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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PenmanNo. 385: Energems of Wisdom

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Penman for Monday, April 13, 2020

 

LIKE ANYONE with access to a TV, mobile phone, and computer these lockdown days, I’ve acquired a new vocabulary associated with “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” peppered by such words and phrases as “PPEs,” “hydroxychloroquine,” and “co-morbidities.” With time on my hands, I’ve even gone back to dig up the etymology of relevant words like “influenza,” which apparently began—in its Italian form in the 1500s—as a description of a kind of fever brought on by the influence of the stars on the human body. By 1743, the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine was reporting that “AN Article from Rome informs us that a Sort of Plague has broke out there, which destroys Abundance of their People, and they call it the Influenza.” On the other hand, I learned that “cholera” shares a Greek root with “gutter,” so that it “came to mean a pestiferous disease during which fluids are forcefully expelled from the body, resembling a gutter.”

There’s an urge to study and to learn that comes with enforced isolation, and there’s no better place to look for proof than prison, which is about as locked-down as you can get. You could study birds, like the homicidal Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who even wrote a book on the Diseases of Canaries. Or you could study law, become a first-rate lawyer, and even become a professor of law at Georgetown University, like bank robber Shon Robert Hopwood. If you were more inclined to write behind bars, you could follow in the footsteps of convicted embezzler William Sidney Porter a.k.a. O. Henry, who used his three years in prison to produce 14 stories, or of Jack Abbott, author of the celebrated In the Belly of the Beast, who was let out from prison following his literary celebrity, only to kill again six weeks after his release.

Of course, what we’re calling “enhanced community quarantine” is hardly prison, with which I had some intimate acquaintance as an 18-year-old marched off to martial-law “detention,” Marcosian parlance for what would now be “super-mega-extreme ECQ.” Our Fort Bonifacio brig was probably where St. Luke’s or S&R now stands in BGC, and I was “quarantined” there for more than seven months in 1973. Unfortunately I did and learned nothing brilliant there, although I suppose I was—as some writers explain what they do when they’re doing nothing—“gathering material” for the martial-law novel I eventually published 20 years later.

Our present period of semi-voluntary confinement should be long enough by now to yield some scholarly dividends, which is why I’m happy to report that I have encountered some gems of wisdom these past two weeks—“Energems,” to be more specific. In case you haven’t heard, there are ten of them in as many colors (eleven if you include the elusive Dark Energem), whose “incredible power transcends space and time, good and evil.” That’s according to my source, known only as The Keeper, whose apprentice Zenowing warns that the Dark Energem is compounded of pure evil, and alone can override the powers of the other ten Energems.

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That’s what you learn when you’re quarantined with a three-year-old named Buboy who barges into your room at 7 in the morning and demands, with all the cuteness a toddler can muster, that you turn Netflix on so he can watch Power Rangers Dino Charge. Season 1 has 22 episodes, and he’s been through all of them, so we’re doing the logical thing, which is rerunning Episode 1, 2, and so on.

Buboy—as I’ve written here before—is the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny, but in the absence of our unica hija Demi (who’s locked in on her own in otherwise sunny California), he’s our adoptive grandson and pet. While he pretty much has diplomatic immunity around the house and can rummage through my possessions for anything resembling or convertible into a “toy” (his favorite word—e.g., a long plastic shoehorn becomes a sword), he’s amazingly well-behaved, knows when to say “please” and “opo,” and takes his elders’ hands in blessing (in this household, that’s a lot of hands to mano po). We’ve sent him to nursery school and have pledged to endow him on to a PhD, subject only to good behavior, but with school out all of a sudden, then Beng and I are his teachers as well, alongside his Mama Jenny and Papa Sonny.

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So when Buboy jumped into our bed after a perfunctory knock on the door and made a polite but firm request with that impish smile to watch his favorite show (we’ve already seen The Lion King twice, and I’ve heard enough nursery rhymes to recite “No more monkeys jumping on the bed” in my sleep), who was his “Tatay” to say no? I may have had plans of reading my long-neglected copy of Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence by Giulia Calvi (U. of California Press, 1989), but with Netflix on, baroque Florence had to give way to the Amber Beach Dinosaur Museum….

And that, my friends, is how I’ve acquired a rather exotic expertise in Energems, Dino-charged Zords, Vivix, the 65-million-year-long engagement of Sledge and Poisandra, and Dr. Runga. Can’t wait for Season 2 for more, uhm, enlightenment—with or without Buboy.

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Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

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But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.