Penman No. 269: What the iPhone Hath Wrought

iPhoneX.jpg

Penman for Monday, September 18, 2017

 

FROM MY lofty perorations on literature these past two weeks, allow me to slide back down to the more pedestrian and frankly more entertaining plateau of pop culture, to talk about that object of desire that’s changed the world in more than a few ways this past decade—the iPhone.

What triggered this piece was last Tuesday’s launch in the US of the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X (read: iPhone Ten), Apple’s much-hyped rollout of its 10th anniversary models with a promised slew of new features. I won’t bother you with all the details, which you can find on apple.com/iphone. I’ll just summarize some of the hottest come-ons of these new toys: Face ID, wireless charging, OLED screens, Portrait Lighting, Animojis, better cameras, and longer battery life.

Natch, all of that comes at a price—a pretty hefty one. For the most feature-laden, top-of-the-line iPhone X, you can hock the family jewels, as it will cost you a whopping $1,149 plus tax, or well over P60,000, which normally should get you a decent laptop. It’s more than Apple has ever asked for an iPhone, so the question even the most rabid Apple fan will be asking is, “Is it worth it?”

That’s an existential question that will also involve asking what you were created for, what the future will be, the difference between need and want (nada), and how life’s privations can justify apparent extravagance. The fact that I don’t have $1,000 sloshing around right now makes it easier for me to frame an answer, but an equally glaring fact is that I have owned every model of iPhone that ever came out, except for the 3G, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up trading a few old pens for the X. (My justification has always been—aside from being a self-styled, occasional “technology journalist”—is that life is short and getting even shorter, and getting the newest things now is a way of cheating time. That’s why I was among the few Apple geeks who brought in the first iPhones back in 2007 and got them to work with local SIMs long before “jailbreaking” entered the tech vocabulary—but that’s another story.)

The real question to ask is, what has the iPhone (and, to be fair, the Treo, the BlackBerry, the Nokia, and all the Android clones) wrought upon our lives? For those of us past midlife, it doesn’t seem too long ago when a “cellphone” (how quaint the word seems now, when even “flip phone” seems ancient) was just a portable house phone you lugged around to make calls at the streetcorner and impress people, and the coolest add-ons to your cellphone were flashing diodes and “El Bimbo” or “Macarena” ringtones.

In an attempt to answer that question, and on the eve of the big iPhone X/8 rollout, the New York Times put out a video on its website talking about “Things Apple’s iPhone Helped Destroy,” to wit: alarm clocks, cabs, cameras, small talk, calendars, the compass, the address book, work/life balance, postcards, the watch, shame and humility, the carpenter’s level, maps, anonymity, and photo albums.

It’s all true, of course: your iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 have assumed such inordinately huge roles in your daily life that you might as well be comatose without them. The first thing my wife Beng does when she wakes up isn’t even to kiss me but to check out Facebook (on her 6s Plus, a hand-me-down from my 7 Plus, which proves how families exist to provide a natural and environmentally friendly recycling system for used gadgets, and always a good reason for upgrading at the top of the chain). And where would we be without Waze? (Still stuck in traffic, but at least Waze gives us a scientific basis and a graphical interface for our panic.)

iPhoneRollout.jpg

Over at PhilMUG—the venerable Philippine Macintosh Users Group, where we light incense sticks and mumble mantras at Steve Jobs’ altar and tithe away our next year’s salary to Apple—the response to the entry of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X into our humdrum existences was predictably mixed. You heard the usual grumble about pricing (“$999 for a phone? That’s insane!” followed by “But, uhm, we paid P45,000 back in 2007 for the first 16GB iPhone, remember?”), the geeky handwringing over tech specs (“Does facial recognition mean that my wife can open my phone while I’m sleeping by bringing it up to my face?” Answer: No, your eyes have to be open), and the feeble pledge of loyalty to the old model (“My iPhone 7 has served me faithfully this past year… so I’ll wait… until my Christmas bonus”).

To truly complete the New York Times’ list of things the iPhone helped destroy, let’s add “sense of satisfaction”—the idea that we could happily live with something for at least five years, like the way I’ve blissfully cohabited with many of my fountain pens for three decades now, not mention my wife of 43 summers, even if she prefers Facebook to my drool-stained cheek.

(Images courtesy of Apple and SE20@Philmug)

 

 

Penman No. 268: What This Prize Should Mean to You (2)

IMG_2927.jpg

Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

ONE OF the strangest moments of my life happened in 1993, when my first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place,” shared the grand prize with the late, great Tony Enriquez’s “Subanons.” The guest of honor then was none other than President Fidel V. Ramos, among whose speechwriters was none other than me.

There were four or five of us doing his speeches then, and the assignments were farmed out at random, and I can’t remember now if I accepted that Palanca Awards night job with delight or dismay. I suppose I could have swapped assignments with somebody else, but I had to think deeply about the situation. I was one of the awardees, so the young novelist in me wanted to sit back and hear my President’s sincerest thoughts about literature.

But the speechwriter in me also knew that those sincerest thoughts were just going to be written by somebody else in the room, so I figured, it might as well be me, to make sure that he would say nothing terribly wrong, and that he would say something very nice. And of course he did.

Incredibly enough, the same situation happened a year later, when I received a TOYM Award for Literature at Malacañang Palace, again from FVR. In both instances—because we ghostwriters preferred to remain spectral and worked far out of his sight—he had no idea that the hand he was shaking had also crafted his speech. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I interviewed him for another book, that I finally introduced myself as the writer of 500 of his speeches, which remain on my hard drive. We had a good laugh.

I’ve written speeches for five Presidents and innumerable senators and CEOs, as well as the biographies of such diverse figures as Communist guerrillas, capitalist icons, and Marcos cronies. At any given time, I’m working on three or four book projects. I teach, write a weekly column, and peck away at stories, essays, poems, my third novel, and my unfinished oral history of the First Quarter Storm. And, oh, I also get to dress up and play the part of an academic bureaucrat.

I say this neither as a boast nor a lament, but simply to show that it’s all in a writing life. I’m happy and fortunate to have all of these writing jobs—although I must confess to being happier with some than others—because, despite all the challenges and compromises I have to face, this was what I signed up for.

Many other writers in this room have done the same thing, in varying degrees, both out of necessity and desire. Quite a few have approached me and said, “I want to do what you do,” but I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. I remember, early on, typing away at a commercial film script I had to complete, with tears streaming down my face, because what I really wanted to do was to join the Palancas, and I was out of time. That’s my greatest anxiety—to run out of time.

There will always be those who will scoff at what I do and who will insist that every word you write should be God’s own truth, as if that were humanly possible. God might as well smite all lawyers, copywriters, and PR professionals—and let’s throw in all politicians—with his righteous hand.

In a course I designed called Professional Writing, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years in UP, I begin every semester with this admonition: “There’s writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do for others. And don’t ever get those two mixed up, or you’ll come to grief.” I also remind them that they can always say no, as I’ve done many times without regret.

If you embrace writing as a lifelong and life-sustaining profession rather than a weekend hobby, then you will not be writing every piece as if it were destined for the Palancas, although, as a professional, I do every job I accept as if it were my first, last, and only job, no matter how big or small.

But that again is exactly why we should value the Palancas. Too often, we lend our words to others. With these prizewinning pieces, we reclaim our words to ourselves, for ourselves, for whatever it was that first impelled us to write.

You remind me of that 21-year-old who, even as he had to write speeches, scripts, and stories for others, burned with the desire to write for himself and for his people at large—as this 63-year-old still does, awaiting blessed retirement 16 months hence so I can write the best of what remains in me to write.

Writing for the truth, writing for honor and glory, writing for the love of language—these are what your being here is all about, what the Palancas have existed for these past 67 years. While the generous cash awards are nothing to sneeze at—as the Foundation’s accountants will certainly attest to—the Palancas have always been about more than money. Your certificate tells you, this is how good you are; you look around you and you realize, that is how much better you can be.

This is our real reward, our hope, and our redemption. Whatever else you may have had to write or had to do, what you submit to these awards is your finest self, your truest words, your ineradicable proof of citizenship in the community of letters.

Let me quote President Ramos—well, in fact, let me quote myself: “It is both literature’s virtue and responsibility to reaffirm our fundamental humanity, and the unity of our interests and aspirations as a people. Every act of writing rehumanizes us, both writer and reader.” This is especially important in these darkening times, when megalomaniacal and murderous despotism threatens societies across the ocean, debases the truth, and cheapens human life. The best antidote to fake news is true fiction.

You and I have much to write about. You will not even need to wait until the next Palanca deadline to do what only you can do, and to say what only you can say. If you write for truth, freedom, and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, you will always be a first-prize winner in my book.

Penman No. 267: What This Prize Should Mean to You (Part 1)

 

IMG_2935.jpg

Penman for Monday, September 4, 2017

 

I WAS much honored to be the guest speaker last Friday at the 67th annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, so I’ll share my talk with my Penman readers this week and next:

First of all, I’d like to thank the Palanca Foundation and family for this tremendous honor, which I honestly never expected to receive. For about forty years, I have been watching and listening to many very distinguished people at this podium explicating on literature and society—and you will forgive my bias if I say that the writers were usually more memorable than the politicians—but I never imagined myself to be in their exalted position.

Indeed I have been fortunate enough to join the Palanca Hall of Fame, but I am no literary genius or philosophizer. I have always introduced myself as a Swiss Army Knife of writing, a practitioner and professional who has made a living of his words. I was already working as a newspaper reporter at 18, before I won my first Palanca; I was a journalist beholden to the facts before I was liberated by fiction.

Tonight I will address myself mainly to the first-time winners in this audience, to those who entered the Rigodon Ballroom with an extra spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes, with their parents or partners in tow.

I can tell you now that you will never forget this evening, as I have never forgotten my own introduction to this very special society of peers and comrades. It was on this day in 1975 that I won my first Palanca, a share of second prize for a short story in English. The awarding was held on the top floor of the company building in what used to be Echague—now, of course, Carlos Palanca Street—in Manila.

It was a little less opulent than this ballroom, but to that 21-year-old winning a prize the first time he joined, it might as well have been heaven, nirvana, and Camelot all rolled into one. I knew no one, and no one knew me, and I could only watch from afar as celebrated writers like Krip Yuson—who shared first prize in my category with Leo Deriada—regaled each other, likely with stories of their latest exploits in Ermita.

I still have my certificate from that ceremony: an elaborately hand-lettered work of art larger than a college diploma. Since I had dropped out in my freshman year and was working in a government office under martial law, I treasured that certificate as if it were my diploma, and had it framed. I’m told that the calligrapher who crafted those certificates has passed away, but his strokes remain indelible in my memory.

With my prize money of a couple of thousand pesos, plus some savings, I bought my first car—which tells you what kind of car it was: a canary-yellow 1963 Datsun Bluebird, battered but bright, into rehabilitating which I would throw many more years of good money after bad and not get even one day’s worth of driving, before my mechanic finally ran away with it. Years later I would get a call from the Quezon City police to inform me that they had impounded a yellow Bluebird registered in my name, and I could have it back if I paid the fee. I went over to take a look—the car’s tires were all flat, and it was riddled with bullet holes. I muttered an oath and a prayer and left it there.

So that’s what happened with my first Palanca prize, and one of these days if I turn that into a short story I might get some of my money back. But the most grievous consequence of that first victory was the fact that, for the next four years, I lost. I turned in entry after entry, and kept losing and losing. Considering who was winning—the likes of Gregorio Brillantes and F. Sionil Jose—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I had to fight back the growing fear that my first Palanca was a joke.

In 1980 I won again, and soon hit my stride. It took 20 more years to enter the Hall of Fame, by which time I had published ten books, gone back to college, and begun another career as a teacher. I never joined the Palancas again, except to be an occasional judge, but I have come to these awarding ceremonies as often as I could, eager to witness the annual emergence of new literary talent.

I give you this overview of my long relationship with these awards to bring us to the subject proper of my brief talk this evening, “What This Prize Should Mean to You.” The quick and correct response, of course, is to say that a Palanca award will bring you honor, some fame—certainly bragging rights for your proud mama and papa—and even some money, if not for a car then for a weekend in Boracay or a new phone or laptop to replace the old one.

You will be walking on air for a couple of weeks, until the novelty wears off, the money is spent, and you return to the humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is keeps you and your family alive. You will discover that, to most people, your literary genius makes no difference and no sense. You will begin to wonder, as I did, if it was all a fleeting illusion.

Some of you will fall by the wayside, but most of you will press on, like we did, wanting this Cinderella moment to repeat itself year after year. It will not always happen, and you will learn to take your losses as well as your triumphs—those years I kept joining and losing became my real education—but if you keep at it, you will reach the point when the winning will matter less than the writing. That, I think, will be your greatest victory, the realization that these awards are but an enabler, a handmaiden of books that will be validated no longer by a panel of three judges but by a readership of thousands.

(To be continued)

 

Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

patay-na-si-hesus-movie-poster.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

Empire.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

Shelf.jpg

These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

Soldiers.jpg

But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

ph-china-drugwar.jpg

[Photo from philstar.com]

 

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

IMG_2315.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

35303577574_c37ca72f3c_c

The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

RizalPen.jpg

That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

36426934531_dd2e66e302_c

Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

IMG_2677.jpeg

Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

IMG_2653.jpg

There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

IMG_2662.jpg

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 262: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (1)

IMG_2544.jpg

Penman for Monday, July 31, 2017

 

I MUST’VE been a really good kid to deserve this fortune, because much to my surprise—and possibly the chagrin of my 20-something students for whom this would be the closest they could get to heaven without dying—I got to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego with my sidekicks Beng and Demi (and Demi’s husband Jerry) for the second year in a row. I’d given up on returning to the show after failing to score tickets (“badges,” in CC parlance) twice online, but again our San Diego-based daughter pulled off a miracle at the last minute and got badges for us for the opening and closing days of the four-day convention, smack in the middle of what’s become our annual US vacation.

As all of my undergrads and junior colleagues know, San Diego’s Comic-Con is the world’s largest and most-awaited extravaganza of popular culture, running now for 47 years and attracting 150,000 attendees from all over the world. This is geekdom galore—a global gathering of fans of comic books, superheroes, fantasy, toys, animation, TV, and basically anything that levitates, teleports, or transmutates.

If you’re my age (63) and can’t relate to anything I’ve said, I can’t blame you. The average age of the Comic-Con attendee is 25; until recently, about 60 percent were male, but that’s been changing with the emergence of strong female superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl and intriguing characters like Stranger Things Eleven.

IMG_2684.jpg

But while seniors (yes, we got a discount on the tickets) may seem out of place at Comic-Con, the fact is, we were the original comic-book fans who grew up not just on DC and Marvel at a time when Adam West still played Batman on TV and George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve, played Superman; we were also followers of Lastikman, Palos, Gagamba, Darna, and other Pinoy heroes in the local komiks. For older folks like me, Comic-Con is rejuvenation, if not resurrection.

Here, everyone who was ever made to feel weird or was left out because of, say, a desire to wear blue hair, green skin, or an extra eye will feel at home, because Comic-Con is just like that Star Wars bar scene, with patrons from a dozen galaxies, multiplied a hundred times over. Fans come to the show dressed as their favorite superhero or cartoon character, and you don’t even need the body (or, for that matter, the gender) of Gal Gadot to be Wonder Woman. I’d give this year’s Most Astounding Cosplayer Award to the Princess Leia who had all the right buns—and a beard. Before I could snap a picture, she/he was off to Alderaan (aka home).

Also ubiquitous this year were various iterations of Harley Quinn (the girl from Suicide Squad), Spider-Man, and Deadpool, and even a knotty Groot or two. Beng was swept off her feet by a Jack Sparrow lookalike who had the accent and the bow down pat. I swallowed my shyness and agreed to Beng’s prodding to have my picture taken with Wonder Woman (one of them, anyway). We were unabashed fans for the weekend, and enjoying ourselves, although we had to squat on the floor and eat our lunch sandwiches, like hundreds of others, for lack of seats at the San Diego Convention Center.

IMG_2528.jpg

That’s because almost all the seats were in the meetings rooms and halls upstairs. The SDCC is a lot like the Mall of Asia’s SMX, only larger, with a huge exhibition hall downstairs and meeting spaces of various sizes for the convention itself upstairs. While the ground floor had hundreds of booths exhibiting everything from collector comics (I saw one, All-Star Comics No. 8 from December 1941which introduces Wonder Woman, selling for $75,000) to what happens in a Hollywood make-up studio, on the second floor were endless queues of fans who had come for the four days of panels. If downstairs was merchandise, upstairs was talk—and lots of it.

It’s at these one-hour panels, running in parallel sessions all over, that fans can actually meet the stars, who just might let some spoiler slip about a show’s forthcoming season (the Game of Thrones panel, hosted by Hodor, ended with a snippet about Melisandre) or give a definitive answer to some lingering mystery (was Bladerunner’s Deckard a replicant? Harrison Ford remained evasive). Most other panels are smaller and more practical, with titles like “Career Paths into Game Development,” How to Color Comic Art,” “Basic Star Wars Robotics,” and “Villains: Creating the Perfect Antagonist.” I wish I could say I attended even one of these, but the long lines quickly drove us back downstairs.

The biggest panels take place at Hall H, which can accommodate 6,500 people. A Comic-Con badge is far from a guarantee of entry into this cavernous space, for which the queue spills out to the yard and street outside—beginning days before; Demi’s brother-in-law Ray had planned on standing in line for his daughter Mia for the Stranger Things panel on Saturday, but had to give up when he learned that the line had begun forming on Thursday.

Madness, indeed—but of a happy kind, especially for host San Diego, which stood to gain $150 million in revenues from the July 20-23 convention. More on Comic-Con next week, including the highlights of my interview with Pinoy comics icon Alex Niño.

For more of my Comic-Con 2017 pics, click here.

IMG_2676.jpg

Penman No. 261: High and Low in La La Land

IMG_2365

Penman for Monday, July 24, 2017

 

BENG AND I have been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s major art museums—the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, the Tate, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others—so I was glad for the chance to visit another great one, the Getty, in Los Angeles last week. we were on our way to visit our daughter Demi in San Diego, but decided to stop over in LA for a few days for Beng to meet up with old schoolmates and for me to finally take a longer look at La La Land. In all these years that I’ve been going to the US and passing through LAX, I’d never actually stopped in LA long enough to do the tourist thing and look up at the HOLLYWOOD sign or march down the Walk of Fame near the TCL Chinese Theater.

So when the chance presented itself through Beng’s friend Rose, we dropped off our bags at Rose’s place in West Covina and rode out to do some sightseeing—but first, of the highbrow kind. The Getty and the newer Broad Museum have been on my to-do list, but we had time this time for just the Getty—and I would quickly realize that “just the Getty” was the silliest thing to say.

IMG_2382.jpg

“The J. Paul Getty Museum” is actually two places in LA all at once—the Getty Center, a complex on a hilltop in the Brentwood area, and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which houses the Getty’s Greek, Roman, and Etruscan collections.

images.jpeg

But before we go any further, a word on the benefactor of these palaces of art, Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976), once the world’s richest man, thanks to his daring and foresight in buying a 60-year lease on Saudi oil. Despite his fabulous wealth, he was notoriously stingy, reportedly begrudging his fifth wife the medical expenses for their son who later died, and installing a pay phone at his English villa. When his grandson and namesake JP III was kidnapped in 1973, he dickered and paid only as much ransom as could be tax-deductible, and gave the rest as a loan to his son.

How such miserly men join the ranks of the world’s greatest philanthropists will remain a mystery for psychologists to plumb, but I’ll take it as a form of restitution. Getty had the villa, which fronts his home, built in the early 1970s to house his overflowing collection, but ironically he never saw it, dying in England. The Center, about a 20-minute drive down the beach and reachable by a funicular tram, opened in 1997. Remarkably, entrance to both venues is free; you just have to pay for the parking.

While I prefer modern art—from the utter simplicity of a fish by Brancusi or the melancholy of Hopper’s “Nighthawks”—I never fail to be awed and amazed by the workmanship and luminosity of the earlier masters. The Getty Center’s exhibits of Renaissance and Neoclassical art did not fail to impress. Most stunning of all for me was the work of an artist I’d never even heard of—Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755-1821), whose A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posilippo, a monumental landscape with an equally kilometric name, displays an uncanny awareness of both the largeness and the smallness of things. True to her art-restorer self, Beng came to within half an inch of many masterpieces, scrutinizing the restorer’s technique, until the guard had to shoo her away.

giovanni_battista_lusieri_28italian_-_a_view_of_the_bay_of_naples2c_looking_southwest_from_the_pizzofalcone_toward_capo_di_posilippo_-_google_art_project

The villa, on the other hand, was as much to be visited as an artwork in itself as the pieces it contained. I was mesmerized by the beauty and delicacy of Roman glass, and by the almost contemporary pixilation of the mosaics, but like Mt. Vesuvius towering over Herculaneum—the villa’s inspiration—Getty’s shadow hovered over everything. Not surprisingly, he’s buried somewhere on the premises.

IMG_2388.jpg

We left LA for San Diego the next day, but not before indulging my small wish to cruise down Hollywood Boulevard for an encounter with the stars—at least those at one’s feet. While we never got to meet the likes of Gal Gadot or Emma Stone (not even Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson), we did spot several Spider-Men and lesser icons strutting on the street, ever ready for the next selfie. I had the feeling that I was going to meet a galaxy of these superheroes in San Diego, where Comic-con was due to open in a few days. (And with any luck I hope to be able to report on and from that event next week, as I did last year.)

 My readers will understand if I admit that, back in Hollywood, I planted my feet on the star of a reality-TV host named Donald Trump; it was, after all, a sidewalk, with all the stars meant to be stepped on—some, perhaps, more so than others.

IMG_2436.jpg

(Photo of J. Paul Getty from Celebrity Net Worth; Lusieri painting from Wikimedia.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 259: A Showcase of Cordillera Culture

IMG_2071

Penman for Monday, July 10, 2017

 

I WENT up to Baguio a couple of weeks ago to give the commencement address before the Class of 2017 of the University of the Philippines-Baguio (UPB), and began my talk by reminiscing how, as a young boy, “I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim ‘student power,’ pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.”

You can find the rest of that speech on my blog at http://www.penmanila.ph—it seems to have acquired a life of its own—but the real highlight of my Baguio sojourn turned out to be a visit to the new Museo Kordilyera on the UPB campus along Gov. Pack Road.

UPB, you have to realize, is unique among UP’s campuses in that it sprawls all over a hilltop, so that anything you build on it has to adapt to its challenging topography. When you think of what the builders of the Rice Terraces had to do, you get an idea of how creative and adaptive UPB’s architects have had to be to maximize the use of its property, keeping aesthetics in mind as well as safety, in this earthquake-troubled city.

UPB Chancellor Ray Rovillos, himself a historian and one of UP’s most capable administrators, had offered to take us on a personal tour of the new museum the day after graduation, and Beng and I happily took him up on it. The three-level Museo looks little more than a glass box with a few exhibits at ground level, but it’s when you take the stairs going underground that your jaw falls at seeing what UPB’s combination of careful scholarship, administrative commitment, and sheer perseverance has produced.

Formally opened last January under the administration of then UP President Fred Pascual, the museum draws on the curatorial work undertaken by Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino, Jr., Prof. Victoria Diaz, archivist Cristina Villanueva and museum director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores.

IMG_2050

What immediately catches the eye, of course, are the life-size representations of various indigenous people in full tribal dress and gear—so accurately researched, Ikin would tell us, that some people in the community didn’t even know their ancestors had worn them. Going over the intricate weaves and beadwork, Beng and I exchanged stories with Ikin about similar objects we had seen deep in the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum. While part of the museum’s mission is the visual showcase for the public, an equally important aspect is the scholarly research it hopes to engender. Century-old artifacts are kept in cabinets, yet to be studied, and donations from collectors are welcome to deepen the museum’s holdings.

IMG_2083

A Ford Foundation scholar at Oxford University, Ikin had published a landmark study titled Tattooing Ink, Tapping Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society, North Luzon, Philippines (Quezon City: UP Press, 2013), the culmination of a long fascination with the practice and origins of tattooing that began with an encounter with an old woman in Baguio’s market almost 30 years ago.

A corner of the museum is devoted to books published by the UP Press and by the Cordillera Studies Center, which has established itself as the most important source of expertise in its area. Prominently displayed are the three excellently written and produced monographs that accompanied the launch and opening exhibits of the Museo Kordilyera: Batok (Tattoos): Body as Archive by Analyn Salvador-Amores; The Indigenous, In Flux: Reconfiguring the Ethnographic Photograph by Roland Rabang; and Jules De Raedt: Life Works, Lived Worlds by Victoria Lourdes C. Diaz. Anyone wanting deeper insights into the ways of the highlands would do well to consult June Prill-Brett’s Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture (Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, 2015).

Worthy of commendation for the museum’s modern but welcoming design is Architect Aris Go and the 90 Design Studio team that has been helping Chancellor Rovillos and UPB make the most of their limited space—a service Aris has also extended to UPB’s new and handsome Science Research Center, another fine example of environmentally adaptive architecture.

The UPB people were eagerly awaiting the visit of one of the country’s most fervent advocates of indigenous culture and arts, Sen. Loren Legarda, which was planned for mid-July. Knowing the senator’s passion for all things Filipino, I urged Ikin and Chancellor Ray to secure further support from her for the museum and its adjoining auditorium, which will host many conferences on indigenous culture in the years to come.

Besides the ube jam and peanut brittle at Good Shepherd—and, of course, the splendid art exhibits and architecture to be found in the Bencab Museum on Asin Road (Bencab has donated some of his most important pieces to the UPB museum)—Baguio visitors now have another must-see stop on their itinerary. The Museo Kordilyera is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am-5 pm for a nominal entrance fee. For more information, check out its Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/upbmuseokordilyera/.

IMG_2084