The uncrowning of the ‘Komiks King’

On July 30, Malacanang announced that it had chosen to award seven individuals with the 2009 Order of National Artists. The conferment, signed on July 6, included four names that were not in the original set submitted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Three nominees survived the whim of the presidential pen – musicologist Ramon Santos was not so fortunate. Four others took his place: Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, presidential adviser on culture and NCCA’s executive director, comic book novelist Carlo J. Caparas, architect Bobby Mañosa, and fashion designer Pitoy Moreno.
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Aug 15, 2009 under Culture, General | no comment

The Looking Glass

In the beginning, when Alice fell down her rabbit hole and met the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat and talked to daisies and caterpillars and Tweedledeedum, there was very little surprise at the bizarreness of it all. To Alice, tea with the Mad Hatter after all is no less stunning than a stroll down a forest.

Sometimes I wonder what another Alice would think of this country. Here the Queen does not shout, but the heads come off anyway and the Mad Hatter has a gavel instead of a teacup. I intended to be intelligent and relevant today or, at least, begin the year with something that can convincingly pretend some acquaintance with intelligence and relevance. It is, after all, three days after the old world died, traditionally the time columnists and pundits publish their reviews of the past year, their predictions of the next, alongside television interviews of economists and futurists and astrologists.

As I am none of the above, and can barely claim to be a journalist—journalists are seldom allowed to begin their news reports with “once upon a time,” and I am convinced it is the only good and proper way to begin a story—I will, instead, take you down the rabbit hole, and show you what I’ve seen.

This is a country where mothers poison their children, and dogs commit suicide on the eve of the New Year. It is a country where you find out, quite accurately, just how much blood is inside a small girl’s body, when that body lies on the concrete a few weeks before Christmas, soft skin punched with bullets. It is a country where 17-year-old girls in bikinis fly from all over the world to join the Ms Young International beauty pageant, to find out after two weeks of McDonald’s meals that there is no pageant, no coronation, only P1,500 coronation night tickets sold by the pageant organizer. Sun-drenched, bright-skied Philippines, under which a family of 15 split two cans of tuna for Christmas dinner. And they laughed while they did.

Truth, after all, is often negotiable. Every person, says Robert Allen, is a story with a skin around it. And so if there is the brutal edge of Manila under the neon lights, there are other stories, just as true, just as grim, but with the strangeness of something that I hesitate to call hope. I’ve heard many of these stories in the past months, sat crouched at the bottom of a mountain, beside a pyramid of rotting coffins, while the moon loomed red over Sagada to hear a man talk of coming home.

There is old man Antonio, who believes in democracy and freedom and spends his days directing traffic in a Morato parking lot, and who dreams of one day being hired again as a painter. Antonio does not remember his last name, and on the steps of the Banco de Oro where he sleeps at night, he confesses he had lost his son in a knife fight, and does not know where his wife is. If by 2010 he has enough money, he will go home to Nueva Ecija to file his voter’s registration. Every man should vote, he says.

I have learned many things in the past year, learned them sitting on wooden planks in Tondo, on velvet couches in Rockwell, learned them in the long hours of an interview. As Pico Iyer puts it, none of the truest things in life—like love or faith—are arrived at by thinking. They come as suddenly as thunder.

I’ll tell you about Danilo Pantoni—as he was before he was abandoned by his wife and left with a tiny daughter. Danny—drug addict, thief, felon, a tall skinny man who would break into his neighbor’s clapboard homes to steal what he could to pay for his drugs. There is no feeling in the world, he says, like being high. And then there she was, the small girl who would cling to his hand. Danny fought off the drugs, failed twice, tried again. He has been clean for more than a year.

He drives a tricycle, cooks breakfast, combs the hair of the little girl who talks and talks and talks to “Pa,” and walks her to school. Very few believe he is reformed. He does not care. Someday, his little girl will have a better life. He has no dreams. He is old, too old, he is 39, there is nothing left for him. When his daughter is safe, safely married, safely educated, he’ll be happy to die. But not yet. Not yet.

I’ll tell you about Jonas Burgos, the boy who was lost, who was stolen. His mother believes he is alive. “Jay,” she tells him, looking at the camera. “We’ll be together soon.” His sister called a radio station on his birthday to tell him they miss him. His big brother begins to cry, and holds back to say “Keep on rockin’, ’tol.” His little brother says, “Wait for us, we’re on our way to you.”

There are the twin brothers, one of whom is now named Nicole. There is the policeman who died in a holdup while driving an FX to add to his small income, there is the 11-year-old chess master’s father, who quit his job and drove a school bus so he could spend time with his son. There is the mother, who was fighting off breast cancer with chemotherapy when she found herself pregnant, who was told keeping the child would mean stopping the chemo, would mean choosing to die. Her name is Eloisa, and she gives birth this week.

I learned that when the boy and girl walk off into the sunset, it never means happily-ever-after—the boy may turn out to be a lazy bum, the girl may turn into a nagging shrew. But there’s always another part of the story, where the boy still believes he’s a hero, still thinks the 40-year-old woman is a princess. I learned that some songs go out of tune, some poetry can’t be made to rhyme and some stories don’t have beginnings or endings, and sometimes never make sense. Mostly, I learned there aren’t good people or bad people, just people—with the possible exception of several who believe they are God.

There’s a Native American saying that says stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. Maybe that’s why we look for religion and television—the two, for some, appear to be interchangeable. Didion says we tell each other stories so we can live. And sometimes, at three in the morning, when it’s dark and dim and there are no stars, I tell them to myself, so that I know there will be a next morning.
Happy New Year.

Jan 5, 2009 under General | no comment

Death day

It is midnight on the day of the dead, and there is a red moon hanging over Sagada.

There are nine of us out on the mountain, sprawled around a bonfire we cannot light on a patio paved with small slabs of cold rock. There are two bottles of gin, a liter of Coke, and no cups to speak of. Adonis, our gaffer who now sports a graying mohawk, cuts out the bottom of a bottle of mineral water. We pass around the makeshift plastic cup half-filled with gin, and chase it down with Coke from the one mug we filched off someone’s hotel room.
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Nov 1, 2008 under General | no comment