Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

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But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:? “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released?anti-republic films and TV dramas?that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were?reviewing?an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following?the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that?compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

THE LAST time I visited Bacolod was more than a decade ago, when I was writing the centennial history of the De La Salle Brothers in the Philippines and had to look into their work in that southern city, an enterprise that began in 1952. Before that I had made occasional sorties to it, on short ferry rides from Iloilo and once, memorably, on a long pre-martial law ride across the mountains to Dumaguete with a busload of fellow activists, expecting to be stopped any minute by the paramilitary forces then lording it over the countryside.

Last week I returned on a far more civil mission, on research for another book I’m writing on a sometime icon of the sugar industry. That part of it was interesting enough—interviews with history’s participants and witnesses can be exhausting (especially in the transcription) but always fascinating for me—but as often happens on these out-of-town excursions, the sidelights proved no less engrossing.

Bacolod and its environs, of course, have always offered stellar attractions for visitors and tourists, and indeed my wife Beng and her high-school barkada of four lovely ladies were flying into town with me on their own itinerary. I was there for work, but the women had booked a day tour of the fabled old houses of nearby Silay. (You can find these heritage tours on Klook, among other places online.)

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While Beng’s party enjoyed Silay’s architectural treasures—among them Balay Negrense and the Ramon Hofile?a ancestral home—I was many kilometers away in Bago City, treading carefully on the crumbling ruins of the Ma-ao sugar central. Opened in 1919 on a 56-hectare estate, the central was typical of the enterprise that turned Negros into Sugarlandia, creating fabulous wealth for an elite that held sway over the region’s history and politics over much of the 20th century. Over my three days in Bacolod I would learn more than I ever imagined I could know about sugar, its production, and, inescapably, the society it fed and bred.

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Indeed, from the airport in Silay on to the fringes of the city, the landscape is dominated by swaths of sugarcane greening at the foot of Mts. Mandalagan and Kanlaon, broken only by the occasional mall or hardware store, the signposts of the new commerce. “This is the best land for sugar in the province right here,” said my guide and driver, “and it’s owned by the Lacson family. There are two main streets in Bacolod, named after two generals of the Revolution: Juan Araneta and Aniceto Lacson, who forced the surrender of the Spanish forces through a clever ruse. They had nipa palms cut to resemble guns from a distance, and the Spanish general surrendered to avoid what he thought would be a bloodbath.”

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Such stories roll easily off the Negrense tongue, on this land watered by blood and champagne. As we drove on the highway, I recalled a passage in a biography of Rafael Salas—another native son, from Bago—that I had co-written last year with Menchu Sarmiento, about the horrific murder in 1951 of Moises Padilla, who had found the gall to run for mayor against the local kingpin: “They toured from town to town beating and torturing Padilla, displaying him in a public square while one of the boys announced: ‘Here is what happens to people who oppose us.’” At the same time, I couldn’t help recalling the story of that period’s loveliest and yet also saddest bride, the legendary Susan Magalona, at whose star-crossed wedding it was reported that champagne flowed from a fountain. (Millennials who’ve never heard of this story would do well to Google it, if only to learn something about the virtues of “non-consummation”.)

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In American literature, which I used to teach, these bizarre but also compelling comminglings of decay and grotesquerie on the one hand and beauty and the fantastic on the other took on the label of “Southern gothic,” a genre with such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers among its avatars. Somehow I felt that I was in its presence here, too, in the rusted machinery and the tall grasses, out of which you half-expected some apparition in gauzy white to emerge. In the very middle of Lopez Jaena Street stands perhaps the quaintest cemetery in the country: the mausoleum of the Luzuriagas (photo below from steemit.com), where the traffic of life, you might say, comes to a perfect standstill.

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Inevitably I would hear a story about ghosts, in a place that would have been incomplete without them: the celebrated Daku Balay (“Big House”), Bacolod’s first and largest Art Deco mansion built on Burgos Street by Don Generoso Villanueva in 1936. We were lucky to get a private tour of this exquisitely sculpted home, thanks to our friend the American writer Craig Scharlin and his wife Lilia Villanueva, Don Generoso’s granddaughter, who have taken it upon themselves to preserve it for posterity. Craig told me how visitors who had strayed into the upper floors had found themselves being escorted by a charming couple—none other than the long-departed don and his wife Paz.

These specters were, at least, benign, and if I had lived in Daku Balay, with its helical staircase, nautical motifs, and Scagliola floors, I would have wished to inhabit it forever.

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