Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 408: Windows on the Filipino Soul

Penman for Monday, March 1, 2021

SOON TURNING 80, the veteran journalist and fictionist Amadis Ma. Guerrero has added another feather to his cap as one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of culture, particularly the visual arts. Less than two years ago, he gave us the splendid book Philippine Social Realists (Quezon City: Erehwon Artworld Corp.), where he reviewed ten of the country’s most accomplished advocates of social realism, prompting our own Juaniyo Arcellana to call him “a master of reportage, which he puts to good use in this series of portraits of the artist as Philippine social realist.”

This time, with the launch last week of SYM, Galicano, and PASPI, also published by Erehwon, Guerrero takes on the art of portraiture itself, and the Filipino artists who have devoted themselves to—and distinguished themselves in—this most difficult of artistic challenges.

Say the word “portrait” and what will likely spring to mind for most Filipinos—excluding the “Mona Lisa”—is Jose Rizal looking pensive and noble, as he should, frozen in a print that has become almost obligatory in most government offices (at least until certain Presidents and lesser politicians deemed themselves worthier of that spot on the wall). The older and well-heeled crowd will default to Fernando Amorsolo, who seems to have painted everyone’s rich and famous grandfather or grandmother. The more art-savvy might bring up John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. 

Indeed, portraits have served throughout history to glorify the sitters and their families, made to order by the most talented painters of their time, and paid for by the most powerful patrons of that same era. They were, and still are, quite frankly made for money, which usually meant a softer line here and a scatter of stardust there to idealize the hopefully happy subject. Occasionally and perhaps increasingly, they have also been made for love—if not love of art itself, then (to venture sideways into more theatrical territory) of the subjects who became their artists’ muses if not their lovers, such as Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Testorf or Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer.

In his overview of contemporary Philippine portraiture, Guerrero provides us not only with a visual feast of styles and talents but also with—in his own way—verbal portraits of the artists themselves: their back stories, their struggles, and how they came to see and use portraiture as their window on the Filipino soul. 

The title of the book may be cryptic to many, so let’s explain that “SYM” is Sofronio Y. Mendoza, the brother-in-law of fellow portraitist Romulo “Mulong” Galicano, and that “PASPI” is the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines, Inc., whose members the two masters have mentored. 

In his typically well-wrought foreword, Dr. Patrick Flores notes how important it is that “the story of art that this publication tells does not begin in Manila, perceived to be the center of the solar system of the Philippine art world. It rather unfolds in Carcar in Cebu. This in itself contributes to the body of literature on a species of Philippine art that takes root in and flourishes beyond the metropolitan privileges of Manila.” Carcar was where both Mendoza and Galicano studied at the foot of Cebu’s pre-eminent postwar painter, Martino Abellana, the so-called “Amorsolo of the South.”

Both men have since overtaken their teacher to become mentors to a new generation of gifted portraitists in PASPI, and the book offers glimpses into the life and works of many of its members—Wilfredo Baldemor, Romeo Ballada, Publio Briones, Jr., Carlos Cadid, Wilfredo Cañete, Jr., Ariel Caratao, Ramon de Dios, Efren Enolva, Carlos Florido, Alvin Montano, Maridi Nivera, Joemarie Sanclaria, Dante Silverio (yes, the Dante Silverio), and Lita Wells. 

With the exception of the former Toyota coach and long-time art enthusiast, few of these names will be familiar to most Filipinos, although many have attained some degree of professional accomplishment. Some, like Romy Ballada and Boboy Cañete, never went to art school (born poor, Cañete didn’t even get to high school), but their work is suffused with what matters most in portraiture: character—which, as a fictionist, I take to be the promise of a deeper story beyond the picture. The stylistic range presented runs from the classically posed to the problematic postmodern, but I enjoy it best when the painter takes a break from his or her usual material, such as Galicano’s decidedly anti-romantic “The Sleeping Model.” (The book also explains why Galicano adopted his trademark stripe in his paintings.)

Amadis Guerrero tells well-framed stories of the artists and their passions with great empathy and efficiency, and I hope that he will be commissioned (as this is the only way this will happen here) to do full-length biographies of our National Artists such as Botong Francisco and Mang Enteng Manansala. Also praiseworthy is Erehwon’s continuing commitment to art publishing, and to producing such handsome volumes (this one was designed and photographed by Willie de Vera). A recent winner of Quezon City’s Gawad Parangal for its leadership in the arts, Erehwon and its visionary founder, Raffy Benitez—who has sunk millions into his baby knowing he’ll never get it all back—deserve our gratitude and admiration. 

Penman No. 404: Delightful Duos

Penman for Monday, January 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 399: Teacher’s Travails

Penman for Monday, October 26, 2020

WE CAN’T let this month pass without remarking that World Teachers Day came and went last October 5—the same day that 22 million public school students forcibly entered the digital age in the Philippines, many probably kicking and screaming, or more likely staring at a spinning wheel on a tablet screen or a blank wall.

Covid has wrought what two decades of wishful thinking on the part of some futurists could not—a mass migration to distance education, with students responding to their teachers’ questions from a hundred kilometers away. No more long commutes, no more packed lunches, no more fooling around at the malls after (or during) class. 

At least that’s the dreamy theory. As millions of Filipino parents are discovering, being housebound with their kids, tethered to a tablet or laptop and doing Math and Reading with a child more interested in recess, isn’t exactly a recipe for familial harmony. 

We know this for a fact because our resident apu-apuhan Buboy, now in senior nursery (how can a four-year-old be in any way “senior”?), has been showing all the signs of juvenile rebellion, ducking beneath his chair and the study table we’ve set up for him, while his classmates dutifully recite their ABC’s and 123’s, to the dismay of his mom, our faithful housekeeper Jenny, who keeps him company throughout his 90-minute class. Buboy also finds great delight in seemingly making fun of whatever Teacher says, repeating his own exaggerated version of “Children, be kind!” and similar admonitions.

It’s not that Buboy can’t handle technology. Like many kids today, he’s a digital native, able to turn on an iPad and navigate YouTube on his own. When the Internet is slow, he’ll tell his Tatay Butch that the “signal” is weak and that the image is “loading.” He can’t read yet, but he knows what “USB” is and, perhaps dangerously, can jam a USB device into its port, properly oriented. I’ve heard him trying to coax Alexa into singing the ABC song, and my daily playtime with him invariably includes putting him in the driver’s seat of the Suzuki Jimny, from where he punches all the buttons within his reach, wrangles the wheel and gearshift, and pretends we’re driving to Bicol (the only other place he knows, aside from Cavite, his grandparents’ domiciles). I’ve promised to give him the Jimny when he grows tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals—for which he first has to eat a lot of rice and vegetables—and I have no doubt he’ll hold me to that pledge, when the time comes.

It’s not that he’s inattentive, either, because Jenny says that Buboy regurgitates the day’s lessons in his bugoy way when they’re alone after class, as if to say, “I was listening, okay? I just wasn’t that interested.” Younger than most of his classmates, Buboy has to catch up on reading and arithmetic, but we’re not worried—the learning will happen sooner or later, one way or another, and the more important thing is for him to have fun in school, not an easy thing when all you see are faces on a screen. The onus of keeping Buboy and his like focused and occupied is on moms like Jenny, who now have to be co-teachers on top of everything else.

The other person at home adjusting to the new normal is my wife Beng, who is teaching at UP for the first time in her long career. She’s done many hands-on workshops before, but teaching Art Conservation online is a bit like learning cooking by reading the recipe. Beng was literally in tears when she was cobbling her coursepack together before the semester started, wondering what she had gotten herself into, but peeking over her shoulder during her biweekly classes (she calls me her “Assistant Emeritus”), I can see that she and the kids are having a grand time, despite the weak wi-fi and the inevitable absences.

So all this will pass, as we’re constantly being reassured, and maybe it will. I just happen to have a copy of the October 1932 issue of the Philippine Teacher’s Digest, and one of its US-based articles speaks of “The Maintenance of School Services During the Period of Economic Depression”:

“The school program is being restricted. It is being proposed in many communities that the schools can get along with less music and art. The health service has been crippled or abolished. Opportunities in the industrial and household arts have been removed from the curriculum. The work in physical education is less adequately provided. Indeed, there are those who propose that a return to the curriculum of a past century is the solution to the problem of the support of education.”

Eighty-eight years later, some of that still sounds distressingly familiar, as does this refrain from another article in the same issue: “Teachers strongly protest against any radical action to reduce the teachers’ salaries. They believe that the reduction of teachers’ salaries will drive from the service many efficient teachers and promising applicants…. In general, teachers are underpaid.”

Very true, but for all that, I’m pretty sure that Buboy’s teacher, his mom Jenny, and his Nanay Beng will do everything they can do stare this pandemic in the eye to make sure there’s more to his fourth year of life than cartoons, TikTok, and Gummi Bears.

Penman No. 397: Vision 2020: An Artist Responds to Covid

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

WHILE SHE was undergoing therapy for depression, the celebrated American poet Anne Sexton explained why she kept doing what she did: “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately and tragically succumbed to her inner demons, like her friend with whom she shared revelations and martinis, Sylvia Plath—is, in a way, almost irrelevant: what matters is that she fought back, and beautifully, leaving behind the luminous corpus of her poetry.

History tells us that this is what many artists do, under great stress and even in the face of direct threats to their lives: they use their art to resist death and annihilation, as if to say “I am here, I matter, and I will survive.” It is, of course, the art that survives, both as a testament to the moment and subject of its creation and as the indelible handprint of its creator, left on the cave walls of Time. The Greek physician Hippocrates put it well in his reminder: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long—art endures, art is forever.

Today in 2020, in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and claimed close to a million lives, the artist is once again challenged to respond to the global crisis in an intensely personal way, both as an act of self-affirmation and as the inevitable chr0nicler of one’s times. Like a traveler surveying a landscape ravaged by death and disease, the artist seeks to depict not only the obvious carnage and the accompanying cacophony of grief but also the larger patterns and movements of people in a stricken society, as well as the startling efflorescence of goodness and hope here and there amid the suffering.

From the first scientific drawings of the human anatomy onwards, there has been a long tradition of connections and interactions between art and medicine or art and science. Artists have been credited for their uncannily accurate portrayals of disease; reports exist of how dermatologists identified two dozen skin lesions on the subjects of paintings at the National Art Gallery in London, how Caravaggio depicted goiter, and so on. 

But when it strives for or achieves sublimity, art is more than illustration, and rarely is the disease itself the subject, but rather the excuse to draw attention to the responses to it—of the directly afflicted, of the physician, of the family and the neighbors, and of us the onlookers; in other words, of society itself as a complicit agent in the process of infection and perhaps also of healing. 

Indeed, if there is anything that the pandemic has achieved, it has been to force us to think of ourselves as a society, as one organism, the infection of one part of which could lead to the death of all. But despite the political rhetoric of “healing as one,” it has not made us think as one or act as one—yet; we remain as fractious as ever, trapped in feudal modes and mindsets of privilege and power. Death should have been the Great Equalizer, reaping patrician and peon alike, but yet again this plague, like its predecessors, has merely revealed and emphasized the disparities and infirmities that were there all along, with the affluent able to convert the long lockdown into albeit boring staycations and the huddled poor—already socially distanced from their neighbors across the wall long before Covid—struggling to subsist on donated rice and sardines. 

And so the artist steps back to ask: where is the body, and what is the disease? Is it just the intubated patient who is ill? 

In a new exhibit of works that he has prepared for Galerie Joaquin (www.galeriejoaquin.com), the painter Juanito Torres takes us through many of the tropes that the past six months of lockdown have embedded in the Filipino psyche: chiefly, that of the physician as hero and savior, most strikingly portrayed in “Darating Din ang Bagong Umaga,” a painting steeped in iconography—the doctor sprouting angel’s wings standing victorious over a demonic virus and holding a cross that also serves as the staff of Asclepius, entwined with his healing serpent. It’s St. Michael the Archangel, treading on Satan’s dragon. In another work, “Lupang Hinirang,” Rizal, Bonifacio and other heroes are dressed as doctors raising the Filipino flag, like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima. 

But most of the other paintings are decidedly contemporary, a dramatically enhanced rendering of the new normal, with citizens wearing gas masks in the most ordinary places, seemingly resigned to their fate.

These are works that clearly demand interrogation, beyond the admiration that their technical excellence will generate. In reaching for metaphor, almost to the point of parody, Torres raises the question of whether we might have overdone the “hero” bit, not because they’re not heroes, but because they may not want to be. As it is, some doctors and medical workers have resisted if not refused the “hero” tag, not out of modesty but because it has become an excuse of sorts, an easy way out for the non-heroes to underperform and lay the burden of saving society on the medical frontliners. The banality of gas masks in everyday life implies acceptance of—if not surrender to—an occupation army. But notably, the frontliners in “Tagumpay,” who toss their medical masks into the air in joyous celebration, are wingless and entirely human—as if to say, this is when we will win, when we can be again as we were, as we truly are.

We know that that will not be easy, and between now and then we may have to draw and depend on mythologizing and self-enlargement to slay the dragon in our midst. The true St. Michael may be the artist yet, and the true dragon may be even larger than corporeal disease. 

(The physical exhibit will be staged at Galerie Joaquin at the UP Town Center from October 21 to 31, 2020.)

Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him. 

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepeña. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach. 

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

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Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

IT MUST be part of human nature, in times of disaster or adversity, to seek some consolation or refuge in the past, more specifically in the misfortunes of others. It’s a kind of Schadenfreude across generations rather than distance, although not so much to derive pleasure as reassurance to the effect that, in time, all miseries have an end, all crises can be survived.

I have to admit that—interned for a month with the TV, the laptop, and my books for company—I’ve acquired a rather morbid interest in discovering what other people went through at other times, faced with the enormity of mysterious and murderous disease. We know by now how Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in us, stoking our deepest fears even as we marvel at the courage and generosity of a relative few. We—especially those of us in the emotionally vulnerable middle class—cringe at the possibility that desperation will lead to chaos.

History sadly provides little comfort in that respect. Awful things do happen in awful times, chiefly thievery and murder, although not always by the people you’d expect.

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Writing about plague-hit Florence in the 1630s in Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence, (U. of California Press, 1989), Giulia Calvi noted that “Up to this point, the most surprising theme is how little fear contagion caused. In overcrowded houses, stinking alleys, and rooms that still held the dead, both actually and in memory, neighbors, relatives, and friends came and went—entering, stealing, taking things at random, and getting caught. They passed items from hand to hand, through windows and doors, wells and gratings; they knocked down house walls, climbed garden walls, and even lowered goods by rope from rooftops. The epidemic appeared to generate every emotion save fear of death.”

But a subtler kind of theft was also happening, with the emergence of medical amateurs, charlatans, and quacks offering all kinds of cures, from potions tried out in previous epidemics such as “simple curative roots and coral powder” to a recipe for “three black spiders, three serpents, three deaf vipers, three frogs, ten tarantulas, and fifty scorpions and other poisonous animals—alive, if possible—over a small flame like one used for soap or stew.” A thriving guild of doctors and herbalists controlled and approved the sale of these prescriptions on the street—for a fee, of course, evading which cost the offender a hefty fine.

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Hysteria bred by ignorance also led to wanton killing, as in 1820, when cholera and xenophobia led to the “Massacre at Manilla” of English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese nationals reported on in my 1822 copy of The Atheneum, a Boston-based magazine. It’s a grisly account echoed by the adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere in his book published more than 30 years later:

“I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines. On the 9th October, 1820, the anniversary of my departure from France, a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite. Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed.”

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But as dramatic as these events were, the real tragedy was that the plague quietly targeted its victims, and more often chose the poor. Early in January 1900, reports of bubonic plague began coming out of Manila, such as this account in a San Francisco newspaper: “The bubonic plague is yet sporadic. There have been six cases and four deaths. Preparations are being made to establish hospitals and quarantine. Great numbers of provincial natives are coming to Manila, with whom the city is overcrowded, the increase in accommodations being inadequate. The rice necessary for foodstuffs is more expensive than at any period during the last twelve years. The plague is dangerous to the overcrowded, unfed and unwashed natives and Chinese.”

A lab report such as the one excerpted below (from The Plague: Bacteriology, Morbid Anatomy, and Histopathology, Including a Consideration of Insects as Plague Carriers by Maximilian Herzog, MD, published in Manila by the Bureau of Public Printing, 1904) may have been clinically precise, but the sadness of a child wasted by the lice (pediculi) common to her station is inescapable:

“The body of a female child, 9 to 10 years of age, well developed. Post-mortem rigidity strong…. Before the body had been opened, three pediculi were picked up from the scalp with sterile forceps and dropped first into an empty sterile test tube and later into three flasks containing 50 cubic centimeters of sterile, slightly alkaline bouillon…. Inquiries were made as to the possibility of the girl’s having been infested with pediculi from someone living in an infected district.”

We learn that disease will ravage and kill the body, but also that, in the long run, disease and even death itself can be defeated—with knowledge, understanding, and willful compassion.

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Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

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But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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