Penman No. 179: Pedestrian Pleasures

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Penman for Monday, December 21, 2015

 

THERE’S NOTHING better we’d like to do on a weekend—unless we’re running off to some southern island or parts beyond—than to have a foot massage from our suki Tonton branch on West Avenue before taking in a movie and a Chinese or ramen dinner at Trinoma. In fact, we don’t even wait for the weekend to indulge ourselves in these pedestrian pleasures, but do this routine on a Tuesday and then again on a Thursday, whenever the spirit moves us.

Every other month or so, we do something special—we go down to Sta. Cruz (my students no longer have any idea where these districts and streets around Quiapo are), have a fried-chicken lunch at Ramon Lee’s, then check out our favorite ukay-ukay and Japanese-surplus shops on Avenida Rizal, happily carting home several bagfuls of glorious junk, with as much pleasure as we would’ve gotten from the flea markets of New York or Paris.

Beng and I cheerfully acknowledge that this must be one of the signs of aging—settling into a fairly small and thoroughly familiar comfort zone, and stepping out of it just often enough to keep things lively and to refresh the horizon. Or maybe I’m mainly speaking for myself, because Beng’s always been far more adventurous than me, especially culinarily speaking, and now and then exhales a wistful longing for some Indian food (which flusters me, because I can’t stand curry, recognizing only salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and soy sauce in the kingdom of spices and flavors).

The simple explanation is, ours is a generation used to walking a lot. And it wasn’t as if we had a choice. We grew up without cars—the richer kids had them, but not us—and even getting to the jeepney or bus stop meant walking. I remember, as a boy of nine or ten, walking from our rented place on Halcon Street along Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to what was then Highway 54 (EDSA to you younger ones), crossing the highway, and then taking the bus to Gilmore Avenue, crossing the highway again, and walking several blocks to La Salle Green Hills (“Greenhills” was spelled as two words then)—lugging my heavy bag of books and notebooks, whose cheap unpadded leather cut into my hands. In the afternoon, I would do the same thing all over again, in reverse, unless a chauffeured classmate took pity on me and gave me a ride.

But as torturous as that routine was, it was nothing compared to the literally kilometric walks that our elders took. One of my favorite walking stories is that of the late NVM Gonzalez, who walked many kilometers from their barrio in Mindoro to the poblacion, where he could type his manuscripts in the municipio, making the long trek back in the afternoon (and when his contributions returned months later, rejected by some editor, his father would kid him and say, “Your stories are like homing pigeons!”). That’s a story I like to tell my writing students, who—with the fanciest computers and the Internet at their fingertips—will still sometimes complain about not having “enough material” or “enough time” to produce their first drafts.

Another story I recall having read somewhere involves Bienvenido Santos and Diosdado Macagapagal, who—as students of the University of the Philippines back when it was just on Padre Faura Street in Manila—walked to school together from their lodgings in Tondo. And until his death some years ago, my uncle Juan, who must have been in his nineties, thought nothing of walking the seven kilometers of mountain road between his home in Guinbirayan to the poblacion of Sta. Fe in Romblon, just to deposit the cash in his pocket to his savings account.

I myself took to walking for my health a few years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and had to undergo a radical lifestyle change. Three or four laps around the UP Oval every day, Broadway blaring in my ears, quickly took care of the problem; I lost 45 pounds in five months (some of which I’ve regained since then, but my blood stats still look good).

But walking, of course, is never just a chore and never just exercise to the willful and the observant. I’ve used my long walks around campus as thinking time, composing paragraphs in my head, mulling over turns of phrase and gentler ways of expressing unpleasant truths (the sad corollaries of holding an administrative post). I enjoy the scenery—both natural and human—and store striking details, scenes, and vignettes in my head that I can use for my stories. Once, walking towards the Carbon market in Cebu, I found myself on a street full of sellers of cut flowers, in the midst of which emerged a dark, wiry man, bare from the waist up, heaving over his head a huge basket full of red roses—a veritable Charles Atlas, bearing the weight of all that beauty. That haunting image became the germ of a story I would title “Delivery,” the tale of a lie and its terrible if unintended consequences.

And many of my sharpest memories of my foreign sorties are from long walks taken on fabled boulevards and strange alleyways, very often leading to unexpected discoveries off the tourist guidebooks: a pen shop in Edinburgh, a Filipina hotel worker taking a quick puff from a balcony in Como, a pair of fierce guard dogs prowling the perimeter of a mansion in Johannesburg, beneath a copious spray of jacaranda blossoms.

So it was in this quest of adventure that Beng and I took her sister Jana and our niece Eia on a walking tour of downtown Manila a couple of weeks ago (a zone my friend Krip Yuson affectionately calls “the armpit of the city”), to reacquaint them—newly returned from many years in New York—with home, in all of its bewildering, exasperating, ammoniac intensity. We took them to our Japanese-surplus suki on Avenida and then to lunch at Ramon Lee, before essaying Escolta and the Art-Deco innards of the First United Building; we lamented the loss by fire of the old Savory Restaurant, but pressed on to Chinatown for bagfuls of hopia and ma chang (sampling the goodies both at Polland and Eng Bee Tin) before turning into Ongpin and re-emerging into Sta. Cruz and its amalgam of gold and grime.

It was a day well spent, much of it on foot, and while our soles may have complained, our spirits tingled with reawakened excitement.

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Penman No. 157: Dandy Doodles

14100168582_2191dbaffc_zPenman for Monday, July 13, 2015

YOU’LL UNDERSTAND if I’m mighty proud of my fountain pen collection, built up painstakingly over the past 30 years. Now numbering about 200, it contains some of the world’s rarest and most desirable vintage and modern pens, and I’m still upgrading it, bringing down the numbers while raising the quality, hoping to downsize it to about 30 of the very best that I can pass on to our daughter Demi not too long from now.

At least that’s the press release. What I’m not saying, and what I’m not too proud of, is how awful my penmanship is, a trail of chicken tracks worthy at best of a Bic ballpoint. We have members in our fountain pen club like advertising executive Leigh Reyes and designer Fozzy Dayrit who can carve out whole new careers as professional calligraphers should they want to, so artfully do they put nib to paper. Oafs like me just wear our pens like others might sport brooches and hats, as body décor to look more substantial and interesting, especially as our other charms wane with age.

The fact is, I can’t write more than half a page of anything with a fountain pen before my fingers start crimping with fatigue, more accustomed as they’ve become to tapping on a keyboard with whispery ease. The saddest part of the story is, the only time my fountain pens get any real exercise is when, joylessly, I have to write out checks to pay for the credit cards and the utility bills.

It’s not as if fountain pens are alien, certainly not to me. We used them as grade-school kids in La Salle, where we also wrote loopy letters for Penmanship class, and where an inkstain on one’s shirtfront was just a blue badge of honor (or so I told myself, to mitigate the embarrassment). But as the world has since moved from writing in cursive to block letters, and from the pen to the computer, our writing muscles have atrophied, and the feathery Fs and coily Qs that garnished our forebears’ documents are a barely legible memory.

So how do I derive pleasure from my pens beyond the sheer, avaricious thrill of ownership? When the day comes to cart away my papers and my trash, they’ll find stacks of well-used notepads in my drawers and cabinets, and the nosy rummager might well imagine discovering some private snippets, or passages from an unfinished novel, among my scribbles. I hate to disappoint the snoops, but they’ll find nothing of the sort; instead, all they’ll come across will be a trail of doodles—page after page of doodles in every color of ink and width of nib. And that’s going to be the big dark secret out of my bag: I buy fancy pens not to craft great literature with, but just to doodle all day, wasting time, ink, and paper on nothing grander than the pursuit of pointless happiness.

My dictionary defines “doodle” as “To draw or sketch aimlessly, especially when preoccupied,” which isn’t too far from Wikipedia’s take on it, which sees a doodle as “a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.”

Here we see that the key idea behind doodling is distraction: you’re thinking about something but don’t really want to think about it, so you do something else, and if there’s a pen in your hand, that pen will have a mind of itself and start making squares and circles and lines that lead nowhere and everywhere. In my case, I know exactly what it is I’m running away from: work! I’m so drowning in book projects that I have no proper business doing anything else—not even writing a column like this—but it’s when things get tough that the doodles get going.

I’m sure that psychologists have a perfect explanation for this, but I’m convinced that there’s a symbiotic relationship between work and distraction, and that doodling actually helps me get my work done by letting me relax while my brain processes headache-inducing conundra like “How can we pass an anti-dynasty bill when 14 out of our 24 senators belong to a dynasty?” You’ll agree that it’s more fun to deal with questions like “Hmm, should I go with the Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the Montblanc Oscar Wilde or the Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic? Heck, let’s do both!”

To some others, doodles are more serious business—or at least halfway-serious, as the Google Doodles illustrate. You may not have heard of them as such, but you’ve surely seen them if you’ve ever used Google, because they’re the quirky, funny, topical drawings that periodically festoon the Google landing page to mark an anniversary, a birthday, or some other cause for celebration.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s actually something called the Doodle Arts Magazine (www.doodleartsmagazine.com), which happens to be Philippine-based. The people behind the website organized Doodle Fest 2015 a few months ago, and you can still catch the artwork online. If you want to see how good doodle art can get all around the world, have a look at http://www.creativebloq.com/illustration/doodle-art-912775.

Me, I’m happy with my squiggles and X’es and endless iterations of “This is a 1928 Duofold” and “This is a Sheaffer Balance” and “This is Carlo Collodi ink” and “This is a fine pen.” Maybe if I wrote something more sensible like “I come from a country without snow and without raspberries,” I could get another novel going and done in no time, but that sounds too much like real work, which apparently was never what these glorious pens and inks were meant to do.

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