Saturday, July 26, 2008

Life is peanuts

BEFORE any whiff of New Society doublethink invaded our classrooms in the 1970s, we just gardened and sewed. The subject then was not known as Home Economics. We were not yet drilled to man our stoves and sewing machines so that, as dutiful wives and mothers, we could be the stalwart partners our men could lean on in war or in peace.

But if you spent your elementary years at St. Theresa’s College (STC) in Cebu, the subject known prosaically as Practical Arts was a discipline more exacting than science.

If my classmates and I thought we could take a break from serious striving during this non-academic subject, our teacher, Miss Tan, made sure we never repeated the mistake.

Brisk and tireless, Miss Tan was short as Napoleon. As consummate as that commander, she packed authority in every inch of that compact, bird-like frame. I talked to my peanut plants, driven to desperation by Miss Tan’s unannounced inspection of our garden plots. Advised by classmates who survived these lightning tests, I also wheedled my plant’s branches to look green and jolly, the leaves to dance as if they were on fiesta.

Woe to you if Miss Tan found your plants to be a bit jaundiced, a victim of criminal neglect. Or worse, if you forgot it was your turn to water the class plots. Once, I came to school almost late. Trying to beat the first bell, I dumped sprinklers of water on the plots.

Standing in line later, smug and smirking that Miss Tan’s pet peanuts had a drenching, I noticed my white socks were covered in brown spots, with a few clinging bits of soil and humus. As I had no spare, I took off the soiled socks, turned them inside out, and put them back on just as the final bell rang. Better to endure ickiness the entire day than fail Miss Tan.

All good teachers have the magic quality of being absolutely intolerable when you are under their tutelage, and virtually mythic and unforgettable when you remember their legacy. To teach us the variety of stitches, Miss Tan required us to practice on small squares of cloth. I enjoyed sewing, finding it more soothing than being hostaged by temperamental peanuts.

But when I showed off my finished samples to Miss Tan, she flipped the squares to show me the disorderly tangle of knots on the underside. “Rip” was her terse advice, punctuated as usual by the pugnacious jut of that rock-hard jaw.

And rip we did. No one skipped corners by using a fresh square and throwing away the first mistake. Nothing got thrown away in Miss Tan’s class. We used discarded dusters and retazos for our rug projects. We picked and dumped leaves, twigs and even expired worms in a hole at the bottom of the garden. This disgusting stew, I was to learn later as a countryside extension worker, was compost, integral for the scientific, earth-friendly farming of which Miss Tan was an early disciple.

Last Friday, during my alma mater’s 75th year homecoming, I met Miss Tan again. I was curious to explore the newly curated STC Folklife Museum. She was an unexpected grace.

A teacher changes her students in unseen but telling ways. When I stooped a little to take her hand, I saw but did not see those familiar tresses, once swept into severe, neat plots by a plain and unchanging headband; I was assaulted instead by bizarre garden smells that come and go with first dew.

In my mind, I turned a leaf to check for aphids and came upon a mushroom; learned tenacity from watching the labors of a millipede undertaking the circuit of a twig. To this day, I discard words and rewrite paragraphs because, as Miss Tan drummed into me all those years ago, simplicity is its own reward.

Her hand is small but still tough. Held for the first time, her hand reminded me of the white-dusted lemon yellow blossoms put out by our peanut plants before the sun was high in the sky. If I eat peanuts piece by piece, not tossing them by the handful, it is not only because these plants are volatile and high-strung garden divas. If they earned the devotion of Miss Tan, they’ll get no less from me. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 27, 2008 issue

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On immortality

SUCH are the pangs of mortality: just when you live long enough to know and desire so many books, you are no longer young and limber to rummage for hours on your knees in secondhand books sales.

Fortunately, desire respects no age. By taking five-minute breaks to stand up and banish the floating-dot blackness fogging up my spectacles, I got back enough equilibrium to lunge back and crawl, head hanging down, so I could read book spines that were dumped, higgledy-piggledy, in the dust and gloom of this store’s bargain books section.

And that is how I found the biography of Max Perkins.

Being born in the 1960s has a few perks. One of these was a library card that gave free access to the collection of the United States Information Service (USIS) Library. Located along Jones Ave., the USIS Library was a guilty pleasure for students like me who fantasized about a new world order but hated the hideous ranting of revolutionaries.

Though I often felt I was betraying ardent allegiances when I surrendered to the guard my knapsack (carefully purged of political tracts), I strode into that book-scented hush with only one goal in mind: the fiction section.

Among those shelves with their hard-cover editions sheathed with special laminated covers, I broke faith and defected: forgot dour Marx and alienated Mao to romp with Sylvia Plath, William Burroughs, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other writers who went after the great, white, American dream.

Even when they wrote about the dream turning into a nightmare, these authors made me care for their makebelieve characters. This was more than the thin gruel of sympathy I could squeeze for the exploited millions revealed by Marx and Engels as the “historical victims” of the “commodity fetishism” and “laws of motion” driving the “political arithmetick” of capitalism.

The most powerful idea, I realized then, was not the one whose time has come. It is its wording.

This thought crossed my mind again last Thursday, when my knees were on fire and I was lightheaded, exulting for coming upon a P242 copy of “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”

Perkins was just the editor that introduced writers who only changed and continue to alter how we read, write and live: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones and others whose works became classics.

A. Scott Berg’s literary history won a National Book Award and made one critic write: “Why didn’t someone think of it before?” For Perkins belonged to an old and perhaps passing generation of editors that believed in self-effacement: “The book belongs to the author.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings gifted him with a sloughed-off rattlesnake skin with seven rattles shortly after she won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Yearling.” A newspaperwoman struggling with marriage and fear of the “second” book, Rawlings finished the novel after Perkins kept encouraging her for years.

Perkins cautioned aspiring editors from feeling important: “An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” Unbeaten for 36 years in finding new gifted talent at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Perkins spent “two intense, often violent years” getting Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” into print. According to legend, Wolfe, imperial in height and mercurial in temper, wrote the novel while using the top of his refrigerator as desk. He tossed each completed page into a crate without rereading it. It took three men to cart the box to Perkins, who “somehow shaped the outpouring into books.”

While some critics regard Wolfe’s novels as at least 50 percent written by Perkins, the latter believed that it was just part of his editorial duty to think of length and form, as “these were practical conventions that Wolfe couldn’t stop to think about for himself.”

Hemingway, on the other hand, had a tendency to overcorrect. Perkins said that the writer known for declaring war on adjectives and adverbs rewrote parts of his classic, “A Farewell to Arms,” at least 50 times. “Before an author destroys the natural qualities of his writing—that’s when an editor has to step in. But not a moment sooner.”

Reading this affectionate portrait—its very elegance a tribute to a man who lived for words—I realize our debt to editors, the invisible ones who shape worlds from chaos, who bring order and sense into the wild coupling of the creative.

Though all too imperfect, these human handmaidens—Perkins admitted he spelled “terribly,” was “idiosyncratic” in punctuation, and read as “slow as an ox”—have one claim to immortality: “(Perkins) treated literature as a matter of life and death.”

Long live the immortals. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 20, 2008 issue

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Noble calling

SOME people who end up in Mass Communication should have been doctors, surgeons, sainted medical trailblazers.

I should know, after no longer counting the years I have tried to teach news writing to generations that often write this first-meeting expectation: “I hope writing will not turn out to be such a nosebleed.”

A decade ago, my students fondly dwelled on the size, color and degree of trauma betrayed by their eye bags. These were certainly more impressive than the drafts that were composed a few hours before the 8 a.m. deadline. Had Dr. Frankenstein been born in this generation, he would have been only one of many and not been immortalized by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly.

Yet, June always finds me back, wielding the chalk and red pen. Infected by my students’ medical bent, I have this undying zeal to contaminate not a few with the germ of word love and newsprint.

After all, the youth that can shear letters to come up with compact English for texting can learn to appreciate the lean beauty of news: a lead or introduction that’s longer than the headline only by a period; anorexic paragraphs that don’t run longer than an amputated sentence; “lite” words that are not polysyllabic.

Think of the possibilities of an adjective-free life! Journalists may be poor cousins to novelists but they don’t labor under a baggage of bloated sentences and hairy modifiers. Listen to these winning entries from the Bulwer-Lytton contest for wretched writing, and thank your fortune and editor that nothing longer than an article to plug the news hole is expected after fieldwork:

“With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.” (A. Hall, Fort Wayne, Ind.)

“As if on cue, the dark clouds began spitting at passersby, not the warm watery spit that mistakenly passes one’s lips while speaking, or a little stream emitted by a playful saliva gland, but the thick, heavy spittle that is brought up dark, humid bronchial tubes, a pulsating esophagus, and spewed forth by dirty-mouthed boys trying to be men. (M. Ruby, Fresno, Calif.)

While literary writers have to tax their imaginations peering down private throats, news chasers dig dirt only in the public sphere. If your newsroom’s corruption problem is no more serious than the toilet occasionally clogged after a failed suicide attempt by a reporter despondent over failing to write a lead that raises his hazard allowance, you should not be sent off to write a story on these routine coverages:

“Wilkens, the tall muscular fisherman, shielded himself with his pantyhose by tugging it up and over his head and holding it there while the arrows shot by the Eskimo sailors bounced mercifully off him and didn’t hurt him either because apparently they could not pierce the fine knit fabric, especially the ‘control top’.” (T. Dempsey, Cambridge, Mass.)

“Ripping the third bodice from Belinda’s hot, palpitating body, Lord Trewithit realized that he had also removed four camisoles, six petticoats, two corsets, and five pairs of pantaloons so far and there still seemed a lot of linen ahead, and with a cry of passion he demanded, ‘Good God, woman, are you nothing but skivvies!” (G. Ellis, Houston, Tex.)

Although students hold all editors in superstitious dread, believing them capable of using their X-ray vision to expose their core of bad English, I always try to soothe away their fears by confirming that there is a soft human side underneath that tough, reptilian intolerance for malignant metaphors.

But even if an aspiring news writer were to pass copy that began with “The sun hiccupped morning onto the weeping landscape… ,” all editors are always multi-tasking and would never have the luxury of time to vent their malice.

Rewriting always offers a chance at redemption so, unlike the Bulwer-Lytton winners, a beginning journalist may never receive this email of rejection: “A book so bold, so daring, so totally outrageous that no one else would publish it—and neither would we, so we published this one instead.” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 13, 2008 issue

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rebuke and reckoning

IT MAY be baseless for me to judge reunions as I have never been to one.

If it is not work compelling me to be somewhere else, it is a predilection to doze off when I am in any gathering outside of work.

But I also suspect that reunions force me to remember absent peers. So despite the conviviality of such festive occasions, I end up missing more the company of the absent over those present.

This thought came, unbidden, as I read an article posted on the University of the Philippines (UP) Centennial website: “UP Visayas (UPV) combines revelry and relevance.”

I’ve experienced the former, just walking under the dripping acacias at six a.m., on my way to my journalism class. There is a palpable sense of anticipation as the community I belong to—first as an undergraduate in the 1980s, then as a full-time instructor in the 90s, and at present, as a part-time lecturer—is the “oldest regional unit of the UP System, having been established in 1918 as a junior college.”

Beginning July 12, UPV Cebu College (UPVCC) marks the first Centennial year with a three-day grand reunion to “pay homage to tradition as well as… glimpse the likely shape of its future.”

Certainly, revelry. But the relevance?

A week ago, I learned that three long-time junior faculty members were “five-up-or-outed.”

This is jargon for the inflexible university policy that a faculty member who has not earned a masteral degree after five years of teaching will have to leave the full-time post or be “reclassified” as a lecturer, without student advising and program planning duties.

Another policy—the equally rigid “publish or perish” rule—also terminates any faculty member that cannot have a research or an equivalent body of works published in a refereed journal. With such policies does the UP System seek to elevate the excellence of its faculty and standing as a learning institution.

These are sentiments fine on paper but rude and crude in reality. There is no long waiting list of hopefuls for teaching posts in the country, most especially to work in a state university where the pay is paltry, to be kind about it, and the promotion process is tedious and excruciating, best to be taken either as a lesson on acquiring preternatural patience or a warm-up for sadomasochism.

Whether a century old or a mere babe, a school beats with two hearts. Students live out the challenge of bringing the ivory tower’s standards to the “marketplace.” To be the best, students have to move on and take their rightful place in industry, with the community, among civil society.

It is different with teachers. Teachers have to stay within the real or virtual walls of the classroom. Despite better pay and more secure lives for their families “outside,” the best teachers sacrifice not a small bit of their selfish lives to carry out the verb at the root of who they are: “teach.”

Substitute: to listen, guide, inspire. Not one of my dozen or so dictionaries contains a synonym for “teaching” that requires a postgraduate title printed on special parchment or an extremely learned but unread treatise.

So come July 12, I may not be walking under the ancient acacias. Perhaps it is again the summons of work, or the unbearable heaviness of my eyelids when I hear again mention of celebrations.

Or perhaps because I can see another 100 years stretching on, without D, M and I. D. who guided Math-challenged seniors through the labyrinth of a new software literally from dawn till dusk, without any reward but the gratitude of the students and their families.

M. whose casual but generous sharing of well-thumbed novels helped many of his dormers survive loneliness, angst, rage and the tyranny of 7:30 a.m. writing deadlines.

Most of all, I. A firebrand student who once upbraided the college dean for the sorry condition of the Mass Communication laboratories, I., as an instructor, worked quietly to produce the essential proposals that got institutions to fund the present electronic newsroom of the college.

Because my university defines teaching excellence as a piece of paper, I share the hope that paper beats better than a human heart, at least for the next century or so. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 6, 2007 issue