively losing a stillborn son, his freedom, and then his life. Again I looked at his clothes, his letters, and his artworks, trying to see the man beneath the trees, or on the water’s edge pointing something out to Josephine in the gathering dusk. (I keep a plaster bust of Rizal, crafted in 1961 by Anastacio Caedo, in my home office, and often find myself staring at it and asking, “What are you thinking?”)

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We had gone down to Dapitan via Dipolog, where the airport is, to enjoy a weekend with old friends from our time as the elves and acolytes of Dr. Gerry Sicat at the National Economic and Development Authority, back in the 1970s. Our boss at the Economic Information Staff, Frankie Aseniero, and his wife Nanette had graciously invited us to visit them in Dipolog, where Frankie, now retired but not quite, was a gentleman-farmer planting cacao and milling coco sugar and vinegar for the export market. With Beng and me were Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer-physician Ginny Pineda Garcia and her husband the photographer Oliver Garcia and the poet Fidel Rillo.

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We’re all friends now in our seniorhood, but I have to admit, with some shame, that in our rebellious twenties we gave Frankie a hard time at the office, so let me make up for some of that by talking about his other talents, beyond business and management, as well as his fascinating family history. As it happens, Francisco Aseniero, Jr. is also one of our country’s most celebrated tenors who never fails to make us swoon every time he launches into “Stranger in Paradise” or “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”; he has concertized all over the world and continues to lend his voice to programs benefiting worthy causes.

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How Frankie’s story connects with Rizal and a later phase of our history brings us back to Talisay, where Frankie’s grandfather Jose, then a boy of eleven or twelve, became a student of the other Pepe. So devoted was the boy to his teacher that he accompanied Rizal to Manila, hoping to be educated further in the big city, but events quickly overtook both master and pupil, and the young Jose had to suffer the harrowing experience of witnessing his hero’s execution. He had joined Rizal’s mother and sister on the eve of his death, and had seen and copied Rizal’s farewell poem, according to Frankie’s brother George, a philosopher and historian. Jose Aseniero went on to serve as governor of Zamboanga before the war. At one point he also acquired some of Rizal’s belongings, among which is the four-poster bed that can still be found in the Asenieros’ ancestral home.

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The story is no less interesting on Frankie’s maternal side. His grandfather there was a Swedish engineer named Charles Gustaf Carlson who migrated to the United States in 1895, and shortly after became a Protestant missionary to the Philippines, arriving in 1902 and being counted among the “Thomasites” who taught English to Filipinos. Charles became principal of the Industrial Trade School in Zamboanga, where he married a former student, Eugenia Enriquez. Among their six children was Ingeborg Eughenia, who met and married Francisco Aseniero, Jose’s engineer-son.

But what brought the whole experience together for me was a story that Frankie told us on our last day, as we were winding down, about one of his concerts in a small town in Bulacan. He and some friends had been invited to sing there, and he had obliged as usual. “I was surprised to find that in such a small place, the people thronged to see us, dressed in their Sunday best,” Frankie recalled. “We felt like we owed it to them to sing our hearts out, and we did.” He found himself singing like he would have done in London, Vienna, or New York, and the crowd responded with utmost appreciation as Frankie and his party offered up Broadway and operatic classics. “It was a magical moment, and seeing the people enjoying the music made my hair stand on end!”

How Jose Rizal himself would have loved that, having brought his world-honed talent to Dapitan, enriching and ennobling its soil for other and lesser Pepes like us following in his footsteps.

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Penman No. 343: A Feast for the Eye and Spirit

IMG_9257.jpegPenman for Monday, March 4, 2019

 

IF YOU ever find yourself with a free morning or afternoon in Manila, with some loose change in your pocket and a bee buzzing in your head about what to do, think no further and just do as I say: get thee to the San Agustin Museum in Intramuros. Your P200 (or even less, with concessions for seniors and students) will never be spent better, certainly not for a movie at the mall.

I hadn’t been to that museum in over 20 years; the last time I visited, it was a dark and gloomy place, as you might expect a 400-year-old institution to be. The museum is attached to the church of the same name, which was completed in stone in 1607 after two earlier and flimsier incarnations were destroyed by fire in 1574 and 1583. The Augustinians were inspired and industrious church builders—the corridors of the museum are lined with paintings of their glorious creations throughout the archipelago—and San Agustin Church itself remains the splendorous anchor of that evangelical effort.

The church has become a favorite choice for weddings, and indeed it was for the wedding of a friend that Beng and I went to San Agustin a few weeks ago. We got there an hour early, so we stepped into the foyer of the museum, and decided to while away the time viewing the exhibits. And what a feast for the eye and spirit that turned out to be.

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The museum is organized along six basic themes that circumscribe Augustinian life: Love for Songs, Love for Prayer, Love for Music, Love for Wisdom, Love for Science, and Love for Culture.

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Love for Songs speaks of the order’s devotion to liturgical music, embodied in the old choir books, many still on parchment, that were used in the church’s famous and now accessible choir loft, from where the visitor can appreciate the church’s full majesty under the towering organ.

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Love for Prayer describes the community’s gathering five times a day for prayer in that loft or coro, seated in intricately carved silleriaor choir stalls that go back to the early 1600s. The space is dominated by the lectern and organ. A tip for the visitor: peek behind the organ for a glimpse of the original colors of the place, preserved in the masonry.

Love for Music is a special exhibition of musical instruments employed for church services, highlighting the work of two important masters, the composer and organist Fr. Manuel Arostegui and musical director Marcel Adonay.

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Love for Wisdom brings us to the order’s library which, despite the ravages of war—many thousands of volumes were lost to Manila’s sacking by the British and then to the city’s bombardment in the Second World War—still displays books dating back to the 1500s, proof of the Augustinian devotion to scholarship (particularly to linguistics, based on the exhibits). Being something of an antiquarian, this was of the greatest interest to me (I noted with some amusement that the oldest book in the room was said to have been published in 1552—one year younger than the oldest in my personal collection), but unfortunately the library as a whole can be seen only through a glass wall, perhaps to protect its precious contents.

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Love for Science brings us to the work of the pioneering botanist Fr. Manuel Blanco, alongside that of two other Augustinian scientists, Fr. Ignacio Mercado and Fr. Antonio Llanos. It was, of course, Fr. Blanco’s Flora de Filipinasthat put the Philippines’ horticultural wealth on the global map, and the book’s illustrated 3rd edition (since reproduced) remains among the most coveted of Philippine publications.

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Finally, Love for Culture dwells on the Augustinian mission in education, starting with their first school in Cebu in 1565.

In a larger sense, that educational mission continues with the museum itself and what it offers the modern visitor—people like us who, immersed in the business and digital traffic of the 21stcentury, step into a time tunnel to be magically transported into a past materially composed of gold, ivory, parchment, and wood. Indeed, as we did, the best way to appreciate this museum is simply to walk through it, without too much thought to system or design, allowing the objects—whether they be glass-eyed Madonnas, gold-threaded priestly vestments, or the gravestone of Juan Luna y Novicio—to speak to you. I’m not even a particularly religious person—I’ve long had issues with the Church, despite my deep respect for its core intentions—but this exposure to specific aspects of the Augustinian mission in the Philippines strangely reassures me that good things survive.

Endowed by the likes of the late Don Luis Ma. Araneta, the museum has been very capably maintained and is well lit, and its two stories of exhibits, plus Father Blanco’s Garden, offer the visitor at least an hour of quiet wonderment—with an emphasis on “quiet,” an increasingly rare grace to be found in our frenetic city. Spare that hour and those 200 pesos; you will feel amply rewarded.

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