Penman No. 146: A Life in the Grand Manner

SEJA2013UPPenman for Monday, April 27, 2015

I’VE BEEN?privileged to work with some of the most accomplished and interesting personalities in Philippine politics and business on their biographies—the accounting pioneer Washington SyCip, the brilliantly rebellious Lava brothers, the Marcos-era tycoon Rudy Cuenca, and the political maverick Tet Garcia, among others. This Wednesday, April 29, another biography I wrote—Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner, published by the University of the Philippines Press—will be launched at the Manila Polo Club, from 3 to 6 pm, and it’s focused on a man who will be remembered for many things in many ways, whose impact on our political, economic, and social life has been far greater than the headlines alone would suggest.

The man now known by many as SEJA (for Senator Edgardo J. Angara) courted consternation and even disdain from many people, including some old friends, when he stood by the embattled Erap Estrada into the last days of the latter’s doomed Presidency. He also confounded many of his own followers when, after leading the opposition, he signed up with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s senatorial ticket in 2007. The biography addresses those issues, and more—the Apeco issue in his home province of Aurora, for example, involving the conversion of land claimed to have been the ancestral domain of the Dumagats into an economic zone.

It also sheds light on some little-known but key moments in our political history, such as the peace agreement that Angara was able to negotiate, when he was Agriculture Secretary, with communist rebels in Negros. “That agreement continues to hold,” Ed told me. “It’s the longest-lasting agreement the Philippine government has achieved with insurgents.” The biography also narrates how Angara, still as Agriculture Secretary, was just about to conclude a rehabilitation plan for Camp Abubakar, in close consultation with the MILF leadership. “It would have been a historic breakthrough,” said Angara, “but it was opposed by the military, and ultimately dropped by President Estrada.”

My favorite portions of the biography have to do with his days as UP President, when he threw that famously independent and historically dissident institution into a tizzy by coming in from the cold and applying corporate governance to the academe.

Rumored to have been President Marcos’ choice for the UP job—something Angara strongly denies, attributing his selection to the support of the late Onofre D. Corpuz—Angara stepped into Quezon Hall from out of the blue, “the blue” being ACCRA, the law firm he had set up with some of the brightest young lawyers of his time. Angara would recall that “OD asked me to meet with him in the coffeeshop of the Mandarin. He brought up the UP presidency with me, and I told him that while it was certainly a great honor to be considered for such a lofty academic position, I simply wasn’t prepared for it. My only teaching experience was as a lecturer for two semesters, right after I had returned from Michigan. The School of Business Administration was looking for someone to teach corporation law, and I drove my Beetle from Makati to Diliman to teach my classes.”

His election by UP’s Board of Regents was no cakewalk: Angara faced a formidable and distinguished array of fellow candidates, including Secretary of Justice Vicente Abad Santos, Acting Budget Minister Manuel S. Alba, UPLB Chancellor Emil Q. Javier, Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities Rafael M. Salas, incumbent University President Emanuel Soriano, Economic Planning Minister Gerardo P. Sicat, Assemblyman Arturo M. Tolentino, and Assemblyman Ronaldo B. Zamora, among others. It was even rumored that First Lady Imelda Marcos herself was interested in the position.

In the end, the BOR elected the 46-year-old lawyer, and he lost no time wielding the broom—reorganizing and trimming down UP’s tangled and bloated bureaucracy, revamping its academic programs, and securing fiscal autonomy for the university. Some of these measures inevitably made him enemies, but also unlikely allies, such as the staunchly leftist professors Francisco Nemenzo and Roger Posadas.

Known to his colleagues as an irrepressible jokester, University Secretary Mart Gregorio probably wasn’t joking when he recalled a moment when he entered the campus with Angara, who observed a virtual menagerie of farm animals along University Avenue. “He asked me, ‘Why are there so many animals at the university entrance?’ I told him, ‘Ah, Mr. President, that’s the College of Veterinary Medicine. In other universities abroad, you might be welcomed by a beautiful arch or statue. Here we have cows, chickens, and goats.’ And then he asked, ‘What’s that other college there?’ I said, ‘That’s the College of Fisheries, sir.’ He said, ‘Fisheries—but we don’t even have an aquarium here!’ And right there, he said, ‘I think that should be transferred to UP Visayas.’ And it was. ‘Vet Med should be transferred to UP Los Ba?os.’ And it also was.”

I’m biased, of course, being a UP professor and former university administrator myself, but that’s the kind of anecdote that made this book a pleasure to write. It was also the realization that I was talking to the man responsible for many landmark bills that made a key difference in my own life, among many other millions of Filipinos—the Senior Citizens Act, PhilHealth, the Generics Act, and the creation of the Commission on Higher Education and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, aside from laws on Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization, the Free High School Act, the creation of TESDA and of a host of financial and educational reforms.

He has been a strong supporter of culture and the arts, and lately has been an avid Hispanist, but Ed’s emergence as a cultural champion came as a surprise to many people—even to Ed himself, who acknowledges that “I don’t even sing or dance, much to the frustration of my wife. I don’t do any artistic work.”

From Con-Con delegate, corporate lawyer, and UP President to senator, Senate President, Agriculture and Executive Secretary, SEJA’s life has certainly been one of the most storied hereabouts. “I will be the first to say that it has been a far from perfect life, fraught with challenge and accident,” he says in his foreword, “but in my 80th year I can only still feel privileged to have lived it the way I did. The title of this book may sound rather immodest—it draws on Justice Holmes’ admonition for the law to be taught and therefore practiced in the grand manner—but I would like to believe that in the end, this is the only standard we can be measured by, as we seek to reshape society itself and our nation’s future.”

See you, I hope, at the book launch.

Penman No. 145: Another Watch to Watch

Penman for Monday, April 20, 2016

KNOWING WHAT?an Apple diehard I am, friends have been asking me about the forthcoming Apple Watch, and if I’m going to get one. So I’m going to make another little digression today to answer that question—although, arguably, technology is art and culture in contemporary society, particularly when it’s something close and familiar enough to wear on your person.

As half the planet now knows, Apple announced the Apple Watch last September 9 in a splashy event helmed by the company’s new and nimble CEO, Tim Cook. It’s due to be released this Sunday in the US, and preorders opened last April 10; within six hours, most models—about a million units—were sold out.

That’s the kind of first-day frenzy and manic marketing that Apple might as well take out a patent on, because no other company even comes close in making people line up on the sidewalk a week before the store doors open. It’s also what turns Apple haters—and there are more than a few—apoplectic, refusing to understand how the mere whiff of a new toy from Cupertino, California could leave a fourth of humanity in a hypnotic trance.

Well, the Apple Watch is finally here, heralding Apple’s entry into the fashion market—make that high-fashion, with its top-of-the-line, solid-gold model selling for a toe-curling $17,000 (base models start at $349, or about P15,500). It comes in two sizes and a number of finishes, with an array of attractive watchbands (attractive to most people, anyway, who sadly don’t include old leather-loving codgers like me.)

Given those numbers, it’s safe to conclude that the Apple Watch was made to do more than tell the time. While hardly in the same stratosphere of high-end watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, Apple hasn’t done too badly as a horological upstart. Designed to work best with an iPhone, the Apple Watch can receive your email and text messages, and show incoming calls. It can do Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most hyped of all, it can track your health stats. It can play your favorite tunes, and store some of your favorite pics. You can still use it without an iPhone for neat little tricks like Apple Pay (if and when that comes to our shores).

What are its downsides? It doesn’t have built-in GPS; you’ll need your iPhone for that. And with its touted 18-hour battery life, you’ll probably need to recharge it every night.

Many of these features, I should point out—except for the Apple-specific apps—were and are available on other smart watches, for a lot less than what Apple is charging for their sum total. Before the Apple Watch, Beng and I had some fun with our his-and-hers Pebble watches, which basically told the time and displayed our email and SMS messages on a monochrome screen. Eventually, we both got tired of charging the buzzing beasties, and went back to our analog Hamiltons.

Which brings me to my answer to my friends’ question. Am I getting an Apple Watch? Heck, no—and this will probably be the first Apple rollout since the Newton that I’ll be passing on. But why not?

I’ll admit that the price is a factor—the Pebble didn’t cost me more than $100, and it’s way below that now (feature-wise, of course, the Pebble can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch). But in truth, cost never did turn back the Apple masses, who seem convinced that the pricier and sleeker something with an Apple logo is, the more compelling it must be to possess.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of features, either, that I’m not in the buyers’ queue (where I was for the iPhone 6; I had ordered mine as soon as the online counters opened, and received it via UPS last September 19, the first day of delivery in the US). The Apple Watch is abundantly capable and versatile, and we’ve only seen the barest suggestion of all the lively apps that are going to be developed for this device.

Instead, I may have to admit, as I’ll do now, to the onset of what we might call digital fatigue—that awful sensation of drowning under an onrushing wave of 1’s and 0’s. I’ve never felt this before, and it must be my biological age showing, but it took the Apple Watch and its kaleidoscope of colors to tell me that I’ve had enough. Please, not another device to tether and feed like a pet goat, and one that will bleat mightily when some silly text message comes in selling a condo I can’t possibly afford, and one that will remind me with a smug chirp about how overweight I am.

I know that I can talk to the Apple Watch, which will be the coolest thing for my students to see since I stepped into class with a Nokia the size of a shoe strapped to my waist in the early ‘90s. But I have trouble enough talking to my phone; I hate making and taking phone calls, because they usually mean problems to deal with. My iPhone is, first of all, a camera, a jukebox, a browser, and a datebook; and then it’s a phone (come to think of it, it’s also and already a watch, and a damn good one).

As it is, I don’t even use my iPad often enough, and I have to remember to charge it after letting it idle for a couple of weeks in solitary stupor. There’s a nest of charging cables at the foot of my bed, with phones, power banks, and digital recorders huddled like suckling pigs; I can just see the Apple Watch joining that blue- and red-eyed menagerie—but again, I’d rather not.

The ultimate reason for my self-denial is, I guess, the romantic one. I love my vintage and my two-handed watches too much to trade them for some blingy upstart. I believe a watch’s first and only duty is to tell the time. I believe a watch should have a clear, round, and honest face, from which I can read the time at a glance, without breaking my train of thought. I believe a watch should have a soft and pliant strap, like good leather; it should be beautiful, but quiet and undemanding, except for the occasional turn of the crown.

Appwatch95

Kind of like the original Apple watch from 1995—I think the happiest watch ever designed—which everyone seems to have forgotten about in the mad rush to get the new one. I dusted mine off the other day, put a new battery in, and gave it to Beng. It tells the time, and puts a smile on your face. What more can you ask for?

[Apple Watch pic from wired.co.uk]

Penman No. 144: Postscript to the Palancas

Penman for Monday, April 13, 2015

FIRST OF?all, let me express my belated thanks to Mrs. Sylvia Palanca Quirino and the Palanca Foundation for responding promptly to our recent appeal for them to reconsider and rescind what many writers thought were rather onerous rules for this year’s Palanca Awards competition. That has happened—we’re basically back to the old rules, which prospective entrants can read on the Palanca website. I do have to remind people to mind the check box on the entry form, where you need to indicate whether you’re giving your express permission for the Foundation to publish your work in full, in case it wins.

We can understand the Foundation’s desire not just to give away monetary prizes for literature as it’s done for over 60 years now, but also to develop a readership for good writing. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance between the authors’ rights to their work and the sponsor’s need to share some of that work with the public for whom it’s presumably being written. As someone who’s come to be associated, and happily so, with the Palanca community, I’m relieved that this little tempest was dealt with expeditiously and reasonably by the Palancas and their lawyers—with the personal and gracious intercession, of course, of Mrs. Quirino.

I should note that both sides came away with the clear understanding that the rules are a work in progress—as are the Palanca awards themselves—as the literary and publishing environment itself continues to evolve in ways no one could have predicted, say, 20 years ago. They will be reviewed and modified as the times require, but meanwhile, it’s back to the old rules (minus the retroactivity provision, which turns out to have been there before with hardly anyone noticing; at least the recent discussion surfaced that). Thanks, too, to other stalwarts in the literary community such as Krip Yuson, Karina Bolasco, and Andrea Pasion-Flores who also worked behind the scenes to help clarify and resolve issues.

On the sidelines, this brouhaha raised some old, perennial questions, mainly from younger writers. For example, I received another message on my blog asking if it’s absolutely important to join the Palancas and win a prize or two to gain literary recognition. My answer has always been, of course not—not absolutely. I’m sure that many accomplished authors never joined the Palancas nor won one of its many prizes; quite a few, both old and young, disdain the idea of joining for their own reasons, chiefly the distastefulness of seeming to curry favor with the literary Establishment.

From a practical standpoint—and I’ve always been a practical man—I have no doubt that a Palanca award or two, or better yet a dozen, can help perk up the CV and gain some attention from editors, publishers, and grant-givers (if that sort of thing is important to you at all, because it may not be and doesn’t have to be, if you’re independent-minded and/or have independent means).

That may sound a bit crass to the idealist, but it’s never really been just about the money—which is appreciable but not all that much in the grand scheme of things. It’s about the inner lift you get from a bit of validation from one’s peers and seniors (and again, if you don’t need or want that validation, feel free to look elsewhere).

And that, too, has practical effects, as the encouraged writer produces more (and, over time, hopefully better) work. Writing is a lonely job; there’s very little popular but credible criticism in this country that deals with contemporary literature, especially of work written by writers 40 and below. With very few readers and critics about, the only quick check you might get on your work could be that prize (ie, from your readership of three judges)—or its absence. It’s a sad thing to note, in a way, but that’s how it is.

Are the Palancas an infallible gauge of literary merit? Of course not. Any juried award involves people, and anything involving people is bound to be subject to human error and bias. You’ll hear ugly stories from some joiners about how they were cheated out of their well-deserved award by narrow-minded judges promoting their own favorites, but absent any direct proof, I’ll have to put this down to the natural quirks of the process. (I do respect the possibility that these plaints aren’t just griping by sore losers, but a reasoned critique of what some see as the ossification of an institution.)

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ll just say what it was like for me. When I began joining the Palancas in the mid-1970s, I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me. I was a college dropout, and hadn’t even gone to a writers’ workshop then. I took my chances, and lost more times than I won. I won a share of second prize the first time I joined, in 1975 when I was 21 (after which I naturally felt like God’s own child), but this was followed by a straight and miserable four-year losing streak.

Whenever I lost, I felt sick to the stomach and couldn’t wait for another year to roll over as quickly as possible. But I didn’t curse the heavens or the judges. After sulking for a week, I went back to my desk—reading writers I could learn from—and wrote more stories and plays (many of them lousy ones for sure, but even bad work strengthens some muscles) and joined and lost and joined again.

At some point, I began winning more often than I lost—yes, that felt good and it got addictive—but when I had won enough, I stopped joining and focused on more important things, like teaching. (Everyone’s free to join and seniorhood shouldn’t prevent anyone from duking it out with the youngsters—hey, we semi-retirees can still write about steamy sex!—but my personal sense is, there’s a time to look for other thrills.)

It comes down to this: one or two or even a whole raft of Palancas won’t make you a writer, or make you as a writer. They’ll give you a helpful leg up and make you feel like a king or a queen for a week—you’ll certainly be the most famous writer in your barangay—but ultimately, the awards will only be as good as you make them, as you parlay them into good, sustained writing and publishing.

Forget those three-person boards of judges and their foibles; worry about the faceless thousands of readers out there you’ll never see, but who will all have something to say about your work (or worse, prove indifferent). At some point, stop worrying about prizes; worry about your next book. That’s what people should best remember you by.

(This year’s competition will close on April 30. Check out www.palancaawards.com.ph for more information.)

[Image from gmanews.tv]?

Penman No. 143: A Foray into Fairyland (2)

IMG_7281Penman for Monday, April 6, 2015

LAST WEEK’S?piece on “Fairlyand”—the mountain of Calatong in my home province of Romblon—elicited quite a bit of interest among my readers, and I was very pleased with the response until my mother, who grew up around the place, called my attention to a potentially lethal mistake I’d made in my retelling of my cousins’ and aunts’ stories about that enchanted kingdom. (I’m thinking that “lethal” might depend on whether you believe in spirits or not, and I don’t, but talk like this always reminds me of a conversation I had with a sharp old nun whom I met in one of my Italian sojourns, who said: “The question isn’t “Do you believe in God?’ but rather ‘Does God believe in you?’”)

The mistake I’d apparently made was in saying that eating quinta, or black mountain rice, was an antidote to fairy spells. “It actually works the other way around,” my mother told me in our little garden in Diliman. “They’ll offer you black rice, and if you eat even a handful of it, they’ll take you to Calatong and you’ll never be seen again.” So folks, be so advised; beware of strangers offering black rice, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing any soon. The last time I saw truly black rice was in an American grocery store in the Midwest, where it was being sold as Indian wild rice, and cost considerably more than any other exotic variety on the shelf. But then maybe that preciousness implies more than a smidgen of magic. If black rice banishes people to oblivion, I’d like to buy a sack of it, whatever the cost, to feed to certain politicians before 2016.

Which returns us to the more prosaic realities of modern-day Romblon. Not too many people, even Filipinos, know about Romblon, which if they ever board a ship for Panay they’re likely to pass unseen in the night, after Mindoro. It’s composed of three main islands—Tablas, Sibuyan, and Romblon—and was a sub-province of Capiz during Spanish times. As Philippine provinces go, it’s a pretty small one, with less than 300,000 people (excluding encantos), and my favorite quote about it comes from Jose Rizal via NVM Gonzalez (who was born in Romblon in 1915), who passed it on his way back to Manila from exile in Dapitan, remarking that it was “muy hermosa pero muy triste.”

Much of the hermosa part remains. On this first long visit home in two decades, we took an SUV around Tablas, a day trip I’d never taken before, and I was awestruck by how lovely the place was, fringed by one emerald cove after another. I lost no time in telling my friends to consider Romblon as a vacation alternative to Batanes, Palawan, and Boracay.

Indeed, Boracay’s a short hop away by motorized banca, and being on the other side of the same oceanic basin, Romblon is also blessed with many white beaches, most of them yet undiscovered. (All these islands and their people belong to one ecosystem, as it were, their languages familiar to one another, though subtly different; my paternal grandfather must have come from the Dalisays of Ibajay, Aklan, where a playwright named Marianito Dalisay Calizo wrote moro-moros in the mid-1700s.)

Some of these natural getaways have been found out, and the developers and entrepreneurs have begun streaming in, and foreigners with Filipino wives have been buying up prime beachfront property for a fraction of Boracay prices. (The best fish catch in Romblon still goes to Boracay, where it can fetch two to three times as much.)

One happy discovery we made was just a 15-minute ride from my hometown of Alcantara: Aglicay Beach, owned and managed by an affable balikbayan doctor, which offers a white-sand beach, great snorkeling, and spectacular hilltop views, all within a resort with the usual amenities, including conference facilities and wi-fi. You’ll have to pay the admission fee, though—all of 30 pesos. (To know more, check out www.aglicaybeachresort.com.)

The triste part, I don’t know. There’s certainly enough to be sad about, as much of Romblon remains painfully poor. On the other hand, the tougher things get, the harder many Romblomanons work, with their brains if not with their hands. I was puzzled by the knot of schoolchildren who gathered in front of our beachside house at dawn every morning—they carried their shoes rather than wore them—until I realized that they had walked over barefoot from a nearby island at low tide. I would later learn that one child, barely nine, had drowned this way when the tide came back in too quickly. But there was no fear in these survivors’ faces, only an insistent resolve that now and then would fracture into laughter.

We were roused one morning by the thump-thump-thump of techno music in the plaza. “They’re just testing the sound system,” said our host. “It’ll be fiesta soon.” They called the uncanny practice of waking every one up pag-di-diana, and I thought that it might have had something to do with Paul Anka’s karaoke staple.

A few other discoveries I learned on this trip were rather more personal. I had always wondered why I had spent such a long summer there as a ten-year-old in 1964—an experience I recounted in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place—and I learned that it was because we were then so hard up in Manila that we children had to be farmed out, as it were, to save some money. My aunts recalled me as a smart but prissy boy who wore long-sleeved shirts in a seaside village and who would recite long poems in English at the drop of a hat.

We also solved the mystery of why my grandmother Pinang left my Lolo Tolio in the mid-1920s shortly after marrying him and giving birth to my father Jose. It had been something of a forced marriage to begin with, and Pinang was a headstrong woman, but the story we heard was that she hated being made to serve hot chocolate when some constables came visiting one day, and took that as the last straw and left. (They would live a kilometer apart for the next 60 years, and would inevitably run into each other in town but never speak.) Now it emerged that Tolio was having a saucy little affair—an explanation that makes Lola Pinang much less petulant than the chocolate story would make her out to be.

Whether sad or funny, it felt good to hear and to understand these stories again in Romblomanon without having to defer to my wife’s more widely spoken Hiligaynon, to say udi instead of diri, basi instead of ngaa; it’s still palangga in both languages. I felt at home.