Hindsight No. 1: A Time for Telling

Hindsight for Monday, January 17, 2022

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I received the news of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose’s passing two Fridays ago; my recollections of him appeared online later that day. But just as jarring a surprise was a call I later received from Millet Mananquil, my editor in the Lifestyle section, and then from Doreen Yu, our Op-Ed editor, informing me that I had been chosen to take over FSJ’s column-space on this page.

It was a great privilege, of course, and I accepted it gratefully. But it also carried with it an awesome responsibility—to be honest, to be fair, to know enough about an issue to speak with some legitimacy about it, and also to be modest and open-minded enough to remember one’s inescapable fallibility. I don’t think that last one’s going to be a problem, because I’ve made mistakes often enough to know that—well, I make mistakes, some of which may have hurt people badly.

But last Saturday I turned 68, and with that age comes a keener sense of doing right, of accountability for one’s choices and judgments, as well as a greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others, though not of evil or of wrong itself. I intend to maintain those bearings in this new capacity.

Some readers may wonder how a Lifestyle writer like me—obsessed with fountain pens, old books, Broadway showtunes, and digital gadgetry—ends up doing op-ed, which seems a far more serious and consequential calling. A brief self-introduction might be in order.

I dropped out of UP as an engineering freshman in 1971 and, against all odds (not having spent one day in Journalism class, and being all of 18), landed a job as a features writer and general assignments reporter with the Philippines Herald in 1972. My first task was to fill up half the Features page every day—something that schooled me forever on the importance of deadlines and of resourcefulness, because I had to come up with the topics on my own. I moved to Taliba as a suburban correspondent; was arrested for my activism shortly after martial law was declared; spent seven months in prison; and upon my release joined the information staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, where I would work for the next ten years, picking up a diploma in Development Economics along the way.

I returned to school, finished up my academics all the way to a PhD (more for teaching than for my writing), and taught full-time while writing stories and film scripts. In the mid-1990s, thanks to my friend and now fellow-columnist Jarius Bondoc, I was hired as an editorial writer for the newly opened newspaper TODAY. Being busy with other aspects of management, our boss Teddyboy Locsin trusted me to do about three editorials a week, including the newspaper’s very first one. 

I discovered that opinion writing was exhilarating—but also, again, fraught with responsibility. It got to the point that I found myself wishing I could write something less driven by analysis and conscience—small things like my rickety VW Beetle, double-knit pants, and my love of crabs, instead of ponderous topics like prison reform, the defense budget, and Philippines 2000. (I still have 113 editorials that I wrote on my hard drive.) So I asked for—and got—a Lifestyle column called “Barfly” on the back page, which helped me decompress and kept me sane, reminding me that life was much more than politics and that beauty and fun were as important as anything else to happiness.

I’m going to keep that escape valve open—I’ve promised Millet that I’ll continue contributing my “Penman” column every now and then—but I’ll approach this new task with the loftiness of mind that it deserves (although you’ll excuse me if I sometimes prefer to take a more comic tack, as the best criticism is often served up with a smile). 

Unfortunately I’m not a political insider; I don’t make the rounds of kapihans and have become something of a happy recluse over the Covid lockdowns. You’ll see my politics soon enough—unabashedly liberal (with a small L), middle-force, intensely uncomfortable with both Right and Left extremes. (I came out of the Left and worked briefly for the Right as a sometime speechwriter for five Presidents—but not the last two.) I thank God every night for my family’s safety and for our blessings and for the well-being of others, but I’ve had my differences with Church dogma and would rather spend my Sundays reflecting on human frailty and redemption by reading a book or writing a story.

But I do have a deep and abiding love of history, of which I have so much more to learn. This is why I’m keeping FSJ’s “Hindsight” for this column’s title. (When I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies, I dithered between English and History, and chose English only because I was likely to finish it sooner). I agree with Manong Frankie, among many others, that one of the greatest obstacles to our nationhood is the fact that we have a very poor memory—much less an understanding—of our past. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that amnesia now, in the prospect of electing a dictator’s son to the presidency, a full half-century after the father plunged this country into political and moral darkness by declaring martial law to perpetuate himself in power.

There—it’s when vexatious thoughts like that cross my mind that my fingers begin to itch and I want to editorialize, the complete opposite of my impulse as a fictionist to show and not tell. (I often begin my fiction-writing classes by comparing an editorial on, say, justice for the poor with a short story dealing with the same concern, but without once mentioning “justice,” “poverty,” and such abstractions.) But even as I remain a fictionist at heart, there’s a time for telling, for gathering up the threads of an unfolding narrative and declaring, in plain language, what they mean. That’s what I hope to do.

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

TO THE chorus of voices mourning the passing of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose, let me add my own.

For a very long time, Manong Frankie and I were not what could honestly be called friends. I had said hurtful things about him and his work, and I could feel that he took that to heart. 

But we did begin on a very high and encouraging note. In 1983, he selected me and a few other Filipino writers—Rey Duque, Marj Evasco, and Fanny Llego among them, as far as I can remember—to attend a writer’s seminar in Bali that he and his friend the late Takdir Alisjabanah had organized to bring young Southeast Asian writers together. It was my first big international conference, and it was exhilarating to be talking literature on the fringe of a crater lake. I deeply appreciated that gesture on Manong Frankie’s part; through him I met such luminaries as Edwin Thumboo, Shirley Lim, and Cecil Rajendra. At that point I had read and appreciated The Pretenders and many of FSJ’s short stories.

Some years later, I was in America studying for my MFA in Michigan and then my PhD in Wisconsin, and at some point I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Philippine literature—I can’t recall why, or why me (it was probably just after EDSA, when the world’s eyes were upon us, and I was conveniently available)—and when FSJ’s name came up I indelicately repeated what I thought was the prevalent opinion then (and until much later) of his work among my fellow writers in English: that while he wrote about all the right things, his prose was far too plain and lacking in certain qualities. (It was an opinion that would understandably provoke a backlash from FSJ’s supporters who valued his substance more than his style.)

That must’ve gotten back to Frankie because—whether I just imagined it or not—I felt that I got the cold shoulder from him from then on. It didn’t help that he seemed to have a bone to pick with UP and creative writing workshops, and held the notion that we were out to create clones of our snooty selves, detached from the harsh realities of life on the ground. I (and many others) continued to be exasperated by his cantakerousness (I even called him “cranky Frankie”) and groaned at his propensity to lecture young writers to the point of scolding them for one shortcoming or other.

But even so no one could deny his massive and meaningful contributions to our literature and to the idea of a literature grounded on history and social reality. When I happened to serve on the preliminary committee vetting candidates for the National Artist Award the year he eventually won it, I had no problem putting my minor misgivings aside and voting for him.

I’m not sure when the thaw in our relationship began, but it must have been when we were both invited in 2017 to an NCCA-sponsored seminar in La Union where I was asked to give a talk on Manuel Arguilla. I knew he was going to be listening, and I have to admit that I wrote my lecture with him specifically in mind, wanting to reassure him that I wasn’t some city-boy snob who didn’t know one end of a carabao from the other and who couldn’t write about anything but professors sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks. Through Arguilla, I wanted him to know that I felt and understood—and indeed wrote about—his concern for common and unarticulated lives.

Later that year, when I spoke at the annual Palanca Awards dinner about how writers in our society often have to write for others for a living but also need to redeem themselves through their art, he approached me from below the podium and extended his hand to congratulate me, and I knew we had reconciled.

We were brought even closer when he and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara founded the Akademyang Filipino, asking me to serve as a trustee along with such stalwarts of civil liberties as former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales. He would remind me, among the most junior members of that board, to make sure the Akademya survived him, pleading his age. (His daughter Jette, who sadly died just weeks before Frankie, was our very capable executive secretary.)

He and Manang Tess would invite me and Beng for dinner, and he was very happy and surprised when I presented him once with a copy of the maiden issue of Solidarity, which he had lost. In private, he told me something that assured me that we had, again, become friends.

Still, for all that, his mercurial politics continued to confound me. Separated by the Covid lockdown, our meetings stopped, although even if we had met I probably would not have been able to ask him to his face how he could reconcile his loathing of dictatorship with his approval for Marcos’ successor. Not I nor anyone else could have changed his mind. It was sad to see him savagely reviled for his contentious remarks about ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa, among other issues, but I suspect that there was a part of him that courted and reveled in the notoriety.

And that was what I learned about F. Sionil Jose: you had to take him as he was, all of a package, or reject him outright, which would also be a pity. Nearly all great writers had their quirks and imperfections, but it’s their work that survives and surpasses all our momentary misgivings.

Farewell, Manong!

Persian Rose

(Some years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of “sudden fiction”—short stories no more than about 500 words each—and at that time I had just found two bottles of a very rare Sheaffer ink from the 1950s called Persian Rose, although sadly one bottle was spoiled, so I decided to write a story about it, and here it is.)

HIS HANDS trembled with excitement when the parcel arrived; it had taken three weeks to cross the Pacific—and a few days more before that to find its way to the main PO in Los Angeles from someone named W. Kiffin in Broken Bow, Nebraska. He had no idea who “W. Kiffin” was, if “W” was a man’s or a woman’s name; he usually knew his eBay sellers, and got his vintage pens and inks from established dealers with positive feedbacks of 1000+. These were aggregators for whom pickers trawled the backwoods of Kansas and Wisconsin for that burgundy 1937 Parker Senior Maxima in mint condition, very possibly a gift put away in a drawer and soon forgotten. Why? Did the owner die—a plane crash, a ferry accident, a bullet in Iwo Jima? Each old pen hobbled in with a story, and there were hundreds of them now in his collection, from a continent and sometimes a century away. By the time he had run the pen through the ultrasonic cleaner, put in a new rubber sac, and polished the cap and barrel, the pen looked new and the stories were gone down the drain.

This time he had bought a Lady Duofold in jade green and a bottle of ink from W. Kiffin. Kiffin was new on eBay, had a feedback of 6, and had apparently been disposing of his or her grandmother’s effects. That’s what the advertisement said: “Nana’s stuff, found in a drawer.” It was the ink more than the pen that excited him: a possibly unopened bottle of Sheaffer’s Persian Rose, a bright purplish pink from the 1950s much sought after by connoisseurs the way wine collectors prized something like a Petrus 1947. A small bottle of Persian Rose could sell for as much as $85, and he had bagged the ink and pen for just $16.50 both, plus shipping.

As he opened the Jiffy bag he saw that the pen had browned with age, as he expected. Its nib was stubbed and well used; Nana had probably written with it to the last. But the ink was still in its original box, which was a little frayed but intact. Eagerly he opened it and slowly uncapped the bottle; Persian Rose was always a question—would it keep fresh, retain its vivid hue? What drove Nana to get it? A flush of joy? An expectation of many long letters to be written over that summer in Broken Bow? 

The cap came off with a slight twist and he realized it had been opened—maybe once or twice. The ink looked darker than blood. He dipped a clean new pen into the liquid and wrote a line on the sheet he had laid out for the ceremony: the ink was spoiled. He shuddered with disappointment and put the bottle away.

Later, he worked on the Duofold, and ran the nib under tap water. The brightest rush of pink bled out of the nib—the truest Persian Rose, dried out for longer than he had been alive—and vanished in a floral swirl, like Nana’s last breath.

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

I HAD a surprise visit—and present—this morning from one of the people I have always acknowledged to be my life mentors, Dr. Gerry P. Sicat, my former boss (and Beng’s) at the National Economic and Development Authority. He brought me a bound special issue of the New York Times Book Review from 1996, featuring the first reviews of such literary luminaries aa Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Woolf, Hemingway, Gordimer, and Updike. He had saved the copy for me back when he was still working in Washington, when he heard from his daughter that I was “doing well” in UP; somehow he had misplaced the copy for 25 years, finding it only recently, and thus today’s visit.

The “doing well” remark goes back to the long story of my ten years at NEDA (1973-83) and how GPS (or “DG” as we all called him, for Director-General) shaped my life at a crucial stage.

I was just 19 in August 1973 when I stepped out of martial-law prison. I had dropped out of UP at 18 with 21 units to my name, but I had already worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba as a reporter before my arrest for subversion. In Bicutan, I had studied drawing with the printmaker Orly Castillo, and upon my release I joined Orly at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines studio in Ermita to study and practice printmaking—something I would do for several years. It was at the PAP where I met Beng (I should say, met her again, as I had seen her in UP and admired her from a distance—she was a pretty senior on the Student Council, and I was a bumbling freshman), and within three months of our getting together, I told myself that I wanted to marry her. (Ours was a generation steeped in fire and blood—scores of comrades had died fighting the dictatorship, and we had come to be convinced that we were not going to see our 30th year, maybe not even our 25th. So if we had anything important to do—like marry and have children—the sooner we did it, the better.) 

I shared the bold announcement with my mom: I had met a nice girl and I was going to ask her to marry me. “Are you crazy?” she responded. “You don’t even have a job!” Well—I said—I suppose you’re right, I should find some gainful employment.

(Above, a drypoint print of Beng from 1973;
below, an aquatint and drypoint print of my grandmother Mamay from 1975. )

That same day I went to the PAP studio to work on some prints and to mull over my future. Printmaking was fun—and I got to hobnob with such brilliant (and real) artists as Bencab and Tiny Nuyda, among others—but it wasn’t something I could live off, let alone support a family with. A kind dealer came by every few weeks to buy prints from me and other PAP members for P15-25 each to serve as fillers for the frames she was selling to US servicemen in Clark and Subic. I needed a real 9-5 job.

That afternoon I walked around the Padre Faura neighborhood, and on the street I ran into an old friend and comrade, Jun Medina, who had been a newspaperman pre-ML and was now the PR chief at NEDA. He was so happy to see me—he had known I was in prison—that he literally emptied his wallet to give me whatever he had, a kindness I would never forget. He asked me if I was back working. “No,” I said. “In fact I’m looking for a job.” He lit up and said, “We’re looking for a feature writer! Why don’t you apply? Let’s go up and see the boss!” Sure, I thought, what’s there to lose?

(Puffing and dreaming–at my worst, I smoked four packs a day;
quit smoking with Beng cold-turkey in 1994.)

And just like that, a few minutes later, I was talking to NEDA Director-General Dr. Gerardo P. Sicat, whom I had never met before; he was only 38 then, trim and fit (he was a tennis player and marathoner), but cool and laid back, asking just a few questions to see if I had anything in my noggin. Jun vouched for me and my writing, and that apparently was enough. “Let’s start you at P700,” said GPS, and lightbulbs popped in my head; in 1973, P700 a month was good  money.

That night I went home and had the pleasure of informing my mother that “I found a job, and I’m getting married!”

Of course I had to ask Beng first, so I sat her down at the old Skorpios in Cubao and probably over batchoy and puto I got a napkin and scribbled some figures on it, starting with “700.” How much would an apartment cost? Food? Transportation? “We can get married!” I concluded, although I guess I turned that into a question, because she agreed (and would later tell me, “I don’t know why, but I did!”).

We met at the PAP in September; on January 15, 1974, on my 20th birthday, we were married by the CFI judge my mother worked for—took less than five minutes—and had a merienda cena reception at The Bungalow for less than a hundred people at P8 per head; when the management realized that we hadn’t made arrangements for a wedding cake, they hastily and kindly provided one.

So Dr. Sicat made that possible, but his unbidden intercessions wouldn’t end there. Knowing that I was barely a freshman when I left UP, he sent me to the UP School of Economics as a special student to attend the one-year graduate diploma Program in Development Economics, so I could learn something more substantial about the things I was writing about. That course introduced me to outstanding teachers (some of them just instructors back then) like Agustin Kintanar, Gon Jurado, Rosalinda Tidalgo, Dante Canlas, and Ruping Alonzo, and made lifelong friends of batchmates like Meynard Guevarra (now DOJ Secretary) and Vicky Bataclan and Libran Cabactulan (later DFA ambassadors), among others. Against all odds, the salimpusa passed. (And I was ever aware that my “special student” enrollment was vaguely anomalous, but I suppose there were advantages to GPS being a UP regent at that time.)

On the strength of that diploma, Dr. Sicat later endorsed me to the United Nations Development Programme office in Manila when the security watchdogs at NISA complained about my access to sensitive documents at NEDA, as an ex-detainee who still had to report regularly to the military authorities. GPS was sending me to the UNDP to cool off—they even had to create the position of “National Professional Officer” for me, which was later adopted by other UNDP offices in the system—and for a year, I did project evaluations and liaised between the UNDP and NEDA. I was even given a chance to move over to the FAO and to work with NEDA’s External Assistance Staff, but after a year of role-playing as the economist I truly wasn’t, I asked to return to my PR job at NEDA and to my creative writing, which was what I most enjoyed. (For a time, my closest friend and officemate at NEDA was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega, my Alpha Sigma fraternity brother and fellow playwright. Many other writers like Patty Rivera, Fidel Rillo, Lilia and Jess Santiago, and Eric Caruncho would join our Economic Information Staff.)

(With fellow playwrights Boy Noriega and Paul Dumol, ca. 1981.)

In 1980, GPS had another surprise for me: he was sending me to the US for three months on a USAID grant to study media operations—and I enjoyed and learned from that immensely, but I knew that GPS had really sent me out as a writer who needed to see a bit of the world outside, to broaden my horizons; it was something he routinely did for his young staff. I have since been to the US dozens of times—our daughter lives there—but that first visit remains incandescent in my memory: first snow, first tour of the Smithsonian, first glimpse of New York, Broadway, the raw material for my story “Oldtimer,” long walks in yellow forests. 

When I returned, I was filled with a fresh resolve to just go back to school, to study and write and perhaps to teach for the rest of my life, which I did. For two years, I shuttled between NEDA and UP, racing to get a proper AB English degree; I resigned from NEDA in 1983 as the political climate was heating up so I could focus on my studies full-time, graduating in 1984, with Beng working doubly hard to support us in the interim.

Also in 1984, Dr. Sicat left NEDA himself to take up a post with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Before leaving, he asked me and Boy Noriega to visit him at his home in La Vista, where he gave each of us 30 minutes to select ten books from his library. I was beside myself picking out those books—I recall choosing, among others, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I had read in high school and was deeply impressed by), the two volumes on the Philippine short story compiled by Leopoldo Yabes, and Mao’s Little Red Book (because mine had been confiscated upon my arrest). They remain with me to this day.

And then I took my MFA and PhD in the US on a Fulbright grant (basically just a plane ticket and a book allowance, because Fulbright funds were running low then—so I had to work, among others, as a cook for a Chinese fast-food) from 1986 to 1991, and returned to UP to teach full-time, become a professor, and publish more books. I suppose this was what Dr. Sicat’s daughter meant when she told her dad that his former recruit was “doing well.” 

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

When I retired in 2019, one of the guests I made sure would attend my retirement party was GPS, and shortly after I followed in his footsteps as Professor Emeritus. 

He must have been shaking his head—but smiling—when he left our place today. (Beng and I were—at 86, GPS looked a whole lot slimmer and fitter than my 67.) Many thanks, DG, for the job and the visit, and for everything in between.

(At my retirement party, with GPS, my friend Julie Hill, and EVP Ted Herbosa.)

Some Families, Very Large (A Christmas Story)

(I wrote and published this story twenty years ago for the Christmas issue of The Philippine STAR, and I’m posting it here as a Christmas offering to my readers, who may not have come across it yet.)

A FUNERAL parlor was the last place Sammy expected to be on Christmas Eve—especially since no one he knew had died. And despite his father’s assurances that the man who lay in the shiny white coffin was a distant uncle of his—maybe one of those people who had come over for games and drinks and had mussed his hair—Sammy could not remember the long, rat-like face in the picture that hung over the burial announcement. 

Sammy was only nine, but he had a good head for faces. The names escaped him—his father kept teasing him for being hard of hearing—but he made a game of attaching a face to something else: mud-caked shoes, yellow nails, pitted cheeks. Most of them were his father’s friends, and while he had seen very few of them between this Christmas and the last one, he felt reasonably sure he could recognize any of them again, if he met them on the street. They had walked many streets that morning, and he had seen many new faces, but he had met no one even vaguely familiar. 

Sammy also knew something about death and funeral wakes. When he was six, his playmate Leo had drowned in the black froth of the estero. He had watched from the bank as they fished out the boy’s body with a hook-tipped pole. Leo looked very fat and very oily, and his tongue stuck out of his mouth like a peeled banana. They had stuffed him into a coffin and set up a wake on the sidewalk, where the borrowed candelabra outshone everything else at night, and passersby threw coins into a plastic can, which Leo’s mother emptied into a large pocket in her apron now and then. Leo’s mother sold fish at the talipapa, like Sammy’s own mother, who sold vegetables when she wasn’t turning scraps of fabric into hand mops. 

But she was gone now, like many things they had let go of over the past few years: the motorcycle, his mother’s sewing machine, the television set, even a typewriter said to have been used by his grandfather, a writer of dramas for radio. Indeed, a small transistor radio was the only thing they had left over from the old times, and Sammy would sometimes imagine hearing his grandfather on it, saying all kinds of important, grown-up things, although the man had died many years before Sammy was born.

That morning, his father had shaken him awake with an unusual gleam in his eyes. “Eat and get dressed,” his father had said. “I’m taking you out.” 

Sammy shot up. “Where?” It had been weeks—months—since they had gone anywhere interesting, like the seawall or the basement of the mall, where there were all kinds of food—and rides, fabulous rides on pastel dragons and rampant horses and bug-eyed fish. That was the one time his father had won anything big—five thousand pesos, his father had said, although Sammy couldn’t imagine what five thousand pesos could buy. It certainly was enough for a few days of roast pork, fried rice, and noodles, and he could run to the corner store and ask for anything without having to mumble that word he had learned to dread, “Lista.” 

That moment came and went, replaced by the old routine of making his own meals—opening a can of sardines and dunking a piece of bread into the red mush, leaving the best parts for his sleeping father—before rushing off for the twenty-minute walk to school. He had never come around to hating his father, although he had many questions to ask. His child’s instincts told him that something was terribly wrong, but his father seemed to have an explanation for everything: Mama had gone back to her hometown, very far down south, to take care of her own dying father, and the government was having a hard time keeping her island from drifting farther away into the ocean; Papa lost his job as a filing clerk at the factory because someone didn’t like the way Papa cheered for his favorite basketball team; the kind and quantity of food on their table depended on one’s success at dilhensya, which was in turn dependent on one’s abilidad

These two words burned themselves into young Sammy’s brain: they were what got you ahead in the world, or at least what saved you from curling up in a spasm of hunger. That was a man’s most important job, Papa said: to put food on the table, no matter what. Sammy had some vague idea of what his father did: a classmate said that he had seen Sammy’s Papa at the jeepney stop, barking out destinations and herding passengers onto waiting rides. When Sammy asked him about it, the father said that he was actually a kind of policeman’s assistant, a volunteer enforcer of traffic rules and regulations. People needed to be told where to go, and how to get there fast. People paid for that kind of abilidad.

That day, they had visited three houses on opposite ends of the city. They waited all morning outside the gate of a large compound on Roberts Street in Pasay. Through a vent in the wall, Sammy could see a lawn as wide as the sea, and a fleet of cars and vans on the far side. There was an armed guard just inside the gate who spoke to them through perforations in the iron. “He’s my congressman,” his Papa said. “We were born in the same hometown. I voted for him in the last election. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas. I brought my son to greet him as well.” 

The guard snickered and said, “I’ll send him your compliments. Go home, he’s not here, he left very early.” A metal panel dropped in front of the holes. 

“I’ll wait! We’ll wait! He knows me, he shook my hand once at a wedding!” They stood outside and then sat on their haunches for another hour. 

“Let me tell you something. This guy,” his Papa whispered to Sammy, “this guy, I saw him hand out crisp new five-hundred peso bills during the campaign, like he was giving away mint candies. I know he’ll be good for something.” At a quarter to eleven, the heavy gate swung open, and a large Mercedes-Benz the color of midnight slid out. Father and son jumped to their feet. The Mercedes paused just out of the gate for a second as the guard exchanged words with the unseen passenger, then the car lurched forward and sped rightward, and the gate closed again before Sammy’s father could say anything. “I don’t think he recognized me,” the man said to the boy. “The last time he saw me, I was wearing a barong.”

They next went to Concepcion in Marikina to look for one of Sammy’s godfathers, whom neither Sammy nor his father had seen since his baptism, but when they got to the neighborhood and the address that Sammy’s Papa remembered, there was nothing there but the charred hulk of a plastics factory that hadn’t even been there the last time. Sammy’s father had only a hundred pesos left on him, and they used some of that for a lunch of two bowls of arroz caldo at a roadside stand. Sammy loved arroz caldo, and would have been happy to let the day end there, but his father had another address on his list. Sammy didn’t mind moving around—the rides themselves were interesting, and he marveled at how his father knew so many places. Even so he was getting tired and teary-eyed, his eyes and nostrils smarting from the dust and the gas fumes. Many jeepney transfers later, they reached Damar Village in Quezon City, where his father convinced the guard to let them into the village. 

They found the place they were looking for—a large white house with Roman columns and statues of fish with coins in their mouths. This, the father said, was the home of his former employer, Mr. Cua. Mr. Cua always had a soft spot for him and would not have let him go, he added, but too many people felt threatened by his smartness, and in the end Mr. Cua had no choice but to sacrifice him for the sake of industrial peace. Sammy’s father announced himself to another guard—this was, Sammy thought, truly a city of guards, and he wondered if his father had ever considered becoming one himself, seeing how they held the keys to everything—and again they waited while the guard checked them out with Mr. Cua. But even before the guard could get in the door, Mr. Cua himself emerged, wearing a Santa hat and leading a group of children out to the yard, where small tables had been set. Some of the children wore masks that made Sammy’s heart leap with envy—Batman, King Kong, and other cartoon and fairy tale characters he could only guess at. Sammy stared at a pigtailed Chinese-looking girl who stared back at him, and his father stepped forward to get to Mr. Cua before he could vanish. The guard still stood between the two men and Mr. Cua shrank back as if by instinct, but Sammy’s father began to speak. “Mr. Cua! How are you, sir? I was a clerk in your factory, remember me? My name is Felipe Dinglasan—” At this point the guard drew his gun and the children shrieked, and Felipe Dinglasan, not knowing what else to do, seized Mr. Cua’s hands and said, “I just came to say Merry Christmas, Mr. Cua! Look, I brought my son Sammy, he’s only nine, but he knows—I told him—what a great and generous man you are! Say good afternoon to Mr. Cua, Sammy!” The boy stepped forward and said, gravely, “Good afternoon, Mr. Cua.” The guard lowered his gun. Still shaking from what he thought might have been an assault on his life, Mr. Cua forced himself to laugh—to come up with his best Santa ho-ho-ho—and patted Sammy on the head. “Good afternoon, Sammy! Ho-ho-ho!” Sammy’s father sidled up to them and said. “Wait for your present, Sammy. Santa will give you a present.” Caught in the middle of another ho-ho-ho, the befuddled Mr. Cua reached for his wallet, looking desperately for small bills, but finding nothing smaller than a five hundred, he peeled out a bill and made a show of presenting it to the boy. “Merry Christmas, Sammy! Be a good boy!” All the children cheered as Sammy mumbled his thanks and as Mr. Cua glared at Felipe Dinglasan, who had the good sense to begin walking backwards, flashing his most non-threatening smile.

“What did I tell you, boy?” Felipe said as he flipped the five-hundred-peso bill between his hands, before folding it neatly and sticking it in his wallet. “All you need is a little ability—well, more than a little, more than a little!” Sammy got the feeling that he, too, had done something marvelous for the both of them, and the boy smiled in anticipation of a reward—a movie, perhaps, or, dare he say it, the one Christmas present he wanted most, the battery-powered laser sword he had seen at a Rizal Avenue shop window.

The sun had fallen now, and Sammy could imagine that incandescent saber cutting swaths in the gathering darkness.

But they walked past that store, and as large as the lump in his throat was, Sammy did not complain. “You must be getting hungry,” his father said, and Sammy nodded. “There’s this special noodle place I know, just around one of these corners, your mother and I used to go there. We deserve something special—special beef noodles, what do you say?”

“You’re the boss!” Sammy chirped, and they veered off into a warren of streets and alleys. Half an hour passed and still they could not find the noodle shop Felipe remembered. In the dark the streets looked even more alike. Sammy trudged behind his father, wishing, praying to be carried, but he was too big for such favors now, and he soldiered on as one alley led to another. Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers. Boys Sammy’s age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no let-up in business here. Sammy himself felt his senses quicken, awakened by the sweetness of caramelized sugar.

Felipe Dinglasan felt revived as well, for in a trice he had spotted a group of men in a corner, huddled over what he did not need to see to know. Breathing even more hoarsely than when he had been walking, Sammy’s father drew a ten-peso bill from his wallet—the remainder of his last hundred—and gave it to the boy. “Get yourself something to eat,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

The money was enough for a large glass of gulaman and a packet of cookies. Sammy watched his father insinuate himself into the group of men—at first watching, then chatting the others up, then finally taking a place in the circle, his back to Sammy. Once or twice, Felipe cast a furtive glance over his back toward his son, knowing the boy would never stray too far away. When Sammy approached him, wanting only to ask if they were waiting for someone again, Felipe excused himself from the game and quickly found themselves a solution. “Aniceto Navarrete,” read the sign on the door, but it meant nothing to the boy. “You wait here,” his Papa said. “I knew this man, he was a cousin of mine in Dipolog, it’s always good to meet new family at Christmas.”

And this was how Sammy—finally yielding to boredom and fatigue—found himself straying into the quietest and most desolate funeral parlor of the lot, the Funeraria Dahlia. Indeed there was no one and nothing in it but the white coffin when Sammy stepped in. A weak bulb kept flickering overhead like a solitary Christmas light. Sammy took one of the back pews, and soon fell asleep. 

When Sammy awoke hours later, jarred by the retort of a tricycle on the street, there was a woman seated beside him, holding a glass of milky coffee in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. A curl of lipstick marked the coffee glass. She had a large, hooked nose, and she looked much older than Sammy’s mother. She wore a collarless black dress, and her hair towered above them both in a pile of buns. The first things that struck Sammy were the bags under her eyes, and her broad red lips.

“What’s your name, boy?” the woman said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Sammy cried. “I was just waiting for my father!”

“I wasn’t telling you to go,” she said, flicking her ashes on the floor. “I was just asking who you were.”

“Sammy,” the boy said. “Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, bowing to the boy. “My name is Mrs. Concordia Navarrete, and that’s my son Necing over there. Do you want some coffee? Are you old enough for coffee? Go get something to eat.” There was a small table on one side of the room with a thermos bottle, a jar of coffee, three or four Chinese apples, and a tin of butter cookies.

“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, then, suit yourself. Where’s your father?”

“Out there, ma’am.” Sammy could see his father, still hunched over the card game. 

Mrs. Navarrete looked at the men and blew a cloud of smoke in their direction. “He’ll be there all night. Unless—”

“Unless what, ma’am?”

“Nothing. My son Necing, he was going to be a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A smart person—but never mind.”

“I know about smart persons, ma’am. My Papa is very smart.”

“Oh, is he, now?” Sammy noticed that Mrs. Navarrete’s eyebrows had no hair on them. “And just how did you find that out?”

Sammy began telling Mrs. Navarrete about his father, and the events of the day, as far as he understood them. When he got to the part about Mr. Cua and the guard with the gun, he giggled, although Mrs. Navarrete seemed very upset. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked.

“Well,” Sammy said, gesticulating breezily, “they were pointing a gun at Papa—and then they gave him lots of money!” It wasn’t how things worked—even Sammy knew that from the movies and from their games at recess.

“Well,” Mrs. Navarrete said, mulling over the story, “I suppose that’s funny. And where’s your mother, by the way?”

Sammy fell silent, and he looked fervently in Felipe’s direction, wanting to go home. The lady took his hand and her fingers felt like a bony animal perching on his. “Some families are large, very, very large,” she said. “Some families are small—very, very small.”

“My Papa says—” Sammy began, then paused, seized by a sudden doubt.

“Your Papa says?”

“My Papa says he knew your son. My Papa says they were cousins in Dipolog.”

“Is that soooo?” the woman said, arching her eyebrows again.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am. Samuel Occeña Dinglasan.”

“Dinglasan…. Weeell….. Like I said, some families are very large.  What else did your Papa say?”

“Papa says—”

“Papa says we should go home,” a voice behind them said, and there Felipe Dinglasan was, looking for all the world like he had lost everything, and while Sammy could not recall Mrs. Navarrete ever coming to their house, it did seem to him that she and his father had met before by the way she was sizing him up and his fortunes, that they were all relatives like he said, and therefore family. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering you—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Navarrete cried, getting to her feet. “Mr. Dinglasan, how good to see you, how nice of you to come and to pay your respects, it’s been such a long time!”

“But how—”

“Sammy here, of course, told me everything, reminded me of our connections—Dipolog, wasn’t it? Yes, Necing often told me about Dipolog, and how well he was treated by family when he came to visit. Please, have a seat—”

“But we really have to—”

“Go where, do what? It’s Christmas Eve—what should I call you again?”

“Ipe, ma’am—”

“Don’t call me ma’am, it’s always been Tita Connie. Lola Connie to you,” she said to Sammy. “But of course everyone forgot. That’s just how things are these days. I’m used to it. Tonight we meet, tomorrow no more, maybe never again. So take a look at your, uhm, cousin, go pay your respects—you, too, little boy, don’t be scared of the dead—while I make us some coffee.” Without taking another look at Felipe, she went to the small table and busied herself, lighting up another cigarette while pouring the water.

Sammy’s father lifted him up so he could see into the coffin, so they could both look very closely at Aniceto Navarrete for any kind of family resemblance. The dead man’s skin was very dark, and long thin whiskers stuck out stiffly from both sides of his mouth.

“You were right, Papa,” Sammy whispered. 

“Here, have an apple,” Mrs. Navarrete told Sammy when they regathered in the back row. “Rest up a bit and tell me stories, that’s all I ask, tell me stories. You, too, Ipe.” Leaning closer to him, she added, “And I’ll give you your fare in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Felipe croaked.

The woman made like she didn’t hear, and took the lid off the can of butter cookies. “Dunk these into your coffee, then close your eyes, and imagine you’re having ham and cake and grapes and cheese. The imagination, it’s a wonderful thing.” She demonstrated her technique with flair, holding the coffee and a cookie out as far as she could in front of her and shutting her eyes while joining the two.

“Yes!” Sammy shrieked, aping the woman. Even Sammy’s father found his own eyes closing.

The errant bulb flickered again and finally gave out, but not one of the three or the four of them knew it, not for a long moment.

(First published in the Philippine Star, December 24, 2001)

Penman No. 430: Rizal’s Typewriter

Penman for Monday, December 20, 2021

NOW THAT I have your attention, let me backtrack quickly and clarify that title: I’m talking about a typewriter that Jose Rizal or the Katipunan could have used, had they been tech-savvy enough and infected with 19th-century FOMO.

Early this month, a box I had been eagerly awaiting arrived from England, where I had found the machine on—where else?—eBay, selling for a reasonable price (“reasonable,” that is, to oddball collectors like me). Inside the box was a wooden case, visibly old, with a latch on each side. I undid both latches and the case opened to reveal what I expected to see: “an antique Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter with spare typewheel in original oak case,” according to the ad I saw. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t the machine itself—it was the fragrance of oak, still embedded in the wood after more than a century.

Why did I even want the Blick, as the typewriter invented by the American George Canfield Blickensderfer came to be known? By the time the first Blick was patented in 1891, the typewriter had been on the market for about 17 years (many prototypes preceded the Sholes and Glidden, but were never mass-produced, except for the sci-fi-worthy Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1870). But most were big and bulky, and—surprise—wrote on the other side of the typist, who couldn’t see what he or she was typing. 

The Blick No. 5 was the first typewriter that could truly be called a portable, with a keyboard and a front-facing platen or paper roller, much like its modern counterpart. Think of it as the MacBook Air of its time. It looked like an insect with a big head and spindly legs, and even more strikingly, it employed what its inventor called the “scientific” DHIATENSOR keyboard—those bottom-row letters supposedly figuring in 85 percent of the words in English. QWERTY had already established itself as the standard layout early on, and later Blicks would use it, but I preferred the quirkiness of DHIATENSOR.

The Blick No. 5 was given its public debut at the 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a monumental event meant to showcase such novelties as a moving walkway, AC electricity, and the Ferris wheel. The small, lightweight typewriter became a hit, helped along by the fact that it sold at a third of the 100 dollars that most other typewriters cost at the time.

So I wanted one in my collection for historical purposes; prior to this, my earliest machine was a larger and grander-looking Hammond 12 from around 1905. That Hammond got to me, also in its original wooden case and all the way from Ohio, luckily in one piece. 

That’s the trouble with collecting any machine with scores of tiny parts a hundred years old—iron corrodes, rubber shrinks, wood warps, paint fades; screws come off, joints get fused solid, whole sections vanish, and often all you have left is a rusty lump of metal better tossed into the garbage. 

Most Blicks and other old typewriters you can find on eBay will manifest at least a few of these problems. Missing parts—obscure and ancient—can be hard to find; thankfully a global network of typewriter enthusiasts exists to offer help and advice online. Reviving a machine with frozen typebars is another major chore; but again expert repairmen still remain to come to the rescue. (Among them is our own Quiapo-based Gerald Cha, whom I’ve written about, through whose hands all my machines pass for the requisite CLA—cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment.) Shipping is yet another potentially harrowing complication—fragile, valuable, and irreplaceable machines can be turned into scrap with one drop of a poorly padded box.

It was a miracle that the Blickensderfer turned up at my doorstep whole, complete, and needing just a bit of lubrication. When Gerald typed out its first few letters in script, it was as though a mute singer had found her voice after a century.

But one more ritual had to be performed: dating the machine to the year it was manufactured (mine was an English model, made in America but sold out of Newcastle-on-Tyne). For this, typewriter collectors have an online resource to fall back on: typewriterdatabase.com, which has been painstakingly crowdsourcing and cataloguing the serial numbers of hundreds of brands of typewriters. I first had to locate the number on my Blick; it was there on the upper right of the bottom of the frame—68403. A quick check yielded the year it was made: 1896. More than liking the Blick, I now stood in awe of it.

I’d like to fantasize that some of these machines made their way to Manila and figured, somehow or other, in the Revolution, although I do have to admit that the standard image of Rizal poised to write “Mi Ultimo Adios” with a quill pen in hand is much more appealing than him pecking away at a keyboard. 

(Image from joserizal.com)

I asked Ambeth Ocampo about it, and he said that while he hadn’t come across any connection between Rizal and a typewriter, our hero surely would have encountered it in his many travels abroad. Rio Almario seems to recall having seen a copy of the Katipunan’s Kartilya in typescript, but we can’t be certain when that was made. With the Americans came the Remingtons—and it’s no small coincidence that the same company made the firearms that subdued us and the typewriters we began writing in English on. I can only stare at my Blickensderfer No. 5 and wonder what stories sailed across its paper horizon.

Martha, Martha (A Christmas Story)

(Twenty years ago, instead of a regular column, I wrote and sent in a Christmas story for The Philippine STAR, titled “Some Families, Very Large.” This year, I thought of doing that again, this time a story set in a Covid ICU–about loves and lives lost, power and disempowerment.)

THE GENERAL LOOKED hard at the tinsel star on the Christmas tree across his desk and convinced himself that it was leaning to the left, perhaps by an inch, and he wondered if he should fix it himself or let someone else do it for him. The tree was too tall even for him to reach the star on tiptoe, because his secretary and his aide had perched the four-foot tree on top of a painted stool to create more space beneath its plastic branches for the mound of gift-wrapped presents that began to arrive in the first week of December. 

Two years earlier, a mayor from Cagayan for whom the general had done a small favor had sent him a washing machine covered in gold foil, and he had raffled that off to the delighted staff, just like all the baskets of canned ham, English biscuits, and cheap California wine that gathered under the tree. Some came all the way from Manila, an eight-hour drive away, a token of the esteem in which the general was held, and of his prospects to make chief of staff. The most serious gifts never made it to the office; he was corrupt, for sure, but the general was nothing if not discreet, and he was proud of managing his affairs with a certain style. The Christmas tree and the pile of presents, to be honest, offended his sensibilities; it was too loud, almost vulgar, but it endeared him to his staff, and that was part of his charm, his ability to make people feel that they were being cared for. 

He was a man who could just as easily shoot a rebel in a back alley or a safehouse as he could lift a baby out of a flood to a chopper. Back at the Academy, he excelled both in boxing and mathematics, skills he later put to good use in Mindanao when he was honing his skills in procurement and dealing with unreasonable parties. The rough edges had come off as he rose up the ranks—now he knew smoother and more efficient ways to inflict pain or punishment and get things done—but the urge to ball up his fist and beat up someone senseless never quite left him, and he knew that the best gift time had given him was restraint, which accounted for his cool demeanor. 

As a young father, he had been heavy-handed with his son, now a ballet dancer in Chicago, but they had begun to learn how to talk over Facetime. His wife Martha never quite understood his sacrifices for the family, demanding that he account for the silliest things, and failing that she buried herself in bonsai clubs and Bible-study groups. At some point he discovered—she confessed—that she had had a brief affair with a college flame, an insurance executive they played mixed doubles with, and only the fact that he was then due for his first star stopped him from unloading an M-14 into his wife’s lover. Despite her tearful entreaties, he never expressed forgiveness, but neither did he mention the subject again. 

As the cars grew in the garage until they had to move houses, they aged together in a sullen but civil stalemate, remarking occasionally on the TV news and serving as wedding sponsors with practiced ease. At their last wedding in Tagaytay, he had caught her staring at him from across the aisle where the women were, and try as he might he could find no malice in her expression, as if they had done each other no wrong, and he remembered the soft and unlined face of the girl he married, and then she smiled and he looked away, feeling somewhat embarrassed. Now that the general was back in his regional outpost, he saw less and less of her, but that memory of Tagaytay lingered in his mind, and it bothered him that he couldn’t tell if it was the wife of the present or the bride of the past that called to him.

He was still looking at the star when his mobile phone rang, from an unknown number. That in itself was not surprising; sometimes his contacts and assets used burner phones. He let it ring four times before taking the call. He rushed out into the anteroom and told his secretary, “Get me a chopper, right now.”

THE DOCTOR SLUMPED against the wall and ripped off his face mask, in willful violation of the protocol that governed the use and disposal of PPEs. The prescribed order was gloves, gown, eye protection, and surgical mask—he had done it hundreds of times over the past many months—but bathed in sweat, he felt out of breath and was desperate for a smoke. To step out of the hospital even for a minute would be too complicated, so he punched a cold Tru-Orange out of the vending machine, gulped it down, inhaled what stale air he could in the corridor, replaced the mask, and staggered back into the ICU. Someone had strung up Christmas lights above the nurses’ station at the far end of the hallway and they blinked indifferently.

The doctor had not been home in two days and was living out of his locker, taking showers and catnaps and calling his daughter Sheryl when he could, but he had interrupted one of her Zoom lectures once and he made a note to be more mindful of the hour. Ellen was six hours behind in Lowestoft, which oddly enough would have worked better for his night shifts, but the last time they had spoken on Facetime, just before the Delta surge, she seemed not just six hours but six months, six years, behind, growing fainter and blurrier, although he could see the crisp numbers of the wooden clock on her wall and a shadow dipping into the picture. It would have been easier on both of them if they had said curt and final goodbyes and dropped all pretenses to remaining friends for Sheryl’s sake, but it was she who had made the last call, on the excuse of asking about the unexpected death of a batchmate from med school, and even as he merely repeated what he had read in their group chat, he could sense her staring more than listening, trying to recover details of his face, and in them, perhaps some sign of contrition. 

The doctor noticed that a new patient had been wheeled in during his break, and he glanced at her chart, not expecting to find anything outstandingly different: female, 52, a resident of Miranila Village, brought by ambulance to the ER after collapsing on the sidewalk from acute respiratory distress, positive for Covid, further tests pending. Despite her condition, he could see from her manicure and her slim, untroubled fingers that she was a woman of leisure; a pale stripe marked where her wedding ring would have been—put aside, along with her other personal effects, by the attending nurses.

It was nearly two years after the pandemic started, and the world outside the hospital had begun to resemble a happy memory of a time taken for granted: people on the street, stores open, cars locked in traffic, even a masked Santa Claus at the entrance of the mall. But in the Covid ICU the grim parade continued—of the unvaccinated, the careless, the unsuspecting, and the merely unlucky.

Two-thirds of the beds were full, each one of them a mess of tubes, machines, and bedsheets within which a body struggled mightily to remain viable despite the violence raging through its fevered blood. The patients once had faces, but now they had receded into their oxygen masks and blankets with only tethered limbs to gesture this or that, if at all. Early on in the pandemic, the doctor had toured the wards and spoken with each patient who came in who was still conscious, reading off their charts and asking about the weather in Paoay or about grandchildren, affecting a voice of benign reassurance. 

But then the cases came one after the other, like waves to an unmoving shore, and over the months they ate away at something in him, at the parts that remembered birthdays, green grass and gentle rain, the White Shoulders on Ellen’s cheek, the words that came after “let nothing you dismay.” There were no more stories to tell or to ask for in the Covid ICU, only predictable and unhappy endings prefaced by feeble grasps at hope. “Doctor, doctor,” some relative would call him, “we found it, the Tocilizumab! In a hospital in Bohol, of all places, can you believe it? We’ll have it airlifted in the morning.” And he would feign relief and take a deep sigh, knowing that the next morning could be too late, because this virus seemed to have a mind of its own, leaving it to God’s mercy or whimsy to decide which bodies would heal at home and which would burn in the oven. 

THE DOORS DOWN the hallway suddenly flew open and the general strode in, trailed by an aide and a flustered nurse. The doctor saw the intrusion through the window of the ICU and hurried out to head it off. The general was wearing a face mask but the doctor could see from the neck down who and what he was dealing with. 

“Where is she, where’s my wife?”

“Who, what’s her name?” 

“Arguelles. Martha Protacio Arguelles,” said the nurse. “The wife of—General Arguelles.”

The doctor could read the namepatch on the soldier’s fatigues and noted the two stars on his collar. 

“I want to see her now,” the general said, in that tone no subordinate had ever said no to.

“I’m sorry, general, but your wife is in the Covid ICU and no visitors are allowed in there. I’m Dr. Cañete—” 

“I’m not a visitor, I’m her husband—”

“And I’m her doctor—sir. Everyone who goes in there, they’re our patients, my colleagues and mine. We do our best to keep them alive—and you.”

“I’ll hold you responsible—”

“Of course, I understand.” And what will you do if she dies, the doctor thought—shoot me dead? Because some virus found its way down her throat and made a home and a neighborhood of her chest cavity? Because she did something foolish like stepping out and taking her chances, thinking the worst was over? “I can show her to you—from the outside. Here.”

The doctor walked him over to the window closest to Martha’s bed. There was little to see but her prostrate body swaddled in sky-blue sheets and the ventilator that straddled her face like some exotic, long-tailed animal. 

“How is she?”

“She can’t breathe on her own. You might have known she had lung problems, but Covid made it worse.” He could see the general looking intently at his wife, and he wondered about the thoughts running through the man’s head—a cadets’ ball, courtship, furtive sex, a wedding, childbirth, midlife, secrets, rages, regrets, distant thunder, black sand. “We’re still running tests for the usual complications—her heart, her liver, and so on. You seem to be a strong person, general, so I won’t sugar-coat my words. Mortality rates in the Covid ICU run to as high as 65 percent, lower for those on mechanical ventilation, but it’s never just about the numbers. Everyone here is on his own. Sometimes they fight hard, and sometimes they just give up.” 

“‘Surrender’ is not a word in my vocabulary,” the general said in a way that made it obvious he had used the expression dozens of times before, in speeches to the troops and at the poker table with governors and congressmen. “I can get you everything—anything—you need, just let me know…. I didn’t even know she was sick. She never told me anything.” The last time they spoke on the phone a few days earlier, she sounded chirpy, and was hoping to fly out with her friends to Bacolod, now that airports were reopening. 

“Maybe she didn’t know herself. Or maybe she did—she could have felt dizzy, had difficulty breathing, felt warm—some sick people like to stay in air-conditioned rooms or face the electric fan, did you know that? But women have such a high threshold for pain, and of course you know why, so they tend to say nothing, and endure it. Until it’s too late.”

“Is it? I mean, is it too late?” the general asked, but he wasn’t looking at the doctor. “There are—things, important things I want to tell her.” The general’s voice had come down to a near-whisper. He had flattened his palm against the glass.

The doctor remembered Ellen at the airport, flying off on the excuse of taking a position with the National Health Service, but really to get away from him and the overweening pride that came with being a savior of lives, so embracing of others and yet so hurtful toward those closest to him. What had he said to Ellen then? Perhaps something so banal as “Don’t forget to ask for an upgrade—tell them about your medical background”? Or was it “I’ll remind Sheryl of the time-zone difference”? It seemed much easier to tell a patient that he was dying and would be a jar of ashes by day’s end.

The general seemed lost in thought; his frame had gone limp, and the doctor felt a twinge of pity toward the man, but only a little. From what he knew of the military, you had to have done some pretty horrible things to reach certain positions, and surely this man was no exception. At the ICU, or just outside it, he had seen tycoons, society matrons, sports heroes, and media superstars fall to pieces as soon as he told them, “I’m sorry, but you can’t go in there.” 

But tonight he could be generous. It was Christmas, after all, and he could always say, how do you say no to a general? Perhaps the whole protocol was wrong—why keep the dying away from their loved ones? Could the possibility of infection be worse than forever leaving remorse or forgiveness unspoken? 

“You know, general—” he was about to say, when a nurse approached them with a logoed shopping bag from an upscale mall that told everyone where the general’s wife had been.

“General,” the nurse said with a tremor in her voice, “these are Madame’s things. We made sure everything was secure as soon as we realized whom it belonged to—and who she was. We put her cellphone and her jewelry and her handbag in there. Please, take them. We don’t want to be responsible for these valuables.”

The general was about to motion for his aide to get the bag and then he changed his mind and took it, thanking the nurse who scurried away. He looked around and found a vacant bench at the other end of the corridor. “Stay here,” he told his aide and, by implication, the doctor.

So Martha had gone shopping, not unusual for the time of year. Probably already feeling some discomfort and unsteady on her feet, she had gone out by herself to buy a few presents. The general laid out her goods on the bench—the iPhone, the ostrich Hermes, some lingerie he kept in its discreet wrapping, his favorite cologne, and, at the bottom, yet another bag from a luxury watch store with a stapled receipt that made him take a deep breath when he saw the six-figure price and an additional charge “For Engraving.” He knew she had the money—he had always made sure she did—but could he call her out for extravagance if it was meant for him? He smiled, and immediately he felt the pain of her possible loss even more deeply, at a moment when it seemed they had the world to gain. He would retire in three years from the military and be appointed by the President to head this or that authority, but before reporting for the new job he would take Martha on a cruise around the post-pandemic planet, from the fjords of Norway to sunny Belize. She was telling him something, and if he could only rush into that room and take her in his arms, he would. He had so many things to tell her as well.

He could not contain his exhilaration and, abandoning all caution, he tore the receipt away and opened the bag. Inside was the watch box—an expensive but unfamiliar brand. He lifted the top and saw a gold watch with a brown crocodile strap, blued hands, and roman numerals on an ivory face. He had expected something in steel or titanium with a rotating bezel, something he could dive into the Great Barrier Reef with, or lead an assault into the jungles of Basilan with. But perhaps she was civilizing him further, completing his transformation into a proper gentleman. Perhaps she had asked the engraver to say this in script: “To my dearest Ronnie, For peace and joy in our golden years. Your loving Martha.” He could feel hot tears welling in his eyes. Oh, Martha, Martha, let us be happy, Lord give us time to be happy.

He turned the watch over and his face turned ashen beneath his mask. His chest tightened and he could not breathe.

The doctor rushed to his side. “General! General, are you all right? Look, if you want to see her—but only for a minute—”

The general looked up at him, and all the doctor could see was his eyes, but he recognized what he knew was the face of utter defeat. 

Penman No. 429: Becoming Miss Demeanor

Penman for Monday, December 6, 2021

(Photo from Pageanthology 101)

IF YOU’RE still wondering what to give your teenager or 20-something this Christmas (older folks can count as kids), I can recommend a highly unique book that came into my mailbox recently from a former student, titled A Creativity Mix Book by Hilom Pagasa. 

We’re often told—and it’s true—that Filipinos are a highly creative people, full of ideas and passions waiting to be expressed in some artful way. But even the most creative persons sometimes need help to turn that spark into a flame—something wondrous and illuminating, without burning down the house. This book can be immensely helpful in making that happen, even for people who may not think of themselves as being creative. There’s an artist and a poet in you, and this book will help you find it.

Written for these challenging times, it’s full of exercises, artworks, essays, poems, and other materials meant to make our Covid-benighted world bright and exciting again. The author describes herself as “just a housewife who wants to heal,” having battled bipolar disorder, but the book is about you, not her. Check it out on Lazada and other places online.

ALTHOUGH NOT much of a beauty pageant fan, I was dismayed to read about the recent experience of Ms. Gianna Llanes, a lovely young Filipina who flew to Mexico to represent the country at the coronation night of “Miss Glamour International 2021”—only to realize, along with five other candidates, that the whole thing was bogus, with no judges and no sponsors to be found for the big event. How anyone could dash the hopes of these ladies so summarily is beyond me, and I can only wish better luck for Gianna in her future endeavors, whether or not they involve chasing after a glittery tiara.

That sad episode also piqued my interest in “Miss Glamour International” and all these other new and relatively little known pageants that seem to have appeared all over the planet since I last took a long, hard look at Miss Universe in 1994. A quick check of Wikipedia turned up a lot more contests I’d barely or never heard of: Miss Global, Miss Globe International, Miss Grand International, Miss Heritage, Miss Model of the World, Miss Supertalent, Miss Supranational, and Miss Intercontinental, among others. As it turns out, the Philippines has figured prominently in many of these pageants, which should come as no surprise.

Back in the day, there were really only three big beauty contests to speak of—Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss World (or four, if you add Miss Philippines, which was something of a prerequisite to all of the foregoing). It was, of course, Miss Universe that first captivated the Pinoy in 1952, when Armi Kuusela won the title and was promptly captivated by a Pinoy. (An aside I can’t resist making is the fact that Miss Kuusela, or Mrs. Hilario—she’s since become Mrs. Williams—attended a lecture I gave on the Philippines at the University of California San Diego fifteen years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but I guess I was too starstruck to take a selfie.) 

I don’t need to reprise the long, illustrious list of Filipina beauties who’ve won titles at these pageants, major and minor, especially as I’m familiar with only the older ones, who enlivened my juvenile fantasies and who must be grandmothers by now. I guess what fascinates and also depresses me is how something that used to be a happy-go-lucky joyride—a pretty girl gets nudged or cajoled into joining a pageant, which strikes her as a ridiculous idea that the Mother Superior would surely object to, but she does it anyway just to see what it’s like—has been turned into a full-blown industry, with fashion designers and coaches for every quarter-turn. It’s no longer enough just to be fresh-faced and wide-eyed; you’ll need to be trained like a Marine recruit at boot camp so you can sashay in high heels beneath a canopy of feathers for which a whole ostrich farm died and answer questions about climate change and racial discrimination like a PhD candidate.

Online, there are even sites like missacademy.com that promise to turn you into Miss Demeanor, or whoever it is you dream of becoming: “We apologize for interrupting your stereotypical programming, but news flash… pageantry is getting a MAJOR makeover! Say goodbye to the trends of yesteryear and hello to MISS Academy–the future of pageants. Our training will get you primped, primed, polished and prepped in every aspect of competition. The skills you develop at MISS Academy are sure to give you an edge above the rest, in any arena of life, long after you retire the crown.” Not to be outdone, crowndiva.com offers private lessons in ten areas of training ranging from “wardrobe and accessories consultation and selection” to “pageant-specific makeup and hair lessons” for the price of $175 per hour. 

I have absolutely no doubt that our ladies have been prepared well enough by life in the Philippines to surmount any hurdles on their path to international (or universal) fame. I’m more worried by the possibility that, the way things are going, pageant organizers will soon run out of names for their ventures. Well, there’s still Miss Multinational, Miss Globalization, Miss Galaxy, Miss Cosmos, Miss Supernova, Miss Milky Way, Miss Constellation….

Penman No. 423: From Poetry to Treason

Penman for Monday, September 13, 2021

AS A COLLECTOR of old books and other objects of interest more ancient than me, I sometimes stumble across manuscripts and documents that turn out to be a bit more private than the usual accounts of travels to Sulu or the history of Negros sugar. I’ve found ardent and very carefully composed love letters (apparently never sent), poems to the departed, and receipts for unmentionables. Coming from a past where people wrote with physical ink on physical paper, these inadvertent mementoes of lives lived and loves lost convey emotion and meaning in a way that digital ones and zeroes never will.

Some of these discoveries have been particularly poignant. A few months ago, I wrote about finding a typewritten collection of essays written by Lyd Arguilla in the 1950s, where she stoically recounts her husband Manuel’s execution by the Japanese; tucked into that folder was a love poem she wrote in his memory after the war, in New York.

Last month, a bookseller offered me three items that had to do with one subject, from whose personal library they likely came. One was a scrapbook of sorts by this Filipino author, another a short biography—also typewritten—of the man and samples of his most popular works, and the third a published play written by his illustrious mother. The writer’s name was vaguely familiar to me: Aurelio S. Alvero, otherwise known by the pseudonym he adopted after the war, “Magtanggol Asa” (he himself spelled it “Magtanggul”), a play on his initials and on his ambition to become a lawyer—as well as being, of course, a self-descriptive epithet as the defender of hope. He was born in 1913  in Tondo to illustrious parents—Emilio Alvero, an artist and interior decorator, and Rosa Sevilla, writer, suffragette, and educator who founded the Instituto de Mujeres, a pioneering school for women in the Philippines.

Generations of Filipino schoolchildren have known him for his poem “1896,” written before the war, a favorite piece for choruses, because of its hypnotic rhythm and refrain. It begins:

The cry awoke Balintawak

And the echoes answered back…

“Freedom!”

All the four winds listened long 

To the shrieking of that song…. 

“Freedom!”

Just by this piece, no one can be faulted for thinking of Alvero as a patriotic poet—or in the very least a writer of patriotic poetry, and that he was. Indeed he was lauded by his peers and even later by scholars such as Grant Goodman and Augusto de Viana as a “brilliant” intellectual, one who could write equally well in Tagalog, English, and Spanish. He was a star student at the Ateneo and UST, winning a raft of medals for his scholastic achievements. 

But he was also described as a “complex” artist, a rather evasive and much kinder term for what his harshest critics would call him: a traitor to his people, convicted and imprisoned for wartime collaboration with the Japanese. The charges brought up against him by the postwar court were formidable: up to 22 counts of treason, from his active role in such pro-Japanese organizations as the Kalibapi and Makapili to selling war materiel to the enemy and participating in the destruction of Manila. The most outrageous offenses were damnably detailed: among them, that within one year, his trading firm—capitalized at only P15,000—earned a whopping P2,000,000 from sales to the Japanese (shades of Pharmally!), and that he personally directed the burning of a part of Pasay toward the end of the war. For these, and despite his spirited protestations, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bilibid, cut short by an amnesty granted by President Quirino in 1952. 

How could the same man, so gifted and so promising, turn out so badly? Even before the war, Alvero had railed against American imperialism, and—like Gen. Artemio Ricarte, among others—saw Japan as a friend and liberator. But unlike more rabid pro-Japanese Filipinos like Benigno Ramos, he opposed the atrocities of the Makapili, although he urged his countrymen to resist the Americans to the end. Complex indeed. Arguing that neither “patriot” nor “traitor” could fairly describe him, Dr. Goodman calls him “a romantic opportunist” who thought he could achieve his ideals by casting his lot with the devil.

Despite his early release from prison, the ordeal took its toll. While other writers accused of helping the Japanese like Camilo Osias lived on and even prospered, Alvero died of a heart attack in 1958 aged just 44, leaving a stain on his family’s name (his mother, Rosa Alvero, continues to be honored with a street in her name in Katipunan, Quezon City). Hardly any pictures of him can be found today, even on the Internet.

A letter from prison to his second wife, whom he called “Silahis,” reveals an inner torment that was probably the greatest cost of all. He writes:

“Makailan ko nang sinabi sa iyo na ang pagmamahal na tunay ay nasasalig sa pagtitiwala at ang di nagtitiwala ay di maaring lubos ang kaniyang pagmamahal? Gayon man, hinahagkan kita nang buong paggiliw, sabay ang dalanging nawa’y pagkaluuban ka ni Bathala ng pag-uunawa at pagtitiwala sa akin. Ang nagmamahal mong asawa, M. Asa.”

(How often have I told you that true love depends on trust, and that one who cannot trust cannot love completely? Nonetheless, I kiss you with all my heart, even as I pray that the Lord grant you trust and understanding for me. Your loving husband, M. Asa.)

Penman No. 422: An Anti-Troll Army

Penman for Monday, August 30, 2021

DESPITE THE PANDEMIC, the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) succeeded in holding the 60th UP National Writers Workshop from August 16 to 21, introducing 12 of the country’s brightest authors to each other and to their literary peers. The fellows for Filipino were Jerking Pingol (graphic fiction); Amado Anthony Mendoza III (novel); Edward Perez (play); Layeta Bucoy (play); Napoleon Arcilla III (short story); and Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa (poetry). Those for English were Joel Donato Jacob (novel); Maryanne Moll (novel); Maria Amparo Warren (short story); Alexandra Alcasid (short story); Mark Adrian Ho (poetry); and Louyzza Maria Victoria Vasquez (poetry). One of Switzerland’s best contemporary novelists (and a fluent speaker of Filipino, having studied here for her master’s), Annette Hug, also joined us for a talk about her current project.

For the second year in a row, the entire workshop was held online over Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook, allowing a much broader audience—some even tuned in from abroad—to follow the sessions. It was a big shift from the workshop’s traditional summer venue in Baguio, but contrary to many apprehensions, it went off smoothly and productively, thanks to the UPICW’s top-notch technical team which seems to have mastered the intricacies of online conferencing (the UPICW holds many other events online, including another workshop for beginning writers, an interdisciplinary book forum, and the annual Writers’ Night). By the end of the workshop, both fellows and panelists agreed that its objectives had been squarely met: to create a community of writers who would encourage each other to keep writing so that literature can train a bright light on the Filipino’s condition. 

Unlike other writers’ workshops, UP’s focuses on what we’ve been calling “mid-career” writers—those who’ve already published at least one book (or have had a play or film produced)—who may need that extra push to keep going, especially in an environment often indifferent if not hostile to creativity. At this level, we’re no longer talking about grammar and basic technique; instead, we discuss the larger issues of writing—social, political, philosophical, and professional—without the flogging and the ego-tripping that made a horror show of workshops in the old days. Writing is lonely enough for writers to make life difficult for each other. In this age of fake news, we need as many truth-seekers as we can find—an anti-troll army, if you will. 

Every workshop and every batch of workshoppers is different in some way (this year, we had a preponderance of fellows from Bicol and the Southern Tagalog region), so the complexion of our discussions can also change. What stuck in my mind from what I read of our fellows’ work (a sample of their current projects, prefaced by their personal poetics) was the strong undercurrent of pessimism, a deep-seated belief that things can only get worse. To be fair, not all of them—indeed just a minority—manifested this, but it’s been such a pervasive strain in literatures all over that I felt obliged to address it.

It’s totally understandable, of course, why people should feel pessimistic, especially in these times of global distress and anxiety. And if it’s the writer’s conviction that all is lost or soon will be, that’s his or her privilege to express.

I posited, however, that in spite and indeed because of these bad times, the greater challenge for writers and artists is to defy despair and find a way forward to hope and happiness. And by “hope and happiness” I don’t mean escapist confections or illusory promises, or tacked-on endings meant to force a smile, but true insights into what makes life worth living and fighting for—despite despotism, disease, and the constant degradation of one’s worth. The easiest thing to write today is another story about how miserable and unjust life is. Reading it won’t tell me anything new. I want to be surprised by someone who will persevere and fight for joy, beauty, peace, freedom, and redemption amid all this suffering. 

Psychologists talk of “cherophobia”—“fear of happiness” or “happiness aversion,” stemming from the expectation that happiness is fragile and fleeting, and will therefore only lead to unhappiness. True, that often happens, as our lives are always in flux, but since life can only lead to death, why are we alive at all? (Even our celebration at the end of the workshop was gutted by the tragic news that Kerima Tariman—our workshop fellow in 1999—had been killed in an encounter with the military; her poetry will live and fight on.) If we are to battle trolls with the truth, we have to believe in ultimate victory, no matter the costs until then, and shore up each other’s spirits.

I urge my fellow authors to look up and read Kelsey Capps’ essay “On Happiness, Literature, and Happy Literature,” where she argues that “The truth that happiness is defined and pursued by each of us, for ourselves, lies between the destruction of what society tells us will make us happy and the acceptance of our inherent need to seek meaning. Perhaps this airy freedom is too difficult to articulate in stories that lack tragedy as counterweight, but, as a writer, how powerful and radical it would be to tell stories that are positive and insightful and authoritative, and which give hope where there is little to be found.”