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.