Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)


GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Penman No. 207: The Best Student Speech Ever


Penman for Monday, July 11, 2016



I THOUGHT that the commencement speech I recently gave before the University of the Philippines’ College of Science graduates (excerpted here last week) was pretty good, but it was the student response given by Isaiah Paolo Lee (BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, summa cum laude)—known to his friends and teachers as “Pao”—that blew my socks off. I later emailed Pao to say that it was the best student speech I’d ever heard, and asked him for a copy to share with my readers, so here it is, and I hope this goes viral. (Pao acknowledges that his sister Jillian helped him along with the speech—hurray for sisters!)

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee, and I am not your valedictorian. I am not the best, I am not the brightest, and I am here speaking to you right now because all the other summas backed out. I’m somehow supposed to talk to you about honor and excellence, so let me start with my story.

When I was in first year, I almost got kicked out because of Chem 16. I wasn’t even bad at the class. I just had a habit of scribbling on my forearm during exams, which was—in hindsight, understandably—interpreted as cheating. After an unchecked exam and a lot of stress, I ended up with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. On the whole, it was a less than ideal way to get psychological support and an 1.00 in Chem 16, but I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t get dismissed from UP, and I didn’t jump off a bridge. I could have, but I didn’t. That might not sound a lot like honor and excellence to you, but that’s the point.

The College of Science is made up of brilliant people. We can’t deny that. The College of Science is also made up of people who pretend to be engineering majors when questioned about their student numbers and people who tasted their Chem 16 unknown analysis samples out of desperation. We can’t deny that either. And we all answered our exams on bluebooks that might have varied in paper quality and might have shown different scores, but they all had the same message printed on the front: University of the Philippines, 1908, Bird, Honor, Excellence.

Our valedictorian is Mao Leung. He has a weighted average of 1.0375 and a girlfriend. I do not have a weighted average of 1.0375, and most of you won’t either. I’m not going to talk about who doesn’t have a girlfriend, because this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Mao Leung is a great guy, but we can’t all be like him, and that’s okay.

Prodigies are a curse for those who need a curve on the exam to pass and a blessing for the general public; as a whole, people tend to look at the people with the best averages and pin all the country’s hopes on them, leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’re supposed to do. The truth people have difficulty wrangling with is that not only do we not need a messiah, messiahs cannot solve our problems. This country just needs honor and excellence from every single one of us, every single day. Whatever it is you do, do it well, and do it for the people.

Are you going into a career in science? There might be days when you have to run PCRs from 7 to 12. That’s 7 in the morning to 12 midnight, by the way. Do it. There might be times that your graphs would be publication-worthy if only you could get rid of one annoying data point. Don’t do it. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going into medicine despite your teachers’ laments? You might end up spending most of your nights running on adrenaline and Dunkin’ Donuts because you have to stay in the hospital. Stay. There might be an occasional addict suffering from a shabu overdose that you have to tie down to a stretcher because he won’t stop kicking you. Treat him, and treat him again when he comes back. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to get a girlfriend because studies first no longer applies? She might be angry at you for no easily identifiable reason. Stay calm, listen, and talk things out rationally. After an argument about taking relationship advice from some guy who was supposed to give a valedictory address, you might see a book she would like. Buy it for her. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to be a full-time parent because you had a successful relationship? You might proudly send your child to UP only to learn that your precious iskolar ng bayan has turned into a class-cutting, DRP collecting, tuition-burning machine despite your warnings. Wake them up in the morning, give them their allowance, and support them without nagging. See to it that they march and that you get to be with them. That is honor and excellence.

Are you just thinking of going to UPTown Center for a celebratory dinner after this is done? You might have a hard time parking because, wow, that is a lot of people. Don’t hog the disabled parking spaces. You might be hungry because the ceremony was too long and parking was nigh impossible because you left the wheelchair spots alone. Be nice to your waiters. They have names. Address them by name, follow up your orders without snapping at them, and say thank you the way you would like to be thanked for doing a good job. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to do anything at all in your life? Whatever it is, do it well, and do it for the people. Do it well if doing it well is clocking in 70 hours a week at a world-class research institution. Do it well even if doing it well is just staying awake for five more minutes to finish a chapter or a boring lecture. Do it well when it matters, and do it well even when it doesn’t. And do it for the people. Do it for the people even if you don’t like the people. Do it for the marginalized even when they don’t appreciate it. Do it for the privileged even when they cause Katipunan traffic. Do it for the people whether the person in question is a drug addict in the emergency room or your waiter at UPTown Center or a stranger on the internet or even just yourself, because it’s not about the gratitude, or the credit, or the reward, but about the people, and the work. That is honor and excellence.

The unphotogenic, non-headline-grabbing, narratively-unsupported fact is that large-scale change happens in fits and bursts and stops, and often on a scale you can’t see with an electron microscope. We hold ourselves up to unreasonable standards and are subsequently disappointed most of the time, when what matters is the work we do in increments, the lab hours that we log, and the people we encounter.

You might not make your own transgenic crops, but you can disabuse your family of any erroneous notions they may have about Bt talong. You might not eradicate crime in 3 to 6 months, but you can avoid catcalling. You might not make it to the newspaper’s front page, but you can make it to your mom’s proud parent Facebook post.

We often look to larger-than-life figures to celebrate honor and excellence, from Miss Universe to near-perfect-GWA graduates. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so, but I believe the first place to seek it is within ourselves.

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee. I am not the best, but I am good enough, I am not the brightest, but I am a UP graduate, and I am not your valedictorian, but I am going to tell you all to go out there and show the world what we’ve got.

[Photo from the UP Diliman Information Office]


Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science


Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016



IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.