Penman No. 400: A Book for the Pandemic

Penman for Monday, November 9, 2020

I BEGAN writing this column 20 years ago, shortly after I returned from nearly a year in England on a writing fellowship that eventually yielded my second novel, Soledad’s Sister

It was an exciting but also a challenging time, that turn of the century. We already knew that the much-ballyhooed Y2K threat was a colossal bust, but little did we imagine that even more titanic and very real dangers were just around the corner. Indeed, 2001 would see another Philippine President unceremoniously toppled, and then 9/11 would change the world and our sense of security forever, in much the same way as today’s pandemic will leave its scars for generations.

But in August 2000, I was in a plucky and hopeful mood. I was 46, an age when people are supposed to be approaching their peak. Professionally, that was probably true—I would become chair of the UP English department and then Vice President in a few years’ time. As a writer, I had ten books behind me by then, making me all puffed up like a preening peacock, but I had no idea that three-fourths of all the books I would write were still ahead of me, at the end of which I would feel properly deflated.

Into this happy turbulence came a call from an old friend from activist days, Millet Mananquil, and an invitation to write a weekly column for the Lifestyle section of the Philippine STAR. I felt flattered and elated; what better way was there to start a new century with? 

Before I left for England, for some years, I had been an editorial writer at the newspaper TODAY. It was a tremendous privilege (and responsibility) to work alongside the brilliant boss man Teddy Boy Locsin, who pretty much let me sermonize about the day’s politics and last week’s crime wave, but all that heavy-duty pondering left me a nervous wreck, and I begged Teddy Boy and our Lifestyle editor, the late Abe Florendo, to give me a column on the back page, where I could try to sound funny and maybe even witty, and which I would do for absolutely free, just so I could decompress. That’s how “Barfly” came to be—TODAY got a new columnist for nothing, and I kept my sanity.

By the time I returned, TODAY had folded up, but Millet’s timely invitation gave me new reason to have fun with words—without having to write editorials! It’s been 20 years since then, and yes, I have all my “Penman” column-pieces on file, about 1,065 of them at last count. Most of those pieces are probably forgettable, written on the run about whatever caught my fancy. But having retired from teaching and beginning to feel the slings and arrows of seniorhood, I began thinking last year about choosing what I thought were the most amusing of the lot—from getting my zipper stuck in the open position on a long flight to South Africa to crawling on my knees at the UP parking lot in search of a lost pen (in the finest tradition, you might say, of Mr. Bean)—and sticking them into a book.

I’m delighted to announce that that book—A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays—is out, published by the UP Press, with joyful cover art by Robert Alejandro. That it emerged in the middle of a pandemic means there’ll be no fancy launch with wine and canapes, but as my preface below suggests, it’s just as well, because you probably need to laugh as much as I do:

“The 110 essays in this collection were selected from many hundreds that I wrote and published for my Penman column in the Philippine STAR between 2000 and 2019, a two-decade period that saw me returning from a nine-month writing fellowship in England on one end and retiring from my teaching and administrative positions at the University of the Philippines (UP) on the other. 

“In other words, I grew old writing these pieces, but while picking and putting them together, I also realized what a fun ride it’s been, despite and sometimes because of the gross absurdities of Philippine politics and society. I decided to choose my more lighthearted pieces to entertain the reader and afford him or her a moment of relief and refuge, to remind ourselves that a gentle smile can be as precious and hard-won as a triumphal scream. Humor and comedy may yet be the best way of surviving a period seemingly intent on reducing us to tears and despair. 

“Critics have remarked how different in temperament my fiction is from my more popular Penman persona, and how I can dwell obsessively on such topics as fountain pens, computers, ramen noodles, vocabularies, Volkswagens, and of course my dear wife Beng. That’s because, as with my fiction, I believe that there can be great stories behind the simplest things (along with the suspicion that the simplest things are never really that simple). 

“But the bottom line is, I need a break, and so do you. I hope you enjoy reading these pieces—just a few at a time—as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

“My deepest thanks go to my friends and associates at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, particularly Roland Tolentino and Neil Garcia, for supporting the book, and to my editors at the Philippine STAR, chiefly Millet Mananquil and Igan D’Bayan, for bearing with me all these years.”

(The book can be ordered online from the UP Press store on Lazada at https://tiny.cc/boi1tz.)

Penman No. 399: Teacher’s Travails

Penman for Monday, October 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 388: To Fall in Love with the World, Again

Penman for Monday, May 25, 2020

THE TERRIBLE loss of lives and jobs aside, the one thing that Beng and I will miss the most in whatever “new normal” emerges out of this Covid crisis is travel, whose contours, protocols, and costs we can only begin to guess at. We are, of course, deeply grateful and relieved just to be alive and well (so far) and adequately fed (so far), lifting us up far above the lot of millions of Filipinos who cannot even venture into the next municipality for their livelihood and sustenance. 

In this light, travel and everything we associate with it—dining, entertainment, shopping, sports (even given that for Beng and me, it’s mostly just museums, flea markets, and street food)—would seem utterly frivolous. But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t dream of frivolity and indulgence, even and especially in the most trying of times, if only to convince ourselves that tomorrow will be better and worth waking up for.

At about this time last year, Beng and I returned to Manila from a two-week romp across Scotland, London, and Norfolk, a sentimental journey that reprised, on a smaller scale, a nine-month stay in the UK twenty years earlier. I had just retired that January from 35 years of teaching, and at 65, I figured that Beng and I had maybe another ten good years to spend together, to poke our noses into the flea markets of Hell’s Kitchen, Spitalfield, Panjiayuan, Encants, and Clignancourt. We’re cheap and easy to please; I’d say the highlight of our traveling life was a one-day tour of Venice on the vaporetto, because that was all the time and the money we had, delighting simply in the magic of being together amid such breathtaking beauty, K-drama-style.

As it happened, 2019 turned out to be the busiest travel year of our lives. Starting the week after I retired, we went off on a crazy spree that would have collapsed many younger people: Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey (a grueling 3,000-km overland tour), the US, Singapore again, Macau, and Singapore again, not to mention local sorties to Davao and Dipolog.

We had been debating between doing it all in one year, or phasing the trips over a couple of years. Our friends and family began worrying about the strain on our bodies and budget, despite our assurances that we were managing ourselves quite well, even if—such as when we spent a day at New York’s MoMA, redeeming a pledge to see Chagall together—we had to pause on every floor to catch our breath.

We know now that if we didn’t do it when we could, we never would. We had the happiest time together, and if we never go on another plane, we will have enough memories to last us to the end. But even as those memories please me, I grieve for the fact that we will never travel again the way we did. Even those extra security measures then, which we used to complain about—the endless X-rays, the unbuckling of belts and watches—seem carefree now. 

Wearing a mask for a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight? Dousing myself in alcohol at the hotel? Mistrusting every door handle and faucet, every driver and waiter, every open mouth and extended hand? And even if we do get to fly again, it will be a changed world we will be landing in—forbidding, even hostile, still desperate for your money but not much else.

Late last year, before anyone had ever heard or minded the word “coronavirus,” Beng and I planned our travel year—not much, we said, let’s stay at home and get back to work, but we did have two destinations on the wish list: St. Petersburg in Russia, which was offering free e-visas to Filipinos for eight-day stays, and Alicante in Spain, where a big conference in Philippine Studies was to take place in September. They will not happen now nor anytime soon, and frankly I don’t regret that as much as other kinds of less tangible but also deeper losses. 

I mourn, for example, the loss of intimacy—not the bond between two people who sleep together, which has to survive all viruses—but the more casual kind between friends at table in a restaurant or even strangers on a train, the kind that says “I’m OK, you’re OK, I won’t hurt you and you won’t hurt me”—indeed the loss of casualness itself. 

The younger folks among us can still look forward to something vaguely resembling 2019 by, say, 2024. They might even be laughing then at the memory of “that Covid thing” as they take their partner’s hand and mingle with the crowd in Seoul or San Francisco before diving into their favorite restaurant. For those of us now close to 70, that will probably not happen; even if the world forgets and relaxes once again, we could be too old by then. 

In this time of too many “never agains,” I can only thank God there was a 2019, and that we made as full use of it as we could. But life’s a long road with many unexpected turns, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from our journeys, it’s those turns off the tourist map that have led to the most wonderful discoveries. If not St. Petersburg, if not Alicante, I trust something will come up, perhaps in our own backyard, to make us fall in love with the world again, as we so badly need to do.

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

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Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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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

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)