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Thursday, August 12, 2010


BEING DELFIN TOLENTINO (with apologies to 'Being John Malkovich')
By Martin Masadao

My first vivid recollection of Delfin Tolentino's existence at UP Baguio was in the 80s. Ninoy Aquino had just been assassinated. There was uncertainty in the air. Rallies galore to attend. And fashion trends to keep up with.

I was in high school at the then UPCBHS. I prided myself to be the first student in the campus to own a pair of Sperry Top-siders. The quintessential preppy footwear for both sexes. I wore them with a striped button down oxford shirt, khaki pants and a woolen fair isle sweater slung on the shoulders, its sleeves knotted in a contrived manner to assume casual elegance and comfortable ease a la John Updike. Or Christopher Isherwood is more like it.

And so it was one afternoon as I was ascending the steps that connected the high school to the college buildings that I saw Delfin Tolentino at the top of the steps -- in the exact same outfit. I felt I was walking towards a full-length mirror. As I continued to go up the steps, it was clear that Del carried the style with more credibility. He was the preppy aesthete of Ivy League campuses. While I was the WASP-wanna-be. I quickly took the short cut to the left of the hill that led to the lower canteen lest I hear Del snort at my futile attempt to dress smartly.

Now dear reader, you all know there is really one thing and only one common thing between Del Tolentino and I... the predilection for, dare I say it, alcohol. I was fortunate to be a member of Del’s coterie of drinking buddies during college in the 80s. While some friends had chastised me for not enrolling in at least one subject under Del, thereby defeating the whole purpose of an education at UP Baguio -- a whole lot more people have told me how lucky I was not to have to suffer under his tutelage. And that I should count my blessings as such.

And so at the old Café Amapola Del and I would convene after school with other students and teachers and drink San Miguel Beer. This was the time Asia Brewery was going to come up with their own brew to rival the monopoly that San Miguel had on the market. And at a lower price to boot. I remember Del stating with utmost conviction, "If Gold Eagle tastes exactly like San Miguel Beer, I’m going to shift brands." It then struck me, hey, not only does Del not have an original fashion style, he has no sense of loyalty whatsoever. A true balimbing during those turbulent times.

So what was the 'thing' with Del Tolentino I wondered? While we continued our regular drinking sprees at the Café I still could not put my finger on Del's mystique. We discussed books, films, Linda Ronstadt collection of old standards, etc. I had a glimpse of Del's enigma and why he was a revered member of the UP academe during one theatre run at the auditorium. I was then a member of TABAK, the radical theatre group my friends and I had joined and we were mounting Chris Millado's "Buwan at Baril sa Eb Minor". During our critics' night, Del was the last to speak amongst other invited guests. I remember him uttering the phrase "it's poignant yet replete with tension" referring to the monologue that was the highlight of the play. Wow! How eloquent and precise, I thought. I wanted to be like Del in that respect. Now I get it, Del was the ultimate critic and the uber-authority when it came to the Literary Arts.

I tried to pry more information from other friends who were definitely closer to Del than I was. Del apparently had an enviable art collection in his tastefully decorated house along Leonila Hill. I had so fervently wished to be invited to that house for dinner and be with Baguio’s cognoscenti. Ay, conyo! I also found out that Del came from a landed old family of Baliwag, Bulacan. And the truth was that Del didn’t need the teaching job as he was already well-off but decided to relocate to Baguio for 'personal' reasons. My friend making quotation marks in the air -- "personal". Ha! So there was truth to those rumors after all. Talk was rife around campus that Del, brace yourselves, refused to join rallies against tuition fee hikes or salary increases for teachers because, in truth and in fact, Del Tolentino was a modern day cacique. Pa-art-art na lang sya. Nalito na naman ako. Disillusioned was more like it.

But oh how I yearned to be praised by Del. Because we all know how skimpy he is with praise. In the early 90s my friends mounted Rody Vera's Palanca Award-winning play "Kung Paano Ko Pinatay Si Diana Ross". This was to be my first major role onstage. I had to bear the brunt of calloused feet by rehearsing in high heels. Had to memorize kilometric lines and lip synch to a gazillon Diana Ross songs not to mention learn the choreography for each. Del had rewarded me during our critics' night by saying "Martin, your performance had many nuances. You were a surprise" -- this he said after everyone had spoken and after he commented on the other actors as well. I was flushed with pride. I felt that I had finally arrived. After the show we all went for beers in Rumours Bar along Session Road as our old haunt had perished with the earthquake.

In 2001 I had written the "Ukay-Ukay Handbook" and invited Del personally to the book launch. I had apologetically told him not to expect too much, that the handbook was nothing academic. "Mababaw lang", I said. To which Del remarked, "That’s ok, I'm sick and tired of academic stuff". He stressed it in such a way to make me feel that I will never be able to come up with any academic writing in the first place. Ang taray! Did I hear any praise for the work? Of course not. Such writing is way beneath THE Del Tolentino. It was like being slapped in the face. Obviously he didn’t get the campy irony of it all. No surprise there, I doubt Del goes to the ukay or engages in any activity that is enjoyed by the masa. A true snob he is, I must say.

A few years ago, my sister invited Del and Ben Tapang for dinner at her pad along Gibraltar Road. My sister had apparently been bumping into Del at a Japanese pottery shop on several occasions and she decided to show off her stash by hosting dinner. I was tasked to cook that evening.

I felt I had to engage in one-upmanship again. What exactly does one serve the Doyen of the Humanities College for dinner? I settled on fish lumpia (made from scratch) and pote that I learned from (that other doyenne of the arts and manners) my neighbor, Laida Lim. The pote is basically a beef stew with white beans, potatoes, chorizo, cabbage, etc. -- in other words a very 'sosyal nilaga'. To accompany this was red rice. And red wine that Del and Ben had so thoughtfully brought along with them.

Now I thought Del was not only a great Literary Critic, I assumed he was also an epicure. Epicure ngang talaga, bad manners naman pala! As soon as the pote was set on the table Del got the serving ladle, I presumed to pour broth onto our individual bowls. But no, he went straight for the biggest bone marrow, the chunk of meat and cartilage attached to it was fork-tender, the prized portion of the stew, and set it on his plate. My sister and I were in shock! I felt I was in Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club" -- that part where the fiancé of one of the main characters goes to his soon-to-be wife's house and shocks her mother at the dinner table by getting the best part of the meal for himself. I mean, I admit, I didn’t read the novel, but at least I saw the movie! I realized Del was like that uncouth fiancé. And he showed no guilt at all throughout dinner. Maybe he thinks he's entitled to it. Or that he can get away with it. And now you all know why he was never invited to dinner again.

Last September, we mounted "Baguio Stories" at UP Baguio and Del comes up to me after one matinee performance. Apparently he's become too old to stay up late now hence the afternoon performance. Anyway, at curtain call I go up to Del and thank him for catching the show. Del then tells me, "Your performance was very nuanced." I smiled and gave him my thanks.

Wait a minute, I suddenly thought to myself while backstage for the gala performance that evening. "Teka, teka, teka, 'your performance was very nuanced?!' Eh yun din yung sinabi nya sa akin nung nag-Diana Ross ako ah?!" So, my theory is that Del has several phrases stashed in his head which he uses or gives when the occasion calls for it. I wonder how many times he has said "poignant yet replete with tension" or "very nuanced performance" and to how many people? YOU'RE A MYTH, DELFIN TOLENTINO! A FAKE! HOLDEN CAULFIELD WOULD SMOTHER YOU WITH HIS SUITCASE!

But seriously, these times we do need myths. Today when we can google our hearts to instant gratification, where politicians are brazen with their ambitions, where pop stars bare all even if there's really nothing to bare -- we most definitely need myths like Del.

Now here is my attempt at art criticism. Indulge me please. If Del were a piece of art, I'd say he would be a David Hockney painting. Definitely old but not dated. Accessible yes, but  also profound. Precise but never calculated. Overt but not embarrassingly shameless.

Del's eloquence, restraint, and constancy are all worth emulating. Even if we only wish to mythologize our own selves.

There is one other thing common between Delfin Tolentino and this writer. Dare I say it?! (A very long pause for effect)


NOTE TO READER: This essay is part of the anthology "No Boxers, No Briefs: An(O)ther Compendium of CAC & Ball* (College of Arts & Communication and Bachelor of Arts in Language & Literature for you who were elsewhere beginning 2001)"

The Anthology was a surprise 60th Bday gift for Delfin Tolentino. Ben Tapang and Grace Subido were the project's initiators and we were willing co-conspirators. The irreverence of the essay was intended.

1 comment:

  1. had fun reading it.. interesting to know the "other side" of sir del, though i have always known him to be, well, "skimpy" with praise.. :)