Penman No. 417: From Cory to Covid: An Alternative History

for the Star’s 35th anniversary, July 2, 2021

WHEN THE Philippine STAR was founded 35 years ago, we were still enveloped in the euphoric glow of having successfully deposed a dictator peacefully and installing an icon of democracy in his place. I was one of that happy throng on EDSA celebrating what we believed was a new dawn of hope, a fresh opportunity for our people to grow in freedom and prosperity. Like many writers, I ran out of metaphors and superlatives to describe that moment, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. 

Nowadays it has become commonplace—indeed even fashionable in some quarters—to revise and reject that narrative, and to claim that it was a foolish mistake to have replaced a seasoned politician with a rank amateur. Martial law wasn’t so bad; no wanton thievery took place; only a few were hurt for the good of the many; we were never so disciplined, and our streets were never so clean.

How we came to this point—like the resurgence of Nazism in Europe and of racism in Trump’s America—is for me the great mystery of those 35 years, an arc of sorts marked by Cory on one end and by Covid on the other. There’s certainly no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, as should happen in fairyland—which we rather quickly realized, right after EDSA, was not where we were.

For some such as Jose Rizal, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Mozart, Manuel Arguilla, Bruce Lee, Eva Peron, and, yes, Jesus Christ, 35 years was a lifetime. You could have been born in a hospital while the tanks were massing at EDSA, and died this year of Covid, gasping for breath in that same place. Had that happened to me, I would have protested and pleaded, albeit inaudibly through my tubes, that it wasn’t fair, that I deserved a peek over the horizon, at least through to the May election, to see if it was worth the wait—or not, and then slink into sullen slumber. 

During that time, I grew from a young father and a writer on the verge of a teaching career to an aching retiree surrounded by old books and creaky machines, and I have to wonder if our nation fared better and learned as much. Or should I say “unlearned”? At EDSA I learned to hope, to trust in the ideal and the good again, to have positive expectations of the new century looming ahead. FVR and his “Philippines 2000” thumbs-up may have seemed hokey at the time, but there was a genuine spring in that step, a sense of things going in the right direction. And then they began falling apart, the old mistrust and suspicions returned, and we took one president down and nearly succeeded with yet another.

But it wasn’t just us. The closing decades of the 20th century were a time of sweeping changes all over the world. Soon after Marcos fell, a tide of reform and revolution washed across Eastern Europe and eventually into the Soviet Union itself; that union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like the era of dictators and despots was over, but it was not. With Hong Kong in its navel, China morphed into a commercial colossus, proving that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go together. The 1997 financial crisis shook the planet.

After 9/11, whatever remaining hopes we had of a better new century vaporized, and the new specter of terrorism now stalked the globe. Barely had ISIS retreated from the sands of Syria when a new and even more insidious plague, Covid-19, threatened to annihilate mankind. 

Others will remember this period as the age of cocaine, corporate greed, mass shootings, and, generally speaking, a culture of excess, of over-the-top indulgence on whatever floated your boat: drugs, sex, money, power, toys. Very few people had actual access to them, but the media—that’s another whole story—kept glorifying vice as virtue, until many began to believe it well enough to dream. It was Dickens’ “best of times and worst of times” all over again.

That would be the sober—and sobering—summary of what tomorrow’s history books will be saying about those decades. But of course—and thankfully—it wasn’t all politics and the misery that often comes with plays for power.

There’s a part of me that wants to tell the story of these past 35 years as the rise of consumer technology toward near-total domination of our daily lives. Humor me as I recall little vignettes to show what I mean.

When the EDSA uprising broke out, we heard the news over a big black Panasonic radio-cassette player that I had picked up years earlier at the Zamboanga barter trade place (along with the obligatory sotanghon and White Rabbit candies). It was—beside our 12-inch, black-and-white, red plastic-bodied TV—our news and entertainment center in the boonies of San Mateo. It sat on our dinner table, accompanying our meals like a permanent guest, sometimes directing the conversation.

When it spewed out the news that something dramatic was taking place at EDSA, and when we heard Cardinal Sin calling on people to go, we knew we had to. Not long after, we piled into my VW Beetle, turned on its radio for updates, and headed for the trenches. For the next few days or so, radio was king, whether at home, in your car, or in your pocket (yes, boys and girls, there was pocket radio; TV was around but only the coolest people had portable versions).

I missed out on most of the Cory years because I went to America for my graduate studies, and there I became anchored to the payphone for my calls home, clutching a handful of quarters to feed the machine. I had hand-carried an Olympia typewriter to write my thesis on, but then I discovered computers, and in 1991 I lugged home a 20-pound behemoth with all of 10 megabytes to fill up. I felt like a gunslinger—I was going to write the next Noli, protect the weak, and get justice with one floppy disk after another.

Nothing would define the ‘90s more than the personal computer, and I soon equated the machine with creation, the blinking cursor with a challenge to produce. I drooled (and lost the plot) when I watched Scully and Mulder hunched over a super-sexy PowerBook 540c in the X-Files, and when I got my own, it was like Moses receiving the tablets—with a trackpad and an active-matrix display. 

Soon another gadget emerged with which we felt even more tethered to some central brain: the pager, whose insistent buzz enhanced our importance, even if it all it asked was where you were and could you please come home. Fake news had yet to be invented as a cottage industry, but a lot of it, I’m sure, went through EasyCall and PocketBell.

By the time the next EDSA happened, we had something far snappier and more personal than radio with which to undertake regime change. Yes, I was now writing speeches on a Mac, but the messages flew thick and fast on a new gadget—the cellphone. If EDSA 1 succeeded because of radio, this iteration flew on the wings of SMS, the millions of texts (the jokes, the rumors, the calls to action) whose accretion would spell the end for an inebriated presidency. 

As it happened, 2001 would be memorable for another image seared into our consciousness: the collapse of the Twin Towers, brought to us slightly delayed and in full color by satellite TV. We’d had TV before, of course, but had always seen it more as Comedy Central, a box to gather the family around. CNN changed that, and brought the world’s torments to our living rooms. Cheaper TVs, one in every room, had long fragmented the family, especially when Betamax and VHS, the precursors of Netflix, became available.

A few years later, a cellular phone call and a recorder almost took another political giant down, causing millions to gasp and laugh as the tape was replayed on TV and radio over and over. “Ang importante hindi madamay yung sa itaas,” said a female voice, which was exactly what happened. That year, 2005, was also the year a platform called YouTube was born—and thanks to YouTube, the tape can still be heard, for all digital eternity.

Indeed, video, the Internet, and social media would soon change the political and cultural landscape, not just here but the world over, although the Pinoy—perhaps in response to that elusive quest for Olympic gold—has towered over much of humanity in terms of Facebook usage (and earlier, in SMS transmissions). One way of putting it would be that we are the world’s champion usiseros and chismosos, resorting to Twitter or Instagram at the merest hint of an idea, no matter how malformed. 

Today we have an abundance of information and information sources at our disposal—and yet we seem to be as ill-informed as ever, with opinions shaped and manipulated by Sith Lords in the Dark Web. Dismissing newspapers and editors as gatekeepers of the truth—which not all of them have been—we create our own versions and peddle them instantly for a thousand “likes,” the supreme accolade of the early 21st century. Most others might prefer to be simply receivers and forwarders of whatever crosses their screens, the passive agents of mindlessness.

Thirty-five years ago, we drove to EDSA on pure conviction that it was the right thing to do. Without Twitter or even SMS, no one could tell us “Right on!” or “Me, too!” We listened for scraps of news and turned them over and over in our hushed minds; we could be killed; we could be free; would our friends be there; what else did we study for. It was a long drive from San Mateo to my in-laws’ place in Project 4, where we parked the car and walked to EDSA. It was a lot of time to think. 

Thirty-five years is a lot of time, but looking around today, with Filipinos still dying by the gun or by drowning in one’s own fluids in some alien hospital, I have to wonder how this narrative arc from Cory to Covid will end—or how much longer it will go, at least in my lifetime, which naively still yearns for a happy ending.

Penman No. 415: Stay Curious!

Penman for Monday, June 7, 2021

OVER THE past month, I was asked to speak to two groups—one an assembly of teachers, and the other of students—to share my ideas about college education, and specifically the kind of liberal, interdisciplinary education being offered at the University of the Philippines and other progressive universities.

Rather than talk about curricula and theories of education—never my strong suit—I opted to look back on my 36 years of teaching and on my own experience as a student to figure out what I truly learned from that crucial period in every young person’s life, beyond the books we read. Some of these realizations came long after college—which was all right, since one of the things that college should teach us is that education is a lifelong process that goes beyond degrees earned and seminars attended.

So I came up with a 12-point wish list of what I as a teacher want my students learn—whether in my classes or outside of them, at school and in life. 

I phrased these 12 statements as simply as possible, without too many elaborations, because I didn’t want to sound like a research paper. Rather, I wanted my listeners to think of these statements as provocations, things to keep at the back of their minds, and for the students to remember four or five years hence when they graduate from college. Here goes:

1. You don’t have to understand everything right away. In any case, you can’t. Some things in life will forever remain mysteries—some of them wonderful, some of them perplexing. Staying curious is what matters to the lifelong learner. Boredom is often just the absence of curiosity.

2. Engagement helps—and by engagement, I mean investing yourself, putting in your time, effort, and maybe even money behind some belief or idea or activity that means something to you. Sometimes engagement is the best way of knowing, learning, and finally understanding. 

3. Not everything has to have practical value—at least not yet, or maybe ever. Value can mean more than utility or money. Delight and discovery are their own rewards.

4. You are not the center of the universe. Not everything has to do with you. However, every connection you can make to the world around you leaves a mark that you were here—and that, in your own way, you mattered.

5. Learn to see time in years and centuries, not seconds or hours. If you want to foretell the future, look back to the past. We may seem to be headed for the future, but in fact we will all inevitably be part of the past. How will you want to be remembered?

6. Intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and wisdom are very different things. Knowledge without values is worthless and even dangerous. The middling student who has a sense of good and bad and right and wrong is worthier than the summa cum laude who doesn’t.

7. The first thought that comes to your mind may not be the best one. Pause and think before you speak or write, especially in these days of Facebook and Twitter. Speech but also silence can require courage and good judgment.

8. Learn to love something larger than yourself, your family, and your prized possessions. “Nation,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” are very attractive ideas, but you have to learn to bring these big words down to earth, in concrete forms, actions, and decisions. Can you accept that you are your housekeeper’s equal as a human being? 

9. Be prepared to take risks and to make mistakes—and even to fail. You can learn more from failure than from over-performance. Everybody—even the very best of us—will fail sometime, and it will be good to believe that we are all entitled to at least one big mistake in our lives.

10. Be prepared to change your mind. As you grow and learn, some things will become more simple, and others more complex. You are not a fixed entity; you are changing all the time, and you can change faster than the world around you. 

11. Technology can be deceptive. It can lead us to believe that the world is changing very fast and for the better. That may be true for some of us and for the way we live. But for many others left behind, the world is no better than it was a hundred years ago.

12. Competition is good, but cooperation or even compromise is often better—and necessary. Poems are written by solitary genius, but bridges, cathedrals, and nations are built by many minds and hands. The best way to deal with loneliness is to find meaning in the many—to learn from and to contribute to the experience of others.

With that, I wished the students the best on their next adventures in college, and just as Steve Jobs told us to “Stay hungry, stay foolish!”, I urged them to stay curious, so they will always enjoy learning, inside or outside of school.

Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined. 

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.) 

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

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. 361: Intelligence Without Values

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Penman for Monday, July 8, 2019

 

IT’S NOT very often that a writer or artist gets invited to talk to an audience of science people, so I feel privileged to have done that a few times, most notably in 2004, when I spoke before the National Academy of Science and Technology on “The Role of the Humanities in Our Intellectual and Cultural Life,” and these past two years when I addressed the graduating classes of the UP College of Science and College of Medicine.

But I didn’t feel as personally invested in those talks as when, last week, I spoke at the curricular review workshop of the Philippine Science High School, being someone who had dreamed of becoming a scientist and who actually tried to become an engineer and an economist before settling for an English major.

I entered the PSHS in 1966, long before there was a Philippine High School for the Arts for the artistically inclined, but even given the choice today I would have stayed with the PSHS, to which I’m forever grateful for giving me a dry-eyed, rationalist outlook to ballast my more extravagant impulses.

I reminded my PSHS audience that despite the best efforts of our science managers and educators, we Filipinos continue to live in an environment largely indifferent if not hostile to science. Indeed our artists and scientists have something in common—they don’t figure in making national policy in this country, which is lorded over by politicians, businessmen, generals, priests, and even entertainers.

This establishes a special and urgent mission for our graduates—to matter not just in the laboratory, churning out papers for academia and products for industry, but in society itself, to help Filipinos make more intelligent and responsible choices based on truth and reason. They should not only be proficient in the traditional academic disciplines, but should—even and especially at this early stage—be potential thought leaders, citizens of conscience, champions of truth, reason, and justice.

I recall, with both pride and sadness, the kind of such public intellectuals that our first batches produced—the likes of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, Roberto Verzola, Rodel Rodis, and Ciel Habito; some became scientists, some did not. But their sharpness of mind was matched by a breadth of spirit that saw them engaged in the larger discourses of our national life, addressing with authority and passion the great issues of our time.

I am worried that apart from the fact that we produce scientists who are not listened to and are even manipulated by politicians for their ends, we may be producing scientists imbued with talent and professional zeal but without values—smart people who cannot tell good from bad and right from wrong. Recall Dr. Faustus, the medieval progenitor of Hollywood’s mad scientist whose insatiable thirst for knowledge comes at the expense of his soul.

The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values. We have geniuses aplenty, many of them employed by those in power, but like their despotic bosses they are moral idiots who have lost their sense of outrage and their fear of God. They laugh at jokes that degrade women, condone if not encourage rape, and betray everything we have been brought up to believe about decency, honor, virtue, and patriotism. There is sometimes no one more corruptible than an intelligent person, because that person believes that he or she can explain and rationalize everything away, including complicity in mass murder and the propagation of falsehood.

Values are a humanist concern; right and wrong, good and bad are established not in the crucible of the laboratory but in the corridors of debate. One of culture’s loftiest functions is to remind us of something larger and worthier than ourselves, something worth living and dying for, like God, family, and country. It will be the humanities that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities; and it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

Humanizing the scientist in training, our young PSHS student, involves more than infusing the curriculum with Humanities and Arts subjects, as important and today as imperiled as they may be. Certainly they need to be exposed to poetry, to painting, to music, to philosophy, and to history as we all were.

But humanizing the PSHS student also means treating him or her literally as a human—as a complex, bright but vulnerable being whose life yet stretches far ahead, an unfolding adventure whose most interesting moments are yet to come.

At this point I brought up what I call the stupid, unscientific, and counter-productive contract that incoming PSHS students are required to sign, binding them to take a science course in college. Indisputably the main mission of a science high school is to produce scientists in training, which our country sorely needs. But I’ve also seen how some kids, bright as they are, burn out in college, dejected by having signed away their option to pursue their heart’s desire. You cannot hold a 12-year-old to a contract that will define what he or she will become for the rest of his or her life.

I’m sure my fellow vagrants like the writer Jessica Zafra, the dancer Nestor Jardin, the indigenous people’s activist Vicky Tauli Corpuz, the historian Rico Jose, the film director Auraeus Solito, the composer Joel Navarro, the model Anna Bayle, and the former SGV partner and Accenture chief Jaime del Rosario, among many others, would agree. Our minds were challenged and enriched by our science education, and that training remained with us for the rest of our lives.

Trust the student; trust his or her intelligence to make the best and most responsible decision for himself or herself. Whatever happens, the great majority of them will move on to a career in science, in any case—not because they have to, but because they want to.

Penman No. 353: Our Very Own Indiana Jones

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Penman for Monday, May 13, 2019

 

IT ISN’T every day that a Filipino scientist captures the imagination not only of his own people but of the world, but last month, this amazing feat happened, putting Filipino science squarely on the global map.

The “feat” wasn’t just one event but the culmination of many years of painstaking work, research, and analysis, culminating in the publication of the results in Nature magazine of a cover article titled “Out of Asia: A newly discovered species of hominin from the Philippines,” attributed to an international team including Filipino archeologists Armand Mijares, Eusebio Dizon, and Emil Robles. The article announced the discovery of what the team named Homo luzonensis, a new and previously unknown hominin or human-like species. (For a laymanized version of the article, see here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01152-3.)

The discovery consisted of about a dozen small bones found over several years in Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, which taken together indicate that an early form of man lived here at least 50,000 years ago. Dr. Mijares, an associate professor with the University of the Philippines’ archeological studies program who led the international team, had been excavating the area since the early 2000s. In 2007, the digging paid off with the discovery of a foot bone “dated to 67 thousand years ago  (which) provided the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Philippines,” according to Nature. The discovery radically questions and reforms previous theories about human migration in Southeast Asia.

As exciting as the unearthing of luzonensis was, almost just as important was the fact of Mandy Mijares—a UP Manila graduate who took his PhD at the Australian National University—getting published in Nature, which stands at the very pinnacle of scientific publishing. As another well-known UP scientist and a good friend of Mandy’s, the geologist Dr. Mahar Lagmay, puts it, “It is every serious researcher’s dream and struggle to publish in this journal. Out of the 15,000 manuscript submissions that the editorial board of Nature receives a year, only 1,000 or approximately 7% are accepted for publication. Only 2% of science journals have an impact factor of 10 or higher. In 2017, Nature’s IF was 41.57—equivalent to publishing 40 articles in most other scientific journals.”

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Mandy also happens to be a brother of mine in UP’s Alpha Sigma fraternity (that’s him in the middle, with me and Smart founder Doy Vea), and last week, the brods honored our very own Indiana Jones in a public program at the Asian Center, where he also presented his findings. I was asked to say a few words, and here’s part of what I said:

I had been hearing about this discovery from Brod Mandy in my private conversations with him over the past two years, and I knew he was sitting on something literally groundbreaking but even I had no sense of the magnitude of his project until I saw it on the cover of Nature. In my lectures on science journalism, I often refer to Nature as the one of the summits of scientific publishing. It’s hard enough to get published in, and much, much harder to land on the cover of. That’s what Mandy Mijares has been able to do.

But bragging rights aside, the joy I share with Mandy comes from seeing scientific inquiry and intellect recognized and rewarded in an environment that has become increasingly indifferent if not hostile to intelligence, indeed to the search for truth. Sophistry and opportunism have overtaken scholarship and honest labor, and political hacks purport to know and dispense the truth better than scientists and artists remote from the centers of money and power.

The discovery of luzonensis reaffirms the role of a university not just in its own country but in the world at large—in spearheading and supporting the pursuit of knowledge, even knowledge that will probably not add one percentage point to GDP or have any practical application we can think of at the moment, but which enlarges our understanding of ourselves as humans.

The question that luzonensis poses for us in the 21st century is, how much farther have we truly come along as humans from our hominin ancestors, and what have we done with our humanity? Are we any less crude, any less brutal? Could it be that luzonensiswas more caring for its own kind than we are today with ours? What have we done with our larger brains, our gift of language, with which we have become so facile that we can now distort the truth without batting an eyelash and even look smart and smugly smile and be praised by others for how cleverly we get away with murder? Faced with a creature that may have had no appreciation or even need for truth, reason, and justice, what does it say about us today, many millennia later, at a time when a good many of us seem to be in the same position, and let me repeat—with no appreciation or need for, and perhaps just a flickering memory of, truth, reason, and justice?

I’ll stop here before my sadness gets the better of me and beclouds the brightness of the hour, which properly belongs to Homo luzonensis and its brilliant discoverer. I’ll end with our fraternity’s exhortation to seek excellence in all endeavors—or I should say, in all good and just endeavors. Mabuhay ka, Brod Mandy!

Penman No. 333: An Academy of Our Own

DSC_9291.JPGPenman for Monday, December 24, 2018

 

EXACTLY A month ago, in the auditorium of the newest campus of the University of the Philippines at Bonifacio Global City, an event of great historical significance took place—the first general assembly and forum of the newly organized Akademyang Filipino, the first Philippine academy of arts, sciences, and the professions.

Conceived together by National Artist F. Sionil Jose and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, the independent and non-partisan Akademyang Filipino was set up for three main goals:

“To recognize and bring together, in one chamber, the best of Filipino minds and spirits, accomplished representatives of the Filipino arts, sciences, and professions, imbued with love of country and the spirit of service to the nation;

“To uplift the material and moral lot of the Filipino people, to define, promote and defend the best interests of the Filipino nation, and to find and nurture new sources of hope and inspiration for the Filipino youth; and

“To provide a forum for the rational discussion of pressing issues and the exploration of pathways to a better future.”

In other places, such academies have had somewhat more focused roles. The venerable Academie française is devoted to being the authority on the French language; the Taiwan-based Academia Sinica covers a broad range of disciplines but supports advanced research.

In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the collective name of the three honorific academies in those disciplines. Since its founding in 1863, these national academies have pledged “to marshal the energy and intellect of the nation’s critical thinkers to respond to policy challenges…. When faced with a complex question, we bring together experts from across disciplines to look at the evidence with fresh eyes and openness to insights from other fields. These study committees survey the landscape of relevant research, hold public meetings to gather information, and deliberate to reach consensus, which results in a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.” Studies and advice by the National Academies have covered such diverse topics as fixing the Hubble telescope, preventing wrongful convictions, and preparing young Americans for careers in science and engineering.

This is probably closer to what the Akademyang Filipino aims for—to repeat, “a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.”

In our first forum, Justice Carpio gave a masterful presentation of the history of China’s claims to Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea, using ancient maps to prove—as a good lawyer might be expected to do—the paucity of those claims. A panel of Akademya members and West Philippine Sea experts—De La Salle University’s Renato Cruz de Castro, UP’s Jay Batongbacal, and author and columnist Richard Heydarian—discussed the current Philippine government stand on the disputes was and warned against a policy of appeasement and surrender.(The DFA was invited but apparently declined to send a representative to the forum.)

The Akademya’s 100-plus founding members—a roster that could grow as more names are vetted—were selected by an interim board composed of NA Frankie Jose, National Scientist Angel Alcala, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Sen. Sonny Angara, former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Atty. Felipe Gozon, Dr. Lydia Echauz, Ms. Doris Magsaysay Ho, and myself. We also elected Justice Carpio Morales our chairperson, and NA Jose as Chairman Emeritus.

Some easily recognizable faces at the launch included former UP President Emerlinda Roman, former Education Sec. Armin Luistro, former Foreign Affairs Sec. Delia Albert, former National Historical Commission Chair Maris Diokno, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, historian Dr. Ricky Soler, Mapua University President Rey Vea, businessman Jack Ng, novelist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, sculptor Toym Imao, and Anvil Publishing chief Andrea Pasion-Flores.

A smaller group had met less formally for the first time in February last year, when Sen. Ed Angara was still around and very much involved in getting the academy off the ground alongside NA Frankie Jose. It still called itself the “Academia Filipina” then, but later changed its name in deference to an existing Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española.

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This was the first but certainly not the last of our forums, and we intend to have several of these large assembly-type meetings every year for issues of great and general significance, concerning not just politics and business but also science and the arts. We need to create new interdisciplinary points of intersection and interaction. Our artists and scientists hardly ever get heard by our policy makers. With all due respect to the lawyers and the businessmen, they too might benefit from the insights of these other disciplines, so that we do not get mired in the kind of cynical pragmatism that drives too many of our decisions today, and remember to value such abstractions as beauty and logic.

The dues we collect will help support a very small back room and also our future activities. Sponsorships are of course needed and welcome, for so long as they do not compromise the independence of our association.

On that note I would like to thank, once again, aside from our speakers, our sponsors for the Akademyang Filipino event, including the UP College of Law, whose Dean, Fides Cordero-Tan, also happens to be the Executive Director of UP-BGC. I’d also like to thank the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Sen. Jun Magsaysay, and other donors who prefer to remain anonymous for their assistance. My special thanks go to our Executive Director, Ms. Jette Jose Bergkamp, and my UP team from the Padayon Public Service Office and the Media and Public Relations Office.