Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

Chancellor Ray Rovillos, Members of the UP Baguio Faculty and Staff, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Graduating Class and their Proud Parents, Families, and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

GOOD AFTERNOON, and thank you all for having me here today as your commencement speaker.

Let me begin with a confession. If you were expecting someone more famous, more accomplished, and more handsome than me to be standing at this podium here today, well, so was I. No one is more surprised than I am to be your guest speaker.

I woke up at 5 am yesterday to attend the UP Manila graduation at the PICC, rushed back to Diliman to pick up my bags, then took the long, leisurely ride up to Baguio, recalling the days when, as a young boy, I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim “student power,” pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.

Those happy memories embraced me as I arrived in my hotel last night. Chancellor Ray had thoughtfully sent me a copy of the program, and after dinner, just before I went to bed, I opened the program, curious to see who the commencement speaker was going to be. And then I saw my name. Oh my god—it was me!

And it’s all my fault, because I’d told Chancellor Ray that President Danicon couldn’t make it—he sends you all his warmest congratulations, by the way. But I had volunteered to represent him, because it would give me the best excuse to enjoy Baguio all over again, to sit here and listen to some wise person talk. Apparently, Chancellor Ray reasonably took that to mean that I was also going to speak in the President’s stead. So here I am, the dutiful surrogate who can’t refuse.

But I shall speak for myself, so you cannot hold our President responsible for the outrageous things that I will be saying to this hapless audience.

Thankfully, I had the perfect speech in reserve. That happens when you’re a professional writer and you write many speeches for other people. In this case, it was a speech that I had written for myself and delivered 12 years ago—at the Baguio Convention Center, to the graduating class of UP Baguio of 2005.

Since none of our graduates today was presumably here then—unless you’re a very slow learner—I thought I would resurrect that speech and update it as Ver. 2.0 for our very interesting if troubled times.

Former President Dodong Nemenzo—my old boss—was frankly not too fond of the phrase iskolar ng bayan to describe the UP student. We are all, of course, scholars of the people in this university, in the technical sense that our studies are subsidized by the sweat of the masses, whose hopes we bear upon our shoulders.

But his point was that scholarship was a distinction to be earned not merely by scoring well in an entrance examination, but by adopting a lifelong attitude of critical inquiry and rational judgment.

This, sadly and ironically, is something that many of us lose upon our entry into the University and our immersion in its life. The curiosity ends, the magic fades, the writing dries up, and we retreat to a cocoon—to a dimly lit room marked “Me & Myself”—there to spend the rest of our career fretting over the next fellow’s salary grade and so-and-so’s appointment as dean or chancellor.

Many years ago, when I ran for the chairmanship of the Department of English and Comparative Literature—among the oldest, largest, and most pala-away of our departments—I gave the usual homily about achieving excellence in teaching, research, and extension work.

And then, I said in my vision paper: “I expect our members to be actively engaged in interests other than their immediate subjects—in social and political concerns, in creative projects, in new technologies—to save them from the kind of small-mindedness or tunnel vision that can result from locking yourself up at the Faculty Center. In other words, get a life.”

“Get a life” has actually been one of my lifelong mantras. I have always believed that while a formal education is a wonderful thing, what I call an active life—with all its serendipitous detours and little accidents—is even better. It’s a cliché by now to say that there are many things we can never learn in school—but for those of us who are in school, it’s even more important to remember this.

As a mentor to many young students, I have always advised those burning with the desire to teach or to go on to graduate studies—in other words, those who want to stay in the university—to spend a few years first outside of it: to sell insurance, work at a call center, make some money—so they can get a sense of what everyone else goes through, and give their poor parents some relief. And then they can return, enriched by their experience.

When people complain to me about the emptiness and confusion in their lives, I feel sad because I know that only they can ultimately help themselves. But there’s a principle in fiction writing—in plotting and characterization—that might offer a solution to the perplexed. When my writing students tell me that they no longer know what their characters should do to solve their overwhelming problems, I tell them to take their characters out—literally and figuratively. Get them off their butts, make them walk, make them ride the MRT, put them on a Ferris wheel, bring them to the Navotas fish market at four in the morning. Too many stories try to resolve themselves in small cafes and bedrooms, behind shut doors and windows.

Some of the best things happen when we step outside of our own lives and begin to be engaged in those of others. Often, the answers to our own problems lie in others, and in their larger predicaments. While involvement in a great cause can also create its own kind of blindness to everything else, I believe that, at least once in our lives, we should embrace a passion larger than ourselves; even the disillusionment that often follows can be very instructive, and will bring us one step closer to wisdom.

I would not have been the writer I became if I had chosen the safe path and stayed where I was supposed to be.

At 17, shortly after graduating from the PSHS and entering UP as an engineering major, I dropped out as a freshman—over the tears of my mother, whose fondest hope was for me to graduate from UP just like she did. I wanted to join the revolution, like many of my comrades; at the same time I was impatient to get a job. At 18, I was working as a newspaper reporter covering hospital fires, US embassy rallies, bloody murders, factory strikes, and disaster operations. I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison.

At 20, I was a husband and father. At 22, still a dropout, I studied Development Economics as a special student, and later worked as an economist with the UNDP. At 26, I took my first foreign trip. At 27, I learned how to drive—and went back to school. At 30, I got my AB, and decided that what I wanted to do was to write and teach for the rest of my life. I found a scholarship in the US. It took me two years to finish my MFA, and only three to finish my PhD, to make up for lost time, and came home, and here I am, about 30 years and 30 books later.

It’s been a messy, crazy, but blessedly glorious life. I have been shot at, imprisoned, and worst of all, rejected by more crushes than I care to remember. Aside from my abortive career in journalism, I once worked as a municipal employee, checking the attendance of street sweepers at seven in the morning. And then I studied printmaking and sold my etchings cheaply by the dozen in Ermita. in the US, I worked as a cook-waiter-cashier-busboy-janitor, cutting 40 pounds of pork and chicken everyday before turning them into someone’s dinner.

Some of these events have found their way to my writing; most of them have not and never will. I believe that creative writing should generate its own excitement, beyond whatever may have happened to the author in his or her own life. But neither can I deny that my outlook has been influenced by what I have seen out there, as bright, as indelible, and as disturbing as fresh blood.

If we are to abide by the Phi Kappa Phi motto to “let the love of learning rule humanity,” we should first ourselves be ruled by the love of learning—learning from books, and learning beyond them.

On the other side of the equation, let me observe that there is, today, a nascent but disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway.

It’s easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the edukado, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily bought out by the powers that be. Marcos and Estrada had probably the best Cabinets in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do nothing against their President and his excesses.

Sometimes we never learn. Today, once again, some of us are tempted by the notion that because we seem to have made a mess of our freedom, because EDSA didn’t seem to work, then maybe giving up our rights and freedoms and letting someone else do the thinking and choosing for us is a good thing. Think again.

That’s what we UP people are good at—thinking, and thinking again.

To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission—not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason—by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals.

You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UP because no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.

Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt—the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.

I thought that my hardest days as an activist were over at EDSA. Now I have to think again. I thought that I had done my bit for UP by serving as Vice President 12 years ago. When President Danicon asked me to take on the same job last January, I had to think again. I said yes, because you can’t refuse when UP calls—di rin magbabago ang damdamin. I actually wept when I told my undergraduate class that I was going to be a VP again, because nothing makes me more fulfilled than teaching a roomful of undergraduates, and working in Quezon Hall was going to pull me away from them. I’ll tell this to all of you now, 18 months short of retirement: teaching people like you has been my greatest privilege.

In the first edition of this speech that I gave 12 years ago, I told my young audience to do things like read a good book, play the guitar, learn how to swim, and have fun. I’m going to update that by sharing the sort of things I told my undergrads, things my wife and I have told our only daughter all her life.

  1. Do something different, do something stupid, do something risky. Just don’t die, or land in jail—although landing in jail gave me a prizewinning novel about martial-law prison 20 years later. Nobody who didn’t take risks ever made a difference.
  2. My teacher in German taught me a saying: “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake. Or as my billiards buddy used to say, “We’re all entitled to one big failure.” Nothing will teach you better than that one big mistake you’ll make—so go ahead and make it, but make it worth it.
  3. And finally, I’ll repeat what I said at the end of that first speech—get a life, and get a good one!

Mabuhay kayong lahat, mabuhay ang UP, at marami pong salamat!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 138: On Wall and Paper

IMG_7127Penman for Monday, March 2, 2015

 

OF ALLl the forms of art, nothing catches the public eye quite like a mural—a painting on a wall. It isn’t just that murals tend to be massively larger than your usual living room portrait or still life. They very often seek to capture and represent the spirit and experience of a community, voicing the concerns and celebrating the values of that community. Starting with cave paintings, murals are also the oldest human art form, but they’ve survived surprisingly well into the 21st century, creatively adapting—often literally—to their physical and social environment. (For some of the world’s best contemporary murals, see here: http://www.cartridgesave.co.uk/news/the-50-most-stunning-wall-murals-from-around-the-world/)

In the Philippines, muralists like the late National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco have defined the content, style, and temper of the form, much like Diego de Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco did in Mexico. Informed by history and politics, their work also incorporates ethnic and religious elements, presented in a sweeping visual montage.

Given our colorful history and the need to inflame our people with greater patriotic fervor, you’d think we should have more murals adorning our many walls—think of the kilometer-long mural that snakes through downtown Hanoi, for example—but sadly, we don’t. Good murals take time, resources, and of course artistic talent and vision to make, not to mention the large blank spaces that are the muralist’s work- and play-ground.

Thankfully, the University of the Philippines—in cooperation with the UP Alumni Association and the Araneta Center Complex—has taken a major step to redressing that shortage, by commissioning 28 of the university’s top alumni artists to produce murals depicting various periods and aspects of Philippine history.

This distinguished roster includes Adonai Artificio, Armand Bacaltos, Adi Baen-Santos, Grandier Bella, Benjie Cabangis, Ben Cabrera, Angel Cacnio, Romeo Carlos, Cris Cruz, Denes Dasco, Gig de Pio, Simkin de Pio, Vincent de Pio, Neil Doloricon, Norman Dreo, Amado Hidalgo, Abdul Asia Mari Imao, Ben Infante, Gigi Javier-Alfonso, Aileen Lanuza, Romeo Mananquil, Norlie Meimban, Julius Samson, Jonahmar Salvosa, Randy Solon, Michael Velasco, Jun Yee, and Janice Young. The resulting exhibit, titled “” or Philippine History in Art—opened at the Araneta Center’s Gateway Gallery last February 18.

The murals—all of a uniform 6’ x 12’ size—cover the full range of Philippine history from pre-Hispanic times to the present, under the guidance of historian Dr. Luisa Camagay and project director and artist Dr. Gigi Javier Alfonso. To UP President Alfredo Pascual, the project is UP’s way of helping to promote a keener historical consciousness among Filipinos, especially the young. The Araneta Center in Cubao, which is marking its 60th anniversary, graciously agreed to host the exhibit in its new 5th-floor gallery.

Coming from a science background, a senior UP official whom I was touring the exhibit with asked me for my critique of the murals on show. I told her that while I was of course pleased with the project as a whole, with its intentions and execution, I personally preferred those works that went a step beyond the literal in their treatment of history, and that dwelt less on the big and obvious historical figures and more on pedestrian realities. I do understand that murals can’t be too abstract, lest they fail to connect with their intended mass audience; in any case, the murals did what they were meant to do, which is to provoke more thought and talk among their viewers.

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On another front, and also in Quezon City which seems to be shaping up as the cultural center of the metropolis, a new exhibit of paper and paper-based art titled “Pumapapel” opened last week at the Erehwon Center for the Arts, probably the city’s most dynamic privately-operated art center.

This exhibition expands the possibilities of Filipino artistic expression by combining many fields of art making, from painting, drawing, printmaking, mix-media, sculpture and installation, to photography and book/graphic illustration by focusing on the unique qualities of paper as both ground and medium. Curated by UP professor Dr. Reuben R. Cañete, “Pumapapel” features the works of about 100 artists including those of National Artists Vicente Manansala and Benedicto Cabrera, as well as those of Philip Victor, Renato Villanueva, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Juvenal Sanso, and Manuel Ocampo. Also on the list are upcoming artists from the Cordillera, Cebu, Bacolod, and Mindanao, and photographers and graphic artists, among others.

“Pumapapel”’s focus on paper art brings us back, like murals do, to the earliest periods and forms of artistic human expression. From paintings to paper sculpture, this exhibit showcases the myriad possibilities of paper both as medium and material, and also not incidentally celebrates Erehwon’s third year as the upcoming place-to-be for QC-based artists.

Erehwon may not be the easiest place to get to (it’s located at 1 Don Francisco Street, Villa Beatriz Subdivision, Old Balara) but it’s served as a home not only for painters and sculptors but also for musicians, dancers, and writers, thanks to the generosity of its founder and president, Raffy Benitez, and the support of people like Erehwon Arts Foundation President Boysie Villavicencio. (I shouldn’t forget to mention my wife June, who serves as Boysie’s vice president and who has been spending many sleepless nights helping to put this exhibition together.) The Erehwon Center for the Arts’ new Dance Studio was also inaugurated last week.

Pay these exhibits a visit, and you’ll remember and understand how and why art means something to ordinary people, in extraordinary ways.

(Mural by Janice Young. Batik painting on paper by Maela Jose.)