My Wishes for the New Year

EVEN AS we all wish for a more benign 2022, free of Covid and conflict, we know deep within that our biggest battles lie ahead in the war between good and evil that it has always been—not between parties nor personalities nor platforms, but between those who will lie and steal and kill, and those who will fight for truth, justice, and prosperity for all.

Good and evil is as stark and simple as it gets, and no amount of spin or sophistry and certainly no surveys will change that. Even one good person in a roomful of the malignant and misled will still be right, and worthy of our praise and emulation.

And whatever happens in May, our struggles will not cease. Evil is a virus with infinite mutations. Our corrupt and power-hungry politicians are worse than Covid, and have infected the masses of our people with their lies and false promises. But they can be arrested and contained, with vigilance and resolve.

For myself, I cannot be a friend to anyone who willfully supports and benefits from those who will plunge our country into another six years of moral and economic ruin.

I look to 2022 as an opportunity to stand up and be counted among the forces of the good, whatever my personal faults and impairments may be. The only survey or judgment that will matter will be God’s, and I would like to be able to tell my Maker that I did the right thing when it mattered—that I managed to remember the difference between good and evil, and chose rightly.

I can only wish you feel the same, so we can have a truly happy and liberating New Year!

(Image from candles.lovetoknow,com)

Martha, Martha (A Christmas Story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is she, where’s my wife?”

“Who, what’s her name?” 

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a visitor, I’m her husband—”

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

“I’ll hold you responsible—”

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

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

“How is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 421: Giving Spirit: A Requiem for Riel

Penman for Monday, August 16, 2021

WHEN I woke up to the sound of my wife Beng crying as she clutched her phone, I knew instantly what had happened in the night: “Riel is gone,” she said. “Riel” was Ronald Jaramillo Hilario, a sculptor and fellow alumnus of the UP College of Fine Arts. 

No institution in this country has been spared by Covid—every school, office, factory, and hospital will have more than one sad story to tell of unexpected loss and bereavement, of someone who was there with them one minute, laughing and shooting off on the issues of the hour, and then gone seemingly in the blink of an eye.

For the UP College of Fine Arts, it has been an exceptionally terrible year. One after the other, it lost artists and faculty members such as Jak Pilar, Leo Abaya, Joey Tañedo, and Neil Doloricon, and alumni Virgie Garcia and Riel Hilario. The arts community was still reeling from the passing of Neil—one of the stalwarts of social realism in Philippine art—when news of Riel’s death came through, and as she had done much too often since the pandemic began, Beng wept again.

Oddly, neither Beng nor I had actually met Riel—he lived in Lucban with his muse Joyce Campomanes—but he had quite a large digital footprint, from which I gleaned enough, and Beng became a kind of tita figure to him, always ready to lend an ear, albeit online. He was one of those rare artists (Neil Doloricon was another one) who was extraordinarily articulate, and who didn’t hesitate to let the world know what he thought. 

“Art is my religion, and I am a priest of that faith,” he asserted, and his life offered ample proof of that sacerdotal devotion to art—to its creation, its study, and its promotion in a society threatened by destructive and diabolical forces. 

Indeed he looked every inch the part of an avenging angel (and his name summons those winged, sword-bearing creatures), bearded and muscular, with piercing eyes that seemed like they could see right through falsehood and deception. (Lorenzo Gabutina described him as “warrior, sultan, larger-than-life… a Pinoy Thor.”) His sense of mission, his critical intelligence, and his expressiveness may not have made him the easiest person in the room to sit with, but his seriousness was a reminder that art involves far more than decorating the homes of the rich, even as he created playful objects and rebultos that drew on native folklore and religion.

His formal résumé was more than sufficiently impressive. Coming out of the woodcarving tradition of Ilocos Sur, Riel went on to the Philippine High School for the Arts and UP, transitioning from painting to full-time sculpture in 2008. He undertook residencies and explorations in the US and Europe and served as curator for the Boston and Pinto art galleries. He also co-founded Artinformal, an art-education collective. In 2012, he was the winner of the Ateneo Art Awards-Fernando Zóbel Prizes for Visual Art, and in the same year was named one of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists. 

Wood sculpture, he told Glenn Martinez, “served as my self-directed therapy following a debilitating episode of manic-depression in 2007. I had schizoid visions and dreams that were terrifying and disturbing. I felt the need to find an outlet that was more tactile than painting or writing. The following year I started carving wood sculptures based on the tradition of the rebulto, but following the urgings and suggestions of my visions. The practice had a cathartic effect and also helped me refocus my cultural work to do research on the craft.”

But as brilliant and productive as his own art was, Riel was also appreciated by his fellow artists for his advocacy of artists’ rights and his generosity toward others. A Facebook page dedicated to his memory and maintained by his relative and close friend Paul, “The Feathered Angel: A Tribute to Riel Hilario (1969-2021),” is full of testimonials to that giving spirit. Riel was on a mission to make sure his fellow artists were never taken advantage of by galleries and dealers, and for them to get their due recognition and respect. (In one recent episode, he recounted how he and Joyce had been turned down by a prominent bank’s branch in Antipolo when they tried to open an account, allegedly because artists can’t show proof of regular income; outraged, he recalled how solicitous the teller was in New York when he presented a $50,000 check for deposit.)

He was still brimming with ideas and plans for the future—having taught at PHSA, he was thinking of teaching at UP—when both he and Joyce were stricken by the virus. From Lucban came desperate calls for help—especially for oxygen—to friends like Glenn Martinez, Jason Moss, and Ricky Francisco. Glenn did what he could from Metro Manila to coordinate assistance, and Riel and Joyce were brought to a hospital in Lucena. But it was too full to accommodate them, and they were sent home. 

Joyce survived; Riel did not. But as one of Riel’s favorite sayings (and mine, from Hippocrates) goes, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—art is long, art endures, as short as our lives may be.

(Images courtesy of Joyce Campomanes)

Penman No. 417: From Cory to Covid: An Alternative History

for the Star’s 35th anniversary, July 2, 2021

WHEN THE Philippine STAR was founded 35 years ago, we were still enveloped in the euphoric glow of having successfully deposed a dictator peacefully and installing an icon of democracy in his place. I was one of that happy throng on EDSA celebrating what we believed was a new dawn of hope, a fresh opportunity for our people to grow in freedom and prosperity. Like many writers, I ran out of metaphors and superlatives to describe that moment, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. 

Nowadays it has become commonplace—indeed even fashionable in some quarters—to revise and reject that narrative, and to claim that it was a foolish mistake to have replaced a seasoned politician with a rank amateur. Martial law wasn’t so bad; no wanton thievery took place; only a few were hurt for the good of the many; we were never so disciplined, and our streets were never so clean.

How we came to this point—like the resurgence of Nazism in Europe and of racism in Trump’s America—is for me the great mystery of those 35 years, an arc of sorts marked by Cory on one end and by Covid on the other. There’s certainly no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, as should happen in fairyland—which we rather quickly realized, right after EDSA, was not where we were.

For some such as Jose Rizal, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Mozart, Manuel Arguilla, Bruce Lee, Eva Peron, and, yes, Jesus Christ, 35 years was a lifetime. You could have been born in a hospital while the tanks were massing at EDSA, and died this year of Covid, gasping for breath in that same place. Had that happened to me, I would have protested and pleaded, albeit inaudibly through my tubes, that it wasn’t fair, that I deserved a peek over the horizon, at least through to the May election, to see if it was worth the wait—or not, and then slink into sullen slumber. 

During that time, I grew from a young father and a writer on the verge of a teaching career to an aching retiree surrounded by old books and creaky machines, and I have to wonder if our nation fared better and learned as much. Or should I say “unlearned”? At EDSA I learned to hope, to trust in the ideal and the good again, to have positive expectations of the new century looming ahead. FVR and his “Philippines 2000” thumbs-up may have seemed hokey at the time, but there was a genuine spring in that step, a sense of things going in the right direction. And then they began falling apart, the old mistrust and suspicions returned, and we took one president down and nearly succeeded with yet another.

But it wasn’t just us. The closing decades of the 20th century were a time of sweeping changes all over the world. Soon after Marcos fell, a tide of reform and revolution washed across Eastern Europe and eventually into the Soviet Union itself; that union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like the era of dictators and despots was over, but it was not. With Hong Kong in its navel, China morphed into a commercial colossus, proving that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go together. The 1997 financial crisis shook the planet.

After 9/11, whatever remaining hopes we had of a better new century vaporized, and the new specter of terrorism now stalked the globe. Barely had ISIS retreated from the sands of Syria when a new and even more insidious plague, Covid-19, threatened to annihilate mankind. 

Others will remember this period as the age of cocaine, corporate greed, mass shootings, and, generally speaking, a culture of excess, of over-the-top indulgence on whatever floated your boat: drugs, sex, money, power, toys. Very few people had actual access to them, but the media—that’s another whole story—kept glorifying vice as virtue, until many began to believe it well enough to dream. It was Dickens’ “best of times and worst of times” all over again.

That would be the sober—and sobering—summary of what tomorrow’s history books will be saying about those decades. But of course—and thankfully—it wasn’t all politics and the misery that often comes with plays for power.

There’s a part of me that wants to tell the story of these past 35 years as the rise of consumer technology toward near-total domination of our daily lives. Humor me as I recall little vignettes to show what I mean.

When the EDSA uprising broke out, we heard the news over a big black Panasonic radio-cassette player that I had picked up years earlier at the Zamboanga barter trade place (along with the obligatory sotanghon and White Rabbit candies). It was—beside our 12-inch, black-and-white, red plastic-bodied TV—our news and entertainment center in the boonies of San Mateo. It sat on our dinner table, accompanying our meals like a permanent guest, sometimes directing the conversation.

When it spewed out the news that something dramatic was taking place at EDSA, and when we heard Cardinal Sin calling on people to go, we knew we had to. Not long after, we piled into my VW Beetle, turned on its radio for updates, and headed for the trenches. For the next few days or so, radio was king, whether at home, in your car, or in your pocket (yes, boys and girls, there was pocket radio; TV was around but only the coolest people had portable versions).

I missed out on most of the Cory years because I went to America for my graduate studies, and there I became anchored to the payphone for my calls home, clutching a handful of quarters to feed the machine. I had hand-carried an Olympia typewriter to write my thesis on, but then I discovered computers, and in 1991 I lugged home a 20-pound behemoth with all of 10 megabytes to fill up. I felt like a gunslinger—I was going to write the next Noli, protect the weak, and get justice with one floppy disk after another.

Nothing would define the ‘90s more than the personal computer, and I soon equated the machine with creation, the blinking cursor with a challenge to produce. I drooled (and lost the plot) when I watched Scully and Mulder hunched over a super-sexy PowerBook 540c in the X-Files, and when I got my own, it was like Moses receiving the tablets—with a trackpad and an active-matrix display. 

Soon another gadget emerged with which we felt even more tethered to some central brain: the pager, whose insistent buzz enhanced our importance, even if it all it asked was where you were and could you please come home. Fake news had yet to be invented as a cottage industry, but a lot of it, I’m sure, went through EasyCall and PocketBell.

By the time the next EDSA happened, we had something far snappier and more personal than radio with which to undertake regime change. Yes, I was now writing speeches on a Mac, but the messages flew thick and fast on a new gadget—the cellphone. If EDSA 1 succeeded because of radio, this iteration flew on the wings of SMS, the millions of texts (the jokes, the rumors, the calls to action) whose accretion would spell the end for an inebriated presidency. 

As it happened, 2001 would be memorable for another image seared into our consciousness: the collapse of the Twin Towers, brought to us slightly delayed and in full color by satellite TV. We’d had TV before, of course, but had always seen it more as Comedy Central, a box to gather the family around. CNN changed that, and brought the world’s torments to our living rooms. Cheaper TVs, one in every room, had long fragmented the family, especially when Betamax and VHS, the precursors of Netflix, became available.

A few years later, a cellular phone call and a recorder almost took another political giant down, causing millions to gasp and laugh as the tape was replayed on TV and radio over and over. “Ang importante hindi madamay yung sa itaas,” said a female voice, which was exactly what happened. That year, 2005, was also the year a platform called YouTube was born—and thanks to YouTube, the tape can still be heard, for all digital eternity.

Indeed, video, the Internet, and social media would soon change the political and cultural landscape, not just here but the world over, although the Pinoy—perhaps in response to that elusive quest for Olympic gold—has towered over much of humanity in terms of Facebook usage (and earlier, in SMS transmissions). One way of putting it would be that we are the world’s champion usiseros and chismosos, resorting to Twitter or Instagram at the merest hint of an idea, no matter how malformed. 

Today we have an abundance of information and information sources at our disposal—and yet we seem to be as ill-informed as ever, with opinions shaped and manipulated by Sith Lords in the Dark Web. Dismissing newspapers and editors as gatekeepers of the truth—which not all of them have been—we create our own versions and peddle them instantly for a thousand “likes,” the supreme accolade of the early 21st century. Most others might prefer to be simply receivers and forwarders of whatever crosses their screens, the passive agents of mindlessness.

Thirty-five years ago, we drove to EDSA on pure conviction that it was the right thing to do. Without Twitter or even SMS, no one could tell us “Right on!” or “Me, too!” We listened for scraps of news and turned them over and over in our hushed minds; we could be killed; we could be free; would our friends be there; what else did we study for. It was a long drive from San Mateo to my in-laws’ place in Project 4, where we parked the car and walked to EDSA. It was a lot of time to think. 

Thirty-five years is a lot of time, but looking around today, with Filipinos still dying by the gun or by drowning in one’s own fluids in some alien hospital, I have to wonder how this narrative arc from Cory to Covid will end—or how much longer it will go, at least in my lifetime, which naively still yearns for a happy ending.

Penman No. 405: A Serenade of Crickets

Penman for Monday, January 18, 2021

EVERY MORNING, I wake up to the sound of hundreds if not thousands of crickets chirping in my ears. I will hear them for the rest of the day—every second of every minute of every hour—until I fall asleep. There is practically no escape—not earplugs, not even the “white noise” prescribed by websites, unless it (or some music) is played at intolerably high volume. Pressing my palms against my ears merely adds a percussive instrument to the orchestra, the thump-thump-thump of my beating heart.

We live on the UP campus in Diliman, in the shade of towering mango trees. For some time I simply assumed that there were, indeed, choirs of crickets up in those branches, making love or at least just making noise, as crickets are supposed to do. And then one day I undertook a foolish experiment—foolish, because what hadn’t been a problem suddenly became one. I went to a place where I was totally sure no crickets would be found, or no external sounds would get through—and I still heard the same relentless hum. It was in me, with me, wherever, whenever.

A small voice in me says I should be panicking and screaming. I remember an old horror movie I saw on TV as a boy, where an insect—which I would later learn was an “earwig”—crawls into a man’s ear and stays there, deep in his ear canal, and burrows into his brain, until it turns him into a raving lunatic. A doctor performs a delicate operation and—much to the man’s relief—takes the wriggler out. At that point, the doctor holds up the dead insect in his pincers, and gravely announces that “It’s a female—and it seems to have laid its eggs.” The patient screams, and screams.

There have been times, these past many months under lockdown, when I’ve felt that way, as if some dark fluid monster had insinuated itself into my brain, my body, and indeed my spirit. I emerged from sleep drowning in a huge flood compounded of fear, sorrow, and regret over everything in general and nothing in particular. The mere mention of another friend’s death or intubation sent my imagination spinning, asking questions for which I had no answers, like “What will be worse—passage into a black void with no consciousness whatsoever, or into immortality, forever aware of every little thing in the universe, and also forever alone?” I knew what people would be telling me—have faith in a heaven, in angels, in the enveloping welcome of a blinding grace, and as a good Christian schoolboy I found comfort in those pastel promises of deliverance. But it was hard to believe anything in the state I found myself in, where even familiar walls and ceilings seemed inescapably malignant. 

It probably didn’t help that as the long lockdown began, I resolved to use the time to catch up on a heavy backlog of writing jobs going back years, and against all odds managed to complete the drafts of five book projects within five months in a dizzying frenzy. I felt superhuman, until I woke up one morning feeling all hollowed out.

Before long, I realized and had to admit that I was going through bouts of anxiety and its flipside, depression. This came as a huge surprise to someone who had prided himself on his wakefulness and presence of mind. In my last job before retirement as my university’s VP for Public Affairs, I had been constantly on call to the media and to the community at large, explaining our policies and positions with what I hoped was clarity and composure. Suddenly all that coolness vanished; I felt uncertain, tentative, unmoored.

A call to a psychiatrist-friend led me back on the slow road to wellness; I’m still on it, managing from day to day with a combination of medication, exercise, prayer, and time for nothing but nothing (ie, Netflix, fountain pens, old books, and typewriters). Beng and I dream idly of our next adventures in faraway places—St. Petersburg, before the Covid curtain fell. I find it relaxing to watch an hour-long YouTube video on “codicology,” the archaeology of old books, as well as another on the recovery and restoration of a 1937 Bugatti Atalante. I am nourishing my sense of wonderment again, finding reassurance in a remembered past to which we all hope to belong.

The only downside to my recovery has been this case of tinnitus, this constant ringing in my ears, listed as a rare side effect of my antidepressant. I recall from my graduate studies that the ancients posed a theory about the “Music of the Spheres,” supposedly the harmonious hum produced by the movement of celestial bodies in space, imperceptible to the human ear. Fancifully I imagine that perhaps I had broken through some dimensional barrier and was hearing this orbital buzz.

But a serenade of crickets seems just about right, and may be a tolerable price to pay for a patch of sanity. Turning 67 last week, I thought of all the books I have yet to write in the time I have left, and for which I have to stay sensible and alert. The crickets remind me there is time, and no need to hurry toward that inevitable infinitude of absolute silence just ahead.

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the Philippines Graphic and the BusinessMirror to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow Philippine STAR columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 397: Vision 2020: An Artist Responds to Covid

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

WHILE SHE was undergoing therapy for depression, the celebrated American poet Anne Sexton explained why she kept doing what she did: “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately and tragically succumbed to her inner demons, like her friend with whom she shared revelations and martinis, Sylvia Plath—is, in a way, almost irrelevant: what matters is that she fought back, and beautifully, leaving behind the luminous corpus of her poetry.

History tells us that this is what many artists do, under great stress and even in the face of direct threats to their lives: they use their art to resist death and annihilation, as if to say “I am here, I matter, and I will survive.” It is, of course, the art that survives, both as a testament to the moment and subject of its creation and as the indelible handprint of its creator, left on the cave walls of Time. The Greek physician Hippocrates put it well in his reminder: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long—art endures, art is forever.

Today in 2020, in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and claimed close to a million lives, the artist is once again challenged to respond to the global crisis in an intensely personal way, both as an act of self-affirmation and as the inevitable chr0nicler of one’s times. Like a traveler surveying a landscape ravaged by death and disease, the artist seeks to depict not only the obvious carnage and the accompanying cacophony of grief but also the larger patterns and movements of people in a stricken society, as well as the startling efflorescence of goodness and hope here and there amid the suffering.

From the first scientific drawings of the human anatomy onwards, there has been a long tradition of connections and interactions between art and medicine or art and science. Artists have been credited for their uncannily accurate portrayals of disease; reports exist of how dermatologists identified two dozen skin lesions on the subjects of paintings at the National Art Gallery in London, how Caravaggio depicted goiter, and so on. 

But when it strives for or achieves sublimity, art is more than illustration, and rarely is the disease itself the subject, but rather the excuse to draw attention to the responses to it—of the directly afflicted, of the physician, of the family and the neighbors, and of us the onlookers; in other words, of society itself as a complicit agent in the process of infection and perhaps also of healing. 

Indeed, if there is anything that the pandemic has achieved, it has been to force us to think of ourselves as a society, as one organism, the infection of one part of which could lead to the death of all. But despite the political rhetoric of “healing as one,” it has not made us think as one or act as one—yet; we remain as fractious as ever, trapped in feudal modes and mindsets of privilege and power. Death should have been the Great Equalizer, reaping patrician and peon alike, but yet again this plague, like its predecessors, has merely revealed and emphasized the disparities and infirmities that were there all along, with the affluent able to convert the long lockdown into albeit boring staycations and the huddled poor—already socially distanced from their neighbors across the wall long before Covid—struggling to subsist on donated rice and sardines. 

And so the artist steps back to ask: where is the body, and what is the disease? Is it just the intubated patient who is ill? 

In a new exhibit of works that he has prepared for Galerie Joaquin (www.galeriejoaquin.com), the painter Juanito Torres takes us through many of the tropes that the past six months of lockdown have embedded in the Filipino psyche: chiefly, that of the physician as hero and savior, most strikingly portrayed in “Darating Din ang Bagong Umaga,” a painting steeped in iconography—the doctor sprouting angel’s wings standing victorious over a demonic virus and holding a cross that also serves as the staff of Asclepius, entwined with his healing serpent. It’s St. Michael the Archangel, treading on Satan’s dragon. In another work, “Lupang Hinirang,” Rizal, Bonifacio and other heroes are dressed as doctors raising the Filipino flag, like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima. 

But most of the other paintings are decidedly contemporary, a dramatically enhanced rendering of the new normal, with citizens wearing gas masks in the most ordinary places, seemingly resigned to their fate.

These are works that clearly demand interrogation, beyond the admiration that their technical excellence will generate. In reaching for metaphor, almost to the point of parody, Torres raises the question of whether we might have overdone the “hero” bit, not because they’re not heroes, but because they may not want to be. As it is, some doctors and medical workers have resisted if not refused the “hero” tag, not out of modesty but because it has become an excuse of sorts, an easy way out for the non-heroes to underperform and lay the burden of saving society on the medical frontliners. The banality of gas masks in everyday life implies acceptance of—if not surrender to—an occupation army. But notably, the frontliners in “Tagumpay,” who toss their medical masks into the air in joyous celebration, are wingless and entirely human—as if to say, this is when we will win, when we can be again as we were, as we truly are.

We know that that will not be easy, and between now and then we may have to draw and depend on mythologizing and self-enlargement to slay the dragon in our midst. The true St. Michael may be the artist yet, and the true dragon may be even larger than corporeal disease. 

(The physical exhibit will be staged at Galerie Joaquin at the UP Town Center from October 21 to 31, 2020.)

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 388: To Fall in Love with the World, Again

Penman for Monday, May 25, 2020

THE TERRIBLE loss of lives and jobs aside, the one thing that Beng and I will miss the most in whatever “new normal” emerges out of this Covid crisis is travel, whose contours, protocols, and costs we can only begin to guess at. We are, of course, deeply grateful and relieved just to be alive and well (so far) and adequately fed (so far), lifting us up far above the lot of millions of Filipinos who cannot even venture into the next municipality for their livelihood and sustenance. 

In this light, travel and everything we associate with it—dining, entertainment, shopping, sports (even given that for Beng and me, it’s mostly just museums, flea markets, and street food)—would seem utterly frivolous. But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t dream of frivolity and indulgence, even and especially in the most trying of times, if only to convince ourselves that tomorrow will be better and worth waking up for.

At about this time last year, Beng and I returned to Manila from a two-week romp across Scotland, London, and Norfolk, a sentimental journey that reprised, on a smaller scale, a nine-month stay in the UK twenty years earlier. I had just retired that January from 35 years of teaching, and at 65, I figured that Beng and I had maybe another ten good years to spend together, to poke our noses into the flea markets of Hell’s Kitchen, Spitalfield, Panjiayuan, Encants, and Clignancourt. We’re cheap and easy to please; I’d say the highlight of our traveling life was a one-day tour of Venice on the vaporetto, because that was all the time and the money we had, delighting simply in the magic of being together amid such breathtaking beauty, K-drama-style.

As it happened, 2019 turned out to be the busiest travel year of our lives. Starting the week after I retired, we went off on a crazy spree that would have collapsed many younger people: Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey (a grueling 3,000-km overland tour), the US, Singapore again, Macau, and Singapore again, not to mention local sorties to Davao and Dipolog.

We had been debating between doing it all in one year, or phasing the trips over a couple of years. Our friends and family began worrying about the strain on our bodies and budget, despite our assurances that we were managing ourselves quite well, even if—such as when we spent a day at New York’s MoMA, redeeming a pledge to see Chagall together—we had to pause on every floor to catch our breath.

We know now that if we didn’t do it when we could, we never would. We had the happiest time together, and if we never go on another plane, we will have enough memories to last us to the end. But even as those memories please me, I grieve for the fact that we will never travel again the way we did. Even those extra security measures then, which we used to complain about—the endless X-rays, the unbuckling of belts and watches—seem carefree now. 

Wearing a mask for a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight? Dousing myself in alcohol at the hotel? Mistrusting every door handle and faucet, every driver and waiter, every open mouth and extended hand? And even if we do get to fly again, it will be a changed world we will be landing in—forbidding, even hostile, still desperate for your money but not much else.

Late last year, before anyone had ever heard or minded the word “coronavirus,” Beng and I planned our travel year—not much, we said, let’s stay at home and get back to work, but we did have two destinations on the wish list: St. Petersburg in Russia, which was offering free e-visas to Filipinos for eight-day stays, and Alicante in Spain, where a big conference in Philippine Studies was to take place in September. They will not happen now nor anytime soon, and frankly I don’t regret that as much as other kinds of less tangible but also deeper losses. 

I mourn, for example, the loss of intimacy—not the bond between two people who sleep together, which has to survive all viruses—but the more casual kind between friends at table in a restaurant or even strangers on a train, the kind that says “I’m OK, you’re OK, I won’t hurt you and you won’t hurt me”—indeed the loss of casualness itself. 

The younger folks among us can still look forward to something vaguely resembling 2019 by, say, 2024. They might even be laughing then at the memory of “that Covid thing” as they take their partner’s hand and mingle with the crowd in Seoul or San Francisco before diving into their favorite restaurant. For those of us now close to 70, that will probably not happen; even if the world forgets and relaxes once again, we could be too old by then. 

In this time of too many “never agains,” I can only thank God there was a 2019, and that we made as full use of it as we could. But life’s a long road with many unexpected turns, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from our journeys, it’s those turns off the tourist map that have led to the most wonderful discoveries. If not St. Petersburg, if not Alicante, I trust something will come up, perhaps in our own backyard, to make us fall in love with the world again, as we so badly need to do.

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

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Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

IT MUST be part of human nature, in times of disaster or adversity, to seek some consolation or refuge in the past, more specifically in the misfortunes of others. It’s a kind of Schadenfreude across generations rather than distance, although not so much to derive pleasure as reassurance to the effect that, in time, all miseries have an end, all crises can be survived.

I have to admit that—interned for a month with the TV, the laptop, and my books for company—I’ve acquired a rather morbid interest in discovering what other people went through at other times, faced with the enormity of mysterious and murderous disease. We know by now how Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in us, stoking our deepest fears even as we marvel at the courage and generosity of a relative few. We—especially those of us in the emotionally vulnerable middle class—cringe at the possibility that desperation will lead to chaos.

History sadly provides little comfort in that respect. Awful things do happen in awful times, chiefly thievery and murder, although not always by the people you’d expect.

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Writing about plague-hit Florence in the 1630s in Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence, (U. of California Press, 1989), Giulia Calvi noted that “Up to this point, the most surprising theme is how little fear contagion caused. In overcrowded houses, stinking alleys, and rooms that still held the dead, both actually and in memory, neighbors, relatives, and friends came and went—entering, stealing, taking things at random, and getting caught. They passed items from hand to hand, through windows and doors, wells and gratings; they knocked down house walls, climbed garden walls, and even lowered goods by rope from rooftops. The epidemic appeared to generate every emotion save fear of death.”

But a subtler kind of theft was also happening, with the emergence of medical amateurs, charlatans, and quacks offering all kinds of cures, from potions tried out in previous epidemics such as “simple curative roots and coral powder” to a recipe for “three black spiders, three serpents, three deaf vipers, three frogs, ten tarantulas, and fifty scorpions and other poisonous animals—alive, if possible—over a small flame like one used for soap or stew.” A thriving guild of doctors and herbalists controlled and approved the sale of these prescriptions on the street—for a fee, of course, evading which cost the offender a hefty fine.

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Hysteria bred by ignorance also led to wanton killing, as in 1820, when cholera and xenophobia led to the “Massacre at Manilla” of English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese nationals reported on in my 1822 copy of The Atheneum, a Boston-based magazine. It’s a grisly account echoed by the adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere in his book published more than 30 years later:

“I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines. On the 9th October, 1820, the anniversary of my departure from France, a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite. Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed.”

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But as dramatic as these events were, the real tragedy was that the plague quietly targeted its victims, and more often chose the poor. Early in January 1900, reports of bubonic plague began coming out of Manila, such as this account in a San Francisco newspaper: “The bubonic plague is yet sporadic. There have been six cases and four deaths. Preparations are being made to establish hospitals and quarantine. Great numbers of provincial natives are coming to Manila, with whom the city is overcrowded, the increase in accommodations being inadequate. The rice necessary for foodstuffs is more expensive than at any period during the last twelve years. The plague is dangerous to the overcrowded, unfed and unwashed natives and Chinese.”

A lab report such as the one excerpted below (from The Plague: Bacteriology, Morbid Anatomy, and Histopathology, Including a Consideration of Insects as Plague Carriers by Maximilian Herzog, MD, published in Manila by the Bureau of Public Printing, 1904) may have been clinically precise, but the sadness of a child wasted by the lice (pediculi) common to her station is inescapable:

“The body of a female child, 9 to 10 years of age, well developed. Post-mortem rigidity strong…. Before the body had been opened, three pediculi were picked up from the scalp with sterile forceps and dropped first into an empty sterile test tube and later into three flasks containing 50 cubic centimeters of sterile, slightly alkaline bouillon…. Inquiries were made as to the possibility of the girl’s having been infested with pediculi from someone living in an infected district.”

We learn that disease will ravage and kill the body, but also that, in the long run, disease and even death itself can be defeated—with knowledge, understanding, and willful compassion.

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