Penman No. 218: History and Irony

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Penman for Monday, September 26, 2016

 

 

I’D NEVER?heard of Ramon Cualoping III and Marco Angelo Cabrera until their names were linked to the recent flap involving the use of no less than the Official Gazette in an apparent effort to sanitize the memory of Ferdinand E. Marcos by removing any reference to martial law—you know, the martial law that Marcos invoked to impose his dictatorial rule on his people from 1972 until he was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986. (Yes, he technically lifted martial law in 1981 but he continued to rule with a rubber-stamp legislature.)

Some Googling revealed that Cualoping was an Ateneo Communication Arts graduate, batch 2004, while Cabrera graduated from San Beda in 2013 and interned briefly with the Department of Foreign Affairs; he had also worked for Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Those are both fine backgrounds for jobs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office—just the kind of posting on which many young writers and lawyers aspiring for a political future have cut their teeth—and I can surmise from the dates provided that Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera must be in their mid-30s and mid-20s, respectively—too young, therefore, to have personally known what the Gazette expunged.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a government propagandist myself at an even younger age—19, fresh out of martial law prison. Having dropped out of UP and having worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I got a job with the PR section of the National Economic and Development Authority. The irony of going from writing incendiary flyers to trumpeting such new government projects as Pantabangan Dam wasn’t lost on me. But I was getting married and needed a job, and all the old media jobs were gone save for the Express and the Bulletin, so I was thankful for whatever came my way. (I would much later write hundreds of speeches for FVR, among other Presidents and political clients—mostly to pay the rent, occasionally for the sheer privilege—so don’t look at me as some crusading journalist.)

I don’t know what drove Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera to the Palace; I’m assuming their motives were loftier than mine. I also don’t know what made them officially forget (hey, it’s the Official Gazette, right?) that FM declared martial law. I suspect they knew what happened, but chose to ignore the most salient fact about Marcos’ life, for reasons only they can tell. To his credit, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar effectively reprimanded his staff for the deliberate oversight and corrected the record.

I’ll leave further chastisement of these two gentlemen to the netizens who broke the story. From one PR pro to another, what I can tell them is this: I understand the job you have to do and even your private allegiances, but there are things—very big things much bigger than yourselves—that you just can’t sweep under the rug. Denying martial law or its disastrous effects on our society and economy is like telling Jews that the Holocaust never happened, or was actually a good thing. I salute you for your cheek, but what on earth were you thinking?

There’s a book I’d like to recommend to these two, one which I and a dozen other writers—all students during martial law—put out four years ago on the 40th anniversary of Proclamation 1081, titled Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. (For more on that book, see here: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/806191/lest-we-forget.) I wasn’t too enamored of the long title at that time, but now I appreciate the emphatic clarity of the thing; it’s just the sort of book martial law amnesiacs and deniers need to read.

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But even as we review history, there’s one thing that seems to have escaped many: the current debate about how to look at martial law and where to bury Ferdinand Marcos isn’t about the past; it’s about the future, and what kind of people we are and want to be.

I know that millennials tend to get beat up on because they don’t know enough about martial law, which is hardly their fault since we didn’t teach them enough about it. But it isn’t just them. When people my age express bewilderment over how Bongbong Marcos came so close to becoming Vice President despite his dad’s misdeeds, and how the Marcoses have survived so handsomely, I have to remind them that even under martial law, those of us who opposed Marcos were in the distinct minority. Most Filipinos supported martial law, actively or passively, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Like the Germans who supported Hitler, most Filipinos stood by while we faced the truncheons and firehoses—and even applauded 1081, early on, as the antidote to Communism (1972’s “war on drugs”). So what should we be so surprised about?

That’s why I’ve never referred to EDSA 1 as a revolution, because it wasn’t one in terms of changing anything fundamental in the structures and workings of our society. It was a popular uprising, a street revolt led by another faction of the ruling class, with broad support from the metropolitan middle class. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel euphoric that February, and I still get teary-eyed when I remember the moment; I guess the poignancy comes from knowing what came afterward.

I have no doubt that if the Palace incumbent were to declare martial law today for whatever reason, a majority of Filipinos would support him, although a noisy few of us would be up in arms. Martial law ca. 1972 was also like that, and remained popular for many more years, especially among amoral businessmen who sang its praises until it hit them in the pocket. And then it all went downhill.

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t see Marcos as a one-eyed ogre, but rather as a calculating Macbeth, keenly aware of his actions and perhaps even troubled by them. In my own turn with revisionism, I’ve even managed to convince myself—as I told the BBC in a recent interview on EDSA (a part which never got aired for lack of time)—that Ferdinand Marcos may have done us a final act of kindness by leaving without ordering a bloodbath. It’s an arguable notion (one I wouldn’t put on the Official Gazette) and it doesn’t change the fact that his regime took what it could until we bled, but as a fictionist and playwright, I like to imagine characters to be more complex than they seem.

A couple of years ago, at a cultural function in Quezon City, Mrs. Marcos preceded me by a few steps down a narrow staircase. She was clearly having a hard time navigating the stairs, and she looked back at me apologetically to say, “Hijo, I’m very sorry I’m keeping you.” I smiled and said, “It’s all right, Ma’am, please take your time.” I felt amused and strangely triumphant.

History is sometimes best seen as a series of comic and tragic ironies, which straight journalism and certainly government tabloids can’t dispense. Come to think of it, who gives a hoot about the Official Gazette? If you want to lie and get away with it, try fiction. I’d be happy to see Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera in my graduate workshop.

 

Penman No. 217: We Were Young Together

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2016

 

I HAD the honor of being asked to speak at the 50th anniversary reunion of my Philippine Science High School batch (we chose to celebrate our entrance year, 1966, fearing that there’d be fewer of us to gather in five years). It was, I joked, the valedictory I never got to deliver, for reasons that will be shortly obvious. You’ll forgive the chest-thumping; every high school has a right to think it’s the best on the planet—perhaps some more so than others. Herewith, an excerpt:

I’ll begin with a shameless boast, and the boast is that over these past four decades, I’ve won quite a few awards and prizes for my work as a writer and teacher. But none of them has given me as much pride and pleasure as the knowledge that once upon a time in 1966, for one brief shining moment and for some miraculous reason, I topped the entrance exam to the Philippine Science High School.

It was a fleeting glory, and if I ever imagined myself a real genius I would be quickly disabused, because as you all know, after our first year, my grade in English was 1.0 and my grade in Math was 5.0. Only the kindness or perhaps the embarrassment of our administrators persuaded them that I was worth giving another chance and putting on probation, a break I’m forever thankful for.

I have never felt in more distinguished company than yours. Individually and collectively, you are the smartest people I have ever known, and it has nothing to do with PhDs or awards or high positions in government and business or least of all material wealth—although I’m sure we could all use a little more money. I know that I can sit with anyone of you and have an intelligent and funny conversation about anything from interstellar travel and Dutertean diplomacy to hugot lines and Pokémon—well, maybe not Pokémon.

Long before buzzwords like “world-class” and “globally competitive” came into fashion, there were smart kids who passed an entrance exam that decimated whole regiments of lesser beings, leaving a few good boys and girls standing after the slaughter, calmly noting the distinction between cousins and cosines, avocados and Avogadro, halitosis and mitosis.

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Hey, these kids were us—gangly, smelly (after a good day’s work at the biology garden, or the agawan-base arena), cocksure in the classroom, and curious as hell about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, boy-girl questions dominated the school’s philosophical life.

“What Is a PSHS Boy?” asked the Science Scholar ca. 1969, and the soul-searching answer came (courtesy of someone who should have known—a PSHS girl): “A PSHS boy is a new sociological specimen of the human race… a hardworking nekti achiever [who keeps] a well-tended garden near the bio pond…. a longhaired mod swinger around the campus [who] wears kooky sunglasses, stylish baggy pants, and necklaces… He crams love letters in his notebooks. When Mr. Mozrah asks him ‘What is social interaction?’, he recites his lovelorn adventures with Jennifer, Corrine, Paulette, etc….”

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This penetrating study naturally occasioned a companion piece, published a year later under the thought-provoking title of “What Is a PSHS Girl?”, written by an expert on the subject, a PSHS boy.

“A PSHS girl,” this savant said, “is a rare biological specimen… She is only emotional, temperamental and irrational sometimes (well, half of the time… would you believe almost always?). Anger is not a word in her dictionary. You see, her dictionary starts with ‘boy’… A PSHS girl is the reading type. She reads Emily Loring and the like.”

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It didn’t take too long for a PSHS girl—uhm, PSHS young woman activist—to trash that silly, bourgeois, sexist view. “Now is the time for awakening,” this budding feminist would write in the same Science Scholar just a year later. “Do you realize that today you are a mere tool of the man?… Our bourgeois-oriented society adds insult to injury by picking up things for you and opening doors for you—reminders of sexual disparity—the very chains you should set out to break.”

We don’t know how many chains were broken; some precious objects certainly were (er, windows, petri dishes, innocence, and rules). Talk about rules! A famous one—dated September 29, 1970, and issued by the PSHS Board of Trustees—decreed that PSHS scholars “remain single and be discreet about their boy-girl relationships in order to continue their studies at the PSHS.”

Perhaps another topic of passionate discussion—“Should Smut Movies Be Allowed?”—had something to do with this heated? state of affairs.

The guidance counselor warned: “If they only display the human body for art’s sake, then there’s nothing wrong.? But if what they show are the acts sacred to man and woman, and those which arouse man’s sexual instincts and cause him to do something about it, then definitely, smut movies should be banned!”

Not too definitely, a freshman objected: “In European countries, especially in Scandinavia, sex movies have become so ordinary that they now seem to be part of the people’s lives.? In the Philippines, there is indifference towards these movies.? The Board of Censors should allow more of them and let us see what the attitude of the public toward them will be in the future.” [Brilliantly said, young man, an answer truly worthy of a science scholar—we’re not watching smut movies, here, we’re watching popular attitudes!]

Ah, the times, they were a-changing.? “The opening of the intramurals ushered in a new sight on our campus,” reported a sports columnist (a distraught boy) in the Science Scholar in 1970.? “Where once only boys were seen, girls have materialized…. The girls’ presence cannot be ignored…. In so short a period, many can be said to equal the boys at their own game. Complaints have been heard from the girls that the boys have been monopolizing both the basketball court and the ping-pong tables.”

That should’ve told us that the days of the Young Gentlemen’s Club and the Girls’ Club—no one had the gumption then to set up a Young Gay and Lesbian Club—were coming to an end. Some brazen soul in our freshman class organized the UBAG (United Boys Against Girls), but that didn’t last too long. Biology would teach boys that uniting with girls instead of fighting them was the more natural and pleasurable thing to do.

For a few of us after high school, life may have been a breeze, but for most, I’m sure it’s been an uphill climb, full of rough patches, and you were just as astonished as I was to find that a high IQ did not guarantee happiness or prosperity or success and may even have made things worse because of our more acute awareness of the meaning of things. We learned that the smartest people can make the dumbest mistakes in love, money, and politics, and that sometimes we just don’t know squay about the things that truly matter. I even learned that you could be happily married to someone from UP High.

Most important of all lessons and legacies, we learned to serve the people. Whether we grew up to be NPA cadres or CEOs or lab rats or barrio doctors, we knew that our high school scholarship had to be repaid in faithful service to community and humanity, employing the scientific, rationalist outlook that even those of us who strayed from S&T never quite lost.

We were young together, and we will grow old together. As we’ve all learned from life, it isn’t who leads at the start of the race but who finishes first at the end who wins—although again I suspect that in the race of life, we’d rather finish last.

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Penman No. 216: From Bali Song to Balisong

IMG_8436.JPGPenman for Monday, September 12, 2016

 

 

I’D BEEN?meaning to write this up for the past few months, but more pressing subjects kept getting in the way—and “pressing” is the word, because this is about the complete opposite: total relaxation with no fixed schedules or time limits.

It was sometime this past summer when I accompanied my wife Beng and a group of her UP High batchmates on a day trip to Batangas to scout some places as possible sites for their upcoming golden anniversary reunion next February. Beng already had one such place in mind—Cintai Corito’s Garden in Balete, not too far from Lipa, which we had already visited with the family a few months earlier, and had been much impressed by.

Like many Manile?os, we’d long been looking for day-trip or weekend alternatives to Tagaytay, especially for bringing our foreign visitors and balikbayan relatives to. Frankly, as a bulalo and ukay-ukay addict, I myself never tire of Tagaytay for a quick break from Manila’s madness. But lately, on our sorties to Mindoro and Romblon via the Batangas ferry, Beng and I have been taking the STAR tollway a lot and have often found ourselves wanting to stop over in one of the many towns on the way.

The Balete exit is one those innocuous detours that you’d take only if you really knew where you were going, and the narrow road that you get on leading to Cintai promises little beyond the shops selling honey along the roadside. Cintai itself doesn’t look like much from the outside—until you drive down the winding entranceway. The point of this long prelude is that you’d never imagine such a magical place to arise out of the Batangas countryside—a virtual Balinese-inspired Eden carved out of a rolling landscape that once might have been dotted by coconut and coffee.

Cintai (which means “love” in Bahasa and is pronounced Chin-TAI) is a love offering to the late Corito of the place’s original name, the lady who inspired this outburst of Indonesian exotica in Southern Tagalog. It would be easy to think of the place as a theme park or resort—there are three swimming pools, and you’ll find peacocks, alpacas, roosters, and dwarf horses roaming the grounds—but other such places imply loudness, both literally and architecturally.

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Cintai is anything but loud—visually impressive, for certain, but just on the right side of tastefulness. Given the easy temptation to go over the top, Cintai’s designer wisely decided to make just enough of a statement, but also to take care of the fine details and of their consistent employment, even the patterning of the rocks on the walkways and the Balinese carvings in the bathrooms.

In other words, as in Bali itself (which I had the pleasure of visiting 30 years ago), the appeal of the place is in its soulful serenity. The management could have hyped up the atmosphere by piped-in gamelan music, but they resisted even that, for better effect: the gamelan will tinkle in your mind. (One interesting discovery: the Balinese statues, figures, and accents in the complex were mostly made by Batangue?o craftsmen.)

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The complex comprises 18 villas with variable capacities, two large halls, a spa, and a restaurant, among other facilities (for more details, visit http://coritosgarden.com). Beng and her UP High batchmates plan to have the place to themselves for an overnight stay, an ideal set-up for a big group, but walk-in day trippers are welcome, for a very reasonable rate that includes a sumptuous lunch.

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And that’s what we did on this scouting trip—tour Cintai and have lunch with its amiable manager Francis Salanguit—but I had another suggestion for the group, which they gamely took up: go a bit farther down the highway to Taal, about a 40-minute drive away, to give everyone (especially the balikbayans) a special treat of history and heritage. I’d also been to Taal before and had visited one of its fabled heritage houses and its cathedral; I wanted to see more. So we set out after lunch and were in Taal shortly after.

The historicity of Taal was immediately apparent in the old Spanish-era houses lining the approach to the town. But what also accentuated (I was going to say “sharpened”) Taal’s uniqueness were the shops hawking a fearsome array of bladed weapons—specifically the balisong, the fan knife of many a boyhood fancy, ranging from the mini to the outsized version. Batangas, of course, and Taal in particular can look back to a proud revolutionary tradition, and the balisong seems to exemplify that don’t-mess-with-me attitude Batangue?os are famous for.

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We didn’t stop that day to buy any knives—imagine the alarms they’d trigger if someone forgot about them on the plane ride Stateside—but we pressed on to our main destinations: the Apacible and Agoncillo heritage houses, both of which can be found on Agoncillo Street. I’d seen the Apacible house on my previous visit and had been charmed by its wonderfully preserved furnishings, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how the National Historical Commission, which manages the two historic houses, had taken pains to provide visitors with a more enlightening and rewarding experience.

Guests (who may come in for free, but are encouraged to leave a donation) are met and led by a knowledgeable guide; the AV show that introduces the place, its previous owners, and its history was one of the most artistic and professionally produced I’d ever seen. Markers, captions, and child-friendly installations were provided where necessary, and additional information was contributed freely by our young guide. The Apacible brothers—Leon and Galicano—were cousins and confederates of Jose Rizal, who came to their house to talk revolution; Leon was a lawyer and soldier and Galicano a doctor and propagandist, and though less known in the pantheon of Filipino heroes, they come alive in the exhibits that pay due homage to their contributions.

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The Marcela Marino Agoncillo Museum and Monument a couple of blocks down the street was just as well kept and well introduced with its own AV production (my kudos to Dr. Maris Diokno, whose dual backgrounds as teacher and historian—not to mention her own proud lineage as the descendant of true heroes—can be seen working here to best effect). Marcela was the wife of diplomat Felipe Agoncillo, but came to be known on her own as the co-creator of the first Philippine flag while on exile in Hong Kong.

Just as Cintai’s gardens had appealed to the spirit, Taal’s heritage houses touched both heart and mind—and it took just a few mouthfuls of the local suman, washed down with barako coffee, to complete our Batangas experience with a boost to our famished stomachs. I’m not knocking Tagaytay, but one of these days, you just may want to go a little farther down the road and try a bit of the best that Batangas has to offer.

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Penman No. 215: An Explosion of Graphic Talent

 

IMG_9307.JPGPenman for Monday, September 5, 2016

 

THERE WERE?plenty of attractions at this year’s AsiaPOP Comicon, held August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—chiefly the presence of such popular stars as X-Men’s Nicholas Hoult, The Vampire Diaries’ Claire Holt, Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie, and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, and comic book artists Whilce Portacio, Mike Zeck, and Ken Lashley, among others. But what drew my attention and my wife Beng’s the most was the explosion of talent among Filipino graphic artists who displayed their work at the far end of the exhibition hall.

Let me take a step back and recall that just last July, thanks to the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time, Beng and I found ourselves attending the San Diego Comic Con—the original and still the biggest pop-culture gathering of its kind. The sortie revived my juvenile interest in comics and all things strange and wonderful—an odd detour from the stodgy realism of my own work, but surprisingly refreshing. It was at the SDCC’s Artists’ Alley that I ran into the Fil-Am comics legend Whilce Portacio, and I interviewed him on the spot (the full interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of Esquire Philippines), during which I learned that he was coming to Manila soon for another pop culture event.

That event turned out to be AsiaPOP. AsiaPOP Comicon Manila was organized by Universal Events & Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Al Ahli Holding Group, whose head of Marketing and Business Development Abdulla Mahmood was glad to share the fact that AsiaPOP’s first Manila outing last year attracted 30,000 attendees—a more than respectable figure considering that the San Diego original typically brings in about 130,000 people over four days. “Pinoys are immersed in pop culture,” Abdulla told me, explaining why his group decided to launch their first such event in the Philippines. “They’re among the heaviest users of social media, too, which helps spread the word. From here, we’re bringing the show to Dubai, and from there on to other cities.”

New TV hit series like Stranger Things are central to that pop culture—Beng and I spent two sleepless nights binge-watching on Netflix, and now can’t wait for the next season to meet the Demogorgon (whom everyone seems to think is…). The senior citizen-professor in me has to wonder how Beng and I can so easily succumb to the seductions of superheroes and their ilk, but then I’d have to admit that with nothing much else to do outside of work, we’ve become TV and movie addicts who must’ve seen every nearly sci-fi and fantasy flick that’s been shown over the past five years (with some notable exceptions—we’ve yet to watch a single episode of Game of Thrones).

So we can understand all the buzz about Millie Bobby Brown, but as newcomers to the comics supershow, we’ve come to realize that the fun isn’t in chasing after individual characters and stars as much as imbibing the sheer variety and spectacle of the experience—everywhere you look, there’s something else to catch the eye, whether it’s the X-Men’s shapeshifting Mystique or a new superhero named… Lolang Tsora?

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That was Tandang Sora as we knew her from our history books, but in her reincarnation in Anthony Dacayo II’s Bayani series, she employs a spinning dreamcatcher to thwart her foes. We found Anthony and his merry band of artists in AsiaPOP’s own version of the Artists’ Alley, which hosted exhibits from dozens of the most gifted comic book artists in the Philippines. Anthony himself works on stories (and some of the drawings) for his Bayani project, which has since been developed by Ranida Games into a phone-based game that employs Filipino heroes as characters with special skill sets (Joe Rizal uses a quill sword, for example, and Rio Mabini his Verdadero Decalogo). It was his way, said Anthony, of bringing our national heroes into the consciousness of a new generation.

In another booth, we found Iloilo-born Jann Galino, who’s already done penciling work for Virginia-based Azure Multimedia’s “Ranger” comics. Jann exemplifies the Pinoy artist on the brink of the big breakthrough. He’s gone back to school to finish his Fine Arts degree while putting together a portfolio that he hopes will be good enough to show the scouts from Marvel and DC the next time they come around. On the other hand, Bukidnon native Harvey Tolibao has already done work for Marvel, DC, and Japanese game companies, among others, co-founding HMT Studios with some friends to expand and speed up the work.

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I was especially happy to run into a former student, Paolo Herras, who has published a series of Strange Native comic books for Quezon City-based Meganon Comics after stints in advertising and indie films, drawing on history and folklore to interrogate the present. Beside him was another young author and artist named Tepai Pascual, whose Maktan 1521 is a graphic retelling of the encounter between Magellan and Lapu-lapu.

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The biggest Pinoy names in the comic-book industry may now be too busy to appear at AsiaPOP—like Leinil Yu who trained with Whilce Portacio in the 1990s and is now one of the world’s most sought-after artists, and Budjette Tan, who now works for Lego in Denmark as a creative director in Lego’s ad agency. (A week after AsiaPOP, I ran into the California-based animator Jess Espa?ola, who won an Emmy in 2008 for his work on The Simpsons; he missed AsiaPOP but was in town to help motivate younger artists at his alma mater, the UP College of Fine Arts.)

But there’s no lack of younger Filipino graphic talent eager to follow on their heels, and events like AsiaPOP and the big Comicon in San Diego can provide the best launch pads for these Wacom-wielding wizards. (To know more about Filipino comics and their creators, check out http://www.philippinecomics.net.)

 

WITHIN DAYS?of each other, two dear friends passed away last week—gallery owner Norma Crisologo Liongoren and retired professor and children’s book author Sylvia Mendez Ventura.

Norma was a memorable character whose eye-catching fashions lent more than a dash of color to her exhibition openings and parties in Cubao’s pioneering Liongoren Gallery. Most importantly, she was a generous spirit, lending artists both new and old her unflagging support and outright charity. Beng was especially close to Norma, and when I found her weeping and praying in our gazebo in the garden early one morning, I knew Norma had passed on in the night.

Sylvia was my Shakespeare teacher when I returned to school in the 1980s, and after one of her subjects, I was hooked on Shakespeare and the English Renaissance for life. Impeccably coiffed, this New York-educated diplomat’s daughter was a style icon who, like Robert Graves’ White Goddess, could lay bare your ignorance and cut you down with a single phrase. For some reason (and much to my classmates’ annoyance), I became her pet in class, and she would sometimes hand the lesson over to me to teach—which helped me decide to stay on and become a teacher myself. Sylvia was also a gifted painter, and I don’t think we ever told her, but for these past ten years, one of her flower paintings has hung over headboard. Good night, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!