Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

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Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

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.

 

Penman No. 214: Soon, Another Presidential Race

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Penman for Monday, August 29, 2016

 

 

NO, NOT for President of the Republic of the Philippines, but, for some Filipinos, an almost equally significant post—that of President of the University of the Philippines System, who will be chosen by the UP Board of Regents in a meeting in mid-November. Standing at the forefront of Philippine higher education, UP—recognized by its new Charter as “the national university”—very often sets the standards and the tone for other Philippine universities, especially State-funded ones, to follow. Thus, the position is much more than honorific or ceremonial; the UP President is expected to be a visionary, an executive, a manager, a motivator, a mentor, a democrat, a disciplinarian, a nationalist, and an internationalist all at once.

UP Presidents have been known to surprise their constituencies. The very first one, Dr. Murray Simpson Bartlett, was an American and, of all things, a Protestant pastor—and yet he envisaged the new institution as a “University for Filipinos.”

Edgardo J. Angara was a successful lawyer and a budding politician, having served as a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when he was asked by outgoing UP President Onofre D. Corpuz to consider taking over in 1981. The reluctant nominee and non-academic turned out to be one of UP’s best presidents, restructuring the university’s organization, boosting faculty salaries, and reforming its curricula.

Francisco Nemenzo was a professed Marxist who modernized the university’s facilities and mindset, revitalizing UP’s core General Education program, and making better commercial use of UP’s vast landholdings. Emerlinda R. Roman broke barriers as UP’s first woman president, after having served twice as Chancellor of UP Diliman. A management expert, she was able to harness considerable resources on the crest of UP’s centennial in 2008 and to employ those to the UP community’s benefit.

Incumbent President Alfredo E. Pascual’s ascendancy to the presidency came as a surprise to nearly everyone—perhaps including Pascual himself—when the BOR elected him in 2010 on the first ballot, reportedly by a one-vote margin (by tradition, the BOR members agree on a unanimous vote after the fact). A Chemistry and MBA graduate who later spent many years in the private sector and with the Asian Development Bank, Pascual was seen to be an outsider and went off to a rocky start. But he proved to be a quick study, and has worked hard to raise UP’s international profile and its connections, to raise performance incentives for UP’s professors and researchers, and to expand the UP System’s reach.

Their successor, according to search guidelines recently released by the BOR, must meet the following basic standards: (1) hold a master’s degree, with a doctorate preferred; (2) have substantial academic experience at the tertiary level; (3) be able to serve the full term of six years before reaching the age of 70; and (4) have no conviction for administrative and criminal offenses.

Additionally, and just as importantly, they should demonstrate (1) a commitment to academic excellence and national development; (2) the political will and the skills to defend and promote academic freedom and the University’s institutional autonomy; (3) a commitment to democratic governance in the University based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency, and active participation of constituents; and (4) a commitment to preserve the public and secular character of the University. (There are more requirements, which you can check out in the guidelines here: http://www.up.edu.ph/call-for-nominations-for-the-next-u-p-president/.)

This early, several prominent academics and personalities have been heard or rumored to be interested in running for the presidency. They include UP Law Dean and popular radio host Danilo Concepcion; former UP Diliman Chancellor and physicist Caesar Saloma; current UP Diliman Chancellor, anthropologist, and newspaper columnist Michael Tan; current Vice President for Academic Affairs and marine biologist Gisela Concepcion; and former Senator and now Representative and UP Law alumna Pia Cayetano. The names of former Vice President for Academic Affairs and now National Historical Commission chief Maris Diokno and of former CSSP Dean Cynthia Bautista have also been mentioned. (My information, mind you, is based on coffeeshop chatter, and could very well be denied by any of these eminent persons tomorrow.)

In practical terms, and despite and away from all the spirited rhetoric we can expect of the campaign process, it will all come down to a matter of securing six votes among the 11 members of the BOR. The composition of that board is provided for by the new UP Charter, RA 9500 (which, as Dodong Nemenzo’s Vice President for Public Affairs, I among others had the privilege of lobbying for in the Senate before it passed under Emer Roman in 2008, perhaps the government’s greatest gift to UP on its centennial).

The BOR comprises the chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education, who also serves as the BOR’s chair; the incumbent UP President, who serves as co-chair; the chairs of the Senate and House committees on education; the president of the UP Alumni Association; the elected representatives of the UP faculty, staff, and student sectors; and three regents appointed at large by the President of the Philippines (the BOR will recommend a shortlist of persons chosen for their academic and professional accomplishments—at least two of them have to be UP alumni—but the President can technically make other selections). Effectively, therefore—considering that the two representatives from the Senate and the House will likely be Malacañang allies—the Philippine President can exercise tremendous influence in selecting the UP President.

Before the new Charter defined an odd-numbered BOR, a tie was possible. In 2004, the then 12-person BOR was deadlocked 6-6 between Emer Roman and the Palace candidate, then Ambassador to the UK Edgardo Espiritu. The tie was broken 7-5 in a second vote a week later.

It’s a critical choice for both the Palace and the University because UP’s history is replete with instances when the two presidents have clashed bitterly, with sometimes brutal consequences. Rafael Palma fought Manuel L. Quezon over political issues, including free speech at UP, as a result of which the government cut UP’s budget and denied Palma a gratuity upon his retirement in 1933 after a decade of service. (Upon Palma’s death in 1939, however, Quezon praised him as “a patriot, a scholar, and one of the noblest characters that ever lived,” and even had Palma’s interment delayed so he could personally attend.) Bienvenido Gonzalez and Elpidio Quirino also warred over academic freedom. Salvador Lopez stood up to his fraternity brother Ferdinand Marcos in defense of civil liberties.

Bearing these presidents and precedents in mind, if you have a candidate whom you feel should lead UP onward, take note that nominations will close on September 23; the BOR election will be held November 15; and the incoming UP President will take office on February 10, 2017.

I myself will be retiring from full-time teaching in three years and so will see only half of the next President’s term through, but whoever gets chosen should have an impact less on the outgoing profs like me than on the incoming freshmen of Batch 2017. Admittedly, UP could always do better at basketball, but choosing the next coach of the UP System could prove just as important to the shaping of the Filipino mind as the one that 16 million of us made just a few months ago.

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Penman No. 203: Another Filipino Winner at the IPSC

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

EVERY MAY, at Dartmouth House in London, about 60 young men and women from all over the world gather to represent their respective countries at the International Public Speaking Competition (IPSC). Sponsored by the English Speaking Union (ESU), the IPSC is the world’s premier public speaking event for young people, bringing together the best minds of their generation to share their ideas about the planet’s most pressing concerns.

The Philippines has been sending representatives to the IPSC since 2002, and was granted International Charter Membership in October 2005. As a country we have performed superlatively, producing two world champions and at least four semifinalists. This 2016, I’m very happy to report that we notched another spectacular achievement, with Marco del Valle being named global first runner-up, after the representative from Mexico.

Just 20 and a Business Administration junior at UP Diliman, Marco is no stranger to competition, having already won six titles in business and marketing competitions, including the Henkel Innovation Challenge in Vienna, where he and his partner represented the Philippines and also placed second. Marco’s success comes as the latest in a long string of stellar finishes for young Filipino public speakers at the IPSC.

In 2004, 17-year-old Patricia Evangelista stunned everyone when she was named IPSC champion, presaging a successful career in print and broadcast journalism. In 2008, Gian Karlo Dapul became our second world champion at the IPSC, besting 57 other participants from 35 countries—an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only a Philippine Science High School senior then, competing against mostly college students. (The third-place winner that year, Rajab Ali Sayed of Pakistan, turned out to be half-Filipino.) In 2012, Bryan Chua made it to the semifinals, as did Germaine Chuabio in 2011, and Ervim Charles Orbase in 2010. (In 2012, Hong Kong’s representative in the finals, Ramon Joseph Valentin Romano, was actually a Filipino born of migrant parents.)

This year’s Philippine participation at the IPSC was made possible by the generous support of longtime partners Pilipinas Shell and Far Eastern University, led respectively by Ed Chua and Lourdes Montinola, who both sit on the board of ESU-Philippines. ESU-Philippines Chairperson Gigi Virata and President Marlu Vilches ably led this year’s selection process, along with ESU-Philippines regulars Linda Panlilio, Krip Yuson, and myself. As elated as we were by Marco’s performance, our joy was overshadowed by the recent and unexpected passing of two ESU-Philippine stalwarts—Ambassador Cesar Bautista, our chairman emeritus, and Loline Reed, who had very patiently and kindly guided our representatives in London, along with her husband Ken.

This year’s theme for the IPSC finals was “Integrity has no need of rules,” and Marco drew deeply on his personal experience to address the topic, declaring at one point that “Too often, we demonize people… who don’t live by our religious or social rules. But moral integrity isn’t about obeying rules. It’s about recognizing the fact that while we all make mistakes, we’re all capable of rising above them.”

He explains further: “Overall, my speech was about my relationship with my family, particularly my mother. In the speech (which is the same speech I gave for the national finals), I talked about the sacrifices my mother made in the face of different social norms, the same sacrifices that millions of people make every day. I talk about how our culture stigmatizes families who don’t fit the norm, and how that makes it harder for these families to function. I conclude, however, that the sacrifices we make for those we love will always outweigh any rules or social norms we might break.

“I’d have to say that my favorite part of the whole experience was getting to know the other contestants and hearing their stories. It’s one thing to place countries on a map, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually be roommates with someone from Serbia, to learn about Moroccan weddings and Estonian startup culture, and to hear stories of African democracy as told by someone from Ghana.

“As we went through the competition, I think the feeling we all got as contestants was that we weren’t competing against each other as much as we were sharing our own experiences. I was really happy to be able to show a bit of my culture to the world and share what makes Filipino culture special. Yet when you hear speech after speech from so many brilliant young minds around the world, you start to realize that there’s really not that much which separates us from other countries: we share the same dreams, the same fears, and the same ambitions. Above all, this is what I think the ESU IPSC really helped showcase: that it’s possible to celebrate our differences as individuals and as nations, while also respecting and recognizing the things we have in common. And in a world where fear and intolerance are rapidly becoming the political weapons of choice, I think it’s a lesson more people should learn.

“When I entered this competition, all I really hoped for was the chance to share my story and talk the causes I believe in. Thankfully, I’ve been given the chance to do so much more. Winning 1st runner-up is, for me, more than just a personal accomplishment. It’s a chance to show the world that the Filipino spirit is capable of anything.”

Marco’s IPSC experience mirrors that of his predecessors, most of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in public service, media, education, and business. Dr. Renzo Guinto of UP Manila, our IPSC representative in 2008, recalls that “I learned to understand, appreciate, and respect cultures and perspectives that are different from my own, which in turn bolstered my sense of empathy. I could say that the ESU contest played a crucial part in preparing me to become the global health advocate that I am today.”

Ryan Kaliph Buenafe, who as an FEU student was our first IPSC contestant in 2002 and who now serves as Global E-Learning Manager for the TelePerformance Group, attests that “The ESU content was about practice, revisions, then more practice and more revisions. Preparing for it meant that I had to tell a compelling story and message in a limited amount of time and engage the audience so they would be inspired by my story. This is not easy when you’re young. There’s no Wikipedia or Google shortcut. I had to work hard, then practice and revise. This is, as I have found out as an adult, a great preparation for life. We practice what we do so we can do it better and allow others to share their greatness (such as Dr. Jimmy Abad and Krip Yuson who helped me improve and revise my speech). It is our small but significant opportunity to share with the world, on a global stage, the story of our people and our selves…. If we are to learn from history and combat terrorism and hate, we need to connect as one people. ESU is a forum where such a connection is made possible and it has been the greatest experience of my youth.”

We can only hope that more young Filipinos like Marco will emerge to speak for the Philippines on the global stage and be heard for what they have to share. Mabuhay!

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(Photos by Giulia Rampinelli)

Penman No. 197: Why the Arts Should Matter

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

FOR THE first time ever, the University of the Philippines held a Knowledge Festival in Tagaytay last week, showcasing the most significant and interesting projects being undertaken by UP scientists, artists, and researchers, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I was asked to present a keynote talk on “Why the Arts Should Matter.” Herewith, some excerpts:

It has become practically a cliché to say that our lives, and certainly our learning, would not be complete without some appreciation of the humanities. Our tradition of liberal education has primed us to the necessity of cultivating the “well-rounded individual” schooled in the basics of various disciplines.

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.

But conversely, let me ask: Why indeed are the arts and humanities important? I’ll turn to conventional wisdom and quote what should already be obvious, from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:

“The humanities enrich and ennoble us, and their pursuit would be worthwhile even if they were not socially useful. But in fact, the humanities are socially useful. They fulfill vitally important needs for critical and imaginative thinking about the issues that confront us as citizens and as human beings…. We need the humanities. Without them we cannot possibly govern ourselves wisely or well.”

What strikes me here is the word “govern,” which seems to me to be of utmost importance to us at this juncture of our history, and which is key to our topic today. The role of the humanities in our intellectual and cultural life is to enable us to govern ourselves wisely and well. They deal with issues and value judgments, with defining the commonalities and differences of human experience, hopefully toward an affirmation of our most positive human traits, such as the need to work together as families, communities, and societies. In sum, they help us agree on a common stake, based on which we can make plans, make decisions, and take action.

That notion of a common stake is crucial, especially on this eve of one of the most contested elections in our history. Despite all the predictable rhetoric (and the real need) for national unity, we find it difficult to unite beyond short-term political expediency because we remain unable to agree on our most common ideals—the national dream, as it were, or the direction of the national narrative. What is our story? Who is its hero? Are we looking at an unfolding tragedy, a realist drama, or a romantic myth? To go further, what is important to us as a people? Where do we want to go? What price are we willing to pay to get there?

These are questions that are answerable less by scientific research and inquiry than by artistic imagination and insight. It will be mainly the humanities and the social sciences that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities, as it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

This does not mean that scientists and engineers will have little or nothing to contribute to the crafting of this vision; I firmly believe they should, and that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population, the national birth rate, or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter. This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects.

We have much to do by way of cultural education, and artistic expression is a vital means by which this can be achieved. The arts are the key to those parts of us that reason and logic alone cannot reach.

But I came here this morning to go beyond the obvious, and to present an aspect of the arts that few national and even academic policymakers ever think about, and it’s this: the arts should matter not only because they’re good for the soul, but because they’re good for the body as well—taking the body to mean our economic and material well-being. In simple words, and moving from the philosophical to the practical sphere, the arts can mean big business.

The arts underlie what have been called “creative industries,” and these industries have made tremendous contributions to the economies of countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China, Japan, Brazil, and Thailand.

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P661.23 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from 4.82 percent in 2006 to 7.34 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11.1 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to 14.14 percent four years later.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

However, culture as a whole remains a low priority, often subsumed to other activities like tourism, entertainment, and sports. And it’s getting worse; very recently, cultural funding by the NCCA—the largest source of government funding for the arts—practically dried up because of onerous conditions imposed on cultural organizations in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, requiring them to undergo a tedious accreditation process by, of all things, the DSWD. Unlike many progressive countries, we do not even see it fit to have a standalone Department of Culture, so the DBM and even the DSWD can push the NCCA around.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends. Just as we need to develop more PhD-level scientists and researchers, we need to support advanced practitioners and theorists in the arts, as they have every capability to achieve world-class status, with the right incentives.

Let me end with a message—perhaps even a plea—to those who hold the purse-strings of our institutions. That journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert, or that workshop is always more than a line-item expense. Supporting and patronizing these artistic endeavors is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.

 

Penman No. 180: Escapade in Bohol

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Penman for Monday, December 28, 2015

 

 

YEARS AGO I made a promise to take my wife Beng to all the beautiful places in the world I’ve been, so we’ve been traveling up a storm, flying off to whatever destination our aging knees and limited budget can still afford. The pre- and post-Christmas break is a great time for escapades like this, and we’ve run off to Shanghai and Beijing in Decembers past, availing ourselves of budget fares we’d booked months ahead for the privilege of slurping hot noodles in the freezing cold.

This year—encouraged by another irresistible combo deal on airfare and a good hotel—we chose to go down to Bohol. I’d been there a couple of times before on business and Beng and I actually found ourselves stranded there once, overnight, because our Dumaguete-bound ferry couldn’t make it through a frightful storm, so this time we decided to do a proper tour of the place, mixed in with a bit of work we both had to catch up on.

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We were lodged at the mid-range Panglao Regents Park Resort, about a 30-minute ride from the airport and a short walk to Alona Beach, a focal point not just for swimming and food but also for the innumerable dive shops that cater to showcasing Panglao’s top attraction, its underwater life. Being sedate and sedentary seniors, Beng and I contented ourselves with sipping cool mango shakes and watching the scenery, but there’s never a dearth of interesting things to look at in Bohol, whether beneath the sea or aboveground.

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We signed up for two tours: the “Chocolate Hills” tour, which takes you on a daylong ride around the island for an eyeful of its most scenic spots, and the “island-hopping” tour, which promises an early-morning rendezvous with dolphins, snorkeling and lunch at Balicasag Island, then a short detour to Virgin Island. Seasoned travelers may disdain these one-size-fits-all tours, but Beng and I never do, knowing that they’re pretty efficient and often good value for money for first-time tourists, and that ultimately it all depends on knowing what to look for, and knowing how to appreciate what you’re looking at.

It was a rainy day when we headed out for the Chocolate Hills, so the tarsiers were huddled under the branches and the hills themselves were shrouded in mist, but I took the rain in stride, seeing how it lent a certain freshness and vividness to things, and I could sense the earth exhaling after a long dry spell. The tour guide at the butterfly farm led us along with deft humor, making even dead insects come alive, and we gamely crossed the Hanging Bridge, to and fro, like schoolkids on a dare.

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I had visited the old Loboc Church before an earthquake devastated it a few years ago, so I was sad to see it covered in scaffolding, awaiting restoration. What I didn’t expect to be more deeply moved by—not being a regular churchgoer (I pray every night, but have quarrels with dogma)—was stepping into the Baclayon Church, which I had missed on my first visit. Its altar—a main retablo framed by two smaller ones—stood intact and as majestic as ever, and washed in orange, green, and blue light seemed ethereal. But behind a red cloth curtain and the yellow “Caution” warnings gaped what used to be the nave, a cavity that in the 1800s must have throbbed with pious energy, as well as with the flutter of fans and the murmur of courtships, disapprovals, and ungodly gossip.

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We set out for our island cruise at 6 am the following morning, and much to Beng’s relief the sky was clear and the water was silvery smooth. We shared our large banca with two women from Canada and another from Germany, our banter laced with the anticipation of meeting our goal for the morning: finding dolphins in the open water. I knew from previous reading that several species of dolphin and whale could be found in the Bohol Sea, but I would have been happy to spot any one of them. Dolphins feed in the morning, until about eight, so it was important that we head out quickly enough, also given that about half a dozen other boats were in the same area for the same reason.

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Our boatman, whom we’ll call Dencio, was an experienced spotter (more on his story later), and soon enough, about 30 minutes out of port, he pointed to our right, where two gray and shiny heads bobbed in and out of the water—our first of several sightings. Dolphin and whale watching is the sort of thing a CIA analyst would be good at—discerning, from the seemingly immutable pattern of cresting waves and foamy wavelets, the odd leap of a creature into the air. The Risso’s dolphins we saw (the Flipper of TV fame was a bottlenose) broke out out in pairs and trios, but for every one of them that surfaced, we were told, there were many more underwater. Dencio pushed out his boat much farther than the others did, and for a long while it felt like we were simply drifting toward Siquijor, but just as I was about to give up, I noticed a commotion in the distance—a pod of maybe a dozen spinner dolphins frolicking in the air. The whole boat came alive with glee and Dencio tried to give chase, but we were going against the waves, which had become too choppy, and the shiny caravan of fins and flippers vanished into the horizon.

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Balicasag Island is where the divers go, and was our midday stop. While our companions snorkeled in the fish sanctuary and watched giant turtles feeding on the sea grass, Beng and I ordered lunch (fresh fish, of course, broiled and kinilaw) and listened to Dencio’s story: “We used to hunt whale sharks,” he said, “and would kill two of them a day, baiting them and catching them with large hooks.” (This hook called the pamilac lent its name to Pamilacan Island nearby.) “We sold them very cheaply, not knowing that in Japan, a whale shark could sell for about half a million pesos. We could have been millionaires! We did this until a TV crew filmed what we were doing, and then a ban was imposed, so now we don’t catch whales anymore. Today you can find very large ones swimming under your boat. They’re very smart, and can sense danger. Sometimes they look straight at you with their eyes.”

On the ride back to Panglao, we stopped by Virgin Island (renamed Isola di Francesco by its private owner, who has turned the island into a religious shrine)—little more than a long curling strip of white sand with a clump of trees on one end, but serene and restful, a fine ending to a colorful day. Or rather, make that ending a Thai massage, a grilled seafood dinner, and a cold beer.

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“They’ll burn in the sun,” Beng had remarked of our European companions, who took every opportunity to swim and to laze in the tropic heat. “That’s because they’ll be flying home in a few days to an icy winter,” I said, “while we just have Manila’s traffic and pollution to deal with.” Sounds like a good reason for another escapade.

Penman No. 175: Filipinos at the Field Museum

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Penman for Monday, November 23, 2015

 

 

AS MANILA got busy with preparations and lockdowns for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beng and I flew out to Chicago for the culmination of a cross-continental initiative of another kind: the Art and Anthropology project hosted by the Field Museum and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A few months ago, sometime in August, five Filipino-American artists (Jennifer Buckler, Elisa Racelis Boughner, Cesar Conde, Joel Javier, and Trisha Oralie Martin) came over to Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts on a large mural (technically a free-standing painting) featuring objects from the Field Museum’s vast collection of Philippine anthropological artifacts. That phase was hosted locally by the Erehwon Art Center in Quezon City, on the board of whose foundation Beng (aka June Poticar Dalisay, the painter and art conservator) sits as Vice President.

This October, the five Filipino artists (Leonardo Aguinaldo, Florentino Impas, Jr., Emmanuel Garibay, Jason Moss, and Othoniel Neri) went to Chicago to do the same thing—working collaboratively with the Fil-Ams on a 28’ x 7’ mural at the Field Museum, locating ancient Filipino artifacts in a more contemporary and inevitably globalized context.

The moving spirit behind this project was the indefatigable Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a Chicago-based Filipino-American cultural scholar and activist who also happens to be a prizewinning writer and presidential awardee for her work as an overseas Filipino. Inspired by the Philippine artifacts at the Field Museum, Almi—the only Filipino research associate at the Field—had secured a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for the project, which both the foundation and the museum acknowledged to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Better known for its so-called “genius grants” awarded to outstanding individuals, the MacArthur Foundation rarely provides funding for large institutions like the Field Museum, Almi says, but they saw in her proposal an opportunity to spur not just a trans-Pacific collaboration among artists but also a dialogue with the past. And there was no better host in the US for this project than the venerable Field Museum, whose collection of indigenous Philippine archaeological and ethnographic materials—numbering around 10,000 objects, most of them brought over by museum expeditions to the islands at the early part of the 20th century—is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

The mural produced by the artists in Chicago—which will be on display at the Field for six months since its formal unveiling last November 7—is both a celebration and indictment of our rich and complicated history, invoking all manner of element from the archetypal bulol and the revolutionary KKK (a symbol that predictably sparked some controversy, given its American context) to McDonald’s and Tito, Vic & Joey.

For the artists themselves, the collaboration was a rich, if sometimes unavoidably difficult, learning experience—learning about themselves, about each other, about art-making, about the mutable meanings of “Filipino” over time and space. Prior to the project, some of the Fil-Ams had never been to the Philippines, and some of the Filipinos had never been to America; that alone ensured sufficient provocation in their approach to the task at hand. The collaborative aspect itself was a challenge, given the need to manage and balance each artist’s individuality with some overarching purpose or design. But in the end, as Joel Javier would tell me, despite all the dialectics involved, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” that every participant—chosen by a jury in each country—would have signed up for.

Our sortie into the Field Museum—a place I’ve visited quite a few times over the past two decades, but can never exhaust, like the Smithsonian—was made even more special by a private tour arranged for us by Almi Gilles into the heart of the Philippine collection itself, in the underground vaults of the Field. As a certified museum rat and armchair adventurer, I took it as an invitation to die and go to heaven; the closest I hope to get to Indiana Jones was to wear his hat, which I wore on the appointed day.

We were met at the museum by co-curator Alpha Sadcopen, a young Filipino-American woman with roots in the northern highlands; she held the key to the collection, and led us into a large room where shelf upon shelf of tribal and cultural artifacts—baskets, textiles, weapons, utensils, body decorations, etc.—were preserved, most of them never likely to be put on display outside. “I could feel a shiver down my spine,” Beng would tell me later, and I certainly did myself, walking past the priceless objects, and discerning in each one of them a pair of hands, a face, a story.

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As if that peek into our material past wasn’t a treat enough, Almi then led us down a few more corridors to meet with another titan of Philippine studies—the renowned zoologist Dr. Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the museum’s Division of Mammals. Larry began studying the wildlife of the Philippines in 1981, a lifelong passion that has resulted in the discovery of dozens of previously unknown mammalian species, in many landmark publications, and in the establishment, with Larry’s Filipino colleagues, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines.

We often think of world-class scientists as surly, self-absorbed individuals who can’t relate to anything beyond what they see in their microscopes and telescopes, but Larry defies that stereotype. You couldn’t have met a nicer man, and one who chose not only to sound the usual alarm about our threatened environment, but also to emphasize the positive and the possible. “Hectare for hectare, the Philippines is the world’s richest place for endemism,” he told us, cradling what seemed to be a huge rat saved from a 1946 expedition to Luzon, “and there certainly are serious threats to Philippine wildlife, but we’ve also noticed some bright spots. For example, the growth of overseas jobs for many Filipinos—despite its social costs—has also eased the pressures on the environment and on wildlife in many rural communities.” Dr. Heaney is coming over to Manila next year to launch another book, and I’ll be sure to be there.

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And what’s next for Almi Gilles? She’s looking skyward, into the connections between Philippine anthropology and astronomy. Her colleagues at the museum seem thrilled by the idea, and so are we.

For more pictures of the Philippine collection at the Field Museum, see here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmanila/albums/72157660699359089.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 169: I Saw Them Standing There (Almost)

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Penman for Monday, October 5, 2015

I WAS playing Texas Hold ‘Em with a bunch of younger guys a couple of weeks ago in my favorite poker joint and one of them was delivering a spirited rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Nothing on You” (yes, this old fogey knows the singer and the song)—probably to disguise a pair of Kings—and the table talk came around to our preferences in music.

“I can tell where this is going,” I thought. But then they call me “Daddy Butch” in the place—everyone above 50 is a “daddy” or a “mommy,” which is better than the monikers some other regulars sport, such as “Itlog,” “Daga,” “Paos,” and “Payat”—so my age wasn’t the issue. The young ‘uns were really interested in knowing what kind of music my generation listened to, so after everyone else had spoken in praise of pop, hip-hop, grunge, and metal, I yielded the one and only answer any soul born in 1954 can truthfully produce: “The Beatles.”

Some nodded, smiling, and then our dealer—a sweet girl in her mid- to late 20s—shuffled the cards and said, “Were they really big?”

I have to say, I almost lost it at that point.

I pride myself at the table on my poker face, a point my adversaries readily concede—“You can never tell what hand Daddy Butch is holding!”, I’d often hear. But that fearsome inscrutability more likely comes from the fact that, at the freewheeling 10-20 cash game, I’ll bet on anything from a pocket pair of Jacks to a 7-deuce off-suit. In others words, I’m what they call a “loose and aggressive player,” possibly mad, possibly idiotic, possibly serious. I lose a lot of money playing this way (I behave much better in tournaments) but it’s worth the sight of my tablemates guessing and squirming.

But again, I almost lost that carefully crafted coolness when I heard (with better emphasis) “Were THE BEATLES really big???” It was worse, to me, than those schoolkids who asked why Mabini was chairbound throughout that whole “Heneral Luna” movie. I felt a vile sourness welling up from my gut and bubbling out of my ears and nostrils. You might forget the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and I won’t even bother you with trivia like the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Military Bases Agreement, but THE BEATLES????? (Let’s add a couple more question marks for real emphasis.)

I was too apoplectic to answer, but eventually someone on my left, a forty-something fellow who just might have been old enough to be rocked to sleep to the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” said “Yes, they were big.”

“Bigger than Nirvana?” someone else chimed in.

“Yes, bigger than Nirvana.”

“Bigger than One Direction?”

“Yes, bigger than One Direction.”

“Bigger than Michael Jackson?”

“Well, maybe MJ came closest to the Beatles in popularity.”

“Actually, they even claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ,” I finally said, “and depending on the number of Muslims and Buddhists in the world at that time, it just might have been true.”

“Really, they said that? When?

“In 1966—just before they came to the Philippines.”

“They CAME to the Philippines?”

“Sure—they had a big concert here on July 4, 1966—and I ALMOST saw them!” The bile had snuck down my throat now, and I was feeling much better, given a rapt audience for one of my favorite stories.

With full relish, I recounted how the Fab Four flew into Manila, were met by screaming, fishnet-stockinged girls, offended Bongbong Marcos, and were practically chased out of the old MIA by Liberace fans who clearly believed that—at least in the Philippines—the Beatles couldn’t possibly be bigger than the Marcoses.

Somewhere in there I interjected the story of how my mother had promised a 12-year-old named Butch that they were going to see the Beatles at the Rizal Coliseum. The indulgent mother and her eager son get as far as Quiapo Boulevard from their humble abode in Pasig, whereupon she sees a new moviehouse trumpeting the wonders of Cinerama. “Let’s watch this movie instead!” the lady says, and the boy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing John, Paul, George, and Ringo standing on the stage—albeit from 1,674 feet away in the bleachers—vanish into the gutter. That afternoon, as luckier fans swoon to “Please, Please Me” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” tank fire and bazookas echo in the boy’s ears, all throughout the two hours of “The Battle of the Bulge.”

My poker playmates look at me with wide-eyed wonder—I try to read their faces, like a a poker player ought to be be able to do—but I can’t tell if they can’t believe that I’m that old, or if they’re just awed to be sitting at the same table with someone who actually breathed the same jeepney-flavored air in the same politician-infested city as the lads from Liverpool.

They got nothing on you, Beatles!

Picture-'Britain's Finest' Beatles tribute band

AND IF these memories make you feel like suiting up in your collarless jackets and zippered boots and swaying to “Eight Days a Week,” you’ll get a chance to relive the Beatles experience when one of Britain’s finest Beatles tribute bands—called, well, Britain’s Finest—come to Manila for a concert on October 14, Wednesday, at the tent of the Midas Hotel and Casino on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

You can get your tickets (P3,800 for the VIP and P2,800 for the gold section at all SM Tickets (470-222) and TicketWorld (891-9999) outlets or via www.ticketworld.com.ph.

I’m planning to go, but I think I’ll leave my mom at home this time.

Penman No. 167: The Real Value of Remembering

Penman for Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY MARKS the 43rd anniversary of martial law, a time many Filipinos have forgotten or would rather forget. Those of us who went through it sound like a broken record when we say that—with the usual addendum that young people today have no idea what martial law means—and the phonograph gets creakier every year, the echoes fainter. It annoys us when no one else seems to make a big deal of the most centrally formative period of our sixty-something years, but it takes just a little math to realize, “Why should they?”

Forty-three years is longer than the interlude between the two World Wars, and longer even than the time between World War II and Vietnam. In the meanwhile, the world went through computers, VCRs, the collapse of the Soviet Union, cellphones, the Internet, and 9-11. Here at home, we went through EDSAs of various kinds, Pinatubo, Maguindanao, Yolanda, and Mamasapano. That’s an awfully long time, filled with mindboggling diversions and distractions, to keep your mind fixed on a scratchy black-and-white TV image of a man in a barong casting some strange voodoo hex on the the nation.

Thus I’m hardly surprised when my 19-year-old students admit to a blithe ignorance of Marcosian times. You can’t call it amnesia, because they had no memory to begin with; even the fervent clamors of today’s young activists draw on borrowed memory (but then again, isn’t that what history is, a sense-making narrative woven out of someone else’s recollections?).

I’m not a historian, but I try to do what I can to make the past come alive for my students in my Literature and Society class—not even to educate them on the nuances of specific events such as the declaration of martial law, but simply to make them aware of a life beyond the present, beyond themselves. An interest in the past can’t be forced; sometimes the best thing we can do is to open a small window on it, and then to enlarge that opening so they can see the bigger picture, and share in the excitement and the novelty of looking backward rather than forward.

Every now and then, when the urge grabs me and there’s an excuse to do so, I bring some odds and ends from my inestimably deep trove of vintage junk to class, as tinder for discussion. A 1923 Corona typewriter leads to a chat about the technology of writing, and how technology affects writing (Eliot and his typewriter, Hemingway and his pencil, computers and revision); a 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian shows how little has changed (“Look, UP was asking for a permanent endowment even then!”); an 1830 grammar book, perhaps the oldest manmade thing these kids have ever held (yes, I pass the book around for them to get a feel of old paper), offers proof of the near-immutability of grammar (“It’s like glacial ice,” I say. “It moves, but you can’t see it.”)

A young person’s starting point very often is, “What does this have to do with me?” I try to answer that two ways: (1) “Why does it have to have anything to do with you?” Part of growing up is learning and accepting that the world isn’t your nursemaid, that it could and will often be totally indifferent to you and your little plaints. But also (2) in a gentler mood and whenever possible, we connect the dots between, say, the god Achilles and his choice of a short but glorious life and, yes, the martial-law activist who didn’t expect to live beyond 25.

Last week, I urged my class (note “urged”—I keep absolute requirements to a minimum) to watch the movie Heneral Luna—to my mind, easily one of the most significant Filipino movies of recent years. Beng and I had seen it the night before; the theater was three-quarters full, and when the movie ended, the audience applauded, the two of us included. The movie reminded me of how many gaps remained in my own appreciation of our past; if I, a full professor at UP and a self-styled history buff, didn’t know the full story of Antonio Luna, how could I expect my charges to know anything about martial law?

That leads me to think that it won’t be the textbooks or balding professors like me who will make our youth wonder about what else they missed, but the movies—or, more broadly, literature and its power to make dramatic sense of events, its humanization of history. More than four decades after the fact, not enough novels have been written and not enough movies have been made of the martial law period (Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 being the standout in both print and film). Indeed, a definitive and comprehensive history of that time—and an independent one that kowtows neither to Marcos nor to Mao—has yet to be put together, although specific aspects of martial law (legal, economic, political, and personal) have been ventilated in various books and forums.

The real value of remembering martial law or some such national calamity, I’ll hazard, isn’t just in mouthing the oft-repeated “Never again!” I seriously doubt that even those who never experienced it will accept its repetition. Rather, it’s in looking back 43 years to take stock of what we’ve become since, as individuals and as a people—in memoir writing, we call this the difference between the remembered self and the remembering self. The very fact that they’re not the same thing should tell us something. It’s easy to say “No” to martial law ca. 1972, but what exactly will we be saying “Yes” to come 2016? The past keeps getting dimmer, but then again, some days, so does the future.

Penman No. 166: Ernest Meets Nestor

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Penman for Monday, September 14, 2015

A COUPLE of months ago, I wrote a piece here about the Nobel prizewinning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s brief visit to Manila in February 1941. When my friend Dr. Erwin Tiongson read that, he sent me more materials about that brief encounter between the literary titan and his local readers, including a reference to a second visit by Hemingway on May 6, presumably on his way back to the US.

(Now based in Washington, DC and a professor of economics at Georgetown, Erwin was recently in Manila himself with his journalist wife Titchie for a vacation and a series of presentations about their fascinating project of historical sleuthing, which you can find online at https://popdc.wordpress.com. I’ll be writing more next time about the Tiongsons and their meeting with Teresa “Binggay” Montilla, the granddaughter of Philippine Commissioner to Washington Jaime C. de Veyra and his remarkable wife Sofia, about whom the Tiongsons unearthed a trove of interesting historical material.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to share a bit of what Erwin sent me, taken from the American Chamber of Commerce Journal of June 1941, unbylined but attributed to the journal’s publisher and editor, Walter Robb. It’s an account of Hemingway as a man and a regular guy—41 years old, 225 pounds, black-haired and black-eyed, whose Spanish “runs along like a garrulous brook… words never fail him, nor picturesque phrases. He likes singing Basque folk songs and he and the Basques seeing him off on the clipper sang them all the way from the Manila Hotel to Cavite….”

Farther down that article, the reporter notes that “It’s easy to get Hemingway’s autograph, just ask for it and have a pen handy…. He autographed many copies of his book while he was in town. The book has been pirated at Shanghai, of course; when one of these spurious copies, no royalty to Hemingway, came along for autographing, Hemingway grinned and autographed it. He likes to use a standard typewriter in his work, which he does of mornings, but For Whom the Bell Tolls was not written that way: it was written in longhand. Hemingway uses a heavy stub fountain pen and this longhand of his, as bold as sword strokes, but honestly legible and well-spelled, flows across the paper as straight as a line.”

I was, of course, attracted to that passage because it particularly mentioned Hemingway’s pen, which I would have dearly loved to see; but also, it talked about Hemingway signing books, which reminded me of a photograph I adverted to in my earlier column, showing Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez, who in early 1941 would have been no more than 25 years old. I’d seen that picture in NVM’s house in UP when he was alive, and had worried that it might have been lost when the house burned down. But after my piece came out, I was happy to hear from NVM’s youngest daughter Lakshmi that she had posted a copy of it on her Facebook page, and I hope she doesn’t mind if I repost it here—Ernest meets Nestor, you might say.

Speaking of NVM Gonzalez, the literary community marked the centenary of his birth last Tuesday, September 8, in an evening of tributes at the Executive House at the University of the Philippines in Diliman organized by Prof. Adelaida Lucero. NVM, of course, taught with UP—among many other universities here and in the United States—for many years despite the fact that he never completed his bachelor’s degree. As director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, I was asked to say a few words at the testimonial dinner, which was attended by NVM’s widow Narita, and here’s a reconstruction of the remarks I made:

“NVM and I were born only 60 kilometers away from each other in Romblon—he on Romblon Island and I on neighboring Tablas—but also almost 40 years apart, and I never had the good fortune of being his student in UP. It’s actually my wife Beng who’s been closer to the Gonzalezes, having been Narita’s student at UP Elementary. But I had the chance to meet NVM and to enjoy his company when he returned to UP in the 1990s as International Writer-in-Residence under the auspices of what was then the UP Creative Writing Center. I had the honor of drafting his nomination as National Artist, signed by then Dean Josefina Agravante.

“Franz Arcellana was my teacher, and Bienvenido Santos and Greg Brillantes were my literary models; but it was NVM who hung out with us, whom we had fun with in our workshops in Baguio and Davao. And as advanced as he was in years, he was forward-looking and eager to learn. I remember running into him once in what was then the SM North Cyberzone, and I asked him what he was doing there. ‘I’m looking for a book on multimedia!’ he told me with that twinkle in his eyes.

“We didn’t always agree, but the one thing I can say about NVM is that he never threw his weight around, never pulled rank on us his younger associates, never thundered about how much older or more accomplished he was to suggest why he was right and we were wrong, despite his obvious seniority in age, experience, and wisdom. We appreciated that. That’s why, in the foreword to a book of essays by his friends that I edited after his death in 1999, I said that some writers are respected and admired, and others are loved. NVM was both.”

The celebration of NVM’s centenary won’t stop with that dinner—which also saw the launch, by the way, of new books on NVM: his poems, edited by Gemino Abad, and a Filipino translation of Seven Hills Away by Edgardo Maranan, published by the UP Press and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, respectively. At the end of this month, the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature will hold an exhibit of photographs of and works by him. His son Myke, based in the US, is organizing a fiction-writing workshop in January, the first half to take place in Diliman and the other in Mindoro, and the UPICW will be helping Myke out with that project.

It never ceases to amaze me how a web of words (make that a Worldwide Web, these days) can bring people together across the miles and years.

[Photo courtesy of Lakshmi Gonzalez-Yokoyama]