Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

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I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 235: High Time at the Henry

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Penman for Monday, January 23, 2017

 

A COUPLE of weekends ago, against all odds, Beng and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary and not coincidentally my 63rd birthday. It seemed like an inspired idea at the time to get hitched as I turned 20, but over the years I’ve wondered if I should have given each day its proper due, and doubled my presents that way. But I soon realized that I was never going to get or find a better gift than Beng—patient, forgiving, and gentle Beng—so January 15 has largely been a day for two.

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Around Christmas I start thinking about how and where best we can spend the day, and this year, with UP having shifted its academic calendar to begin the school term in mid-January, we could have opted, funds permitting, to fly out to some exotic destination like Penang or Pattaya (or, heck, why not Paris?).

Instead, after some Googling, we ended up in the most unlikely of romantic locales—Pasay City, at the Henry Hotel along F.B. Harrison, to be more specific, where the magic begins once the gate opens.

I’d read about the Henry somewhere before and had seen pictures of the place—a visual and sentimental journey back to the 1950s, with its stately main house and sculpted gardens, and I remember being amazed even then by the fact that such a sylvan hideaway could exist in the heart (or less kindly the armpit) of the metropolis. It was high time we checked in for a weekend staycation; the saved airfare alone would answer for the room. And being staunch northerners, we barely knew the southern sector of the city, except for visits to the Cultural Center and the Luneta area. We hadn’t even reconnoitered the cavernous Mall of Asia except again for the briefest sorties.

But again that’s not entirely true, because I had actually grown up in Pasay in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in a house on P. Manahan branching off F.B. Harrison. It was a neighborhood interlaced with catwalks, off one of which I once fell into the fetid water while showing off my brand-new cowboy outfit, which I had probably received for my fifth or sixth birthday.

That bit of unpleasantness aside, I could still remember afternoons swimming in Manila Bay and lounging on the long beach chairs by the sea wall, riding the double-decker Matorco buses up and down what was still Dewey Boulevard, and munching on foot-long hotdogs at the Brown Derby.

So this weekend in Pasay was something of a homecoming for me, even if all the old landmarks were gone. What’s now the Henry was already there when I was humming the Tom Dooley song, but it wasn’t a hotel yet then but a sprawling compound of large squarish but stylish wooden houses flanking a white concrete main house, amid greenery tamed and teased by Ildefonso P. Santos, who would go on to become a National Artist for Architecture.

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The 32-room Henry was built by its new owners out of that layout, preserving as much of the old while providing such modern amenities as wi-fi and air-conditioning. A long gravel driveway leads to a fountain and a roundabout fronting the main house, past a curtain of angel’s-hair vines; a swimming pool glows opalescent blue amid the verdure; the main house stands proud but welcoming.

I’ll report that we had a most pleasant and restful stay, helped along by an unobtrusively efficient staff. We luxuriated in the fluffy pillows and the hot shower. It was a bonus to discover that the art gallery of an acquaintance, Albert Avellana, occupied one of the houses in the compound.

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But our anniversary weekend wasn’t meant to be spent cooped up in a room, however charming the ambience. We’ve lately been used to taking 5-7 kilometer walks as part of our seniors’ exercise regimen, so we gamely walked for our bangus and salad breakfast to a restaurant near MOA, and walked many kilometers more within the mall itself.

Staying at the chic Henry was in a way the compleat anti-mall experience, but Beng and I have never pretended to be anything but pedestrian, so that for us was the exotic treat. The mall, like all markets, was familiar territory.

We took in a couple of action movies, buying more popcorn than we could ingest, and oohed at all the nice clothes that wouldn’t fit us. When we had lunch of ukoy and suam na halaya at the KKK restaurant, Beng loudly let the manager know that we were celebrating our 43rd, snagging us a free dessert of leche flan. Hankering for a sushi dinner, we misread Chinese for Japanese and stumbled into Masuki, which served huge bowls of my all-time favorite, Ma Mon Luk-style mami.

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The literal highlight of our weekend had taken place earlier that afternoon. We had asked ourselves, the night before, “What kind of cheap, mindless fun haven’t we tried in a long time?” (Not that, naughty boys and girls.) We paid P150 each the next day for the answer: an eight-minute joyride up and down the MOA Eye, the big white Ferris wheel from whose apex we took selfies before tumbling out of our pod, giggling, to rejoin teeming humanity and the surefooted ordinariness of things.

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Penman No. 85: The Mac@30

MBAPenman for Monday, February 10, 2014

ONLY DIEHARD geeks and the tech and business media would have noted the event’s passing, but late last month, the Apple Macintosh computer marked its 30th anniversary. January 24, 1984 was the date when Apple introduced the Macintosh in what became an iconic commercial aired at the Super Bowl—directed by no less than Ridley Scott, who had already done the cult classics Alien and Blade Runner. In that video (which you can still see on YouTube), a female runner carrying a hammer smashes a screen on which an Orwellian dictator has been haranguing a hypnotized audience, breaking the spell. The clear implication, of course, was that a new hero had arrived, prepared to challenge and to crush the hegemony of industry leaders like Microsoft.

Today, three decades later, Apple has become the hegemon in many domains of computing, even outstripped in some respects by upstarts such as Samsung and Google’s Android platform. It’s sitting on one of the world’s largest stashes of cold cash—almost $150 billion, larger than the GDP of two-thirds of the world’s countries. The challenger has become the challenged; and with the loss and absence of its founder Steve Jobs, Apple under Tim Cook has had to deal with the “vision question”: what’s next for the company that built its fortune and reputation as the world’s most innovative? After the iPhone, what will Cupertino’s wizards come up with to create loops of frenzied buyers around city blocks, waiting for the Apple Store’s doors to open? In an age when most consumers have a choice between buying and using a tablet and a smartphone for everyday computing and communication, is there still room for a desktop or even laptop with an old-fashioned keyboard?

Apple thinks so. Interviewing Apple’s new bosses recently, Macworld editor Jason Snell reported: “What’s clear when you talk to Apple’s executives is that the company believes that people don’t have to choose between a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone. Instead, Apple believes that every one of its products has particular strengths for particular tasks, and that people should be able to switch among them with ease. This is why the Mac is still relevant, 30 years on—because sometimes a device with a keyboard and a trackpad is the best tool for the job.”

(Okay, here, before anything else, let’s get our terms right: “Apple” is the company; “Macintosh” or “Mac” is the computer that Apple makes, in desktop and laptop versions; “iPhone” is the smartphone, “iPad” is the tablet, “iPod” is the music player; and no, there’s no such creature as the “iTouch”; it’s the “iPod Touch.” “MacOS” is the operating system that runs the Mac; “iOS” is the operating system that runs the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The MacOS has increasingly begun to look and feel like the iOS, and people have begun talking of an ultimate point of convergence when the two might become one.)

I can certainly testify to the fact that, yes, you can have all of these devices at your disposal (resistance is futile—sooner or later, you’ll have them all, even if you have to beg, steal, or borrow), and yes, you will pick out the best one for the specific job: I use an iMac for surfing, a MacBook Air for all my writing, an iPad for lectures, books, and schoolwork, and an iPhone for calls, messages, and nearly all of the above. (I’ve trained myself to write on an iPhone in a pinch, although I miss the BlackBerry’s tactile keypad.)

This, of course, is nothing short of digital indulgence and downright excess, something our fathers and mothers never experienced (although my non-emailing mother has become a gaming freak on her iPhone, and uses it regularly to speak to her brood here and abroad via FaceTime). Ours is the generation caught between the analog past and the digital future; and while that future will surely be more technologically dazzling and perplexing than we can imagine, we want and will get as much of it as we can now, because we can’t afford to wait. The computer is the baby boomer’s ultimate toy, and I’ve often explained my obsession with new digital gadgets (the flipside of my analog obsession with old fountain pens) as my way of cheating time.

Macs and I go a long way back. Thirty years is exactly half my life, and for most of that half-life—since 1986, when I met, touched, and used my first Mac as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where they had a laser-printing Mac available 24/7 for every 10 of their 40,000 students—I’ve been an unabashed Apple fanboy. There were also some PCs on campus—and I’d eventually buy one, my first computer running on DOS 3.0 with a humongous 10-megabyte hard disk, because it was the only thing I could afford. But it was really the Mac I lusted after, for all the reasons Steve Jobs predicted people would flock to it—it was intuitive (I had brought my Olympia portable with me to the States, and had to be persuaded to give the Mac a chance), it was fun, and it was beautiful.

It wasn’t until I came home, in the early ‘90s, that I got my first Mac—a PowerBook 520c, beloved of Scully and Mulder in The X-Files—which was a gift from a benefactor, who at that moment might as well have been The Almighty. I haven’t looked back since, amassing a virtual museum of Macs, especially portables, from the PowerBook 100 to the MBA. I was glad to learn that, as few as we were like the early Christians, we were not alone. To be an Apple user then was to be a stubborn, persnickety, secretly happy but sometimes publicly sullen member of a distinct minority, derided by the Windows 95 herd (“Windows 95? Why, that’s just Apple 87,” we riposted.)

In the mid-1990s, I joined and later chaired the Philippine Macintosh Users Group or PhilMUG, a handful of Mac addicts—themselves descended from the Macky Mouse Club, an even earlier organization of Apple enthusiasts—who met for monthly get-togethers at Angelino’s on Pasay Road and then Nanbantei near Jupiter Street in Makati. I was part of the focus group Apple assembled for the local rollout of the original iMac, and seeing it in its full glory for the first time was like meeting the Ark of the Covenant. (And to push this semi-blasphemous analogy along, what could have been more mindblowing than meeting the Mac’s messiah himself, Steve Jobs, at MacWorld in San Francisco in 2006, albeit from about 20 feet away? That trip to MacWorld and to Apple headquarters was my visit to the digital Vatican and Holy Land combined.)

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Today, PhilMUG has become one of the world’s most active and longest-running Apple User Groups and forums (www.philmug.ph), and I’ve become something of a village elder there, helping chairman Johannes Sia and the other moderators advise newbies on everything from upgrading their machines to choosing the best travel, fitness, and entertainment apps. Everyone, it seems, has an Apple device of one kind or other, or wants to have one. Apple is in commercial heaven, but we—its angels and avatars—aren’t necessarily OK and happy with everything Apple does. Apple’s staunchest supporters can also be its stiffest critics—and we should be, knowing the machines and having invested in them more than anybody else.

But as loudly as I might complain about the iPad’s inability to natively play Flash presentations, among other gripes, I’m resigned to the fact that when the next big Apple product comes around—maybe the iWatch (the precursor of which is the Pebble watch I got for myself and Beng for our 40th anniversary, along the corny theme of “more time together”)—I’ll be there in the front of the queue, asserting my senior citizen’s priority.

As for the Mac itself, I’m also fairly certain that no mobile device, however nifty, will replace a real keyboard and a big screen. At the end of this writer’s working day, a computer is still a glorified typewriter, and it just so happens that as digital Underwoods and Smith-Coronas go, there’s nothing better than a Macintosh. 

 

Penman No. 81: Hello, Seniorhood

ButchBeng1974

Penman for Monday, January 13, 2014

THIS WEDNESDAY the 15th, Providence permitting, I’ll be marking two milestones I frankly never thought I’d reach: I turn 60, and Beng and I will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. (That’s right, we got married in Manila’s City Hall on my 20th birthday. It seemed a cool idea at the time, but I’ve regretted it ever since—the timing, not the marriage—because it deprived us of an excuse to party twice.)

I’ll admit this only now, but I’ve been looking forward to seniorhood with growing anticipation over this past year. At 57 or 58 you might still be in denial, walking with a pronounced spring in your step to convince yourself and everyone else that all you need is a new pair of Merrells to unleash the inner tiger in you, but the fact is, within six months of 60, you can’t wait to get there and have the inevitable done with.

The last time I knew I had to be a senior soon was just last month, when I stood in a long line in the unseasonably sweltering heat at the DFA to submit my expiring passport for renewal. Taking pity on me, a guard came up to me and asked, “Sir, how old are you?”, obviously thinking to bump me up to the express lane where a few imperturbable seniors sat smiling. “I’ll be 60 in three weeks!” I said. Not good enough. I waited three hours.

I know something about seniors—I live with four of them in the house; I know their moods, their ailments and medications, their favorite TV dramas, their exquisite skill at swallowing fish heads and spitting out the eyeballs.

And there’s no diplomatic way of putting this, but for the past three years, I’ve been married to one (Beng’s folks didn’t know she was marrying a young innocent until we were in the car on the way to City Hall; I had to get parental dispensation). But to her enduring credit, elfin Beng often has to be “carded” in the restaurants, as they’d put it in the States, while all the salespeople and cashiers have simply albeit solicitously assumed that I have a senior card to show for a discount.

So I’ve been mooching off Beng’s seniority, tagging along with her when she goes to the head of the line come boarding time at the airport, or when we queue up for movie tickets. That’s when you realize that the next best thing to being a senior is marrying a card-carrying one. But Beng doesn’t find it funny when I tell her what a shock I get to wake up in the morning beside a lola. Well, I guess we’re even now.

Of course, in a sense, you can never get old enough, maybe not until you hit 80. At 60, there will always be writers in their 80s or 70s who can’t wait to remind you what a bumbling tyro you are compared to their accomplished selves. That’s all right, because having older people on your shoulders could be the only thing that will keep you young, or at least younger, not counting strange potions meant to stiffen, uhm, one’s resolve.

It’s a pleasant surprise to get this far, because ours was a generation that was supposed to die before we even hit 25. After stepping out of martial law prison at age 19, I’ve taken every breathing moment since as a kind of grace note.

As it turned out, the grace note was my marriage, running four decades long, another unexpected, shamelessly undeserved blessing. When Beng and I stood before a CFI judge—my mom’s boss—that nippy January in 1974, it was after just three months of being together. We were in love, surely—truly, madly, deeply—but we were also gasping for breath, seizing happiness when and while we could, thinking that the State’s long and murderous hand could break the spell at an instant. As it turned out, too, the predictable State was hardly the enemy, but the inconstant self. Some of those forty years proved hard and lonesome, thankfully not too many nor too long.

As we start the count toward our golden 50th, Beng and I have come to realize that there are a few things we need and want to do in the years ahead.

With some regret, we will seek and keep fewer friends—the real, not the Facebook, kind. We’d like to focus on family, work, good health, our private charities, and, of course, more time together. This will mean socializing less and staying home more, which will be all right, because we both have so much work to do and always less time to do it.

On the other hand, lest our world become too small, and with whatever we can spare from our perennially meager savings, we will travel up a storm—march up headless hilltops, wind through strange alleyways, and wander down foreign boulevards while our knees can. This May, I hope to realize a longstanding dream, which is to bring Beng to Venice, where I had a magical moment three years ago but where she’s never been (of course, she’ll have to stay with me at that dinky hostel in Mestre, across the water and next to the Asian food store that was my culinary lifeline in heathen Italy).

We might not even need to go that far. One of the most enjoyable dates Beng and I had over the recent holidays was in front of the TV, watching a late-night screening of “Funny Face” with Astaire and Hepburn in Paris and singing along to the Gershwin score. And then another day we took our quarterly stroll around the Quiapo area, imbibing the Oliver-Twistian energy of the hardware and music stalls on Raon and Evangelista, cherrypicking the dustiest of Avenida’s ukay-ukays, and consoling ourselves with cheap mami and siopao at the Pinsec place on Recto, because Ramon Lee’s chicken house was still closed for the New Year break. We’ve been to dreamier places like the Grand Canyon and Bellagio (the Italian and Vegas versions) but it’s these slumdog sorties that we’ll remember for the fun.

With our only child Demi well set in her own career in Southern California and well loved and cared for by her own man, we can and will help others achieve fullness in life by putting them through school and giving them the same kind of guidance we gave our daughter (“Don’t worry too much about grades, enjoy your education! Make your own mistakes! Learn to think on your feet! And never forget where you came from.”)

Where she came from, I think, was us. As I turn 60 and Beng and I turn 40 (which Demi, too, will be, come October), I’d like to think that beyond all the books and paintings we ever created, Beng and I did nothing better than produce Demi, whom I named—while Beng was still in a post-partum haze—Dalisay Emilia Poticar Dalisay, “Emilia” being my mother’s name. Demi loves her lola, but wasn’t too thrilled to grow up having to explain her redundant name to her classmates, with the anciently Shakespearean “Emilia” wedged in between. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “don’t you know that Demi Moore is really Dalisay Emilia Moore?” It didn’t fly. But hey, her name seemed like another cool idea at the time.

A couple of years ago, I wrote her this poem titled “To Our Unica Hija Demi, Born Dalisay Emilia Poticar Dalisay”:

It matters not if our names end with you

If no more Dalisays walk the earth

You were all we wanted in this world

Our most joyful blessing was your birth.

When at times we seem too far apart

Remember that we are your blood and breath

And that your name to us is like a distant bell

That you bore twice, and bore it well.

Here’s to the three of us, anak. We’re all growing older, but we’re doing it together. 

Butch Beng2013