Penman No. 405: A Serenade of Crickets

Penman for Monday, January 18, 2021

EVERY MORNING, I wake up to the sound of hundreds if not thousands of crickets chirping in my ears. I will hear them for the rest of the day—every second of every minute of every hour—until I fall asleep. There is practically no escape—not earplugs, not even the “white noise” prescribed by websites, unless it (or some music) is played at intolerably high volume. Pressing my palms against my ears merely adds a percussive instrument to the orchestra, the thump-thump-thump of my beating heart.

We live on the UP campus in Diliman, in the shade of towering mango trees. For some time I simply assumed that there were, indeed, choirs of crickets up in those branches, making love or at least just making noise, as crickets are supposed to do. And then one day I undertook a foolish experiment—foolish, because what hadn’t been a problem suddenly became one. I went to a place where I was totally sure no crickets would be found, or no external sounds would get through—and I still heard the same relentless hum. It was in me, with me, wherever, whenever.

A small voice in me says I should be panicking and screaming. I remember an old horror movie I saw on TV as a boy, where an insect—which I would later learn was an “earwig”—crawls into a man’s ear and stays there, deep in his ear canal, and burrows into his brain, until it turns him into a raving lunatic. A doctor performs a delicate operation and—much to the man’s relief—takes the wriggler out. At that point, the doctor holds up the dead insect in his pincers, and gravely announces that “It’s a female—and it seems to have laid its eggs.” The patient screams, and screams.

There have been times, these past many months under lockdown, when I’ve felt that way, as if some dark fluid monster had insinuated itself into my brain, my body, and indeed my spirit. I emerged from sleep drowning in a huge flood compounded of fear, sorrow, and regret over everything in general and nothing in particular. The mere mention of another friend’s death or intubation sent my imagination spinning, asking questions for which I had no answers, like “What will be worse—passage into a black void with no consciousness whatsoever, or into immortality, forever aware of every little thing in the universe, and also forever alone?” I knew what people would be telling me—have faith in a heaven, in angels, in the enveloping welcome of a blinding grace, and as a good Christian schoolboy I found comfort in those pastel promises of deliverance. But it was hard to believe anything in the state I found myself in, where even familiar walls and ceilings seemed inescapably malignant. 

It probably didn’t help that as the long lockdown began, I resolved to use the time to catch up on a heavy backlog of writing jobs going back years, and against all odds managed to complete the drafts of five book projects within five months in a dizzying frenzy. I felt superhuman, until I woke up one morning feeling all hollowed out.

Before long, I realized and had to admit that I was going through bouts of anxiety and its flipside, depression. This came as a huge surprise to someone who had prided himself on his wakefulness and presence of mind. In my last job before retirement as my university’s VP for Public Affairs, I had been constantly on call to the media and to the community at large, explaining our policies and positions with what I hoped was clarity and composure. Suddenly all that coolness vanished; I felt uncertain, tentative, unmoored.

A call to a psychiatrist-friend led me back on the slow road to wellness; I’m still on it, managing from day to day with a combination of medication, exercise, prayer, and time for nothing but nothing (ie, Netflix, fountain pens, old books, and typewriters). Beng and I dream idly of our next adventures in faraway places—St. Petersburg, before the Covid curtain fell. I find it relaxing to watch an hour-long YouTube video on “codicology,” the archaeology of old books, as well as another on the recovery and restoration of a 1937 Bugatti Atalante. I am nourishing my sense of wonderment again, finding reassurance in a remembered past to which we all hope to belong.

The only downside to my recovery has been this case of tinnitus, this constant ringing in my ears, listed as a rare side effect of my antidepressant. I recall from my graduate studies that the ancients posed a theory about the “Music of the Spheres,” supposedly the harmonious hum produced by the movement of celestial bodies in space, imperceptible to the human ear. Fancifully I imagine that perhaps I had broken through some dimensional barrier and was hearing this orbital buzz.

But a serenade of crickets seems just about right, and may be a tolerable price to pay for a patch of sanity. Turning 67 last week, I thought of all the books I have yet to write in the time I have left, and for which I have to stay sensible and alert. The crickets remind me there is time, and no need to hurry toward that inevitable infinitude of absolute silence just ahead.

Penman No. 404: Delightful Duos

Penman for Monday, January 4, 2021

I CONSIDER myself an interloper if not an informal settler in the world of art, having dabbled in printmaking, married a painter and art conservator, and collected midcentury landscapes. Back when we could travel freely, my wife Beng and I made a beeline for the art museums of whichever cities we were visiting, as eager to enjoy our old favorites (Matisse, Turner, Calder) as to discover new ones (Yayoi Kusama, Judy Chicago).?

Artistic preferences are of course entirely subjective; even within one’s range, and price tags aside, the art you admire may not necessarily be the art you want to hang on your wall and look at every morning. There’s art that you know is important (or at least that’s what the critics tell you) and which you might even be able to understand and write essays about, but which you also know will give you an enormous headache. 

I’ve often remarked in this column about how so much of contemporary art (yes, Philippine art, to which we might as well add Philippine literature) seems unrelievedly dark and depressing—no huge surprise, given our dystopic times. But surely art can do more than mirror or illustrate what we already, profusely, know: life is hard, and often painful and cruel.

That’s why I had to do a double-take when I came upon a painter online whom I’d never heard of (no offense meant) whose works, one after the other, exuded joy, delight, and wonder, and not in a fake-fiesta sort of way. Not since Beng and I encountered the teenage and already brilliant Jason Moss did I feel so genuinely intrigued by the figures that leapt out of this painter’s canvases. The artist’s name was Bayani Acala, and I was curious enough to write him and his wife Karen to ask, basically, how a painter could seem so happy and even serene in such unsettling times.

His paintings almost invariably depict couples in courtship—delightful duos who, if they are not in love, might shortly be. His favorite motifs include music, food, and dance, all things best done with someone else, but nothing too overtly sexual. His faces and bodies are unabashedly Filipino, romantic but unromanticized. Benignly curvy Volkswagen Beetles and Kombis dot his landscapes. When I look at a painting of his, Bayani Acala provokes in me that rarest of responses from a museum-hopper: not a sigh of awe or a pang of sorrow, but a big, wide smile.

Born in 1975 to a family of schoolteachers in Paete, Laguna, Bay grew up immersed in that town’s strong sculptural traditions. Graduating from UST in 1996 as an advertising major, he took a series of jobs as a graphic artist before freelancing. In the meanwhile, he was racking up awards and citations from Shell and Metrobank; the 2000s saw him joining a series of exhibitions, including shows in Singapore, Chicago, and China, and winning more prizes—most recently for sculpture and woodcarving, returning to his Paete roots.

“I grew up watching wood workers,” Bayani says, “not knowing the difference between woodcraft and sculpture. The workers in the shop didn’t allow us to play with chisels, so we played with mud and sawdust and molded them into saints.” Like any well-schooled artist, he admires Chagall, Botero, Munch, Lautrec, Kahlo, and Manansala, but he calls Amang Ibyok Pasawa, a Paete papier-mache folk artist, his hero, and counts the sculptor Angelo Baldemor and painter Gig de Pio among his mentors. (The reference to the Colombian painter Fernando Botero is especially useful; his voluptuous and colorful figures invited charges of triviality, which the artist countered by maintaining that “Art should be an oasis, a place of refuge from the hardness of life.”)

Happiness, Bay says, is essential to his passion; there’s already too much sadness around and he prefers to look past it. His artmaking makes him happy, and so he puts some of that back into his work. He describes himself as a simple man who enjoys biking, playing music, telling stories, and spending time with Karen and their daughter Ava. That may sound too plain and boring to those who expect if not demand agony of the true artist, but I assure you that many tortured artists will find that normalcy a blessing.

(While we’re at this, it’s interesting to note that academic studies have established that—believe it or not—artists tend to be happier than most other people. While the anguished examples of Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath may stick in the mind, research at the University of Zurich and Vanderbilt University suggests that creatives report higher job satisfaction than other professionals, although they also tend to suffer in terms of unstable employment.)

In Bayani Acala’s case, surely that happiness is owed in significant measure to his wife Karen, a computer programmer who has also taken up painting and with whom Bay has had two exhibitions. She’s the most avid promoter of Bay’s work online, which was how I came across his work in the first place. That makes them Delightful Duo No. 1.

Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s G?tterd?mmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the?Philippines Graphic?and the?BusinessMirror?to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow?Philippine STAR?columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 401: A Workshop Against All Odds

Penman for Monday, November 23, 2020

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines National Writers Workshop has taken place every year—usually around Holy Week—since the mid-1960s, even during the years of martial law. For many young Filipino writers, it has been their initiation into the literary community, providing them with an opportunity to get their work read and critiqued by their peers and seniors.?

For some time now, the UP workshop has been aimed at what we’re calling “mid-career” writers—somewhat older writers who’ve already published at least one book. As I’ve often remarked, the only thing harder than writing your first book is writing your second one, and that’s when struggling writers need some help and encouragement to get over the hill.

We were all set to hold the workshop last April in Baguio, our usual venue, when the Covid pandemic struck, rendering any kind of live meeting reckless and stupid. We could have just written this year off, but we decided to try and move the whole week-long program online, via Zoom, and see if it could work.

I’m happy to report that, against all odds, it did. From October 19 to 23, we on the teaching staff of the UP Institute of Creative writing engaged with 12 fellows chosen as among the best representatives of their generation: Kathleen Osias (Fiction, English), Herlyn Alegre (Creative Nonfiction, English/Filipino), Christine Lao (Poetry, English), Honeylyn Joy Alipio (Screenplay, Filipino), Emmanuel Barrameda (Novel, Filipino), Emmanuel Dumlao (Novel, Filipino), Maynard Manansala (Play, Filipino), Jonellie Santos (Fiction, English), Raissa Claire Falgui (Fiction, English), Fatrick Tabada (Screenplay, Filipino), Glenn Diaz (Fiction, English), and Johanna Michelle Lim (Creative Nonfiction, English).

I knew three or four of these names—Glenn Diaz’s debut novel, The Quiet Ones, began in my class and went on to win a raft of prizes, and I had written admiringly about the Fatrick Tabada-scripted movie, Patay Na si Hesus. But I was glad to encounter many other talents new to me, such as the Cebu-based Johanna Michelle Lim, whose essay about living with vitiligo (the condition of albinos) was written with deep insight and artistry, and to discover new facets in such writers as Christine Lao, a lawyer who had studied Fiction with me but has more recently been known for her poetry. 

In the workshop, we ask the fellows to preface their works with a short essay on the why’s and how’s of their craft, and it was interesting to see how Christine approached her poetry from a lawyer’s point of view:

“One of the first things a law student in the Philippines learns is to produce case digests. A case digest is a summary of a court decision. There is a prescribed order in which information about the case is presented: first, a brief statement of relevant facts; second a statement of the disputed issue; third, the court’s decision; and fourth, the arguments in support of that decision. The practice of ‘digesting’ cases trains the student to think in a linear fashion—to recognize only those facts and arguments that support how the court disposed of—that is, terminated—the case. The student learns to follow the intricacies of a court’s legal argument, but at the expense of context or the consideration of counternarratives. Only those facts that are deemed relevant or material to the issue at hand are considered; those that are not are erased from the narrative. One learns that to win a case, one must excise certain details from the narrative, and enhance others that might allow for one’s cause to become legible to the court as a viable legal claim. 

“The case digest, therefore, is form, a technology that allows students to recognize resemblances between cases, claims, and positions. But the form produces a particular product or end—one that is driven by the desire to win, even if this means erasing facts. What if, instead of using legal terms in the context of a case digest, I wrote them as, or in the context of, poems about the law?”

There are downsides, of course, to a workshop-by-Zoom. The fellows understandably lamented the loss of a chance to bond as a batch over beer under the pine trees, and as anybody who’s used Zoom for an extended period of time knows, talking to a gallery of two-dimensional faces isn’t exactly enlivening. But to be honest, I and a few others found the format adequate and even appealing, because it was efficient, and being-home-based, allowed you to get back to whatever else you were doing without having to travel and deal with hotels and such. 

Whether we’ll need to do this again next year will depend on a host of larger factors, as will everything else in our academic and professional lives. But we have to count it as a minor triumph that we were able to pull this off at all—literature and good writing just won’t be locked down or quarantined.

On that note, I’d like to invite you all to a webinar on November 30, 1:30 pm on “The State of Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” sponsored by, among others, the?Philippines Graphic. The keynote will be delivered by National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose, and literary editor and critic Lito Zulueta and I will give responses. It will be livestreamed on www.facebook.com/PhilippinesGraphic. See you next Monday!

Penman No. 400: A Book for the Pandemic

Penman for Monday, November 9, 2020

I BEGAN writing this column 20 years ago, shortly after I returned from nearly a year in England on a writing fellowship that eventually yielded my second novel, Soledad’s Sister

It was an exciting but also a challenging time, that turn of the century. We already knew that the much-ballyhooed Y2K threat was a colossal bust, but little did we imagine that even more titanic and very real dangers were just around the corner. Indeed, 2001 would see another Philippine President unceremoniously toppled, and then 9/11 would change the world and our sense of security forever, in much the same way as today’s pandemic will leave its scars for generations.

But in August 2000, I was in a plucky and hopeful mood. I was 46, an age when people are supposed to be approaching their peak. Professionally, that was probably true—I would become chair of the UP English department and then Vice President in a few years’ time. As a writer, I had ten books behind me by then, making me all puffed up like a preening peacock, but I had no idea that three-fourths of all the books I would write were still ahead of me, at the end of which I would feel properly deflated.

Into this happy turbulence came a call from an old friend from activist days, Millet Mananquil, and an invitation to write a weekly column for the Lifestyle section of the Philippine STAR. I felt flattered and elated; what better way was there to start a new century with? 

Before I left for England, for some years, I had been an editorial writer at the newspaper TODAY. It was a tremendous privilege (and responsibility) to work alongside the brilliant boss man Teddy Boy Locsin, who pretty much let me sermonize about the day’s politics and last week’s crime wave, but all that heavy-duty pondering left me a nervous wreck, and I begged Teddy Boy and our Lifestyle editor, the late Abe Florendo, to give me a column on the back page, where I could try to sound funny and maybe even witty, and which I would do for absolutely free, just so I could decompress. That’s how “Barfly” came to be—TODAY got a new columnist for nothing, and I kept my sanity.

By the time I returned, TODAY had folded up, but Millet’s timely invitation gave me new reason to have fun with words—without having to write editorials! It’s been 20 years since then, and yes, I have all my “Penman” column-pieces on file, about 1,065 of them at last count. Most of those pieces are probably forgettable, written on the run about whatever caught my fancy. But having retired from teaching and beginning to feel the slings and arrows of seniorhood, I began thinking last year about choosing what I thought were the most amusing of the lot—from getting my zipper stuck in the open position on a long flight to South Africa to crawling on my knees at the UP parking lot in search of a lost pen (in the finest tradition, you might say, of Mr. Bean)—and sticking them into a book.

I’m delighted to announce that that book—A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays—is out, published by the UP Press, with joyful cover art by Robert Alejandro. That it emerged in the middle of a pandemic means there’ll be no fancy launch with wine and canapes, but as my preface below suggests, it’s just as well, because you probably need to laugh as much as I do:

“The 110 essays in this collection were selected from many hundreds that I wrote and published for my Penman column in the Philippine STAR between 2000 and 2019, a two-decade period that saw me returning from a nine-month writing fellowship in England on one end and retiring from my teaching and administrative positions at the University of the Philippines (UP) on the other. 

“In other words, I grew old writing these pieces, but while picking and putting them together, I also realized what a fun ride it’s been, despite and sometimes because of the gross absurdities of Philippine politics and society. I decided to choose my more lighthearted pieces to entertain the reader and afford him or her a moment of relief and refuge, to remind ourselves that a gentle smile can be as precious and hard-won as a triumphal scream. Humor and comedy may yet be the best way of surviving a period seemingly intent on reducing us to tears and despair. 

“Critics have remarked how different in temperament my fiction is from my more popular Penman persona, and how I can dwell obsessively on such topics as fountain pens, computers, ramen noodles, vocabularies, Volkswagens, and of course my dear wife Beng. That’s because, as with my fiction, I believe that there can be great stories behind the simplest things (along with the suspicion that the simplest things are never really that simple). 

“But the bottom line is, I need a break, and so do you. I hope you enjoy reading these pieces—just a few at a time—as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

“My deepest thanks go to my friends and associates at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, particularly Roland Tolentino and Neil Garcia, for supporting the book, and to my editors at the Philippine STAR, chiefly Millet Mananquil and Igan D’Bayan, for bearing with me all these years.”

(The book can be ordered online from the UP Press store on Lazada at https://tiny.cc/boi1tz.)

Penman No. 399: Teacher’s Travails

Penman for Monday, October 26, 2020

WE CAN’T let this month pass without remarking that World Teachers Day came and went last October 5—the same day that 22 million public school students forcibly entered the digital age in the Philippines, many probably kicking and screaming, or more likely staring at a spinning wheel on a tablet screen or a blank wall.

Covid has wrought what two decades of wishful thinking on the part of some futurists could not—a mass migration to distance education, with students responding to their teachers’ questions from a hundred kilometers away. No more long commutes, no more packed lunches, no more fooling around at the malls after (or during) class. 

At least that’s the dreamy theory. As millions of Filipino parents are discovering, being housebound with their kids, tethered to a tablet or laptop and doing Math and Reading with a child more interested in recess, isn’t exactly a recipe for familial harmony. 

We know this for a fact because our resident?apu-apuhan?Buboy, now in senior nursery (how can a four-year-old be in any way “senior”?), has been showing all the signs of juvenile rebellion, ducking beneath his chair and the study table we’ve set up for him, while his classmates dutifully recite their ABC’s and 123’s, to the dismay of his mom, our faithful housekeeper Jenny, who keeps him company throughout his 90-minute class. Buboy also finds great delight in seemingly making fun of whatever Teacher says, repeating his own exaggerated version of “Children, be kind!” and similar admonitions.

It’s not that Buboy can’t handle technology. Like many kids today, he’s a digital native, able to turn on an iPad and navigate YouTube on his own. When the Internet is slow, he’ll tell his Tatay Butch that the “signal” is weak and that the image is “loading.” He can’t read yet, but he knows what “USB” is and, perhaps dangerously, can jam a USB device into its port, properly oriented. I’ve heard him trying to coax Alexa into singing the ABC song, and my daily playtime with him invariably includes putting him in the driver’s seat of the Suzuki Jimny, from where he punches all the buttons within his reach, wrangles the wheel and gearshift, and pretends we’re driving to Bicol (the only other place he knows, aside from Cavite, his grandparents’ domiciles). I’ve promised to give him the Jimny when he grows tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals—for which he first has to eat a lot of rice and vegetables—and I have no doubt he’ll hold me to that pledge, when the time comes.

It’s not that he’s inattentive, either, because Jenny says that Buboy regurgitates the day’s lessons in his?bugoy way when they’re alone after class, as if to say, “I was listening, okay? I just wasn’t that interested.” Younger than most of his classmates, Buboy has to catch up on reading and arithmetic, but we’re not worried—the learning will happen sooner or later, one way or another, and the more important thing is for him to have fun in school, not an easy thing when all you see are faces on a screen. The onus of keeping Buboy and his like focused and occupied is on moms like Jenny, who now have to be co-teachers on top of everything else.

The other person at home adjusting to the new normal is my wife Beng, who is teaching at UP for the first time in her long career. She’s done many hands-on workshops before, but teaching Art Conservation online is a bit like learning cooking by reading the recipe. Beng was literally in tears when she was cobbling her coursepack together before the semester started, wondering what she had gotten herself into, but peeking over her shoulder during her biweekly classes (she calls me her “Assistant Emeritus”), I can see that she and the kids are having a grand time, despite the weak wi-fi and the inevitable absences.

So all this will pass, as we’re constantly being reassured, and maybe it will. I just happen to have a copy of the October 1932 issue of the?Philippine Teacher’s Digest, and one of its US-based articles speaks of “The Maintenance of School Services During the Period of Economic Depression”:

“The school program is being restricted. It is being proposed in many communities that the schools can get along with less music and art. The health service has been crippled or abolished. Opportunities in the industrial and household arts have been removed from the curriculum. The work in physical education is less adequately provided. Indeed, there are those who propose that a return to the curriculum of a past century is the solution to the problem of the support of education.”

Eighty-eight years later, some of that still sounds distressingly familiar, as does this refrain from another article in the same issue: “Teachers strongly protest against any radical action to reduce the teachers’ salaries. They believe that the reduction of teachers’ salaries will drive from the service many efficient teachers and promising applicants…. In general, teachers are underpaid.”

Very true, but for all that, I’m pretty sure that Buboy’s teacher, his mom Jenny, and his Nanay Beng will do everything they can do stare this pandemic in the eye to make sure there’s more to his fourth year of life than cartoons, TikTok, and Gummi Bears.

Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined.?

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.)?

Penman No. 397: Vision 2020: An Artist Responds to Covid

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

WHILE SHE was undergoing therapy for depression, the celebrated American poet Anne Sexton explained why she kept doing what she did: “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately and tragically succumbed to her inner demons, like her friend with whom she shared revelations and martinis, Sylvia Plath—is, in a way, almost irrelevant: what matters is that she fought back, and beautifully, leaving behind the luminous corpus of her poetry.

History tells us that this is what many artists do, under great stress and even in the face of direct threats to their lives: they use their art to resist death and annihilation, as if to say “I am here, I matter, and I will survive.” It is, of course, the art that survives, both as a testament to the moment and subject of its creation and as the indelible handprint of its creator, left on the cave walls of Time. The Greek physician Hippocrates put it well in his reminder: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long—art endures, art is forever.

Today in 2020, in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and claimed close to a million lives, the artist is once again challenged to respond to the global crisis in an intensely personal way, both as an act of self-affirmation and as the inevitable chr0nicler of one’s times. Like a traveler surveying a landscape ravaged by death and disease, the artist seeks to depict not only the obvious carnage and the accompanying cacophony of grief but also the larger patterns and movements of people in a stricken society, as well as the startling efflorescence of goodness and hope here and there amid the suffering.

From the first scientific drawings of the human anatomy onwards, there has been a long tradition of connections and interactions between art and medicine or art and science. Artists have been credited for their uncannily accurate portrayals of disease; reports exist of how dermatologists identified two dozen skin lesions on the subjects of paintings at the National Art Gallery in London, how Caravaggio depicted goiter, and so on. 

But when it strives for or achieves sublimity, art is more than illustration, and rarely is the disease itself the subject, but rather the excuse to draw attention to the responses to it—of the directly afflicted, of the physician, of the family and the neighbors, and of us the onlookers; in other words, of society itself as a complicit agent in the process of infection and perhaps also of healing. 

Indeed, if there is anything that the pandemic has achieved, it has been to force us to think of ourselves as a society, as one organism, the infection of one part of which could lead to the death of all. But despite the political rhetoric of “healing as one,” it has not made us think as one or act as one—yet; we remain as fractious as ever, trapped in feudal modes and mindsets of privilege and power. Death should have been the Great Equalizer, reaping patrician and peon alike, but yet again this plague, like its predecessors, has merely revealed and emphasized the disparities and infirmities that were there all along, with the affluent able to convert the long lockdown into albeit boring staycations and the huddled poor—already socially distanced from their neighbors across the wall long before Covid—struggling to subsist on donated rice and sardines. 

And so the artist steps back to ask: where is the body, and what is the disease? Is it just the intubated patient who is ill? 

In a new exhibit of works that he has prepared for Galerie Joaquin (www.galeriejoaquin.com), the painter Juanito Torres takes us through many of the tropes that the past six months of lockdown have embedded in the Filipino psyche: chiefly, that of the physician as hero and savior, most strikingly portrayed in?“Darating Din ang Bagong Umaga,”?a painting steeped in iconography—the doctor sprouting angel’s wings standing victorious over a demonic virus and holding a cross that also serves as the staff of Asclepius, entwined with his healing serpent. It’s St. Michael the Archangel, treading on Satan’s dragon. In another work, “Lupang Hinirang,” Rizal, Bonifacio and other heroes are dressed as doctors raising the Filipino flag, like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima.?

But most of the other paintings are decidedly contemporary, a dramatically enhanced rendering of the new normal, with citizens wearing gas masks in the most ordinary places, seemingly resigned to their fate.

These are works that clearly demand interrogation, beyond the admiration that their technical excellence will generate. In reaching for metaphor, almost to the point of parody, Torres raises the question of whether we might have overdone the “hero” bit, not because they’re not heroes, but because they may not want to be. As it is, some doctors and medical workers have resisted if not refused the “hero” tag, not out of modesty but because it has become an excuse of sorts, an easy way out for the non-heroes to underperform and lay the burden of saving society on the medical frontliners. The banality of gas masks in everyday life implies acceptance of—if not surrender to—an occupation army. But notably, the frontliners in “Tagumpay,” who toss their medical masks into the air in joyous celebration, are wingless and entirely human—as if to say, this is when we will win, when we can be again as we were, as we truly are.

We know that that will not be easy, and between now and then we may have to draw and depend on mythologizing and self-enlargement to slay the dragon in our midst. The true St. Michael may be the artist yet, and the true dragon may be even larger than corporeal disease.?

(The physical exhibit will be staged at Galerie Joaquin at the UP Town Center from October 21 to 31, 2020.)

Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th?death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him.?

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepe?a. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lape?a Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach.?

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.