Penman No. 379: Auf wiedersehen, Beetle!

IMG_1633.jpegPenman for Monday, January 20, 2020


BEFORE WE get to the truly serious (read: tearful) stuff, let me inform my readers in academia that the deadline for the submission of abstracts to the 11th International Conference on Philippine Studies (ICOPHIL), which will be held from September 21 to 23 at the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, has been moved to January 31. This conference, which happens only once every four years, is the world’s largest gathering of both Filipino and international experts on all things Pinoy, from literature and the performing arts to politics, economics, and history. Having attended the 2012 meeting in Michigan, I hope to participate in Alicante again, to learn far more than my modest contribution to the discussions. For more information, please visit

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SPEAKING OF Filipino culture, there are few things more cherished by Pinoys aside from movie stars and basketball than their cars. I don’t care much about artistas and basketbolistas, but I plead guilty to doting on my four-wheeled babies, the tiniest dent or scratch on any of which can spark a day-long fit. Even in my dotage, I belong to two online chat groups devoted to the Subaru Forester and the Suzuki Jimny, my current rides—the one for daily business and the other as the off-road toy, although “off-road” to me means the service road to the mall. But there was a time when we all had just one car for all seasons and purposes, and for me that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

I must have received half a dozen messages from friends a couple of weeks ago, all pointing to an animated video clip bidding the venerable bug “an emotional goodbye” (you can watch it here). Eight decades and 23 million cars later, Volkswagen had shut down the Beetle’s production line. That touched a nerve in me, because I had said my own goodbye to my Beetle of 38 years just a few months earlier.

That white Beetle was technically my second car (the first, a yellow Datsun Bluebird, had died an ignominious death, riddled with bullet holes after being stolen—another long sad story). I had bought it very slightly used in 1981, a repossessed unit, for the grand total of P36,000 amortized over a few years. While I had learned to drive in the Datsun, it was the Beetle I really grew up as a driver on, using it for almost 20 years until its first demise (like a cat, this Bug has had many lives).

In the early ‘80s, I would pick up our daughter Demi from school for merienda at Ma Mon Luk Cubao, and she slept in the back for the long drive home to San Mateo. It saw the best and the worst of times, getting us down to join EDSA in ’86. A drunken friend once slept and peed in the front seat, fogging up the windows.

The Beetle had a chronic problem its owners soon discovered: its back seat was prone to bursting into flames. If enough pressure (read: a fat passenger, or too many passengers) was put on it, the metal springs touched the battery terminals, literally forming a hot seat. My Beetle caught fire this way at least three times, until I had the good sense (duh) to slip a rubber mat in between. Worse was yet to come: driving off to lunch with a friend, we heard a thud, and the car went dead. Looking behind us, we saw that the battery had fallen through the rotted floor. We gamely picked it up, reattached the battery (cradled by my friend) and drove on. It would continue to host the likes of Franz Arcellana, Bienvenido Santos, and certain less estimable passengers.

For the next few years the Beetle lay fallow on a curb in Project 4, nested and peed in (again) by cats. Coming into some money, thanks to a writing fellowship, I splurged on a ground-up restoration that today could still get me a new car, and the Bug won Best of Show at the VW Club’s powwow in 2000.

It served me for many more years, and in its showroom prime I loved driving it up to five-star hotels and passing the key on to the stupefied valet. And then it began to sit quietly at home again, for far too many days and years, until Beng and I decided that the time had come to find it a new home with someone who could care for it for the next thirty years—a young couple, not too far from us, who had been dreaming of owning a Beetle.

In 2004, on a visit to Germany, I finagled a side trip to the Volkswagen plant and museum in Wolfsburg. At the museum, I ogled the very first Beetle ever made. “Please don’t touch it!” my minder begged. But of course I did. I touched the Beetle, the same way it had touched me. Auf wiedersehen, mein lieber Freund!






Penman No. 20: Report from Lansing


Penman for Monday, November 12, 2012


THANKS TO superstorm Sandy, which shut down nearly all public traffic on the US East Coast, my flight back to New York from Lansing, Mich. was canceled a couple of weeks ago, requiring me to stay for the last day of the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), where I had come to read a paper. I’d planned on leaving that Tuesday because our departure for Manila was set for Thursday, and I wanted the extra day to tie up loose ends and do some last-minute shopping with Beng, who was waiting at her sister’s in New York. But Sandy nixed all that, threatening even my flight home.

But Providence must have had other things in mind, because that last day at Icophil turned out to be a most productive one for me, in terms of making new contacts and friends and listening to provocative presentations.

Let me report, first of all, that Icophil 2012—the ninth of this once-in-four-year series—was a resounding success, with about 250 participants signing in, well over the 150 the organizers had been expecting. This means that there’s a lot of interest in the Philippines and in Philippine studies out there, not only from us Filipinos but also from foreign scholars specializing in Philippine concerns and affairs. (And if you’re wondering why, ask instead why not—given how we’re a fairly large country of more than 90 million people, living in one of Asia’s richest cultural crossroads and exporting our labor and talent to nearly every other country on the planet.) Indeed, about half or more than half of all the participants I met at Icophil weren’t based in the Philippines (from where, admittedly, going to international conferences can be quite expensive, especially without university or government support).

What were they interested in? As Icophil’s programme went, everything from archaeological digs, Pinoy boxing, and the Ati-atihan festival to the economy, indigenous peoples, peace building, and electoral reform. There’s never a dearth of subjects to be explored where the Philippines is concerned, and every door at Icophil was an invitation to a new dish at an intellectual smorgasbord. Everyone I spoke to agreed that they had a hard time choosing which session to attend, and I myself ended up walking into session rooms almost at random, imbibing whatever was on offer to get the full range of things.

I learned a lot by listening to Jay Gonzalez—who teaches political science while also serving as an assistant boxing coach at the University of San Francisco—talk about how he used boxing as an entry point to introducing his students to Filipino and Asian values and attitudes. Robert Balarbar of the National Museum explained the intricate process by which he and his team restored Botong Francisco’s “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines,” a painting now hanging at the Philippine General Hospital. Robin Hemley of the University of Iowa undertook his own investigation of the controversy surrounding the alleged discovery of the Stone Age Tasaday tribe in Mindanao in 1971—a discovery soon denounced by critics as a hoax—and came to the tentative conclusion that the truth was probably somewhere in between the claims of both believers and naysayers. Sharon Delmendo, a professor at St. John Fisher College in New York who has written extensively about Philippine-American relations, shared the early fruits of her recent research on the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution who found refuge in Manila under the auspices of President Manuel Quezon. Her findings were supported by film footage and interviews put together by independent Fil-Am filmmaker Sonny Izon. Speaking of film, award-winning director Nick Deocampo closed the conference with a screening of his brilliantly animated new documentary on American influences in Philippine cinema.

I’m becoming something of a recluse the older I get, but Icophil—and that extra day—reminded me of how valuable and important it was to keep in touch with fellow academics, particularly those engaged in significant and interesting research that very few other people can be expected to undertake. That’s the burden of scholars and scholarship: their concerns may seem obscure if not downright silly and useless to more practically oriented people, but their ultimate service is to help us better understand ourselves.

They don’t do our thinking for us so much as lay out possible ways of thinking about a problem or situation like migration, conservation, or resource management. I’m fairly sure that many scholars would make lousy executives (although this has been resoundingly disproved in some cases), but their insights into human and social behavior, not to mention their understanding of the physical and natural world, help politicians and businessmen make smarter decisions (unfortunately, not always more socially beneficial ones).

At Icophil, over the farewell dinner that I would have missed had I left on schedule the day before, I also had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Feldman and Mario Feir, who together run Asian Rare Books ( from One McKinley Place in Global City. ARB had operated in New York City for over three decades before moving to the Philippines, where Stephen and Mario oversee an incredible, multi-thousand-volume collection of rare books. It’s accessible by appointment only, and I fully intend to avail myself of their kind invitation to visit them one of these days.

To digress a bit, I had one more reason to be rushing home to the Philippines, notwithstanding Sandy. As a shameless, diehard ‘60s liberal, I’m a big Obama fan, and wanted to see him re-elected. But I seem to have had a personal history with American presidential elections: I was in the United States on my first visit when Ronald Reagan won in 1980, and there again as a grad student when George Bush the Father won in 1988. In 2008, I was also in the US on a family visit, but left just a few days before the election, and Barack Obama won. Call it a voodoo jinx, but I knew I had to be out of there before November 6 if I wanted my guy to win. And that’s what happened—Beng and I managed to fly out of JFK on November 1, a day after the airport reopened. Barack, you owe me a big one.