Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 249: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 1, 2017

 

I WAS honored to be invited by the Writers Union of the Philippines (also known as Umpil, the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas) to give the keynote speech at their annual congress last Saturday, April 29, at Ateneo de Manila University. Here’s the first part of what I said, with the conclusion to follow next week.

I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of “Literature in the Time of Tokhang,” and I’m sure we will all agree that no topic could be timelier and more troubling. I suspect that I was chosen to stand here today much less for any eloquence than for the simple fact that, even peripherally, my family can count personal losses in this sordid war. As many of you know, I wrote a piece for Esquire magazine last year, recounting a horrific moment that no family should ever have to undergo. Let me just read a paragraph from that essay:

“My wife Beng and I were in San Diego late this July, visiting family and taking in the harmless lunacy of Comic-Con, when we received the numbing news that Lauren Kristel Rosales, the girlfriend of Beng’s nephew Gab, had been shot dead by a man as she was taking a jeepney ride to work. We found a picture online of Lauren slumped face down on the floor of the jeep, clutching her bag, and it was the most heartbreaking sight I’d seen, the pain of which Beng’s wails could only scratch at. I’d come across ghastlier crime scenes as a sometime police reporter, but this one hit home and hit hard; she was someone we knew and cared for, someone who occasionally dropped by with Gab and whom we shared Christmas lunches with. We had flown to the US for a family vacation, and were flying home to a family funeral.”

As if this wasn’t terrible enough, three months after Lauren was murdered, her brother JR—a newlywed young man who had flown home from his job in the UK to pursue his sister’s case—was himself shot dead by a motorcycle-riding gunman who remains unknown, like his sister’s assailant, to this day.

To be fair—a word that seems hopelessly inappropriate in these circumstances—no one except the killers and their handlers can say for sure if these murders were part of the government’s so-called war on drugs. Neither was a drug user, and the police themselves would admit that neither Lauren nor JR was on their list of suspects. But these murders happened in an environment and in a manner that, as crime waves and police campaigns typically do, anonymized both victims and perpetrators, and tossed them all into a wide-mouthed meat grinder that crushed not only flesh and bone but guilt and innocence together.

The term “tokhang” itself is a corrupted word, a portmanteau of the Cebuano words toktok and hangyo, or “knock” and “plead”—the very embodiment of courtesy and consideration, conjuring the image of a uniformed policeman, his cap in hand, knocking on the door of a suspect’s home and politely seeking information or cooperation. In practice, tokhang has become its opposite: the gentle knock has become the kick of a booted heel, the cap a gun, and the appeal a barked command.

As writers and storytellers, we have to marvel not only at the terminal efficiency of this process, but also at the facility with which this brief narrative arc has become a cliché—and like all clichés has left us increasingly benumbed and unsurprised. In a sense, this is the true victory of the war on drugs—the capture of the passive mind, and its habituation to systematic terror.

As our friend and fellow writer Fr. Albert Alejo put it, “Sanayan lang ang pagpatay”—“Killing is something you get used to.” We’ve gotten used not only to the killings, but to the stories about them, to the telling and to the listening. And we all know by now how that basic story runs: Juan was a drug addict, so the police went to arrest him, but he resisted arrest, and was therefore shot and killed—probably the fifth or the sixth encounter of its kind in a long day’s war waged by the noble agents of the law against crime and evil.

In this situation, what can writers who have not surrendered their conscience and their writerly inquisitiveness do?

Writers come in many forms and functions, which at one time or other may overlap. In this audience here today are not only fictionists, poets, playwrights, and essayists but also journalists, editors, copywriters, screenwriters, bloggers, and propagandists of all kinds and persuasions. What unites us is the written word—and, increasingly these days, the visible image.

I often tell foreign audiences that we Filipinos can be very proud of our writers and literary resources. We have one of the world’s freest presses and social media, where no topic and no personage is taboo.

But this is accompanied by an awful irony: for all our vaunted liberties, the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013. We have only to think of Maguindanao to remember and to understand that, politically, it is the frontline journalist who takes the greatest risks and sustains the most grievous losses in the battle for the Filipino mind.

By comparison, we fictionists and poets have it easy. Politicians read newspapers, not novels; bureaucrats and generals can’t understand Cirilo Bautista and Gemino Abad (and I’m not sure I do, either). Creative writing hardly pays us anything, but we can say whatever we want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a lethal enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

It’s worth noting, of course, that we have brought down three presidents—Marcos, Estrada, and Arroyo—by means of media other than print. The massive street revolt that drove Ferdinand Marcos away in 1986 was called for on radio; the movement that hounded Joseph Estrada out of office in 2001 ballooned over SMS; Gloria Arroyo’s disgraceful behavior in 2005 went all over the Internet. I fearlessly predict that the next Philippine revolution—whenever that will be and for whatever cause—will not be sparked by a novel, but by a viral video.

But again, between now and then, what’s a writer to do?

(Conclusion next week. Image from gmanews.)

Penman No. 248: Ring in the Old

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Penman for Monday, April 24, 2017

 

 

IN A GENERATION preoccupied with newness, it’s a refreshing surprise to find young people engrossed with things far older than themselves, and that’s exactly what Beng and I stumbled upon a few Saturdays ago when we entered Warehouse Eight on Chino Roces Ave. in Makati. There was absolutely no hint of it from the outside, but going up a flight of stairs, we stepped into a large room filled to the brim with antiques—typewriters, watches, cameras, bicycles, turntables, vinyl records, books, eyeglasses, and, yes, pens!

This was the Istorya Vintage Appreciation Fair, an event organized by entrepreneur and collector Lennie Dionisio (whom I’d never met before, so had the temerity to ask “What’s your day job?”). I’d come to show some of my vintage pens, of course, but I made a beeline for a tableful of Lennie’s fabulous vintage typewriter collection—a passion she shares with another friend of mine, George Mamonluk. I proudly showed off a picture of my 1922 Corona 3 which I’d found in San Francisco and hand-carried home—if you get a high from inhaling typewriter lubricant, you’d be my kind of person. But the piece de resistance of Lennie’s spread wasn’t even a typewriter but a lovely Adana letterpress machine of the kind that I’d been dreaming of, for hand-printing pages of poetry on paper you could run your fingers over and feel every word.

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It was that kind of vanished romance that tingled in my bones as I looked over the exhibits (most items in which were for sale), elated by the discovery that they had been brought over not by doddering seniors like me but by a new crop of millennials who actually knew how to use a Rolleiflex TLR or a Sheaffer Snorkel. Quite a few even came over to the booth we operated for the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, asking to see how flexible nibs and lever fillers worked. There’s hope for this generation yet!

For about a decade, Beng and I used to indulge our mania for the old stuff on our October sorties to New York and its fabulous flea markets and thrift shops (that’s right, I’d save up the thousands for the plane fare so we could poke around looking for $5 bargains in dusty piles of bric-a-brac). Those fun times may be over as our knees themselves turn vintage and as our budgets dry up, but with local shows like Istorya popping up, who needs Manhattan? I can’t wait to see the next edition of Istorya and to step back into the land of the lost.

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THERE’S ANOTHER way of bringing the past into the present, and that’s by remanufacturing old classics into new and modernized versions that exude vintage charm but perform with almost digital precision.

I was reminded of this last month when our friend Celia, who shared our footloose ways with her late husband Rene, introduced me to a very interesting pair of locally-made grandfather clocks. I have a small trove of vintage wristwatches, mostly from the 1950s, that I manually wind up every few months or so—and I have to admit to a clock fetish in that I’ll likely have at least two clocks in one room so I can see the time wherever I look—but I have yet to acquire my first grandfather clock.

I’ve seen quite a few of these in homes and museums abroad, and what’s fascinating about them is their imposing size and that deep, sonorous chime they produce to announce the hours.

Apparently, according to Celia, there’s a company out here somewhere that makes several models of grandfather clocks, following the tradition of furniture artisan Simplicio Adriano, a Pampanga native who started his craft in 1911. The company is called SAFM, and it’s now managed by Simplicio’s great-grandsons Alfred and Francis.

I’ve yet to visit the factory, but Celia tells me that a seven-foot model they call the RAGA 70 has a chain-driven, Westminster chime movement that strikes every quarter and every hour. The movement is made by Hermle of Germany, considered the leading clock and clock movement manufacturer in the world. The cabinet is made of Philippine hardwood and comes in mahogany, dark walnut or light walnut finishes.

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If tall clocks and loud chimes float your boat, text or call the manufacturer at 0905-2765288 or email adriano.grandfather.clocks@gmail.com.

 

A FEW years ago, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the Iligan National Writers Workshop at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) in Iligan City, and I’m happy to see that despite all the odds it’s had to face, the workshop is moving along just fine and will be holding its 24th session from May 29 to June 2 under the stewardship of stalwarts Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez. Co-sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), Iligan is an important hub in the national network of workshops designed to encourage new young writers in all languages and genres.

Eighteen writing fellows from all over the country have been selected for Iligan. From Luzon come: Poetry (English) Bernard Kean Mappala Capinpin; (Filipino) Joey Alcones Tabula and Vanessa Anne Joice Tanada Haro; Fiction (Filipino) Lenin Carlos Macaraig Mirasol; and Drama (English/Filipino): Fatrick Romo Tabada;

From the Visayas: Creative Non-Fiction (English) Eric Gerard de la Cruz Ruiz; Poetry (English) Andrea de Guzman Lim and Gay Josephine Valles;  (Sebuano) Hannah Marie Ramirez Aranas; and Fiction (English): Nino Augustine Masa Loyola; and

From Mindanao: Poetry (Filipino): Delfin Hingco Mundala; Loi Vincent Caparos Dériada; (Sebuano) Mildred Eran Garcia; Creative Non-fiction(English): Silvana Erika Nasser Navaja; and Drama (English/Filipino) Kwesi Ian Jay Miguel Junsan.

This year’s Boy Abunda Writing Fellow is Waray poet Reynel Mahilum Ignacio; the Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow is Sebuano poet Kim Ashley B. Escalona; and the Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow is Maranao poet Alican Mendez Pandapatan.

I haven’t read these young writers’ works, but the mere idea of, for example, someone continuing to write Maranao poetry in this global century is heartwarming. That probably won’t happen in Diliman, which is another good reason why a homegrown workshop in Mindanao is absolutely necessary for the enrichment and preservation of our national culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

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Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

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Penman for Monday, April 10, 2017

 

WITH WORK piling up at the office, I’ve increasingly been looking forward to weekends, especially Saturdays, for some fun and leisure. Weeks ahead, I start scouting the cultural horizon for interesting things to do or shows to attend. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Beng and I drove out to Makati to explore the Istorya Vintage Fair at Warehouse Eight—a totally engrossing event that merits its own write-up, which I’ll do in a forthcoming column—before rushing back to Diliman to catch the Ihudyat! marching band competition at the UP Amphitheater.

It was the following Saturday that I’ll write about first, afraid that I might forget some important detail if I wait too long. Indeed, “forget” is the operative word here, because it describes what most people did to our destination: the Boix House (also known as the Teotico-Crespo House) on Ariston Bautista Street in Quiapo, Manila. I tagged along with a posse of UP Fine Arts alumni that included Romy Carlos, Boysie Villavicencio, Ernie Canlas, and Beng—a group that had heard about the house and were interested in seeing if and how they could help in its restoration, perhaps through a benefit art exhibit. (I was delighted to learn later that an old friend, the art dealer and patron Jack Teotico, is a direct descendant of the original house owner and will be pitching in.)

Located in what has become Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, the Boix House is so named because it was acquired by the Boix-Tarradellas family from the Crespos, who got it in turn from the Teoticos. Don Marciano Teotico had the Neo-Renaissance house built in 1895 on what was then Calle Barbosa, and it soon attracted student boarders like the young Manuel Luis Quezon, who reputedly went out partying next door. There, two decades after Don Marciano built his brood a home, would rise the better known and more fortunate Nakpil-Bautista House.

We don’t know what happened next, but at some point, the ownership of the house reportedly passed on to the Society of Jesus, and we lose track of the Boix connection except through the house and what’s been put on the Internet about it—if any reader knows any more, please do share. (I’ve also been wondering about how exactly “Boix” is pronounced; I initially defaulted to the French bwah, but online sources suggest a Spanish or Catalan origin, in which case it would be boish—but then again, what do I know?)

The sad part of this story is how decrepit the Boix House has become, despite the noble efforts of well-meaning organizations such as the Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista to save the house through crowdfunding. Even the World Monuments Fund has taken note of and extended some assistance to the Boix House project (https://www.wmf.org/project/boix-house).

If you pay it a visit like we did, you’ll see why it could use all the help it can get. Just getting across the threshold to the stairs takes—almost literally—a leap of faith: two old doors now serve as creaky planks over which you cross a puddle of water. The wooden stairs and floor are thickly coated with dust and grime; a rat’s carcass molders away in a corner like a forgotten lab specimen. Framed panels provide a history of the house, and tattered flags and ribbons offer proof of some earlier appeals to patriotic fervor. Overall, one’s impression is a commingling of beauty and sadness, the passage not only of time but of care.

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One thing you couldn’t avoid noticing was the fact that while the second floor seemed eerily vacant, it was an entirely different story belowdecks, with the visual evidence of many families crammed into every habitable inch. The undisturbed dust and the odd debris upstairs suggested that the people left that space alone, most of the time, despite the absence of any kind of barrier or restriction. Why? Ghosts? A deep-seated respect of the departed?

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What’s clear is that no restoration project will succeed without taking the house’s present occupants—and indeed the whole neighborhood—into account. Even if you manage to raise the many millions required to return the house to its old glory, its antique opulence will stand in ironic contrast to the very present and very real poverty blighting its surroundings.

The well-preserved Nakpil-Bautista House next door might yield some clues—but not all—to what to do eventually. This ancestral home had seen generations of such notables as the composer Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow. Still maintained by the family and open to public viewing, the house has also served as a home and studio for the past 38 years for master carver Ner Manlaqui, whose religious statues crowd the basement. Priests, churches, and other patrons keep Mang Ner busy, as the half-finished saints and virgins being worked on by his assistants attest to, employing trunks of pale yellow baticulin sourced from faraway Quezon.

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So preserving or reviving the past might necessitate providing for the present, and the cultural activists behind the Boix House project will do well to temper their admirable passion with some dry-eyed pragmatism. Houses are always more than wood and stone, and bringing old ones back to life should also mean ensuring a sustainable future for the people who live in and around them.

I couldn’t have imagined a richer Saturday morning but yet also a more poignant one, spent in the crumbling heart of the city.

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Penman No. 245: The Devil Is in the Data

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Penman for Monday, April 3, 2017

 

 

WE’RE OFTEN told that the devil is in the details, but today, you’ll likely find it in the data—that amorphous, often opaque stream of 1’s and 0’s whose infinite permutations define, describe, and direct our daily lives from our social-security pensions to our children’s grades.

Forty years ago, all you might have needed was an ID card, a driver’s license, and a passbook for bank deposits and withdrawals. You didn’t have a mess of numbers and certainly no passwords to memorize (and to lose). A signature was something you scribbled on paper with a pen, and an ID picture—invariably ugly and smelling of the sourish chemical bath it came out of—was a black-and-white mug shot the size of a postage stamp.

Speaking of which, if someone wanted to steal your “data,” they first had to steal an envelope with your name and address on it, and (if they wanted to keep the theft a secret) open the envelope gently with a cloud of steam. Postmen had to be waylaid, dogs euthanized, windows broken into, brass locks opened, and filing cabinets pried loose. Then, and only then, could the robbers get their gloved hands on your stock certificates, your paramour’s love letters, your UPCAT score, and your secret recipe for Lola Oryang’s Sinigang.

These thoughts crossed my mind last week as I sat in a committee meeting that pondered the impositions and implications of the Freedom of Information Act on government bureaucracies like our university’s. As old-guard civil libertarians, we all marched at one time or another for freedom and democracy, and have prized freedom of expression above all others, so it was probably safe to assume that we were all in support of freedom of information—the notion that citizens have the right of access to information from their governments, toward greater transparency and accountability, which presumably leads to better governance. (I’m not a lawyer, so this is my pedestrian’s appreciation of it.)

So the citizen asks a question, and the government provides the answer, right? Not so fast.  Like many good things, FOI isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially when you get down to the nitty-gritty of its implementation. This could have been why, despite calling for an FOI law for many years, Filipinos didn’t get one even under Noynoy Aquino, who promised it when he ran for president in 2009. It took President Duterte—in what I’ll hazard to be his most popular move among his opponents—to enact an FOI measure through Executive Order No. 2 shortly after he took office last year, since Congress, the keeper of many secrets, couldn’t pass an FOI bill.

The order mandated that “Every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development,” with information referring to “records, documents, papers, reports, letters, contracts, minutes and transcripts of official meetings, maps, books, photographs, data, research materials, films, sound and video recording, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data, computer stored data, any other like or similar data or materials recorded, stored or archived in whatever format, whether offline or online, which are made, received, or kept in or under the control and custody of any government office pursuant to law, executive order, and rules and regulations or in connection with the performance or transaction of official business by any government office.”

FOI is supposed to work hand in glove with another initiative called Open Data, meant to be a repository of all the data requested from and proactively disclosed by the government, working through an eFOI platform where requests can be posted and processed.

That all sounds good if you’re going after an important or interesting document like a politician’s financial records, but again it’s not that simple. EO2 is accompanied by a list of nine major classes of exemptions, including sensitive personal information, trade secrets, and certain proceedings and investigations. (For all these documents, visit www.foi.gov.ph.)

In other words, and contrary to what some people might have naively expected, FOI is by no means an absolute right, bounded as it is by considerations such as those delineated by the Data Privacy Act of 2012. The DPA was designed to bring the Philippines and its booming BPO industry, which handles loads of personal data, in line with international privacy standards.

Between freedom of information and data privacy is a wide gray swath that’s still being demarcated by lawyers, ethicists, and the administrators who have to implement whatever the final rules are going to be.

In the university, we routinely receive scores of requests from, say, alumni looking for their old classmates and asking for their current addresses; unfortunately, even if we had them (which we often don’t), we can’t and won’t give them out. We can give you your transcript of records, but not someone else’s. These are the easier questions to deal with.

But what do you do when someone asks for the results of a publicly funded research project that could have commercial applications? How do you respond to a patently frivolous request for information (which, if properly framed and presented, the law still requires you to answer in some form within 15 days), like “How many blades of grass are there in UP Diliman?”

It’ll take a while to sort these issues out, which lie on the periphery of a larger and thornier ideological debate. We authors may believe our copyright to be sacrosanct, but there’s a whole “freedom of knowledge” school of thought out there (and even within academia) opposed to the idea of intellectual property and copyright, supported by groups that also advocate electronic civil disobedience.

“Is ‘We don’t know’ a valid answer to an FOI request?” I had to ask the people at our meeting, but I couldn’t get a categorical yes or no. Strangely enough, I found that ambiguity comforting, because it assured me that we still had a lot of thinking to do. Data is one thing, information another, and wisdom beyond legislation to establish.

freedomofinformation

(Image from techcrunch.com)

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

SJackson

Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

american-gothic

My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 242: A Husband’s Purpose

Dog

Penman for Monday, March 13, 2017

 

 

I’M NOT a dog person—next to my wife Beng, my marmalade tomcat Chippy was my best friend for twelve years until he meowed goodbye in 2012—but when I saw the trailer for this new movie A Dog’s Purpose, I just knew that I had to take Beng out to see it.

Beng loves dogs; at any given time, she has six or seven of them running around the yard. Her favorite, Bunso, invariably greets her when we get out of the car with a yelp and raises his paws for a shake and head rub, maybe even a sloppy kiss. I cringe when I see that, especially the part where the pooch’s wet tongue flicks across a cheek I might be visiting myself. For Beng, it’s just one more proof that dogs are more faithful than men, never mind that we don’t have tails to wag to flaunt our extravagant affections.

Of course, Beng knows the names of all her dogs, and who sired whom three generations removed. To me, they’re all noisy little mongrels distinguished by the fact that some are white, some are brown, and some are black. As you can imagine, over the years, we’ve given away scores of puppies to neighbors and relatives who thankfully couldn’t see beyond the cuddly cuteness to where certain recessive genes assert themselves. I become vaguely aware that the litter (and I suspect that’s where the word’s other meaning came from) is gone when a deep and abiding silence descends upon the household, at least until the other dogs demand their share of the food budget.

I’m not sure where my indifference to dogs comes from. Discounting guppies in water bags and terminally ill mayas in bamboo cages, we didn’t have pets as children—my four smaller siblings were a handful enough for my mom—so that’s probably one reason. My one dog memory from childhood involves a barking bitch and her pup whom I met on the street; I was nine years old and summering in my provincial hometown, but even at nine I had begun to read a lot, and one of the things I read was “Barking dogs don’t bite.” Well, this one did, and I grew up to be a skeptic from that point on.

At the same time, and strangely enough, I was a big fan of Lassie, and became something of a pest in the eyes of our TV-owning neighbor, parking myself in front of their TV nearly every afternoon in anticipation of another episode of Lassie chasing down scumbags and finding her way home after straying 200 miles. So I knew dogs were smart, and maybe that’s where the problem was—there could be only one top dog in the house, and as far as I was concerned, that position was already taken.

But back to the movie. Beng and I see a lot of movies, usually after a foot massage and a panciteria dinner. It’s as predictable as Tuesday, but life’s like that when you edge past 60; you don’t want too many surprises messing up your week. At least I don’t; now and then Beng makes mewling sounds about trying out new dishes or even new restaurants, and to be gracious I’ll say, “Okay, since we’ve had the miki bihon in this place half a dozen times now, let’s see what it tastes like across the street!” This is how we’ve survived 43 years together—understanding, compromise, and a little generosity.

The G word was on my mind last week when I suggested that we watch the damned dog movie. Usually we subsist on some iteration of Fast & Furious—that’s how I get my kicks, by watching cars crash into concrete walls and skulls get smashed by sledgehammers (“Isn’t violence relaxing?” I ask Beng over the popcorn). Once in a while, typically when a new iPhone hits the market, I treat Beng to a movie without Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Vin Diesel in it. I scored big with La La Land; you know she had fun when she asks you to look for the soundtrack, which is what the house will sound like for the next week, over the woofs and the whimpers of our canine company.

Beng likes movies like Hidden Figures and Sunday Beauty Queen where strong, smart women are smiling as the closing credits roll, where good people go to heaven, and where frogs turn into princes (she’s still waiting for that to happen). Whether it’s a happy or a sappy ending, she’s likely to cry over something. (She was probably the only person on the planet who wept when the Soviet Soyuz rocket ship docked with the Space Station—“Isn’t world peace wonderful?” I remember her saying.)

So I knew she was going to weep buckets when I took her to the dog movie; for me, watching her watching the movie makes it all worthwhile. Now this is going to be a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that A Dog’s Purpose is all about canine reincarnation, and about finding your way home (which, again, is apparently on every presumptive Lassie’s script).

I lined up for our tickets—we usually get D15 and D16, about midway across the theater—but dozens of families had also come out for the mutt show, and now only V15 and V16 were available, way up in the balcony where all the young couples nested. When I showed Beng the tickets, she giggled and said, “Are we going to neck?” I mumbled some incoherent, noncommittal reply, suddenly feeling very frog-like. She thought it was a funny idea, and threatened to call our daughter Demi in California, to tell her that her parents were going to go necking in the moviehouse.

Thankfully the movie started, and soon enough, as one dog died after the other, Beng was pulling out her tissues and sniffling serially, and I touched her on the cheek to assuage her grief. I could’ve licked her right there, but I could imagine Demi going “Ewwwww!” I left it to Bunso to do the licking later—having, for that day, served my husbandly purpose.

 

Penman No. 241: The Long and Short of Summary

240_f_86352387_qpckndkcg4djurkk2t8g8niysulm2iejPenman for Monday, March 6, 2017

 

 

IN DEALING with communications and reports drafted by my office staff and by my students, one problem I often encounter is the writer’s inability or reluctance to summarize needlessly long passages.

Some of that happens simply because the writer doesn’t know how to digest material, which further means that he or she can’t distinguish between the relative levels of importance of different statements. Another reason is sheer fear, especially in authoritarian or sensitive environments where messing with someone else’s text could land you in major trouble.

But we all need summaries, good ones, of everything out there. We simply don’t have the time to slog through every document that comes our way in this information-saturated age.

Good summarizing takes sharpness of mind and boldness of spirit. It means you know which parts you can cut without doing damage to the heart of the piece and that you can stitch the snippets together to form a new whole. You’d be surprised by the compelling clarity that shines through a properly summarized paper, by how much latent energy pulses in tautened prose.

I had an interesting conversation last year with a Filipino graduate student in Seoul. I was recalling the time more than 40 years ago when, as a junior writer-editor employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, I wondered why the current Five-Year Development Plan I was editing was as fat as a phone book, while the South Korean plan I had as a reference was no thicker than a Perry Mason paperback. And look, I told the student, where Korea had gone, minus the verbosity.

And then the student told me something that explained away the mystery of that anorexic document. In Korea, he said, managers and CEOs put a premium on brevity; the higher up the ladder your document went, the more condensed it was expected to be, to spare the bosses the chore of plowing through pages of data. Recommendations were to be brief and to the point.

It’s surprising because it seems so counterintuitive. For most of us, less is simply less and more is surely more. Our normal tendency is to add, to elaborate, to complicate until we can barely remember what our original thought was. We Pinoys especially have a tradition of rhetorical bombast that employs big words without meaning much, and we’ve mastered the art of filling dead air with, well, dead sounds.

This is why speakers in school programs (and the people who introduce them) take forever to say the most prosaic things; people walk up to the mike in the open forum and feel compelled to tell their life story before finally asking a question, if they do at all. We love to talk for the sake of talking, cluttering our prose with the same verbal indiscipline.

For me, a good summary begins, first of all, with the writer’s grasp of the main ideas running through the piece he or she is summarizing. This requires a thorough read-through of the original and an understanding of its basic argument. Without this sympathetic comprehension, attempts at trimming it down to size are bound to fail or to at least be misdirected. The best book reviewers are great at being able to reduce a thick volume to its thesis. That’s because they’re not just idle English majors like you and me, but are very likely experts in the field who may know more about the writers and their subjects than the writers themselves.

Since most of us aren’t such experts, the next best thing would be to take careful notes of what’s being said—identifying (and even physically highlighting) main points in the text and understanding why they’re being made. These points can then be paraphrased, condensed, and sequentially presented.

A good summary is also mindful and possibly reflective of the tone of the original—whether businesslike, contemplative, combative, or comic, for example. Nowhere should the summarizer’s own opinions or biases intrude, unless one is summarizing one’s own material.

This leads me to one of my pet peeves, the abuse of PowerPoint by speakers who don’t know the difference between a talk and an AV script. These are the people who will turn their whole speech into slides that are little more than blocks of text and unreadable graphs, and who will do little more than read everything that’s being flashed onscreen.

We might not mind this practice too much if these speakers were audibly engaging, knowing which phrases to emphasize or when to pause for dramatic effect. In many cases, however, this ritual is performed by zombie-like drones who seem to have no inkling that they actually have an audience behind them (behind, because they’re reading off the screen)—and an audience that can read as well as, if not faster than, them. PowerPoint presentations are meant to be verbal and visual summaries of whatever is being pitched.

There’s little excuse for a long paragraph to be splashed across the screen where a picture and four or five memorable words will do. That paragraph will be forgotten as soon as the slide vanishes, but the image will linger long afterwards.

Of course you’ll always lose a little something even in the best summary, but let’s put it this way: the best summaries will make the reader want to read the rest of the material, which is what you probably wanted to happen in the first place.

(Image from fotolia.com)