Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

patay-na-si-hesus-movie-poster.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.

Penman No. 119: Bulosan in the Heart

Penman for Monday, October 20, 2014

 

TAKING A short break from my fellowship in Washington, DC, Beng and I flew off to the West Coast a couple of weeks ago for a weekend with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry. Demi was celebrating her 40th birthday (can you believe it?) and had sent us tickets to join them in Seattle; they live in San Diego, but they’d loved Seattle from a previous visit and wanted to share that discovery with us.

Over three days, we did the Seattle thing, and had loads of fun: the Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, a glimpse of the Chihuly glass garden, antiquing in Snohomish, and a boys’ tour of the Boeing plant in Everett. But it was an unexpected turn in the program that made it all the more worthwhile.

On the drive into the city from the airport, I had mentioned to Jerry (who had been born in Rhode Island to parents from Bicol) that two Asian-American icons—Carlos Bulosan and Bruce Lee—were buried in Seattle. Jerry’s an engineer in the aviation industry, but like Demi, he has a keen interest in culture and in his roots.

Bulosan’s name holds a special significance for our family. In high school, with some help from Beng, Demi had put together a book report on America Is in the Heart—Bulosan’s sprawling semi-autobiographical novel about the Filipino immigrant experience in America, first published by Harcourt Brace in 1946. I myself had written my undergraduate thesis at the University of the Philippines on Bulosan, fascinated by his often paradoxical appreciation of America, which he described as being at once “so kind and yet so cruel.”

Born in Pangasinan, he shipped out to Seattle in 1930, and never returned until his death from bronchopneumonia, also in Seattle, on September 11 (yes, 9/11) in 1956. (There’s some debate over the year of his birth, which has been variously listed as 1911, 1913, and 1914.) In the US, without the benefit of college, he became a voracious reader and taught himself to write, and became known both as a writer and a labor activist. Since the 1970s, many critics such as Epifanio San Juan Jr. have championed a reappreciation of Bulosan and his work; in 1973, the University of Washington Press republished America Is in the Heart, which was translated into Filipino as Nasa Puso ang Amerika by Carolina S. Malay and Paula Carolina S. Malay and published by Anvil in 2000.

When Demi and Jerry made plans to marry in 2007, I knew what I was going to give them as a wedding gift. After a long and eventful search culminating in a meeting with the seller in a Jollibee in Diliman, I had just acquired a first edition of America Is in the Heart, and carried it with me to San Diego. This copy had been inscribed by Bulosan to his friend Fred Ruiz Castro: “This story of my life will, I hope, bring me closer to you and our native land through our good friend J. C. Dionisio, with my best wishes, Carlos Bulosan, Los Angeles, 3-6-1946.”

Upon receiving the book in Manila almost a month later, Castro—who became Chief Justice in 1976—also signed it on April 4, 1946. I signed the book on a following page on April 2, 2007, and Beng and I presented it to Demi and Jerry on April 15. The book now rests proudly on their bookshelf in San Diego. (When I first wrote about this in my column—about finding that “holy grail” of a signed first edition and giving it to our only child on her wedding in America—I got a pleasant surprise upon my return: the gift of another copy of an early edition, acquired by another Filipino writer when he was in college, Greg Brillantes. That book, signed by Greg, now sits on my topmost shelf in Diliman.)

Now back to Seattle. On our last full day there, after touring the Boeing plant in the morning while our wives did their own thing downtown, Jerry and I were hit by the same brain wave in the car: why not look for Carlos Bulosan’s grave and pay our respects to our literary hero? A little Googling quickly revealed his gravesite, at the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. We picked up Beng and Demi at the hotel, and located the cemetery not too far away.

GPS helped bring us there, but it couldn’t pinpoint the exact grave among the many hundreds on the site; thankfully, Google also yielded a picture of the grave itself, and the four of us spread out across the cemetery, looking for visual markers—particularly a white obelisk in the distance; it took about 20 minutes until Demi yelled “I found it!”

It was, ironically, very close to the cemetery gates, on the left side. Beng picked some flowers nearby and offered them at the foot of the marker, which read: “CARLOS BULOSAN 1914-1956 Writer Poet Activist,” followed by an epitaph that Bulosan himself had written: “Here here the tomb of Bulosan is / Here here are his words dry as the grass is.” It was a pretty spot, truth to tell, and the grass was hardly dry. After the cemetery, we visited Seattle’s International District near the waterfront, to peek at the Bulosan exhibit through the windows of the historic Eastern Hotel, where Bulosan and other Filipino cannery workers lived.

Demi and Jerry don’t know it yet, but they have another Bulosan memento coming from me: a copy of the Saturday Review of Literature from March 9, 1946, on the cover of which the famous pen-and-ink portrait of Bulosan first appeared. One of these days, I’ll pay another homage, to the Bulosan memorabilia on exhibit at the University of Eastern Pangasinan in Binalonan, where they keep copies of his letters, commemorate September 11 as Carlos Bulosan Day, and teach a 3-unit course on his life and works. There’s a trove of material on him at the University of Washington library, and perhaps on another visit to Seattle, with more time, I might look into that, too. But as every Fil-Am and indeed every Filipino should know, a pioneering voice like Carlos Bulosan’s can ring everywhere and forever, in the heart.

Bulosan

Penman No. 81: Hello, Seniorhood

ButchBeng1974

Penman for Monday, January 13, 2014

THIS WEDNESDAY the 15th, Providence permitting, I’ll be marking two milestones I frankly never thought I’d reach: I turn 60, and Beng and I will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. (That’s right, we got married in Manila’s City Hall on my 20th birthday. It seemed a cool idea at the time, but I’ve regretted it ever since—the timing, not the marriage—because it deprived us of an excuse to party twice.)

I’ll admit this only now, but I’ve been looking forward to seniorhood with growing anticipation over this past year. At 57 or 58 you might still be in denial, walking with a pronounced spring in your step to convince yourself and everyone else that all you need is a new pair of Merrells to unleash the inner tiger in you, but the fact is, within six months of 60, you can’t wait to get there and have the inevitable done with.

The last time I knew I had to be a senior soon was just last month, when I stood in a long line in the unseasonably sweltering heat at the DFA to submit my expiring passport for renewal. Taking pity on me, a guard came up to me and asked, “Sir, how old are you?”, obviously thinking to bump me up to the express lane where a few imperturbable seniors sat smiling. “I’ll be 60 in three weeks!” I said. Not good enough. I waited three hours.

I know something about seniors—I live with four of them in the house; I know their moods, their ailments and medications, their favorite TV dramas, their exquisite skill at swallowing fish heads and spitting out the eyeballs.

And there’s no diplomatic way of putting this, but for the past three years, I’ve been married to one (Beng’s folks didn’t know she was marrying a young innocent until we were in the car on the way to City Hall; I had to get parental dispensation). But to her enduring credit, elfin Beng often has to be “carded” in the restaurants, as they’d put it in the States, while all the salespeople and cashiers have simply albeit solicitously assumed that I have a senior card to show for a discount.

So I’ve been mooching off Beng’s seniority, tagging along with her when she goes to the head of the line come boarding time at the airport, or when we queue up for movie tickets. That’s when you realize that the next best thing to being a senior is marrying a card-carrying one. But Beng doesn’t find it funny when I tell her what a shock I get to wake up in the morning beside a lola. Well, I guess we’re even now.

Of course, in a sense, you can never get old enough, maybe not until you hit 80. At 60, there will always be writers in their 80s or 70s who can’t wait to remind you what a bumbling tyro you are compared to their accomplished selves. That’s all right, because having older people on your shoulders could be the only thing that will keep you young, or at least younger, not counting strange potions meant to stiffen, uhm, one’s resolve.

It’s a pleasant surprise to get this far, because ours was a generation that was supposed to die before we even hit 25. After stepping out of martial law prison at age 19, I’ve taken every breathing moment since as a kind of grace note.

As it turned out, the grace note was my marriage, running four decades long, another unexpected, shamelessly undeserved blessing. When Beng and I stood before a CFI judge—my mom’s boss—that nippy January in 1974, it was after just three months of being together. We were in love, surely—truly, madly, deeply—but we were also gasping for breath, seizing happiness when and while we could, thinking that the State’s long and murderous hand could break the spell at an instant. As it turned out, too, the predictable State was hardly the enemy, but the inconstant self. Some of those forty years proved hard and lonesome, thankfully not too many nor too long.

As we start the count toward our golden 50th, Beng and I have come to realize that there are a few things we need and want to do in the years ahead.

With some regret, we will seek and keep fewer friends—the real, not the Facebook, kind. We’d like to focus on family, work, good health, our private charities, and, of course, more time together. This will mean socializing less and staying home more, which will be all right, because we both have so much work to do and always less time to do it.

On the other hand, lest our world become too small, and with whatever we can spare from our perennially meager savings, we will travel up a storm—march up headless hilltops, wind through strange alleyways, and wander down foreign boulevards while our knees can. This May, I hope to realize a longstanding dream, which is to bring Beng to Venice, where I had a magical moment three years ago but where she’s never been (of course, she’ll have to stay with me at that dinky hostel in Mestre, across the water and next to the Asian food store that was my culinary lifeline in heathen Italy).

We might not even need to go that far. One of the most enjoyable dates Beng and I had over the recent holidays was in front of the TV, watching a late-night screening of “Funny Face” with Astaire and Hepburn in Paris and singing along to the Gershwin score. And then another day we took our quarterly stroll around the Quiapo area, imbibing the Oliver-Twistian energy of the hardware and music stalls on Raon and Evangelista, cherrypicking the dustiest of Avenida’s ukay-ukays, and consoling ourselves with cheap mami and siopao at the Pinsec place on Recto, because Ramon Lee’s chicken house was still closed for the New Year break. We’ve been to dreamier places like the Grand Canyon and Bellagio (the Italian and Vegas versions) but it’s these slumdog sorties that we’ll remember for the fun.

With our only child Demi well set in her own career in Southern California and well loved and cared for by her own man, we can and will help others achieve fullness in life by putting them through school and giving them the same kind of guidance we gave our daughter (“Don’t worry too much about grades, enjoy your education! Make your own mistakes! Learn to think on your feet! And never forget where you came from.”)

Where she came from, I think, was us. As I turn 60 and Beng and I turn 40 (which Demi, too, will be, come October), I’d like to think that beyond all the books and paintings we ever created, Beng and I did nothing better than produce Demi, whom I named—while Beng was still in a post-partum haze—Dalisay Emilia Poticar Dalisay, “Emilia” being my mother’s name. Demi loves her lola, but wasn’t too thrilled to grow up having to explain her redundant name to her classmates, with the anciently Shakespearean “Emilia” wedged in between. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “don’t you know that Demi Moore is really Dalisay Emilia Moore?” It didn’t fly. But hey, her name seemed like another cool idea at the time.

A couple of years ago, I wrote her this poem titled “To Our Unica Hija Demi, Born Dalisay Emilia Poticar Dalisay”:

It matters not if our names end with you

If no more Dalisays walk the earth

You were all we wanted in this world

Our most joyful blessing was your birth.

When at times we seem too far apart

Remember that we are your blood and breath

And that your name to us is like a distant bell

That you bore twice, and bore it well.

Here’s to the three of us, anak. We’re all growing older, but we’re doing it together. 

Butch Beng2013

Penman No. 18: My Own QC Memorial

Penman for Monday, October 29, 2012

BECAUSE OF the timing of this current trip to the US, I failed to attend the awarding ceremonies two weeks ago for Quezon City’s Gawad Parangal, which I was honored to receive this year among other sons and daughters of the city. So by way of publicly thanking the people who gave me that distinction, let me offer up my own memorial to that city which I now call home.

“Now,” I just realized, goes back almost 45 years, except for a couple of stretches we spent in Pasig and San Mateo. The Dalisays—my parents and their five kids—might as well have been gypsies in our childhood, moving around Manila at least a dozen times while we were growing up, everywhere from Pasay and Singalong to Boni Avenue and Pasig (not just one but three barrios in Pasig—Malinao, Bambang, and San Nicolas). Childhood and adolescence were to me a series of moving trucks carting increasingly smaller loads of furniture, appliances, and sundry effects from one apartment or rented space to another.

But it’s Quezon City that’s accounted for most of my life, since the early ‘60s when we found ourselves on Liberty Avenue—peppered by grainy-sweet aratiles—before our Pasig interlude. When I qualified for the Philippine Science High School in 1966, we moved back to Quezon City, to another apartment on Mahiyain Street in Teachers Village, where we ran a small and luckless poultry business in the backyard; I learned to smoke here, and I remember looking up at the tracered sky one New Year’s Eve and sighing, “It’s 1970!”

We were paying P160 a month for that apartment, but even that proved too much, and we had to move again, to what amounted to a lean-to that my father built on the side of a house on Tandang Sora; here we kept a pig in the bathroom and performed our ablutions under his watchful eye. I walked from this happy hovel to my classes in UP; the happiness ended, at least for me, when I was arrested in this same place under martial law in January 1973.

Within a year I was out of prison and married; my young bride Beng and I moved briefly to an apartment on Bignay Street in Kamuning, and then to Project 6, before settling in with Beng’s folks in Barangay Marilag in Project 4. In 1978, my parents decided to amortize a small house and lot in Modesta Village in San Mateo, so, being the good son, I took the house next to theirs, and paid that off over 15 years, even when we lived elsewhere. In those carless days, commuting to work meant leaving very early and coming home past dinnertime, so we eventually moved back to Project 4, and then to Sorsogon Street in West Triangle, Masikap Street in Barangay Central, and finally (for now) to Juan Luna in Barangay UP Campus.

It’s been a hectic but exciting journey, in the course of which I grew up, and more; I first met my wife-to-be in Quezon City; I lost my innocence (and more) in Quezon City; I received my college degree in Quezon City; my daughter went to school, had her debut, and got her first job in Quezon City; my father died in Quezon City; I’ve written most of my books in Quezon City.

I’ve often asked myself why—given how wide Metro Manila has grown and how many choices of places to live we middle-class working stiffs have—I’ve kept coming back to QC the couple of times I’ve strayed from it. It’s hardly the prettiest place on earth—although it has green fringes, like Diliman, especially where it overlooks Marikina Valley, that make you forget or want to forget its drearier swaths.

But the wonder of Quezon City is precisely its variety and mutability. A pious president lived on sedate Times Street, not too far from Timog Avenue in its raucous heyday. (And the younger me remembers, with an unrepentant grin, that Manila, Makati, and Pasay had nothing on QC in the nightlife department, back in the day.) Some neighborhoods might verge on the hoity-toity, but few approach the opulence and pretentiousness of the new upper class in Manila’s newer suburbs.

Indeed, if anything, Quezon City is staunchly middle class, my comfort zone, one that stretches from Farmer’s and Ali Mall in Cubao to SM North and Trinoma and the restaurants of Matalino Street and its pedestrian-friendly environs. A perfect Sunday for Beng and me might begin with a morning walk around the UP Academic Oval, a light lunch at Via Mare, then a P250 foot massage at Ton-Ton on V. Luna in mid-afternoon, a half-hour’s browsing through the “new” arrivals at the ukay-ukay next door, an early dinner of chicken mami and siopao in our favorite noodle place in Trinoma, capped by a movie around 7 pm.

The older we get, the less inclined Beng and I are to roam too far from our nest on the UP campus (unless it’s to some exotic destination reachable by budget fare), knowing that, in our corner of QC, everything we need is a 15-to 30-minute drive away: groceries at Rustan’s or Shoppersville, medical check-ups at your choice (or maybe not) of the Lung, Heart, or Kidney Center, certificates of all sorts at the NSO and licenses of all manner at City Hall. And, of course, there’s my workplace-cum-backyard, the University of the Philippines, where I’ll likely stay until they kick me out when I reach mandatory retirement not too long from now.

How I got there is another serendipitous QC story in itself. I’d been working, albeit as a college dropout, at the Manila and then the Makati offices of the National Economic and Development Authority in the late ‘70s when our boss, Gerry Sicat, decided to move our unit to the NEDA office on EDSA, near GMA-7. Being that close to UP, I thought I’d re-enroll and take some units when I could, and I did—and left NEDA to teach in UP.

It was probably just fitting that the person who informed me of my Gawad Parangal was another friend from NEDA days, former Budget Minister Manny Alba, who’s worked for Quezon City for many years now as City Administrator and Senior Adviser to the Mayor. After telling me the happy news, Dr. Alba shared his own reminiscences of UP:

“I note you live on Juan Luna St., UP Campus. So, did I, from 1961 (when the area was still cogonal), until 1983. I was Minister of the Budget for two years then but I left (though I did not want to), because I was feeling guilty paying just about P300 a month and displacing other deserving faculty members.

“I was on leave. In fact, I was on leave for most of the time I was working with the government and it was easy for me to go back to UP after martial law. I was on a status called ‘faculty on government service’ or FOGS (I was one of several original ‘foggies,’ which included Gerry Sicat, Cesar Virata, Jimmy Laya, Tony Aguenza, and OD Corpuz. OD himself concocted the idea of the FOGS, when he was UP President.”

And in my own odd way, that’s what and where I am now—an aging fogey killing time on the fruit farm most people call the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.

Penman No. 16: Promises to Keep

Penman for Monday, October 15, 2012

AS YOU read this, Beng and I should be in the US, on a sem-break visit to family (my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister). I’ll also be attending and speaking at the International Conference on the Philippines in East Lansing, Mich., about which you’ll hear more from me next week.

This trip’s an annual pilgrimage we all look forward to, despite the sacks of loose change it entails. The two or three weeks Beng and I spend every October in the States virtually guarantees penury at year’s end, but we’ve learned not to mind. For me, the whole point of working my butt off is to save enough so we can buy time together, which is never a waste of money. I’d rather have a trove of happy memories than a hefty savings account, and Beng absolutely agrees, so we’ve been blithely footloose and spendthrift. Curtailed by the fact that we’ve never had enough to be truly extravagant, we’ve had great fun scouring the antique malls of San Diego, feasting on hotdogs in Coney Island, and hunting for bargains in the thrift shops of Virginia.

The eating part of this trip has always been a highlight for me—and you could have seen it in my stocky frame—but this time around, my Stateside folks are in for a surprise. A new Butch is coming to town, less 35 pounds of excess baggage mainly around the waist, and with worn-out walking shoes in his luggage. He won’t be sneaking out to Walgreen’s for a six-pack of Coke or Coors and a gallon of ice cream; ridiculously—if you knew him at all—he’ll be sipping tea and munching carrot sticks, doing his gritty darnedest to resist the lure of the steaks smoking in the backyard.

This visit’s going to be a test of my new resolve—which I manifested a few weeks ago, after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—to lose weight by eating right and exercising as the doctor ordered.

Like I said then, I knew I had it coming. Writers lead notoriously, pigheadedly unhealthy lifestyles. Not only are we bound to our desks most of the time; we’re tethered, physically and psychologically, to bottles of beer and packs of cigarettes.

T. S. Eliot was a chronic smoker and eventually died of emphysema; so was Dylan Thomas, who also loved booze and drank himself to death (famously telling a friend after a binge: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record”—and it probably was). The death wish appeals to the romantic in us, to our inner Poe (who, doctors now say, may have actually died of rabies and not alcoholism). Here at home, I’ve had writer-friends who openly flaunted that death wish; they lived on the edge, and died there.

Me, my days as a devilish Dylan are over. I used to smoke four packs of Marlboros a day—count them, 80 loaded pistols, with an open pack in my shirt pocket and another one in my pants, the easier to grab a stick when you needed one—until Beng and I decided to quit, cold turkey, about 17 years ago. I haven’t had one puff since, although I still get the occasional craving, and wake up feverishly from a dream (a most pleasurable one, I must admit) of having smoke curl through my parched lungs. I still think it’s one of the smartest decisions I ever made, next to marrying Beng, but quitting smoking came with a downside—I regained my appetite, which morphed into another monster, and somewhere along the way I ballooned from about 160 to nearly 220 pounds.

Also, until recently, I could and did drink up to ten bottles of beer in one sitting, proudly if foolishly remaining amiable and ambulant after the fact. In between beers, I tanked up on Coke—about three cans of the sweet syrup a day, to go with snacks and meals. It’s funny how I could write of other people having death wishes, when I was effectively living through one myself.

Well, I haven’t had a Coke in three months, and only about four or five bottles of beer in that same time. Stranger still, my food cravings are gone. I take a brisk 3-to-6-kilometer walk around the UP Academic Oval once or twice a day, and when my stamina flags, I just try to think of every pound lost as another day saved to spend with Beng and Demi. (The incorrigible techie, I use a free Nike app on my iPhone to track distance traveled by GPS, and to count calories burned.)

I still go on my poker all-nighters, but now I use the time between hands to surf on my phone and keep up with the news and discussions on the diabetes and dieting sites. (My newest discoveries: eating 2,000 calories or less a day will enable weight loss; exercising before breakfast is good, because it burns fat rather than carbs, which your sleeping body nibbled on all night; don’t skip breakfast after working out; you also need carbs for serotonin, which keeps you smiling.) I’ve learned to chew my food, manage my portions, count calories, and read the labels.

I had the deepest, sweetest satisfaction the other day when I sent over six pairs of my khaki pants with 40-inch waists to the neighborhood tailor for alteration, down to a smarter 36. The repairs cost me P450, but I’d gladly pay thousands more if I had to send them back after a few months to be trimmed by another couple of inches.

I know I’m far from being out of the woods, and of how easy it is to backslide. Anyone can lose weight fast—and naturally that became my early obsession—but keeping it off and feeling good about it is going to be the bigger struggle. (You know you’re not alone when you type in a search term in Google and it auto-completes the form three words away from finishing what you had in mind. Some time ago, I punched in “lose beer belly…” and something like “lose beer belly fastest way” came up, as though the machine had read my mind.)

But if America has burgers and Slurpees, it also has miles and miles of wooded walks, and that’s what I’ll be going for this time. Although he meant going to the woods in another sense, Robert Frost might as well have written these lines for me: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

ON ANOTHER note, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of two friends in the arts. The first was a shocker—Nonoy Buncio, a passionate art collector and a Botong Francisco connoisseur, was shot by unidentified gunmen while on duty as a Quezon City official tasked with clearing up the chronic congestion on Commonwealth Avenue. If they only knew how deeply Nonoy, a committed socialist, loved his country and his people.

The other friend who passed away was celebrated film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, for whom I had the privilege of writing a script (for the 1994 movie that came to be retitled “Ikalabing-Isang Utos: Mahalin Mo, Asawa Mo,” which I’d somewhat more sedately but perhaps uncommercially called “Sylvia, Susan, Soledad”). Among the many directors I’d worked with, Marilou was the most methodical, approaching every sequence not just with technical but philosophical questions. Years ago, we also worked together on two abortive projects—a docu-drama on the EDSA 1 revolt and a film biography of Joseph Estrada, before he ran for president.

I wish we had enough time to finish everything, but there never is, and that’s why I’m in America, visiting those dearest to me.