Hindsight No. 24: All Content and Settings

Hindsight for June 27, 2022

CHARLIE COULDN’T tell exactly what the phone was until he slid it out of its case and, even then, its other specifications—model and memory size, which would determine its price—could be known only once he turned the phone on and made it work. The problem, of course, was that it was locked with a passcode, and if you didn’t know your way around, it was easy to turn next month’s rent into a brick. 

There were other, more elaborate ways that involved cables, computers, and words like “jailbreaking,” “DFU mode,” and “GPP,” but they were Nick’s specialty, for which he had a stall in Greenhills. Charlie was smart enough to know what he was good at, which was thievery, and to stick to it. Had he gone past second year in Koronadal, he might have become a Nick, or even better, a Mr. Garcia, who bought whatever Charlie could sell with cold cash and then disposed of them online through aliases like “Triciababy” or “Sweet Loreen.” 

Charlie had spotted a Samsung Galaxy Note on FB Marketplace that was being sold by Triciababy with the story that she needed a kidney transplant, and he knew that it was one of his pickups because it had a tiny chip on the top right of its screen. Mr. Garcia had paid him 3K for it and was now posting it for 8.5, which seemed unfair but then he didn’t even know how to describe the phone, let alone make up a story. He scanned FB Marketplace to get some idea of what to ask Mr. Garcia for, but it always came down to what the man was willing to pay, because he could come up with reasons like “obsolete” and “digitizer,” which simply meant that Charlie could have chosen better if he wanted to get enough to buy a new bike with. It was easier to steal a bike than to get something past Mr. Garcia, which probably wasn’t even his real name. 

He could have told Mr. Garcia to try it himself to find out how difficult it was to pick a specific model—on most days. You had to be in the right place, with the right kind of people, to score something high-end, like an iPhone 13 or a Galaxy S21. You didn’t find those in the malls and markets Charlie felt comfortable in, in the shirt and sneakers that made him look like a college student waiting for a date or shopping for jeans on sale, especially when he carried a book or two. 

But the Kakampink rallies changed all that. It was a pickpocket’s dream—tens of thousands of people massed on the street, all wearing pink, which meant that all he had to do was invest in a pink T-shirt to lose himself in the crowd, going along with the chants and finger signs. Many of these people looked and even smelled like they had stepped out of a shower. Charlie didn’t pay much attention to the simpler folk who could have been his uncles or cousins, seeking out the clusters of privilege.

Charlie already knew who held which phone, and where they put them away when their hands were otherwise occupied. He had spotted the woman and her iPhone at least fifteen minutes before he moved in; her phone had rung and she tried to take the call but put it back in her shoulder bag when the noise made all talk impossible. Thirtyish and plain-looking, she didn’t seem particularly rich, but with the pink T-shirts you never knew.

It was during the candidate’s speech that everyone seemed most distracted. People cheered and raised their arms. Charlie had no interest in what they were all excited or angry about—like “martial law,” when terrible things supposedly happened, well before his time: killings, torture, rape, like some war movie, of which he had seen and enjoyed a few. None of that had anything to do with him. And if it was so bad, why did they keep coming back to it? 

It took Charlie no more than a few seconds to swipe the phone and to vanish into the monochromatic crowd. The woman never felt a thing. Charlie gave her a backward glance and saw that she looked ecstatic, swaying with both hands in the air, her eyes shut as if in prayer.

Back in his room in Paco, he turned the phone on—last among the four he had taken that day. A picture of the woman and a small girl filled the screen, typical wallpaper for people her age. It asked for a passcode. He had ten tries before it locked up for good, but Nick could take care of that, so just for fun he tried 1-2-3-4. It opened. People could be so simple. It was an XS, 64GB, a four-year-old model he could sell for, oh, 7 or 8K.

Instinctively he went for the photos. There was always something interesting to be found there, sometimes embarrassing secrets the owners would have been happy to pay for, so Charlie thought he was doing them a favor by wiping their phones clean and erasing the past. There didn’t seem to be too many pictures on this woman’s phone. One of her with a man, posing in front of a fountain, obviously shot from an old photograph. Many shots of a baby girl, the girl and mother, girl, girl, girl, mother in a bank teller’s uniform, girl in fairy costume. Here and there, office excursions, Hong Kong, Taal, Baguio. Third birthday party, then suddenly, girl in hospital bed, closeup of girl sleeping, closeup of girl’s hand, then a flower arrangement beside the girl’s framed picture. And then the girl with eyes closed, a dozen of them from different angles, because the light kept bouncing off the glass. He remembered the mother at the rally with her eyes devoutly shut; they looked alike. 

Charlie had lost his father when he was a boy and his mother was back in Koronadal grinding corn. He had not seen her in five years, but now and then he sent her pictures of himself through a cousin’s phone, posing in shades before a new car and on the Dolomite Beach. At least she knew he was alive.

He knew enough to wipe the phone; Mr. Garcia wanted them clean and usable, and doing it himself instead of Nick would save him money. But when his finger hovered over “Erase All Content and Settings,” he paused, and wished the passcode had been something other than 1-2-3-4.

Hindsight No. 21: Mr. Secretary

Hindsight for Monday, June 6, 2022

(Note: This could be the strangest thing you will ever see on an Op-Ed page, a new genre I’m going to call “editorial fiction,” observations of the current scene rendered as short stories. No direct references are intended.)

THE CALL came at a little past one in the morning, well after bedtime for George and his wife Trina. Trina stirred in their bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulder in a gesture of irritation, but as soon as she gathered whom George was speaking with, she froze and tried to capture every word that was being said, over the hum of the aircon and the occasional screech of late-night traffic along the boulevard twelve floors below. She had wanted a unit as close to the penthouse as they could get, but the price was just beyond their reach, so they settled for a 14th-floor corner suite—the 13th floor, of course, was non-existent for superstition’s sake—with a broad view of the bay on one side and a long thread of highway on the other, fading into the southern suburbs.

George should have been annoyed as well to have been called so late, but he was not. He had not even been asleep, having watched an episode of The Blacklist without paying too much attention to what Raymond Reddington was whispering into Elizabeth’s ear. He had been swilling his Cragganmore, not bothering with his usual routine of adding a few drops of water to unravel its complexity; his taste buds felt dull and flat. Life itself suddenly seemed tentative and purposeless. He had been staring at his phone for an hour, checking its battery status, thumbing through his messages to make sure he had not missed anything important. 

When the phone rang he had to gulp down the whisky with which he was simply wetting his throat, utterly without pleasure, but instantly he straightened up in bed and took the call, curling a conspiratorial palm over his mouth, as if a spy lived on the 15th floor.

“Good evening—good morning—sir!… Oh, no sir—I was still awake—I mean, I read the newspaper and was surprised to see my name there, but…. Yes, of course, I mean, I wasn’t expecting anything, since you know how I feel about—well, about… things, things that happened in the past…. The future, of course, the future, I agree…. I appreciate that, I honestly never imagined that I would be talking to—oh, no, sir, no ‘doctor’ or ‘professor,’ please, just call me George, George is fine, everybody calls me George…. Haha, yes, I’m older than you by four years, but you’re the president! Or will be—I mean, in a few weeks…. I’m deeply, deeply honored, sir, of course I am….Uhhh…. Sir, could you maybe give me some time, a couple of days, just to talk it over with Trina?”

At this point, Trina had dropped all pretenses of trying to sleep and was watching George intently, making words with her mouth that George couldn’t be bothered to read. But George looked in her direction and continued talking as if she wasn’t there. In the background, at the other end of the line, he could hear people laughing and shouting, and the pounding rhythm of a Village People tune. His friend Estoy who had texted him earlier to expect a call was probably there; Estoy had been a consistent flunker in college, but now he seemed unusually adept, even prescient. 

“Yes, sir, Trina, Katrina Palileo, the sorority sister of your cousin Angie…. Our two children are both in the States…. She’s retired now but still consults for—oh, no, no, I don’t think it will be a problem…. 48 hours, thank you, sir, I’ll talk to her and get back to you…. Many thanks again, sir, and good morning!”

George slumped into his bedside chair, threw his phone on the bed, and poured himself a fresh shot. He grinned at the hapless Trina, waiting for her to pop the question.

“So? So what did he say? Did you get the position?”

George tried to put on a straight face, without much success. “I said I would think about it—I said I would ask you first.”

“Idiot!” Trina said, laughing, and threw a pillow at him, almost hitting his shot glass. “You call him right back, right now, and tell him I approve! Of course I approve, 110 percent!” She picked up his phone and held it out to him. “Call him now, while he’s still awake, and before he changes his mind!”

George brushed the suggestion away, turning pensive. “No, no, I shouldn’t look too eager, like I really, really want it—”

“But you do, right? I mean—a week ago I never would have thought this would happen, but when your name came up in the news, I thought, oh my God, really?”

“That’s what I’m asking—why. Why me?”

“And why the hell not? Nobody knows the field more than you, you’ve published zillions of academic papers, people hold you in enormous respect, you’re better appreciated in London and Geneva than you are here, and you were never known to be his flunkey!”

“No,” said George, “I never was. That’s why I think he wants me. Maybe I could change things.” He looked at Trina, who was about forty pounds heavier than when they first met, across a barbed wire fence in martial-law prison. He himself had been thin as a rake, having had very little to eat in their Marikina safehouse. He took it as a blessing to have been arrested in a raid; there was more food in prison, and he would have died within a week of scaling the mountains. And there was Trina, whose pageboy bob had been replaced by shoulder-length curls dyed some shade of sunset. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to forget what she had gone through, and he never brought it up. To survive and to live well—that alone was sweet revenge.

“We used to talk a lot about the future—is this it? How did this happen?”

She put her arms around him and pulled him back to bed. “You think too much,” Trina said, and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Congratulations and good night, Mr. Secretary! Let’s call the kids in the morning!”

Out the window, the lights of a tanker flickered on the pitch-black bay, the only way to tell that there was a horizon.

Hindsight No. 7: Disinformation and Democracy

Hindsight for Monday, February 28, 2022

(Image from designtaxi.com)

LAST FRIDAY—the 36th anniversary of EDSA 1—I spoke to a group of university students who wanted to know what I thought of Filipino democracy. 

I told them that at EDSA, along with millions of other Filipinos, I jumped for joy at the news that Ferdinand Marcos had fled with his family. We did not know—and might not have cared too much then—that they had brought two planeloads of gold and cash with them to Hawaii. All we wanted to hear was that they were gone, presumably for good, and that we were off to a fresh start at peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity. The darkness of the past twenty years would lift, and a new Philippines would emerge, truly democratic and firmly opposed to any form of despotism.

Today we realize what a fantasy that was, what a temporary reprieve. Under Rodrigo Duterte, if the polls are right, most of our people have once again embraced authoritarian rule, implicitly accepting its attendant excesses. The dictator’s son is back, and may even become our next President—to the delight of his supporters for whom martial law never happened; or if it did, then it was a golden age to which we will soon be returning, an age of new roads and bridges, clean streets, industrial peace, Miss Universe pageants, and eternal sunshine. 

Indeed it would be as if the past half-century between 1972 and 2022 were a confused and hazy dream, and now we were waking up where we had left off yesterday, when Ferdinand E. Marcos was poised to “save the Republic and build a New Society.” His son is making sure that we don’t miss the connection by heralding his entrance at his campaign rallies with the anthem of martial law, “May Bagong Silang.” Most of his followers today have never heard that song, or understand its chilling context, or the price we paid—in blood and in billion-dollar loans—for that “new dawn.” To them, it is a catchy jingle, in marching tempo. It comes with the smell of money and power in the air, the promise of a shower of gold for the hopeful masses. 

This, of course, is also a fantasy, but a powerful one—and I think I will be correct to surmise that many of the students I addressed, and even their teachers, fully believe it. And why not? They were never taught in school about the horrors of martial law. Instead, they were told that those were good times, that the Marcoses were good leaders who were deposed by their enemies and the CIA, that rich people don’t steal, and that the Marcos billions came from the gods, Yamashita, and anywhere but the Philippine treasury. That diet of lies has now become a catered banquet. 

The biggest enemy of democracy today—more than at any other time in our or even the world’s history—is disinformation: the willful distortion or fabrication of information to create false beliefs or impressions in the minds of people, turning bad to good, wrong to right, and vice versa. 

This is happening not only here in the Philippines, but in many other places around the world—including America, where Donald Trump has been pushing the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, despite the lack of any credible evidence. Even earlier, in what has by now become a cliché, Josef Goebbels thundered that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. 

During and after WWII, military experts engaged in what was called “psywar” or psychological warfare to weaken the enemy’s mental defenses, lower morale, and make people switch sides. This was done through radio, leaflets, newspapers, and other media available at the time.

Today the prevalence of the Internet and social media has magnified the means for disinformation by a magnitude of millions. And this is scary, because according to a recent survey, every other Pinoy can’t tell real news from fake. How can a society so prone to disinformation—to fake news—function well as a democracy?

Last month, the Akademyang Filipino (on whose Board of Trustees I serve) sponsored a forum on the topic of “Can Democracy Win in May 2022?” Most such questions are meant to be rhetorical, with obvious answers. But this time, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its actual complexity. The problem, I realized, is that we no longer have a clear and common idea of what “democracy” means.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are politicians eager to appropriate it. “Democracy” has to have been one of the most ambiguous and most abused words of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When a brutal totalitarian state like North Korea styles itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” you know something somewhere has gone awfully wrong. Dictators will call their actions democratic—as Ferdinand Marcos and Muammar Ghaddafi did—by asserting that they are acting on behalf of the people, a responsibility that presumably entitles them to extraordinary powers and compensations.

In my layman’s understanding, democracy is the rule and exercise of power by the people through representatives they choose by a free and fair election. It seems simple, but immediately we can see how vulnerable this definition of democracy is to interpretation and manipulation. What is a “free and fair” election? Does it simply mean an election free of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud?

If a candidate wins more than 51% of the vote without obvious coercion or cheating, then will that candidate have won a democratic election? But what if those voters had been fed provably false information? What if they willingly believed that information to be true, and voted on the basis of it? Would this still be democracy at work? 

Arguably, yes, because democracy never promised only intelligent outcomes. Elections are emotional, not rational, exercises. This disturbs me deeply, but again I have to ask myself, am I idealizing democracy as something that can be perfected? Or should I just accept that democracy, like society itself, is inherently messy, mercurial, and manipulable? 

What kind of democracy do we Filipinos have, and what kind of democracy do we want? The vote this May will help provide the answer. 

Hindsight No. 5: The Dropout Factor

Hindsight for Monday, February 14, 2022

(Image from thetimes.co.uk)

HOW MUCH of a factor is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s being a college dropout in making people decide whether he’s worthy of being voted President or not? The anti-Marcos forces seem to think it’s a viable issue, on two counts: first, that Junior failed to complete his studies at Oxford and subsequently at Wharton, despite the extravagant resources put at his disposal; and second, that Junior and his people have repeatedly asserted that he graduated from both institutions, despite clear evidence to the contrary. 

One would think that, in a country where higher education is widely seen to be the only ticket out of poverty, Junior’s profligate ways should have turned off if not outraged large swaths of the CDE electorate that everyone now acknowledges will effectively choose our next leader.

The picture of him posing as a top-hatted dandy in front of a Rolls Royce when he should have been sticking his nose into a book in the library should be sickeningly ridiculous to anyone who has had to take three sweaty and dusty jeepney rides to school. That he or his cohorts would insist that he has a BA and an MBA from the world’s top universities without proof of an actual diploma should offend anyone who failed to finish college, despite a bright mind and high grades, for lack of money—like my father did.

But sadly I suspect that for many of Junior’s supporters, the dropout factor is a non-issue, for a number of reasons. To begin with, going by the statistics, ours is a nation of dropouts. Even well before the pandemic, according to one study, the graduation rate from college was only 61%, which means that two out of every five students fell off the rails. So Junior should be in good company. 

I myself dropped out of UP in my freshman year because I was becoming increasingly more involved with student activism, and I was also itching to get a job and earn some money. Like many dropouts who managed well enough on their own, I wore my undergraduate status for many years like a badge of honor. But there came a point when I simply longed to learn in a more structured way, so I went back to school, and graduated with my AB at age 30.

To Junior’s defenders, dropping out of Oxford is understandable. “Oxford is even harder to get into than UP!” said one online. And besides, said another, he did get a special diploma, which “is already equivalent to having a degree. UK educ system is different from PH system. Between him showing certification vs emailing Oxford, I would believe him.”

As I noted in last week’s column on “Denial and Dissonance,” the politically captive mind will fashion creative explanations for everything from the “fake” landing on the moon to Donald Trump’s “stolen victory” over Joe Biden.

A Reddit thread on the topic overwhelmingly agreed that being a dropout wasn’t the problem; rather, lying about it was. “At least Erap admitted to being a dropout, and he still became President,” said one poster.

Publicly exposed, Junior back-pedaled. His official Senate resume in 2014—digitally preserved for all time on archive.org—clearly showed him claiming a master’s degree in Business Administration from Wharton and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford. This has since been amended to “graduate coursework” for Wharton and a “special diploma” for Oxford.

(Image from rappler.com)

But there’s another side to this college-dropout issue that’s worth thinking about: what’s a diploma really worth, anyway, and what exactly have we done with ours?

We have many thousands of college graduates working well beneath their professional capabilities as domestic helpers overseas, or in jobs that require more use of their hands than their brains. So a diploma has never guaranteed success (and as Junior’s example shows, you can get very far in life without one). 

But also, since when was a college degree a measure of intellectual ability and, even more importantly, of moral probity? What has our incumbent Palace dweller done with his law degree, beyond assuring the tokhang brigade of his full protection and threatening to defy the Supreme Court? At least Ferdinand Sr. used his to cloak his every ploy with a veneer of legality. 

In terms of intellectual caliber, Marcos had probably the most illustrious Cabinet members in our history, with PhDs from the world’s foremost universities, but even they could not rein in his regime’s excesses, and some even abetted them. The good ones left early; a few tried to draw a line; others became willing accomplices to dictatorship and plunder. As idealistic and upright as they may have been or started out, Marcos suborned many of these technocrats and forever compromised the edukado in Philippine society, turning that respected figure into a minister at the foot of a despot, his wife, and their whimsy.

Our incumbent burnished anti-intellectualism into a virtue to curry favor with the crowds, and got flunkies with LLB’s to explain away his bad behavior like auditioning comedians. You listen to their tortured spiels and you ask, was this what they went to college for?

Wealth and power hold far more charm for many of us than schooling, because we see education as but a means to those ends. To be rich is to be smart and praiseworthy enough. If the rich behave imperially, impudently, irresponsibly—well, they earned it, didn’t they? We can forgive and excuse them no end; we still think like tenants thrilled to be invited into the big house for a cup of chocolate. 

We seem surprised and suspicious when a well-educated person with an honest heart claims to love and understand us, and promises to improve our lives, because we no longer recognize real goodness and ability when we see them. So we go with the devil we know, and who cares how he fared in History or Philosophy? As Ping Lacson puts it, logic was never our strong suit: “Ayaw mong manakawan, tapos, boboto ka ng magnanakaw?” I have a PhD, and I can’t figure that one out.

Hindsight No. 3: A False Nostalgia

Hindsight for Monday, January 31, 2022

SINCE MY belated debut on Facebook just over a month ago, I seem to have acquired something of a reputation for my posts about the past—not in the scholarly mode of a real historian, which I most certainly am not, but as a collector and keeper of objects that evoke strong associations with times and people long gone. These include century-old fountain pens and typewriters, and even older books and documents steeped in the accumulated oils of the hands that held them.

I’ll admit to having an intense, almost fetishistic, interest in the past—the 1930s are of particular significance to me, because I’m writing a novel set in that period—and I can identify with the romance conjured by postcards of ocean-going liners and of the old Manila Hotel. If you play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on a turntable, you’ll float to the ceiling in my esteem. In my dreams, I fantasize about strolling into the Crystal Arcade one fine day in 1937 and stepping out with a fistful of Parker Vacumatic Senior Maxima pens while towing a cart with all 55 volumes of Blair and Robertson.

But that’s where the nostalgia ends. In many if not most respects—as I’ve told friends who, for example, ask me if UP’s fabled Cadena de Amor ceremony is worth reviving—there’s one place the past deserves to be, which is exactly where it is. Nostalgia is comforting precisely because the past is over, and because we tend to remember just the good parts, and even burnish them to perfection.

But it was never really all that good. Amorsolo’s maidens all seem fresh out of the batis and every Joseon prince’s robes on K-drama seem immaculately pressed even after a swordfight, but the past was literally a filthy place. Queen Elizabeth I was said to take a bath once a month. William Shakespeare and his friends wore those fluffy collars around their necks because that’s all they changed. The lovely ladies of Versailles doused themselves in perfume to quell the odor of their unwashed bodies. The “buntis” window grilles we now admire in old Manila houses were once drenched with dubious liquids being dumped on the street below.

Neither was it so peaceful. Even without counting the devastation of war, the past was fraught with danger, hardship, and unrest. It may have been a grand and glorious time for the rich in their cars and villas, but the masses were suffering in the farms and factories. Power was brazenly exercised, as in the torture and murder of Moises Padilla in 1951. Postwar congressmen carried .45s at their waist into the session hall. As a young police reporter in 1972, I learned where you could find a gun for hire for P500 per target.

We like to think that the past was simple, with fewer choices to be made. But it was never that simple for many without real choices. Poverty was and is never simple, because every morning the mind races to figure out where supper is coming from, and if Nanay can survive on a third of her prescribed dosage or on plain salabat.

All these come to mind when I hear Filipinos today—many of them not even in their 40s—talking about how a return to the “glory days” of Marcosian martial law would set this country back on track and bring us the prosperity, the peace, and the prestige we once enjoyed. I wonder what it is exactly they are “remembering,” and if they understand what putting a Marcos back in Malacañang will mean to this country. This goes beyond the historical amnesia we often hear about these days; the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it “anemoia,” a nostalgia for a time someone has never known, or that never happened.

No, I’m not calling them stupid or wicked by any means. In many cases they’re simply innocent or uninformed, and therefore suggestible. If they feel oppressed by the present and are facing an uncertain future, the past will acquire the appeal of the womb, offering safety and security. The idealization of martial law as a time when streets were wide and clean and when new buildings were rising right and left is a more inviting prospect for those who can’t be bothered with facts and figures about debt-driven growth, cronyism, and horrific abuses under military rule. (For those facts, check out https://newslab.philstar.com/31-years-of-amnesia/golden-era)

That even oldtimers can wax nostalgic over the Marcos years isn’t hard to understand. Like the Germans under Hitler, many if not most Filipinos then never saw a prison camp, never had a son or daughter tortured and salvaged, never had a business taken over by the regime. Those of us who actively resisted dictatorship were in a distinct minority—as we still are today. Complicity has to be endemic for despots to thrive.

But now once again we are called to arms, in a battle for the imagination—a battle of competing narratives and modes of narration. Will the cold, hard truth alone triumph over romantic fantasy, or will we need to be more inventive in our messaging to get through to those unlike us? Instead of just revisiting the past, should we dwell more on a rosy but realizable vision of the future? Instead of staking out May 9 as a referendum on martial law, should we double down on what a presidential election should be—a competition between platforms and qualities of leadership? (And then use the next six years to correct our history textbooks.)

It’s true that we have good reason to long for seemingly lost or threatened graces like statesmanship and civility (not to mention intelligence) in politics, as well as plain good manners and delicadeza. There are good things we can yet recover and revive from better days, with the right leadership and inspiration. But to do that, we have to save the future from those who would drag us back 50 years into a past that was as morally sordid, as violent, and as dispiriting as anything that ever happened in our history. 

A Visit from GPS (long story follows)

I HAD a surprise visit—and present—this morning from one of the people I have always acknowledged to be my life mentors, Dr. Gerry P. Sicat, my former boss (and Beng’s) at the National Economic and Development Authority. He brought me a bound special issue of the New York Times Book Review from 1996, featuring the first reviews of such literary luminaries aa Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Woolf, Hemingway, Gordimer, and Updike. He had saved the copy for me back when he was still working in Washington, when he heard from his daughter that I was “doing well” in UP; somehow he had misplaced the copy for 25 years, finding it only recently, and thus today’s visit.

The “doing well” remark goes back to the long story of my ten years at NEDA (1973-83) and how GPS (or “DG” as we all called him, for Director-General) shaped my life at a crucial stage.

I was just 19 in August 1973 when I stepped out of martial-law prison. I had dropped out of UP at 18 with 21 units to my name, but I had already worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba as a reporter before my arrest for subversion. In Bicutan, I had studied drawing with the printmaker Orly Castillo, and upon my release I joined Orly at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines studio in Ermita to study and practice printmaking—something I would do for several years. It was at the PAP where I met Beng (I should say, met her again, as I had seen her in UP and admired her from a distance—she was a pretty senior on the Student Council, and I was a bumbling freshman), and within three months of our getting together, I told myself that I wanted to marry her. (Ours was a generation steeped in fire and blood—scores of comrades had died fighting the dictatorship, and we had come to be convinced that we were not going to see our 30th year, maybe not even our 25th. So if we had anything important to do—like marry and have children—the sooner we did it, the better.) 

I shared the bold announcement with my mom: I had met a nice girl and I was going to ask her to marry me. “Are you crazy?” she responded. “You don’t even have a job!” Well—I said—I suppose you’re right, I should find some gainful employment.

(Above, a drypoint print of Beng from 1973;
below, an aquatint and drypoint print of my grandmother Mamay from 1975. )

That same day I went to the PAP studio to work on some prints and to mull over my future. Printmaking was fun—and I got to hobnob with such brilliant (and real) artists as Bencab and Tiny Nuyda, among others—but it wasn’t something I could live off, let alone support a family with. A kind dealer came by every few weeks to buy prints from me and other PAP members for P15-25 each to serve as fillers for the frames she was selling to US servicemen in Clark and Subic. I needed a real 9-5 job.

That afternoon I walked around the Padre Faura neighborhood, and on the street I ran into an old friend and comrade, Jun Medina, who had been a newspaperman pre-ML and was now the PR chief at NEDA. He was so happy to see me—he had known I was in prison—that he literally emptied his wallet to give me whatever he had, a kindness I would never forget. He asked me if I was back working. “No,” I said. “In fact I’m looking for a job.” He lit up and said, “We’re looking for a feature writer! Why don’t you apply? Let’s go up and see the boss!” Sure, I thought, what’s there to lose?

(Puffing and dreaming–at my worst, I smoked four packs a day;
quit smoking with Beng cold-turkey in 1994.)

And just like that, a few minutes later, I was talking to NEDA Director-General Dr. Gerardo P. Sicat, whom I had never met before; he was only 38 then, trim and fit (he was a tennis player and marathoner), but cool and laid back, asking just a few questions to see if I had anything in my noggin. Jun vouched for me and my writing, and that apparently was enough. “Let’s start you at P700,” said GPS, and lightbulbs popped in my head; in 1973, P700 a month was good  money.

That night I went home and had the pleasure of informing my mother that “I found a job, and I’m getting married!”

Of course I had to ask Beng first, so I sat her down at the old Skorpios in Cubao and probably over batchoy and puto I got a napkin and scribbled some figures on it, starting with “700.” How much would an apartment cost? Food? Transportation? “We can get married!” I concluded, although I guess I turned that into a question, because she agreed (and would later tell me, “I don’t know why, but I did!”).

We met at the PAP in September; on January 15, 1974, on my 20th birthday, we were married by the CFI judge my mother worked for—took less than five minutes—and had a merienda cena reception at The Bungalow for less than a hundred people at P8 per head; when the management realized that we hadn’t made arrangements for a wedding cake, they hastily and kindly provided one.

So Dr. Sicat made that possible, but his unbidden intercessions wouldn’t end there. Knowing that I was barely a freshman when I left UP, he sent me to the UP School of Economics as a special student to attend the one-year graduate diploma Program in Development Economics, so I could learn something more substantial about the things I was writing about. That course introduced me to outstanding teachers (some of them just instructors back then) like Agustin Kintanar, Gon Jurado, Rosalinda Tidalgo, Dante Canlas, and Ruping Alonzo, and made lifelong friends of batchmates like Meynard Guevarra (now DOJ Secretary) and Vicky Bataclan and Libran Cabactulan (later DFA ambassadors), among others. Against all odds, the salimpusa passed. (And I was ever aware that my “special student” enrollment was vaguely anomalous, but I suppose there were advantages to GPS being a UP regent at that time.)

On the strength of that diploma, Dr. Sicat later endorsed me to the United Nations Development Programme office in Manila when the security watchdogs at NISA complained about my access to sensitive documents at NEDA, as an ex-detainee who still had to report regularly to the military authorities. GPS was sending me to the UNDP to cool off—they even had to create the position of “National Professional Officer” for me, which was later adopted by other UNDP offices in the system—and for a year, I did project evaluations and liaised between the UNDP and NEDA. I was even given a chance to move over to the FAO and to work with NEDA’s External Assistance Staff, but after a year of role-playing as the economist I truly wasn’t, I asked to return to my PR job at NEDA and to my creative writing, which was what I most enjoyed. (For a time, my closest friend and officemate at NEDA was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega, my Alpha Sigma fraternity brother and fellow playwright. Many other writers like Patty Rivera, Fidel Rillo, Lilia and Jess Santiago, and Eric Caruncho would join our Economic Information Staff.)

(With fellow playwrights Boy Noriega and Paul Dumol, ca. 1981.)

In 1980, GPS had another surprise for me: he was sending me to the US for three months on a USAID grant to study media operations—and I enjoyed and learned from that immensely, but I knew that GPS had really sent me out as a writer who needed to see a bit of the world outside, to broaden my horizons; it was something he routinely did for his young staff. I have since been to the US dozens of times—our daughter lives there—but that first visit remains incandescent in my memory: first snow, first tour of the Smithsonian, first glimpse of New York, Broadway, the raw material for my story “Oldtimer,” long walks in yellow forests. 

When I returned, I was filled with a fresh resolve to just go back to school, to study and write and perhaps to teach for the rest of my life, which I did. For two years, I shuttled between NEDA and UP, racing to get a proper AB English degree; I resigned from NEDA in 1983 as the political climate was heating up so I could focus on my studies full-time, graduating in 1984, with Beng working doubly hard to support us in the interim.

Also in 1984, Dr. Sicat left NEDA himself to take up a post with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Before leaving, he asked me and Boy Noriega to visit him at his home in La Vista, where he gave each of us 30 minutes to select ten books from his library. I was beside myself picking out those books—I recall choosing, among others, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I had read in high school and was deeply impressed by), the two volumes on the Philippine short story compiled by Leopoldo Yabes, and Mao’s Little Red Book (because mine had been confiscated upon my arrest). They remain with me to this day.

And then I took my MFA and PhD in the US on a Fulbright grant (basically just a plane ticket and a book allowance, because Fulbright funds were running low then—so I had to work, among others, as a cook for a Chinese fast-food) from 1986 to 1991, and returned to UP to teach full-time, become a professor, and publish more books. I suppose this was what Dr. Sicat’s daughter meant when she told her dad that his former recruit was “doing well.” 

(From around 1992, going by the hair.)

When I retired in 2019, one of the guests I made sure would attend my retirement party was GPS, and shortly after I followed in his footsteps as Professor Emeritus. 

He must have been shaking his head—but smiling—when he left our place today. (Beng and I were—at 86, GPS looked a whole lot slimmer and fitter than my 67.) Many thanks, DG, for the job and the visit, and for everything in between.

(At my retirement party, with GPS, my friend Julie Hill, and EVP Ted Herbosa.)

The President We Deserve

I GREW up a Marcos believer.

He was the guest of honor at my grade school graduation in 1966. Newly elected, he looked every inch the hero he said he was—handsome, dashing, gifted with a golden tongue. Watching him I thought that a President was a great man, greater than all of us.

Just seven years later, I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison. I was there because the President I admired as a child had lied to me. He said he wanted to make the Philippines great again. Instead he acquired more power and more wealth, for which he stole from both the rich and poor, and punished those who opposed him. 

That included young students like me. They called us “radicals” and put many of us in prison, and many of my friends suffered horrible deaths. Sadly, many more Filipinos didn’t care. Happy to see new roads, they did not know that billions that should have gone to their food, housing, and education went to secret bank accounts abroad.

I was at EDSA when Marcos left, and I was overjoyed that a good and honest woman would now bring change. But even Cory couldn’t do it alone. The system was too strong. Many Presidents followed Cory, some better than others, but the lust for wealth and power did not leave with Marcos. And instead of being remembered as the man who destroyed Philippine democracy, Marcos became a model for some of his successors, who not only buried him as a hero but who now want to resurrect him in his son.

When VP Leni Robredo offered herself for the presidency and said “Mas radikal ang magmahal,” I had to think long and hard about what she meant, and what kind of difference she would make in our lives and futures. Was she asking us, like Jesus, to love our enemies? After all the evil—the corruption, the oppression, and the despotism—we have been through, could we find it in ourselves to love those who clearly do not love us?

And then I remembered what another visionary, Martin Luther King, preached on the same subject. He said: “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.”

And that’s when it struck me that the real enemy is not people, but the “evil systems” that have created and supported the Marcoses among us. It is not one man or family we must vote against, but what they represent.

The easy temptation is to focus on personalities and their shortcomings. The harder option is to fight for the good and the positive.

These are the values and ideals that many of our national leaders, by their speech and behavior, have forsaken over the past five years. These are what VP Leni reminds us are worth loving and living for. And in today’s environment of violence, fear, and falsehood, to love them is to be radical indeed:

God. Country. Freedom. Justice. Peace. Truth. Life. Beauty.

Big words, they take big hearts and minds to accommodate. If I can find that largeness in me, then I can be a radical again, and instead of imprisoning us, our new President will free us from our past to become the nation we aspire to be. And that President—the President we deserve—can only be as great as we ourselves can be.

(Photos from ph.news and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.)

Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

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Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

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I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

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As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

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That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

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(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

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Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 218: History and Irony

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Penman for Monday, September 26, 2016

 

 

I’D NEVER heard of Ramon Cualoping III and Marco Angelo Cabrera until their names were linked to the recent flap involving the use of no less than the Official Gazette in an apparent effort to sanitize the memory of Ferdinand E. Marcos by removing any reference to martial law—you know, the martial law that Marcos invoked to impose his dictatorial rule on his people from 1972 until he was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986. (Yes, he technically lifted martial law in 1981 but he continued to rule with a rubber-stamp legislature.)

Some Googling revealed that Cualoping was an Ateneo Communication Arts graduate, batch 2004, while Cabrera graduated from San Beda in 2013 and interned briefly with the Department of Foreign Affairs; he had also worked for Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Those are both fine backgrounds for jobs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office—just the kind of posting on which many young writers and lawyers aspiring for a political future have cut their teeth—and I can surmise from the dates provided that Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera must be in their mid-30s and mid-20s, respectively—too young, therefore, to have personally known what the Gazette expunged.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a government propagandist myself at an even younger age—19, fresh out of martial law prison. Having dropped out of UP and having worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I got a job with the PR section of the National Economic and Development Authority. The irony of going from writing incendiary flyers to trumpeting such new government projects as Pantabangan Dam wasn’t lost on me. But I was getting married and needed a job, and all the old media jobs were gone save for the Express and the Bulletin, so I was thankful for whatever came my way. (I would much later write hundreds of speeches for FVR, among other Presidents and political clients—mostly to pay the rent, occasionally for the sheer privilege—so don’t look at me as some crusading journalist.)

I don’t know what drove Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera to the Palace; I’m assuming their motives were loftier than mine. I also don’t know what made them officially forget (hey, it’s the Official Gazette, right?) that FM declared martial law. I suspect they knew what happened, but chose to ignore the most salient fact about Marcos’ life, for reasons only they can tell. To his credit, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar effectively reprimanded his staff for the deliberate oversight and corrected the record.

I’ll leave further chastisement of these two gentlemen to the netizens who broke the story. From one PR pro to another, what I can tell them is this: I understand the job you have to do and even your private allegiances, but there are things—very big things much bigger than yourselves—that you just can’t sweep under the rug. Denying martial law or its disastrous effects on our society and economy is like telling Jews that the Holocaust never happened, or was actually a good thing. I salute you for your cheek, but what on earth were you thinking?

There’s a book I’d like to recommend to these two, one which I and a dozen other writers—all students during martial law—put out four years ago on the 40th anniversary of Proclamation 1081, titled Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. (For more on that book, see here: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/806191/lest-we-forget.) I wasn’t too enamored of the long title at that time, but now I appreciate the emphatic clarity of the thing; it’s just the sort of book martial law amnesiacs and deniers need to read.

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But even as we review history, there’s one thing that seems to have escaped many: the current debate about how to look at martial law and where to bury Ferdinand Marcos isn’t about the past; it’s about the future, and what kind of people we are and want to be.

I know that millennials tend to get beat up on because they don’t know enough about martial law, which is hardly their fault since we didn’t teach them enough about it. But it isn’t just them. When people my age express bewilderment over how Bongbong Marcos came so close to becoming Vice President despite his dad’s misdeeds, and how the Marcoses have survived so handsomely, I have to remind them that even under martial law, those of us who opposed Marcos were in the distinct minority. Most Filipinos supported martial law, actively or passively, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Like the Germans who supported Hitler, most Filipinos stood by while we faced the truncheons and firehoses—and even applauded 1081, early on, as the antidote to Communism (1972’s “war on drugs”). So what should we be so surprised about?

That’s why I’ve never referred to EDSA 1 as a revolution, because it wasn’t one in terms of changing anything fundamental in the structures and workings of our society. It was a popular uprising, a street revolt led by another faction of the ruling class, with broad support from the metropolitan middle class. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel euphoric that February, and I still get teary-eyed when I remember the moment; I guess the poignancy comes from knowing what came afterward.

I have no doubt that if the Palace incumbent were to declare martial law today for whatever reason, a majority of Filipinos would support him, although a noisy few of us would be up in arms. Martial law ca. 1972 was also like that, and remained popular for many more years, especially among amoral businessmen who sang its praises until it hit them in the pocket. And then it all went downhill.

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t see Marcos as a one-eyed ogre, but rather as a calculating Macbeth, keenly aware of his actions and perhaps even troubled by them. In my own turn with revisionism, I’ve even managed to convince myself—as I told the BBC in a recent interview on EDSA (a part which never got aired for lack of time)—that Ferdinand Marcos may have done us a final act of kindness by leaving without ordering a bloodbath. It’s an arguable notion (one I wouldn’t put on the Official Gazette) and it doesn’t change the fact that his regime took what it could until we bled, but as a fictionist and playwright, I like to imagine characters to be more complex than they seem.

A couple of years ago, at a cultural function in Quezon City, Mrs. Marcos preceded me by a few steps down a narrow staircase. She was clearly having a hard time navigating the stairs, and she looked back at me apologetically to say, “Hijo, I’m very sorry I’m keeping you.” I smiled and said, “It’s all right, Ma’am, please take your time.” I felt amused and strangely triumphant.

History is sometimes best seen as a series of comic and tragic ironies, which straight journalism and certainly government tabloids can’t dispense. Come to think of it, who gives a hoot about the Official Gazette? If you want to lie and get away with it, try fiction. I’d be happy to see Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera in my graduate workshop.