Penman No. 107: Small Loans for Big Dreams

WS-Butch-1Penman for Monday, July 28, 2014

 

IT HAD been a few years since I last sat down for a chat with the accounting and business guru Washington SyCip, whose biography (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper, published in 2009) I had been privileged to write, so I was only too happy to oblige when our mutual friend Marlu Balmaceda asked if I could spend some time last week to shoot the breeze with Wash.

Both Wash and I had aged a bit since we started working on his book back in 2006—I more so than he, who last month turned 93. Having just gotten my senior card in January, I’ve been feeling entitled to some relaxation, but Wash SyCip was right at his desk in his old 14th floor office where I last saw him, working away, surrounded by a growing menagerie of owls, turtles, and roosters, the gifts of friends. On the wall was a Chinese painting of a dignitary, perhaps the Emperor himself, seeking the counsel of a wizened turtle. Wash caught me looking at it and told me what the turtle’s sage advice was: “Take it easy.”

As cool and dapper as he is, Wash makes it look like he’s taken it easy all his life, but I know for a fact—having chronicled that life—that it just isn’t so. No slouch could’ve put up and sustained what became the regional accounting giant SGV.

But this time, Wash wasn’t talking about himself, but about a new program for education that he and a friend began three years ago, called the Zero Dropout Education Scheme, which seeks to put and keep poor Filipino kids in school. “The country’s biggest problem remains poverty and the wide gap between the rich and the poor,” Wash says. “For me, education is key to alleviating poverty, but ironically,?the poorer you are, the more children you have, so half go to school and half don’t. Those who don’t will stay illiterate, and will be resigned to poverty all their lives.”

Seeing that illiteracy still afflicted millions of Filipinos, Wash resolved to do something about it and committed US$1 million of his own money to a fund aimed at the problem. Helping him along was his friend, the Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist Paul Kazarian, who pledged to match Wash’s contribution dollar for dollar. But even with that funding, Wash was modest and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t do the job by himself. “I don’t really know the poor, and how best to reach them,” he admits. “So I got in touch with CARD-MRI, which has been a leader in Philippine microfinance, to help us out.” Radiowealth Finance Corporation has also geared its CSR program toward the Zero Dropout scheme, and committed to provide P30 million.

The Center for Agriculture and Development-Mutually Reinforcing Institutions or CARD-MRI goes all the way back to 1986 when Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip and 14 other rural development practitioners got together to set up CARD specifically to help empower women in poor communities. In 2008, it received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. “With over 1,400 units all over the country, CARD had a network in place we could tap for our program,” Wash says.

Initially available to CARD members, the Zero Dropout scheme offers small renewable loans ranging from P1,500 to P3,000, at a monthly interest rate of 1 percent. “Basic education may be free,” Wash acknowledges. “But families still need money for school supplies, slippers, clothes, and other expenses. That’s where we come in. We’d like to provide not just the money, but an easy way of getting it, with as little red tape as possible.”

As of March this year, the program had supported over 46,000 students through loans totaling over P160 million, out of which P130 million in principal and P6.5 million in interest has already been paid back. They expect to hit 100,000 beneficiaries by year’s end.

While most beneficiaries come from Region IV-A (the Calabarzon area), the program has expanded to the ARMM in Mindanao, where the dropout rates are the highest. Typical beneficiaries include Lucena native Lilia Fernandez, a mother of nine who works as a manicurist alongside her husband, a construction worker; her son Erick dreams of becoming an engineer.

Unlike the government’s conditional cash transfer program, which gives cash direct to poor beneficiaries, Zero Dropout is a loan program. “They repay the loan through microfinance, by increasing their income with a loan for a store, a tricycle, and so on,” adds Wash.

If you think poor borrowers can’t or won’t repay their loans, think again. CARD has made a name for itself making sure its system works, basically because it’s led by people from the very grassroots it serves. Wash tells this story: “I had CARD’s management people over for dinner at my house once, and discovered that none of them were from Makati or Manila. They were all from the rural areas, and they were mostly women, very bright women. I was very impressed with their dedication. CARD knows its clientele. It works with groups of 20 women who guarantee each other. I’ve attended meetings with these groups and I can see that our poor communities are full of people with initiative and drive.”

I came away most impressed by an incident that Wash related: “When Yolanda hit, 8,000 students under the program were affected in Leyte and other places. My first reaction was to cancel their loans, as the least we could do to help. But Dr. Alip said, Wash, no—the poor are more honest than the rich. And as reconstruction took off, the loans also began to be repaid, even if the borrowers had lost their homes.” If that’s not inspiring—in the context of billions lost to crooks and scammers—I don’t know what is.

Penman No. 106: Penguins and Paranoia

Tango_Makes_3Penman for Monday, July 21, 2014

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote a piece extolling the emergence of dissident themes and voices in Singaporean literature, particularly in the novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, who reminded us how much of that city-state’s wealth and power grew on the back of its underclass. I’m sure that there are many voices harsher and more strident than Suchen’s among Singapore’s younger writers, which is good. We’ve long expected this kind of literary insurgency to happen, as it is almost invariably the writers of any nation who form the spearpoint of social protest.

As I said last week, many Filipinos—whether mistakenly or not—take Singapore’s enviable prosperity as the result of a pact with the devil of authoritarianism, a compromise between getting fed well and shutting up. So we’re glad to see Singaporean society loosening up and speaking out, and to meet the humans behind the industrial facade. Surely, we’d like to think, Singapore’s economic ascendancy and its emphatic claim to full modernization deserve to be crowned by a more liberal, compassionate, and inclusive democracy. A rich nation should be able to afford more, not less, freedom.

Or so we thought. Very recently, Singapore’s government delivered another rude reminder of how deep in the dark cavern of the feudal mind its ministers remain, even as their citizens have begun to step out into the sunlight.

At issue was the decision of the National Library Board—supported by the Information Minister—to remove three children’s books from the shelves and to destroy all remaining copies, out of fear that the books, because of their unusual content, would condone and promote homosexual behavior. (Singapore still has a law criminalizing sex between men, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.)

Reports say that the banned books include “And Tango Makes Three,” based on a true story about two male penguins that raised a baby penguin in a New York zoo. In “The White Swan Express,” children are adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race, and single parents. The third book, “Who’s In My Family,” includes gay couples among different types of families. Because a conservative parent complained about these books, an internal review was undertaken by the NLB, which then deemed them unsuitable and subject to removal and destruction.

Not surprisingly, Singapore’s writers, artists, and academics—the liberal types every authoritarian regime fears and detests—are up in arms over the decision. Three prominent judges have resigned from the board of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, and writers’ and gay organizations all over the world have denounced both the homophobia and the Hitlerite evocation of bookburning that the NLB action embodies. They point out, fairly enough, that conservatives who disagree with the books have a choice not to read them, but that others should have the option and opportunity to read them should they want to.

One of the strongest voices raised against the NLB was that of Suchen Lim, who last Thursday keynoted the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference at Singapore’s Arts House. (I should’ve been there, but thanks to Typhoon Glenda, my flight was canceled and I couldn’t rebook myself in time to catch my two events, so I decided to stay home and mend our typhoon-battered roof.) The Singapore Straits Times would report on Suchen’s impassioned attack on the NLB thus:

“Lim, 65, was a single parent to her two sons and was also brought up in a single parent family for a time before her mother remarried. She said the removal of these books was a disappointment.

“’In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don’t count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility,’ she said.

“The audience in the Chamber of the former Parliament House stood and applauded her words, including Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi and Singapore writers Verena Tay and Josephine Chia. Also present was writer Felix Cheong, who along with fellow authors Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan and Prem Anand, withdrew from an NLB panel discussion last week, to protest against the withdrawal of the picture books.

“Cheong, 49, wore a brand-new T-shirt decorated with three penguins, a logo which has been adopted by those against NLB’s removal of the books.”

Had I been there, I would’ve stood up myself and cheered Suchen on, even at the risk of being blacklisted and turned away the next time I present myself at Changi’s immigration line. The fight against prejudice and censorship knows no national boundaries, which is why I’m writing up this issue for Filipino readers who couldn’t care less about Singapore and gay penguins.

In truth, I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore and have been the appreciative guest of both its government and of my fellow writers there. A couple of years ago, its tourism ministry took me, among other journalists, on a tour of Singapore’s cultural landmarks, including the National Library, and we were suitably impressed. I wrote glowing reports about Singapore’s emergence as a?new cultural hotspot in Asia. Why not? The view from The Hub—a glass bubble at the top of the library—was breathtaking, and I was moved by a special exhibit their ultramodern library had of their prominent writers’ memorabilia. When, I thought, would we come around to making these investments in books and culture in the Philippines?

But as I noted last week, there are always two sides to Singapore, and this book-banning incident reminded me of (for us Filipinos) a much sadder story from almost 20 years ago, when Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, convicted of murder, was about to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi prison. As the editorial writer then of the now-defunct Today newspaper, on the eve of Flor’s execution, I looked helplessly at this painful spectacle and remarked:

“Something went terribly wrong with Flor’s dream—whether through her fault or someone else’s, as now seems highly plausible, only God for the moment knows for certain. Two people died, allegedly by Flor’s maddened hand, and that was tragic enough. Today, Flor Contemplacion will die in turn in judicial payment for those lives—and that, too, will cause untold sorrow, especially among her people who have rallied to her defense.

“But almost as saddening, perplexing, and infuriating as these losses is today’s freshest reminder of savagery in what had been held up, for all the world to see, as the very model of civilized society and behavior in our time. And this was hardly the savagery of individuals gone amuck, but the institutional primitivism of a government which, for all its claims to modernity and discipline, has finally revealed nothing but its simian brain and tom-tom heart. Flor’s execution will be a quick and convenient end; any further complications, by way of entertaining an appeal for a stay and a reinvestigation, would have strained the brutish simplemindedness of Singaporean justice.”

They were harsh words for a harsh situation, and even as I subsequently accepted and enjoyed, with not a little guilt, Singapore’s official hospitality, hoping that things had changed, I never quite lost the suspicion that beneath the First-World ease was a hair-trigger reflex that could be set off by any perceived threat to stability and security.

A government that fears that the carefully constructed and presumably robust society it has built can be unraveled by the affection between two male penguins is exhibiting not just ignorance but paranoia. One has to wonder of what use it is to tout such 21st-century marvels as the Marina Bay Sands—and, yes, a state-of-the-art National Library—when the consciousness that directs the place is stuck somewhere in the 16th century.

But before we Filipinos beat our chests and congratulate ourselves over how much more open we are to such modern concepts as tolerance and acceptance, let’s not forget that our own public officials share something with their Singaporean counterparts. When our President denied the accomplished actress but alleged drug user Nora Aunor the National Artist Award for fear that honoring her would encourage Filipinos to run out for their nearest dose of shabu, it showed that governments everywhere don’t have the foggiest idea of how art and artists work. But they do know that art works—much more effectively than government PR—and in that knowledge, perhaps, lies the source of their fear and disquietude.

Penman No. 105: A Novel of Singapore

146Penman for Monday, July 14, 2014

 

IT SEEMS?entirely fitting that I’m writing this review of a Singaporean novel practically on the eve of flying to Singapore for a writers’ conference. I’m actually meeting its author—Suchen Christine Lim—at that conference where she’ll be one of the keynote speakers, so I’m sure we’re going to have an interesting conversation at the kopi tiam.

We Filipinos have generally looked at Singapore with an odd mixure of liberal disdain and a pauper’s envy. We like to imagine the typical Singaporean as an ideological robot who has to be programmed to have good clean fun, even as we shamelessly admire and imbibe Singapore’s First-World comforts on our occasional sorties through Changi’s Terminal 3 and down Orchard Road. We feel deeply conflicted by the fact that over 150,000 Filipinos work in Singapore, mainly as domestic helpers—proud of their tenacity and sacrifice, while being shamed by our inability to give them good jobs at home, with their families.

This kind of duality, we soon learn, exists within Singaporean society as well. Singapore isn’t nearly as monolithic as we commonly think, and what it is today came about as a result of a complex, continuing, and often painful process, one that involves folding the past into the ever-changing present.

This is the narrative burden assumed by Suchen Christine Lim’s The River’s Song (UK: Aurora Metro, 2013). It’s a novel that sprawls over more than three decades and straddles Asia and North America, but its achievement lies less in its scope than in its intimacy, which is sustained throughout the work. There’s no great mystery or wizardry to Suchen’s technique: it’s solid storytelling, employing compelling and credible characters caught between being rich and poor, being young and old, being man and woman, and being loved and unloved.

Premised on the modern renewal of Singapore’s riverfront, The River’s Song takes us back to that city-state’s backwater days, and follows the lives of its two main protagonists, the girl Ping and the boy Weng, whose shared passion for music helps relieve their abject poverty and turn an innocent friendship between children into an almost irreparably difficult love between adults. Suchen evokes this lost age of Singapore with masterly precision:

“Weng ran out of the hut, pulled off his shorts and jumped into the river. At the crack of dawn the river had stirred to life. Fires were lit in the stoves in his neighbors’ huts. Bare-chested boatmen squatted on the decks of their bumboats brushing their teeth with a bit of coconut husk, gargling into their tin mugs like hundreds of tenors and baritones in the choir. This was the music Weng had heard since he was a toddler on his parents’ boat, when they still lived on a boat then. He swam out to the middle of the cool brown water. Smoke from the charcoal and wood stoves was starting to tickle his nostrils. Soon the food stalls in the market would open and his stepmother would buy fried dough sticks or fried vermicelli for the family’s breakfast.”

Ping and her mother are taken in by a rich man, and she later goes to America for an education and an escape from all the pain that Singapore has meant to her, hoping all the while to keep in touch with Weng, who becomes an activist for the poor, embittered by what he sees as Ping’s desertion. How they get back together after failed attempts at happiness with others forms the novel’s present, and Suchen composes and choreographs this reconciliation in musical terms, with Ping playing the pipa (a Chinese guitar or lute) and Weng the dizi (a flute):

“The pipa lets out an anguished groan. The Ming Ensemble joins in with a sobbing of erhu strings. The guqin gives a rippled cry. In a lilting undertone, the dizi sings a sorrowful accompaniment, underscoring the pipa’s grief. When the pipa rages in the desert storm in a fury of plucked strings, his dizi soothes in calm counterpoint. When the pipa weeps among the bleak sand dunes, his dizi comforts with broef snatches of melody. The rapt assembly has never heard the likes of this before. As bamboo, wind and strings sweep across the desolate plains beyond the Great Wall, weaving an intricate song of bleak beauty and sorrow, some people in the audience weep. When the pipa grieves her loss, the dizi consoles. When the dizi queries, the pipa replies. You left, he rues. I left, the pipa sighs.”

As with all good novels, The River’s Song is much more than the love story at its core, as satisfying as that already is. It’s a virtual chronicle of how modern Singapore came to be, and an accounting of the human and social costs of modernization, particularly at the fringes of society where every penny and every inch of land matters. Reflecting its author’s maturity and sensibility, it’s not the kind of angsty rant we tend to get from juvenile writers these days, but a poignant lament that holds out hope for redemption despite—to advert to a section heading—the darkness of the waters.

Here and there, in a spot or two, I might quibble with Suchen over a note that may be slightly off-key; I suspect, for example, that the stray quotation from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney springs more from the author than from the character, whose musical artistry and intelligence I can’t contest, but whose literary inclinations had never been clearly established. Otherwise Suchen—one of Singapore’s most celebrated writers—has an impeccable gift for dialogue and scene-setting; the novel is practically a script, needing just a camera to become the movie its material seems cut out for.

I spoke earlier of the stereotypes that we non-Singaporeans have of that place and its people. Suchen Lim banishes these stereotypes and much of our ignorance along with them. Of course there were poor and homeless Singaporeans. Of course there was principled resistance to the regime. Of course there’s a steamy underbelly to the fa?ade of manicured lawn, polished glass, and hard-edged steel that contemporary Singapore projects. Those of us who visit and remark, perhaps too casually, about the “soullessness” of modern Singapore will have good cause to rethink that assumption; the soul may not be in Marina Bay Sands, but it’s clearly alive in the literary imagination.

If you want to know Singapore beyond what the Lonely Planet guidebook will tell you, pick up a copy of The River’s Song; I know I’m going to look up Pagoda Street, one of the book’s locales, when I get the chance this week. The book is available on Amazon. (Suchen, a frequent Manila visitor and friend to many Filipino writers, also left a copy with the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the UP Institute of Creative Writing in Diliman; have a look at it there, then find your own copy to cherish and to share.)

[Old Singapore image?from nowhere.per.sg; image of pipa player from redmusicshop.com.]

Penman No. 104: The Psychology of Collecting

48VacumaticsPenman for Monday, July 7, 2014

 

EVERY OTHER month or so, I take the 200+ contents of my fountain pen collection out of their wooden boxes and leather cases—a few of which reside in a fireproof safe—to ink, doodle with, clean, and reorganize. It’s a ritual that invariably leaves me pleased and at peace. Sometimes I reorganize the pens by age, sometimes by maker, sometimes by color or material.

Any serious collector of, well, seriously anything will recognize this behavior. And I do mean anything—I’ve met people who collect not just the usual stamps or coins or even watches and cars but barbed wire and tractor seats. (I met the tractor-seat fellow 25 years ago in a barn full of antiques in Ohio; when I expressed astonishment at his specialty, he turned around and said, with scholarly disdain at my ignorance, “There’s a fanny for every seat!”)

In the pen forums I inhabit, there’s a never-ending discussion about being either a “user” or a “collector,” the implication being that collectors are simply moneyed hoarders while users are simple, practical-minded folk who’ve never forgotten what things are for. I propose that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between; many users are wannabe collectors, and most collectors have never stopped being users. It’s pointless to think of, say, a 1925 Waterman Sheraton or a 1934 Wahl Eversharp Doric as being just a pen you can write with, like a cheap ballpoint; they may have been utilitarian tools once, but somewhere along the way they crossed the line and became jewelry and art object.

At least that’s how I excuse amassing and periodically gloating over, say, my dozens of Parker Vacumatics, a 1930s-40s pen that forms the core of my collection. This was the pen I wrote my 1994 short story “Penmanship” about. (It’s a story about a story that I’ve often told, but the sum of it is that I found this 1938 Vacumatic Oversize in a pen shop in Edinburgh, paid a month’s salary for it, suffered buyer’s remorse, then decided to write a story about the pen, which won first prize in a contest that made me back my salary.) I know enough about Vacs that I can put you to sleep by mumbling mantras such as “Vac nomenclature covers a fascinating maze of models and colors—the Junior, the Major, the Standard, the Slender, the Debutante, the Oversize, the Senior, which is not to be confused with the Senior Maxima, since the Senior came out only in 1936….”

About 15 years ago it wasn’t pens but laptops—yes, Apple Macintosh Powerbooks, particularly the Duo line (the granddaddy of the MacBook Air and all those super-slim laptops people toss into their briefcases today). I had (and still have) about a dozen of these machines, which I used to take apart to upgrade the memory and hard drive (back when 240 megabytes made you king of the hill), before putting them back together again and then pressing the power button to hear that unmistakable startup chime that told me I had done everything right, so I could then step out and face the world and slay dragons and then sign memos.

So why do otherwise presumably sane people like me get our kicks by amassing strange objects most other people wouldn’t give a second look or drag into their homes even if you paid them to do it? I asked myself this question again last week as I changed out the inks (another ritual for the devotee) in my glorified Bics. Why do we take them out week after week, not to write a novel or a draft SONA but endless iterations of “I love this pen I love this pen”?

First of all, you want to be reassured that they’re still there. Collectibles have a way of walking away on little cat feet, and collectors have a sixth sense about what’s missing from the picture.

Second, you want to reassure yourself that you know why they’re there—that the objects have some aesthetic and monetary value. Perhaps that value’s known only to a very few people, which is not a bad thing, because it’s proof of your connoisseurship, of a certain esoteric form of expertise that’s taken you some time and expense to cultivate. It’s like getting a PhD in the truly little, truly fun things (and what’s a PhD these days except a lot of knowledge about very small things, hardly any of which is fun?).

You may be a total loser in nearly every other aspect of life—your face could resemble a well-worn shoe, your family may have deserted you for the coldest parts of Canada, your car could be an escapee from the junkyard—but if you know everything about tourbillons, carburetors, calibers, and (in my case) nibs, then you have good reason to face the world with pride if not arrogance; you have, after all, one of the world’s largest collection of GI Joes, or Tonkas, or Ken dolls, or whatever floats you boat.

Third, let’s go online and ask the experts. Dr. Mark McKinley, in a much-quoted piece on “The Psychology of Collecting” in The National Psychologist, goes back in time to note that “During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books. The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

Since I’m sure I don’t collect Sheaffers and Esterbrooks to show off my power and wealth, let’s see what M. Farouk Radwan (who holds an M. Sc., so who presumably knows what he’s talking about) says about the subject: “Since early years human beings used to collect food in order to feel safe and secure. Because acquiring food was a difficult process with uncertain outcomes humans learned to ease their anxieties by storing the food they needed. The same need, which is to feel secure, is the primary motivating force behind the creation of collections.

“Because life is uncertain and can easily make a person feel helpless some people use their collections to create a private comfort zone that they can control. By arranging and disarranging their collections compulsive hoarders can regain the sense of control over their lives. These actions reduce anxiety and helps those people cope with the uncertainty of the real world.”

So we go back to basic needs and instincts: food and security. McKinley puts these together: “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector—one does not eat just because of hunger.”

That’s a brilliant insight—“one does not eat just because of hunger”—and it leads to my favorite explanation of the psychology of collecting, propounded by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (co-authors of Sparks of Genius, the 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People) in “The Collection Connection to Creativity”?(Psychology Today, May 2011):

“The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn’t there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

Patterns, designs, mismatches, aberrations: early in 1937, just for a few months, Parker came out with a special Vacumatic, with the word “Vacumatic” etched in the gold-filled cap band. It’s one of the holy grails of Parker collectors, one of the rarest and most expensive of finds, and I have one. That should make it the crown jewel of my collection, but it isn’t; it’s the pen that made me write a story about it that’s the rarest one of all, that gives me a lifelong excuse for picking up tubes that squirt inks.

(If you like pens, join us at Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, www.fpn-p.org. We’re marking our sixth anniversary this week!)

Penman No. 103: Too Much Drama

Penman for Monday, June 30, 2014

IN MY other life as a dramatist, which came to an end some years ago, I wrote about a dozen plays for the stage and more than twice as many television plays and screenplays, mostly for the late Lino Brocka. Lino and I happily turned out double-hanky tearjerkers with such rousingly commercial titles (which someone presumably from the marketing department thought up) as Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde, and my very first one, back in 1977, Tahan Na, Empoy, Tahan.

I may have stopped writing drama to focus on fiction and nonfiction, but now and then the old skills get a workout. I’ve always said that there’s no better training for a writer of fiction than to have been a playwright, because playwriting teaches dramatic economy—how to set up a scene, how to get the most out of your characters, how to use dialogue effectively (meaning, at its most complex, how to get your characters to say things they don’t mean, or to mean things they can’t say).

Last week, I said as much again to a group of writers and program analysts from a TV network who wanted to see how writers think. I told them that drama’s to be found not only in filmscripts or on the set—it’s all around us, taking place quietly in some fastfood joint or some bus stop or some hospital ward; the writer’s task is to see that drama, to palpate it from the tedium of everyday life, and to sharpen and brighten its edges so others can see the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary moments.

We’ll save the rest of the drama lesson for another day; I bring this up only to establish my bona fides when it comes to talking about drama, and about my thesis today, which is that—even for a writer of melodrama, for which I make no excuses—there seems to be entirely too much drama around us these days, or theater if you will. (There’s a subtle difference, if you think of drama as the situation and of theater as its enactment on some kind of stage.)

Case in point: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick not only of Senator Bong Revilla’s whinings about the heat in his room at the “custodial center” (it’s not even a real prison, for Pete’s sake), but also of how the media has fussed over it like it was a real news story (“Can Congresswoman Lani make it back from Greenhills in 15 minutes with the air cooler? That’s all the time she has before visiting hours end!” said one radio reporter breathlessly.) My totally un-PC prescription? Give him the fan, give him whatever creature comfort he wants, but reduce his cell to about a third of its size and keep that one window, from which I hope he sees a mall, or something with lots of people and traffic in it. There’s no better reminder of what prison means than limited space and movement, no matter what you may have with you. (I remember watching a Marlboro neon sign blink at me on the far side of martial law prison, back in 1973; that was torture.)

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s departure for the custodial center was only slightly less theatrical, thanks again to the media who couldn’t get enough of the father-and-son story being played out in all of its bitter if obvious irony. Of course we expected the family to bond around Jinggoy, and for tears to be shed; that’s any family’s natural privilege, and its natural response. Indeed what underwhelmed me, from my dramatist’s standpoint, was how predictable everything was from start to finish, especially the inevitable “Mayor Erap, ano’ng nararamdaman ninyo sa pagkakakulong ng inyong anak?” I wanted to scream, “E ano pa?”

I can just see the video highlights from these staged “surrenders” figuring in these politicos’ next campaigns: the prayers in church, the mug shots, the hugs and waves from distraught spouses, parents, and kids; the cell doors closing, as the music goes up and under, before we hear a murmured voice-over: “May bukas pa….”

Case in point Number 2: Sometimes silence is drama; when your wife refuses to explain why she doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s drama. When the Palace refuses to explain why it dropped Nora Aunor from the list of National Artist awardees, that’s drama. All President Noynoy’s spokesmen could say was “It’s the President’s prerogative….”, which is exactly what we heard from President Gloria’s spokesmen a few years ago, the only difference being that she made dagdag, while Noynoy made bawas. I did read something about Nora’s exclusion being “in the national interest,” but it boggles the mind to figure out exactly what that means. I can understand defending the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal as being “in the national interest”; I can even understand rooting for Manny Pacquiao on fight day—temporarily setting all his other quirks and antics aside—as being “in the national interest.” But dropping Nora?

As I wrote in this corner a few months ago, I was on a large, multidisciplinary, second-level committee that endorsed Nora Aunor to a higher body (the NCCA and CCP Boards plus the National Artists); we endorsed Dolphy as well, and if I remember right, he and Nora got the same highest votes across the board. Granted that our recommendations were just that and subject to final approval upstairs, I feel among many others in the arts that we at least deserve a full and cogent explanation for all these pluses and minuses that take place in Malaca?ang. The Palace—and I don’t mean just the present occupant—has never been known to be a bulwark of artistic support and sensibility, if you look at funding for the arts in relation to everything else; if it never cared for or about the arts, why should it suddenly care—negatively at that—about Nora Aunor, whom the arts community clearly feels is deserving of its highest accolade? If you can’t help, at least don’t get in the way.

I’d been told by some Palace contacts that questions came up about Nora’s alleged drug use. OK, I said, it’s fair enough to raise these questions which presumably involve moral turpitude. But since when has it been fair to use morality as a standard for artistic excellence? We’ve had National Artists whose personal lives were hardly spotless, but whose art precisely may have been deepened and enriched by those encounters with their darker side. (Conversely, we’ve had National Artists who may present themselves as moral exemplars and accuse everyone else of some fatal shortcoming, but whose work is unremittingly mediocre and soporific.) Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Miles Davis, among many others, would never qualify for state honors in their countries (not that they ever cared) if our Malaca?ang’s standards were employed.

Last case in point: I wholeheartedly agreed with the NCCA when it protested the Palace snub of Ms. Aunor, but also wholeheartedly disagreed with the NCCA when it reportedly protested allowing the use of our national heroes’ names for such popular products as beer. (Think “Cerveza Rizal” or “Mabini Beer.”) The reason given by objectors was that it would be a sign of disrespect for these heroes to associate something as morally undesirable as alcohol with them.

Really? Which planet are we on? Didn’t our heroes drink beer and stiffer forms of alcohol—in spite (or dare I say because) of which they performed heroic deeds, anyway? Rizal complained that his fellow ilustrados in Spain drank and womanized too much, but that hardly meant that he was completely abstemious in either department. He didn’t care much for hard liquor, but drank beer (like me, on whom single malt would be a total waste). George Washington was a beer guy as well, and even famously left a handwritten recipe for his own brew (later marketed in an “Ales of the Revolution” line). So will the moral police please lighten up? If Nora’s good enough to be a National Artist, then Jose Rizal should be good enough to go on a beer bottle, and I’ll hoist many a cold Rizal in his own honor.

Heroes aren’t heroes because they’re perfect human beings; they’re heroes because—despite some truly terrible character flaws and peccadilloes (one of them even shot his wife, remember?)—they left something indelible to the national spirit and imagination, enough for us to think of ourselves as a nation. Heroes and National Artists (the real ones and the best ones) can do that; politicians—whether in prison or in the Palace—can’t.