Penman No. 270: Precedents for Presidents

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Penman for Monday, September 25, 2017

 

It’ll only be around for a few days more, but painter Rock Drilon’s latest exhibit at Galleria Duemila on Loring Street in Pasay City is worth looking into, if only to see how a master abstractionist is inspired by the idea and the experience of home. Titled “Homecoming: Works from Dumangas,” the show is the culmination of the past five years that he’s been staying at the Drilons’ ancestral home in Dumangas, Iloilo, after decades of living and working in the big city up north. He’d originally returned to his roots just to help out his aging mother, but the pull of the province proved too strong, and Rock found himself staying on for good.

This is the 61-year-old’s 50th-plus show, and if you’ve followed his career you’ll see familiar figures in his latest work—the loopy lines and amoeba-like shapes—suffused with color, predominantly pastel but pockmarked with black, like life itself. Of course, the wonder of—and, for many, the problem with—abstract expressionism is that a work can seem to mean anything and everything that the viewer brings to the picture.

Drilon cites Chabet, Dubuffet, and Basquiat among his major influences, aside from his mentor Joya, and it helps to appreciate their art as a whole to see a pattern among the patterns. One manifesto seeking to explain the school famously defined it as “violently opposed to common sense,” and you can see that in Drilon’s creations, whose subjects defy categorization but provoke intense examination. No soul-comforting churches, no sunsets, no ricefields here, only squiggles that could be both microbes and galaxies, as minute or as massive as our imaginations will make them. “Homecoming” is on until September 30.

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AN INVESTITURE, we’re told, is a “formal ceremony conferring the authority and symbols of high office, held during the new president’s first year in office,” and is a high point in the life of every university. Aside from the annual graduation, few opportunities exist for shows of pomp and circumstance—where the professors and administrators parade in full academic regalia—in universities like UP where egalitarianism is religion and simplicity of dress and manner are seen to complement sharpness of mind.

We had one at the University of the Philippines last Wednesday, in honor of our new president Atty. Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion, UP’s 21st, and it occurred to me that in all my 33 years in UP, I had somehow never been to one, although it’s taken place every six years in UP’s modern history. As one of his VPs, I had the honor of marching onstage, and so had a very special view of things.

The experience led me to dig into UP’s history of investitures, where I discovered more than few interesting factoids.

Our very first president, for example, wasn’t only a foreigner—an American—but also a clergyman, an Episcopalian pastor. His name was Dr. Murray Bartlett, and his investiture was held on December 20, 1911—three years after UP opened. About 2,000 students, teachers, and guests trooped to Padre Faura for the afternoon ceremony where—against the expectations of many—Bartlett argued in his speech for a “University for Filipinos” that would not merely copy US universities.

UP’s third president (after the Filipino jurist Ignacio Villamor) was again an American, and a Methodist minister—Guy Potter Benton—and his investiture in December 1921 was memorable not only for its lavish budget of P10,000 and a star-studded guest list that included Governor General Leonard Wood, Senate President Manuel Quezon, and Speaker Sergio Osme?a, but because of a feature that would never be seen again: the UP faculty wore all-white togas, which someone had thought more appropriate for the tropics. (It would be voted out the next year.)

Benton’s illustrious successor, Rafael Palma, had an investiture described as “austere,” but the word clearly did not apply to Don Rafael’s prolific pen, whose 8,000-word speech I clocked at about an hour and a half.

Flashing forward, Onofre D. Corpuz seemed to have spoken in the spirit of martial law when, in 1975, he scorned the notion of the university as a “battleground of ideas,” calling it “a romantic stereotype” which the people could ill afford to support with their taxes.

Edgardo J. Angara’s investiture in 1982 was besieged by a hostile crowd declaiming a litany of complaints—he had dared to start reforming UP’s ancient academic programs, and he would later reconfigure UP into constituent universities—but if anything, his raucous investiture would prove that you can get someone dead wrong, because Angara would go on to become one of UP’s best chief executives.

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These precedents were on my mind last week as I sat in my chair behind our new president, who made an impassioned appeal for the university’s constituents to find common ground, favoring “consensus over conflict, civility over calumny, and collaboration over confrontation.” UP, he said, should be “a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space” within which its people could undertake “cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature.” (You can find the full text of his speech on www.up.edu.ph.)

We all cheered him on and wished him well—governing UP can sometimes be as difficult as governing the archipelago—and as we marched down the stage I felt more than a witness to history unfolding.

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Penman No. 269: What the iPhone Hath Wrought

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2017

 

FROM MY lofty perorations on literature these past two weeks, allow me to slide back down to the more pedestrian and frankly more entertaining plateau of pop culture, to talk about that object of desire that’s changed the world in more than a few ways this past decade—the iPhone.

What triggered this piece was last Tuesday’s launch in the US of the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X (read: iPhone Ten), Apple’s much-hyped rollout of its 10th anniversary models with a promised slew of new features. I won’t bother you with all the details, which you can find on apple.com/iphone. I’ll just summarize some of the hottest come-ons of these new toys: Face ID, wireless charging, OLED screens, Portrait Lighting, Animojis, better cameras, and longer battery life.

Natch, all of that comes at a price—a pretty hefty one. For the most feature-laden, top-of-the-line iPhone X, you can hock the family jewels, as it will cost you a whopping $1,149 plus tax, or well over P60,000, which normally should get you a decent laptop. It’s more than Apple has ever asked for an iPhone, so the question even the most rabid Apple fan will be asking is, “Is it worth it?”

That’s an existential question that will also involve asking what you were created for, what the future will be, the difference between need and want (nada), and how life’s privations can justify apparent extravagance. The fact that I don’t have $1,000 sloshing around right now makes it easier for me to frame an answer, but an equally glaring fact is that I have owned every model of iPhone that ever came out, except for the 3G, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up trading a few old pens for the X. (My justification has always been—aside from being a self-styled, occasional “technology journalist”—is that life is short and getting even shorter, and getting the newest things now is a way of cheating time. That’s why I was among the few Apple geeks who brought in the first iPhones back in 2007 and got them to work with local SIMs long before “jailbreaking” entered the tech vocabulary—but that’s another story.)

The real question to ask is, what has the iPhone (and, to be fair, the Treo, the BlackBerry, the Nokia, and all the Android clones) wrought upon our lives? For those of us past midlife, it doesn’t seem too long ago when a “cellphone” (how quaint the word seems now, when even “flip phone” seems ancient) was just a portable house phone you lugged around to make calls at the streetcorner and impress people, and the coolest add-ons to your cellphone were flashing diodes and “El Bimbo” or “Macarena” ringtones.

In an attempt to answer that question, and on the eve of the big iPhone X/8 rollout, the New York Times put out a video on its website talking about “Things Apple’s iPhone Helped Destroy,” to wit: alarm clocks, cabs, cameras, small talk, calendars, the compass, the address book, work/life balance, postcards, the watch, shame and humility, the carpenter’s level, maps, anonymity, and photo albums.

It’s all true, of course: your iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 have assumed such inordinately huge roles in your daily life that you might as well be comatose without them. The first thing my wife Beng does when she wakes up isn’t even to kiss me but to check out Facebook (on her 6s Plus, a hand-me-down from my 7 Plus, which proves how families exist to provide a natural and environmentally friendly recycling system for used gadgets, and always a good reason for upgrading at the top of the chain). And where would we be without Waze? (Still stuck in traffic, but at least Waze gives us a scientific basis and a graphical interface for our panic.)

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Over at PhilMUG—the venerable Philippine Macintosh Users Group, where we light incense sticks and mumble mantras at Steve Jobs’ altar and tithe away our next year’s salary to Apple—the response to the entry of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X into our humdrum existences was predictably mixed. You heard the usual grumble about pricing (“$999 for a phone? That’s insane!” followed by “But, uhm, we paid P45,000 back in 2007 for the first 16GB iPhone, remember?”), the geeky handwringing over tech specs (“Does facial recognition mean that my wife can open my phone while I’m sleeping by bringing it up to my face?” Answer: No, your eyes have to be open), and the feeble pledge of loyalty to the old model (“My iPhone 7 has served me faithfully this past year… so I’ll wait… until my Christmas bonus”).

To truly complete the New York Times’ list of things the iPhone helped destroy, let’s add “sense of satisfaction”—the idea that we could happily live with something for at least five years, like the way I’ve blissfully cohabited with many of my fountain pens for three decades now, not mention my wife of 43 summers, even if she prefers Facebook to my drool-stained cheek.

(Images courtesy of Apple and SE20@Philmug)

 

 

Penman No. 268: What This Prize Should Mean to You (2)

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Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

ONE OF the strangest moments of my life happened in 1993, when my first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place,” shared the grand prize with the late, great Tony Enriquez’s “Subanons.” The guest of honor then was none other than President Fidel V. Ramos, among whose speechwriters was none other than me.

There were four or five of us doing his speeches then, and the assignments were farmed out at random, and I can’t remember now if I accepted that Palanca Awards night job with delight or dismay. I suppose I could have swapped assignments with somebody else, but I had to think deeply about the situation. I was one of the awardees, so the young novelist in me wanted to sit back and hear my President’s sincerest thoughts about literature.

But the speechwriter in me also knew that those sincerest thoughts were just going to be written by somebody else in the room, so I figured, it might as well be me, to make sure that he would say nothing terribly wrong, and that he would say something very nice. And of course he did.

Incredibly enough, the same situation happened a year later, when I received a TOYM Award for Literature at Malaca?ang Palace, again from FVR. In both instances—because we ghostwriters preferred to remain spectral and worked far out of his sight—he had no idea that the hand he was shaking had also crafted his speech. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I interviewed him for another book, that I finally introduced myself as the writer of 500 of his speeches, which remain on my hard drive. We had a good laugh.

I’ve written speeches for five Presidents and innumerable senators and CEOs, as well as the biographies of such diverse figures as Communist guerrillas, capitalist icons, and Marcos cronies. At any given time, I’m working on three or four book projects. I teach, write a weekly column, and peck away at stories, essays, poems, my third novel, and my unfinished oral history of the First Quarter Storm. And, oh, I also get to dress up and play the part of an academic bureaucrat.

I say this neither as a boast nor a lament, but simply to show that it’s all in a writing life. I’m happy and fortunate to have all of these writing jobs—although I must confess to being happier with some than others—because, despite all the challenges and compromises I have to face, this was what I signed up for.

Many other writers in this room have done the same thing, in varying degrees, both out of necessity and desire. Quite a few have approached me and said, “I want to do what you do,” but I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. I remember, early on, typing away at a commercial film script I had to complete, with tears streaming down my face, because what I really wanted to do was to join the Palancas, and I was out of time. That’s my greatest anxiety—to run out of time.

There will always be those who will scoff at what I do and who will insist that every word you write should be God’s own truth, as if that were humanly possible. God might as well smite all lawyers, copywriters, and PR professionals—and let’s throw in all politicians—with his righteous hand.

In a course I designed called Professional Writing, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years in UP, I begin every semester with this admonition: “There’s writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do for others. And don’t ever get those two mixed up, or you’ll come to grief.” I also remind them that they can always say no, as I’ve done many times without regret.

If you embrace writing as a lifelong and life-sustaining profession rather than a weekend hobby, then you will not be writing every piece as if it were destined for the Palancas, although, as a professional, I do every job I accept as if it were my first, last, and only job, no matter how big or small.

But that again is exactly why we should value the Palancas. Too often, we lend our words to others. With these prizewinning pieces, we reclaim our words to ourselves, for ourselves, for whatever it was that first impelled us to write.

You remind me of that 21-year-old who, even as he had to write speeches, scripts, and stories for others, burned with the desire to write for himself and for his people at large—as this 63-year-old still does, awaiting blessed retirement 16 months hence so I can write the best of what remains in me to write.

Writing for the truth, writing for honor and glory, writing for the love of language—these are what your being here is all about, what the Palancas have existed for these past 67 years. While the generous cash awards are nothing to sneeze at—as the Foundation’s accountants will certainly attest to—the Palancas have always been about more than money. Your certificate tells you, this is how good you are; you look around you and you realize, that is how much better you can be.

This is our real reward, our hope, and our redemption. Whatever else you may have had to write or had to do, what you submit to these awards is your finest self, your truest words, your ineradicable proof of citizenship in the community of letters.

Let me quote President Ramos—well, in fact, let me quote myself: “It is both literature’s virtue and responsibility to reaffirm our fundamental humanity, and the unity of our interests and aspirations as a people. Every act of writing rehumanizes us, both writer and reader.” This is especially important in these darkening times, when megalomaniacal and murderous despotism threatens societies across the ocean, debases the truth, and cheapens human life. The best antidote to fake news is true fiction.

You and I have much to write about. You will not even need to wait until the next Palanca deadline to do what only you can do, and to say what only you can say. If you write for truth, freedom, and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, you will always be a first-prize winner in my book.

Penman No. 267: What This Prize Should Mean to You (Part 1)

 

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Penman for Monday, September 4, 2017

 

I WAS much honored to be the guest speaker last Friday at the 67th annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, so I’ll share my talk with my Penman readers this week and next:

First of all, I’d like to thank the Palanca Foundation and family for this tremendous honor, which I honestly never expected to receive. For about forty years, I have been watching and listening to many very distinguished people at this podium explicating on literature and society—and you will forgive my bias if I say that the writers were usually more memorable than the politicians—but I never imagined myself to be in their exalted position.

Indeed I have been fortunate enough to join the Palanca Hall of Fame, but I am no literary genius or philosophizer. I have always introduced myself as a Swiss Army Knife of writing, a practitioner and professional who has made a living of his words. I was already working as a newspaper reporter at 18, before I won my first Palanca; I was a journalist beholden to the facts before I was liberated by fiction.

Tonight I will address myself mainly to the first-time winners in this audience, to those who entered the Rigodon Ballroom with an extra spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes, with their parents or partners in tow.

I can tell you now that you will never forget this evening, as I have never forgotten my own introduction to this very special society of peers and comrades. It was on this day in 1975 that I won my first Palanca, a share of second prize for a short story in English. The awarding was held on the top floor of the company building in what used to be Echague—now, of course, Carlos Palanca Street—in Manila.

It was a little less opulent than this ballroom, but to that 21-year-old winning a prize the first time he joined, it might as well have been heaven, nirvana, and Camelot all rolled into one. I knew no one, and no one knew me, and I could only watch from afar as celebrated writers like Krip Yuson—who shared first prize in my category with Leo Deriada—regaled each other, likely with stories of their latest exploits in Ermita.

I still have my certificate from that ceremony: an elaborately hand-lettered work of art larger than a college diploma. Since I had dropped out in my freshman year and was working in a government office under martial law, I treasured that certificate as if it were my diploma, and had it framed. I’m told that the calligrapher who crafted those certificates has passed away, but his strokes remain indelible in my memory.

With my prize money of a couple of thousand pesos, plus some savings, I bought my first car—which tells you what kind of car it was: a canary-yellow 1963 Datsun Bluebird, battered but bright, into rehabilitating which I would throw many more years of good money after bad and not get even one day’s worth of driving, before my mechanic finally ran away with it. Years later I would get a call from the Quezon City police to inform me that they had impounded a yellow Bluebird registered in my name, and I could have it back if I paid the fee. I went over to take a look—the car’s tires were all flat, and it was riddled with bullet holes. I muttered an oath and a prayer and left it there.

So that’s what happened with my first Palanca prize, and one of these days if I turn that into a short story I might get some of my money back. But the most grievous consequence of that first victory was the fact that, for the next four years, I lost. I turned in entry after entry, and kept losing and losing. Considering who was winning—the likes of Gregorio Brillantes and F. Sionil Jose—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I had to fight back the growing fear that my first Palanca was a joke.

In 1980 I won again, and soon hit my stride. It took 20 more years to enter the Hall of Fame, by which time I had published ten books, gone back to college, and begun another career as a teacher. I never joined the Palancas again, except to be an occasional judge, but I have come to these awarding ceremonies as often as I could, eager to witness the annual emergence of new literary talent.

I give you this overview of my long relationship with these awards to bring us to the subject proper of my brief talk this evening, “What This Prize Should Mean to You.” The quick and correct response, of course, is to say that a Palanca award will bring you honor, some fame—certainly bragging rights for your proud mama and papa—and even some money, if not for a car then for a weekend in Boracay or a new phone or laptop to replace the old one.

You will be walking on air for a couple of weeks, until the novelty wears off, the money is spent, and you return to the humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is keeps you and your family alive. You will discover that, to most people, your literary genius makes no difference and no sense. You will begin to wonder, as I did, if it was all a fleeting illusion.

Some of you will fall by the wayside, but most of you will press on, like we did, wanting this Cinderella moment to repeat itself year after year. It will not always happen, and you will learn to take your losses as well as your triumphs—those years I kept joining and losing became my real education—but if you keep at it, you will reach the point when the winning will matter less than the writing. That, I think, will be your greatest victory, the realization that these awards are but an enabler, a handmaiden of books that will be validated no longer by a panel of three judges but by a readership of thousands.

(To be continued)