Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Humorous Bone

It comes to me occasionally that there is not a great deal of literary wit on Filipino blog sites. Oh, manuelbuencamino offers up a bit of satire now and then and occasionally a humorous bone is dropped into a discussion thread, and that fires up a good chortle. But most of the writing bewails the state of the state or criticizes leading characters or activities in the archipelago's multi-act comedy-tragedy.

I have remarked that you rarely see Filipinos with a book, reading casually. In Europe one is much more apt to trip over a book than here. The US has lots of books and some fine booksellers.

Reading expands the mind enormously and breaks down rigid walls of perspective. Always musing, I wonder, without concluding anything, if there is a correlation between Filipino stubbornness and lack of reading, or if there would be more compassion if there were more readers.

I was a narrow-minded chump at the age of 26 when I met and married my first ex-wife, a passionate Singaporean of Chinese descent and British accent whose father was a communist writer and whose mother put Singapore's birth control measures into place in the 1960's.

I figure that puts the Philippines exactly one-half century behind the Singaporeans. And still fading. I suppose there is an advantage to not having the Catholic Church hung about one's neck like a rusty anchor pretending it is a pretty gold necklace with magical powers of redemption.

But I digress.

I was a narrow-minded chump at 26, bred on a farm and raised with simple values honed by the Golden Rule, not to mention an oft recited Pledge of Allegiance that lead young and innocent minds to believe America stood for all that is good on God's great green earth. I was fresh out of the army and various escapades in Viet Nam. That was a hallucinatory year and I never took drugs. It is the only place I've ever been that is more surreal than the Philippines. But that was mainly because of the lunacy of the war. That one year rocked my naive American foundations, so it was fairly easy for the commie pinko's daughter to tilt her husband hard left.

We were poor in those days. My ex worked for a pittance as a radio music programmer to help me get a masters degree which led to a job in banking. I worked the early years at a pittance to help her get her Doctoral degree in literature. Needless to say, she liked reading, and so I took it up, too. Deeper works than the Hardy Boys I had read on the farm. Russian writers, German, British, American. Our TV sat there, neglected and dusty and turned off. I grew my hair long, protested Viet Nam, earning the honor of my own file at the Los Angeles FBI office, and worked like crazy at the bank. Then the first-ex and I hit the rocks and we went our different directions.

Somewhere during that period, my brain got bent. It stopped being defined by other people's thoughts and expectations and came up with its own. I learned that others generally had very limited points of view, shaped by where they'd been, and those perspectives were fixed as if they alone had been granted the awakening plucked like a red ripe apple from the Tree of Knowledge. I determined to open my intellectual windows and did this by reading and traveling about the globe. I rose rapidly in the bank because, as a drunk colleague confided at a drunken executive conference, “Joe, you are successful because you can think around corners”. Yes, that and I could work computer spreadsheets like a speed freak, so I had the answer while others were still figuring out the question.

Even today, I read about two hours a day, usually in the afternoon munching on barbecue flavored Nagaraya and lounging in a comfortable P1,200 canvas chair acquired at SM Mall Pampanga. My current undertaking is entitled “Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse, a British writer. This is comedy as only the superbly dry and witty Brits can cook it up.

Let me share a little of it, as we bloggists are way too full of ourselves.

Our hero, Bertie Wooster, has been given residence in a small house, Wee Nooke, owned by his Uncle Percy on the outskirts of London. Bertie is standing outside the house, which has been set ablaze by Uncle Percy's son. Uncle Percy arrives, more than perplexed, and Bertie speaks, gives him greeting.


“Oh, hullo, Uncle Percy,” I said. “Good afternoon, good afternoon.”

My civil greeting elicited no response. He was staring past me at the little home, now beyond any possible doubt destined to be a total loss. Edwin might return with all the fire brigades in Hampshire, but nothing was going to prevent Wee Nooke winding up as a heap of ashes.

“What?” he said, speaking thickly, as if the soul were bruised, as I imagine to have been the case. “What? What? What? What . . .?”

I saw that unless checked, this was going to take some time.

“There's been a fire,“ I said.

“What do you mean?”

Well I don't see how I could have put it much clearer.

“A fire,” I repeated, waving a hand in the direction of the burning edifice, as much as to tell him to take a glance for himself. “How are you, Uncle Percy? You're looking fine.”

He wasn't, as a matter of fact, nor did this attempt to ease the strain by giving him the old oil have the desired effect. He directed at me a kind of frenzied glare, containing practically nil in the way of an Uncle's love, and spoke in a sort of hollow, despairing voice.

“I might have known! My best friends would have warned me what would come of letting a lunatic like you loose in the place. I ought to have guessed that the first thing you would do – before so much as unpacking – would be to set the whole damned premises ablaze.”

“Not me,” I said, wishing to give credit where credit was due. “Edwin.”

“Edwin? My son?”

“Yes, I know”, I said sympathetically. “Too bad. Yes, he's your son, all right. He's been tidying up.”

“You can't start a fire by tidying up.”

“You can if you use gunpowder.”


“He appears to have touched off a keg or two in the kitchen chimney, to correct a disposition on its part to harbor soot.”

Well, I had naturally supposed, as anyone would have supposed, that this frank discussion would have set me right, causing him to dismiss me without a stain on my character, and that the rather personal note which had crept into his remarks would instantly have been switched off. What I anticipated was that he would issue an apology about that crack about lunatics, which I would gratefully accept, and that we would then get together like two old buddies and shake our heads over the impulsiveness of the younger generation.

Not a bit of it, however. He continued to bend upon me the accusing gaze which I had disliked so much from the start.

“Why the devil did you give the boy gunpowder?”

I saw that he had still got the wrong angle.

“I didn't give the boy gunpowder.”

“Only a congenital idiot would give a boy gunpowder. There's not a man in England, except you, who wouldn't know what would happen if you gave a boy gunpowder. Do you realize what you have done? The sole reason for your coming here was that I could have a place where I could meet an old friend and discuss certain matters of interest, and now look at it. I ask you. Look at it.”

“Not too good,” I was forced to concede, as the roof fell in, sending up a shower of sparks and causing a genial glow to play about our cheeks.


  1. Thanks for your service Joe. Does the CMH avatar you use signify anything related to your tour?

  2. Enjoy your hammock and the retirement life, JoeAm.

    The tension of urban living in USA especially urban areas like Manhattan, downtown DC, Chicago, LA, Seattle, others has increased with the Nissan Pathfinder stuffed with propane gas tanks.


  3. Papa, no I earned nothing in Nam but a scar on my head from a helicopter blade because I stood tall whilst the helicopter blade cut short. I just needed a symbol of honor, and like the valor star. Thank you for the thank you. I don't get many, although my sister is reliable every Veteran's day.

    UPn, indeed. Here we only have (impending) election riots.


  4. that the Philippines is 50-some years behind Singapore... about 2 or 3 generations behind is a good estimate. That the gap is widening is because Filipinos want to strut that their brains are the match of any other country not realizing that the other countries (Singapore, Thailand, USA, China, Vietnam, Austrlaia) are using the metrics of effort and discipline when it comes to organizing for progress.

    Pilipinas keeps waiting for a miracle and hoping that doing it on the cheap is "puwede na". What a rotten shame.

    For the past forty years already, "doing it on the cheap" has been discarded as an engine to progress, the keyword was and still is quality.

  5. I tried reading on the MRT/LRT and on the bus commute.

    ...but apparently that's not a good idea as:
    1. public transport is cramped
    2. you really must pay attention to your wallet and personal belongings lest they become fiction.

    and if you do try to read in a bookstore...the books are like a Filipino sofa/car seat = covered in plastic. Do not open if you do not intend to buy.

  6. UPn,

    Yes, excellent point. Having brains is not enough. They should be applied now and then in a proactive way, not reactive . . .


  7. Nash,

    funny . . . especially the line about personal belongings becoming fiction. Have you considered stand-up . . . comedy, that is, not MRT/LRT?


  8. Nice story soldier. A good peek into the things that shaped the mind whose work I read today. The common theme across the whole story seems to be the reading and the traveling that broadened perspectives. Filipinos like to think they make such a macho culture. But when one realises how the average American male of your generation is probably 5 to 10 times more likely to have wielded a weapon with the intent to kill at some point in their life than the average Pinoy "astig", it puts things in perspective.

    It is only when I came to Australia that I became a book reader. Two hours per day spent on the train and waiting in train stations provided the environment (people generally mind their own business -- and wallets -- here). I guess that could be a strong case for arguing that environment is a key factor to book readership.

  9. Benigno,

    Yes, if one's wife is considered a part of one's environment.

    Your comment about Americans of my generation being engaged in war prompts me to see the US today as much softer, much less patriotic, much less committed to fighting than in the days of WWII. The disenfranchisement that came from the Viet Nam war and the ease of reporting today, with bodies shown on the cell phone, have made war a tough sell, even though our very existence is threatened by wild-eyed men seeking nukes. In WWII, the US held back from the war but built up an amazing arsenal of guns and bombs and planes and boats, so that when it did fight, it brought on a pile of aggressive and heartless shit. As Manila residents know in spades.

    Today we weep too easily, I fear. Brutality wins wars. There is no such thing as a clean war. But Americans today shrink from the fight.

    I need to give this some thought. There's a blog here somewhere.


  10. USA has not given up on building an arsenal of amazing guns, bombs, missiles, warheads, and software. The latest one (to be deployed 2015, I think) will be a missile-system that can hit any target in one hour or less after the button is pushed.

    With precision within-100-meters that USA says "conventional warhead" is good enough. [The intent of the warhead is to destroy bunker-concentrations, missile silos and command-centers and NOT to nuclear-destroy population concentrations].

    The warhead is probably over ten times the destroy-power of a Daisy-cutter, but it's still conventional.

  11. UPn,

    Yes, and the drone system is getting quite sophisticated, too. The emphasis is on a clean war with no American casualties. Now, stop the civilian ancillary deaths and we have the perfect war machine, eh?

    Of course, it would be easier if some ideologies simply stopped the religious call for the death of all perceived satans . . .


  12. Did you see that news clip about a drone the size of a Boeing 737? And USA writing software so that one "operator" can control 4, 5 or 6 drones at a time?

    Then, of course, there is the Nissan Pathfinder drone.

    Why can't we all just get along, eh?

  13. I read somewhere though that increased use of drones and remote control weaponry increase the impression amongst America's enemies that America has less stomach now for loss of life in battle. That impression hardens their resolve to engage in the sorts of approaches to warfare that result in huge loss of life (terrorism and WMD's) rather than wage wars with conventional objectives (such as strategic positioning and acquisition of territory).

  14. Barack Obama putting timetables on troop withdrawals is the strongest signal yet to the Taliban and insurgents in Iraq as to strategy. The strategy is simple -- to outlast the occupying troops. Survive, draw blood as often as possible to further weaken USA's resolve, and then let the clock go tick-tock, tick-tock. The year 2012 is just around the corner.

  15. Interesting observations. I'm dealing with "less stomach" for loss of life, but it wends me back to Manila and the ruthless strategy that was deployed then. So on I blog in circles, colliding occasionally with my own thinking.



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