Sunday, January 27, 2013

A gift

Want to hear what the Universe sounds like? Put your ear to a seashell. For full HD effect, read Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" while listening.
-- William the Henry

Silver and me

2:57 a.m.
It has become a habit to me, embarrassing I think, of extolling the magnanimity of the universe, of presuming to know its intimate nature, of imposing upon its generosity even. Accompanied by darkness, and insomnia and the silent stars, and the heavy purrs of Silver as she paws this electronic pad, I imagine my Chinese teachers in younger days, admonishing me for my lack of humility.

"Ah, so, already a wise man, hmm? Maybe as precocious as Feynman, if not as sagacious as a Sagan, eh?" Miss Lee remarks in the dark, sounding like a Jewish mother in a Philip Roth novel, instead of a proper but sardonic Chinese mentor marinated in the Analects of Confucius and steeped in blind faith over the goodness of the thieving Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek who, with his voluptuous wife, formed the original Conjugal Dictatorship of Asia. The Ferdinand and Imelda of the '50s, so to speak.

"He can't wait, our little genius," interjects Mr. Lim, "Not a late bloomer like that poor Einstein fellow, of whom nothing much had been expected of him, as we expect from our brilliant prodigy." I breathe a sigh of relief, making Silver, sitting between my nose and iPad, jump an inch. Mr. Lim, even in this imaginary exchange, has joined the scene, adding his own remarks in a bantering way to draw any potential poison from Miss Lee's harsh intrusion upon my afternoon nap (in her Geometry class). Mr. Lim had always protected me by deflecting the shrewishness of the old maids in the faculty.

How Mr. Lim got into this story, I don't exactly know. Maybe because he saw Miss Lee approaching my desk, in this imaginary flashback extending back almost 50 years? I don't even remember how this story got stuck in my head, pounding my sleep away in these unholy hours so I can type, to make this story as real as life -- "of such stuff as dreams are made of" -- to make it tangible as the ripe fruit fallen from the Raintree in my mind, to be printed, to be read by those who will be puzzled by its meaning, if any at all, and by those who will understand and appreciate it. Even if I myself don't get it?

Yes. I hear the answer. Without knowing why, I know the answer is right. Yes, you (this story, not I) are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, the Universe is unfolding. As it should.

An affirmation! A fulfillment of a desideratum (not mine. Of the Universe?) to exist, to make a mark where life blooms with fecundity in this part of the vast Milky Way, contradicting the emptiness of space, giving breath to the lifegiving heat of distant stars. Red, white, yellow, the stars send off their seeds with each nuclear pulsebeat, to grow where they can, to evolve and develop a cellular structure that can type out the Master Formula. 

And so, seemingly, out of thin air I pluck this concept and share it here, through millions of pixels to cyberspace. This is one of the billions of stories that exists -- E pluribus, unum; one among those which survived to be seen, to be scorned, to be brushed aside, to be shunned, to be admired, to be.

All I understand is that weaving a story is not unlike the process by which a spider seems to pluck endless webs from thin air. A gift, if you will, from the Cosmic Cornucopia. Therefore never send for whom the bell tolls, just ask the Universe. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mau, Silver, Chess & David Copperfield

“Never," said my aunt, "be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel..."
--David Copperfield, Charles Dickens


Mau, lovely Persian, jumps into the bed and prefers to perch on top of iPad covers, where she makes her observations, and wisely, never makes any comment. I think she is much more intelligent and honest than the bunch of Senators and representathieves plaguing our legislature. So she sits on the green iPad cover and looks intently on Gary Kasparov's book of Chess, Volume 4 of his My Great Predecessors series, this one discussing Bobby Fischer's life and games. 

The 11th World Chess Champion visited the Philippines sometime in 1973, more than a year after Marcos declared Martial Law, in connivance with the Minister of Defense at that time, Juan Ponce Enrile. According to Enrile's "Memoir," Marcos and he had been considering the imposition of military rule as early as 1971, two years before the next election, when Marcos' second term and hold on power should have ended. Anyways, I remember Fischer's arrival because I, with my boardmates, was herded to the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao to watch the ceremony of the new dictator welcoming the new Chess champion.

A little research revealed that on a clear afternoon in October 1973, me and my friends were strolling along Cubao when a group of men in barong suddenly accosted us and pushed us inside Araneta. It was the height of the chess fever gripping the world then, and all the newspapers were announcing Fischer's visit here, and anyone can buy a ticket and watch the ceremony at the coliseum. We did not have enough money, but we went anyway, hoping to get a glimpse of Fischer and the President-who-had-extended-his-term when they arrive. And we got in free! Inside, we realized why we were pushed into the coliseum: the seats were empty, and it would have been embarrassing to perform a ceremony without an audience. We climbed from the back row to the more expensive (but free for now) front row seats to get a better view.

Marcos went onstage first, making a speech I don't remember now: probably how much the Philippines had improved since he closed down the Senate, Congress, the Judiciary, the critical radio and TV stations, and he made disappear tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens who complained about something called freedom. Of course, Marcos did not exactly couch the situation in those words; he said something flowery blah newsociety bleh economicprogress duh we can now afford to invite celebrities like Cristina Ford, who is with the First Lady now. Imelda was wearing a dress with the so-called butterfly sleeves, probably matching her butterfly brain, constantly flitting between the lovely the perfect the beautiful. Bleh.

Fischer made a short speech; he had to bend down slightly because the microphone was still adjusted to Marcos' Ilocano height. We were not listening to what he was saying, or slurring, in his Brooklynese argot; we were looking at the elegant Mrs. Ford. I don't remember if there is a tall guy named Van Cliburn on that occasion. After his blurb, Fischer proceeded to another part of the stage, where Marcos and Florencio Campomanes were waiting in front of a table with a Chess set. We clapped after they made a few cursory moves, declaring the game a draw. Marcos had done what few Chess masters had done -- achieve a draw with the Chess maniac like Fischer, who had reportedly refused a draw with a grandmaster despite having only Kings left on the board.

When the Marcos group left, we prepared to leave. Near the entrance, we saw two or three boxes containing leaflets and glossy brochures about the Fischer visit and the Manila Chess Match starting that day. We took a few copies with us. In hindsight, knowing what such paraphernalia earn nowadays in eBay, we should have taken all the boxes and earned bundles of dollars today.

Kasparov's 4th volume (the object of Mau's interest) contains the second game of the 1957 match he played with Philippines' Rodolfo Cardoso, who was considered the best Chess player here at the time. Cardoso was 19 then, Fischer only 14. They played eight games, with Cardoso winning one game and drawing two, but it was Fischer who won the match with a final score of 6-2 (4 wins, 2 draws). The match was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. A bottle of Pepsi in 1957 was BIG and cost only 10 centavos. In those golden years, every 10-centavo coin contained high-grade silver. A dollar was equivalent to 2 pesos only. A Batman comics cost only 10 US cents or 20 Filipino centavos. I was already in the scene, although I was still a small, drooly but cute baby. Mau and Silver were still stardusts winging their ingredients to become delightful companions in my dotage.


Mau jumped off the bed when Silver appeared, sniffing for possible hoard of goodies. Middle photo shows Silver tackling the intricacies involved in Game 2 of the Fischer-Cardoso match. Fischer opened with P-K4 and Cardoso, in a psychological ploy, answered with Fischer's favorite defence, a Sozin variation of the Sicilian Defence, where White sometimes offers a Pawn the enemy can't refuse. Cardoso resigned after 31 moves and faded into oblivion while Fischer went on to win the US Open Chess Championship the next year and became the youngest Grandmaster in the world. He was also seeded to the Candidates' Matches to determine the next challenger to the World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik. He made it through the elimination but failed to become the youngest World Chess Champion ever. It would take 14 more years for him to wrest the Chess crown from Boris Spassky, thus breaking the Soviet hegemony over the game. After that Fischer's mind began to unravel slowly, until he finally lost his grip on reality. In 2001, four hours after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, he gleefully cheered the terrorist attack, telling Pablo Mercado in a live interview on Bombo Radyo network in Baguio City that the United States had it coming. After the US Chess Federation revoked his membership on 2001 October 28, Fischer addressed a letter to Osama bin Laden, telling the Al-Qaeda leader that "...We also have something else in common: We are both fugitives from the U.S. 'justice' system.'"

Fischer, unkempt, disgraced, deranged, hated, died of renal failure in a hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fischer lived up to 64, a year for each square of the Chess board. He was not the only Chess player to lose his mind. The Mexican master, Carlos Torre (1905-1978), was crazy about pineapple sundaes, consuming several a day, sometime more than 10. But that's a minor quirk compared to his affinity to being naked in public. He was once arrested for running nude on 5th Avenue, New York. The next time he shed his clothes was in a bus full of passengers.

Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900), the first World Champion, claimed that he could call anyone with his wireless telephone -- not so crazy in this electronic era, but mentally offline in his time. One recipient of his calls, he said, was God. Steinitz said he could defeat the Almighty even with odds of Pawn and move. And there's the anthropophobic Akiba Rubinstein, who so disliked having people that his wife admonished his friends, "Do not visit too long, or Mr. Rubinstein will kindly excuse himself by crawling out of a window." 


Silver, after reading this, eventually lost her admiration for people who even considered Chess as a pastime. She took her afternoon catnap, leaving me to Dickens and his zany non-Chessplaying characters. I've read up to the first fourth part of David Copperfield, having met the boy's temperamental, eccentric yet kindhearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood at the beginning of the novel. The unmarried aunt appeared at the Copperfield home when David's mother was about to give birth; she declared the child should be a girl, and named Betsy, after her. When meek Dr. Chillip said the baby was a boy, the aunt trundles off the first chapter and is never seen again until David, an orphan in difficulty years later, seeks her out.

My interest in Dickens revived because in every mordant novels I read, writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, Kafka, Freud, Maugham, Woolf, John Irving, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Anne Rice, acknowledged the old master's influence on their writing. Even a poet like T.S. Eliot took notice: T. S. Eliot concurred: "Dickens excelled in character; in the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings.” Although Chesterton criticized the last half of David Copperfield, he concurred that this novel, Dickens' eight, is the best of his creation. It is also known to be based on Dickens' encounter with hardship and cruelty in his youth.

My favorite John Irving novel is The Cider House Rule,. The bildungsroman follows the life of Homer Wells, who grew up at St. Clouds orphanage after being left there by a young woman who refused to abort him but did not have the resource to take care of him. I remember young Homer finding a copy of David Copperfield at the orphanage and reading it to the other young orphans, starting with, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”   

Itinerant readers, I'm sure, have in their youth encountered Dickens' A Christmas Carol, of which many movie versions appear on cable TV, and A Tale of Two Cities, which begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." Whose mind can withstand the force of the combination of such simple words? It's like seeing for the first time 13-year-old Fischer's incredible 11th move (Na4!!) in his masterpiece game against Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York in 1956. The game was nicknamed "The Game of the Century" by Hans Kmoch in Chess Review. Kmoch said, "The following game, a stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13 against a formidable opponent, matches the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies." It is the existence of such works in words or Chess pieces that affirms the wonder of the universe. Geniuses among us give hope that our species will survive our mishandling of this planet.

Every genius, like the rest of us in the course of our journey, has sustained damages. A few months ago I heard a writer tell Charlie Rose (on Bloomberg channel) that writers have become what they are because they have damaged lives, himself not excepted. I can't recall if the writer is Salman Rushdie, whose autobiography, Joseph Anton, came out last year. In that book Rushdie reveals that Ronald Dahl, John le Carre, and singer Cat Stevens condoned the death sentence that Ayatollah Khomeini issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses. I mention Rushdie here because I have also come across his Shalimar the Clown, in which Dickens is mentioned repeatedly. As I said, in all good books the reader will encounter other good books, leading to an endless discovery of all the wonders the human mind can conceive.

Ayn Rand declared that the human mind is the most powerful instrument in the world: It can cut diamond, the hardest substance in the universe; it can create vehicles that can carry men to the moon, and voyagers that carry messages, about our existence, beyond our solar system, and speed toward fresh frontiers ages after we are stardusts again. On the other hand, I read two out of the four Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer and I find myself face to face with a dead-end, reminding me that we exist in a small speck of space enveloped by the vast vacuum of eternity. There are more Vacuums like Meyer than geniuses like Dickens. I learned that from someone somewhere.

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond any experience... 

And that's it, so far. I'm expecting to meet more mad men and women in the next few days. When I rest, I turn the TV on and watch the insane people at the Senate do their gigs, and the antics of the Villafuerte clan. I also learned a long time ago that the things we write about, we draw from real life. I leave off with another quote from the book: “It's in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”