Penman No. 260: Meeting Major Kennon

Kennon

Penman for Monday, July 17, 2017

 

MY RECENT visit to the University of the Philippines Baguio and its new Museo Kordilerya, on which I reported last week, reminded me of another Baguio-related question which I’d been asking for some time now—in fact, every time I rode up or down Kennon Road, as I did last month. My question was, “Who was Kennon?”

I recall having found the answer to that in pre-Internet days—that he was an officer with the US Army Corps of Engineers who brought hundreds of Japanese laborers over to work on the road—but I didn’t know the details until I actively sought them out online.

 What happened to rekindle my interest was one of those early-morning trawls through eBay, where I typically look for Philippine-related material like old books, maps, and postcards, especially UP memorabilia. Prize finds have included a December 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian, and the first English edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, published in London in 1853.

I buy them when I can afford them, seeing it as my mission of sorts to repatriate these artifacts from the great indifferent and unknowing void out there, but most of the time I enjoy myself just going over the images on eBay and saving them to my hard drive—postcards of Escolta ca. 1910 and 1950, portraits of Carnival Queens from the 1930s, and press photographs of fleeting personalities like the Huk guerrillas William and Celia Pomeroy upon their arrest.

A postcard of Kennon Road—that 33.5-km stretch of zigzag road from Rosario, La Union to Baguio City—prompted me to ask again, “Who was Kennon?” Some Googling and a quick visit to Wikipedia yielded the information that Lyman Walter Vere Kennon (1858-1918) was a decorated US Army officer, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who was a major when he moved to the Philippines in 1899 after postings in Central America and Cuba. He served as the military governor of Ilocos Norte before going down to Mindanao, where he built the road linking Iligan to Lake Lanao. Then he went up north again to work on what would be called, in its early years, the Benguet Road. He finished it in two years, one year ahead of schedule, but not without much toil and sacrifice.

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The real gem of that Google chase turned out to be an article by Kennon himself—a report he submitted to his superiors in August 1905 and reprinted by the Baguio Midland Courier in September 1957, the full copy of which you can read online here: http://www.baguiomidlandcourier.com.ph/centennial_article.asp?mode=centennial/supplements/kennon.txt.

In that report, Maj. Kennon lays out the scope of the task ahead of him: “The plateau (was) most difficult to access. The first explorers reached it only by following the steep, slippery, dangerous, and obscure trails of the native Igorrote. To make the highlands of Benguet accessible to the white man, the Spaniards, towards the end of the last century, built a horse trail from Naguilian to Trinidad and Baguio and planned an extensive sanitarium and other buildings in Baguio. Insurrection and war prevented the carrying out of the project.

“Soon after the American occupation the manifest need of some such institution was recognized and the Government decided to carry on into effect as soon as practical the plans of its predecessors. Baguio could practically be reached only from San Fernando and Naguilian, necessitating a sea trip of twenty-four hours from Manila and two or three days of horseback travel over a steep trail built by the Spaniards in 1892. In the stormy season, steamers were frequently a week in going from Manila to San Fernando. Evidently, such a trip was quite impossible for invalids and convalescents.”

Less than 18 months after they surveyed the terrain, Kennon could report that “This work had been done between the dates of Aug. 16, 1903 and Jan. 29, 1905—that is to say, in seventeen and one half-months. At the former date, the most optimistic prediction allowed three years for the opening of the road, ‘if it could be done at all.’ Others said it would take 20 years of work, some of the foremen on the road considered that they had ‘a life job.’”

Of course, Kennon’s triumphal report wasn’t the only side to that story. Kennon had imported large numbers of Japanese and Chinese workers to speed things up, and some of those workers stayed on, becoming part of Baguio’s rich cultural heritage. (As the late historian Lydia Yu-Jose would note, however, the real influx of Japanese immigrants would follow later.) Some of those encounters would prove almost unbearably bittersweet. Sinai Hamada’s classic love story “Tanabata’s Wife” draws on that experience, as does this story, recounted here: http://www.filipiknow.net/tragic-story-kato-brothers-benguet/.

Kennon died a brigadier general in 1918, a week after his 60th birthday, unable to join the war in Europe because of poor health, and likely a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic that decimated the global population that year. While a postcolonial view of Kennon Road would have the 4,000 anonymous workers who built the road as its real hero, it can’t hurt to remember or at least know the man who once looked up that mountainside and saw a ribbon of a road in his mind’s eye.

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(Photos courtesy of Erwin Tiongson, Project Gutenberg, and imagesphilippines.com)

 

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Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016

 

 

IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.

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Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.

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And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)

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There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.

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Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.

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In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.

 

Penman No. 134: Frontiers and Pioneers

IMG_6867Penman for Monday, Feb. 2, 2015

 

I’VE BEEN to California quite a few times over the past 30 years, on such varied missions as covering Steve Jobs and the iPod Shuffle in MacWorld 2006 and tracking Jose Rizal’s footsteps in San Francisco. Just last September, I was there again to interview a cohort of former activists from the First Quarter Storm.

California’s the kind of place that promises to never run out of surprises for the game and attentive visitor, and this time around—on this ongoing Pacific Leader Fellowship with the University of California in San Diego—I ran into more wonderful discoveries that straddled the past and the future.

My program allowed me to make specific requests for visits to places of personal interest, and after consulting with knowledgeable friends, I settled on two destinations that couldn’t be more different from each other: the old mining town of Julian, about an hour’s drive up the mountains away from downtown San Diego, and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), a cutting-edge facility overlooking the blue Pacific. This way I could encounter two extremes, from the museum to the laboratory, from the anciently analog to the dazzlingly digital.

I was accompanied on both visits by Mrs. Julie Hill, a good friend and old Manila hand whose life story and travels to dozens of countries I’ve been privileged to edit in three books, going on a fourth. We were graciously driven to Julian by Greg Mallinger, the coordinator of my program. I usually undertake a digital reconnaissance (meaning, I let my fingers do the walking on the keyboard) of points on my itinerary before the actual visit, but this time, I did no such thing, prepared to be surprised by whatever the place had to offer.

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The drive to Julian in itself proved a delight, with a view of wide valleys fringed by rolling hills dotted by huge boulders that might have been left by titanic geological upheavals but were now simply picturesque. A brief stop at Sta. Ysabel just before Julian led to a Spanish mission from 1818, recalling our own acceptance in the Philippines of the friars and their message; I had visited another California mission years ago, and had seen there a Chinese-eyed santo carved by a Filipino sculptor in the 1700s—so far, I thought, did Spain’s colonial reach extend.

Julian emerged on the road, a scenic huddle of tall-fronted houses along Main Street. It had experienced a brief boom in gold mining after the discovery of the precious metal there by a black man named Fred Coleman in the 1860s, but the miners have long since been replaced by tourists eager to sample the town’s new gold, its famous apple pie. We were met by the town’s historian, a retired engineer named David Lewis, who also operates the town’s museum (chock full of choice artifacts and very tidily maintained) with his wife.

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Our tour began in Julian’s windy hilltop cemetery, where David introduced us to Julian’s founding fathers and mothers—notably the Baileys who started a mine and the Robinsons who put up a hotel that still stands today—emphasizing the unusual role of African-Americans (such as the Robinsons) in the town’s development. The Julian Hotel is a living museum of 19th century charm—except that it now offers free wi-fi—and I made a mental note to bring my wife Beng there sometime, a wishful thought no doubt shared by the busloads of tourists who descend on the town every Wednesday.

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We met another kind of pioneer and another kind of frontier at the Scripps, an impressive complex of buildings devoted to biomedical research. Lying in La Jolla close to UCSD, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Scripps is a key part of a science complex probing the frontiers of medicine and leading the laboratory fight against AIDS, Ebola, cancer, influenza, and other deadly diseases.

Our first stop might have belonged to a Hollywood props or special effects studio—a special lab where what seemed to be colorful toys in all kinds of shapes were laid out on a table. David Goodsell—a professor at TSRI and a molecular biologist who also happens to be an accomplished artist—explained that they were physical models of cells and cellular structures, created by machine through 3-D printing, and creatively colored to be used by researchers and teachers for educational purposes. Dr. Goodsell has exhibited his fabulous watercolor illustrations and published them in a book titled The Machinery of Life (Springer, 2009).

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As beautiful as the structures of life may emerge from Goodsell’s work, TSRI scientists don’t forget for one minute that some of them are the very carriers and agents of diseases that can cripple and kill, understanding and defeating which is a major part of the institute’s mission. (TSRI is also looking into such varied areas as deafness, memory disorders, autism, aging, and stress.) They help discover and develop new drugs to combat diseases and correct disorders.

Those drugs include Zmapp, also developed in San Diego by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Zmapp gained prominence as the experimental drug used to successfully treat some Americans who had contracted Ebola. To better understand exactly how ZMapp worked, TSRI scientists employed electron microscopy to see how antibodies from the drug bound themselves to the Ebola virus.

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One of those scientists was Andrew Ward, an associate professor in his mid-30s who, when we met him in his lab, looked like he might have just stepped off the stage from playing with a grunge band. Dr. Ward heads a team of 14 scientists pulling long hours at TSRI’s electron microscopy lab, which has seven state-of-the-art electron microscopes, including a $7-million, 12-foot Titan Krios whose million-dollar camera (not part of the package) can see into the smallest corners of cells. Ebola was all over the news, so it was important to work on it, said Dr. Ward, but he emphasized how even more vital it was to lick influenza, a common disease that could kill milllions.

Stepping out of the lab, I remembered how, as a boy, I had marveled at the effects of the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, in which a miniaturized medical team ventures into the bloodstream of a man. That day at TSRI, I felt like that boy again.

Penman No. 117: The Way We Were

IMG_4726Penman for Monday, October 6, 2014

 

I’D LIKE to thank the people who’ve given me their time and accorded me their hospitality during my current visit to the US. I’m here to do more research for a book project—an oral history of the First Quarter Storm (the story of my generation, in other words)—and so far I’ve had wonderfully productive interview sessions with some people who were either active participants in the anti-martial law movement or were on the other side of things (or simply on the roadside) at the time.

Those who’ve helped me out, either as interview subjects or facilitators, include former campus journalist and retired engineer Gerry Socco and his wife Chet; lawyer Rodel Rodis; editor Rene Ciria-Cruz; tech journalist and developer Joey Arcellana; and journalist Gemma Nemenzo and her husband, Col. Irwin Ver. All of them are conveniently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Beng and I flew out there from DC for a long weekend of interviews and reunions with old friends.

Rodel and I go back all the way to the Philippine Science High School, where I served as Rodel’s associate editor when he helmed The Science Scholar. It was also in high school—when I myself became editor in chief—that I first heard of Joey Arcellana from our adviser, Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea (mother of the accomplished Doy and Rey Vea), who told me one day: “There are two young writers I’d like you to read. One of them writes for the UP Collegian, and his name is Joey Arcellana. The other is still in high school and writes for the Highlights, and his name is Gary Olivar.” Gemma, who now edits the ezine Positively Filipino, also edited the late, lamented Filipinas magazine, which I used to write a column for. Gerry I knew from the pre-martial law College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and we met again in the worst of possible circumstances—as fellow political prisoners in Bicutan; today, in our sixties, we share an unabashedly bourgeois passion for collecting vintage pens and watches.

In Washington, DC, where I’m formally based through my association with the George Washington University, I’ve been lucky to meet and to interview one of the torchbearers of the anti-Marcos resistance on the East Coast, Jon Melegrito, a retired librarian at GWU who now writes for the DC-based fortnightly Manila Mail. I’ve also been glad to gain the insights of three former State Department officials: former Ambassador John Maisto, who headed the old Office of Philippine Affairs and served in Manila in the late 1970s; his colleague Hank Hendrickson who now serves as executive director of the US-Philippines Society, of which Amb. Maisto is the president; and Santiago “Sonny” Busa, a Filipino-American who has served as consul in Manila, Addis Ababa, and Kuwait, and who has taught International Affairs at West Point. I’ll be doing a bit more traveling to see people in New York and possibly the Midwest.

So far, I’ve interviewed about 30 people for the book, which I’ve begun to write at my sister’s place in Virginia. It’s very strange in a way to write about bloody encounters in coconut groves in the Philippine South while reveling in the sight, outside my window, of bluejays and robins perched on the branches of trees just beginning to acquire an autumnal glow. But perhaps it’s precisely this physical and psychological estrangement that I need to handle such an emotional project—emotional, at least, for members of my generation.

Sometimes what I hear gets a bit too much; for the first time, after having written and published over 25 books with a very dry eye, I wept as I listened to an account of someone I knew shooting—executing—someone who had been her best friend. At the same time, events that might have been terrifyingly life-threatening 40 years ago can now sound absolutely hilarious—or deadpan ironic, such as when firebrand Fluellen Ortigas, selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of 1968, stands beside President Marcos at the awarding ceremonies, with a book titled The Essentials of Marxism in hand. “Join my staff,” Marcos tells him. “I can’t,” Ortigas replies. “You’re going to be a dictator!” Ortigas would later work for Ninoy Aquino, go underground in Panay, get arrested before martial law, get released in 1976, flee to the US via Sabah, get an MBA, and become a businessman in San Francisco.

I have many more stories like Flue’s to tell, each with its own highlights and insights—Elso Cabangon being ambushed on Taft Avenue and taking four bullets, one of them tearing through his cheek; Boy Camara auditioning for the role of Judas before eventually playing Jesus Christ, Superstar; a female comrade being married in the rites of the Party, one hand on her heart, and the other on Mao’s Quotations (it’s a marriage, like many in the movement, that will unravel). But they’ll have to wait until the book itself, which I hope to finish by early next year.

Even now, many old friends and comrades are probably wondering why I haven’t approached them yet or asked so-and-so to be interviewed, because they have interesting and important stories to tell. I’m sure they do, and I have to extend them my apologies in advance, simply because I just don’t have the time or space at the moment to include everything and everyone I should be covering. I’m almost certain that this oral history will lead to a sequel, all the way to EDSA (a book that someone else should begin writing soon). Some people I’ve asked haven’t replied or have declined, and I can only respect their implied wish to be left alone.

Again, this book will be about the past, and while we might bemoan the innocence we lost, or even wax romantic about the way we were, I don’t think too many of my respondents will want to relive their lives in exactly the same way, knowing what they do now. We might not regret what we did—it arguably needed to be done—but we or our children don’t have to repeat it, if it can be helped. That’s how history helps the future.

Penman No. 116: The Phabletized Future

FullSizeRenderPenman for Monday, Sept. 29, 2014

 

HAVING WRITTEN with dead seriousness about writing for six straight columns, I hope my readers will indulge me this digression—a periodic, practically biennial, one—having to do with utter frivolity.

Okay, I’ll fess up: I have the new iPhone 6. Naturally. I’ve been an incorrigible Apple fanboy since the mid-1980s—practically since Apple was born—and so no one should be surprised by my prompt (I’ll say “timely”) acquisition of this new bauble, among 10 million other lunatics who snapped up the 6 and its bigger sibling, the 6+, in the gadget’s first three days of being on sale in the global market.

Like an arthritic hippie or a superannuated rebel, I should have no business, as a card-carrying senior, salivating over shiny new toys better seen on 30-somethings dashing off to work or to a dinner date. Well, maybe a little. US demographic studies from 2012 suggest that nearly one-fourth of all iPhone users are 55 and older (and a bit lower for Android and BlackBerry users), so older guys (men use it more than women, 60-40 percent) still make up a good chunk of the iPhone market. That makes sense, because these things don’t come cheap.

Along with literally millions of other people in the US and around the world, I stayed up until dawn on September 12 on the US East Coast to get my order in, and after an interminably long week during which I could only distract myself by doing honest and humorless work on my book project, a brown UPS van arrived to deliver the gadget du jour, a pristine iPhone 6 in smoke gray, 64GB, contract-free under T-Mobile. (Let’s get this out of the way: if you can’t wait for the local telcos to release the IP6 /6+ and want your US-based tita to send you one for an early Christmas, ask for a contract-free T-Mobile unit from the Apple Store—don’t get one from T-Mobile itself, or it will be network-locked.) I took my Globe nanoSIM out of the 5s and popped it into the newcomer, and voila—it was alive!

Never mind the rest of that digital drama, which can only be unremitting silliness to anyone but the most besotted geek. (And it’s only fair to say that millions of other geeks—the Android and Samsung crowd—slept soundly that night.) You can get the full specs and features of the IP6/6+ on dozens of sites online. I’ll cut to the chase with my quickie personal review, because I can just see a bunch of people asking me, “Is it worth it?”

If you’re moving from an older iPhone, the first thing you’ll notice is how thin and light it is—and yet how large. The 6 is larger than the 5/5s, and the 6+ is larger than the 6. I held and tried to like the 6+ in an Apple Store, but came away convinced that it was a cool thing to have if you’re 25, but definitely not for me. I got the 6 because, like many old guys, I prefer smaller, more discreet phones; the IP4 was perfect, but now it won’t run the newest software.

If you need an excuse to upgrade, recite this mantra: better battery, faster processor, bigger screen, thinner profile, better camera, more storage. Add them all up and you might convince yourself that it’s worth a good chunk of change. At 60, I don’t need an excuse; I’m just hopelessly curious, and the older I get, the more curious I am about what the future is going to be like, so every new gadget lets me cheat time.

After a week of playing with the new iPhone, I can say that I can best appreciate the brilliant screen, the excellent camera (I’ve done almost all of my photography with the iPhone for the past few years), and the longer battery life. I still have to get used to the slimness and the lightness of the thing; I’m using a plastic skin on it, but I keep tapping my pocket to make sure it’s still there. I’ve ordered a thick leather wallet case to lend it some heft, and then I’m sure it’ll be just fine.

I know that the so-called “bendgate” issue has come up online alleging that the big IP6+ will bend if you try hard enough (which makes me ask, who would, and why would you?). These “bend” tests are mildly interesting, but if you’re going to base your buying decisions on these, then go buy a tank, not an iPhone. I mean, how many people buy their cars based on crash tests?

What intrigues me more about the future is the new word I picked up this week: “phablet,” which the IP6+ is—a cross between phone and tablet. Frankly, all this talk of a phabletized future—where people walk around with 7- or 8-inch phones stuck to their ears—scares me. If this is the way we’re going, we might as well stick a phone into an iPad mini and call it the iPhone 9. I’ll probably hang around long enough to catch the iPhone 13, which will include telepathic commands among its features. By then, Apple and the iPhone will have gone one of two ways—the way of Godzilla, or the way of Yoda. Godzilla will have a battery life of 20 days and will be strangely reminiscent of the iPad mini; Yoda will have half the battery life but will remind some really old people of the iPhone 1.

By this time, to be fair, size will not be a problem for many people, because fashion designers (starting with Project Runway season XX) have made big pockets trendy; already, one Mafia boss (yes, the Mafia outlived Pope Francis) attributes his surviving an assassination attempt to the big iPhone he carries in his suit pocket, like a shield (it still bends, but it can stop bullets); boardrooms and Mafiosi meetings are soon full of men with bulging fronts. An ad with a digitally recycled Mae West says, “Is that an iPhone, or are you just happy to see me?”

Heck, I’m just happy to see this iPhone now.

Penman No. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014

 

A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.

 

SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.

Penman No. 20: Report from Lansing

Icophil

Penman for Monday, November 12, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 16: Promises to Keep

Penman for Monday, October 15, 2012

AS YOU read this, Beng and I should be in the US, on a sem-break visit to family (my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister). I’ll also be attending and speaking at the International Conference on the Philippines in East Lansing, Mich., about which you’ll hear more from me next week.

This trip’s an annual pilgrimage we all look forward to, despite the sacks of loose change it entails. The two or three weeks Beng and I spend every October in the States virtually guarantees penury at year’s end, but we’ve learned not to mind. For me, the whole point of working my butt off is to save enough so we can buy time together, which is never a waste of money. I’d rather have a trove of happy memories than a hefty savings account, and Beng absolutely agrees, so we’ve been blithely footloose and spendthrift. Curtailed by the fact that we’ve never had enough to be truly extravagant, we’ve had great fun scouring the antique malls of San Diego, feasting on hotdogs in Coney Island, and hunting for bargains in the thrift shops of Virginia.

The eating part of this trip has always been a highlight for me—and you could have seen it in my stocky frame—but this time around, my Stateside folks are in for a surprise. A new Butch is coming to town, less 35 pounds of excess baggage mainly around the waist, and with worn-out walking shoes in his luggage. He won’t be sneaking out to Walgreen’s for a six-pack of Coke or Coors and a gallon of ice cream; ridiculously—if you knew him at all—he’ll be sipping tea and munching carrot sticks, doing his gritty darnedest to resist the lure of the steaks smoking in the backyard.

This visit’s going to be a test of my new resolve—which I manifested a few weeks ago, after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—to lose weight by eating right and exercising as the doctor ordered.

Like I said then, I knew I had it coming. Writers lead notoriously, pigheadedly unhealthy lifestyles. Not only are we bound to our desks most of the time; we’re tethered, physically and psychologically, to bottles of beer and packs of cigarettes.

T. S. Eliot was a chronic smoker and eventually died of emphysema; so was Dylan Thomas, who also loved booze and drank himself to death (famously telling a friend after a binge: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record”—and it probably was). The death wish appeals to the romantic in us, to our inner Poe (who, doctors now say, may have actually died of rabies and not alcoholism). Here at home, I’ve had writer-friends who openly flaunted that death wish; they lived on the edge, and died there.

Me, my days as a devilish Dylan are over. I used to smoke four packs of Marlboros a day—count them, 80 loaded pistols, with an open pack in my shirt pocket and another one in my pants, the easier to grab a stick when you needed one—until Beng and I decided to quit, cold turkey, about 17 years ago. I haven’t had one puff since, although I still get the occasional craving, and wake up feverishly from a dream (a most pleasurable one, I must admit) of having smoke curl through my parched lungs. I still think it’s one of the smartest decisions I ever made, next to marrying Beng, but quitting smoking came with a downside—I regained my appetite, which morphed into another monster, and somewhere along the way I ballooned from about 160 to nearly 220 pounds.

Also, until recently, I could and did drink up to ten bottles of beer in one sitting, proudly if foolishly remaining amiable and ambulant after the fact. In between beers, I tanked up on Coke—about three cans of the sweet syrup a day, to go with snacks and meals. It’s funny how I could write of other people having death wishes, when I was effectively living through one myself.

Well, I haven’t had a Coke in three months, and only about four or five bottles of beer in that same time. Stranger still, my food cravings are gone. I take a brisk 3-to-6-kilometer walk around the UP Academic Oval once or twice a day, and when my stamina flags, I just try to think of every pound lost as another day saved to spend with Beng and Demi. (The incorrigible techie, I use a free Nike app on my iPhone to track distance traveled by GPS, and to count calories burned.)

I still go on my poker all-nighters, but now I use the time between hands to surf on my phone and keep up with the news and discussions on the diabetes and dieting sites. (My newest discoveries: eating 2,000 calories or less a day will enable weight loss; exercising before breakfast is good, because it burns fat rather than carbs, which your sleeping body nibbled on all night; don’t skip breakfast after working out; you also need carbs for serotonin, which keeps you smiling.) I’ve learned to chew my food, manage my portions, count calories, and read the labels.

I had the deepest, sweetest satisfaction the other day when I sent over six pairs of my khaki pants with 40-inch waists to the neighborhood tailor for alteration, down to a smarter 36. The repairs cost me P450, but I’d gladly pay thousands more if I had to send them back after a few months to be trimmed by another couple of inches.

I know I’m far from being out of the woods, and of how easy it is to backslide. Anyone can lose weight fast—and naturally that became my early obsession—but keeping it off and feeling good about it is going to be the bigger struggle. (You know you’re not alone when you type in a search term in Google and it auto-completes the form three words away from finishing what you had in mind. Some time ago, I punched in “lose beer belly…” and something like “lose beer belly fastest way” came up, as though the machine had read my mind.)

But if America has burgers and Slurpees, it also has miles and miles of wooded walks, and that’s what I’ll be going for this time. Although he meant going to the woods in another sense, Robert Frost might as well have written these lines for me: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

ON ANOTHER note, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of two friends in the arts. The first was a shocker—Nonoy Buncio, a passionate art collector and a Botong Francisco connoisseur, was shot by unidentified gunmen while on duty as a Quezon City official tasked with clearing up the chronic congestion on Commonwealth Avenue. If they only knew how deeply Nonoy, a committed socialist, loved his country and his people.

The other friend who passed away was celebrated film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, for whom I had the privilege of writing a script (for the 1994 movie that came to be retitled “Ikalabing-Isang Utos: Mahalin Mo, Asawa Mo,” which I’d somewhat more sedately but perhaps uncommercially called “Sylvia, Susan, Soledad”). Among the many directors I’d worked with, Marilou was the most methodical, approaching every sequence not just with technical but philosophical questions. Years ago, we also worked together on two abortive projects—a docu-drama on the EDSA 1 revolt and a film biography of Joseph Estrada, before he ran for president.

I wish we had enough time to finish everything, but there never is, and that’s why I’m in America, visiting those dearest to me.