Penman No. 415: Stay Curious!

Penman for Monday, June 7, 2021

OVER THE past month, I was asked to speak to two groups—one an assembly of teachers, and the other of students—to share my ideas about college education, and specifically the kind of liberal, interdisciplinary education being offered at the University of the Philippines and other progressive universities.

Rather than talk about curricula and theories of education—never my strong suit—I opted to look back on my 36 years of teaching and on my own experience as a student to figure out what I truly learned from that crucial period in every young person’s life, beyond the books we read. Some of these realizations came long after college—which was all right, since one of the things that college should teach us is that education is a lifelong process that goes beyond degrees earned and seminars attended.

So I came up with a 12-point wish list of what I as a teacher want my students learn—whether in my classes or outside of them, at school and in life. 

I phrased these 12 statements as simply as possible, without too many elaborations, because I didn’t want to sound like a research paper. Rather, I wanted my listeners to think of these statements as provocations, things to keep at the back of their minds, and for the students to remember four or five years hence when they graduate from college. Here goes:

1. You don’t have to understand everything right away. In any case, you can’t. Some things in life will forever remain mysteries—some of them wonderful, some of them perplexing. Staying curious is what matters to the lifelong learner. Boredom is often just the absence of curiosity.

2. Engagement helps—and by engagement, I mean investing yourself, putting in your time, effort, and maybe even money behind some belief or idea or activity that means something to you. Sometimes engagement is the best way of knowing, learning, and finally understanding. 

3. Not everything has to have practical value—at least not yet, or maybe ever. Value can mean more than utility or money. Delight and discovery are their own rewards.

4. You are not the center of the universe. Not everything has to do with you. However, every connection you can make to the world around you leaves a mark that you were here—and that, in your own way, you mattered.

5. Learn to see time in years and centuries, not seconds or hours. If you want to foretell the future, look back to the past. We may seem to be headed for the future, but in fact we will all inevitably be part of the past. How will you want to be remembered?

6. Intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and wisdom are very different things. Knowledge without values is worthless and even dangerous. The middling student who has a sense of good and bad and right and wrong is worthier than the summa cum laude who doesn’t.

7. The first thought that comes to your mind may not be the best one. Pause and think before you speak or write, especially in these days of Facebook and Twitter. Speech but also silence can require courage and good judgment.

8. Learn to love something larger than yourself, your family, and your prized possessions. “Nation,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” are very attractive ideas, but you have to learn to bring these big words down to earth, in concrete forms, actions, and decisions. Can you accept that you are your housekeeper’s equal as a human being? 

9. Be prepared to take risks and to make mistakes—and even to fail. You can learn more from failure than from over-performance. Everybody—even the very best of us—will fail sometime, and it will be good to believe that we are all entitled to at least one big mistake in our lives.

10. Be prepared to change your mind. As you grow and learn, some things will become more simple, and others more complex. You are not a fixed entity; you are changing all the time, and you can change faster than the world around you. 

11. Technology can be deceptive. It can lead us to believe that the world is changing very fast and for the better. That may be true for some of us and for the way we live. But for many others left behind, the world is no better than it was a hundred years ago.

12. Competition is good, but cooperation or even compromise is often better—and necessary. Poems are written by solitary genius, but bridges, cathedrals, and nations are built by many minds and hands. The best way to deal with loneliness is to find meaning in the many—to learn from and to contribute to the experience of others.

With that, I wished the students the best on their next adventures in college, and just as Steve Jobs told us to “Stay hungry, stay foolish!”, I urged them to stay curious, so they will always enjoy learning, inside or outside of school.

Penman No. 414: Full of Foolish Song

Penman for Monday, May 24, 2021

AMID THE lifting gloom of the pandemic—“lifting” perhaps for those of us who’ve had at least their first vaccine shots—a blast of sunshine came into our lives two weeks ago. We had been busy marshalling our limited resources and those of our network of senior titos and titas in aid of community pantries, anti-Covid measures, and sundry causes and charities, not expecting anything back but smiles and good vibes. And then a friend popped up in our driveway with a surprise gift that made my day.

I’d been friends with Jim (let’s call him that) for 50 years, since we met in UP and became student activists in the same organization. We were actually batchmates in grade school, but it was in our work for the anti-Marcos resistance that we grew closer, tooling around in his white Renault to this and that exploit. After EDSA, Jim served in the government, and when he left, he established a private art-related company that became hugely successful and is now a leader in its field.

For all that and more, Jim announced that he had drawn up a short list of guy-friends whom he was gifting with a very special surprise—a package comprising a turntable, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers. “Just a starter set,” he said apologetically, but as far as I was concerned it was a little bit of heaven—Sixties heaven, to be more specific.

I have to confess that I’m no audiophile, despite my proclivity for vintage fountain pens, typewriters, old watches, antiquarian books, and generally anything older than me. I have everything in the house—my mini-museum—from a 1905 Hammond typewriter and a ship captain’s navigational guidebook that traveled the world in the 1700s to boxes of pens from the 1920s, pocket watches that clocked railroad traffic a century ago, and a red rotary telephone—but not a turntable.

It’s not that I don’t like music, or vinyl records and turntables in particular. I grew up playing 45s and 78s (33s weren’t that plentiful then) in our big cabinet-like player that had glowing tubes in the back. Not having TV until I reached high school (for that we stuck our snotty faces into a neighbor’s window), I became quite adept at playing records, mesmerized by the sight of them stacked and dropping on the platter, and by the tonearm finding its way to the first groove. Hiss, hiss, pop, pop—and then a trumpet blast or a guitar riff, and off you went to dreamland, an adult kind of place you couldn’t fully understand as a kid, but which sounded like fun—full of stardust, cherry pink and apple blossom white, love letters in the sand, swallows in Capistrano, amore, and teenage señoritas.

Despite those happy associations, I never bought a record player even if I could, maybe because I knew it was going to be a very deep and expensive rabbit hole (I should’ve told myself that about pens and typewriters). I’d seen friends whose houses and cars had been taken over by hyper-expensive sound systems, and whose vocabularies now sprouted words like “attenuator,” “circum-aural,” “impedance,” and “sibilant,” and I just couldn’t get into that—I was into music, not sound. When cassette tapes, CDs, Walkmans, and iPods followed, I gladly went along, content to enjoy my favorite tracks on earphones.

But Jim’s gift, so thoughtfully given, was too nice to refuse, and I have to admit to a flutter of excitement about reconnecting with my childhood through a technology that requires a bit more deliberation than skimming through a digital playlist with your thumb. At our age, approaching our seventies, the notion of sitting on your favorite chair with your feet up, glass of wine in hand, and being enveloped in a cloud of happy sound (say, Chet Baker crooning “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) is an appealing one indeed—“full of foolish song,” as Chet put it.

I hadn’t played a record in over half a century, so I had to be taught the basics all over again. I’m deathly certain I’m going to break something one of these days, but that will be part of the re-education. Most days I’ll still probably be using my earphones with iTunes, but with the speakers in Jim’s array, I can’t say how long that will last. Jim also presented me with some starter LPs, knowing what I liked: Dionne Warwick, Astrud Gilberto, and a choice between the Byrds and America. (So what do you think I chose? Any true-blue ‘60s guy will choose the Byrds, of course!) 

What else did I want, Jim asked. Oh boy. Off the top of my head—Spiral Starecase, Chet Baker, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Eumir Deodato, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Simon and Garfunkel, any and all Sinatra, the original Broadway “Hair,” my favorite Broadway musicals (“South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” “The King and I”—sorry, boys and girls, no “Rent” or “Hamilton” there), and any album with the songs that just won’t go out of my head: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” “Amapola,” “Non ti scordar di me,” and “Sabor a mi.”

And no, this won’t be a new addiction. I just don’t have the space. I’m sure of it. Truly. I swear. 

Penman No. 413: My YouTube Playlist

Penman for Monday, May 10, 2021

WITH A lockdown stretching well into its second year, I came to the crushing conclusion some time ago that I had practically exhausted everything I wanted to watch on Netflix, at least until Season 5 of “The Crown” and Season 3 of “New Amsterdam” show up. I’ve even signed up with other streaming services like Curiosity Stream (a great trove of fascinating documentaries, for a small fee) and Tubi (free, but basically B-movies with stars you never heard of). But even there, as with Netflix, I’m close to hitting “Watch it again.”

That’s when I rediscovered YouTube, which had been there all along—it was founded in 2005—but which I’d always looked upon as a depository for mostly juvenile and silly or funny videos. Five years ago, I uploaded a video I took of the aftermath of the Faculty Center fire in UP, but most often, I’ve gone to YouTube with our apu-apuhan Buboy to find his favorite Mr. Bean or Spiderman cartoons. (A digital native, this tyke can’t even read yet, but knows his way around buttons and icons; “Tatay, press X!” he’d tell me.)

It’s estimated that 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube per minute. Its stock of 800 million videos gets 1 billion views per day. That’s an awful lot of things to watch, and we’d have died of old age before we finished exploring even 1 percent of this platform. 

My fascination with YouTube began when I discovered that Beng and I could watch hours and hours of Broadway musicals and old movies on it. I guess that’s what old folks like us think of as “entertainment,” especially in these dreadful times—a singalong marathon that ends with an uplifting tune like “Somewhere” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Think of it as 1950s TikTok, only 360 times longer.) I also realized that YouTube’s a good place to exorcise your worst fears—such as when I had to have my gall bladder taken out; watching the whole procedure first on YouTube calmed me down. 

But certainly there have to be more pleasant subjects than a cholecystectomy to enjoy on your big TV. Over the past few months of YouTubing, I’ve settled on a few favorites—my YouTube playlist, shall we say—that fill up my bedtime hours while I’m working on my laptop, until I actually shut my eyes around midnight. In no particular order, they are:

1. Crime and punishment. It’s a horrible truth, but few things are more absorbing than why people go bad—very bad. Real-crime and forensics shows indulge our curiosity about evil and its discovery—which, let’s admit, can be strangely satisfying. (A Pinoy version of “Unsolved Mysteries” can go on forever.)

2. Mudlarking. Beng and I have had this longstanding fantasy of foraging for coins, bottles, and Churchill’s pen on the banks of the Thames, but a plethora of mudlarking channels will do for now. (We’d probably die of sepsis if we did that on the Pasig.)

3. Car restoration. This includes barn finds, car auctions, junkyards, and the perennial question: “Will it run again after 50 years in the mud?” I’m convinced that in some old bodega on some southern island, a dusty Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost or Bugatti Atalante lies waiting—if it hasn’t been converted to a jeep yet.

4. Antiquing. I could spend another year in lockdown just watching “Antiques Roadshow” and “Salvage Hunters,” guessing at the prices of lamps, vases, oil cans, and trinkets. So far, I haven’t spotted any “Weapons of Moroland” or oversize spoons and forks.

5. Art forgeries. Repeat these names after me: John Myatt, Tom Keating, Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, and Walter Beltracchi. You may never have heard of them before, but you won’t forget them once you see what they were able to do, which is what we all secretly dream of: fool the experts. 

6. Military excavations. Must be the boy in me that can’t help gawking at helmets, medals, machine guns, ammunition belts, and yes, human skulls and bones coming out of the mud in some corner of Latvia or Poland. War is terrible—and mesmerizing.

7. Royalty. Q: We all know they’re flawed human beings and probably an unhappier lot than us—so why do we keep following the travails of the royals? A: Because we want to be sure they’re flawed human beings and probably an unhappier lot than us.

8. Gemstones. Seeing all those fist-sized opals and emeralds makes me want to rush out to our backyard with a shovel, but all we ever get there is dog and chicken poo. 

9. Old Manila. You can feast on many videos showing Manila at its prewar prime and in the postwar ‘50s—with clean, wide streets, graceful architecture, and well-dressed, well-behaved people—and weep.

10. Abandoned houses. They call it “urban archeology,” presumably a semi-legal form of housebreaking, as long as you don’t take anything but pictures. Beng and I are always astounded by what people leave behind—knowing that if our akyat-bahay experts went through the place, they’d leave it clean as a whistle.

Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.

Penman No. 410: A Dimming of Lights

Penman for Monday, March 29, 2021

OUTSIDE OF immediate family, there comes to every life at least one figure whom we cannot owe and thank enough—a mentor, a cheerleader, a believer on whose every word of encouragement you wait, and whose rebukes or admonitions, albeit rare, strike you with chilling efficacy.

This past month I lost two such figures, a woman and a man who lived into their nineties and thus influenced not only me but generations of students and acolytes eager to learn.

The first was Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea—better known to many as the understandably proud mother of Smart founder Doy and Mapua president Rey, among other accomplished children. She was our English teacher at the Philippine Science High School, where she taught for many decades and became an institution.

For many decades now, I’ve boasted about being Mrs. Vea’s acknowledged pet. One of the things I quickly realized upon her passing was that it wasn’t true—we were all her pets.

Maybe I just felt special, because that’s what she made each of us feel. We were the third batch of PSHS students, long before the school came to be known as “Pisay.” But she did far more than teach us grammar and even literature. She taught us to think on our feet, to see beyond the obvious, and to enjoy ourselves doing it. She liberated our minds, and made a science high school feel like a playground for the imagination.

There are two episodes that have remained very clearly with me that happened when I was editor of the Science Scholar, and she was our adviser. Once, deadlines were falling due, but I was feeling lazy, so I told her I wasn’t in the mood to write. That was the only time I saw her get angry. I can’t recall exactly what she told me, maybe because it left me in total shock, but she made it clear that talent was worth nothing without discipline. I went to work right away.

Another time, in more pleasant circumstances, she took me aside to tell me something important. “Butch,” she said, “there are two young writers I want you to read, because both of them are very good. One is Joey Arcellana, and he edits the Philippine Collegian at UP. The other is still in UP High, and his name is Gary Olivar.” I think she was telling me that there were far better writers than myself, and that it was good to never forget that, if I was to continue learning. I took her advice, and because of it, within my first semester of entering UP two years later, I joined the Philippine Collegian, and also the Alpha Sigma fraternity, to which Gary and incidentally Mrs. Vea’s son Doy belonged.

But more than a teacher, she was a second mother to us, and I was especially touched by the memory of one of my batchmates, Ophelia Gaspay, who recalled how she was sitting all by herself in one of our school dances, watching the world go by. Suddenly, much to her surprise, someone went up to her to ask her for a dance—none other than Rey Vea, the dreamboat and heartthrob of the whole school. As they were twirling across the floor, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a beaming Mrs. Vea, her fairy godmother, who had apparently waved her magic wand.

The second mentor I lost was the writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton, who had a long and distinguished career in journalism. Literature majors should remember him as the author of the classic postwar short story “Clay,” which won first prize in the Palanca Awards of 1951. When I met him in the early 1990s, he was about as old as I am now, and had set up a speechwriting operation for President Fidel V. Ramos. He needed another hand; I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US, and was close to penniless. 

I learned not only graceful and effective speechwriting from Johnny, but also imbibed his intellectual curiosity, his love for the arts, and his generosity toward younger writers. Johnny held office at the painter Malang’s building on West Avenue in Quezon City, and every now and then Johnny hosted lunch for a train of literary luminaries who included Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Greg Brillantes, Rony Diaz, and Andy Cristobal Cruz; I was the proverbial fly on the wall, eavesdropping on another generation’s animated conversation.

In 1994, when I was a awarded a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (where I eventually wrote and completed Penmanship and Other Stories), instead of docking me a month’s pay for my absence, Johnny gave me the cash for pocket money and wished me well on my writing. Many years later, out of the blue and when he had also retired, Johnny asked me and the late Raul Rodrigo out to lunch just so we could chat about nonfiction and daydream about which National Artist’s biography we most wanted to write (I think I said Franz Arcellana, another mentor of mine, and Raul said Botong Francisco). 

The dimming of such lights, although inevitable, is deeply saddening, but we can only wish that we will be as sorely missed when our time comes.

Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

Penman No. 408: Windows on the Filipino Soul

Penman for Monday, March 1, 2021

SOON TURNING 80, the veteran journalist and fictionist Amadis Ma. Guerrero has added another feather to his cap as one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of culture, particularly the visual arts. Less than two years ago, he gave us the splendid book Philippine Social Realists (Quezon City: Erehwon Artworld Corp.), where he reviewed ten of the country’s most accomplished advocates of social realism, prompting our own Juaniyo Arcellana to call him “a master of reportage, which he puts to good use in this series of portraits of the artist as Philippine social realist.”

This time, with the launch last week of SYM, Galicano, and PASPI, also published by Erehwon, Guerrero takes on the art of portraiture itself, and the Filipino artists who have devoted themselves to—and distinguished themselves in—this most difficult of artistic challenges.

Say the word “portrait” and what will likely spring to mind for most Filipinos—excluding the “Mona Lisa”—is Jose Rizal looking pensive and noble, as he should, frozen in a print that has become almost obligatory in most government offices (at least until certain Presidents and lesser politicians deemed themselves worthier of that spot on the wall). The older and well-heeled crowd will default to Fernando Amorsolo, who seems to have painted everyone’s rich and famous grandfather or grandmother. The more art-savvy might bring up John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. 

Indeed, portraits have served throughout history to glorify the sitters and their families, made to order by the most talented painters of their time, and paid for by the most powerful patrons of that same era. They were, and still are, quite frankly made for money, which usually meant a softer line here and a scatter of stardust there to idealize the hopefully happy subject. Occasionally and perhaps increasingly, they have also been made for love—if not love of art itself, then (to venture sideways into more theatrical territory) of the subjects who became their artists’ muses if not their lovers, such as Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Testorf or Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer.

In his overview of contemporary Philippine portraiture, Guerrero provides us not only with a visual feast of styles and talents but also with—in his own way—verbal portraits of the artists themselves: their back stories, their struggles, and how they came to see and use portraiture as their window on the Filipino soul. 

The title of the book may be cryptic to many, so let’s explain that “SYM” is Sofronio Y. Mendoza, the brother-in-law of fellow portraitist Romulo “Mulong” Galicano, and that “PASPI” is the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines, Inc., whose members the two masters have mentored. 

In his typically well-wrought foreword, Dr. Patrick Flores notes how important it is that “the story of art that this publication tells does not begin in Manila, perceived to be the center of the solar system of the Philippine art world. It rather unfolds in Carcar in Cebu. This in itself contributes to the body of literature on a species of Philippine art that takes root in and flourishes beyond the metropolitan privileges of Manila.” Carcar was where both Mendoza and Galicano studied at the foot of Cebu’s pre-eminent postwar painter, Martino Abellana, the so-called “Amorsolo of the South.”

Both men have since overtaken their teacher to become mentors to a new generation of gifted portraitists in PASPI, and the book offers glimpses into the life and works of many of its members—Wilfredo Baldemor, Romeo Ballada, Publio Briones, Jr., Carlos Cadid, Wilfredo Cañete, Jr., Ariel Caratao, Ramon de Dios, Efren Enolva, Carlos Florido, Alvin Montano, Maridi Nivera, Joemarie Sanclaria, Dante Silverio (yes, the Dante Silverio), and Lita Wells. 

With the exception of the former Toyota coach and long-time art enthusiast, few of these names will be familiar to most Filipinos, although many have attained some degree of professional accomplishment. Some, like Romy Ballada and Boboy Cañete, never went to art school (born poor, Cañete didn’t even get to high school), but their work is suffused with what matters most in portraiture: character—which, as a fictionist, I take to be the promise of a deeper story beyond the picture. The stylistic range presented runs from the classically posed to the problematic postmodern, but I enjoy it best when the painter takes a break from his or her usual material, such as Galicano’s decidedly anti-romantic “The Sleeping Model.” (The book also explains why Galicano adopted his trademark stripe in his paintings.)

Amadis Guerrero tells well-framed stories of the artists and their passions with great empathy and efficiency, and I hope that he will be commissioned (as this is the only way this will happen here) to do full-length biographies of our National Artists such as Botong Francisco and Mang Enteng Manansala. Also praiseworthy is Erehwon’s continuing commitment to art publishing, and to producing such handsome volumes (this one was designed and photographed by Willie de Vera). A recent winner of Quezon City’s Gawad Parangal for its leadership in the arts, Erehwon and its visionary founder, Raffy Benitez—who has sunk millions into his baby knowing he’ll never get it all back—deserve our gratitude and admiration. 

Penman No. 407: Fifty Februaries

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021

FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.

I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.

I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).

Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits. 

But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.

To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.

They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:

AT SEVENTEEN

At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky

And held, in my right hand, 

A bottle filled with gasoline—

And far more flammable,

Admixtured faith and folly,

Courage and a thumping fear

That my life would not last much longer than

That hour, at once so still and pensive,

The tall grass around my outpost

Silvered by some distant light.

A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called

That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice

Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel

Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,

And my right hand, the young elastic limb

That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky

Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,

Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect

Oblation of that fraught age.

I was, I told myself, prepared to die

And perhaps I might have even 

Believed the lie. 

I never threw that bomb, nor any other

Of the kind. The enemy was more

Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear

Just then—although I’ve seen him since, 

In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—

And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,

Do I know you?” because I thought I did.

The intrepid and unwary die.

The articulate survive, to write poems

And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands

While their left fingers cradle Marlboros

Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems

Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.

These days I hold nothing

More menacing than hat and cane.

I should have feared, at seventeen,

That I would live this long, that I would know

Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—

And still, from time to time, looking down

The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,

Feel barricades of salvaged wood

And gathered stone rising in my chest.

Penman No. 406: Poets and Politicians

Penman for Monday, February 1, 2021

NOBODY EXPECTED a 22-year-old poet named Amanda Gorman to be the runaway hit at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration last month, but there she was, bright and exuberant, delivering a clear and ringing message of hope in her now-famous “The Hill We Climb.” Once you have both grandmothers and teenagers quoting the same verses in their posts, you know that a chord has been struck, a nerve touched, in the national psyche.

Of course, that was another nation, not ours, but I’m sure many Filipinos exulted as well in that new beginning for America after four years of chaos, and not too secretly hoped for a similar return to civility and decency—indeed to optimism and intelligence—where they were. As a boy whose early education was steeped in Americana—nothing too strange in Filipino private schools of the 1960s—I grew up to become something of a junkie for American history and politics, which explains why, for the past three months, I followed every turn of the Trump-Biden saga as if it had anything to do with us (and inevitably, it will; when America burps or worse, we hear it).

There have just been four American presidents who had poets read at their inaugurals: John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013, and Joe Biden in 2021. Robert Frost read “A Gift Outright” for JFK; for Clinton, Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993 and Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” in 1997; for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and in 2013, Richard Blanco read “One Today.” (Many thanks to poets.org for the information.)

As you can see from the titles alone, these poems were flush with positivity, as inaugurals should be. Why only Democrats brought poets along to their inaugurals seems something of a mystery—but then again maybe not, as poetry and the brand of culture it implies could be seen as “soft” by the gun-toting machos who typically vote Republican. 

There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune from 2012, when Mitt Romney was challenging Obama for the presidency, that faulted Romney for his rhetorical gaffes and asked if he could use a poet at his side. (Among his critics was a guy named Donald Trump who called Romney’s language “inartful.”) The Tribune noted that while “the world of poetry… is a liberal tradition,” there was also a smaller category of politically conservative poets—T. S. Eliot and Samuel Coleridge among them—that was still current, and had even been anthologized into a book called, unsurprisingly, The Conservative Poets, published by the University of Evansville Press in 2006. None of these featured poets made it to Trump’s inaugural in 2017.

Surely there must be parallels in our own political history—we even had a president, Carlos P. Garcia, who wrote poems called balak in his native Boholano, and Ferdinand Marcos retained a coterie of Palace poets to sing his and Meldy’s praises. These deserve longer commentary for another time.

Even as I admire Amanda Gorman’s achievement, and especially her delivery, I do have to say that, as a poem, “The Hill We Climb” was far from perfect for me—not that it matters much in the context of what the poem had to do. In modern poetry, we usually suggest that the poem be less direct, less declarative about its intentions, leaving the reader with a little puzzle to figure out. It’s the difference between saying “Nobody loves me like you do” and e. e. cummings writing “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” 

But Amanda was engaged in what we might call public poetry, poetry meant to be almost immediately understood and appreciated by a live audience, so it had to be more obvious in its meaning. That’s why it worked, like a popular song whose refrain people can easily remember; note, too, the rap-like rhyming and rhythm of its lines. What’s important is that the poem connected and made sense of recent events in a way and on a level that news stories and editorials couldn’t, delivered by a young, black poet with a credibility that politicians could only dream of.

Speaking of politicians, I’ve long maintained that leaders incapable of tenderness and of acknowledging their vulnerability can’t be trusted. Poetry’s appeal to the emotions requires a certain sensitivity on the listener’s or reader’s part, but it also engages the mind in ways that force you to go beyond the literal and to make intuitive connections between this and that. Leaders shackled by their own simplistic “us vs. them” mindsets and their self-defensiveness can’t make those imaginative leaps, or appreciate the rich ambiguities of literature, stuck in their rigid dogmas.

This doesn’t mean that culturally literate leaders can’t be tough when they need to be; JFK stood up to Khruschev and the Soviets with a naval blockade when they tried to ship missiles to Cuba. We can only wish other national leaders would be so brave against their nations’ enemies, instead of picking on certain universities for letting their professors and students think and speak freely, which not incidentally are basic to the writing of great poetry.