Penman No. 372: Love Letters from Rody (2)

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Penman for Monday, October 14, 2019

 

TWO MONDAYS ago, I featured the first of two typewritten love letters that I had found, folded and unsent, between the pages of an old book from the 1950s that I recently bought. As I mentioned then, I felt embarrassed to suddenly become privy to someone else’s most personal displays of affection, but was at the same time transfixed by the literary qualities of the writer’s prose.

I’m aware that back then, it wasn’t unheard of to employ templates—form love letters commissioned and sold in books by enterprising publishers to help verbally-challenged Romeos along. Somewhere in my collection is one such book, from the early 1900s and in profusely ornate Tagalog, offering letters for every possible occasion along the courtship timeline—including a letter to the girl’s parents, imploring their tolerance and understanding. By the 1950s and 1960s—as I recall from my sorties to the bookshops and newsstands along Avenida Rizal—these were available in English (thankfully I felt no need to resort to them, although my versions probably made their recipients cringe).

Our present suitor, who signs his name “Rody,” clearly dipped into his own trove of metaphors in addressing his unnamed beloved, with such choice passages as “rich jewels in an Ethiop’s ear.” From this second letter, we can divine that he had gone to college to study Medicine, had been confined at the hospital where his beloved worked and nursed him back to health, only to afflict him with a fatal passion; in despair over failing his school exams and hearing nothing from her (despite which he takes her silence for love), he joins the US Navy, and is now on the eve of sailing for San Diego (where, ironically, this column is being written, on our annual visit to our daughter Demi). Let’s hear it from Rody, and pray that whoever he (and she) was, he found love and peace in his later life.

Dear ————–,

 It has been a long time since my last letter and the urge in me to write you is at its topmost height. Your lengthy silence is an inducement for me to break the ice—that silence made me jump to the conclusion that—you love me.

 I am the happiest guy nowadays in the whole wide world. No poet can best express in words the joy and bliss deep in my heart. Not even the immortal Allan Poe who can speak to the crags of the sea.

 You are the only girl I cared for and you knew that even from the very start. You are the girl who can make the torch of my life burn bright with clear and unending light. You are the only girl who can walk straight with me through this vale of tears.

 Although it is despicable and unbecoming for me, I cannot help but be humble and confide in you my downfall. I vowed never to let you in on my secret but vows can never be sealed for life and vows are made to be broken. Besides many say that sincerity is truth. Now have this: I incurred failures the last semester and am debarred from the College of Medicine.

 There really is no one to blame but me. I wasted a lot of time on nonsensical things that I never had a minute to devote to my studies. Time is precious for medical students and that I know. I was not a conscientious student and can never be one. Once I said to myself: you won’t make a good doctor anyway, so why bother to be one?

 After the inevitable thing happened I became desperate and disgusted with life. I began to complain to the heavens why life was treating me this way. I felt the urge of ending my life, but consolation came in the nick of time and only then I knew that God was with me. That consolation was in the form of silence and the silence meant you love me.

 You gave me hope amidst my tears and misery. You nursed my illness and brought me back to life. Now I feel a new light guiding me back to life. Only now I know that God is my co-pilot.

 I have no more interest to pursue my studies. I no longer have the appetite to swallow the hectic life of a college student. I got my fill of studies that I joined the United States Navy.

 Our ship is leaving for San Diego by next month to this date. The beacon of the Navy is timely but sad. I miss you more than anything else. I will miss that comely look and that Mona Lisa smile. But bear in mind that you will always be the girl I love.

 I long to talk to you and bid you good-bye but time is stingy and never gave me a chance. Last Sunday I intended to visit you at the Nurses’ Home and discuss with you matters at hand but you were on duty. I can make it this Sunday, will you be off by then?

 I hope this letter will reach you before the time, and see you then.

 Lovingly yours,

 Rody

 

Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

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Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

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I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

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Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

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Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. 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.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

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There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas

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Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019

 

FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.

 

 

 

Penman No. 365: “Tenderness Is Radical”

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A RECENT talk of mine to the graduates of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines seems to have gone viral, but what people don’t know is that there were several of us who addressed the graduates that night—it was a testimonial dinner, not the commencement ceremony itself. All the other speakers shared delightfully inspiring remarks, but one impressed me in particular—Hannah Reyes Morales, a young but already globally renowned documentary photographer who graduated with a Speech Communication degree from UP just eight years ago. Hannah has done prizewinning work for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic, some of which you can find on www.hannah.ph. I asked for and got her permission to share excerpts of her talk.

Today, I want to talk to you about building the possible.

When I left these halls I was a scrawny 20-year-old, putting herself through the last four semesters of school by selling ukay clothes online and photographing drunk people in bars on weekends near Tiendesitas as an event photographer. I couldn’t join my friends in eating out because I couldn’t afford it, I owed rent money to the building in Xavierville where I lived, and my mom was convinced that any dreams I had for a career in the arts and photography were a quirk and a passing fancy, and that after graduation I should apply for a job as a teller in a bank.

I honor this part of my journey. It was during this period that I learned to speak with strangers, to hustle for each paycheck, and what the true necessities were. I learned to be efficient with my time, but I never, ever lost sight of the work my heart wanted to do.

I hope that you figure out how to build a home where your creativity, your curiosity, your sense of purpose, and your wildness can keep growing. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that the world needs more safe hands working towards better.

As a photographer I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s spaces. I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask people to help me understand things I couldn’t quite grasp.

Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that I get to confront the world. Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that the world confronts me, and tells me the truth.

I’ve been offered meals by people who were hungry, allowed into moments of great vulnerability. I’ve photographed people swept up in conflicts that they had nothing to do with. I’ve seen people driven from their homes. I’ve witnessed loss and devastation.

And in the midst of horrors I saw how beauty and kindness persist. People with incredible grace, reminding me that the world doesn’t owe me anything. I met Puti, a young girl in extreme poverty, who called herself a queen. I carry her story with me every day, I hold it in my heart.

Their truths have informed my own. I hope when you meet people with a vastly different reality that their truths might also inform yours.

And when you’ve finally built towards freedom, use it to plant gardens around you, to build bridges and safe spaces. Manila can be a hostile place for artists and for dreamers. I don’t know what I would have done without people who make it less so.

My life is only possible because of the love that my friends embrace me with, the safety that enables me to do more, to dream bigger, to imagine all that is possible yet.

My own strength stems from love, my bravery blooms from the tenderness of others.

As artists our hearts and minds are needed by our land. Our gaze, and our ability to think differently are needed in envisioning better for our country, and our world.

Our generation—yes, I’d like to think that I’m still part of this generation—inherits a future that needs visionaries. Climate change, refugee crises, the rise of impunity are all realities that await outside these doors.

When I opened my eyes what I saw brought me to tears. But I always knew that closing my eyes again would not make the adversity stop. There will be those who will tell you to just keep them shut, to care a little bit less. They will tell you that you will be happier if you didn’t give a damn.

It took me a while to own that that was never who I was. It took me a minute to understand that sensitivity wasn’t a weakness. That tenderness is radical.

There is a line from Audre Lorde that I hold on to, very fiercely.  ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’

So today I implore you to use your strength—whatever form it takes—in the service of your vision. Make your time here count. Pay attention to that which makes you feel awake, and living—the hard work will come.

And lest we forget: the good, the beautiful, the wild, and the miraculous await outside these doors, too. Keep them alive.

 

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. 355: Loverly London (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 27, 2019

 

I FIRST visited London 25 years ago, on my way to Scotland to take up residence at Hawthornden Castle on the fellowship that led to Penmanship and Other Stories. Since then I’ve been back a few times—very often in 1999-2000, when again I was a writing fellow at Norwich. It’s easily my favorite city in the world to visit, given its cultural vitality and the accessibility of the things that matter most to me—museums, galleries, and flea markets—and for the past two decades, Beng and I had been dreaming of returning to London to step back into our old haunts.

That finally came true on the heels of our recent Scotland trip with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry; they flew back to home and work in California, so Beng and I had a full week to ourselves, and wisely we decided to just spend almost all of that time in London, except for an overnighter in nearby Chelmsford and Norwich. As with 20 years ago, we did everything by train and by Oyster card (“contactless” is a new English word you’ll learn quickly just out of Heathrow). There’s nothing like a train ride into the English countryside and its undulating greens awakened now and then by brilliant yellow swathes of rapeseed to make one understand Wordsworth and Romanticism, in the same way that Glasgow’s sooty masonry and steel sinews recall a darker, Dickensian industrial past.

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Speaking of Dickens, and like many Pinoys my age, my first impression of London was shaped by Broadway’s and Hollywood’s renditions of its Victorian upside and downside, in such confections as “Oliver Twist” and “Mary Poppins” (from which the screech of my schoolboy crush, Julie Andrews, still resonates, appealing for “a room somewhere, far a-wigh from the cold night air…. Awww, wouldn’t it be loverly?”).

Well, thanks to Booking.com, Beng and I found ourselves a loverly, affordable room in a large house in the northwestern London suburb of Golders Green—a neat and quiet, multicultural neighborhood on the Tube’s Northern Line, historically Jewish but with many Turkish, Iranian, and Japanese restaurants and groceries lining the streets. And, of course, there were Filipinos everywhere, not tourists like us (you’ll find them at Harrods) but off-duty caregivers and housekeepers enjoying time together at the local KFC.

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That’s where we met someone we’ll call Thelma, who has worked for the same Jewish employer for the past ten years. It just so happened that she and Beng had some mutual friends from Iloilo, where Thelma went to college. “I’m treated very well here,” Thelma said. “Every year I get a paid vacation to go home.” We spotted another unmistakably Pinay girl at the streetcorner selling suman, which we had for our next breakfast. And at the end of a long Sunday walk down Portobello Road, in a cluster of street-food stalls offering everything from vegan paella to Jamaican patties, we found Eva Caparanga’s Pinoy Grill UK, which instantly answered the question we had been asking all day, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” As she heaped our chicken adobo into a large takeout cup, Eva told us that she had been in the UK for more than 30 years, and was still working in health care, but that for the past three years she had used her days off to run her stall at the far end of the popular Portobello Market. “People ask me why I do this, and I tell them it’s so I can help family back home in Bicol. And again they ask me why I do that, and I say, well, that’s just how we Filipinos are!”

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The story of Filipinos in the UK and London is a long and colorful one, and I can’t count the many times they came to my succor during my tenure at Norwich and my weekend sorties to London years ago. When my feet acquired a horrible infection in Norwich, I ran to the National Health Service, only to find it staffed by kindly Pinoy nurses who got me back to walking in no time. In London, my host was the late, beloved Ed Maranan, who had ushered at the National Theatre and could sneak me into plays for free; in return, I made sure to wash the dishes at his flat on Goldhawk Road. The writer Jun Terra also brought me around once to marvel at the late Dr. Teyet Pascual’s art pieces in his Chelsea apartment.

This time, Beng and I were resolved to stay close to ground level, having neither the budget nor the inclination to splurge on the timelesss luxury that puts British-made things—whether they be suits, shoes, bags, or fountain pens—in a class all by themselves. This time, we said, we would go straight for the two things that we enjoy most in our sorties to foreign cities: flea markets and museums.

More on these next week.

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Penman No. 346: Cubao’s Ephemeral Treasures

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Penman for Monday, March 25, 2018

 

MY RECENTLY renewed interest in rescuing old mechanical writing machines from oblivion and providing them shelter in my home (aka collecting typewriters) has led to me to some interesting sidestreets—you’ll read a story about Manila’s Typewriter Row here soon—but it also reminded me that sometimes the best finds lie in plain sight, if you know where to look.

For this Quezon City guy, that means Cubao, a district for which I’ve had a special affinity since the earliest days of the Araneta Coliseum and all throughout high school, when we played hooky to shoot billiards at the Fun Center and slurp noodles at Ma Mon Luk. In 1978, I found a pair of new-old-stock Parker Vacumatic fountain pens in a stall along Aurora Boulevard, triggering a lifelong passion. Fifteen years ago, Beng and I dragged a splendorously comfortable Schweiger sofa out of a Cubao resale shop, and we’re having it reupholstered again for its third incarnation. On Christmas Eve in 2017, I found and bought the oldest volume in my collection—an English book printed in 1551—from a seller in Cubao, who had received it from his mother working as a caregiver in Paris.

In other words, unlikely as it may seem, Cubao has always held wondrous things for me, quite apart from the sikad-sikad, the arosep, and the fresh tangingue in Farmer’s Market. A few weeks ago, I picked up two coveted Swiss-made 1960s typewriters—a Hermes 3000 and a Hermes Baby—from two different shops in Cubao Expo, that refreshingly downscale shopping zone which has managed to retain its old-school appeal and integrity. (Let’s give a shout out to the Grand Thrift House and the UVLA Store, both well worth the walk.)

Being in the neighborhood, I recalled reading a post somewhere that a corner of the now-venerable Ali Mall was now devoted to antiques and collectibles, so I crossed the street and paid it a visit, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a series of shops on the second floor selling everything from Beatles records and memorabilia to vintage pottery and Coke bottles.

No pens or typewriters for me this time, but my eyes wandered, in one shop, to stacks of old papers and documents. This is a class of collecting generally called “ephemera”—comprising, by one definition, documents, letters, booklets, brochures, pamphlets, billheads, ledgers, scrapbooks, photographs, and maps. You can’t collect old books, pens, and typewriters without running into ephemera, and I’ve picked up some choice pieces—including beautifully handwritten letters that date back to the 1500s and 1600s—to illustrate both the practice and the culture of writing, or what people wrote and how they wrote.

Ephemera, by the word itself, is inherently transient and easily lost—to trash bins, fires, and forgetfulness—but thankfully, there are quite a few other pack rats like me who save such things as Love Bus tickets and receipts from long-shuttered restaurants and hotels for no grander reason than to be reminded 40 years later of a fun evening (which I must have had on May 16, 1979, according to a receipt from a place called “For the Boys,” charging me P4.00 for food, P5.50 for cigarettes, and P48.50 for drinks).

I plowed through the piles of neatly wrapped papers and came away with a bundle that shows what’s out there—and perhaps just as interestingly, what’s in here, in that part of ourselves that responds with a clutch in the heart to words on a page. My takeaways—all for about P1,000, or a shirt at Uniqlo—included the following:

– A legal document dated June 10, 1897 and signed by Luis XXXX, Valeriana XXXX (I couldn’t decipher the signatures) and Satorneno Antolin, written in Ilocano. I don’t know Ilocano, but couldn’t resist the vivid purple ink. (My friend Frank Cimatu would later tweet from Baguio that it concerned a couple in Sta. Maria who were selling their plot of land which produced three cavans of rice.)

– A carbon copy of an exchange of letters from January 1929 between Senate President Manuel Quezon and Sen. Elpidio Quirino over the appointment of a Mr. Llanes. Quirino’s letter begins thus: “I owe you my most humble apology for having expressed myself too bluntly in my letter of 11th instant. God knows, and you know too, that I am not capable of insulting you, not for a thousand Llaneses and judgeships.” (I wonder how their modern counterparts write today.)

– A printed invitation to the 13th Annual Oratorical Contest of the UP College of Law on January 31, 1931, to be held (oddly enough) at the auditorium of the Philippine Normal School.

– An undated typescript, probably from the 1960s, of a storyline for a “Drama-Comedy-Musical” titled “Little Darling” by Johnny de Leon and Mario Mijares Lopez, about a provinciano named Ikeng who loved his carabao he called, yes, “Little Darling.” (Ikeng later becomes a famous broadcaster in Manila and forgets his pet, who never forgets him.)

Most poignantly, the trove also included a small book of autographs (a slam book, or in Pinoy usage, a “slum” book) once owned by Rosalina “Rely” L. Estrella, from the Provincial High School of Nueva Ecija, replete with good wishes ca. 1935. We learn from later entries that she was enrolled at the National Teachers College in 1940. And then the war comes, and we hear no more from or about “the Rose of Gapan.”

And so we are reminded of how open-ended the past often and truly is, instead of the closed book we imagine it to be. No wonder I keep coming back to it.

 

Penman No. 345: Sheening, Shimmering, Splendid

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Penman for Monday, March 18, 2019

 

I’VE BEEN writing in this column about the recent resurgence of fountain pens, a phenomenon well documented by mainstream, social, and business media like the BBC, the Chicago Tribune, and the Advertising Specialty Institute, which have noted that a whole new generation is turning on to the vintage vibe, of which pens are a part. That vibe, in turn, comes from the need—especially among the young—for more self-expression in an increasingly homogenized and digitized world.

There are few things more personal and more personalized than writing with a pen—and not just with any pen but a fountain pen. Ballpoints and rollerballs will yield the same F, M, or B line, with the same black or blue inks. But with fountain pens, you have a wide range of nibs—the writing point of pens—to produce different results and experiences, from extra-fine to triple-broad, from stiff and stingy to flexible and flowy. In the end, the pen you choose and use, both in terms of form and function, will be distinctly and distinctively you.

And it doesn’t stop with the pen itself, which is popular enough (on any given day, on eBay, you will find more than 100,000 fountain pens listed). To customize the writing experience further, you can now choose from hundreds of inks on the market, a sub-industry also re-energized by the fountain pen revival.

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We seniors will remember that, when we were growing up and working on our first jobs, we never had much of a choice in inks—it was either Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip (both of which are still being produced, by the way), in black or blue-black, and occasionally green, red, or royal blue. Pens and inks were meant for use at work, in school, and at home, not really to be enjoyed or collected, although some esoteric inks, like Sheaffer’s gorgeously vivid Persian Rose from the 1950s, are now regarded like rare fine wines.

With fountain pens becoming more of a lifestyle choice or fashion statement than everyday tools, inks have acquired designer status as well, and more than a dozen companies now manufacture and distribute their inks worldwide to cater to users looking for ever more unique swatches and signatures. Brands like Noodler’s, Diamine, Rohrer & Klingner, Akkerman, Private Reserve, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Organics Studio, de Atramentis, and Robert Oster compete with the more familiar in-house inks of major pen companies like Parker, Sheaffer, Montblanc, Pelikan, Waterman, Aurora, Pilot, and Sailor, among others.

Color is, of course, the most important determinant of choice. Fogies like me tend to stick to the old black, blue-black, and brown, but millennials prizing individuality won’t think twice about—and will even seek out—splashy hues and special effects. Where we just wanted our inks to be either washable or indelible, the new inks offer add-on qualities and properties previously unheard of. Two of those most popular features are sheen and shimmer—sheen (as in Robert Oster Fire and Ice) being the presence of more than one color in the same bottle of ink, with one color serving as the base and another as a shiny highlight, and shimmer (as in J. Herbin’s Rouge Hematite) being the addition of glittery metallic particles to the ink. These two can even be combined in some inks. The result will often be more art than penmanship, an enjoyment of colored ink almost for its own sake above anything else. (You’ll also note that ink names have gone far beyond “Permanent Blue” to something as flamboyant as Noodler’s purplish Black Swan in Australian Roses and J. Herbin’s orangey 1798 Cornaline d’Egypte.)

 

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It’s liberating, in a way, because people—especially young students and professionals who have yet to get their first Montblanc—can indulge themselves in ink-play without splurging on high-ticket pens. For a thousand pesos, you could get a fistful of entry-level pens (easily available on Lazada and Shopee, among other sources online, aside from local retailers like Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, and NBS) and focus your spending on a menagerie of inks. Do note that milliliter for milliliter, a bottle of specialty ink could cost much more than an equivalent volume of quality wine or scotch.

Color aside, other factors come into play in ink selection. How “wet” or “dry” is the ink? Will it “feather” or “bleed through” on cheap paper? (Paper deserves its own column, being another key factor in the writing experience; happily, inexpensive but fountain-pen-friendly paper can be found in local bookstores). Even bottle design matters—you might buy Iroshizuku and Akkerman inks as much for their iconic bottles as for their contents.

The best news of all is that some pretty fantastic (and fantastically pretty) inks are now being made locally—designed, blended, manufactured, and distributed by Filipinos. Two brands in particular stand out: Troublemaker Inks (troublemakerinks.com), concocted by two young Cebu-based guys and bearing such names as Bantayan Turquoise and Luneta Twilight Pink, and Vinta Inks (inksbyvinta.com), launched just last week by Everything Calligraphy, in such varieties as Sandugo 1565 and Leyte 1944. “We hope to export our proudly Philippine-made inks soon,” says EC’s Jillian Joyce Tan.

And well we should. Pinoys love color, and short of carrying and wielding a brush, we can’t have more fun with color on paper than with these new inks—sheening, shimmering, splendid. (With many thanks to Chiyo-chan Sakamoto, Nicole Angelique Sanchez, Lorraine Marie Nepomuceno, and Troublemaker Inks for the images.)

 

 

 

Penman No. 344: Into the Typosphere

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Penman for Monday, March 11, 2019

 

THE LAST time I wrote in this corner about typewriters, back in mid-August last year, I had just four of these machines in my stable, and primly announced that I really wasn’t a typewriter collector—yet. Since then, for some strange reason only equally strange people can understand, that quartet has grown to about 17, by my latest count. They breed! I was actually happy to sell off one typewriter one morning last week—to free up space, I told myself—only to find and buy another one that same afternoon.

I’ve long acknowledged an addiction to old fountain pens, old books, and midcentury paintings—all of them jostling for accommodation and attention in my shrinking man-cave—but I’m still reluctant to face the fact that a taste for typewriters has been creeping up on me. (And if you think 17 is a lot, I have a lawyer-friend—who shall go unnamed for now—who has about 70; we have interesting conversations, having nothing to do with politics and everything to do with platens.)

As a writer with soft, warm feelings for the tools of his trade (aside from fountain pens, I also collected old Apple Macintosh laptops, about a dozen of which I finally gave away last month), I suppose it was only a matter of time before I returned to the machine on which, after all, I wrote my early stories, plays, and screenplays. I remember pecking away on a rusty Royal back in the 1970s, later replaced by my father-in-law’s battleship Olympia and then a handier Olympia Traveller that I ported with me to grad school in the US, to the amusement of my computer-savvy friends.

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But there are still hundreds if not thousands of people out there—you’ll find the most ardent dozens on the Antique Typewriter Collectors group online—who may never have written more than business letters and birthday greetings on their Remingtons and Underwoods, and yet hold on to them with the sometimes scary passion of the true believer.

Typewriter collectors and users—they call themselves “typospherians” just as pen collectors might respond to “stylophiles” when they’re feeling fancy—don’t necessarily eschew computers, and may even lament the absence of the @ sign on some keyboard layouts. But they’re fiercely protective of their “typers,” and no crime could be worse than the sacrilege committed by “keychoppers” who playfully pull out and convert old typewriter keys into something resembling jewelry.

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(Image from Wikipedia)

For the serious and practicing typist (in olden times, secretaries and clerks were themselves called “typewriters”), the allure of the clackety-clack is in the total concentration it forces upon you—with no screens or pop-up messages to distract you from the message or the novel you’re composing.

Just like car or watch or pen collectors, typospherians have their “holy grails” (you can find one such list here of the Ten Most Wanted), but short of the near-impossible to find, crowd favorites include the curvy Hermes 3000 in seafoam green, the iconic 1960s-pop Olivetti Valentine in red, and the 1920s foldable Corona 3, among other classics (and yes, I must sheepishly confess to having all three).

As with all collectibles, celebrity ownership helps (Sylvia Plath’s 1959 machine, on which she wrote The Bell Jar, sold a year ago at Bonham’s for £32,500, or over P2.2 million, while David Bowie’s Valentine sold at Sotheby’s in 2016 for £45,000), but it’s probably the least important factor in typewriter collecting, given that you can find near-mint examples at resale shops and garage sales in the US for well below $50, and online for below $200.

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Last August, I trotted out my 1922 Corona 3, my 1930s Royal O, my 1970s Olivetti Valentine, and my 1980s Olympia Traveller de Luxe. This week, let me introduce a new quartet—all but one of them, incredibly enough, local pickups either posted online or sold in such specialty places as Cubao Expo.

Let’s say hello to (clockwise in the pic) a Hermes 3000 from 1961, a Hermes Baby also from the 1960s still sporting its decal from the Manila Office Equipment Co., a 1950s Groma Kolibri from East Germany, with a Cyrillic keyboard (I don’t imagine writing any novels on this one), and a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super (to add to the euphony, it’s super-smooth). I’m particularly elated by the Swiss-made Hermes 3000, finding just one of which—especially in this condition—could take years in this country; as luck would have it, I found two in great shape, at bargain prices, on the same day a couple of weeks ago (and passed one on to my lawyer-friend, at cost plus a nice bottle of shiraz or merlot, to celebrate the find). And sometimes it isn’t so much the machine itself but what it comes with that’s the surprise, like this fancy script I found on a 1970s Smith Corona Classic 12.

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I should add that one of the great gurus of the typewriting world, Gerald Cha, lives right here in Manila, and does amazing work restoring old machines coming from as far away as the US. Right now he’s working on an 1886 Caligraph—check him and his projects out on Instagram.

I do my own hunting, but if you’re craving a pink or fire-red Olympia right now, visit https://typewritersmanila.com. Quick, brown fox—jump over the lazy dog!