Penman No. 217: We Were Young Together

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2016

 

I HAD the honor of being asked to speak at the 50th anniversary reunion of my Philippine Science High School batch (we chose to celebrate our entrance year, 1966, fearing that there’d be fewer of us to gather in five years). It was, I joked, the valedictory I never got to deliver, for reasons that will be shortly obvious. You’ll forgive the chest-thumping; every high school has a right to think it’s the best on the planet—perhaps some more so than others. Herewith, an excerpt:

I’ll begin with a shameless boast, and the boast is that over these past four decades, I’ve won quite a few awards and prizes for my work as a writer and teacher. But none of them has given me as much pride and pleasure as the knowledge that once upon a time in 1966, for one brief shining moment and for some miraculous reason, I topped the entrance exam to the Philippine Science High School.

It was a fleeting glory, and if I ever imagined myself a real genius I would be quickly disabused, because as you all know, after our first year, my grade in English was 1.0 and my grade in Math was 5.0. Only the kindness or perhaps the embarrassment of our administrators persuaded them that I was worth giving another chance and putting on probation, a break I’m forever thankful for.

I have never felt in more distinguished company than yours. Individually and collectively, you are the smartest people I have ever known, and it has nothing to do with PhDs or awards or high positions in government and business or least of all material wealth—although I’m sure we could all use a little more money. I know that I can sit with anyone of you and have an intelligent and funny conversation about anything from interstellar travel and Dutertean diplomacy to hugot lines and Pokémon—well, maybe not Pokémon.

Long before buzzwords like “world-class” and “globally competitive” came into fashion, there were smart kids who passed an entrance exam that decimated whole regiments of lesser beings, leaving a few good boys and girls standing after the slaughter, calmly noting the distinction between cousins and cosines, avocados and Avogadro, halitosis and mitosis.

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Hey, these kids were us—gangly, smelly (after a good day’s work at the biology garden, or the agawan-base arena), cocksure in the classroom, and curious as hell about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, boy-girl questions dominated the school’s philosophical life.

“What Is a PSHS Boy?” asked the Science Scholar ca. 1969, and the soul-searching answer came (courtesy of someone who should have known—a PSHS girl): “A PSHS boy is a new sociological specimen of the human race… a hardworking nekti achiever [who keeps] a well-tended garden near the bio pond…. a longhaired mod swinger around the campus [who] wears kooky sunglasses, stylish baggy pants, and necklaces… He crams love letters in his notebooks. When Mr. Mozrah asks him ‘What is social interaction?’, he recites his lovelorn adventures with Jennifer, Corrine, Paulette, etc….”

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This penetrating study naturally occasioned a companion piece, published a year later under the thought-provoking title of “What Is a PSHS Girl?”, written by an expert on the subject, a PSHS boy.

“A PSHS girl,” this savant said, “is a rare biological specimen… She is only emotional, temperamental and irrational sometimes (well, half of the time… would you believe almost always?). Anger is not a word in her dictionary. You see, her dictionary starts with ‘boy’… A PSHS girl is the reading type. She reads Emily Loring and the like.”

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It didn’t take too long for a PSHS girl—uhm, PSHS young woman activist—to trash that silly, bourgeois, sexist view. “Now is the time for awakening,” this budding feminist would write in the same Science Scholar just a year later. “Do you realize that today you are a mere tool of the man?… Our bourgeois-oriented society adds insult to injury by picking up things for you and opening doors for you—reminders of sexual disparity—the very chains you should set out to break.”

We don’t know how many chains were broken; some precious objects certainly were (er, windows, petri dishes, innocence, and rules). Talk about rules! A famous one—dated September 29, 1970, and issued by the PSHS Board of Trustees—decreed that PSHS scholars “remain single and be discreet about their boy-girl relationships in order to continue their studies at the PSHS.”

Perhaps another topic of passionate discussion—“Should Smut Movies Be Allowed?”—had something to do with this heated  state of affairs.

The guidance counselor warned: “If they only display the human body for art’s sake, then there’s nothing wrong.  But if what they show are the acts sacred to man and woman, and those which arouse man’s sexual instincts and cause him to do something about it, then definitely, smut movies should be banned!”

Not too definitely, a freshman objected: “In European countries, especially in Scandinavia, sex movies have become so ordinary that they now seem to be part of the people’s lives.  In the Philippines, there is indifference towards these movies.  The Board of Censors should allow more of them and let us see what the attitude of the public toward them will be in the future.” [Brilliantly said, young man, an answer truly worthy of a science scholar—we’re not watching smut movies, here, we’re watching popular attitudes!]

Ah, the times, they were a-changing.  “The opening of the intramurals ushered in a new sight on our campus,” reported a sports columnist (a distraught boy) in the Science Scholar in 1970.  “Where once only boys were seen, girls have materialized…. The girls’ presence cannot be ignored…. In so short a period, many can be said to equal the boys at their own game. Complaints have been heard from the girls that the boys have been monopolizing both the basketball court and the ping-pong tables.”

That should’ve told us that the days of the Young Gentlemen’s Club and the Girls’ Club—no one had the gumption then to set up a Young Gay and Lesbian Club—were coming to an end. Some brazen soul in our freshman class organized the UBAG (United Boys Against Girls), but that didn’t last too long. Biology would teach boys that uniting with girls instead of fighting them was the more natural and pleasurable thing to do.

For a few of us after high school, life may have been a breeze, but for most, I’m sure it’s been an uphill climb, full of rough patches, and you were just as astonished as I was to find that a high IQ did not guarantee happiness or prosperity or success and may even have made things worse because of our more acute awareness of the meaning of things. We learned that the smartest people can make the dumbest mistakes in love, money, and politics, and that sometimes we just don’t know squay about the things that truly matter. I even learned that you could be happily married to someone from UP High.

Most important of all lessons and legacies, we learned to serve the people. Whether we grew up to be NPA cadres or CEOs or lab rats or barrio doctors, we knew that our high school scholarship had to be repaid in faithful service to community and humanity, employing the scientific, rationalist outlook that even those of us who strayed from S&T never quite lost.

We were young together, and we will grow old together. As we’ve all learned from life, it isn’t who leads at the start of the race but who finishes first at the end who wins—although again I suspect that in the race of life, we’d rather finish last.

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Penman No. 169: I Saw Them Standing There (Almost)

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Penman for Monday, October 5, 2015

I WAS playing Texas Hold ‘Em with a bunch of younger guys a couple of weeks ago in my favorite poker joint and one of them was delivering a spirited rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Nothing on You” (yes, this old fogey knows the singer and the song)—probably to disguise a pair of Kings—and the table talk came around to our preferences in music.

“I can tell where this is going,” I thought. But then they call me “Daddy Butch” in the place—everyone above 50 is a “daddy” or a “mommy,” which is better than the monikers some other regulars sport, such as “Itlog,” “Daga,” “Paos,” and “Payat”—so my age wasn’t the issue. The young ‘uns were really interested in knowing what kind of music my generation listened to, so after everyone else had spoken in praise of pop, hip-hop, grunge, and metal, I yielded the one and only answer any soul born in 1954 can truthfully produce: “The Beatles.”

Some nodded, smiling, and then our dealer—a sweet girl in her mid- to late 20s—shuffled the cards and said, “Were they really big?”

I have to say, I almost lost it at that point.

I pride myself at the table on my poker face, a point my adversaries readily concede—“You can never tell what hand Daddy Butch is holding!”, I’d often hear. But that fearsome inscrutability more likely comes from the fact that, at the freewheeling 10-20 cash game, I’ll bet on anything from a pocket pair of Jacks to a 7-deuce off-suit. In others words, I’m what they call a “loose and aggressive player,” possibly mad, possibly idiotic, possibly serious. I lose a lot of money playing this way (I behave much better in tournaments) but it’s worth the sight of my tablemates guessing and squirming.

But again, I almost lost that carefully crafted coolness when I heard (with better emphasis) “Were THE BEATLES really big???” It was worse, to me, than those schoolkids who asked why Mabini was chairbound throughout that whole “Heneral Luna” movie. I felt a vile sourness welling up from my gut and bubbling out of my ears and nostrils. You might forget the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and I won’t even bother you with trivia like the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Military Bases Agreement, but THE BEATLES????? (Let’s add a couple more question marks for real emphasis.)

I was too apoplectic to answer, but eventually someone on my left, a forty-something fellow who just might have been old enough to be rocked to sleep to the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” said “Yes, they were big.”

“Bigger than Nirvana?” someone else chimed in.

“Yes, bigger than Nirvana.”

“Bigger than One Direction?”

“Yes, bigger than One Direction.”

“Bigger than Michael Jackson?”

“Well, maybe MJ came closest to the Beatles in popularity.”

“Actually, they even claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ,” I finally said, “and depending on the number of Muslims and Buddhists in the world at that time, it just might have been true.”

“Really, they said that? When?

“In 1966—just before they came to the Philippines.”

“They CAME to the Philippines?”

“Sure—they had a big concert here on July 4, 1966—and I ALMOST saw them!” The bile had snuck down my throat now, and I was feeling much better, given a rapt audience for one of my favorite stories.

With full relish, I recounted how the Fab Four flew into Manila, were met by screaming, fishnet-stockinged girls, offended Bongbong Marcos, and were practically chased out of the old MIA by Liberace fans who clearly believed that—at least in the Philippines—the Beatles couldn’t possibly be bigger than the Marcoses.

Somewhere in there I interjected the story of how my mother had promised a 12-year-old named Butch that they were going to see the Beatles at the Rizal Coliseum. The indulgent mother and her eager son get as far as Quiapo Boulevard from their humble abode in Pasig, whereupon she sees a new moviehouse trumpeting the wonders of Cinerama. “Let’s watch this movie instead!” the lady says, and the boy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing John, Paul, George, and Ringo standing on the stage—albeit from 1,674 feet away in the bleachers—vanish into the gutter. That afternoon, as luckier fans swoon to “Please, Please Me” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” tank fire and bazookas echo in the boy’s ears, all throughout the two hours of “The Battle of the Bulge.”

My poker playmates look at me with wide-eyed wonder—I try to read their faces, like a a poker player ought to be be able to do—but I can’t tell if they can’t believe that I’m that old, or if they’re just awed to be sitting at the same table with someone who actually breathed the same jeepney-flavored air in the same politician-infested city as the lads from Liverpool.

They got nothing on you, Beatles!

Picture-'Britain's Finest' Beatles tribute band

AND IF these memories make you feel like suiting up in your collarless jackets and zippered boots and swaying to “Eight Days a Week,” you’ll get a chance to relive the Beatles experience when one of Britain’s finest Beatles tribute bands—called, well, Britain’s Finest—come to Manila for a concert on October 14, Wednesday, at the tent of the Midas Hotel and Casino on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

You can get your tickets (P3,800 for the VIP and P2,800 for the gold section at all SM Tickets (470-222) and TicketWorld (891-9999) outlets or via www.ticketworld.com.ph.

I’m planning to go, but I think I’ll leave my mom at home this time.