Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

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

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

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

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

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

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

Some would be difficult to enforce:

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

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qwertyman No. 24: Barangay Magulang

Qwertyman for January 16, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever for?” cried Fely. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? How?” asked Fely.

“What else? By registering.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Three months ago.”

“Well, do you have them?”

“No, not yet.”

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

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

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

Penman No. 446: Our Oldies

Penman for Sunday, January 1, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qwertyman No. 21: AI in the House

Qwertyman for Monday, December 26, 2022

I’D BEEN wanting to write about this for a long time, since last year when my artist-friends first alerted me to the amazing new possibilities being opened by artificial intelligence (AI) in such traditional fields as painting. Before that, like many people, I’d thought of AI in terms of subjects like warfare, medicine, and gaming. It had to be only a matter of time before the technology was ported over to the arts—not just to painting, but to creative writing and music, among other pursuits.

If you don’t know how AI works, just think of it this way (which is the way a lot of people, many of them not even artists, are having fun these days). You download a software program called an “AI generator” (such as starryai for painting, Rytr for creative writing, and AIVA for music), then put it to work by demanding that it produce “a portrait of Jose Rizal in the style of Van Gogh.” Minutes later (or just seconds if you pay), you’ll get what you asked for. What your computer (or in fact, many other computers working together) just did was to run a search for all the images of “Jose Rizal” it could find, then establish what “the style of Van Gogh” means in terms of brush strokes, colors, and so on, and apply one to the other. It’s all about “algorithms” or instruction sets that get sent out and executed until the desired outcome pops up.

That sounds like harmless entertainment, and much of AI is or appears to be, but it isn’t hard to see how even a touch of mischief (not to mention loads of malice) can quickly change the complexion of things. Driven by a fear of computing or what we might call Faustian science, popular culture is replete with examples of AI gone berserk, from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the master kidnapper Sark in Tron. But positive applications such as those employed in medicine, where AI helps analyze CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays with a sharper eye than a human radiologist sees with, continue to push AI research forward. IBM itself declares that “At this point, there is little doubt that AI will become a core part of the digital health systems that shape and support modern medicine.”

My own first brush with AI happened last week when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times titled “A New Chat Bot Is a ‘Code Red’ for Google’s Search Business.” Intrigued, I read on and found out about ChatGPT, one of many new programs that are threatening to replace Google’s famous search engine. We all know how Google works: you enter a search term, you get a long list of links to possible answers. Chat bots cut through that mess and give you a short, clear, grammatically correct answer (although nobody can guarantee that the answer itself is correct). That’s good if you want a quick reply to a question, but I can just imagine the epidemic of college term papers cutting and pasting unsourced chat-bot answers with gay abandon. 

All this led me to wonder how chat bots would respond to truly important questions, so I decided to download ChatGPT to my iPhone, and to ask it some test questions that would tell me about itself as much as what I was asking about. Below are my questions and the answers that artificial intelligence produced, verbatim (I purposely asked the first question to see if AI was capable of some kind of self-awareness):

1. Q. What are the dangers of artificial intelligence? A. 1. Unintended Consequences – Algorithms designed to reach specific goals could have unintended consequences that produce unforeseen results. 2. Job Loss – AI could displace workers by automating jobs, leading to severe economic disruption in the near future if nobody is trained to take over for the machines. 3. Black Box AI – AI systems are often difficult to understand, making it hard to debug the system when something goes wrong. 4. Over-Reliance on AI – Dependency on AI could lead to cognitive laziness, where humans rely too heavily on algorithms for decision-making and problem-solving. 5. AI Biases – AI systems trained on biased data and algorithms can end up replicating the same flawed assumptions and stereotypes. 6. Security Breaches – Malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in AI systems to commit cyber-attacks, data breaches and fraud.

2. Q. What’s wrong with the Philippines? A. The Philippines faces a wide range of problems that must be addressed in order to progress forward. These issues include corruption, overpopulation, environmental destruction, poverty, inequality, and unequal access to education. Additionally, Filipino infrastructure and public services are in dire need of improvement in order to create a more livable and equitable society. Other issues such as illegal drugs, crime, and terrorism also remain major problems facing the Philippines.

3. Q. When should a country have a sovereign wealth fund? A. A country should have a sovereign wealth fund when it has a large amount of assets (such as revenues from oil exports) that can be used for investments and for stabilizing government finances during economic downturns.

4. A. How can we reduce corruption in government? A. The best way to reduce corruption in government is to increase transparency and accountability. This could include strengthening laws and regulations to ensure that government officials are held to high standards, creating independent oversight and auditing systems, and engaging civil society and community members in governance processes. Additionally, investing in training for government officials on ethics, anti-corruption policies and procedures, and proper financial management can help to reduce corruption. Finally, engaging the public to report and discuss any allegations of corruption can help to both curb and address existing instances of corruption.

5. Q. Can volcanoes be punctured? A. No, volcanoes cannot be punctured. Volcanoes are made of molten rock, known as magma, that is too hot and too deep to be pierced with any known tool.

Now, you tell me if those answers sound any worse than the malarkey we’ve been hearing from some of our esteemed senators and congressmen, who cost billions to maintain, feel unbound by the rules of logic and grammar, and can take forever to give you a straight answer. Of course, they can well afford to buy a program like ChatGPT in aid of legislation (it’s free for three days, then P499/mo.). But then, why resort to chat bots when there’s already so much artificial intelligence going around in both august chambers?

Qwertyman No. 20: The Gift

Qwertyman for Monday, December 19, 2022



(Taking a break from politics, I wrote this Christmas story that might take a little effort to figure out, but which I hope will be worth your while. With apologies to my mom Emy for using her picture above.)

I’M NOT deaf, she wanted to shout, I can hear, I can understand what you’re saying—I’m not stupid, I’m just… lost. I don’t know who you are or what I’m doing here. You seem to be a nice man, and thank you for the chocolate and the barquillos—I don’t know how you knew I liked those—but I have to say that I don’t feel comfortable sitting here with you asking me how I am, asking all these questions about names and places I can’t recall. You’re very nice and very kind and speak to me like I know you, like I should know you, and it makes me feel very bad that I don’t have the answers you seem to be looking for. Like “the champaca near the fence of the house on Tagumpay Street.” Of course I know champaca and how nice it smells—but the house, a house, on Tagumpay Street? You say we lived there? When? Why should I have lived there, with you? 

They laughed and Jovy shrugged and said, “She’s somewhere else—again.” Laura cast her a pitying glance and said, “I wonder if there’s something we can do or say to bring her back, even just for tonight. I mean, it’s Christmas, right? Surely God can work some miracle to allow Mama to enjoy her family? It would be such a gift to the kids. Where are they, anyway? It’s past nine.”

Jovy reached for a bottle of Macallan and poured himself a shot. “They’ll come if they will. I don’t remember them talking much to her when she was still okay. Don’t see why it should be any different this time.”

Laura stared out the window at all the Christmas lights that made their gated village look like a bed of stars. From the kitchen wafted the confused but beguiling hints of vinegar, red pepper, and other pungent flavorings.

Laura liked to think of herself as the family minder, the one whose job tonight was to make sure everyone had a filling noche buena and wished each other well, like a good Filipino family, albeit with one somewhat distracted member. With the pandemic still festering and the world they knew upended, a return to some sense of order and normalcy felt overdue. In Decembers past, she and Jovy would take the children, Toby and Rina, to chilly getaways in Baguio, with Mama maddeningly singing carols from the back of the van all the way up Kennon Road.

“I’m sure the kids will come,” Laura said, adjusting a bell on the Christmas tree. “I told them they were getting special gifts from us.”

“They are? “ Jovy said, surprised. “Like what gifts?”

“Papa’s Longines and Mama’s bridal necklace,” Laura replied under her breath, as if she expected Jovy to react badly. “It’s about time we passed them on.”

“Papa’s gone so I guess the watch is okay, but have you spoken to Mama about the necklace?”

“And tell her what? She won’t even know what she’s looking at.”

“Maybe we should wait for Rina’s wedding—“

“That girl’s not getting married for another ten years, if ever. I just want us to make something special happen tonight, like families do.”

“At least you could show it to Mama. Make it look like she’s the one giving it to Rina. As if Rina will even care. You know she hates old things. She’ll probably just sell it on eBay.”

“What she does with it is her business. What’s important is that we’ve discharged our generational responsibility.”

“If you insist—“

“Leave Mama to me.”



“IT’S A VERY small watch,” Toby said, unable to mask his disappointment. He was a stockbroker who lived in his own condo and came for dinner once or twice a month to brag about his  new girlfriend, or his new bike. 

“That’s what men wore back in the ‘50s. I guess you could give it to what’s-her-name, Nikka, now,” said Jovy.

“Nikka would like Mama’s necklace more, I think. Maybe Rina and I can do a trade.”

In her corner, Mama stared as Laura opened the blue velvet box that held her necklace of white gold and tiny emeralds, sold by a prominent Escolta jeweler before the war. Rina was on her phone near the door, mumbling an apology to someone. She wasn’t even vaguely interested in the necklace that Laura was bribing her with; she’d come home for a bunny costume she needed for a New Year party. She hated being asked about marriage, and the bridal jewelry was another not-too-subtle nudge.

“I wanted to show this to you, Mama, before we—before you—give it to Rina. You remember Rina, your granddaughter? She’s almost thirty, and should get married soon!”

I don’t know this Rina you’re talking about, Mama thought. And why do you always ask me to remember, why should I remember? Isn’t it enough that I eat my porridge and drink my tea?… But—this shiny thing in the box, I know it, for some reason…. It’s very pretty, so sparkly, those little green eyes…. I know I’ve seen it, in the mirror—around my neck! It was a happy day, I was happy all in white with these green sparkles, and I was all so white and so very happy.

“Do you want to be the one to give it to Rina?” Laura said, unsure of what was passing through Mama’s mind. She noticed some agitation, some flicker of anxiety, although Mama was smiling.

“Give it? Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas, Mama. Because it makes us happy to give gifts.”

“I thought this was my gift. It makes me happy.”

Laura tried not to sound exasperated. “You don’t need it anymore, Mama. It’s time it went to Rina.”

Mama now remembered: her wedding day, the carriage, the lilies along the aisle, the choir, and her groom Miling, so blindingly handsome in his white sharkskin suit. 

She saw Rina, the girl they said was her granddaughter, still on her phone across the room. From that distance she looked virginal, almost angelic. Mama could imagine her in a white gown. Mama looked at Laura, who seemed distressed, waiting for an answer. Now that she had finally remembered something, they wanted to take it away. 

She ran the necklace through her fingers. She recalled how the clasp had pricked her thumb that morning, but she was in such bliss she hardly felt the pain. She looked at Rina, and sensed the younger woman’s deep unhappiness. It seemed so unfair.

Mama shut her eyes and shut the box and turned her face away. “I don’t know what this is for,” she told Laura. “Give it to her.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Laura said, much relieved. “And Merry Christmas.”

Mama seemed more distant than ever, lost in her thoughts. “I don’t think she even knows what Christmas is, anymore,” Laura sighed.

Qwertyman No. 19: The Real Maria Ressa

Qwertyman for Monday, December 12, 2022

I WAS very honored to speak last Saturday at the launch of Maria Ressa’s new book, How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (Harper, 2022). I’d read an advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago, and to cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of buying a book to read for the holidays or to gift to friends, look no further. This book, for me, is among the year’s best in nonfiction.

I have to emphasize that word—nonfiction. As we all know we live in times when fiction has taken over as the most influential form of human discourse, particularly in the political arena. As a practicing fictionist, I should be happy about that, but I’m not and I can’t be, because so much of it is bad fiction, crudely written—and surprisingly, infuriatingly effective, at least with a certain kind of reader. 

Maria’s book cuts through all that. It’s undisguised, old-fashioned, in-your-face truth-telling, told in the same voice and tone we’ve become familiar with over the years of listening to her reportage over CNN. I’m sure that, like me, many of you wondered the first time you heard her: “Who was this little brown-complexioned woman speaking with an American accent?” She looked Filipino, but how come we’d never seen her before?

This was all before she rose to prominence—some would say notoriety—as the moving spirit behind Rappler, and subsequently to global fame as a Nobel Prize winner for Peace. We identified with her travails, shared her anger and sadness at the abuse she has received, and rejoiced in her victories, whether in the courts or in the larger sphere of public opinion. 

But how well do we really know Maria Ressa, and whatever drives her to be who and what she is? This book takes us to the person behind the phenomenon, and answers many questions we may have had about her and her stubborn advocacies.

The book’s title sounds like that of an instruction manual—which it is, and also is not, being part autobiography, part journalism, and part testimonial. As a manual for freedom fighters, it emphasizes the need for collaborative and collective action against seemingly insurmountable forces. Those forces now include the Internet, which, as Maria documents with both precision and profound dismay, has morphed from a medium that once held all kinds of liberative promises into a medium for mass deception and targeted assault. She draws her counsel not from some esoteric guru or academic paradigm, but from some very basic values that have informed her own life—the Honor Code she followed in school, and the Golden Rule.

“That’s what I lay out in this book,” she says, “an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have—over time—become instinctive but thoughtful decisions.”

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the personal and the political—and at some point they become inextricably fused—that forms the fiber of Maria’s narrative and gives it strength. Her convictions are grounded in personal experience; they have not been paid for—as the hacks in the journalistic trade will allege, seeking to bring her down to their own level—except in the coin of personal suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment and violence.

But we learn from this book that trauma is nothing new to Maria. (We also learn that Maria Ressa wasn’t the name she was born into, but to find out her birth name, you’ll have to buy the book.) From her abrupt relocation from Manila to America at the age of ten, to her journalistic immersion in the horrors of conflict and disaster in Indonesia and Ormoc, the book chronicles Maria’s quest for truth, meaning, and purpose in her life, and that of others. She stresses the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present, quoting TS Eliot’s phrase, “the present moment of the past.”

And so can we, she seems to suggest, even in these times of high anxiety, when we can see the vultures hovering over such once-sacrosanct treasures as our pension funds, while billions more go to feed the dogs of an increasingly untenable counter-insurgent war. The big words we have become used to tossing around—truth, freedom, reason, justice, democracy—they all come down to a personal choice to do the right thing, and the courage to do it. 

Nowhere is this matter of choice more evident than in the fact that Maria is here in the Philippines, having willfully subjected herself to our brand of justice, however imperfect it may be, instead of escaping to the safety of America or another haven, which her dual citizenship if not her celebrity can certainly afford her. She will see her own story through to the end, in the locale where it matters, among the people to whom it matters most.

I’ve often remarked, as a creative writer and professor of literature, that in this country, the writers most in danger of political persecution and retribution are really not fictionists or poets like me. Not since Rizal has a Filipino novelist been shot dead for what he wrote. For sure, we have lost many brilliant writers to the struggle for freedom and democracy—Emman Lacaba, and most recently Lorena Tariman and her husband Ericson Acosta. But they were killed by the State not for what they wrote—the State is illiterate when it comes to metaphor—but for what they allegedly did.

Rather, the most imperiled writers in the Philippines as in many other places are the journalists who speak the language of the people and of their plaints in terms too clear to ignore. They could be radio announcers like Percy Lapid, or the victims of wholesale murder in Maguindanao, or high-profile and exemplary targets such as Maria Ressa. It would have been easy for her to lash back at her critics and tormentors with the same viciousness. But, she says, “I will not become a criminal to fight a criminal. I will not become a monster to fight a monster.”

That, too, is a difficult choice, and one I am sure we are often tempted to cast aside. But Maria’s equanimity in the face of savagery shames us back into our better selves. It will be that kind of quiet resolve that we will need to survive and prevail. After all, we survived martial law. We can survive this regime—with agility, patience, and courage. But don’t take my word for it. Read Maria’s book to know that we can, and why we must.

Qwertyman No. 18: The Excavation

Qwertyman for Monday, December 5, 2022

PRISONER Q felt his shovel bite into the soil with what sounded like a sigh of satisfaction. It had rained, and the earth was dark and soft and yielded without complaint. Beside him, his fellow inmates attacked the job with gusto, happy to be outside under an overcast sky instead of stewing in their cells and taking turns napping, because of the limited space. The mayores or cell block leaders could, of course, sleep anytime; they even had bunks to stretch out on while everyone else languished on the floor or stood up against the railings. 

As an agurang or elder, Prisoner Q enjoyed a few privileges—he got into the front of the line at mealtimes, although he ate the same sweaty rice and slurped the same dishwater soup, and now and then he got a pack of cigarettes from his mayor or (he was told) even the warden himself because he could write in English and could draft special requests or letters of appeal, but otherwise, especially to the outside world, he was just one of them, another mouth to feed at the state’s expense.

So everyone was surprised when Prisoner Q volunteered to join the excavation detail that the warden ordered to be put together for a special project in a vacant lot toward the back of the prison. It wasn’t his body they questioned—he had stayed fit over the 14 years he had been in prison, and was in better shape than when he came in—but his mind. These labor details were usually assigned to newcomers who needed to be broken in, who needed to be jerked out of the utak-laya mindset they clung to with their fingernails. It was backbreaking work, and more than one inmate had collapsed from exhaustion or sunstroke. Many assumed that Prisoner Q merely wanted a change of scenery, a change of pace to ward off buryong, the prison blues that led to slashed wrists and, worse, running amok and causing mass mayhem.

They also wondered what all the digging was for, and why the warden didn’t just bring in a backhoe to do the job. At first it had seemed like all they were digging was a ditch, but it grew bigger and deeper by the day and by the week, until it was the size and depth of a swimming pool. And still they dug on for up to ten hours a day, their meals brought down to them, with a makeshift latrine in a corner for their immediate needs. The dig turned up old beer and soft-drink bottles, ceramic shards, a scorched wristwatch, and Army-issue spoons and forks, but nothing of extraordinary value, except for a silver ring that had lost its stone. Whatever they found was laid out on the surface on a white cotton bedsheet, and now and then the warden came by to inspect and to collect the more interesting pieces, tossing the rest back into the maw of the excavation. Sometimes the warden consulted a map that he had on his phone, which no one else could see, and measured distances. Rumors began to spread that the warden was after treasure, that he had gotten hold of a wartime Japanese map that indicated the presence of at least part of Yamashita’s marvelous loot in this particular quadrant of the prison. 

One day Prisoner Q dug up the head of a bisque doll, half of its face badly burnt. Its one good eye stared at him, and he threw it away. And then from a few inches deeper emerged the skeletons, a whole tangled mass of them, as if they had chosen to die together in some conflagration. A scrap of cloth bore a flowered print; the heel was peeling off a man’s shoe. The news of the bones’ discovery hardly caused a stir in the penitentiary, where corpses of even more recent vintage turned up all over. The warden picked through the bones like they were cattle, and pulled a thin gold ring from a finger. He ordered Prisoner Q’s gang to put the bones in the trash and to resume digging. Prisoner Q cradled the three skulls in his arms and set them down carefully on the wheelbarrow; one of them had a gaping hole on the right; another had lost its jaw. He wondered what kind of violence could have led to such a catastrophic end. He had seen terrible things done to people and to bodies in prison, and he had almost forgotten what violence meant. He felt impervious to injury.

That night, lying on his back, Prisoner Q’s thoughts drifted off to what it was like to sleep again on a soft bed with freshly ironed sheets and with a woman breathing evenly beside him, and much as he wanted to quench the thought, it grew, seemingly on its own, in his imagination. This was the utak-laya he had successfully suppressed within his first three years, making him forget the family he had forbidden from visiting him in prison; his share from the last robbery would take care of their needs for life, and last he heard they had a farm in Casiguran, facing another ocean. 

The woman lying next to him soon had a son of about six, who rode a red bicycle and was crazy about cars. When Prisoner Q offered him a car he had crafted out of a sardine can and bottlecaps, the boy turned away. Prisoner Q followed the boy to his room and saw how it overflowed with toys of all kinds—robots, guns, planes, and of course cars—and he jumped in surprise when a blue sportscar zipped between his feet and ran away, and the boy holding the remote control laughed gleefully. Then the woman came in and said, “It’s time for merienda. I made some biko and hot chocolate.” Biko, he tried to think, biko? The sticky rice clung to his palate and he could smell and taste the coconut milk in it, and he was smiling when he was shaken awake by a foot in his ribs, nudging him to get up. The dream exploded in his brain, and he tried to hold on to parts of it—that whiff of coconut, the boy’s taunts—but they came away in shreds. He wanted to lash out at the man who had woken him up, but it was just his friend Teroy, claiming his space on the floor.

That morning they dug some more, and then they ran out of earth, and hit solid adobe on which their spades were useless. No treasure could have been buried deeper than this virgin rock. The warden cursed at his misfortune and called the digging off. Prisoner Q’s grief was even greater; he was still scraping away at a hole that had opened up inside of him, and he could not stop.

Qwertyman No. 16: Prisoner Y

Qwertyman for Monday, November 21, 2022

PRISONER Y was still chewing on a tasty strip of cartilage that clung to the meatless rib he had fished out of the soup when he felt Cortes’ breath on his nape and heard his wheezing voice: “The warden wants to see you. Now.” He stood up, tossed the rib back onto his tray—a hand quickly grabbed it from nowhere—and turned to follow the guard. He wondered what the warden wanted this time. 

Nearly all the fans in the mess hall were out of commission and the inmates’ sweat mixed in the air with the fat curdling in the lukewarm broth, and Prisoner Y looked forward to the air-conditioning in the warden’s office, although he was sure the warden didn’t call him in for a conversation. The last couple of times, in fact, it was the warden’s secretary who had spoken to him, and he barely glimpsed the warden through the half-open door. 

The first time, he was picked up just outside the service gate by three men in an SUV, who brought him to a warehouse in Parañaque, where a man was trussed up, his head in a sack, screaming in a language Prisoner Y couldn’t make out. One of the men handed Prisoner Y a .45 and nodded; another man pointed another .45 at him; the third man held up his phone and recorded everything. Prisoner Y aimed at the victim’s head and fired; the body spasmed and stopped writhing. They drove him back to the prison, where Cortes met him at the gate and ushered him back to his cell. 

When his cellmates asked where he had been—now and then one of them would be gone like that for a day—Prisoner Y said that the warden had asked him to do some carpentry at his home; he had been a handyman in his past life, before the debts piled up and he learned to do other things with his hands. When someone asked him why he didn’t make a break for it while he could, and someone else remarked how all he wanted was an hour at the mall to savor the cool air and watch the salesgirls bending over, Prisoner Y said—truthfully, recalling how humid that warehouse was and how it reeked of stale oil and some shapeless menace—that he felt safer inside.

On his wife’s next visit that Sunday, she was deliriously happy. A man had come by their house, she said, and had dropped off some money in an envelope, saying that it was something owed her husband for a job he had done inside the prison. What did you do, she asked, did you build a house for the warden? It was enough to buy a new stove and a smartphone for Carmela, who needed it for school. I worked on the prison chapel, he lied, knowing it would make her happy; the old roof was leaking and you know the chapel is the warden’s pet project.

The second time it was different, because he had to ride on the back of a motorcycle that one of his handlers drove, and shoot his target on the run. The man, he realized to his horror, was the prison chaplain, walking the street in a Hawaiian shirt and slacks, as though on his day off, in search of a special meal or a movie to watch. Instantly Prisoner Y understood—the chaplain had spoken to the media about how prisoners complained to him about their food, how the prison officials skimmed a percentage off every sack of rice and kilo of stringy pork that entered the kitchen; there was talk of an investigation, although the inmates doubted anything would come out of it. He was there to make sure. It should have been easier to do with the priest in common garb, shorn of his soutane, but then the priest turned toward him as he fired and he could see the man’s terminal expression, one more of resigned acceptance than anything else. Despite himself, Prisoner Y muttered a prayer for forgiveness as they sped away.

Today Cortes led him past the secretary straight into the warden’s office and closed the door behind them. The warden was on his cellphone, a cigarette in his other hand; some ashes drifted onto his barong and he shot up from his seat to stub the cigarette into an ashtray and flick the ashes off without any change of voice in his phone conversation. “Of course, pañero, you don’t even need to ask, send my love to Mercy and the girls.” He shut his phone off and turned to Prisoner Y, who remained standing with his hands behind him. “How’s your wife? Is she happy? You know what they say—happy wife, happy life!” Prisoner Y murmured something like “Yes she is, thanks,” but the warden was already coming over to his side of the table. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “I want to talk about your future.” What was there to talk about? The future was his life sentence for murder.

In his six years in the penitentiary, Prisoner Y thought he had seen everything, every grimy corner of it, even the luxury suites inhabited by the drug lords and out-of-power politicians, but now the warden led him past the kitchen down a corridor he had assumed led to cold storage, and he was right; when Cortes unlocked the doors and pulled them open, a blast of cold air stung his nose, along with an acrid curl of some potent chemical. 

The warden flicked the light switch on and Prisoner Y saw them: a swarm of cadavers—some on raised platforms, many just on the floor, under browning blankets that could not cover everything. He could see fingers withered dry. “Stabbings, cancer, TB, chokings—they all end up here, the ones without family, the ones no one will miss. We should just burn these but there’s a budget for their maintenance. I’ve made sure of that.” 

“Why did you bring me here?” 

The warden nudged the edge of one blanket with his foot. “Your next job will be so important that it will have to be done by someone who might as well be dead.” Prisoner Y rubbed his arm and said, “I still have a family.” The warden looked at him calmly and said, “I know. You do. That’s why we’re here.” Prisoner Y shivered from a chill colder than bare ice.

Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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