Writing is Hard to Love (Confessions of a Composition Junkie)

Philbert Dy’s tweet made me think a bit. See, there’s something about “loving writing.”

Ten years ago, I’d probably say that Mr. Dy is right. After all, I was a young man of 22, as eager as any impressionable young writer would have been. Now, it just doesn’t seem that way anymore. I write every once in a while, but most of my writing now takes the form of outlines and presentation slides, and perhaps the occasional piece of work I ask from a harried copywriter just to keep myself busy. Writing—the kind that passes for the “serious” kind—comes by way of things passed on to me by acquaintances and friends who could use a hand. Months ago, I’ve still harbored a little bit of an ambition to write—and to “make my mark” on magazines—until a certain jadedness took over.

When it comes to loving writing, writing itself is hard to love.


Over a Weekend

I woke up one day with Japan on my mind.

The Japanese have a bunch of wonderful words and phrases for everything, but it’s always somehow lost in translation when you experience it here. A quick dinner at a ramen shop, for example, always starts with a chorus of “irasshaimase”—spoken in such a way that you’d hear “sushaimasen” if you listen closely—and ends with a mawkish “thank you” by the time you step out. There are the Japanese discount stores that sell everything from almond seaweed cracker-sandwiches to xylophones, until you realize that one of the most popular ones isn’t exactly “Japanese.” The social pressure to add a “Japanese” feel to things is perhaps best expressed by the look on a real Japanese sushi chef’s face whenever you order a California roll.

Or if you ask the fish in a chirashi bowl to be cooked. Or lukewarm ramen, served with spoon and fork. It’s not right, but that’s just the way it is. There’s also karoshi: the familiar, the dangerous, the controversial.

And then there’s “hikkikomori:” in an article for Warscapes, Flavio Rizzo defines them as a “… lost generation of Japanese kids, post-modern hermits, a lost generation of young recluses who never leave their homes and rely on their parents to survive.” I don’t qualify for the “rely on their parents to survive” part, but I’ve always been fascinated by the whole idea. So much so that it is, in many ways, how I spend a weekend. Reclusive, shut in, working: emerging from my apartment on the next Monday with work done over the weekend, ready—and weary, at times—to take in more for the week ahead.


The Box That Bears Her Ashes

“Unpack” is a word used a lot over the past few days to describe reactions to “My Family’s Slave;” it is a verb that captures the Filipino-ness of it all. How we unpack balikbayan boxes, how we unpack things when we move homes, how we unpack things when we settle into a place like America. And like many things in boxes, unpacking is a thing that must be done delicately and carefully.

Some things can get lost, forgotten, or destroyed in the act of unpacking a box.

And for all this talk of Westjacking the narrative and the nuances of Filipino culture, something I haven’t really done in the wake of the Alex Tizon maelstrom was to train the spotlight on the story itself. For all its brilliance, for all its technical mastery, it’s still one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever read.


Some Notes on Westjacking

May 20, 2017: Postscript here.

Alex Tizon’s heartbreaking personal essay on his complicated relationship with his family’s katulong, Lola Eudocia Pulido, is making waves for all the right reasons. It is a brilliant piece of journalism. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air from the repetitive aspects of the 24-hour news cycle. It is a brilliant piece that serves us up the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Filipino experience in succinct, crisp slices of life all too familiar to anyone who grew up with a yaya. And that’s not just her: that story brings to light the plight of 40,000 Filipinos in forced labor abroad.

The buzz, of course, inevitably gives way to noise.

The nuances of the katulong should not be difficult to understand for Filipinos. It is, after all, the last holdout to the old ways. As a matter of critique, though, “katulong” does not lend too well to the word “slave.” The nuances of “katulong” are so varied. The word itself, translated, means “to help.” It can also be “kasambahay”—badly put, someone who lives in your house. To my mind, Lola Eudocia’s worst experiences put her squarely in the category of “alilang kanin:” roughly translated, a servant paid in cooked rice. Heck, even marketing-speak now goes for “household managers,” and the occasional notes on how to “market” to them.

Sometimes they are poorer relations taken in by wealthier kin, with the promise of giving them “a taste of the city” in return for the upkeep of the home. Sometimes they are young women often sent out by circumstances—often by poverty—to seek their fortune in the cities, and end up being all-around servants for a family of means. Mr. Tizon took pains to describe that situation in the first few paragraphs of his essay, perhaps (and rightfully so) drowned out by the poignant and painful memories of Lola Eudocia, with the guilt seeping in on almost every paragraph.

Yet many people—many of whom aren’t Filipino—take special and pointed offense to the story, perhaps because it evokes some of the circumstances that they themselves experienced. These include Blacks who experienced slavery, Whites who contrast their experiences with that of Lola Eudocia, and so on. The common denominator—and it doesn’t take much in the way of a Twitter search to find that out—is that these are elements of discourse put forward by people who don’t have a faint idea of how complicated the katulong relationship is.

The common thread: why somehow push aside the voices of these helpful, benevolent, well-meaning people at all?


Rowdy Rody

Try to bear with me here: Philippine Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte is a lot like a professional wrestler.

Perhaps even for his most ardent supporters, Duterte is not exactly the most articulate or eloquent Chief Executive we ever had. But that espouses a certain kind of eloquence: one that assumes that everyone exists in polite society. At least for his supporters, his brutal frankness and spontaneity is a refreshing break from the rather straight-laced and prosaic traditions that come with politicians of yesteryear. You don’t expect Mayor to “arrogate” something, much less “abrogate” anything or “abjure” a lot of things. The Mayor is the kind of person who would not hesitate to pepper his fiery rhetoric with curses, long-winded anecdotes, and innuendo. He’s a veritable goldmine for impersonators, impressionists, and the occasional attempts at Dubsmash.

Just last year, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella traced the colorful language to “Cebuano subculture.” And in so many other threads on the Internet, the defense for the Mayor’s language somehow careens to the repudiation of traditional Philippine politics that has propelled Duterte to being the country’s Mayor. Waxing lyrically: when the Mayor curses, it’s all part of the continuing rejection of elite politics, and him embracing the people.


“I Am Become Death”

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

— J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965

On February 25, 2017, before a throng of supporters in Luneta, Sandra Cam stood before a throng of avid Duterte supporters to proclaim: “Masarap ang pumatay at mamatay para sa bayan.”

Sourced from Rappler

It was a statement that, considering many things about the news, has died a speedy, natural death: not with political maneuvering in the Senate and our dalliances with “leaks.” At least in this country, to write the news is to record hurried moments in the present and to forget them the next day: after all, bigger and more important things happen tomorrow.

Less than a year into his presidency, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has probably talked about “death” and its synonyms more than all past Presidents combined. Duterte, as it seems, taps into the primal: in a world where the wheels of justice turn ever so painfully slowly, the President provides haste and promises urgency. And if it means to kill, so be it.

It’s a certain single-mindedness that emboldens the likes of Cam to make remarks like that. It’s a certain single-mindedness that empowers people like DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III to encourage supporters to call for the imprisonment—or whatever fate awaits—Sen. Antonio Trillanes III. It’s a certain single-mindedness that has Congress in a frenzy to pass the death penalty.


Master Strokes

There are a lot of things the Duterte administration gets right about their “war on drugs.” True: like many social ills, many things about drugs can be traced to the upper echelons of society. True: many anti-drug government programs in previous administrations did not go far enough to have lasting effects. True: drugs are a big problem in society, and cannot be ignored in a conversation about peace and order. Needless to say, this government is enthusiastic about the drug program. Thousands of addicts have already surrendered, with no other reason than fear of the President.

But it does get a lot of things wrong. And one blog entry wouldn’t suffice for that. So at the risk of sounding nitpicky about the Duterte drug war, let’s head on over to that one thing that they really bungled.

On August 7, in the wee hours of the morning, President Duterte took to Camp Panacan to deliver one of his trademark soliloquies, and read aloud a list of over 150 government and police officers allegedly involved in the drug trade. The key word: “allegedly.” Needless to say, Duterte’s one for command responsibility: he took it upon himself to take responsibility for mistakes and errors that the list may have. Because my God, he hates drugs.

Now there will always be denial, but Duterte kind of missed out on a few things. For all the hectoring claims about the list being “verified,” the list missed out on a judge who died in 2008, or how a mayor he tagged passed away in 2014. But no less than Martin Andanar would call the list a “masterstroke,” and Bato Dela Rosa would shrug off errors in the list: to the mind of the new “icon” of the drug war, we’re probably focusing too much on the mistakes and too little on the gains.

And then there are Sec. Andanar’s soundbites too, but then again these things can always be taken out of context.


Tricky Revolutions

In yesterday’s paper, F. Sionil José began his essay with the word “revolution,” and proceeded to discuss what he called “the Duterte revolution” in ways that aren’t revolutionary. He describes the next few years in the same way a propagandist would describe his demagogue, or how a campaign manager would describe his client: the florid banalities of ”sacrifice” and “ethics,” the attacks on old enemies like “oligarchs” and “privilege.” And yes, the tired and hackneyed platitudes that are supposed to get a rise out of “the people:” in Mr. José’s words, a “revolution is rooted in ethics and patriotism.”

I guess that the reason why we use the word “revolution” a lot—mostly outside its intended meaning—is because of our desire to participate in one. We want to be part of those historical milestones that fundamentally change the way we live. So much so, that we’re willing to accommodate anything as a “revolution,” fundamental changes to our lives be damned. Such that “revolutionary” things become mundane: socio-political revolutions become as revolutionary as, say, home TV shopping products.

And this is not to take anything away from President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory (maybe other than the poetic language his most ardent supporters want to lend it): it is a triumph of our electoral process. That itself is probably “revolutionary” to a voting population so accustomed to cheating and painfully slow canvassing. It’s what happens when institutions work the way they’re supposed to. Still, it’s founded on things that are in dire need of “revolution:” political institutions that are still in disrepair, processes that aren’t intact, and the great burdens to the public.

And there’s where the trickiness lies.


The Breaking

The soldiers brought the victim to a holding cell, his hands bound with rope and his feet shackled with chains. The room was barren, save for a couple of bamboo cots. The room reeked of things you would expect from places like these: sweat, urine, and animal dung that wafted from the boarded-up windows. In the room flickered the light of a solitary gas lantern, casting a pallid yellow glow on the cracked concrete floor.

“San Juanico,” the commanding officer said curtly, as if referring to the bridge miles—or perhaps a short walk, who knows—miles away. The crickets chirped a little louder. A lone rooster crowed in the distance. The prisoner’s eyes, swollen from lack of sleep and bruised from the unforgiving blows of truncheons, lit up in fear; the whites of his eyeballs piercing the darkness briefly.

“San Juanico” was nothing more than a euphemism for the torture invented by the Marcos regime at the height of Martial Law. Countless activists have been made to suffer the sentence, named after the great bridge that connected two of the country’s poorest islands. The bridge was a marvel that would be shared in postcards for generations to come; the torture was a memory best left forgotten by those who miraculously survived it.