Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

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. 32: Ten Tips for the eBay Newbie

ebayPenman for Monday, February 4, 2013

BEEN LOOKING for a DVD copy of the 1973 Hollywood musical Lost Horizon, a 1954 Omega Seamaster, a pair of Johnny Depp’s Moscot Lemtosh shades, an 11200-mAh power bank for your iPhone, or a 1988 Stipula Baracca limited-edition fountain pen? Well, I have—and I found them all, not in my neighborhood mall or ukay-ukay, but in that largest of global marketplaces, eBay.

I’ve been buying and occasionally selling on eBay almost from the very beginning, since December 1997, and now have a feedback of 520+ (thankfully 100 percent positive). In all those hundreds of transactions, I’ve had maybe three or four bum cases of sellers not delivering, or sending me bad stuff. All of those cases were sorted out and I was refunded, so I do believe eBay to be a generally safe place to shop, with lots of wonderful bargains to be had, but as with any marketplace physical or digital, it can be tricky for the unwary.

I thought of writing up this brief guide to shopping on eBay because, thanks to my recent articles featuring fountain pens, papers, and inks, I’ve been deluged with inquiries about where to find these items and for how much. In particular, vintage and premium pens seem to be in great demand—pens like the Montblanc 149 and 146, the Parker Duofold, Parker Vacumatic, and Parker 75, and 1920s Waterman pens with flexible nibs.

I’ve sold quite a few of these pens myself, having made a pledge (a pitifully weak one) to trim down my collection of about 200 pens by half. My recent acquisitions have tended to be more expensive, so to help assuage my wallet and my conscience, I’ve had to dispose some of my loot, if only to make room for more. That means that I have to find a steady and reliable source for pens both to resell and to keep, and that can only be eBay—where, at any given moment, there will be about 40,000 pens of all kinds to compete for my attention and my credit card.

So I’ve been telling my pen-seeking friends that they could save themselves a chunk of change by bypassing me and going straight to the source—where a slightly used Montblanc 149 (which sells new on Amazon for $810) might go for around $400. But I’ve also warned them that it’s going to be a slippery slope, fraught with dangers and risks—not to mention the biggest risk of all, which is to get infected with eBay shopaholia.

Even if you care nothing about pens, there are literally a million more things to be found on eBay.com and on its local site, eBay.ph—everything from a mummified monkey’s paw (which you can buy without bidding for $13.00) and an 1864 autograph of Abraham Lincoln (bidding starts at $4,995.00) to a 2012 Lamborghini Aventador (yours for $469,991.00). Very likely, they’ll be things you don’t need but will soon want—and want badly, so mind the following tips if you plan on shopping on eBay without risking your children’s inheritance or your marriage. I’m going to use pens to illustrate my points, but these tips can apply as well to cameras, shoes, bags, bikes, or whatever floats your boat.

1. Know what you’re looking for—know the product and its current market value. Do some research beforehand and establish what possible issues there might be with the item. For example, if you’re looking for a Montblanc, understand that vintage celluloid ones in good shape could command more than new ones in “precious resin”—but also that the 149 and 146 are the most faked pens in the world (along with the Parker Sonnet); eBay actually has a guide to determining fake MBs (which means, know your way around eBay as well). EBay’s “completed listings” is a great way to determine market value—look for the median price (discard lowest and highest prices) for a better sense of what you can expect to pay. Check other websites (Amazon, BestBuy, etc.) as well, because their special deals and offers could undercut eBay. I do most of my gadget shopping, for example, on dealmac.com.

2. Condition, condition, condition. In your enthusiasm for an item, you might forget to probe its condition. Read the description very well and look out for any flaws. Especially scrutinize all the pictures. (This also allows me to spot special features that others might miss—a broad stub on a nib, for example). I think I know pens well enough that I can tell make, model, year, and approximate value for most major brands on sight, but every pen is still unique once it’s up for sale. Keep an eye out for cracks, glue, broken tines, mismatched caps and barrels, discoloration, etc.

3. Set up a PayPal account. It will make your life a whole lot easier on the Internet, since PayPal has become a global standard for electronic payments. I’ve tied my PayPal to a specific bank account I use only for eBay transactions. Is it safe? Of course you’ll hear a horror story here and there, but in my own experience, eBay and PayPal have served me very well, settling questions and disputes and sending refunds very quickly in the rare cases of non-delivery I’ve encountered.

4. Keep looking. Since I now buy and sell pens, I check out eBay many times a day—I have it on my phone—and have set up search terms for my favorite items, like Parker Vacumatics. This enables me to find what I like quickly, in a marketplace where millions of items are up for sale at any given moment. Some of my best bargains have come when buyers in the US—my chief competitors—are literally asleep. I also check out ebay.uk and ebay.ca (the UK and Canada) and have found some of my best bargains there. The first thing I check is “newly listed”, further narrowed down to “buy it now”—this way I can catch the real bargains before anyone else does. Then I check “ending soonest.” You can also refine your searches, for example by looking just for “149” under “Montblanc” under “fountain pens.”

5. Check the seller’s feedback. I’d be wary of a seller with less than 95% positive feedback. He or she may not be a cheat, but has a poor service record (delayed mailings, no response, etc.)

6. Establish your bidding threshold early on. Don’t get caught in a bidding war with another bidder. These days, since I could be bidding on 20 items at any given moment (expecting to win maybe two or three), I just bid my maximum and forget about it until the last two minutes, which are really all that matters on eBay. Some people use sniping programs that let the computer make a last-second automated bid for them; I should, but have been too lazy to set one up, and I rather like the excitement of making the last-minute bid myself.

7. Figure out and factor in your shipping options. Since most of my purchases are made in the US, I use a US shipping address (my sister’s in Virginia) and aggregate my purchases there. When I’ve gathered a boxful, I ask my sister to ship them to Johnny Air Cargo in NYC, which forwards them to me in Manila a week later. I’m sure many of you have US relatives who can do this for you (just make sure that they’re willing—be very nice to them at Christmas). I’ve educated my sister on pens so she’ll know how to check out a pen when it arrives and how to handle and package them properly; and yes, I’ve given her a nice pen or two.

8. Pay promptly, and leave feedback. You’ll see how your own feedback will improve once you become a good eBay netizen.

9. If and when you encounter a problem, report it to eBay. They have mechanisms for dealing with problems like getting a defective item (unless it was so described) or not receiving an item you paid for at all. Take note that there’s a time window (45 days, I believe) within which complaints can be filed.

10. Don’t lose hope. I’ve lost out on bids for items that I’d coveted for years, but then found another one a week later, for cheaper. If you can’t find it on eBay, it probably doesn’t exist, or is illegal to own. For me, it’s fountain pen paradise, and another reason to wake up in the morning for.