Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When April gives way to May...

...our April-born girl will be in another part of the country, in the hot lowlands playing in a shallow pool filled with water from the garden hose with cousins Max and little Jared and shy LJ, our help's three-year old kid in Pasig, for company.

When Kai/Butones dressed up to get ready to leave for a long-postponed trip to the lowlands yesterday, I asked her who she wanted to see at my mother's house. "Max, Jared and LJ," she said. There was absolutely no mention of the family elders. Children say the darndest thing. When needy me asked if she'd miss me, she said, "No. We've been together too long."

Well, that put Booboo in her place, and I've been filling up the space left by her absence with nothing but work, readings and music in that order. But the music I miss most is her playing her xylophone by my side while I work, her calling out for me to sing every note she picks out on that do-re-mi scale. "Sing it, Booboo," my little bossing commands. And I have no recourse but to stop whatever it is I'm in the midst of, and I sing, often off-key, and she turns to me with a frown.

Before she, her mother Kimi and Granny Suzy left, we had time for a few pictures that I wish I can use for my passport photo, but fat chance in hell will the Department of Foreign Affairs allow any of these. These are my souvenirs for April of 2015. Ahhh, Kai, you are the sunshine and moonlight in my life!

The Wee One as resident percussionist Photo by Booboo Babeth

Our demure look

Our smiles

Our range of facial expressions. She's better at it.

Our sleepy look

Our..."whatever", another favorite expression of hers Photos by my indulgent daughter and Kai's Mamay Kimi

Monday, April 27, 2015

Steppin out with my babies

"Was it sprinkling or raining? It sounds like a conflict that will never be resolved. The cuteness is unbearable though, that is not up for debate." - a tweet from

April rains, not just showers, are assuring that May flowers will be around for Baguio residents and visitors alike.

Meanwhile, our resident cuties, The Wee One and her older summering-in-Baguio cousin Machiko Skye (a.k.a. Max), are as close as Siamese twins since Max and her Wowa Pinky came up last week. As hosts, we welcomed the infusion of little people's voices and giggles in our home. During their time together, they did the rounds of Burnham Park's playground, went boating on the artificial Burnham Lake, ran around the garden of Camp John Hay, ate in and ate out (outdoors on the veranda or in small restaurants with their elders Pinky, Granny Suzy and Kimi), played indoors.

Kai and Max at the Maryknoll Ecosanctuary's courtyard Photo by Rolly Fernandez

The crowd (partial view) that turned up to watch the MSO's morning matinee of "Symphonies and Soundtracks" Photo by Anna Leah Sarabia

They even attended a Manila Symphony Orchestra concert at Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary's courtyard just this past Saturday, sitting under a big colorful parachute with the rest of the audience on a sunny Saturday.

When I had a quiet conversation with the two to ask what instruments they saw at the concert, they piped up: "big violins! small violins! big drums! flutes and horns!" They couldn't name the others by their proper names, but that's okay. The sight and sounds of a full symphonic orchestra were enough for their and other little people's music education. Children being children, they also remember how, while they were watching, their hair and heads grew hotter and hotter from the sun.

They and their elders got a thrill when concertmaster and first violinist Gina Medina Perez approached them to say "Hello" upon recognizing the kids' faces at an MSO Academy recital last year. Max got her cheeks pinched.

Today, a Monday, I invited the wee ones plus my niece Bianca for a stroll in the neighborhood and some gross-motor play before Max departs with her elders today. It is their Tita Bianca's 13th birthday tomorrow so she's ending her Baguio summer by returning to her Antipolo fold.So happy birthday, too, Bianx, you were, and still are, an adored one like our wee ones.

Bianca takes a picture of Max, the one with the tiara (which her young cousin pronounces as "tirara") and Kai with the curly tops.

Kai demonstrates to Max how jumps are done in the park's small circle of rocks. I like to call it the village's mini-Stonehenge.

The kids run to look for the next rock from where they can take their next leap.

The cousins with their swing "pusher" and "booster"

I live for the privilege of capturing a facial expression like this one.

The girls meet new faces in the neighborhood, breastfeeding mom Joy and her cutie of a son Leon.

Then it's time to sit by, look at and smell the roses. Kai is unsure if she wants anymore of that healthy morning sun.
Photos of the cousins and Bianca by Booboo Babeth

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Bach Vs. Beatles' rematch and MSO's Music Everywhere in Baguio

Queue outside the museum. That's historian Benito Legarda Jr.'s back on the right.

The size and mix of Bach Vs. Beatles audience--it's any concert organizer's dream

Of the rush-hour concerts that the Ayala Museum has hosted for Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) since 2013, none matches the standing-room-only crowd and ovation that the country’s oldest orchestra at 89 years received for “Bach Vs. The Beatles.”

Even before the museum’s doors opened on March 26, two orderly queues formed, one for those who reserved their tickets and were paying on the spot, another for walk-in customers who waited for the others to be seated before they could be admitted.
The lobby buzzed with excitement. The all-black plastic chairs were uniformly pegged at P500 each, including the ones that businessman Jaime Zobel and wife Bea sat on.

A winning combination

Although tickets and chairs were numbered, there were accidental duplications. The ushers diplomatically sorted these out. To reserve seats for concert companions who were still lined up outside, some parked hankies, bags, even the small four-page program printed on folded coupon bond paper.

Jeffrey Solares, MSO executive director, served as annotator for the evening, announcing that 10 more rush-hour concerts are lined up for the year. The next is “Soundtracks and Symphonies” on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Ayala Museum.

He noted that the audience’s size was, for the series, “unprecedented for the classics,” adding, “I know. Some of you came for The Beatles.”

The program was divided into three rounds like a boxing match, with Bach preceding The Beatles. Jeffrey gave informative tidbits before every round.

Jeffrey Solares, MSO's executive director and associate conductor

He told of how Johann Sebastian Bach composed a lot of church music, then tried to seek a job in the royal court. Failing at this attempt to improve his finances, he put his Brandenburg Concertos in a baul and didn’t hear it performed in his lifetime. When the box was opened and the music sheets discovered after his death, that was the beginning of the concertos’ acclaim. It continues to be performaned to this day.

Flutist Gaille Ramos in the number "Beatles in the style of Bach"

The baroque treatment given to the British quartet’s hit songs—“Eleanor Rigby,” “Yesterday,” “Blackbird,” “Lady Madonna,” “Michelle,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Will,” “Hey Jude” and a medley of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “When I’m Sixty Four” and “Get Back”—proves how timeless they are. They can be thrown back by centuries to Bach’s period and given a fresh interpretation.
These arrangements/adaptations were made by Solares himself, David Johnstone, Peter Briener, Allison Krauss and David Garret.

The next day, the administrator of MSO’s Facebook page threw the gauntlet: “Who wants a ‪#‎BachVsBeatles‬ REMATCH?” The status received a lot of “Likes.”

Any flower child, even members of Generation Y, can identify the faces of the four men projected onscreen.

Meanwhile, Joseph Uy and Alan Andres of the Cultural Arts Events Organizers (CAEO) met up on March 27 with Hill Station’s Mitos Benitez and marketing consultant Vixienne Calulut on the possibility of beginning a classical music concert series in Baguio this summer.

Concertmeister and first violinist Gina Medina Perez has a solo part in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G-major

Given the many private music schools in the city and the fairly new music program and conservatory of the University of Baguio (UB), the summer capital could also be a cultural capital. Envisioned are summer music camps for students and teachers alike, all hinging on a gamble like a fine music series.

Present at the meeting were music aficionados Ben Tapang, a retired UP Baguio economics professor, and this blogger who both thought there was nothing wrong in indulging in wide-awake dreaming.

Supposedly to jumpstart the series, now named “Classics at the Hill," was Viva Voce, a group of classically trained singers under soprano Camille Lopez Molina. But they were unavailable because of a commitment to do Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury at the Cultural Center. Viva Voce, however, will do an abridged concert version of Puccini’s La Boheme on May 24 in another dinner concert at Hill Station.

As they were about to leave Baguio, Uy and Andres learned that the MSO was available on the weekend of April 24-26 for a possible concert and outreach activities to the northern city. Jeffrey’s dream was to give the musicians a much-needed break from their city routine of open technical rehearsals at different venues, performances and outreach concerts. The latest one was in Cavite with pianist Ingrid Sala Santamaria as soloist..

Mitos hesitated a bit when she considered the orchestra’s size, but was assured when she learned that “Bach Vs. Beatles” involved 20-25 MSO members rotating at any given time. Baguio woke up to news that Hill Station, housed in the city’s oldest building, would kick off its classical music series with a bang: a repeat of “Bach Vs. Beatles.”

The format is a buffet dinner on April 25 at the restaurant’s Justina Garcia function room downstairs at 6:30; the concert at 8:15 at the main dining hall upstairs.

Perla Macapinlac of the ICM House of Prayer with Al Andres and Joseph Uy of the Cultural Arts Events Organizers

The ICM House of Prayer under Sr. Perla Macapinlac and the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary (MES) under administrator Olive Gregorio are housing the MSO musicians, their instruments and crew. Choosing these open and spiritual spaces as shelter was deliberate on the organizing team’s part to give the MSO rest, recreation, retreat and renewal for more challenges in Manila. Hopefully, for the first-time Baguio visitors among the MSO members, the lushness of these spaces will enable them to appreciate the quiet activism of the religious community that enabled these open and green spaces to remain evergreen

Genesis Transport Services Inc., under its president Riza Moises and with help from its marketing officer Loren Zubia, offered two air-conditioned buses with wide luggage space below to transport 45 musicians and a crew of five to Baguio. UB, through its president JB Bautista and John Glen Gaerlan, UB Chorale adviser, is sending its instrument majors and teachers for the MSO’s morning masterclass on April 25 at Maryknoll and partially supporting the MSO’s board and lodgings.

Jeffrey had earlier voiced a desire for the MSO members to interact with Baguio's musicians.The Manila Chamber Orchestra Foundation, the Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco) and Don Henrico's (Pizza Pasta and More) stepped in to also help make the season opener happen.

Ground support came from the Baguio Writers Group (the president is Jennifer Patricia A. Carino) in drafting and endorsing letters, organizing transport between venues, including a short city tour, looking for housing for visiting artists. The BWG is part beneficiary of what has become a community project. On May 18, the BWG together with the University of the Philippines Baguio will host "Aspulan: A Gathering of Literary Writers, Journalists, Teachers and Students of Literature." Conference convenor is Junley Lorenzana Lazaga, BWG vice president and UPB assistant professor.

The free masterclass follows the 10 a.m. matinee of “Soundtracks and Symphonies” at the MES’s courtyard this coming Saturday. The free half-popular, half-classical matinee is for the religious community, the staff and families of the retreat houses, the Baguio Writers Group members and families and interested cultural workers. Attendees are advised to RSVP with the MES at tel. no. (074)424-5745 or c.p. +63915-6555-745 because of limited seats or bring a portable chair, banig, umbrella or hat.

Who says Baguio has become a city of potholes this summer? The art community (writers, visual artists, musicians and art and music patrons) has always made the town a happening place. It still is in the summer of 2015 in spite of the simultaneous roadworks on major thoroughfares and small streets of the city, driving some commuters, residents and tourists alike, almost batty. There's always solace in the arts.

There's a universal force/source out there, too, that makes pipe dreams possible.

The driveway leading to the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary Photos by Babeth Lolarga

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Toot Wah and Paola paint together

We must have been sisters in some past reincarnation, if you believe in such things. We're both the eldest of eight siblings. We're married to men who I can only describe as the Steady Eddie types: reliable, there when we need them, supportive but can be grouches when we cross the line.

We studied painting at just about the same time, she being more constant at it in between her higher theological studies. Well, I'm trying to focus on being a good person so we have that commonality, too. She and I also have an acute sense of when each is stressed out and needs to paint to relax.

That was how we found ourselves painting together in the middle of the week, sharing one long table with our own sets of paints and brushes. Her subject was a mini-garden within a bigger garden, particularly the one that the Panagbenga Festival initiator Damy Bangaoet designed and developed gratis for the Baguio General Hospital. My work was more like an exercise in feeling my way out of something with an earnest hope that I may finally sign the work when I sense that it is finished.

Our respective "messes" all laid out

Call me crazy but when I examined this photo I took of Toottee with her back turned and with her help looking for something under the kitchen sink, I was somehow reminded of certain interior scenes that the Dutch painter Vermeer did in the 1600s.

I texted, "Is it painting day today? Just making sure. Thanks. (signed) Paola Picassa."

Forthwith she texted back: "Yes, need a break, too. (signed) Toot Wah Renoir."

Toottee wanted badly to finish a painting that she had set aside. She was impelled partly out of guilt. She wanted to give it to Damy as a token of appreciation for the improvement he did on BGH's grounds. But she never got around to finishing it until she heard news of his passing in the States. She said the lesson here was to finish something that one wants to give to someone while there's time. Don't put off for tomorrow, etc., etc. At the end of the afternoon, her work was done, mine wasn't. She'll give hers to Damy's widow Bing.

Sorry again, I ain't done yet. My old critic-in-residence Rolly Fernandez thinks many finishing touches are needed. I know he's right, but due to my return to working-girl mode, I'm playing deaf. Photos by Babeth Lolarga

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Meeting Venus

Flutist Christopher Oracion and soprano Camille Lopez Molina

There are many things I'm grateful for in my life, "In My Life" a la Beatles. One is having decided to consciously immerse myself in generic cultural work--helping in whatever capacity, mainly setting aside riches of time and health for something I love to see with my eyes, listen to with my ears while there's still some clarity in those senses. Somewhere along the way, the heart and the mind, invisible to the world, except through an ECG or a brain scan, combine to make the experience whole. Art and music have a way of making one's life whole and not a hole (ha! poor pun there!).

Two, I've met up close and personal the people who the group ABBA once had a ready song for: "Thank You for the Music."

Three, despite my schedule, the decision continues to enrich my soul, the kind of enrichment that can take me all the way to death's threshold. And I won't be afraid, no, sir, I won't.

The experience of art is always like meeting Venus to crib the title of a movie, kinda based on the Wagner opera Tannhauser and which I thoroughly enjoyed (saw it twice on the wide screen) in the '90s.

When I think of Venus, I think of soprano Camille Lopez Molina, the founding mama of Viva Voce, the group of classically trained singers. The members and more outside it make up the core of a Philippine operatic scene that is slowly being coveted by some parts of Asia that don't have the inborn musicality of Pinoys and Pinays.

I've watched Viva Voce as an ensemble or as soloists, tandems or trios, and I've always left the event venue sometimes in tears but renewed, revived, restored. Better yet, resurrected.

Ma'am Cams, as she's called by her students, once shared something she wrote, and Cams, I wish to claim it as my Tosca "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" credo for the rest of my mortal days:

"The reward? The reward is the work itself. In the end, all the accolades, the rejections, the praise, the criticisms - all are just part of the road. Sometimes they make the journey easier, sometimes they make it more difficult. You find a way to navigate through them and you move on.

"Then you come to a crossroads and you have to choose which direction to take. What do you really want to do? Where do you really want to go? Only you can decide, because only you know.

"And you end up with people who are going in the same direction. A different journey, but the same direction, and you welcome each one as you get to know them, or you leave them, or they leave you.

"And life goes on. And work goes on. Thank God!"

Thank God, indeed!

P.S. This morning's reflection is made possible through a Joni Mitchell full album, particularly the song "Come In from the Cold."

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The kids are all right and so are the adults

Now whenever I look at clouds, I associate them with Joni Mitchell strumming her guitar, long hair flowing. "Both Sides Now," yep. But even the character Tom Hanks played in You've Got Mail found the lyrics a trifle dense.

Of Joni's many songs (yes, I'm on first name basis with her as with Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, pianist Maria João Pires and all these women and men who have spoken to my soul and cut me to the quick), "Amelia," "Help Me," "Blue Motel Room," "Circle Game" and, yes, "Hejira" throw me back decades of Thursdays to my youth. So news of her being taken ill and the unclear pronouncements about her recovery have kept her in my mind, even as I go through my day alone or with people.

Yesterday the kids (Kimi's Kai and Sinag's Dakila) played for much of the morning, their mothers and one grandmother trailing behind them. Sinag is godmother to Kai.

Oh Joni, you always know what to say.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like when you're older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Dakila and The Wee One hit it off very well, indeed, after a night's sleep.

With their respective mothers, Sinag and Kimi

Oh yeah, swings have an eternal appeal to any kid. Photos by Booboo Babeth

Friday, April 10, 2015

Morning is indeed the best time

Old UP school chum Yolanda "Yoyo" Punsalan unfailingly sends me every Thursday morning her notes from the previous evening's Bible class held at the Potter's House Christian Ministry in Mandaluyong City.

Other friends from my Paulinian years also send me chain prayers. I love reading through them, a welcome interruption from the computer work I do because those powerful prayers remind me to pause and acknowledge the Greatest Being whose powers are beyond measure, who hears the heart's cries and desires, and chooses when, in this Greatest Being's time, not in human time, to give the answer.

Yoyo's pastor reminded his congregation that it is best, and may I add beautiful, to pray early in the morning. Why? Because we cannot predict, we cannot fully know--no matter how much planning has been done the day or the weeks before--what will happen to us the rest of the day.

Photos by Babeth Lolarga

Prayer has assumed an assortment of forms in my small life. There were the rote, almost formulaic prayers we had to learn in an all-girls' Catholic school from the rosary to the Act of Contrition (my personal favorite is the Credo or Apostles' Creed recited at Mass). For a time I tried total and trance-like silence, perhaps a Buddhist-like meditation. I went through dream work or the study of dreams to find metaphorical, even archetypal, links to the divine source.

These days I go for walks and have quiet conversations with cloudless blue skies, with white un-spotted or unmarked butterflies, with water-starved grass beneath my feet, with bromeliads and succulents that manage very well during this dry season, and so on. Now that's a clear betrayal of where once I belonged--among the Flower Power generation.

In my gloaming and graying years I like to also begin that hour before sunlight finally breaks through with a bit of, correction, with a lot of music that can be anything from Martha Argerich performing Rach 3 with a full orchestra or the Czech National Symphony Orchestra playing the theme from a favorite TV show from my childhood, "Mission Impossible."

It's amazing how the spirit soars with music. Before I know it I'm working as fast as I can or as fast as I can manage, given my limitations at 59, and somehow the day before me, no matter its unpredictability, is something to look forward to. Yesterday, even if something or someone ruined it, is past.

And so we all pray.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Staying hungry and foolish for life

The title of today's blog is inspired by a article, written by Shavawn M. Berry, on taking a fool's leap into the world.

Leaps of faith have been what my late teacher Nieves B. Epistola called the "style markers" of my life. Especially as far as a checkered employment career is concerned. Especially as I am about to arrive at the big six zero that will give me certain privileges as a senior citizen, but I never know what will happen within the span of a day, no matter how well laid out my plans are.

It's really up to some divine source and my own determination to begin something (whether an article, a poem, a painting, volunteer work) and end it either with a flourish, a deafening slam of the door or a gentle tap of a computer key. This progressive learning of how to live from moment to moment lets me stay hungry (not entirely the physical pangs of hunger) and stay foolish. The fool is me, the one who even in almost late adulthood chooses to look at the world like a child.

One time a former editor told me how the longest service record she ever had in a publication was five years. Another former boss, also with a journalism background, said media life is one of musical chairs. But it was the tone with which they said what they said that grabbed me. There was no tinge of regret.

And so is the living of my life...on a wing and a prayer but with dignified desperation because I know that at the end of it, at the closing of a chapter, perhaps, perhaps and maybe I shall be rewarded with the face of He/She I call my God.

Meanwhile, let me close this latest outburst of kinder angst with some lines of a poem shared by a friend this morning. He said this Seamus Heaney poem was voted in Ireland as the best-loved poem written in the past 100 years, It's about a quiet moment when he and his mother peeled potatoes: "I remember her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives -- / Never closer the whole rest of our lives."

I am suddenly missing my lola who helped make my young happy Baguio memories possible, Dad whose silence was always "more than words", Mrs. Epistola who showed both her cerebral and emotional sides when there was just the two of us. They're gone from this world, but Mom is still around although I'm far away from her now. She has always been that pillar of strength made of the finest steel in our family. I wish her more years.

Self-portraits with enlarging shadows. Shot in Baguio, 2014.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Living together, working together

"Every artist dips their brush in their own soul and paints their own nature in their pictures." - Henry Ward Beecher

I share the same birthday as the American clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher, but that's just a coincidence. I fully agree with him though on how painting can be a kind of soul work. Maybe it's why I stayed away from it for close to two years, not that I didn't tend to my soul during that period. I'd hold my brushes now and then or check on my paints, especially the acrylics, to ensure that they had not yet hardened. Meanwhile, my brother who lives in Canada gifted me with bottles of metallic paints on his last visit here last year. Those things cost an arm and a leg in the local art supplies stores.

Fourteen days ago, I began a work while I was at my Mom's in the lowlands. Restless soul that I am, I was at wit's end when the Wifi went on the blink. I used up the time to begin painting again.

I decided to bring up all my art materials to Baguio after the last day of classes in the little school where I teach. I thought I'd find the time, finally, after all the excuses I've given myself on why that visually expressive side of me remained "asleep". Too many papers to edit, too many projects to get off the ground, too many books to read apart from writing deadlines. Ho hum. Indeed.

Early today, I saw my grandchild, who just turned four two days ago, working with her colors on her own little sketchpad. She was a picture of concentration. After she finished one sheet, she colored another. And there was this enviable casual expression on her face.

That did it. I brought out my unfinished painting and worked from after lunch until the light started to fade. I didn't stop until I was satisfied. Meanwhile The Wee One joined in, trying her hand with my acrylics while I reminded her to use up her washable colors first before she tried my preferred media. I must say she was pretty obedient. She'd even give me suggestions, e.g., "Wouldn't it be nice if you also put faces on your flowers the way you put a face on the sun?" Had I listened to her, it would mean I'm such a pushover!

Thanks, Kai, let's do it again sometime.

Filling in the blanks and somehow getting somewhere

Kai brings out her own painting stuff, stubbornly refusing to look up to my camera as she does her own thing.

Wielding a grownup's brush. Beats me in terms of self-confidence.

Rolly, our critic-in-residence (a.k.a. heckler) with his usual prop, a bottle of San Mig Lite

My last touch: a thin, watery coating of deep gold paint. And now to think of an apt title.

Photos by Booboo Babeth

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Fourth year on Planet Earth

"Writers, like children, are not dissuaded by the uselessness of hoarded ordinaries; instead, we cultivate a collector's sense, trying to capture mundane moments on a string of words." --Lorianne DiSabato

She's a happy four today, but the first words she spoke was an anxious, "There's a cockroach on my potty!"

Ahhh, the joys and challenges of having a grandchild in the house that is more home now because she makes it so (leaves her books in her grandparents' room when she has her own mini library, parks her toys on the office desk when she has her own play area, has two rubber duckies in the grownups' bathroom, etc.).

Sometimes my best alternative to staunching the flow of child's things is to take The Wee One for walks and slow climbs, morning or afternoon or both morning and afternoon. It's my way of making her energy dissipate at some point, then she tires enough to want some quiet time. At the same time her Booboo gets some exercise.

Over a week ago, we went sunset chasing again, but we made several stops along the way because she is distracted by textured rocks, a pile of sand, the flowers of Baguio. Like they say, life is a journey, don't be in a rush to get to your destination.

Follow this leader.

Chatting with the flowers and telling them to smile for Booboo's camera

She's a bit obsessive about things (like fallen pine needles) not being in their proper place so she removes them from the rock's crevice and throws them on the ground.

What child can't resist sand? Certainly not ours!

Selecting stones from the rubble with a thought (thoughtfulness) of adding them to her Grumpa Tats' garden. I had to put my foot down because we still had a long way to go and I didn't want the stones falling on her or my exposed toes. Next time I bring a recyclable bag. Photos by Booboo Babeth

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ka Dodong on 'preparing for the storm'

Francisco Nemenzo Jr. is coming out of the "thickets of sufferance".

In December 2012, this former Western Thought student of Dr. Nemenzo (the required general education subject was called that in the mid-'70s; I think it's now Political Science 14) attended a dialogue on "Redefining Common Ground Among DemLeft Groups" at Ateneo de Manila University Social Development Complex Hall.

I went there not as a participant but as an interested observer. I was happy to renew ties with Ricardo Reyes, widower of Rosalind "Roz" Galang. His arm was in a cast from a motorcycle accident. Behn Cervantes was in the same forum--it was the second to the last time I saw him; the last was on the 40th day to mark the death of artist Jerusalino "Jerry" Araos Jr. I lost touch with both Ric and Behn.

When it was time for Ka Dodong to speak, he announced that he would deliver his paper in Filipino. I sat at the edge of my seat. My anxiety was due to the knowledge that Filipino is not his first or even third language. Cebuano is. English may be his second language, French third in this mixed-up order. So I found myself inhaling deeply, exhaling with the same effort as I closed my eyes now and then to listen to the tortured reading of his translated prose.

And because my own mis-education and colegiala upbringing have made Filipino also hard to understand once the words come in more than three syllables (how do you say "neo-liberalism" or a phrase like "austerity measures" in the mother tongue unless you twist your tongue further to say marahas na paraang pagtitipid?), I had no recourse but to ask for a copy of Doc Nemenzo's paper in English. He didn't have it with him. He promised that he'd email me a copy, then quickly forgot about it. My next recourse was to ask my favorite Marxist royalty (no contradiction in terms there), his wife Princess Nemenzo, to nag her husband about it. He emailed me a copy which I was able to read at leisure.

This is a long aside before I get to my point. When I opened Ka Dodong's attachment, I let out an LOL (that's laugh out loud, not short for LOLarga) because his manuscript's title "Preparing for the Storm" was set in the sans serif font Comic Sans MS (I expected the universally used Times New Roman or Garamond at least), but Comic Sans? The manuscript's body was set in Verdana, 10 points, and if you, like me, write or read with the viewing set to 125 percent, you don't mind a sans serif font.

I've digressed too much.

Those following news developments on our friends from the Left heard and read about Ka Dodong's long stay at the Philippine General Hospital Intensive Care Unit beginning Dec. 29 with a team of physicians attending to him led by Agnes D. Mejia, dean of the UP College of Medicine. He was ill with bacterial meningitis. One of his close buddies Linc Drilon, who's also our family friend, issued a text brigade message calling for prayers during the Christmas season of 2014.

Before long, friends also requested help for the rising medical and medical supply bills. If you plant good seeds like Ka Dodong has done for much of his life and career as a political scientist (okay, ideologue for some), professor, university president, friend, you sow the harvest at a certain point in your life.

If you visit him at the University Infirmary in the Diliman campus, where he has since been moved to a private room, do have wife Princess by your side to tell you all about how the illness began (it's a cautionary tale for senior citizens on maintenance meds). It's also a tale of how miraculous the human body works in protecting the brain. After the brain scans and all, Ka Dodong's brain is intact. He's recovering his speech and motor movements, but as Princess said, they (husband, wife, doctors, therapists) take it a day at a time in "baby steps."

Otherwise, he's fine. I know he is because on March 1, 2015, at 12:15 a.m., he woke up and called out to "Mama" (Princess) to tell her, while she took down notes on a one fourth sheet of pad paper, of his plan once he's up and about. This was his complete sentence: "I will collaborate with other faculty members in writing the Industrial History of the Philippines from feudalism to capitalism."

Now tell me if that isn't as good as it gets. According to Princess, the first word Ka Dodong uttered after he came out of his stupor, not coma, was: "NATION."

His note to me from Dec. 12, 2012, read simply:

Dear Babeth,

Here is the paper I promised. Sorry, I didn't have time to edit it. I had so much to do in the last few days. The editor of the working papers series of the City University of Hong Kong has been pressuring me to send a paper before Christmas.


It is well within your soul, Ka Dodong. That to me is the best Easter present I can ask for. Following is his paper in English, good reading before another literal storm hits this country in the guise of Chedeng. Some may disagree with his views (on many points I do, particularly the very thought of hitchhiking on the Noynoy bandwagon, but remember, this paper was written in 2012). Ka Dodong himself will tell you that as UP alumni, we all always agree to disagree.


Preparing for the Storm*

Francisco Nemenzo Jr.

Lenin likened the revolution to the ocean tide: it flows and ebbs. The revolutionary movement today is definitely at an ebb. This is not the end of history, Fukuyama imagined, but a temporary respite.

With a popular President at the helm, rallies against the regime which used to involve tens of thousands now attract only small crowds (from a handful to a few hundreds). Activists of the First Quarter Storm generation are aging; many are exhausted, some have crawled to the top of bourgeois society. The youth are generally career-oriented, many aspire only for overseas jobs. Most intellectuals have embraced neo-liberalism or some fashionable rehash of Marxism (like post-modernism) to rationalize their retreat to apathy.

For those still holding the fort, this is no time to go on the offensive, but neither is it time for rest. What, then, should preoccupy in this period?

Reflection and renewal

Three projects must be undertaken to keep the movement from dying of lethargy: study, recruit, and experiment. All three are important, but I will discuss the third at great length, especially the issue of how “progressives in government” should conduct themselves and how they should relate to the movement outside; this issue is hotly debated on the Democratic Left in the Philippines.

The first two are continuing projects that we should undertaken whether or not the revolution is at an ebb. I only have three points regarding the first:

1) Transcend parochialism, be a real internationalist. Looking only at the Philippines while ignoring the rest of the world impoverishes the movement. In a revolutionary ebb, this deliberately narrow view can be quite depressing because nothing dramatic seems to be happening. But beyond the Philippines there is ferment. In the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America – even in the United States – people are out in the streets protesting the austerity measures aimed to place the burden of economic recovery on the common people. Early signs of this global crisis are already emerging in the Philippines. But the worst is still to come.

2) Study neo-liberalism. Unless we know its strongest arguments, we cannot refute them convincingly. We have to meet its ideologues head on. For this purpose, we should also read Das Kapital anew because it is more relevant now than in the days of the Welfare State, when beleaguered capitalism replaced laissez-faire with Keynesian economics.

3) Learn Marxism from Marx. Encourage the reading of the “classics,” the original works of Marx and Engels, instead of relying on the textbooks of Maurice Cornforth, Maurice Dobb, Otto Kuusinen, Mao Zedong, etc. Das Kapital is notoriously incomprehensible, although it remains the best analysis of how the free market system works. The Communist Manifesto and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific are easy to understand; they are the best introductions to Marxism.

On the second project, I only have one suggestion: The recruitment of new activists is urgent because the cadres of the Democratic Left are getting old. It is therefore imperative to draw in more young people, especially the students. If the movement can no longer attract new elements, it will become senile.

After Noynoy Aquino won the 2010 presidential election, a comrade proposed that we immediately raise the call for his ouster so as to beat the RAs to the draw. He argued that the Noynoy government will be no different from GMA’s because both are capitalist. This is the instinctive response of the Left. It considers the class character of whatever regime exists but ignores its concrete characteristics. Experience has taught us that it has resulted in the movement’s isolation.

True, fundamental changes cannot be expected under Noynoy, for as long as he remains a captive of the system. The conservative orientation of his government is reflected in his choice of economic managers; all are neo-liberal technocrats. His most daring moves – the prosecution of GMA, the impeachment of Corona, the banning of wang-wang, and the conditional cash transfer – are reforms that may improve the mode of governance, but not change the social system. The laws and institutions he has inherited prevent him from resolutely tackling the basic problems of the nation. Even if he succeeds in making the government less oppressive, oppression will continue unabated in the private sector. Within the framework of capitalism, oppression is the norm not only in government, but also, and in a more pernicious form, in the private sector.

The overthrow of this exploitative system is the strategic goal of all Left forces, but the nuances of the present situation should be considered in identifying our tactical goals. We cannot be on the offensive at all times. We may have to take a few steps back or make a detour, but never losing sight of the strategic goal.

It is self-destructive to go on the offensive against a government that enjoys the people’s trust. The surveys of Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia confirm the Noynoy’s high trust rating, an unusual phenomenon in a country where Presidents enjoy only a few months honeymoon period. But if he makes a fatal error, his popularity will slump, then it will make sense to call for his ouster.

If any faction of the Democratic Left is unwilling to wait, we should not reproach them for adventurism. We should keep our minds open to the possibility that they might be proven right. Let every tendency within the Democratic Left pursue the path they deem correct. At this particular, tactical diversity is permissible and should even be encouraged. The issue over tactics cannot be resolved through debate. Only the outcomes of various approaches will decide. History is the ultimate judge. To bind all tendencies to a particular line will needlessly divide the movement. All that is needed now is for leaders of divergent tendencies to hold fraternal dialogues to “compare notes” and assess which line is contributing to the revitalization of the whole movement.

This is why I do not want to regroup Laban ng Masa or set up a new umbrella organization that will define a line of march. Perhaps a few comrades will recall my speech at the conference in Silang, Cavite, early in 2005. Because I thought at that time that we were still in a revolutionary ebb, I put forward the concept of “pluralism of the Left.” I opposed the formation of a central decision- making organ. I only favored the setting up of lines of communication among the Democratic Left groups, and move towards a unitary organization when a revolutionary crisis already calls for it.

The crisis came earlier than I expected. The Hello Garci tapes heated up the political situation all of a sudden. GMA’s minions – the Hyatt Ten – started jumping off like rats from a sinking ship. There was growing unrest in the military. Former President Cory Aquino broke away from GMA and apologized to Erap for supporting the coup that installed GMA in Malacanang. An impeachment case was filed in the House of Representatives; had this prospered, it was almost certain that the Senate, now held by the opposition, would have convicted her. These developments convinced me of the feasibility of forming a unitary organization. I therefore accepted the chairmanship of Laban ng Masa.

But I never thought of Laban ng Masa as a party of the Leninist type, governed by the principle of democratic centralism and held together by iron discipline. Painfully aware of the lingering differences among the affiliated political blocs, I was afraid that such a party structure would split rather than deepen the precarious unity. I could not forget how the earlier attempts at unification – Siglaya and Alternatiba – collapsed due to mutual suspicion that the stronger political blocs were out to impose their line on the rest.

Thus, when the crisis subsided in 2007 and the election fever afflicted some Democratic Left groups, Laban ng Masa lost its reason for being.

Rather than maintain an artificial unity in the period of revolutionary ebb, the better course of wisdom is to let the various political blocs experiment with different modes of struggle. All we need are occasional meetings, like what we are having now.

The more relaxed situation in a revolutionary ebb allows us to explore new arenas and experiment with various modes of struggle. This is no time to crack the whip and get everybody into the “correct line.” In the complex process of system change, alternative tactical lines present themselves and we do not know which is “correct” until they have been tested and their results evaluated. Let us refrain from the usual practice of the non-democratic Left of branding comrades as “capitulationists” and “adventurists” for deviating from what the central leadership deems “correct.” It is permissible in a period of revolutionary ebb to follow different paths, as long as we unite when the revolutionary crisis comes, as we did in 2005.

Yesterday Comrade Brid Brennan gave us a vivid description of how neo-liberalism has devastated some European countries and how the people are fighting back. Although this crisis has yet to strike us with full force, we must already prepare since it is likely to strike in two to three years.

Today the government leaders, technocrats, bankers, and businessmen are rejoicing over statistics which they interpret as signs of progress. In his SONA last July, Noynoy boasted of a 6.4% annual GDP growth rate, supposedly the highest in Southeast Asia and second only to China. Last week NEDA reported a 7.1 growth rate in the third quarter of 2012, surpassing their own projections. Ironically, around the same time, the SWS reported a marked increase of respondents who feel more miserable than before.

The irony is not at all surprising. In the capitalist system, the lives of the working people tend to worsen when the investment climate improves. We have never seen any evidence of the so-called “trickle down effect.” It is a blatant lie that increased foreign investments will benefit everyone.

Given the neo-liberal structure of our economy, this statistical growth cannot be sustained. The new foreign investments represent capital that is temporarily parked in our financial institutions while the American and European banks are in deep trouble. If by a miracle the American and European economies recover soon, foreign capital will start flowing out of the country; but worse if the recession continues – that will drastically slash the value of these investments.

Is the Democratic Left prepared for the crisis? Do we have the strength and capability to turn it to advantage? If we are unprepared, the crisis will not to a socialist revolution; on the contrary, it can give rise to a fascist counter-revolution. When the Left is weak, divided and confused, it is fascism that will take utmost advantage of the crisis.

This happened in Germany in what was called the “Great Depression” of 1929-1933. (I don’t see what is great about a depression!) The German Social Democratic Party was utterly discredited for its too close identification with the Weimar Republic, while the German Communist Party had isolated itself by pursuing an ultra-sectarian line. Eventually, in 1933, the desperate German people rallied behind the Nazi alternative, no matter how crazy it was. Imagine the catastrophe if in the Philippines the crisis will put the likes of Norberto Gonzalez, Archie Intengan, Pastor Alcover, and Jovito Palparan in power!

We should utilize this period to rectify the mistakes that have kept us at margin of power. I have no sympathy for those who insist that to sustain the revolutionary spirit, we must remain in perpetual opposition, heckling from the sidelines. I therefore endorse the decision of Akbayan to hitchhike in Noynoy’s bandwagon; thus, gaining some minor posts in the executive department.

Participation in parliamentary struggle is not new to the Philippine Left, but its small victories in this arena were easily cancelled out because the mass movement was not strong enough to defend these small victories. In 1946 the Democratic Alliance won in six congressional districts, but the elected congressmen were not allowed to take their seats. In 1987 two congressional candidates of Partido ng Bayan won, but one defected before being sworn in and the one who stayed on hardly spoke.

The party list elections opened up a wider space for the Left in the House of Representatives. About ten Leftwing representatives were elected, but their voices are drowned out by the noise of two hundred conservatives and reactionaries.

What I consider a new and welcome development is the opening up of the executive department to the Left. But its value depends on how the so-called “progressives in government” conduct themselves.

For whatever they are worth, let me give some advise and warnings to those involved in the parliamentary struggle and “progressives in government.”

Do not foster the illusion that fundamental change can be achieved through elections. Perhaps they themselves harbor no such illusions, but in the course of the electoral campaign, in the course of gathering votes, they inadvertently induce the electorate to believe that voting for Noynoy’s candidates is the beginning of change ("ito ang simula").

Progressives in government and the activists outside the government should make a concerted effort to debunk the bourgeois myth that the electoral process is the hallmark of democracy. Even if we enact an anti-dynasty law, even if we cleanse the entire COMELEC of manipulators, even if computerized voting will eliminate frauds, elections in the context of a capitalist system are nothing but a façade, a mask for elite rule.

Elections can only be truly democratic, they can only be an instrument for fundamental reforms if the big bourgeoisie are stripped of the power to finance the trapo electoral machines and deceive the people through the mass media which they own and control.

The appointment of some comrades to executive positions in the bourgeois government is positive if they know how to use what little power they have to strengthen the mass movement. After all, it is not they but the movement in the workplaces and the streets that are the critical factors in the process of system change. When the global crisis of capitalism arrives, initiating a revolutionary flow, it is the mass organizations that will make a difference.

Therefore, the “progressives in government” should not delude themselves that they are the saviors of the masses. As Marx said, it is “the class with radical chains to break” that will emancipate society. In other words, the liberation of the working class is the job of the workers themselves.

In the previous regime some persons with a progressive background sneaked into the power circle: Rigoberto Tiglao, Mike Defensor, Ed Pamintuan, Gary Olivar, etc. But because they detached themselves from the movement to earn the confidence of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, they ended up in the dustbin of history. Perhaps, at first they thought they could make a difference, but by keeping a distance from the mass movement, they were eventually swallowed by the system. I would like to believe that Ronald (Llamas), Joel (Rocamora), Etta (Rosales), etc. are made of different stuff.

In the past public opinion induced candidates to espouse worthy causes. But in this epoch of mass communication, public opinion no longer reflect the true interests of the masses because they are molded and warped by media which are owned and controlled by the ruling class. It ought to be the task of progressive politicians to straighten out this false consciousness. If they neglect this task in response to public opinion, they are no different from the trapos.

For example, in the dispute over South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea), the most convenient stance is to support the foreign policy of Secretary Albert del Rosario. But if we study the issue carefully, we realize that this policy will push the country into the American trap. The conflict between the Philippines and China is only a surface manifestation of the real conflict between China and the United States. Del Rosario’s aim to repair our so-called “special relations” that were damaged by the expulsion of the US military bases will make our country once again a frontline in America’s current “pivot to Asia” strategy.

Together with other ASEAN states (except Cambodia which has become a puppet of China), the better course of wisdom is to negotiate with China as a bloc for declaring the South China Sea as a zone of neutrality and a zone for common utilization of resources as envisioned in the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNLCOS) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002. Del Rosario professes to aim for this as well, but this cannot be achieved if we identify with America’s strategy. Contrary to what some of our media commentators think, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are wary of involving the US in the South China Sea.

China had honored the above-mentioned agreements until America enunciated the “pivot to Asia” strategy, which naturally reminds the Chinese of “containment” during the Cold War. By behaving like a Trojan horse of America, we are perceived by China also as a threat.

To assert their independence in the ruling coalition, the “progressives in government” should raise their critical voices on this issue, instead of pandering to the latent Sinophobia of the Filipino electorate.

In a coalition, a party is a major partner or a junior partner. The NP of Villar and the NPC of Danding are major partners in relation to the LP of Noynoy. They can demand for slots in the senatorial slate and a say in executive appointments. This is because they have the capacity to deliver command votes, and billions of pesos for the campaign.

The junior partners cannot demand, they can only plead. From the standpoint of the major partners, they are dispensable. They are invited into a coalition as a counter-balance to the other major partners, and because they have personalities who are popular in their own right or who possess skills necessary for governance.

Akbayan clearly belongs to the category of junior partners. It cannot be otherwise because it does not have enough command votes, and even less campaign funds. But if they play their cards well, they can be of immense help in enhancing mass support for the Democratic Left.

Bereft of creativity and imagination, the conservatives and reactionaries appropriate the banal tricks of red-baiting to discredit the Leftwing politicians and “progressives in government.”

Instead of facing their charges head-on, the latter sometimes take a defensive position. They vehemently deny they are Leftists, and seek refuge in such ambiguous labels as “mere nationalists and reformists.” I don’t think this posture helps to banish the anathema and project the Left as a legitimate force in a civilized society.

When Republic Act 1700 (the Anti-Subversion Law) was in force, it would have been foolhardy to admit on the Left, as that would have elicited penalties ranging from six years imprisonment to death. But since that repressive law has been repealed, what is the point of hiding our political conviction? The more we conceal it, the more we raise the suspicion of having a hidden agenda; we make ourselves look like criminals; it gives the impression of mendacity.

Participating in elections and entering the bureaucracy is useful only if it serves the political struggle. Political struggle is not synonymous to armed struggle; armed struggle is a form of political struggle that becomes necessary if the democratic space is entirely closed and those striving for system change are persecuted. The revolutionary attitude was succinctly expressed by Eugene Debs in his famous slogan: “Peacefully if we can, violently if we must.”

In the present situation the political struggle takes the forms of protest demonstrations, workers’ strikes, resistance to demolition, propaganda campaigns, etc. These unarmed forms of political struggle should be undertaken even if we are allowed to participate in electoral exercises. If the masses’ political rights are limited only to the act of voting, the government will only listen to the lobby groups representing the bourgeoisie. The masses have to be militant to be heard in the corridors of power.

The “progressives in government” ought to know this because this is where they came from. They should not even try to rein in the masses now that they are up there. The masses should not be tamed just because there are “progressives in government.” They should even regard the restiveness of the masses as a support for them in dealing with their colleagues in bureaucracy. If their competitors in the bureaucracy get to know that they are losing touch with their mass base, the likes of Dinky Soliman and Butch Abad will not hesitate to steal their projects. Let their colleagues and superiors in government understand that the masses will always fight back if the government pursues anti-people policies.

In bourgeois politics, programs are of little consequence. Ghost writers compose platforms based on what they reckon the public wants to hear, but these are ignored after the elections. Elected politicians are not bound by their campaign promises.

But a program is all important to the Left. It is our rallying point, the basis of our unity. We should hammer out a realistic and inspiring program in this period of revolutionary ebb so that when a crisis happens, we can convince the people that we know what is to be done and the road forward is very clear to us. As the crisis deepens, neo-liberalism will be utterly discredited. It will be easy to demonstrate the essential bankruptcy of capitalism. What is difficult is to demonstrate to the people that we have a well thought-out alternative. That will be the time to go on the offensive, and call for the destruction of the system in order to build a genuinely new social order.

*English version of the paper in Tagalog prepared for a dialogue on the problems and prospects of the Democratic Left, 4 December 2012, Ateneo Social Development Center. Photo of Ka Dodong by Babeth Lolarga