Penman No. 133: Revolution in the Time of Facebook

B75xPtWCIAEFJJ4Penman for Monday, January 26, 2015

 

I’M BACK in the US for a few weeks, to give a series of lectures on Philippine culture and politics as a Pacific Leadership Fellow with the Center on Emerging and Pacific Economies at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) of the University of California, San Diego. The PLF is a post usually reserved for senior government officials and business leaders engaged in economic and political affairs, and it’s the first time they’re bringing over someone from the humanities; some years ago, I was preceded in this fellowship by former Central Bank Governor and NCCA Chairman Jimmy Laya.

I have a major talk coming up this week on the ponderous topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting the Challenge of Modernization in the Philippines,” but last Wednesday, I sat down with a group of graduate students from IR/PS for a more personal chat. The general topic was “The Youth and Social Reform,” and I decided to share some of my experiences as a former student activist in the 1970s and to observe how protest movements and actions have changed since then.

I began by talking about the First Quarter Storm—our own version of Tiananmen, to use a metaphor more familiar to my audience, and the subject of my current research—my arrest and imprisonment in 1973, and the novel that I wrote about that experience. I recalled the many friends and comrades I lost, remarking on the ironic truth that “If I hadn’t been arrested that cold January evening, I probably wouldn’t be here, or be writing novels; I’d very likely have long been dead,” because I would have gone up to the hills and, being totally unprepared for the life of a guerrilla, would have made an easy target for the military. Here’s part of the rest of my short talk:

It would be nice to think that these horrors belong to the distant past, that the world has become more civilized in this new century of Facebook and social media. Indeed, authors like Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) have argued that the world is actually a much safer place today than it was centuries ago, in terms of casualties of war and homicides, among other indices. That may be statistically true, but our street-level perception must surely be different.

It may be bright and sunny here in Southern California, but the world is full of dark and dangerous corners where bombs get strapped to ten-year-old girls who then get blown up in public places. I didn’t even need to tell you that, because it’s all over the evening news, before it all too quickly—and with much relief—gets brushed aside by the latest antics of Kim Kardashian and the latest gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. And why not? It seems grossly unfair in a way to be burdened by the misdeeds of others, by the ideological and ethical quandaries of a world one didn’t create, or even wanted to be a part of.

I’m not suggesting that young people today necessarily have it easier. Each generation has to confront its own demons, and those demons can be as large and as fearsome as you want them to be. You don’t have to live in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in Nigeria with the Boko Haram or in the Philippines with the Abu Sayyaf to know what terror is; you could be living in LA, New York, Columbine, or Ferguson to understand what fear or loss or danger means. In other words, we can never trivialize what other people may be going through.

But in another sense, youth and student activism today is rather different from what it was in my time, in my place. Today, people can pick their causes, instead of taking on the whole world. The starting point is the self, and what the self needs or wants, in a social and cultural climate that’s keenly focused on the here and now, with a very short attention span. Facebook promotes the self; Twitter and Instagram capture the unfolding present. We respond instantly to what we see, and do not necessarily work out of a comprehensive agenda for regime or global change. We don’t seek to save the world, but parts or aspects of it we care strongly about, whether it be whales and redwood trees or indigenous peoples or immigration reform or renewable energy.

In the Philippines, I’ve long maintained that the Communist Party lost much of the ground it had held back in the 1970s and 1980s not so much because of the success of the Philippine military on the battlefield, or even because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but because of the emergence of workable options for idealistic young people desiring social and political change, not necessarily by violent means. With almost 70,000 registered NGOs, Filipinos have a lot of causes to choose from.

For my generation, for all its flaws, we had only Marxism, which gave us a comprehensive world-view. Even though we felt in constant danger, that danger in itself was a comfort, an odd assurance or validation that we were on the right path, doing the right thing. It’s chilling to think that, while they may be very different in many ways, the young men and women joining ISIS today may be moved by a kindred spirit. There’s a frightening coherence and consistency to extremism, an inexorable logic strange to everyone else.

I ultimately opted out of Marxism because while we were convinced that everything was political, I came around to realizing that politics wasn’t everything. Also, as a creative writer, I could no longer abide by the need to observe the Party line.

What have I learned from all that?

First, compromise can be good and necessary. Second, I would not ask others to do what I could not do myself. Third, silence and reflection can result in better outcomes than strident shouting. Fourth, despair or cynicism is easy; hope is more difficult, and therefore the worthier challenge.

Indeed the darker aspects of life have never surprised me. It came as a deep disappointment to find comrades breaking under torture or other forms of duress, or even embracing outright betrayal for comfort and coinage—but that did not surprise me. It may have seemed very strange when I myself took up a job with the government shortly after my release from prison—but that, too, was almost inevitable, since all the old media offices had been shut down and the only real employer in town was the government. When people take the path of least resistance and adjust to new conditions to survive, I can understand that, having done it myself.

What keeps surprising me is courage, hope, goodness, and perseverance, which seem such old-fashioned notions but such necessary imperatives in these times. One no longer has to die for the things one values, but to live for them.

Even though, unlike most of my countrymen, I stopped going to church many years ago in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on many social issues, I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, particularly to the areas ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan. His affection for the poor was palpable, but equally moving was the strength and faith manifested by the poor—one young woman who had lost her right arm in the storm had walked many miles to see him, and what she said with a smile stuck with me: “I am often sad, because I cannot find a job, but life cannot be all sadness all the time.”

For your generation, in your time and in your place, you will have to find your own pathways to social reform, which may have to begin, first of all, with a clarification of your own goals, although a deeper personal transformation will surely take place within the process of social engagement itself. Studying for professional success cannot ever be a bad thing; but it can only be better when all that sharpness of intellect can mean something to the lives of others.

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE?best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.

Penman No. 131: Museums and Musicals (Part 2)

IMG_5928Penman for Monday, January 12, 2015

 

LAST WEEK?I wrote about museums as a popular form of American entertainment and education, reporting in particular on my encounter with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. Musicals are arguably no less educational, except that they educate the heart and spirit rather than the mind.

There seems to be something fundamentally silly about people suddenly breaking into song in moments of high tension (in Bollywood, of course, they’d start shimmying and shaking), but the truth of the matter is (and the magic of the musical is) that it feels just right, and that the characters are singing exactly what we’re feeling. When Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” in “Oliver” or when Tuptim and Lun Tha bewail their lot in “We Kiss in a Shadow” in “The King and I,” we absolutely understand what’s going on, and root even for the most ill-fated love.

Sometimes silliness is pure fun: who could have resisted Mary Poppins (except her famously persnickety creator, P. L. Travers) trilling “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? Some songs just give you a lift to sing, like “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man,” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”

And then there are those rare and very strange moments when a song from a musical just walks into your life, providing the perfect refrain for the occasion. This happened to me 40 years ago, as I waited outside the maternity ward while Beng was giving birth; at that very instant, as if on cue, a song came on over the PA system, and it was the “My Boy Bill Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” where the expectant father wonders what it would be like if the son he expects turns out to be a girl… as our Demi was.

I don’t know what it was that drew me to musicals when I was a young boy growing up in Pasig, except the long hot summer afternoons better spent in a cool dark moviehouse than under a tin roof at home. Ours was a moviegoing family, and I’d already seen “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “West Side Story” in some theater downtown on Avenida Rizal, but the musical that got me hooked—maybe because it coincided with the onset of puberty—was “The Sound of Music.” What this chaste production full of nuns and Nazis had to do with adolescence could be answered by the doe-eyed Brigitta, aka Angela Cartwright, who was Penny in “Lost in Space”; of course I also nursed a crush on Julie Andrews, but she could’ve been my mom. I watched “The Sound of Music” six, seven times until I could recite the libretto and sing the songs by heart. (For fans of “The Sound of Music,” there’s a very interesting story about the writing of the song “Edelweiss” here: http://www.steynonline.com/6683/edelweiss.)

Prurient considerations aside, the old-fashioned Broadway musical (which we Pinoys got in the movie version) had something going for it that Westerns, thrillers, and spy movies hardly ever did: an insistent optimism, even in the darkest and direst of circumstances. “West Side Story” doesn’t end with just a death; it ends with the song “Somewhere,” and a plaintive hope for “peace and quiet and open air;” “Carousel” ends with the redemption of the likeable scoundrel Billy Bigelow, promising that “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Billy may have gone to heaven, but critics gave “Carousel” hell for changing the ending of the original play on which it had been based.) “Camelot” was probably the first musical I saw that didn’t come with a happy ending, but even Lerner and Loewe couldn’t possibly undo centuries of Arthurian lore.

In a time of AIDS, 9-11, tsunamis, and ISIS, the darkening of the American musical was probably inevitable if not mandatory. One of art’s most necessary functions is to provide relief to the distressed even by the mere recognition and reflection of pain, and today’s less melodic, more dissonant musicals do that, acknowledging that rainbows don’t come with pots of gold, and may not even come at all after a long day’s rain.

I watched my first live Broadway musical—Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was actually more of a revue—in 1980, from behind a post, the cheapest seat in the house. Since then I’ve been able to afford a few seats with a view, though not by much; as I reported in this corner a couple of years ago, my happiest hours in the musical theater came not on Broadway but in Melbourne, during a rousing Australian production of “South Pacific” that I watched from the topmost row where I sat all by my lonesome, to the amused consternation of the ushers, who urged me to move on down after the lights had dimmed. But I declined, because where I was, I could merrily sing along to “Dites-moi, Pourquois” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” Having outgrown Angela Cartwright, I now rank “South Pacific” my most favorite of musicals, with “West Side Story” a close second (Beng has a soft spot for “The King and I,” and never fails to cry when Mongkut dies).

On this most recent trip to the States, we caught “Evita” (my third favorite) at the Kennedy Center in DC and a trio of shows in New York: “From Burlesque to Broadway,” a revue of an art form that I wish I’d seen at a more responsive age; “The Bandwagon,” the revival of a forgotten art-about-art opus with three showstoppers (“You and the Night and the Music,” “That’s Entertainment,” and?“Dancing in the Dark”) and, finally, the Rockettes Christmas Special, classic Americana.

We stepped out of the theaters freezing in the cold but warm and dizzy with song, fortified against the inevitable anxieties and disappointments of another day.

 

[Images from flixster.com, childstar.com, musicalheaven,com, and amazon.com]

Penman No. 130: Museums and Musicals (Part 1)

Penman for Monday, January 5, 2015

 

IF THERE’S?anything in America I keep returning to—aside from the flea markets and antique shops—it’s the two things I consider to be among the country’s prime cultural resources: its museums and its musical theater.

Both are, at heart, forms of popular entertainment. While museums are arguably more educational, the first American museums, we’re told, began as collections of curiosities that attracted entrepreneurs like the showman P. T. Barnum, who bought up bizarre objects and juxtaposed them with such live attractions as bearded ladies and exotic animals. The American musical, on the other hand, descended from burlesques and operettas imported from Europe, livened up by chorus girls and minstrel songs, until (notes theater historian Mark Lubbock) Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came up with Show Boat in 1927 and refashioned the musical as a play unto itself, beyond the pastiche of production numbers that it had been.

I suppose I should be adding “major-league sports” to this list. The NBA is, after all, one of America’s biggest exports, with a global cultural impact that extends far beyond the ballgame itself. As a graduate student in Milwaukee, I spent whole Saturday afternoons enjoying double-headers at the baseball park, and I once cut a class in Shakespeare to watch Michael Jordan pull off a last-second three-pointer to beat the hometown Bucks (and despite being Bucks fans, we all stood up and cheered). And then there’s Hollywood, America’s mammoth fantasy machine.

But sports and movies can now be had on satellite TV and even your iPhone. Museums and musicals—I’m thinking Broadway and off-Broadway here—are still best experienced live, despite the likely availability of much of the material online or on DVD. Many Americans themselves apparently agree. A 2008 article that came out on National Public Radio reveals an interesting statistic: the total combined attendance for all major-league sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) that year was estimated at around 140 million, against the estimated attendance at American museums, pegged at 850 million.

I landed in Washington, DC on my first American visit 35 years ago, and I’ve been returning to the Smithsonian Institution ever since, looking at but never tiring of the same old things: Abraham Lincoln’s hat, George Washington’s dentures, the Hope Diamond, the Space Shuttle, the giant squid. Every pilgrimage to the Smithsonian (and, in London, to the British Museum) transforms me into a wide-eyed boy, seized by the collar and shaken into speechlessness by the majesty of history.

On this last sojourn, as I reported last week, a visit to the exhibition of historic signatures at the National Archives Museum proved to be one of the highlights of our museum-hopping. But we visited other equally arresting exhibits, most notably the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

I’d always been fascinated by this monumental figure—who, like many monuments, came with more than a deep fissure or two. I was born too late to appreciate him as the liberator of occupied Philippines, but I’d always nurtured a vague memory of going to the Luneta as a boy to see him, one 4th of July, a day of floats and big horses. I later suspected that memory to be false, until I confirmed, online, that MacArthur had indeed made one last sentimental journey to the Philippines in July 1961, when I was seven.

Norfolk seems an odd place for a MacArthur Memorial; it’s a Navy town, and he was an Army man through and through, and West Point—where he had served as superintendent—would have been far more logical. But his mother’s family was rooted in Norfolk, and Douglas himself would have been born there had not his father Arthur, himself an Army officer, been assigned to Little Rock, Ark., where Douglas was born in 1880.

Some things surprised me at the MacArthur museum: first of all, the discovery that it was also his and his second wife Jean’s resting place. The first thing you notice upon entering the memorial, flanked by rows of flags from various campaigns (Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, Lingayen, and Manila are prominently cited), is the sunken crypt in which the two tombs lie side by side. Second, I was struck by the number of Philippine items and references in the place—perhaps logically so, because even Arthur himself had been a general in the forces that occupied Manila in 1898.

Third—although I should have expected this—there was absolutely no mention of Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, the Scottish-Filipino actress who became Douglas’ girlfriend in between his marriages (his first wife, Louise Cromwell Brooks, had been a socialite). A fourth discovery was of interest only to this hardcore fountain-pen collector: the famous Parker “Big Red” Duofold, already an iconic pen when MacArthur reportedly used one to sign Japan’s surrender papers with on the Missouri, turned out to be a smaller lady’s version loaned to him by Jean.

There were recordings of his speeches, and I listened closely. MacArthur spoke famously simple words. His “I shall return” pledge ranks among the most familiar of rhetorical refrains; less known but equally moving was his farewell to West Point, two years before his death in 1964: “When I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.” But the verbal simplicity came out of a complex man, one who could fearlessly take on what he saw to be the communist colossus (and be sacked for his perceived recklessness in Korea by President Truman) but who was, by many biographical accounts, a mama’s boy.

It was, all told, a most impressive exhibition, amplifying a figure already larger than life to begin with. I suppose my biggest surprise was my own continuing fascination with this Big White Man, in the way that I’ve often wondered about the postcolonial (or should that be neocolonial) chic we attach to names like “McKinley” and “Rockwell,” especially when they involve high-priced property.

Those of us who luckily came too late to experience the horrors of the Second World War can argue all day about the moral wrongs of American imperialism and the self-serving designs of America on the Pacific—and would very probably be right. But in these days of tension in the South China or West Philippine Sea, we might end up wishing a MacArthur were around to do what no pragmatic politician in Washington or Manila today would imagine doing.

Next week, the musicals.