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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

entry arrow4:02 PM | A Remembrance of a Weekly Grind

An email from current Weekly Sillimanian editor-in-chief Michelle Eve de Guzman -- who is a former student of mine and one of Silliman University's brightest young writers -- asking me to give a testimonial about my days as a tWS staffer for an exhibit celebrating the paper's 103rd year opened a floodgate of both memory and emotion. Perhaps even pride, the good kind.

Because, why not pride? Sometimes it takes mere numbers to make us realize how rich a tradition can be. Consider this: the Weekly Sillimanian is already one hundred and three years old? It is, and with a rich history, too. It has indeed been an honor and a privilege to be part of that legacy.

Starting in 1903 as Silliman Truth, barely two years after the Hibbards arrived in Dumaguete to found what was then Silliman Institute, the fledgling paper was at once a multilingual operation, with articles written in English, Spanish, and Cebuano. It was the first newspaper to be published in the whole of Negros Oriental, and because of that served for the most part of its early history as a community organ as well. By 1920, it became a biweekly publication now called The Sillimanian. (A separate publication still carried on the name of Silliman Truth, which had then become the monthly official publication of the Board of Trustees.)

At the dark heights of World War II, The Sillimanian moved underground like most of the teachers and students caught by the war in campus, renamed itself The Daily Sillimanian, and became a fly-by-night paper for the Resistance, publishing articles on singular sheets of paper that chronicled the daily fight against the Japanese. That reaching out for the concerns of the local community had always been a significant part of the publication's ideals -- so much so that by the time Martial Law arrived in Negros Oriental, the Police Constabulary immediately raided the Weekly Sillimanian office for subversive activities, including publishing articles critical of Marcos's shenanigans. (A quick look at the template and contents of tWs circa the 1970s would give one a jolt over how different the temperament was during those days as compared to now.)

The Weekly Sillimanian has always been a significant instrument for chronicling change, and has always been a voice for Sillimanians and Dumaguetenos alike. But like many institutions weathering time and changing faces, it has both checkered episodes and glorious periods. (Its heyday may be the two years between 1958 and 1959, when the paper won First Place twice in the Columbia School Press Contest, a prestigious award given out by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association of Columbia University in New York City, besting other school papers worldwide, including those in the United States.) In their famous history of Silliman University, Edilberto Tiempo, Crispin Maslog, and Valentino Sitoy wrote of tWS: "Their quality through the years has been uneven, ranging from the bland to the relatively well-edited publications. Likewise, their outlook has been varied, reflecting the climate of the times and the temperament of their editors."

And so that is true even until today. Thank God, under Ms. De Guzman's capable hands, with the able guidance of Gina Fontejon-Bonior as adviser, the Weekly Sillimanian is slowly coming out of a long shadow that saw it crippled and hobbling in the last five or six years, no thanks to an ogre now long since gone. (Oh, don't ask me who.)

As for me and tWS, it was an essay in English composition class that pushed open a chance to work in The Weekly Sillimanian. I was a sophomore college student, laboring over the nuances of English 12 -- what is now better known as Basic Communication 12 -- and my nostalgic piece about an old movie theater in my mother's homestown of Bayawan made my teacher, the award-winning fictionist Timothy Montes, take me aside to say, "You should be writing reviews for the school paper."

It just so happened that in the downstairs apartment of the building my family was renting at that time, a certain William Go -- perhaps the most successful tWS columnist there ever was (his column gained an obsessive following in the three years he was with the school paper) -- resided. Through him, I got to know the editors of the paper at the time, and was ultimately made part of Silliman's intellectual elite.

When I became part of the feature staff together with firebrand Dinah Rose Baseleres (now a Maxim Magazine intimacy guru), I gained entry into a period of the Weekly Sillimanian that would remain to this day its last golden age. From that period between 1991 and 1998 sprang capable writers like Eric Samuel Joven, Kristyn Kay Maslog (who would ultimately become a New York Times contributor), Desiree Bandal, Joanna Ruth Utzurrum, Fleur Carmelee Luntao (now a Freeman reporter), Jade Sheryl Yamut (now a Barnes and Nobles corporate relations officer in New York), Maria Theresa Siquioco, Vanessa Iway, and Jean Claire Dy, artists like Ritchie Teves and James Renan Dalman, and photographers like Quddus Ronnie Padilla.

It was a veritable zoo.

We worked tirelessly, ending most working "days" at two o'clock in the morning, the aftermath of which was then spent at the nearby burger stand. (The next day, most of us would make a beeline to the office -- which was headquarters and home, really -- even before the early birds caught the earliest worms. How we managed to do that and still keep sane body clocks remains a mystery to me until today.)

We were also meticulous. Weekly editorial meetings were always merry wars (consisting of fiery debates and endless jokings), which always ended with our favorite fare: Coke and cheese bread from the Cafeteria. Our articles were also rigorously written and edited, our photographs serious-minded in their composition, our graphics (old-fashioned they may seem to be now) heavily debated upon and executed with a kind of elan, and our layout always crisp and clean. We abhorred writing the sophomoric stuffs: no simple Valentines Day or Who's Your Crush? or My Day as a Student articles for us; we prided ourselves as intellectuals, and considered for our competition the high-minded content of U.P.'s Collegian. We were careful even with our use of spaces and lines: we fretted over columns matching lengths, the appropriate stoppers for articles, ditches in boxed articles, the layout and the hierarchies of articles following the movement of a typical reader's eyes, etc. We ushered tWS into the computer age from the typesetting dinosaur of our immediate predecessors: we were the first batch to use scanners and computers and digital cameras, and relieved the Silliman Press from touching our layout by being the first tWS staff to give its workers the first camera-ready output.

Most importantly, we were also scandalous bunch: we fired two editors-in-chief for various reasons, and transformed the office into a cabaret. I remember Jade Yamut climbing on top of tables to grab the hanging electric fan switch, which she would use as a microphone to sing the songs of Alanis Morrisette. I remember our eternal battles with a crafty midlevel administrator otherwise known as The Witch. I remember Dinah Baseleres making endless prank calls to radio jockeys with irritating American accents. I remember a Christmas party where we all trooped to Irma Pal's house, all dressed in futuristic costumes. (That we stopped traffic was a given.) Oh, we did many mischievous things.

Being in the Weekly Sillimanian with that old bunch is without doubt one of the best parts of my life, something I look to with the most earnest of nostalgia. I can even say that that privilege of belonging to the staff -- both as writer and as editor-in-chief -- transformed me, and made me what I am today. And that is saying a lot.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, September 22, 2006

entry arrow7:20 PM | Children's Boot Camp for the Culture Wars

Horror movie.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, September 21, 2006

entry arrow12:02 PM | A Man Called Dad

In memory of Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo on his tenth death anniversary

I never met the man, had only seen him on rare occasions, and always from a distance. The last time I saw him, it was in 1996, which was the year he died; his hair was already graying around the edges, but his cadence was still strong and precise despite his age. His face still bore a striking resemblance to the actor Gregory Peck.

"That's Edilberto Tiempo, the writer," somebody once pointed him out to me in Silliman Campus -- but of course I already knew him, and did not need an introduction. (Approaching him was totally another matter. For how do mere mortals approach gods and without trepidation? I was just a young man then, my literary ambitions still budding and virtually non-existent. All I had to show for my fiction was a strange tale about an unfortunate man named King Kong, and a few other misfires that consisted of my sophomoric attempts at storytelling. I felt -- wrongly -- that I had no right to approach The Man.)

I knew him, as every Sillimanian worth their salt knows him. There was that reputation, of course -- beloved literature and creative writing teacher, founder of the premier summer creative writing workshop in Asia, and multi-awarded storyteller. There was also that strong and angular face, made iconic from all the black and white portraits of him emblazoned on the dust jackets and back covers of books I'd read. Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo, I knew, was and still is a giant in Philippine literature.

When I was a boy -- around that peculiar age when one began discovering the adventures of the printed word via the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew -- I came across an old battered copy of A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories in our old rented house in Tubod. It must have been owned by one of my brothers, or one of their friends who used to frequent our house. It was a slim book, and I took to it one afternoon in the confines of the bedroom I shared with my brothers. I had just congratulated myself for finishing my first "real" novel, Peter Benchley's Jaws, but voracious readers would know of that sudden pang of hunger that could strike upon the turning of the last page of a riveting book: there was that internal clamor for the next reading fare, and A Stream at Dalton Pass just happened to be handy.

That book, to the best of my memories, is the first story collection by a Filipino author I've ever come across and read, which must have prepared me for my warm reception to the stories of Lakambini Sitoy and Nick Joaquin later on. It did not matter to me that this was not a work straight off some foreign (read: American) imprint, always an important consideration in a culture steeped in a colonial stranglehold. At ten years old, however, one does not readily make the distinctions we come to wield as weapons in the name of "discriminating taste," like when we do in adolescence, and particularly in adult life -- which often lead to relegating even the best of Philippine literature into the netherworld called Filipiniana, unread and unexamined.

For the boy that I was then, there were only stories. The story was what mattered most.

Doc Ed's "The Witch" was an early favorite. In that story, Minggay Awok -- the witch in a small Leyte town -- loomed large in my young imagination as a perfect manifestation of a very native concept of evil, and yet the story resonated even in my young mind. I felt for Minggay, which seemed an extraordinary consideration at that time.

A few weeks before Doc Ed passed away, the poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino informed Dinah Rose Baseleres and I that Doc Ed wanted to meet us, ostensibly to talk shop. Dinah and I were perhaps the most active campus writers in Silliman in the mid-1990s, coming in the heels of Anne-Marie Jennifer Eligio, Timothy Montes, Nino Soria de Veyra, Victor Padilla, and Shelfa Alojamiento who came before us. (That was the last literary wave for Silliman University -- which culminated in Jean Claire Dy and myself being granted fellowships to the National Writers Workshop, the last Sillimanians to make the official cut.) Upon being given the invitation, I thought: "For what? Certainly not for my stories -- they're extremely bad, as in baduy." Dinah must have felt the same way, because we never took up the invitation, both of us straddled with crippling insecurity for us to even consider facing The Man, and talking about creative writing with him.

When he died a few days later, bound with the sadness I felt -- which was strange, for I hadn't even met Doc Ed personally -- was a strong sense of regret. For how does one pass up an opportunity to meet with a literary giant? The answer: With utmost stupidity. It was a learning experience.

Sometimes I wish I had grabbed that chance to know him, even if only for a brief moment, so that I too could be part of that elite brood of Filipino writers -- which would include the likes of Susan Lara, Marjorie Evasco, Merlie Alunan, Anthony Tan, Bing Sitoy, Dean Francis Alfar, Timothy Montes, Sarge Lacuesta, Jose Wendell Capili, Gemino H. Abad, Jaime An Lim, J. Neil C. Garcia, D.M. Reyes, Bobby Flores-Villasis, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Danton Remoto, Eileen Tabios, Krip Yuson, Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez, and many others -- who knew him as mentor, and who taught them not just the basics of the writing craft, but also a way of seeing the world.

From the stories of him that I've heard since then, Doc Ed came off as an exacting critic who valued the story more than anything else -- beyond literary fads, disconcerting ideology, and empty purple prose. But that he was also a gentle soul. "Giving" is the adjective most people describe him with, enough so that, together with his wife the National Artist for Literature whom we know as "Mom Edith," Doc Ed was for many, simply "Dad."

In the Philippine literary circle, the Tiempo writing brood -- which consists of many of the best in this side of the literary world -- is the only "literary family" in the Philippines that has withstood time. Doc Ed remains the shepherd of this illustrious flock. This week, in celebration of his tenth death anniversary, Susan Lara sent me an email with an article that she wrote for Sunday Inquirer Magazine immediately after he died.

In this essay, she articulated the sense of grief that descended on much of Philippine literati when the first of the giants -- to follow Doc Ed in death were NVM Gonzalez, Wilfrido Nolledo, Francisco Arcellana, and Nick Joaquin -- succumbed to the dying of the light. Here is the entire essay:

The earthshaking news about Edilberto K. Tiempo, whom we lovingly call Dad, came to me from Dumaguete less than four hours after he drew his last breath. I insist on the word "earthshaking," although it would make Dad squirm. Too much, he would say: in literature, as in life, he had always taught us to practice restraint. But "heartbreaking," though also accurate, would probably be dismissed by him as "too soft." "Gut-wrenching" is not quite precise, either; and Dad had also taught us precision. Yes, Dad's death shook our world, hurling us into a void, our hands flinging about for a lifeline, feet casting about for some solid ground to stand on.

Mom Edith's assistant, Isabel, tried to break the news gently. "I have bad news, Ma'am," she said, "and I don't know how to begin." Immediately I knew, and at the same time didn't want to know. Impossible, I said, not caring that I sounded irrational. Dad intended to live to witness the turn of the century, and he had enough strength and will to make that happen. Only last summer, he said he had so much to live for. And we thought we would see him again that day in a matter of hours: the Manila Critics Circle's National Book Awards, for which Dad was a finalist, were to be given that afternoon. I was tempted to say, "I am not sufficiently prepared for the ending -- I cannot accept it," words he often said, when a story he was discussing could have ended differently.

Mark Twain once wondered how a person, "all unprepared, can receive a thunder stroke like that, and live."

The mind's mysterious way of coping kept me going that day. There was, mercifully, almost no time for self-pity. I dreaded breaking the news to friends in Manila who, nevertheless, had to know: Dad's good friend Franz Arcellana, and adopted children Krip Yuson, Marj Evasco, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Bimboy Penaranda, Ricky de Ungria, Ophie Dimalanta and Ruel de Vera, who all had to quickly recover from shock, because many others had to be told. I caught Jun Dumdum at work and asked him to break the news to writers in Cebu.

Then we started to wonder if someone was with Mom: Rowena and Don were in Iowa. It turned out that even friends in Dumaguete still didn't know: Krip stunned Cesar Aquino with the news; I called Ernie Yee, who left unfinished business at the court and rushed to Mom's side. Tim and Rhoda Montes, and Bobby Villasis followed. When Marj checked on Mom later that morning, she seemed to be holding up well, and Ernie was right there: he had just prepared Dad's clothes and was shining Dad's shoes.

It was difficult for other people to understand why and how our lives could be turned upside down by the death of a teacher. Marj, Danny Reyes, Wendell Capili and I dropped everything -- speeches, classes, newspaper work, meetings -- and took the first available flight to Dumaguete to be with Mom. Parents, bosses, clients, colleagues and students could only look at us in utter bewilderment as we tried to explain why it was important for us to be there.

In Dumaguete, Dad gifted us with that characteristic half-smile. In the past that half-smile was usually accompanied by eyes that twinkled, followed by a one-liner. We missed the twinkling eyes, but all the same we almost expected him to say something like, "You look ready for mischief!" How like Dad, to have managed that our first sight of him should be reassuring. All during the wake until after the burial, Dad's many children gathered and walked with him in a world built with imagination and memory.

Remembering is always a tricky business. William Zinsser considered memory as one of the most powerful of writers' tools, but also one of the most unreliable. One's remembered truth often differs from another's. But about Dad there can be no disagreement among us: he is a giant in Philippine literature, a devoted mentor, an exacting critic, a very loving, giving person.

He and Mom taught us discipline by example. Back in the days when they lived in the Amigo house, he would go to their study at the annex in the early evening and write. On his way back to the house around two o'clock in the morning, he would meet Mom Edith, going to the annex to do her own writing. His tremendous creative energy and that remarkable discipline had produced more than twenty books -- novels, literary essays, short stories.

As a critic he was upfront and did not bother to pull his punches. He would sometimes begin a session with "The problem with this story is...," and Mom would promptly stop him with "The good points first, Dad." During my first summer workshop, I heard him say, "You know, there is a difference between writing a short story and simply telling a story. This is not a short story." I have since heard many variations on that familiar theme: "I'm sorry to say that this is not a short story. It is only an articulation of grief, an essay on loss and change." One summer he was particularly irascible, and said, "This is not a short story, period," then looked out the window and refused to be drawn into any further discussion.

Even after the workshop, when we're back at our writing desks, it is his voice that we hear when we try to manipulate our reader: "Do away with manipulation; use the peripheral approach"; when we try to cloak a weak story with pretty words: "Don't try to hoodwink me with pseudo-poetic language!"; when we tend to get lazy: "The writer must take care of everything. He must achieve resonance, a multiplying of meaning."

When I met him 17 summers ago, he had already reached retirement age. But there was absolutely nothing in him that hinted at retirement. He was sprightly, walking up the mountain in Valencia to reach their "Aerie nest," putting us to shame because we were lagging far behind him, huffing and puffing. Until the day before his death, he was in top form.

He loved surprises, especially when he was the one giving them. During my first summer there as a fellow, he would pay us surprise visits at the Alumni Hall. He would say, "Are you behaving well?" and would look disappointed if we said yes. Like all fictionists, he loved to gossip: he would ask who was in love with whom, or who were fighting over whom, and that would start him reminiscing about fellows in the past who wooed others besides the Muse while attending the workshop. To Cesar Aquino's perpetual discomfiture, one of Dad's favorite anecdotes was how Cesar fell into the Tiempos' lotus pond as he tried to pick a flower for a lovely workshopper. Another favorite story was about Mauro Avena, who forgot he couldn't swim and jumped off a boat, feet first, into the sea, to join Pris McIntyre, a skillful scuba diver. As Dad often related with great relish, Pris rescued Mauro, who survived to write more prize-winning plays.

I learned only a year after we met that he was a stern and caring father. By then, Rowena and I had discovered the many things we had in common, the most amazing and inexplicable being our identical penmanship. We had begun to suspect we were twin sisters in a previous life, and Mom once said "I believe it was under a special moon that I 'begot' you, Sue." Another year later, Rowena's and Lem's daughter Rima became my godchild. I had joined the Tiempos' growing brood, whom they nurtured and worried over. Dad would get distraught over any disturbing news about his adopted daughters and sons: he worried when our marriages were breaking up; and worried some more when new relationships were shaping up.

We worried about him, too. He gave us a big scare when he had a heart attack five years ago. Though he quickly recovered, he had slowed down a bit during workshops, attending only the afternoon sessions on fiction. He said it was to give himself more time to rest. But we suspect it was also to keep him and Mom from arguing too much. That deprived the fellows and panelists of their spectacular annual showdown over an infelicitous word or ambiguous phrase. Watching Dad and Mom in a verbal tussle used to be our main spectator sport in summer.

Students who made good were his constant source of pride. At the start of every workshop, he would introduce us as former fellows who had come back as panelists. It seemed to fascinate him no end that the callow, insecure fellows who were at the receiving end of criticism years ago were now by his side, evaluating younger writers' works. Last summer, Dad missed an extremely subtle suggestion of a sexual relationship between two fictional characters. When Marj and I pointed it out, his jaw dropped. "My goodness this is a classic example of students outdoing their teacher!" he said, and gave us what he meant to be a pat on the back (a hearty slap, really).

I find it hard to imagine him in his childhood, but I remember Rowena's story about how Dad as a little boy would go from house to house at Christmas in his small hometown in Leyte. In those days all the children made noise out of tin cans, and the ones who created the loudest noise got the most goodies from the neighbors, who probably simply wanted them to shut up. Dad had his own noisemakers, too, but they weren't very noisy, so he came home somewhat empty-handed.

He was never noisy, our Dad, which is probably one reason he went home last month somewhat empty-handed, too. But he had a power every rich man would envy: he touched the lives of hundreds of writers, thousands of students, millions of readers here and abroad.

He touched the life of a Silliman engineering student named Alfay*, who had read all his works, but had never seen him, didn't know what he looked like. He just happened to be passing by the Chapel of the Evangel one evening during the vigil, and saw on the white board the name of the author whose works he had read and admired. He went in, said a prayer for Dad, sat quietly amidst Dad's former students holding vigil and telling stories, and perhaps tried to believe that God in His own good time would make plain to him why he was not allowed to meet his favorite novelist in this life.

Dad touched the life of an old mountain woman named Simeona, who once dragged a pine tree from the mountains of Valencia, all the way down the 16 kilometers of bumpy road and dusty highway, just so Rowena could have the Christmas tree she wished for. Simeona came to the wake, her lined face dark with grief, exotic mountain flowers wilting in her hands.

And of course the writers, who flew or sailed home to Dumaguete from all parts of the country to say goodbye to Dad, among them Krip Yuson, Domini Torrevillas, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Butch Macansantos, Anthony Tan, Linda Alburo, Merlie Alunan Wenceslao, George Ramos, Bing Sitoy and Alan Larot. The "youngest" children, Joy Cruz, Tara Sering and Kris Lacaba, went to represent the latest batch of workshoppers.

We were all there to gaze at him one last time; we all saw him being lowered to the ground. But it will take much more than that to persuade us that he is gone. C.S. Lewis wrote about "the ubiquitous presence of a dead man" of whom one is constantly reminded by almost everything that happens. I know that in the coming weeks, months, even years, maybe as long as I live, I will always have the impulse to call Dad when I read a book I know he would love, or when a story I'm working on is giving me a difficult time, or when I simply want to hear his laughter.

One story he enjoyed enormously was about Paderewski, who, after an intermission in one of his performances, went back on stage to find a little boy at the piano innocently playing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Much to the surprise of the audience, the pianist motioned the boy to remain where he was. "Don't quit," he whispered, "Keep going."

Leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began playing the bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side, encircling the child, to add a running obbligato. The old master guided the young boy through the end of that piece, and together they held the audience spellbound. Dad had done precisely that to hundreds of young writers.

Like most people who lived full and meaningful lives, Dad envisioned his life in paradise as pretty much like his life on earth. "I'd still be listening to Beethoven," he said, "I'd still be teaching literature." And, we are quite sure, he'd still be leaning over, enfolding us, saying "Don't quit. Keep going."

Once I told Susan that sometimes I feel like I simply have no right to call Doc Ed "Dad," the way his writing children do without batting an eyelash.

"I never really knew him," I said.

"Well then, think of yourself as his literary grandchild," she replied. "He's still very much 'Dad,' even to you."

That has always distinguished Dumaguete's legacy to the Philippine literature: a connection of hearts, a family. Here's to you then, Dad. Even in death, your gifts continue to flower.

In behalf of your literary grandchildren, those of us who never had the privilege of knowing you -- Joel Toledo, Ronald Baytan, Gad S. Lim, Frances Ng, Sandra Nicole Roldan, Ronald Villavelez, Raymund Magno Garlitos, Larry Ypil, Lilledeshan Bose, Carlomar Arcangel Daoana, Rebecca Khan, Libay Linsangan Cantor, Indira Endaya, Mayo Uno Martin, Allan Popa, Bernice Roldan, Isolde Amante, Vincenz Serrano, Jean Claire Dy, Marby Villaceran, Janet Villa, Anna Bernaldo, Alfonso Dacanay, Jeneen Garcia, Paul de Guzman, BJ Patino, Peter Mayshle, Baryon Tensor Posadas, Naya Valdellon, Angelo Suarez, Allan Pastrana, Mookie Katigbak, Maryanne Moll, Daryll Jane Delgado, Vincent Coscolluela, Ken Ishikawa, Anna Felicia Sanchez, Mark Anthony Cayanan, Rosmon Tuazon, Niccolo Vitug, Kit Kwe, Carljoe Javier, Gabriela Lee, Mitzie Correa, Glenn Maboloc, James Neish, Ginny Mata, John Bengan, Faye Ilogon, Hedwig de Leon, Rommel Oribe, Marie La Vina, Myrza Sison, Ned Parfan, Rica Bolipata-Santos, Charisse Paderna, Anina Abola, Alfredo B. Diaz, Virginia Villanueva, Michellan Sarile, Patricia Evangelista, Ana Escalante Neri, Andrea Teran, Darwin Chiong, Douglas Candano, Dominique Cimafranca, Ino Habana, and many others, we would like to say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

* Alfay Vintola was one of my best friends in high school

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, September 15, 2006

entry arrow4:56 PM | A Goodbye for Chris

A few days before my friend Christopher Abella passed away more than a week ago, I swear I saw him driving by my apartment along Aldecoa Drive in his motorcycle, clad in his usual white T-shirt and jeans, heading for the city.

He had already rounded the bend at the corner of Tubod, and it was too late for me to call out. "There goes Chris," I remember telling myself as he whisked by. He was more than a shadow of his former self, even thinner than the last time I saw him. Some would even say "ravaged," and not without an ounce of regret and pity, especially from those who knew Chris to be the very embodiment of health and boundless energy.

A few of us friends know him to be a peerless guidance counselor in Silliman University, someone who actually took time to get down to the level of any young student's experience and offer something that was both brotherly comfort and insight without the usual psychobabble bullshit. He was a favorite among students, and for many of them, he was "Kuya Chris." There are those of us who know him to be Paui, the perfect companion to feasts and gabfests. Some of us also know him to be Mayen's husband. I knew Mayen from long ago. Mayen taught me how to ballroom dance in high school; Chris marrying her made him an instant friend.

The first time I knew Chris, it was to witness his star turn as Bernardo in a local production of West Side Story. He was one of the scarce shining lights in that musical, at once able to turn the gruff character of Maria's protective older brother into somebody we could sympathize with. Why? Because Chris's Bernardo was so earthy, so lovable, so reachable, so funny and irreverent, even with all that tough exterior -- and when he sang and danced, by God he seemed real.

I wrote glowingly of Chris's performance in that play many years ago, reserving for him a reprieve from what had been -- I admit it now -- a very bitchy review. When he sought me out after that wretched article was published, it was to thank me for "the kind words," and just like that -- as what usually happens between the best of people -- there was an instant bond, a friendly chemistry at work. We would not see each other too often even if we lived in the same tiny city, but every time we met in some corner or other -- most famously in the culinary comforts of Chicco's in Why Not whose array of steaks and cold cuts we both loved to bits -- it was with instant camaraderie, as if we were already old friends.

It was heartbreaking then when, a few years ago, his body started to give up on him. The ultimate diagnosis is quite complicated to explain. I was walking home one day when he passed by me in his eternal motorcycle, stopping quickly to say hello, and proceeded to enlighten me with the medical details, most of which is lost in my mind in the way things seemed to become more complicated by the day.

He grew thinner and thinner, wasting away, it seemed. It is a measure of how much Chris was well-loved by friends when so many pitched in to help raise money for his mounting medical bills. That it was a long struggle is a testament of how much Chris and his family have persevered, and how much friends stayed around to ease, little by little, whatever burden that came. During those rare times when we had time to talk, Chris would tell me that sometimes he felt like giving up, but that there was always God by his side, coming around with a sudden blessing -- a monetary gift, for example, for the much-needed dialysis for the week. It was a day-to-day struggle.

To his credit, however, even during those trying times, Chris always seemed to radiate a thirst for life. Even when his cheeks lost their usual roundness and became sallow, Chris still smiled and cracked joked and insisted on living out the last of his days in mirth, perhaps only for our benefit, so that we would not worry too much. But even then. It was a grand effort.

That week, when I last saw him alive, the sighting felt sad. "There goes Chris," I said, and felt a sudden darkness descending.

"Impossible," his widow Mayen told me when I finally visited his wake at Eterna a few days later. I had received a text message from Oyen Alcantara, informing us in grave tones of Chris's passing. Mayen continued, "He had been bedridden for a few months na. He could not possibly get out and drive around the city in his motorcycle!"

"But I did see him drive by my place in Tubod!" I insisted. I knew for sure seeing Chris drive by in a motorcycle in a white T-shirt was not some trick of air, a funereal mirage. Could not possibly be my careless imagination.

"Impossible," Mayen said, softly this time.

Somebody then told me that sometimes some people get visitations of souls right around the time of death. "Maybe Chris was trying to tell you something," Mark, who was with me, said.

"But tell me what?"

Mayen suddenly said, "Wait--," and went to an adjoining room from where the wake was being held, and came back bringing in a blue hard-cover Merit record book. "Here you go," she said. "This is Chris's notebook, something he wrote in most days after his initial diagnosis. Somebody was looking for this, but we couldn't find it. I found it again right before you came." It made me shiver receiving that notebook from Mayen's hands.

I slowly scanned the pages, and felt the tremendous but silent power of beholding the words of a friend who was now gone. His words -- sometimes scribbled in careful penmanship in blue or black ink, and sometimes hurriedly scratched in as if borne out of sheer agony -- jumped out of the pages.

Chris called the whole thing Paui's Winning Over Kidney Failure Notebook. In the beginning pages, his handwriting is sure and certain -- optimistic. "Hello!" Chris wrote. "My name is Christopher Luague Abella. What is my life? What is my life all about? What does my life consist of? What is life to me? What are my goals? Those are basically my guiding questions -- thoughts for my introduction of this personal notebook..."

In that upbeat beginning, he wrote a little bit about his family, particularly about growing up with his Lolo Pedring and Lola Layding, and then a little bit about his teenage years in Dumaguete. "To me, life is living with loving people," he wrote. "Life is loving work to provide basic needs to family... Life is music. Life is living and loving God. Life is when I found my one true love. Life to me is Mayen and my family Zachary and Xyla..."

There are quotes from the comedian George Carlin at the end pages, scribbled in pencil. There are some agonizing expressions of self-doubts. "My illness is a hopeless battle," he wrote on another page. Then there are the blank pages, the spaces in between -- and in places, there are many pages scissored away, as if the contents are contraband -- perhaps the unvarnished ragings of a man on the verge. But there are also the carefully rendered recipes for fried cheese, shrimp toast, Oriental short rib barbecue, sesame tofu salad, and "kiddie party" spaghetti. "That's Chris," Mayen said, laughing a little. Then there is a short list of saints -- St. Judiel, patron saint for the heart, St. Gabriel for clear mind, St. Michal for the sick, St. Raphael for problems, St. Uriel for justice...

And there it was, on one of the last pages. My name among the jumble of words in frenetic handwriting. Of all friends he knew, it was my name he remembered and wrote down: "We are living on borrowed times...," Chris wrote. "I let go of that line too many times with prophetic zest. I have said that statement to my doctors. I have shared that statement to my family and friends. 'Galvanizing,' an honest reply from Ian Casocot."

"He meant for you to read this," Mayen said. "Maybe that's why you saw him."

I realized then how powerful words could be. It was akin to life. Only a few feet from us, there was Chris's coffin, sealed shut because Mayen wanted everybody to remember Chris the way he was in health and in life: a little rotund and always zany. And yet, in this notebook, he was very much alive. Reading his words aloud, I could almost hear his voice, as if he still floated about, trying to tell us that everything was okay.

"I'll write about him," I told Mayen.

I might have said that, but thinking about it now, I'd rather end this post with Chris having the final say. From his notebook, in those last few pages of unwieldy penmanship, he wrote: "Upon knowing that I had end stage renal failure, a disease that is life-threatening, I cried and bargained with God. I felt like a helpless child for the first time in my adult life. I cried upon hearing my kids over the phone saying that they missed me. I cried like a child when my six-year old boy offered his kidneys to me.

"Am I afraid of death? If this question was posed to me [when I was a child], my answer would have been 'no.' Simply because Jesus loves me and will always be with me, and will protect me, and I will go to heaven with him.... 'Yes, I am afraid of death,' would be my puberty-aged reply. I don't know what it is. I think it is painful. I still want to enjoy my new bicycle and my Atari games. I want to live life with my parents and my crush... And God is a loving God. 'Yes and no' -- that would be my teenage-angst-driven, cynical reply. Yes... I want to know more about life, I want to know who I am and what I would become with all the intricacies of this drama called life. I want to live life to the fullest. I want to marry my girlfriend, if I have the money. And no... who is not dying among us? Death! I don't care.

"What about my present self? 'No. I am not afraid of death.' But that does not necessarily mean that dying is easy to accept. We go through a process to finally accept it. I am not afraid of death simply because Jesus made a promise to take care of me, to love me until eternity. I have lived my life with loving people... my kids, my wife, my friends, my Lola and my Lola...

"How about you? Are you afraid of death?"

And the notebook ends there.

Goodbye, Chris, my friend -- fearless even in the eternal.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

entry arrow3:01 AM | Literatura 12 The Palanca 2006 Issue

... is now available online. Here's a screen shot of the issue:

Here you can read the Palanca award-winning stories, poems, essays, and plays of Socorro Villanueva, Dean Francis Alfar, Ed Maranan, Vladimeir Gonzales, Michael Francis Andrada, Sid Gomez Hildawa, Myrza Sison, Kristian Cordero, and many others. Of course, more will be uploaded soon.

Enjoy these wonderful pieces, and here's wishing everybody good luck next year...


Works from Larry Ypil, Nikki Alfar, Glenn Sevilla Mas, Elyrah Salanga, Corinna Nuqui, Eros Atalia, Arturo Ilano, and Martin Villanueva newly uploaded! More coming soon...

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

entry arrow12:57 AM | De Kahon

By Gilda Cordero-Fernando
Philippine Daily Inquirer
3 September 2006

Some time in my life I heard that UP was offering a Ph.D. in creative writing. I said, Wow, pagkakataon ko na. (Now its my chance.) I wanted so much to take up the course but then my friend Myrza Sison said, "Siguro hindi ka na puwede riyan kasi ang inaaral namin short stories mo." (No way. We critique your short stories.)

Well, that's good, I thought. Now I'll finally find out what my colleagues think of me.

Then I asked Dr. Jing (Cristina Pantoja) Hidalgo of the UP faculty, who is my friend, if I should take up this Creative Writing Ph.D. She hemmed and she hawed and then said, "Ay naku, Gilda, may poststructuralist theory diyan, may semiotics, may postcolonial theory, may hermeneutics at marami pa." (Don't bother, Gilda. Here, you have to deal with poststructuralist theory, semiotics, postcolonial, hermeneutics and many others.)

Sub-text: "Baka hindi ka pumasa." (You are likely to fail.)

E bakit ako di papasa! Akala ko ba doctor of "creative writing"! Alam kong sulatin ang kini-critique-critique nila -- essay, short story, poem kung mapilitan, nobela pa rin, bakit hindi puwedeng pumasa? (How can I fail? You are supposed to be a doctor in creative writing. I know how to write what they critique -- essays, short story, poem. Even a novel, if you want. How can I not make it?)

Come to think of it, I had trouble with my master's degree in Ateneo, too. My classmates were doing theses on Katherine Ann Porter, James Joyce, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, cribbing from every book they could get hold of. I just didn't know how to do that. All I knew was how to be orig (original) all the way.

So one day I told the dean: I have 13 short stories that I can make into a book. Why don't you give me a break and let that be my thesis? That was 1960. I had four children by the time I got my MA diploma and The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker became the first-ever creative writing thesis approved by Ateneo.

Sa mundong ito, kung orig ka, lagot ka. Alam ninyo naman 'yon di ba? Siguro mas marami kayong experience diyan kaysa sa akin. (In this world, if you are unique, you'd bust. You know that, don't you? You must have known that.)

The shape of the majority of institutions around us is square. They fit very well in boxes. Boxes or categories are everywhere you go, stacked on top of one another. They're religious, government, corporate, bank, academe, painting, writing, fashion design. It's the box people who run our lives. Being in a box is what people call normal. But somehow we all know it's unhealthy.

For years cultural institutions had a very hard time trying to categorize artists for awarding. Is he a writer? Then why is he composing librettos? He should fall under "music." And he did a rock opera. He must be "theater." Can even paint! So is he a visual artist? That's strange because I never met a single artist who could do only one thing.

And yet fusion has been around for so long. There's fusion of eastern and western cooking, of rock and opera, of performance and art. There's mixed media art, creative nonfiction, ecumenical mass, gender-bender clothes.

Why does everything still have to fit the seven boxes of classical art, when maybe all one has to do is ask -- is he in artist? And if so, is he a good one? Ah, but that means breaking down all those ironclad boxes!

How we love the comfort zone of old forms! Look at what has been showing in Araneta Coliseum -- Andy Williams, the Four Aces, Barry Manilow, Paul Anka, the Lettermen -- all repackaged as "revival" or "retro." And for crying out loud -- "Gulong ng Palad" -- the sob story of the '60s, is back, too! As if there had never been anything newer! Ah, but new is risky. New is a zone of discomfort.

In the meantime, highbrow formal theater was having trouble breathing and staying alive. Every other Jack was jumping out of the box to put up his own starving thing. These were the living, breathing, evolving pockets of art, snubbed by the very institutions that should be supporting them.

In music, explains my friend, Manny Chaves, there was Club Dredd where the Eraserheads and Parokya ni Edgar began. Then Mayrics on Espana, with Maegan Aguilar and Cookie Chua, then the popular 70s Bistro, venue of Noel Cabangon and Joey Ayala. And now -- SaGuijo in Makati where three to five live bands a week fight to be heard. In Intramuros there was the Sanctum which, with the Republic of Malate, began the "Spoken Word" and its "open mike." It was followed by Conspiracy on Visayas Avenue, with its 99 owners, and Rock Drilon's lively Magnet on Katipunan.

Oh, but the canons had long been set -- what was popular art, also known as pang-masa, was not to be considered serious art. This very much reminds me of Dr. Doreen Fernandez's columns on food, which were looked down upon by academe because they appeared in dailies and not in literary journals or read in scholarly lectures (which no one attended). But Doreen stuck to her pancit luglog and pochero. Today food is internationally considered an important aspect of a country's culture.

Eventually, too, the rock bands, indie movies and the comics were accepted by our powers-that-be of culture. But not before the artists had struggled so hard to make their name! How easy to join the bandwagon! And the movie stars of the bakya crowd? FPJ made it to National Artist for being a political figure. Dolphy and Nora Aunor before him never had the ghost of a chance!

In literature there were great magazines like Ermita, Jose, Pen & Ink and Goodman that died raging against the night. Now it's Story Magazine gasping for sponsorship. Memorable stage pieces like Bienvenido Lumbera's Tales of the Manuvu, Rama Hari and Bayani were hits in the '70s. But how could they be memorable to people who had missed them or were too young to see them? That's because we have no boxes where filing boxes ought to be! There is no adequate and readily accessible documentation, in print or in video, of the works of major artists nor are these given importance.

In the '70s I remember trying to access from LVN and Sampaguita Studios something as banal as their movie stills.

"Ay wala na ho 'yan," what passed for the librarian said. "Kaibigan ho ni direk hiniram, 'di na nakabalik. 'Yung iba na-damage ng typhoon Dading." (We have nothing here. Some were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged by typhoon Dading.)

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

And yet, with the right stewarding, that is so easily remediable. In the visual arts, for instance, there is no complete file simply of all the art shows every year. In literature there is no file, simply of all the books by every publisher, campus or independent or professional, printed during the year -- just title, author, date, and a brief description. In the visual arts with only a digital camera and a ball pen, it's so easy today to document every exhibit or gallery happening all year round. Yes, there are books and magazines but they cover only the shows of the bookstores and galleries they work for. In one art awards for young people, several fine works were overlooked simply because the judges didn't know they existed.

Recently I was sharing a pizza with two young friends, Mich Dulce, a fashion designer, and Cecile Zamora, a fashion columnist. Suddenly a whole family from the next table complete with grandkids descended upon Mich, asking for her autograph. Not because she was a talented prize-winning designer, but because they had seen her in Pinoy Big Brother!

Cecile and I were introduced and ignored. For the next 15 minutes I looked on in awe as they drooled over Mich's clothes, her hair, her makeup, her bling-blings. I had never been through such an experience of marginalization and it amused me no end.

Then a friend who visits Havana described to me its cultural scene. Support of the arts is in the constitution of Cuba. Its artists are national treasures and lionized just as much as its movie stars. Fans run after architects, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, stage actors and directors for an autograph or to exchange a word or two. Not that I crave such attention, but it could help sell more books and tickets.

By the way, in the writing scene of the '60s and '70s, the Palanca Awards were a class act. Initially there were only a few categories -- short fiction, one-act play, and poetry. People remembered the winners and it helped us get additional fruit for our labors.

Now the prestigious Palanca has been cut up into so many little categories -- 15 at last count, with first, second and third prizes for each category in English and Tagalog and some vernaculars. I always try to remember who the young winners are. But with 40 or so names to keep up with each year, I just gave up. Dare one suggest that the awards be cut down and the prizes raised to dazzling amounts? Surely complaints will arise. Bakit elitista? (It's elitist!) Why stop the multiplication of the loaves? Because an award is a distinction. It recognizes a major achievement and should be as elitist and exclusive as it can be!

Having so many categories, moreover, leads to a shortage of competent judges. And so writers become alternately contestants and judges which could very easily lead to horse trading. Kayo ang nagsabi niyan, ha? (I didn't say that.)

Too many winners -- not just in the Palanca but other contests as well -- make winning ordinary. There are wholesale awards, too, where the whole town is with you on the stage. Not that I have not myself gone through a number of those. Once, in addition to the usual writer-publisher citation, a prestigious awarding body cited me as an "outstanding fashion designer." And I can't sew a stitch! I was relieved that there wasn't a couturier in the audience. I thought I'd just let it be, they'd realize their error in time. But then two months later the same awards with our pictures appeared in a newspaper! I brought it up to the awarding body. The official was surprised and promised to look into the matter. I am still an outstanding dress designer.

Another area where the-more-the-merrier seems to thrive is in the distribution of grants. The awarding body says, "There is only this much money to give away and there are so many of you applicants. So we are forced to spread it thin."

Now if a P1 million application for a performance or a film is awarded P400,000 and the proponent has no other source of funding, that is programming the project to fail. And so the theater and film landscape is littered with carcasses of failed grants. I think cutting a big thing up into little pieces whether it is a grant or an award is an invitation to mediocrity.

Who, by the way, checks the outcome of grants -- the shows, the books, the researches, the conferences? Who assesses what succeeded and what failed? Who looks for new grantees? Who checks whether the funders are not also the grantees and the checkers, too? Who assesses which should be given more weight -- a delegation to an important conference or the funding of a promising digital film?

What accounts for our small consumer market for the arts that it cannot make any cultural project survive for long? Even the best performances in CCP, the best art exhibits and the best books? Because the arts have never been considered necessary or important!

In New York everyone knows which new book is out, which play is showing (on Broadway, off Broadway) which exhibit, which musical. People talk about them because the papers seriously cover art happenings. Cultural events are as much a part of their lives as a hotdog. And so people are eager to pay for a ticket or a book they read about.

It's media after all, that shapes our tastes. The acceptance of any creative work very much depends on what is said about it. But an inordinate importance is given by media to society goings-on, fashion and especially beauty, that is why so many people covet a botox, a belly tuck or a pair of Havaianas more than a book. A real review of a cultural event is a rare treat. And you'll never find a short story.

So, who is to blame? The readers? The editors? The publishers? The government? But the government can't even generate jobs for starving people! This is when I get a real nostalgia for Imelda Marcos. She had an artistic vision for the Filipino. She could spot budding talent. She gave scholarships to Cecile Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Coke Bolipata, Raul Sunico and other gifted kids. She established the Cultural Center, the Film Center, the National Artist Awards, the OPM Awards, the Bagong Anyo showcase for Filipino couture, the Makiling High School for the Arts, the Central Bank antiques collection. She was the embodiment of the Filipino terno, and you never caught her, even at 6 a.m., looking anything but radiant in it. But, of course, it all came with the hole in the sky and needed an entire dictatorship to support it!

Some say it was just her coterie that fed Imelda ideas. But then, she knew whom to co-opt and they were the cream of the crop -- Leandro Locsin, Lucrezia Kasilag, Jaime Laya, Kerima Polotan, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Johnny Gatbonton, Yen Makabenta, Adrian Cristobal, Virgilio Almario. I mention this because I never saw such enthusiasm for culture in the two women presidents of the next dispensations. In fact, in a rare appearance, one actually left before Act II of a ballet. No attempt, please, to get Mrs. Marcos back into the limelight, just giving credit where it's past due.

I think the Filipino artist is a hero. He gives so much for so little. He can never collect royalties for his plays or musical compositions, otherwise Freddie Aguilar would be a millionaire now. Poverty is the artist's lot unless he finds means of support other than his art and a wife to hold up half the sky. The government hardly remembers him except when he can be politically used. Big business does not ask him to be an endorser of whiskey, slimming tea or underwear.

But he will passionately craft his piece with no other thought than to give it to the world. At what sacrifice! For next he will abjectly beg and borrow or sell some material possession to send his unrecognized creation abroad to compete. Where it will reap award after award -- for filmmaker, actor, singer, painter, writer, musician, dancer. Ang galing ng Pilipino! (The Filipino is great!)

The artist is aware of the boxes and boxes that surround him and that the only way to be free of them is to blaze a trail for the bastions of culture to follow. Thus he becomes invulnerable. Because creation is the only divine act of which man is capable and the artist is most like his Maker when he is pouring his soul into his craft.


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Sunday, September 03, 2006

entry arrow6:30 PM | Palanca 2006 Winners Coming Up!

Because of previous engagements, I had no plans to create a website for this year's Palanca-winning works like I've been doing every year. But Ed Maranan, winner of the short story in Filipino and the essay in English, just sent me his winning works. So I guess I have to do this -- happily naman.

[See the complete list of this year's winners here.]

So Dean, Nikki, Larry, Sid, Cel, Myrza, Glenn, Clarissa, and the rest ... congratulations! Can you send me your winning pieces soon?

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

entry arrow7:35 PM | The King of Nothing to Do

Luis has a new book out...

Buy it!

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entry arrow6:14 PM | Doing Absolutely Nothing

I allowed myself a day of complete abandon -- save for an hour of meeting I had this morning which I had earlier committed to a few students. I had an argument with someone I love a day or so ago, and to one accusation levelled against me, I had simply reasoned out with this: "You know how much work I have to do. I am a very busy man." The rejoinder was this: "Well, you chose to be."


I took that to heart today, however.

I wondered what my life could be like without the whiff of expectations or duty. Responsibilities railroaded to the side, work postponed -- all for the sake of doing absolutely nothing.

So there was the whole Saturday spent in bed, watching television, surfing the Internet until my fingers grew tired from pounding the keyboard and clicking the mouse. I wanted to be the very illustration of a sloth.

What I have found eventually is that it is utterly joyless, this kind of existence. I do not get the life of somebody who prefers whiling away days and nights doing nothing. How do you survive the excruciating moments of long nothingness? My mouth has become dry from the bile built up from dreaming up lazily of things to occupy me. The air has become stale, the room a prison.

So now I have taken a shower, and have planned to spend the remains of the day outside in the growing dusk. Whatever I can do to salvage my sense of self-worth today. Never mind the earlier reproach. I like busy. It doesn't even have to be about work. It can be about particular passions, and doing something about it with one's own hands. "Busy" is life itself.


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