Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined. 

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.) 

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 391: Trouble in Literary Wolf-land

 

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Penman for July 6, 2020

 

IT’S NOT every day that an old guy like me learns something almost totally new about what’s happening in my literary backyard, but your attention tends to wander over a long lockdown, and one day my eyes latched onto a headline from The New York Times, which announced that “A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question.” I had to do a double-take and ask (as you probably would) “Wolf-kink what???”

I sat transfixed as I read the story, which turned out to be about a legal battle over copyright issues in what my young Creative Writing students call “fan fiction” or “fanfic,” which is a genre of literature basically devoted to, well, making new stories out of old ones. Wikipedia defines it as “a type of fictional text written by fans of any work of fiction where the author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their writing.”

So you could begin with, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and write your own version of the play (or turn it into fiction), where Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?” because he’s a gay man dying to come out. Now, I seriously just made that up, but on a hunch, I Googled “Hamlet fanfic gay,” and guess what—there’s a story on Wattpad titled “I Gave You My Heart” where you can “follow the romance between Hamlet and his ‘friend’ Horatio.” Its portentous beginning goes thus: “Hamlet looked over at Horatio, shaking his head slightly. ‘Not here, not now,’ he thought, hoping Horatio understood. Horatio nodded slightly. He understood. They headed back to the castle. Hamlet held Horatio’s hand and led him down the hall toward his bedroom.”

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Nope, certainly not Will Shakespeare speaking there (all the poor guy could say was “To thine own self be true”), but you get the idea. Fanfic is a literary free-for-all.

Or maybe not so free. The “wolf-kink” brouhaha was about two fanfic authors—Addison Cain and Zoey Ellis—who both wrote novels about wolves having sex—or, to put it more dramatically, “In both books, Alpha men are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage. In both books, the women try and fail to suppress their pheromones and give in to the urge to mate.” Ellis was allegedly copying Cain, and the catfight was on, suit vs. countersuit, over pride and apparently quite a bit of money. Above the legal issues hovered the larger question of where does “originality” stop and begin? As the Times reported, “It’s hard to imagine that two writers could independently create such bizarrely specific fantasy scenarios. As it turns out, neither of them did. Both writers built their plots with common elements from a booming, fan-generated body of literature called the Omegaverse.”

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The “Omegaverse”? More research for another time. But the story got me thinking about how authors have indeed taken off from other people’s work to create something newish—and the “ish” there is important, because the “new” work depends precisely on the reader’s presumed familiarity with its model to make sense. But that connection is really a bonus, because the new work also has to be able to stand on its own if it’s to be any good, and, at the highest level, to be able to present new insights and to raise new questions about the original. This way, you achieve a kind of conversation across the centuries between authors and between their readers.

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One of the most popular of these “adaptations,” as some fanfic might actually be, is the Broadway musical West Side Story, with was based on Romeo and Juliet, with New York street gangs taking the place of Shakespeare’s feuding families.

I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but looking back, I was surprised to see how much of my own work was a kind of fan fiction. Remember James Joyce’s classic story “Araby,” which lent a memorable poignancy to the word “crush”? It’s become a masterplot which others have followed, among them NVM Gonzalez in his story “Bread of Salt.” In the early 1990s, I wrote my own version titled “Ybarra,” an “Araby” in reverse where the boy is now an old man.

Three of my plays were fanfic: “Mac Malicsi, TNT” was about a fleet-footed Pinoy in the US, taking off from Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” which in turn was an adaptation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” “Ang Butihing Babae ng Timog,” about bargirls and their patrons, was inspired by another Brecht play, “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” And “Kalapating Dagat,” in which Simoun returns to Manila on a ship from Hong Kong and meets a lady of the night named Augusta, relies heavily on the audience’s association of Simoun with Rizal’s protagonist in the Fili.

They may not be as exciting as Alpha and Omega wolves in heat coupling under a harvest moon, but at least no one’s sued me yet. I doubt that Brecht and Rizal or their estates would have bothered—at least until I make my first millions, which I’m still waiting for.

Penman No. 360: Mechanical Murmurs

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Penman for Monday, July 1, 2019

 

I’M SURE no more than a handful of us knew about it, but last June 23 was National Typewriter Day—in America, where Christopher Latham Sholes was granted a patent for the new writing machine in 1868. While Sholes had been preceded by many others touting ideas for some kind of mechanical writing, it was he—along with Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden—who put the first commercially viable typewriter together (in Milwaukee, famous for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz beer, and Briggs and Stratton engines, and briefly my home 30 years ago).

The typewriter would go on from that first Sholes and Glidden machine to revolutionize writing, industry, and communication over most of the 20thcentury, and bring forth names like Remington, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Royal, Olympia, Olivetti, and Hermes, among many others. (Remington, a gun maker, bought out Sholes even before his invention came out.) But few of its descendants would show the charm of that first typewriter (then spelled as two words—and would later refer to the person typing, or the typist, as well), its glossy black front and top bedecked with colorful flowers.

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The Sholes and Glidden came out on the market in July 1874, and it must have been such a hit that not even a year later—writing from Hartford, Conn. on March 19, 1875—a man who signed as “Saml. L. Clemens” would claim that it was causing him too much trouble:

“GENTLEMEN: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could type a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine, but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc. etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker. Yours truly, SAML. L. CLEMENS”

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(The writer, of course, was better known as Mark Twain, whose tongue-in-cheek endorsements must have been much in demand, because almost 30 years later we find him scribbling again from New York, on Oct. 1, 1903, this time on behalf of Conklin fountain pens and their famous “crescent” fillers, which prevented pens from rolling off the table: “Dear Sirs: I prefer it to ten other fountain pens, because it carries its filler in its own stomach, and I cannot mislay even by art or intention. Also, I prefer it because it is a profanity saver; it cannot roll off the desk.”)

It’s probably safe to assume that hundreds of millions of typewriters must have been manufactured since Sholes and Glidden made their debut, spanning all shapes, sizes, and functions, from steel behemoths to plastic cuties, from manual to electric to electronic, offering all manner of type from all-caps to cursive. Of course, word processors and computers effectively buried typewriters and the industry behind them from the 1980s onwards—except for pockets of enthusiasts and personal users, such as the online Antique Typewriter Collectors group to which I and a few other Filipinos belong. (And many thanks to my friend Dennis Pinpin for his post reminding me of National Typewriter Day.)

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Eight years ago I wrote a requiem for the typewriter—prematurely, as it turned out—when the Indian manufacturer Godrej and Boyce, which was still making 12,000 machines a year in 2009 mainly for the Indian government, announced that it was closing shop. But lately a new manual typewriter (made, where else, but in China) , has been popping up online under the “We R Memory Keepers” brand; one or two young people I know have picked it up—attracted, no doubt, by its cuddly retro profile and its pastel colors—but I have to hasten to add that based on the expert opinion of my ATC friends, your money would be far better spent on a vintage Olympia or Smith-Corona, given the flimsiness of the WRMK’s construction. In other words, you can’t keep memories with shoddy engineering.

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But why even keep using typewriters when computers are so much more available and convenient? For some collectors and enthusiasts, it’s the very isolation of the machine and of the typing itself—removed from email, Facebook, and all such distractions—that recommends it for more thoughtful writing, especially for poems, novels, and personal correspondence. As a professional writer and editor working on half a dozen books at a time, I can’t afford to be that romantic; I love my fountain pens and typewriters, but do all my serious work on my Macs, and typically turn to my Olympia Traveller or my Olivetti 32 to fill out forms and address envelopes.

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But then again what have I amassed over 20 typewriters for (don’t say it—one friend has 70, another a hundred), if not for the romance of hearing a mechanical murmur from the past? As with my Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s, I have to wonder what secrets my typers wrote—especially my current pet, an impossibly thin, all-steel Groma Gromina made in East Germany around 1955.

Sometimes I type a line—a nonsense line, anything—just to hear that reassuring “ding!” at the end of it. Can we say, thereby, that life has no meaning—or that the meaning is in the gesture itself?

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Penman No. 358: A Feast for Book Lovers (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 17, 2019

 

LAST SATURDAY, at the 10thPhilippine International Literary Festival sponsored by the National Book Development Board, I joined a panel discussion on “Advanced and Antiquarian Book Collecting,” and since most of you weren’t there to hear me and my fellow panelists Anthony John Balisi and Francis Ong, I’d like to share part of what I said.

As most of my readers know, I’ve long been a collector of fountain pens, especially vintage ones going back to the early 20thcentury. I still have a couple of hundred pens in the collection, which I’ve begun trimming down for the inevitable day when our only daughter will have to deal with all the junk her weird papa left behind. Well, she’s going to have to deal with a lot more than pens, because over the past few years or so, I’ve also begun to amass collections of midcentury paintings, typewriters, and, yes, old books.

I’ll talk about those other afflictions some other time—although I’m sure you see a pattern somewhere there. To focus on book collecting, let’s start with the basic proposition that people buy books to read, usually for education or entertainment. That’s how all book collectors begin: as readers who enjoy the word on the page. But collectors are excited by more than what books contain or mean; they enjoy the book itself as a cultural artifact (and yes, as a tradeable commodity), as a physical manifestation of ideas, and as a work of art and technology in itself.

Book publishing has a long and fascinating history, and important books—like the Gutenberg Bible (1455), our own Doctrina Christiana (1593), and Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891)—are much sought after. Because of the sheer number of books published since Gutenberg, collectors tend to focus on specific areas like art, religion, history, geography, cooking, horticulture, and such.

I’m not even going to pretend that I’ve read or can read many of the books in my library; some are in languages like Latin or old French and Spanish, and while I can guess at some meanings with the help of a dictionary, I’d be better off with a readily available translation. So why do I buy and keep these books? Why even go for, say, first editions when cheap copies of modern editions abound?

It’s because I feel like I’m saving many of these books from oblivion, and that it’s important for future generations to see and appreciate these texts in their original state. In fact, many items in my collection began as props for teaching; you can’t imagine how surprised and thrilled my literature students are when I show them an actual copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1773 when we discuss what the early colonists in America must have been reading, or a 1935 issue of The Prairie Schooner where a story by Manuel Arguilla titled “Midsummer” appeared. It’s what I’ve been calling “the materiality of literature,” its occurrence as a phenomenon as physical and as necessary as the Internet and satellite TV today. Like I told a historian-friend who couldn’t figure out why I was obsessed with finding original texts of easily accessible books, “The object is the object.”

Most of my books these days come from eBay, which gives me access to a global trove of books, many of them obscure and unappreciated where they are. I’ve gotten choice books from as far as Portugal and Guatemala this way. But some of my most remarkable finds have been local pickups—like books signed by Amado V. Hernandez and Atang de la Rama, delivered to me in Intramuros by a seller on a bicycle, or a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, which I bought in Jollibee Philcoa.

For show-and-tell last Saturday, I was happy to share some of these best finds:

  1. An Abridgement of the Notable Works of Polidore Vergil by Thomas Langley. Published in London in 1551, it’s the oldest volume in my collection—found, of all places, in olx.ph, and picked up by me from its seller in Cubao one dark Christmas Eve. (And how does a 470-year-old English book of essays end up in Cubao? Via Paris, where the seller’s mother worked as an OFW, and was gifted by her client with the book.)
  2. El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal, in the second edition published by Chofre in Manila in 1900. Another local pickup, found online.
  3. America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, another copy of the 1946 first edition, second printing, gifted to me by Greg Brillantes to replace the copy I gave my daughter as a wedding present.
  4. Without Seeing the Dawn by Stevan Javellana, a 1947 first edition, signed by its first owner Zoilo Galang, our first Filipino novelist in English, found in Megamall.
  5. Doctrina Christiana, a facsimile edition published by the Library of Congress in 1947, very soon after this oldest of Philippine books joined the LOC collection, my copy signed by its donor and benefactor, Lessing J. Rosenwald, found on eBay.
  6. Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, a one-of-its-kind compilation put together by a young Leopoldo Yabes in the 1930s, who gifted it to poet Jimmy Abad, who passed it on to me for restoration. (This book, like many others, will be bequeathed to the University of the Philippines.)

If these precious books survive me—and they will—then my mad chase for them will make final and total sense.

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Penman No. 352: My Sweet Engraveable You

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Penman for Monday, May 6, 2019

 

THAT’S PROBABLY what Jay del Fierro, who goes by the handle “Jay the Engraver” online, hums whenever he sees a gun, a knife, a lighter, a pen, or pretty much anything with a smooth metal side or surface.

There aren’t too many other people in this country who can do what he does, to the degree of skill and dedication that he has. I met Jay in an online forum a year ago, when he offered his services to anyone brave enough to entrust their pens to him. I had a 40-year-old Sheaffer Targa in stainless steel that I thought I could sacrifice to the gravure gods, just to see what this Jay the Engraver could do.

We met up in a mall down South—he had come all the way from Bicol, where he hails from and is now based—and I was pleased to see a modest, middle-aged man who was clearly imbued with an uncommon passion. It’s a spark I’ve seen in other excellent craftsmen (see my column-piece a few weeks ago on “The Master of Commandante Street,” Gerald Cha, who repairs and restores vintage typewriters in his shop in downtown Quiapo), the likes of whom I’m always glad to meet and to draw some well-deserved attention to. (Note to self: do writeups on book and paper restorers Loreto Apilado and Josephine Francisco, and fountain pen nibmeisters JP Reinoso and John Raymond Lim.)

I turned over the Sheaffer to him, and we worked out my preferred design—I asked for bamboo stalks and leaves, for a distinctly Asian appeal—and about a month later, I received the finished work with much delight.

Our connection went beyond that job, because Jay knew that I, too, did a kind of engraving a long time ago, when I was active as a printmaker with the Printmakers Association of the Philippines. The PAP had a studio and workshop on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, and in the early 1970s, I learned and practiced printmaking there, which became an important source of income for me then, fresh out of martial-law prison. (Not incidentally, that’s where I met my wife-to-be Beng.)

I was practicing mainly two kinds of printmaking: etching and drypoint. Etching involves the use of acid to cut lines into the metal to produce the design, while drypoint comes closer to engraving, with the artist employing a pointed tool or burin to scratch out fine lines directly on the plate. With engraving, the artist uses an even sharper and harder graver to cut deep grooves into the metal. For a printmaker, these grooves serve merely to hold ink to transfer onto paper, but for an engraver, the patterns he or she cuts into the metal could be the artwork itself—unless, of course, one is engraving plates for banknotes, or for art prints such as those produced by the German master Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). Indeed, for centuries, engravers did by hand what photographers and graphic designers would do in the 20thcentury for practically anything in print: illustrations, maps, social cards.

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The skill requires a clear eye, a steady hand, loads of energy and persistence, and the right tools. And the medium is unforgiving; if your hand slips, not only could you cut yourself badly, but a mistake on metal won’t be that easy to mend. (Today, automation has taken over much of the menial labor, with computers and printers doing the cutting, but some traditionalist holdouts still do things entirely by hand.)

Which leads one to ask, why would anyone—especially in this digital age—want to undertake anything so arduously analog? Jay studied mechanical engineering, and worked at his profession for a few years after graduation. He seemed to be on track to succeed at what he had signed up for, landing jobs with leading companies. But something was missing, and Jay realized what he was when he chanced upon an engraver at work on YouTube. “I’d always liked to draw,” he says, “and Fine Arts would have been my second choice in college.” He felt drawn to engraving like a moth to a flame, and soon he was watching as many instructional videos as he could, and trying out what he saw.

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He soon became an entirely self-taught engraver, and began taking on jobs from clients looking for a more personalized flourish on their “everyday carries” or EDCs and their trophies. For some clients, those trophies could include fearsome .45s (there’s a huge market for firearms engraving in America—not surprising given their gun culture—and “master engraver” titles are bestowed by the industry for gunwork; see pic above from shotgunlife.com). For others, Zippo lighters, knives, and even spoons could fit the bill. “The most challenging job I’ve done so far,” Jay says, “is a Series 80 Colt .45, featuring English scrolls with arabesque relief on bead-blasted areas. Mind you, I insist that every gun I work on has to have full legal papers.”

Preferring pens to pistols, I show Jay a 1970s Sheaffer with a machine-pressed grapes-and-vines motif that I’ve admired for the past 30 years. “I can do that,” he tells me, and I believe him. (You can get in touch with Jay directly at jay.engraver@gmail.com. That’s him below with his daughter Ella.)

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Penman No. 351: The Fake, The Good, and the Beautiful

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Penman for Monday, April 29, 2010

 

AS I’VE mentioned before, I’ve taken to collecting a bit of Philippine midcentury art over the past few years. You won’t see any Amorsolos, Kiukoks, Botongs, or Ocampos on our walls, because I simply don’t have the kind of loose change you need to bring home even one of those dazzlers. But I take pride in having put together a small but decent gathering of works mainly by Amorsolo’s students and juniors—typically pastorals by such gifted painters as Gabriel Custodio and Elias Laxa, depictions of a lost landscape that relax me and remind me of a time when—to use a phrase brazenly stolen by its opposite—the true, the good, and the beautiful prevailed.

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Someone I know had the unfortunate and rather embarrassing experience of trying to help a friend dispose of some masters’ paintings—excellent examples of their kind that the friend had bought years earlier in good faith—through an auction house. The auctioneer was initially delighted to receive the works, but upon closer inspection raised small but troubling questions about the pieces (as they were of course obliged to do, with many millions and their reputation in the balance). Eventually the works had to be pulled out because they simply couldn’t be authenticated, which is one short and polite step away from saying that they’re, well, probably fake. They could look good and even be beautiful, but at the end of the day, they’re still fake.

This reminded me of the controversy that followed a big university’s mounting of a retrospective show of one of its most distinguished alumni, only to be told that a few of its prized exhibits were somebody else’s handiwork.

Ironically, I have to sheepishly confess to being taken in by a seller purporting to sell an old painting by this very same master at a bargain price—which, being new to buying art, I jumped at, after examining all the visual and physical evidence before me. The style was correct, as was the subject, including the little tell-tale touches that artists tend to populate their signature works with. The corners of the painting were thick with dust and the natural accretions of age. I knew there was a 50-50 chance I was being taken for a ride—the seller was offering no guarantees, no certificates of authenticity, so I wasn’t going to get my money back—and I hemmed and hawed for a bit, but it was finally the dust that suckered me into a deal; if I didn’t take it that minute, someone else would, so I might as well gamble. I was elated for a few hours, and then I began to do more visual research online, until I began to realize, with a crushing certainty, that I’d just bought a fake, because of one small but vital detail that the painter had gotten wrong (which I’m not about to divulge here, and which I’ve since spotted in other offerings of the same artist).

Even more ironically, of course, I’m married to one of the best art restorers and conservators in the country—but she can’t, doesn’t, and won’t authenticate artworks, knowing both the scholarship and the science required to do the job properly and credibly. The problem isn’t only that Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) can sometimes be too easily secured or bought from less than stellar sources, but also that COAs themselves have been faked. (If you can do a reasonably good copy of a masterwork, it shouldn’t be too hard to fake a piece of paper and a signature, right?)

With all the big money sloshing around in the art market these days, it’s easy to see how and why art forgery is also a booming sub-industry, going by what I’ve seen and heard out there. A persistent story that’s made the rounds is that of a warehouse-sized factory where an artist who’s made a name for himself, in his own right, has been assisted by apprentices in churning out fakes.

To be fair, it’s been going on since at least Michelangelo, whom scholars point out indulged in a bit of forgery himself, copying older works and passing them off as originals—an act generous critics would call a “triumph over antiquity.” You can read the full, fascinating story of history’s most notorious (or, to put it another way, most talented) art forgers here: https://bit.ly/2eWwQhI.

I wish we had a repository of artists’ signatures, organized by date or period. I’ve had good luck doing research online, where auction houses keep visual records of well-known artists’ works and sales figures. But proper authentication has to go beyond signatures and gut feel.

One friend closely related to a National Artist wants to set up a scientific laboratory for professionally authenticating art works, so that we don’t go simply by sight or the word of the artist’s relatives and friends. This could involve, among others, undertaking a chemical analysis of the materials used, comparing them to data stored in a bank that will also have to be, of course, set up and maintained. You’d think that this idea should fly easily among gallery owners and art patrons, but you’d also have to wonder how willing some people will be to subject their collections to microscopic scrutiny.

As we should’ve learned from the days of Michelangelo to this age of Twitter, the truth may not be beautiful, and what looks good may not be true.

Penman No. 350: An Avatar of Good Writing and Reading

 

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Penman for Monday, April 22, 2019

 

EVERY BOOK author needs a publisher, and in this country, depending on what you write, there aren’t too many of them. There will always be a market and a publisher for law, medical, and engineering books (and let’s add cookbooks and inspirational books), but for those of us who write fiction, history, and things that won’t make you any real money, the options are few and far between.

If you’re connected with a university, an academic publisher such as the University of the Philippines Press, the Ateneo de Manila University Press, and the UST Press could be your ticket—if you pass the rigorous standards of academic publishing, which explains the prestige of getting published under a university imprint. Of course, self-publishing (what used to be derided as “vanity” publishing) has gained growing acceptance around the world, given the possibilities opened up by new desktop technologies. That still leaves authors with the problem of distribution, which neither universities and much less individuals are too adept at.

Thankfully, another option—indeed at the top of the list for most Filipino authors—is Anvil Publishing, established in 1990 as a subsidiary of the giant National Book Store chain founded in 1942 by the Ramoses. The NBS network of over 230 branches all over the country gives Anvil a formidable edge over any competition, but publishing isn’t just about distribution; as importantly, it’s about product, and bringing that product to market.

That’s the job of Anvil’s General Manager Andrea Pasion-Flores, who joined the company two years ago, coming from an ideal background as an English major and a talented writer in her own right, becoming a lawyer and then Executive Director of the National Book Development Board, followed by a stint as the only Filipino literary agent with the Singapore-based Jacaranda Agency.

She took over from the very capable Karina Bolasco, who moved over to head the Ateneo press. For most of its nearly three decades, Karina had shepherded Anvil to its predominant position in the industry, and gave many authors like me the break they needed to reach a national audience. In 1992, Anvil took on my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, the first of many projects I would do with them. Today, 27 years later under Andrea, Anvil is working with me again to produce my Collected Stories, the culmination of about 45 years of my work in short fiction, after I recently edited a new edition of Manuel Arguilla’s short stories for them. It’s a milestone I’m eagerly anticipating, which should be out before the year ends.

And it’s not even old folks like me, Krip Yuson, Ambeth Ocampo, and Lualhati Bautista that Anvil’s helping out the most these days, but exciting young authors like VJ Campilan, whose novel All My Lonely Islands has won a slew of awards. Anvil has also just teamed up with Wattpad to create Bliss Books for young Filipino readers, drawing on the popular YA online platform.

Last February, Anvil celebrated its 29thanniversary, and Andrea came out with a list of interesting company factoids, some of which I asked her permission to share with you:

  1. The first title published by Anvil was Atlas Adarna in May 1990, a collection of regional maps.
  2. Its first cookbook was The Best of Maya Cookfest, volumes 1-3, published in July 1990.
  3. Aside from the Atlas Adarna, Anvil’s first trade book was an anthology of Carlos Palanca award-winning stories, published in September 1990. Ambeth Ocampo’s Looking Back and Rizal Without the Overcoat were published in November 1990, and continue to be highly popular.
  4. Margarita Holmes’ Life, Love, and Lust was the first collection of essays published by Anvil. It came out in September of 1990 and sold for P125.
  5. Between 1990 and 1991, Anvil published 160 titles: pocket books, coloring books and the series Our World of Reading and Our World of Language, Our World of Science. It’s estimated to have since published more than 2,000 titles.
  6. In 2017, Anvil revived Anvil Classics, which for a long time only counted Nick Joaquin’s novel Cave and Shadows, but now has all his stories and his other novel The Woman Who Had Two Navels,and his collection of plays Tropical Baroque: Four Manileño Theatricals;  Lualhati Bautista’s most eminent novels (Dekada ’70, Desaparasidos, Bata Bata Paano Ka Ginawa, and ‘Gapo), Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, and Manuel Arguilla’s collected stories. (My Collected Stories will fall under this imprint.)  

“In 29 years,” Andrea says, “Anvil has grown to be one of the leading publishers in the country, serving a diverse audience that is represented by the diversity of authors on its roster. And though the business of publishing books has become a little bit more complicated than 29 years ago, my two short years in the company have shown me that the commitment to books of the Ramos family, represented by Xandra Ramos-Padilla, is strong and unwavering. And for our growing team of 43, running up to 2020, we have a few things planned on all fronts.”

Congrats, Andrea, and may Anvil—among our other notable publishers—continue to promote good writing and reading for and by Filipinos.

Penman No. 347: The Master of Commandante Street

 

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Penman for Monday, April 1, 2019

 

COMMANDANTE STREET branches off Evangelista in Manila’s Quiapo—a downtown district a poet-friend endearingly described as “the armpit of the city.” It’s an area teeming with shops selling generators, compressors, engine parts, filing cabinets, and cheap guitars and stereos, not too far from soft-porn moviehouses and restaurants offering Chinese noodles and dumplings. You wouldn’t know it, but on one side of a hole-in-the wall along Commandante works one of the world’s most highly regarded craftsmen, known to his clients and admirers only as “Gerald Cha.”

Gerald repairs and restores typewriters—yes, those noisy machines your grandparents used to write letters and fill out forms with—catering to a small but fiercely dedicated community of typewriter collectors and users, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. He’s not alone—there are still many master repairmen out there who can make a 1912 Blickensderfer or a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super work for you (check out Duane Jensen’s Phoenix Typewriter videos on YouTube, for instance)—but Gerald has acquired near-mythical status in the online community, as much perhaps for his skills as for his mystery.

As one member of our Antique Typewriter Collectors group puts it, “Gerald Cha was a quiet man. He lived among the pines in seclusion. His family and friends knew him as a gentle soul, but the typewriters feared his name. Legend has it that Gerald Cha once carried 16 desktop typewriters, using 8 fingers and 8 toes, crawling on his elbows and knees. He stood 5.6 meters tall, weighed 10 stone, and could throw a VW Beetle 270 feet. His shoes could hold 23 gallons of water, each. Gerald did not seek attention, but attention found him.”

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On the day that I and two other collector-friends—Toastmaster Dennis Pinpin and lawyer Javi Flores—visit Gerald at his shop, he’s poring over an 1880s Caligraph shipped in from the States. The Caligraph is a large, black Rube-Goldbergian contraption with a plethora of screws and bars. Like many early models, it’s an upstrike typewriter—meaning, the keys strike the platen (the rubber cylinder on which the paper is rolled) from under, instead of from the front, as in normal typewriters. In other words, you’re typing blind, not seeing what you wrote.

Gerald’s job is to see how everything hangs together, and to fabricate parts that no longer exist. He does this with the help of local artisans, including someone who custom-made the one-inch-wide ribbons used by the Caligraph (the standard size is half an inch). Most of the Caligraph’s key caps were gone, so he had to have a whole period-correct set of letters, numbers, and assorted characters printed out, along with the machine’s emblem—normally a decal, “but for now I’ll have to do with a sticker” that he had made. Gerald’s in the right place for any kind of copying—C. M. Recto Avenue, just around the corner, has a decades-old reputation, predating the Xerox, for being Manila’s Forgery Row, where you can order anything from a birth certificate to a diploma from the university of your choice.

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Our requests seem easy by comparison—Javi is having a ca. 1910 Oliver No. 5 restored, I need new rubber feet for my 1938 Royal O, and Dennis (he with the 90 typewriters) always has something or other for Gerald to mind. The man who attends to all these is no bearded guru, but a slightly built, soft-spoken guy in his early 40s. “Cha” is really his wife’s nickname. “There were too many other people with my name, so I had to find something different,” he says. Another signature is his impossibly weathered Nokia, as if to suggest how far behind the times he is, like his machines. But you can find him as “Gerald Cha” on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, urged by the likes of Dennis to share his uncommon expertise not just with fellow Filipinos but with the world. He’s been online for only a few years, but in that short time he’s risen to legendary status among the typerati (yes, I just made up that word).

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Incredibly enough, he was born on the same street where he now works. “I was a helper in an office machines shop in my teens,” he explains as he looks over Javi’s Oliver. “That’s how I learned to do this. I never went to college because I was already earning good money!” That was then, of course, and while he still rules the roost, he’s had to make concessions to changing tastes to make ends meet. Aside from the tough specialist jobs he does for collectors, he refurbishes and repaints typewriters for an online outfit that sells the spiffed-up machines to millennials angling for a taste of vintage, including set and fashion designers looking for props. “They like their Olympias in hot pink.” His top sellers include chromed Royal QDLs and Olympia SMs.

Sadly, Gerald says, kids these days are more interested in computers, and no one will be taking over from him. “You can still find quite a few typewriter repairmen in Metro Manila,” Dennis tells me, “but Gerald is different. He loves his machines, loves to figure out how they work and how to get them back up to speed.”

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If you need Gerald, you can text him at 0916-7761268, landline 733-4896—unless you want to take an interesting trip out to 1691 Commandante Street, in the armpit of Manila.

 

Penman No. 318: Mysteries of Fish

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Penman for Monday, September 10, 2018

 

I’VE OFTEN written and spoken about how—despite the fact that we inhabit an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, bordered on all sides by the sea, and comprising one of the longest coastlines in the world—we seem to have very little by way of a maritime literature. By this I mean novels, stories, poems, and plays that have the sea as a central element, beyond serving as a romantic backdrop.

There’s a whole economy and culture to be found in our relationship with the sea, but much of this has been lost to a metropolitan generation bred on canned tuna and Starbucks coffee. Even among my students, I can count on my fingers the number of people who’ve taken a boat ride longer than a spin around a lake or the short hop from Caticlan to Boracay.

I myself was born in a house a stone’s throw from the beach, in a village on an island far from Manila, so the sea has never been far from my mind and imagination. I dream about it constantly, with recurrent images of huge waves rolling and breaking on the shore, and I as a boy walking on the sand with my father, now long gone.

But I too have to admit that save for a few scenes and the opening chapter of my novel in progress, the sea has figured minimally in my fiction. That’s probably because I feel responsible for creating credible characters whose lives are inextricably waterbound, and haven’t felt confident enough to do justice to the task. The fact is, we’ve lost touch with our marine heritage, which is supremely ironic given how Filipinos have distinguished themselves as seafarers, and how many Filipinos depend on the sea for a living.

This was much on my mind two weeks ago when I flew to Iloilo to attend the formal investiture of Dr. Ricardo P. Babaran as the tenth Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Visayas. A fisheries expert and nautical engineer, Ric recounted how, as a young boy far up north in Cagayan, he enjoyed going out to sea and to the river to fish.

“My fishing buddies generally used earthworms as bait, but they sometimes used live crickets using different fishing gear. As a young fisher, I observed that using either crickets or earthworms yielded different outcomes—certain fish seemed to prefer one or the other—but my fisher friends were never able to explain to me why. This mystery bothered me for a long time,” he told us.

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Ric left Cagayan to study Fisheries in UP Diliman, and had to deal with the derision of other people who wondered “why Fisheries students needed four years just to learn how to capture fish with hook and line.” Even now, he says, this misappreciation of Fisheries partly explains why “fish-based industries are faring poorly in the Philippines.” (Indeed, an economist I know has pointed out that the recent spike in prices can be traced to some degree to a shortage of fish.)

Ric went on to take an MS in naval architecture and ocean engineering at the University of Washington, and then his PhD in Fisheries Science at Kagoshima University. It was in Japan where, Ric says, he finally found the answer to his childhood mystery: “I learned that catfish and mudfish responded differently to earthworms and crickets because of a process called chemo-reception.”

Dr. Babaran’s investiture was attended by many guests, including many academic officials and luminaries, but several of them stood out, for different reasons. Among them was Dr.  Loel Losanes, a UPV alumnus and the Filipino head of Japan’s Hikari Corporation, probably the largest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

Just as significant was the presence of members of the Kamamado fishers group from Guimaras, many of them elderly women who, Ric noted, “supplement their daily income with the P40 they get from selling the equivalent of two-liter-sized containers of captured cardinal fish. Through this group, we will undertake a program that will promote responsible fisheries, which I believe will position the Philippines more strategically in the relation to the ornamental fish industry that generates $7 to 8 billion annually.”

I’m confident that the programs of Chancellor Babaran and UPV will improve the livelihoods of millions of our shore-dwelling countrymen, but I’m even more hopeful that a deeper and broader awareness of the importance of the sea in our lives will soon emerge, if only because of the crisis now roiling in the waters around us. (“About a third of our fish catch comes from the West Philippine Sea,” Ric told me.)

And I’m especially happy that a place like UPV exists to mind our waters. A young PhD in UPV, Noel Ferriols, recalled how he was convinced to study in UPV instead of Manila when he and his mother visited the campus in Miag-ao, which specializes in fisheries. “I was amazed when the security guard told me the scientific name of a certain kind of fish,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, if this is a place where even security guards can recite the genus and species of a fish, then it’s where I want to be.”