Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.

 

Penman No. 337: A Perfect Ending

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Penman for Monday, January 21, 2019

 

I RETIRED last week after 35 years of service at the University of the Philippines, and I celebrated the special day with UP friends at a dinner graciously hosted by UP President Danilo Concepcion at his official residence, the newly renovated Executive House.

Standing in a wooded corner of Diliman close to C. P. Garcia, the Executive House was built by President Vicente Sinco in the late 1950s, and in its early years no president really lived there, but it became the venue for lively faculty colloquia, involving such intellectual stalwarts of the time as O.D. Corpuz, Ricardo Pascual, Cesar Adib Majul, Leopoldo Yabes, and Concepcion Dadufalza. When President Salvador P. Lopez decided to move with his wife into the place in 1969, they were reportedly met, in typical UP fashion, by a posse of protesters insisting on certain demands.

These historical precedents were thronging in my mind when I stepped into the EH last Tuesday evening for an all-UP dinner which, unlike all the other big events I had attended there, was being held in my honor—it was a trifecta of sorts, being my 65thbirthday, retirement day, and our 45thwedding anniversary.

Long before I became Vice President for Public Affairs, it had been my dream to end my service in UP with a small party for my closest and dearest UP friends at the EH, and that came true. Of course that dream began with entering UP itself, and it was my mother Emilia—BSE 1956, the only UP graduate among her 12 siblings—who fired that ambition. When I was a small boy, she would play a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” flipsided by “Push On, UP.” I guess you could say that my future was laid out for me that early, and I grew up without any doubt whatsoever that I would enter UP someday. She was with us that evening, lovely and graceful at 90. (Our daughter Demi, BA Art Studies 1995, joined us in spirit from California.)

In my farewell remarks, I also thanked my sweet wife Beng, from the UP College of Fine Arts, my 45 years of togetherness with whom was for me the better reason for the festivities. Aside from my friends in administration, teaching, and writing, some seniors and mentors obliged me with their presence—Dr. Gerry Sicat, who took me in off the street and employed me as a writer at NEDA in 1973, sent me back to school to learn some Economics, and sent me to the US on my first trip abroad in 1980 to expose a young writer to the outside world; former President Dodong Nemenzo, whom I had served as VP many years ago; National Artist Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, my professor in playwriting; Dr. Manny Alba, as debonair as ever; and dear friend Julie Hill, whose four books I have been privileged to edit, and who flew in all the way from California to be with us.

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I also noted that VPs and even presidents come and go, but UP is unique and in some ways immutable. The University is bigger than any one or even all of us. It has a life and an integrity of its own.

We need to keep fighting for a UP truly worthy of its founders’ dreams—a UP governed by merit rather than by patronage, and led by men and women of impeccable intelligence, ability, and most of all, integrity. Honor and excellence must be more than slogans to us but a way of life—honor even more so than excellence, which is easily found in a community of intellectually brilliant minds, but also easily compromised and corrupted by power.

While every day we need to recognize and to make the pragmatic decisions that keep the University afloat, every once in a while, we need to remember what makes us different from just another school, and uphold idealism over realism, principle over practical result, excellence over expediency.

I ended with a few appeals, addressed mainly to the friends I was leaving behind—foremostly, to keep the University’s liberal spirit alive. I have often argued that the true heart of UP lies neither in the authoritarian Right nor the doctrinaire Left, but in that great liberal middle, which—despite all of its confusions, contradictions, vacillations, and weaknesses—most honestly represents the search for truth, reason, freedom and justice in our society. I would much sooner trust someone who remembers and respects the value of doubt than those—like our despots and ideologues—who insist that they have the answer to everything.

I also asked the administration take special care of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which I was privileged to serve as director for eight years. It is a truly world-class institute whose work no one else in Asia is doing. For a relatively small investment, the UPICW keeps the literary imagination and the truth itself alive in this age of fake news and demagoguery.

It was a perfect albeit bittersweet ending to my formal career. I retired saddened to miss the company of people I had come to respect and love, but gladdened by the opportunity to serve our University and people in more creative ways—in a manner, at a time, and at a pace of my own choosing.

Beng and I expect to travel much and travel far together, ngunit malayong lupain man ang aming marating, din rin magbabago ang aming damdamin.

(The 3D-printed Mini-Me up there was a parting gift from my staff at the OVPPA. Many thanks, all!)

Penman No. 336: Goodbye to All That

 

IMG_8927.jpegPenman for Monday, January 14, 2019

 

TOMORROW, THE 15th of January 2019, I retire from the University of the Philippines after 35 years of teaching, a few of them spent in administration as department chair, institute director, and most recently on my second stint as Vice President for Public Affairs.

As I write this, a week in advance, the impact of departure hasn’t hit me yet. My schedule is still bursting with meetings and appointments, I’m still shining my shoes, and the guard at our building still opens the door for me, despite my daily gesture for him not to bother getting up from his seat.

I occupy a pretty large office on the ground floor of Quezon Hall, UP’s Greek-columned administration building. Erected in 1950, Quezon Hall was renovated recently, and I was among the first beneficiaries of that facelift, stepping two years ago into the same space I had used when I first served as VP in 2003-2005, but now spruced up and modernized in all kinds of ways.

I’m really a simple guy—I can get work done with just a laptop on, well, my lap—so I can appreciate the finer things in life more than someone born to them. I still remember, like most retirees would, my first office desk back in the early 1970s, when I joined the National Economic and Development Authority as a writer, and the sense of fulfillment that one felt just to have a table and typewriter of one’s own.

Having such a nice and well-appointed office—with its own restroom, conference table, sofa, bookshelves, air conditioning, electronic security, sprinklers, and strong wifi—didn’t only make me feel privileged, but also more responsible, knowing that public money had been spent to make me feel comfortable, work efficiently, and look dignified. Indeed, I had to dignify the office, by acting as I imagined a university official should—with respect and consideration for whoever came in to see me, and with prompt attention for any piece of paper in my tray, or any message in my inbox.

The first thing I did when I moved in was to personalize the place, mainly by bringing in the best of my private collection of paintings, pens, and antiquarian books. Having lost three decades’ worth of precious items in my Faculty Center office in the 2016 fire, I resolved that my new office was now the safest place to store my baubles, although I had nothing of too great a monetary value to attract thieves.

Aside from my favorites among my wife Beng’s own watercolors, the paintings consist of midcentury landscapes by the likes of Jorge Pineda and Gabriel Custodio, accomplished minor masters but nowhere as auctionable as Amorsolo or Kiukok. I have books, maps, and manuscripts dating back to 1490 (a page from a Latin breviary, my one example of true incunabula), but who else seriously wants to sniff handwritten letters from the 1600s, or musty English periodicals from the 1700s? Now and then I get a respectful question from visitors about my curios—let’s not forget the 1970s Olivetti Valentine and 1923 Corona folding typewriter stashed in a corner—but usually they don’t even notice that the magazines on my coffee table go back to the 1930s.

That’s been perfectly fine by me, because the office was always more of a shelter than a showcase, a cabinet of curiosities for my own inspection and enjoyment, particularly in moments of stress and anxiety, as any PR job inevitably entails. Confronted with the crisis of the hour, I’d leaf through the marvelous illustrations in a 200-year-old book of world travels, or patiently clean a Parker Duofold pen that Henry Ford or Manuel L. Quezon might have used, or gaze at an indelibly orange sunset from the 1940s, and feel reassured by the certainty that all the kinks and creases of today will get smoothened out by the sheer passage of imperial time.

I’m doubtlessly going to miss this mini-museum that I’ve cobbled together. I’ll be bringing the items home, or putting them away in safe storage, but it will be the place itself that I’ll be looking back on wistfully, knowing that, unlike many less-blessed employees trooping joylessly to their cubicles, I loved going to the office and working there, in the mute but expressive company of my favorite things. (I have a home office, of course, similar in some ways but much smaller and less carefully curated.)

In my fondest dreams, I wish that UP would someday accept my best books, manuscripts, and paintings as a donation and house them in a properly ventilated reading room, so that more generations of students can appreciate what I’ve enjoyed putting together and poring over. It was, after all, for the looks of surprise and delight on my students’ faces that I first bought these old books and brought them to class—not just to be ogled, but to be held and leafed through, so they could appreciate the materiality of literature, indeed of things before their time, in this now-centered world.

As I join that past and become, myself, an antiquarian artifact, let me say goodbye to all that, thanking my lucky stars and all the people who made UP the best possible workplace and second home to this writer-cum-bureaucrat. No bigger and brighter office to next step into than the future itself.