When good men don’t write their stories
My boss retired at the ripe age of 65 last month.
I was able to visit his private nook in his office a couple of times, and I marveled at his wide collection of classic literature, fiction, and books on self-help and management. I was so awed that I had to hold back tears. I even commissioned his trusted assistant to discreetly slip just one book—so the boss would not notice—to me. I even toyed with the idea of stealing one myself—until I remembered that I once served the Corpus Christi during eucharistic celebrations in my youth as an altar boy, and shunned the deadly deed immediately.
Of course, I could have simply asked my boss to give me one book as a memento, but eventually I feared for my life. I never got the chance to actually probe what was his favorite. But beyond that, knowing him for almost three years and how he has raised my bar of professionalism and work ethics, I reached a sobering fact: I don’t know if he ever wrote a book. Yes, with his career as a technical expert backed by his extensive credentials in the industry I work in, he has written countless books—not technically books, but, rather, manuals.
And reading manuals is different from reading a book. For one, a manual is all mechanical pragmatics (do this, do that), but a book allows the reader to explore what the intricately entangled words mean, with imagination as the inexhaustible resource. For another, aside from the addictive scent, a misunderstanding of the manual’s instructions could lead to a total miscomprehension of it and may immediately escalate to inexplicable repercussions once applied in actual work. But a book, well, is downright unapologetic whether you get the gist or not. No life is on the line.
The reason behind my wondering is based on my being an overly dramatic pseudoromanticist thinking of the sad possibility that no one has documented all the wonderful deeds and experiences that my boss has accomplished all these decades—not as a professional, but as a wandering man in this passing life. Maybe not even himself. What saddens me more is how great men like him, distracted with “matters of consequence” (as the Little Prince would have put it) are left empty-handed, with the memories of their journey not passed on as an equally prized birthright.
But my boss has compensated with storytelling, and boy, was he a good storyteller. He could seize all ears that surrounded him, and an hourlong lunch break could easily stretch to an entire afternoon. With complementary hand gestures and vocal mimicry, he gave Lola Basiang (if she ever existed) a run for her money.
Yet nothing beats written stories. Even Lola Basiang was perceived as an elderly woman reading stories to little doe-eyed tykes from what seemed like a book of ancient folk tales. Then again, what are captured in written stories are the details of unexpected victories and premeditated defeats. Often, storytellers give much focus on the “happy ending” of the story. Not building up the narrative, with the struggles and stumbles that can seem counterproductive to the protagonist’s image, is a mistake often and easily made. Maybe the African proverb is true: that until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
Another thing is that a written narrative preserves the essence of the story. Meaning, the risk of losing in translation through verbal transmission is limited. It gives a possible full account of what happened and what the person went through before reaching the climax. No shortcuts or overnight millionaires: The hero gets bloodied and bruised even before being named one.
Although biographies of all kinds are filling up a certain section in our local bookstores, it is still different to personally know the individual whose stories are within the bound pages. It gives a certain intimacy to the reader that he or she had, in one way or another, brushed elbows with the protagonists or, even better, exchanged ideas over coffee.
Aside from this, written stories can be used as future references. It’s said that history can never happen twice, unless someone wrote it down the first time. Imagine how people like me, who may have to go through some of my boss’ experiences, can pick up something important in those memoirs. What’s better is how I may never be able to cross the bridges that he did, but through those stories kept in books, my mind wouldn’t know the difference.
These stories teach us, the readers, about life in general, and this fact is slowly retreating into the shadows. In these days of fake news and shallow discourse, stories of great men could be a gold mine. Imagine the valuable prose on every page and how the person’s credibility is left on the leaves, vulnerable to judgment. Maybe that’s why we have continuously made the same mistakes: Because we have neglected to refer to what has happened in our history. Rizal’s books are being reproduced now, but they are not for leisure reading but for the wrong purpose of a reading requirement. The joy and curiosity of getting into the intricate mind of a young Filipino who wanted to change the society he was in has been taken away. What’s funny is how some of us still feel the same way, with the same insecurities hindering us from doing so. If not for Rizal’s stories, I wouldn’t have realized that being a “brown monkey” is nothing if we can outwit the “bangus” of this society. What more if my boss could have written his.
One of my favorite scenes in the first installment of “Lord of the Rings” was how the older Baggins decided to leave the ring to Frodo and journey his way back to the lonely mountains to finish his book. In the last film, we see a much older Bilbo handing over the velvet-covered manuscript to Frodo, finally completed with his own illustrations. I honestly could not hold back my tears that time. A part of me was expecting the same scene with my boss’ retirement: him handing me the book of his journey and me treasuring it with my life. Until reality slapped me in the face: that I was a plain melodramatic nerd in this world where great men have forgotten to write their stories.
Jumar G. Tablando, 27, is a civil engineer.
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