Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

Kids.png

Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

Long.png

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

crash1.jpg

Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:  “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released anti-republic films and TV dramas that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were reviewing an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

IMG_3337.jpeg

Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

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

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

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

87761369_145210946636117_2602308233536208896_n.jpg

87555380_1522388674582220_1586447076739252224_n.jpg

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

IMG_3361.jpeg

IMG_3351.jpeg

IMG_3358.jpeg

IMG_3366.jpeg

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

IMG_3367.jpeg

Unknown.jpeg

Moises_Padilla_Story.jpg

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

27021948_1893959773996047_8250631721652037701_o.jpg

14612564_1153431258070234_8046207763267529315_o.jpg

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

3W72119s5BjVs3Hye1oHX44R9EcpQD5C9xXzj68nJaq3CeSzYksz22SbvK9zUymto17c14J68siTxeCmFUAMj5Gr8xdkZ74yAYZTnoU2R4N7nCpvGnLZP4.jpeg

IMG_3391.jpeg

IMG_3386.jpeg

DecoPainting.png

IMG_3380.jpeg

IMG_3394.jpeg

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

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

IMG_3390.jpeg

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

JTorres1.jpg

Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

8398741572.jpg

I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

image09.jpg

jopson-addressing-the-jan-26-crowd.jpg

As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

IMG_3148.JPG

That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

JTorres2.jpg

(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

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

IMG_1085.jpeg

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

MatterCover.png

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.

Voyager and Other Fictions cover 02 062819.jpeg

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.)

70482837_2759972480728101_3571365147433762816_n.jpg

Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

L1090932.jpg

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.”

IMG_0107.jpg

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

75273.jpg

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”

49686189_10155871898421881_8712630533357568000_n.jpgPenman for Monday, August 5, 2019

 

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

19657226_1983734168528318_2478868852356142321_n.png

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.