This Means War

I was supposed to leave Facebook forever.

I was disappointed with the social media platform, and my disgust started when Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s decision to not to take any action on a controversial post by US President Donald Trump that glorified violence, when Trump posted, “when the looting begins, the shooting begins,” which many people interpreted as a call for violence in nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd. And while Twitter, courtesy of its CEO Jack Dorsey, put a warning label over the tweet, flagging it as violent content that broke the company’s policies, Zuckerberg declined to take any action on a similar post on his site.

And then there was the news of Facebook cracking down on posts slamming the anti-terror bill.

Now comes the creation of dummy accounts by paid trolls, against those who have been vocal about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

And so, in my disappointment, I already requested for the permanent deletion of both my Facebook accounts.

But guess what? I changed my mind.

Why?

If we leave, they win. We lose.

Because now, now is not the time to be disappointed. Now, now is the time to get mad. Now is the time to get mad AND to get even.

And when I’m mad, I write. That’s the only thing I know how to do well. And that’s what I am going to do and do regularly, from now on.

So expect more long-form content on this blog: essays and criticism on Duterte and his administration, which will promptly be posted and shared on both my Facebook accounts.

Because, make no mistake about it:

This means war. But not a war against the virus going around and spreading in this pandemic. This is a war against something more insidious, something more vicious.

This is a war against those in power who think they are free to take away our freedom and liberties, those in power who think they are free to take our lives, a war against those in power who hide behind a faceless army of killers in motorcycles, an army of killers in uniform, an army of paid online trolls.

This is a war against those in power who think they are free to take away our voices.

Because, make no mistake about it:

If we’re silent, they win. We lose.

For now, though, I’ll leave you a beautiful write-up by Conrado de Quiros, on why he writes. It’s a longish excerpt from the prologue of his second book, Dance of the Dunces.

***

Writing is hazardous to health. This is so because crooks and murderers, who may or may not read Plato, agree that the poet has no place in the Republic. Many of them think poetry is a communist front, and the poet has no place on earth. Prey to hunger and the attentions of the intelligence community, the writer can only cry out before the Department of Environment and National Resources, “Never mind the trees – save the writer!”

But if not for fame, fortune, and health, why does one write? Why does any reasonably sane man write?

Quite seriously, one writes because one must.

Jose Diokno once said that human rights are not something one has, they are something one is. They are essential to his being. Without them, he not only ceases to live well, he ceases to live at all. The same thing may be said about writing. It is not really something one does. It is something one is.

Writing, of course, is always writing about something. I’ve often been asked about why I write about the things I do. I write about them because, like Mount Everest, they are there. This is not a facetious answer. It is not always easy to see, or acknowledge, the thereness of things. The mind reels at the sight of unimaginable horror – of villagers who flee from burning houses and forage in forests, of children who die from mortar fire or grow old before their time, of wives who seek their husbands and find their heads floating in rivers. The mind reels at the sight of unimaginable horror, and imagines it is not there.

To see the thereness of mountains is not merely to see the tangle of green that mats their slopes and the mists that cling to their peaks. It is to see the cunning cut of rock and stone, the rivers that roil in the rain, and the slime that has gathered in the footpaths. Yet, for all this, it is to climb the mountain anway, at risk to life and limb.

Why does one do it? Why does one climb the mountain? Because he must. He does not do it for fame or fortune or health. He does it out of – despair: Because not to do so would be to disappear from the face of the earth as surely as from “salvaging,” or melt like Salvador Dali’s liquid watches.

One climbs mountains because they are there. But, in the end, mountains are there because one has climbed them, if only in one’s dreams.

Of course, writing is a choice too, as life is a choice. But it is the choice, to use another metaphor, of the tragic hero. It is the choice of Hector to fight or not to fight Achilles. Hector knows, as he broods over his fate on the eve of battle, that he will bite the dust. He knows that Achilles is invincible and seethes with rage at the death of his friend Patroclus. He knows that when the sun falls next day, his body will burn at the funeral pyre while Andromache grieves before it. But he emerges from the gates of Troy anway, his head held proudly before his enemy, his armor glinting in the sun.

Some call this a tragic flaw, a flaw in character that makes one do what he does – in a tragedy, to do so before the jaws of catastrophe. It is the compulsion that drives one to face his destiny, or destruction. But how gloriously! To stand on victory in the hour of seeming defeat. To laugh in the wind and cry, like Dylan Thomas, that death shall have no dominion!

Writing is a tragic flaw, too.

I do not mean by this only that writing hurls you into the catastrophe of death or detention, although, heaven knows, these are quite real consummations in these times. I mean that writing brings you to face the truth of your own world and of your own self. I mean that it brings you to face the unimaginable horrors of your own land and the even more unimaginable horrors of your own life. I mean that it brings you to look at the bloodstained face of humanity – and know that to turn away is to be turned into a pillar of salt.

I mean that writing brings you to face the truth. And truth is the greatest catastrophe of all.

The alternative is silence, a silence deep and elemental. There are, says the author of Silences – whose name I cannot now recall, as my copy of it is in transit – silences and silences. There is the pregnant silence of a writer whose mind is as the earth lying fallow in the sun to prepare for planting. There is the bitter silence of a man who must work for a living instead of write. And there is the silence of Rimbaud, the silence of a poet who squandered his gifts as a young man and chose to be silent. In old age, he would discover the ache of wanting to say things again, and discover, too, that through a pall of silence he had lost the very gift of utterance. Even dogs keen, they would cry out at death’s door. How can men be silent, and not despair?

One writes because one must. As it is with human rights, writing is not an amenity of civilization, like tea. It is a source of life itself, like air. Just as well, one writes about things because one must. In the end, we do not really choose what to write. They choose us. They are there. We cannot choose to write only about the bright and cheerful in the thought that the spirit is set free only by them. The spirit cannot soar to the heavens on leaden wings, however it imagines that they are feathers. Or it cannot do so on fluff kept together by wax, as Icarus found out while falling into the sea.

The spirit soars to the heavens by looking at all that is there, by reviling the vile and revelling at the marvelous, by facing the truth of its world and itself, as Edmund Hilary once faced Mount Everest and Hector, Achilles, finding hope in despair, victory in defeat, life in death, by paring reality to the bone and dispelling the vapors of illusion, all the while telling the author of this voyage, this seeking, this confrontation, the terrible truth of its own being, “You are neither god nor devil, priest nor soldier, bird nor snake:

“Writer ka lang pala.”

(Conrado de Quiros, 1991)

This Morning’s Special, from Hong Kong

We were all tired and hungry as we sat down for a late lunch in one of the restaurants near our hotel. I don’t exactly remember WHY we were all tired and hungry, because the flight time from Manila to Hong Kong only takes an hour and a half give or take, but yes, we were starving. I guess you can forgive me for forgetting a lot of details about a trip that happened sixteen years ago, but hunger is a state that I have a problem forgetting.

A middle-aged woman that I assumed was the proprietor approached our table–which was the only occupied table at that time–and handed us the menus. It was a small restaurant, more of a diner, and because she didn’t have to attend to other customers, the woman graciously focused all her attention on us. Which was a good thing because she never spoke a lick of English, and none of us spoke any Cantonese.

I was with my three siblings, my parents, an aunt, and a cousin. This was my first overseas trip, and was my siblings’ and cousin’s first as well. (My father had already explored Southeast Asia at that time, and had also been to Australia and Japan with my mom; while my aunt had already visited the United States and Taiwan, if I’m not mistaken.) That it was Hong Kong was not a surprise; for many Filipinos, Hong Kong is a good choice if you want to pop your overseas-trip cherry: it’s close enough, and although relatively more expensive than, say, a trip to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, Filipinos’ love for Chinese food (dim sum, in particular) more than makes up for the country’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world.

And delicious Chinese food was precisely on our mind as we sat there and tried our best to “communicate” with the proprietor. It was pretty straightforward: we each had a menu, and we promptly pointed to a photograph of our dish (and drink) of choice, and that was that. After taking our orders, the woman collected the menus, poured all of us some piping-hot tea (which my dad, I remember, enjoyed immensely–he wouldn’t drink anything else during the day but tea; at night he’d have his usual beer), and she hied off to the kitchen.

I guess the tea was indeed pretty good–for my dad to have ingested copious amounts of it during our short vacation. My father is addicted to coffee, not tea, and for as long as I can remember he’s always had a mug of coffee beside him while he watched TV or made reports at home during the weekends, back when he was still working. (He’s STILL addicted to coffee; I once brought him several jars of instant Mexican coffee, and he proceeded to drink it like water until he was forced to take a break on account of hyperacidity.) And so my dad happily sipped his tea, in that Hong Kong diner, while the rest of us waited for the food to arrive.

I don’t recall if I happily sipped my tea as well (I’ve only been recently a tea guy, and unlike my dad, I never drink coffee), but I do remember the strange feeling of finally being in a foreign country. I remember, in particular, glancing out the window of the restaurant and taking in the new sights–amid the giddy conversations shared among my siblings and parents and aunt and cousin–of people going about their lives and doing their regular, everyday stuff, but the difference was, these people (well, most of them anyway) were Hongkongers!

Could I possibly, I thought at that time, land a job here? I’ve heard that lots of overseas Filipino workers called Hong Kong their home. Surely I could try my luck too? I was twenty years old at that time, naive and full of life and impressionable, having left college a few months before, with a vague idea of wanting to be a writer but with nothing substantial or anything set in stone yet. (I’d land a writing job a few months later, still the best writing job I’ve ever had, right after I turned twenty-one–but that’s another story.)

Finally the food arrived, and the giddy table conversation and my own daydreaming would have to wait. The woman–and a man, I’m assuming the cook–served us, ALL of us, steaming plates of sweet-and-sour pork and rice.

There was a problem, though.

None of us ordered sweet-and-sour pork.

Too tired and hungry to argue with her (thinking about it now, though, how in God’s name could we have argued anyway? Through sign language?), we decided to dig in.

I wasn’t sure (and honestly, until now, I’m still not sure) if that’s how they really prepare sweet-and-sour pork in Hong Kong, because it was way TOO saucy and not really sweet, and–worse–vinegary sour. In fact, my brother, Miles, proceeded to wipe each piece of pork with his napkin to get rid of the sauce. Only after wiping each piece dry would he then proceed to pop it into his mouth and eat it with a spoonful of rice (the portion of rice, that is, that wasn’t still drenched in the sour sauce). I don’t remember now about the others, but I personally thought that this was a brilliant idea–my little brother, when we were younger, was, and STILL IS, a fountain of brilliant ideas–and I followed suit: I got busy wiping down the pork.

Needless to say, we never went back to that diner again–even if it was close to our hotel. Even if we’d regularly pass it by, tired and hungry, after a long day’s sightseeing.

***

We went back, though–again and again and again–to this other greasy spoon (with emphasis on GREASY) where we ate our morning breakfasts. It was not close to the hotel we were staying at–heck, it wasn’t even INSIDE the hotel we were staying at, and I thought at the very least it should have been–but because the free breakfast coupons bade us venture further, we did. Every day. And because we didn’t have a good meal the day before, I was looking forward to that morning’s special.

Which turned out to be greasy ham and eggs (lots and lots of eggs), bread, and watery coffee (no delicious tea for my dad, what a shame). So, every morning, we partook of the same fare. And ever time, for some reason (maybe because they WERE GREASY?), my parents and my aunt never finished their sunny-side-ups. But because I felt that it was my duty to make sure that nothing would go to waste, I took it upon myself to finish all the fried eggs that were untouched. The entire trip, I remember, I’d eaten an unhealthy amount of eggs for breakfast. (I recently had to be treated for high cholesterol here in Mexico City, and I’m pretty sure it’s still because of all those eggs I ate in Hong Kong sixteen years ago).

I’ve been to a few other countries through the years after that trip, and had tried some pretty amazing breakfast food, but until now I still can’t forget the Hong Kong breakfasts of ham, bread, watery coffee, and–of course–lots and lots of greasy fried eggs. And it didn’t help that the diner’s unique logo was indelibly seared in my mind, even until now–a squiggly orange figure of a human being with its legs spread wide apart.

(A few years ago, my cousin Iya went back to Hong Kong with her friends, and she encountered a branch of that diner. She excitedly sent me a photo of that orange logo through Facebook Messenger, and immediately [for good or bad] memories came flooding back to me. And it’s not that hard to imagine eggs, anyway, when you see a human figure with legs spread wide apart)

***

Like every holiday trip, you take the good with the bad. It’s normal. So for every disappointing welcome meal and breakfast, you get to try the authentic dim sum that Hong Kong is famous for (we did, and it was heavenly). For those times that you’re late for the tour (and in our case, ALL THE TIME, which prompted our guide to always utter a snide comment of “Big Filipino family always late” whenever we’d walk down the bus aisle), you get to take in the beautiful sights and sounds of Hong Kong’s tourist spots. For every time you get scammed and swindled (like the time my dad and aunt were grifted into buying overpriced digital cameras by a sweet-talking salesman), you genuinely get good buys–it’s impossible not to while night-shopping in Mong Kok market under bright neon lights and among other excited shoppers and street performers. For every boring (and forced) forays through a jade factory and jewelry store (something to be expected when you’re on a budget tour), there’s the free time you have for yourself to actually explore the place, no matter how short. (And for me it was, believe it or not, exploring the profusion of 7/11 shops that littered the Hong Kong streets; although convenience stores were already common in Manila at that time, we didn’t even have a single convenience store in our small town in Cebu. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a 7/11 on every street corner.)

I’ve taken quite a few solo trips on my own after that first overseas trip, and although traveling alone has its charms, for me traveling with family is still the best. You never forget the place, you never forget the food, you never forget the buys (on that Hong Kong trip, in particular, I got myself a JVC digital camera with 5 megapixels and my first portable MP3 player with 128 MB of storage, LOL), but somehow an overseas trip is more unforgettable (even a budget one) when you’re with loved ones.

Yes, even if the ham and eggs are a little too greasy and the coffee is watery. When you get tired of the free breakfasts, that’s what the cup noodles in the 7/11s are for.

What to Tell Your Child When He Says He Wants to Be a Writer When He Grows Up

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

That’s it. That’s the first thing you should tell your child when he says he wants to be a writer when he grows up.

What next? you may ask. Well, that depends on what his reaction is after you just asked him whether he’s out of his fucking mind. It also depends on how old he is.

If he’s six or seven years old, bribe him with a toy car (or better yet, a Nintendo Switch) and tell him never, ever to say anything that blasphemous again as long as he’s living under your roof.

If your child is already in his early teens, however, then you have a bigger problem.

He will think that he’s so slick and will try to act like a smart-ass while you reason with him. This is so because he will think that writers (and, you know, he’s a wannabe writer right now, the little shit) are smarter than the rest of the population, which is a big lie of course. But still, he will think this way. So tread carefully.

Most probably he will answer, “Of course I’m not out of my FUCKING mind.” Then he’ll flash you a smile and an irritating, smug look on his face.

Take a deep breath, and then ask him, as calmly as you can, “So what kind of writer do you want to be when you grow up?” (You’d probably also want tell him not to say “fucking” again, that you didn’t mean to swear—but that’s just me.)

If he says he wants to write fiction, be a novelist perhaps, heave a sigh of relief. Then ask him, “So what language are you planning to write your novel in?”

“English, of course,” the little shit will answer.

“Oh really?” you will ask. “Even the dialogue?”

This will get him thinking, believe me. Because, while he might think he’s such a goddamn expert at writing in English, his first language isn’t English. He was still born and raised in the Philippines, and the first language he heard other people speak—and learned how to speak himself—would be Tagalog or Cebuano or Hiligaynon or Kapampangan, whatever. He learned English in school. And through the Hollywood movies he’s watched. The books and comics he’s read. The music streaming from his iPhone.

The little shit. Verbally fluent in his native language (Tagalog or Cebuano or Hiligaynon or Kapampangan, whatever) but can’t even write a decent sentence in that language.

And how could he possibly think that he could write natural-sounding dialogue in English? In a country where the only English dialogue spoken is on call center floors and inside elementary-school classrooms run by concentration camp English teachers who force pupils to avoid speaking in their native language by threat of fines? Think swear jar, with a taped-up sign that says “English-only policy.”

“Fine,” he will say, “I’ll write a high fantasy novel. I’ll invent everything, the entire world in that novel. The setting won’t be in present-day Philippines. Characters in my novel will live in a world where they speak their own version of English.”

“Good,” you will answer him, and then add, “you’ll still want this high fantasy novel to be rooted in Filipino fantasy, though. Don’t you? You haven’t read any Filipino high fantasy novels. [Because, well, there are none.] You’ve read The Lord of the Rings books, sure, and the Game of Thrones novels. To a lesser extent, Narnia too. But if you only have these books as your inspiration or guide, then you’re doomed to write a novel that’s destined to read like crappy fan fiction that’s only fit for ‘publication’ in online forums.”

Enjoy his pained reaction. Enjoy it. The sudden furrowing of his brow.

“I’ve written poems. I can be a poet instead.”

At this, laugh out loud. Really loud. Belly-laugh loud.

“You mean a Twitter poet like Lang Leav?” Laugh again. Mirthfully.

“Or a ‘real’ poet like those Filipino poets in English that nobody reads?”

At this point you might feel a little sorry for him. You might be tempted to lay off him, but don’t. Bore into him even more; this is for his own good after all. This is a matter of life and death for your child, of him living a good life or of him starving in a hovel somewhere while pecking at the keys of his battered laptop, still thinking that he can be a fucking writer.

“I can be an essayist then,” he will say. “A columnist for a newspaper, even. I can earn money that way.”

Close your eyes, then shake your head slowly, left to right. Left to right. Then exhale audibly.

“Essayist? You mean blogger? Essays are the bastard child of literature, son. Columnist? You mean like Mocha Uson? In this age where newspapers are dying?” It will help even more if you try to sound as sarcastic as you possibly can.

And then add: “And don’t let me hear you say that you want to write plays. Please.” (Make it sound like “puhhhh-leeeeez.”)

Watch him take a seat on the couch, his shoulders slumped, defeated.

Finally! Defeated. Finally.

But then his eyes light up. His face brightens. He has an idea, and you feel a cold chill run up your spine.

“I won’t write for the fame, then!” he exclaims. “I’ll write stuff to live by! I can write SEO articles, website content. I’ll ghostwrite, I’ll write ads. Heck, maybe I can even become a technical writer!”

At this, be afraid. Be very afraid.

At least when he thought he could write literarily—fiction, poetry, essays—and if he didn’t heed your warnings and still decided to push through, you’d give him two months and he’d come back to you, literally starving. That image of him in a hovel somewhere while pecking at the keys of his battered laptop, that’d last for two months.

Now, for God’s sake, he wants to become a paid hack. A paid hack! Mother of God.

He will not starve for two months and go running back to you afterward, heavens no—it’s even worse. He’d technically (pun intended) starve for the rest of his life. Criminally underpaid and unappreciated. He’d have enough for his day-to-day existence, but that’s it. He could brag for the rest of his life that he’s a writer, sure, but then what? Is that really worth bragging about? He won’t be able to buy a house, or a car. If he wanted to get married and have a family, he’d have to marry into a rich family.

What would your relatives say? His cousins are being groomed to become doctors and lawyers and accountants. Pilots. Nurses in the US and in Europe.

YOUR child? He wants to become a writer. Not a novelist or a poet or a playwright—no, because you’ve managed to talk him out of all that lunacy, thank God. Now he wants to become—*gasp!*—a paid hack.

Sit beside him on the couch. Take a deep breath.

There’s still hope, all is not lost. You got this.

Fish your smartphone out of your pocket.

“So you want to be an SEO writer, huh?”

Remember, Google is your best friend. Especially as a parent. Especially as a parent in this make-or-break moment that will determine the future of your precious child.

Google that article that you came across many years ago. Then hand the phone to your son and watch the horror on his face as he reads the article.

HOW DO I CORRECTLY USE GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT KEYWORDS?

Many keyword terms don’t always contain grammatically correct phrases. This leaves SEO copywriters wrestling to incorporate keyword terms like “divorce lawyer New York” or “truffle chocolates red.” If you’re an SEO writer, one of your SEO keyword nightmares might be this term: “loose weight.” Can you believe that it’s actually a highly searched keyword phrase?

So, how can you use and integrate these “wild card” SEO keywords? Simple: Place strategic punctuation directly inside of your awkward keywords. Search engines don’t put any ranking weight on punctuation! This is great news for SEO copywriters. This means that instead of this awkward-sounding “optimized” sentence: “This year for Valentine’s Day give her TRUFFLE CHOCOLATES RED to help her get in the spirit,”You can write: “With spring just around the corner, the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day is a box of TRUFFLE CHOCOLATES. RED is the color of love, so why not get a box of the most delicious-looking truffle chocolates in romantic red shades for your special lady?”

Here’s how we could use the term “loose weight” in a way that doesn’t read absolutely horrifyingly: “After making the switch to a low-sugar, zero dairy, gluten-free and high-protein diet, I was able to drop 10 pounds inside of one month. My pants no longer fit because they’re too loose. Weight maintenance is the next goal on my health plan.”

Again, we’re able to not butcher grammar by ending a sentence at “loose” and starting a new one with “weight.”

Enjoy that feeling of triumph when he returns your phone to you, glassy-eyed. Horrified. But you’re not done yet. Far from it.

“So you want to be a technical writer?”

*Googling*

CAN TECHNICAL WRITING SUCK LESS?

“So you want to work for an ad agency?”

*Googling*

ADVERTISING COPYWRITER DIES AFTER WORKING 30 HOURS STRAIGHT

“So you want to write website content?”

*Googling*

HOW WEB CONTENT WRITERS DEAL WITH ASSHOLE CLIENTS

“So you want to ghostwrite for other authors?”

*Googling*

BEING A GHOSTWRITER: HOW TO LEARN TO LIVE AN UNFULFILLING AND LONELY LIFE

*****

Watch him as he lowers his his head, rests his hands on his lap, twiddles his thumbs. Watch him as he takes a deep breath and exhales in surrender.

You’ve won.

Give yourself the permission to hug him, and hug him tightly. Hug him like you’ve never hugged him before. Allow yourself to let go, let go of the tears, those tears of joy. Enjoy the moment as your son hugs you back, the little shit.

You just saved his life.

Enough of the drama, you decide, and tell him to go get some ice cream, handing him some money. He smiles and thanks you, and hurries to his room to change.

You also need a beer, badly, so you head toward the kitchen for a bottle of Red Horse. Or, better yet—you change your mind—some tequila. But as your child is heading out of the house, you see his eyes light up again.

You shudder at what he’s about to say next.

“You know what, I can be a musician instead. A guitarist to be exact. I’m dropping by Alan’s place for guitar lessons, he’s been at it for a couple years now!”

“Now listen here, you little shit . . .” you start to say, but he’s already out the door, gone.

Gone.

Gone.