Hindsight No. 1: A Time for Telling

Hindsight for Monday, January 17, 2022

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I received the news of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose’s passing two Fridays ago; my recollections of him appeared online later that day. But just as jarring a surprise was a call I later received from Millet Mananquil, my editor in the Lifestyle section, and then from Doreen Yu, our Op-Ed editor, informing me that I had been chosen to take over FSJ’s column-space on this page.

It was a great privilege, of course, and I accepted it gratefully. But it also carried with it an awesome responsibility—to be honest, to be fair, to know enough about an issue to speak with some legitimacy about it, and also to be modest and open-minded enough to remember one’s inescapable fallibility. I don’t think that last one’s going to be a problem, because I’ve made mistakes often enough to know that—well, I make mistakes, some of which may have hurt people badly.

But last Saturday I turned 68, and with that age comes a keener sense of doing right, of accountability for one’s choices and judgments, as well as a greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others, though not of evil or of wrong itself. I intend to maintain those bearings in this new capacity.

Some readers may wonder how a Lifestyle writer like me—obsessed with fountain pens, old books, Broadway showtunes, and digital gadgetry—ends up doing op-ed, which seems a far more serious and consequential calling. A brief self-introduction might be in order.

I dropped out of UP as an engineering freshman in 1971 and, against all odds (not having spent one day in Journalism class, and being all of 18), landed a job as a features writer and general assignments reporter with the Philippines Herald in 1972. My first task was to fill up half the Features page every day—something that schooled me forever on the importance of deadlines and of resourcefulness, because I had to come up with the topics on my own. I moved to Taliba as a suburban correspondent; was arrested for my activism shortly after martial law was declared; spent seven months in prison; and upon my release joined the information staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, where I would work for the next ten years, picking up a diploma in Development Economics along the way.

I returned to school, finished up my academics all the way to a PhD (more for teaching than for my writing), and taught full-time while writing stories and film scripts. In the mid-1990s, thanks to my friend and now fellow-columnist Jarius Bondoc, I was hired as an editorial writer for the newly opened newspaper TODAY. Being busy with other aspects of management, our boss Teddyboy Locsin trusted me to do about three editorials a week, including the newspaper’s very first one. 

I discovered that opinion writing was exhilarating—but also, again, fraught with responsibility. It got to the point that I found myself wishing I could write something less driven by analysis and conscience—small things like my rickety VW Beetle, double-knit pants, and my love of crabs, instead of ponderous topics like prison reform, the defense budget, and Philippines 2000. (I still have 113 editorials that I wrote on my hard drive.) So I asked for—and got—a Lifestyle column called “Barfly” on the back page, which helped me decompress and kept me sane, reminding me that life was much more than politics and that beauty and fun were as important as anything else to happiness.

I’m going to keep that escape valve open—I’ve promised Millet that I’ll continue contributing my “Penman” column every now and then—but I’ll approach this new task with the loftiness of mind that it deserves (although you’ll excuse me if I sometimes prefer to take a more comic tack, as the best criticism is often served up with a smile). 

Unfortunately I’m not a political insider; I don’t make the rounds of kapihans and have become something of a happy recluse over the Covid lockdowns. You’ll see my politics soon enough—unabashedly liberal (with a small L), middle-force, intensely uncomfortable with both Right and Left extremes. (I came out of the Left and worked briefly for the Right as a sometime speechwriter for five Presidents—but not the last two.) I thank God every night for my family’s safety and for our blessings and for the well-being of others, but I’ve had my differences with Church dogma and would rather spend my Sundays reflecting on human frailty and redemption by reading a book or writing a story.

But I do have a deep and abiding love of history, of which I have so much more to learn. This is why I’m keeping FSJ’s “Hindsight” for this column’s title. (When I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies, I dithered between English and History, and chose English only because I was likely to finish it sooner). I agree with Manong Frankie, among many others, that one of the greatest obstacles to our nationhood is the fact that we have a very poor memory—much less an understanding—of our past. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that amnesia now, in the prospect of electing a dictator’s son to the presidency, a full half-century after the father plunged this country into political and moral darkness by declaring martial law to perpetuate himself in power.

There—it’s when vexatious thoughts like that cross my mind that my fingers begin to itch and I want to editorialize, the complete opposite of my impulse as a fictionist to show and not tell. (I often begin my fiction-writing classes by comparing an editorial on, say, justice for the poor with a short story dealing with the same concern, but without once mentioning “justice,” “poverty,” and such abstractions.) But even as I remain a fictionist at heart, there’s a time for telling, for gathering up the threads of an unfolding narrative and declaring, in plain language, what they mean. That’s what I hope to do.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

My Lifestyle column in the Philippine STAR, “Penman,” has now been moved to every other Sunday, to avoid the awkwardness (and extravagance) of having two of my columns appear in the paper on Mondays. My takeover of F. Sionil Jose’s “Hindsight” on the Op-Ed page debuts tomorrow.

I WAS sixteen years late to the party, but I finally gave in and opened a Facebook account last June under my name, initially just for family. A few weeks ago I began accepting “friends,” of which I now have about 600, and I don’t intend to add too many more, although time and tolerance could change that reticence as well.

I resisted joining Facebook all those years for all the reasons some of my real-life friends remain staunch holdouts. Foremostly, it seemed to diminish and commodify the idea of friendship, replacing what should have been forged over conversation, coffee, and even conflict with a few keystrokes. Even now, looking at the roster of my newfound “friends,” I know—and do not really regret—that less than half of them are people I have actually broken bread or raised a toast with.

Honest to God, not being a politician, I don’t need 5,000 friends; I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1,000 of them. If they all pledged to buy my next book, then maybe I’d reconsider and lower the bar by a foot or two, in the cause of promoting literacy and my Fountain Pen Rescue Fund.

And then of course Facebook is a total timesuck, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the void that gets created by engaging in an activity that seems like it will be short but ends up taking up huge amounts of time.” It’s just not human not to read and then not to respond to comments on your posts, and then not to read the posts of others and not to react to them.

Every “tag” might as well be a distress call; somewhere out there you’re being praised or reviled, and you just have to pause that report you’re drafting for the Board of Regents or that article you’re refereeing for the Journal of Linguistics to see what Cookie has been saying about that encounter in Boracay or Chef Dodo’s opinion of your dinuguan recipe.

As it is, even deciding who gets to be your Facebook “friend” or not raises all kinds of vexing and time-consuming moral dilemmas. I don’t know how others do it, but I review nearly every request I receive, going through that person’s profile—and not just our common “friends”—to see who and what’s behind the name. My rule of thumb is, if I really know you—and like you—then you’re in; if I know you by reputation, I might even feel honored, and click “confirm.” If I’ve never met or heard about you at all—which isn’t your fault or any fault for that matter—then I evaluate your application for virtual “friendship” using my shamelessly subjective criteria.

First, I check to see if you’re a real person, or that you are who you say you are. Early on in this “friendship” game, I received a slew of requests from impossibly pretty and shapely ladies, which made me wonder why I had waited sixteen years to enter paradise. (They all seemed to have one or two common “friends” with me, always the same persons, so I know who’s been extraordinarily amiable out there.) Out of curiosity (I swear!), I accepted one such request, and almost instantly got a private message that invited me to become her digital pen pal, because she was lonely and unoccupied in some far-off country. I wanted to tell her to buy my book of funny essays, or even my short stories, to relieve her boredom, but I had an inkling that creative nonfiction wasn’t going to be the bridge between us.

I checked out her posts—all of them suggestive of her good health and weight maintenance, and of her preference for clothes that did not consume too much fabric (kudos for sustainability)—only to notice that they had all been posted on the same day! My wonderment quickly turned to dismay, realizing that I, among other papas of the world, was being suckered into hell by this honeypot, who was very likely some ugly fellow like me named George or Brando. And so I sadly punched “delete,” as I did for the many others who would follow in Ms. Lonely’s wake.

Second, I check to see if you’re interesting and if we’ll get along. If all you can show me are endless updates of your profile picture—here’s me on the beach, here’s me with my dog, here’s me with a balloon, here’s me lifting weights—then we really don’t need each other, thank you. I have a soft spot for all kinds of artists, and I don’t necessarily just go for the famous or abundantly talented ones; I’ve signed in struggling young people because I admire honest effort.

If you’re a benign plantita proud of your grandkids, your succulents, and your muffins, you’re in—the world needs you! If you became my friend just to sell me something, you’re out (unless you buy my book first). Now here’s a killer: if I see even the slightest sign of you supporting dictatorship, book-banning, EJK, and fake news, you’re out. (I know we’re supposed to make friends across the political divide, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya,” but I didn’t join Facebook to get my daily dose of aggravation.)

Penman No. 400: A Book for the Pandemic

Penman for Monday, November 9, 2020

I BEGAN writing this column 20 years ago, shortly after I returned from nearly a year in England on a writing fellowship that eventually yielded my second novel, Soledad’s Sister

It was an exciting but also a challenging time, that turn of the century. We already knew that the much-ballyhooed Y2K threat was a colossal bust, but little did we imagine that even more titanic and very real dangers were just around the corner. Indeed, 2001 would see another Philippine President unceremoniously toppled, and then 9/11 would change the world and our sense of security forever, in much the same way as today’s pandemic will leave its scars for generations.

But in August 2000, I was in a plucky and hopeful mood. I was 46, an age when people are supposed to be approaching their peak. Professionally, that was probably true—I would become chair of the UP English department and then Vice President in a few years’ time. As a writer, I had ten books behind me by then, making me all puffed up like a preening peacock, but I had no idea that three-fourths of all the books I would write were still ahead of me, at the end of which I would feel properly deflated.

Into this happy turbulence came a call from an old friend from activist days, Millet Mananquil, and an invitation to write a weekly column for the Lifestyle section of the Philippine STAR. I felt flattered and elated; what better way was there to start a new century with? 

Before I left for England, for some years, I had been an editorial writer at the newspaper TODAY. It was a tremendous privilege (and responsibility) to work alongside the brilliant boss man Teddy Boy Locsin, who pretty much let me sermonize about the day’s politics and last week’s crime wave, but all that heavy-duty pondering left me a nervous wreck, and I begged Teddy Boy and our Lifestyle editor, the late Abe Florendo, to give me a column on the back page, where I could try to sound funny and maybe even witty, and which I would do for absolutely free, just so I could decompress. That’s how “Barfly” came to be—TODAY got a new columnist for nothing, and I kept my sanity.

By the time I returned, TODAY had folded up, but Millet’s timely invitation gave me new reason to have fun with words—without having to write editorials! It’s been 20 years since then, and yes, I have all my “Penman” column-pieces on file, about 1,065 of them at last count. Most of those pieces are probably forgettable, written on the run about whatever caught my fancy. But having retired from teaching and beginning to feel the slings and arrows of seniorhood, I began thinking last year about choosing what I thought were the most amusing of the lot—from getting my zipper stuck in the open position on a long flight to South Africa to crawling on my knees at the UP parking lot in search of a lost pen (in the finest tradition, you might say, of Mr. Bean)—and sticking them into a book.

I’m delighted to announce that that book—A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays—is out, published by the UP Press, with joyful cover art by Robert Alejandro. That it emerged in the middle of a pandemic means there’ll be no fancy launch with wine and canapes, but as my preface below suggests, it’s just as well, because you probably need to laugh as much as I do:

“The 110 essays in this collection were selected from many hundreds that I wrote and published for my Penman column in the Philippine STAR between 2000 and 2019, a two-decade period that saw me returning from a nine-month writing fellowship in England on one end and retiring from my teaching and administrative positions at the University of the Philippines (UP) on the other. 

“In other words, I grew old writing these pieces, but while picking and putting them together, I also realized what a fun ride it’s been, despite and sometimes because of the gross absurdities of Philippine politics and society. I decided to choose my more lighthearted pieces to entertain the reader and afford him or her a moment of relief and refuge, to remind ourselves that a gentle smile can be as precious and hard-won as a triumphal scream. Humor and comedy may yet be the best way of surviving a period seemingly intent on reducing us to tears and despair. 

“Critics have remarked how different in temperament my fiction is from my more popular Penman persona, and how I can dwell obsessively on such topics as fountain pens, computers, ramen noodles, vocabularies, Volkswagens, and of course my dear wife Beng. That’s because, as with my fiction, I believe that there can be great stories behind the simplest things (along with the suspicion that the simplest things are never really that simple). 

“But the bottom line is, I need a break, and so do you. I hope you enjoy reading these pieces—just a few at a time—as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

“My deepest thanks go to my friends and associates at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, particularly Roland Tolentino and Neil Garcia, for supporting the book, and to my editors at the Philippine STAR, chiefly Millet Mananquil and Igan D’Bayan, for bearing with me all these years.”

(The book can be ordered online from the UP Press store on Lazada at https://tiny.cc/boi1tz.)