Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary


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.)


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.)


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. 39: A Weekend of Bargains

Malakas at Maganda baybayinHIGH RESOLUTION (3)Penman for Monday, March 25, 2013

BEFORE ANYTHING else, let me put in a plug for a show that my wife Beng is curating on behalf of Kasibulan (Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan). Founded in 1989 by such stalwarts as Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Brenda Fajardo, Ana Fer, Julie Lluch, and Ida Bugayong, Kasibulan has since gone on to engage a new generation of leading Filipino women artists. Those women—older and younger—have come together in a major exhibit titled “Malakas at Maganda,” a celebration of the power of female artistry. The show opened last Friday at the Executive House at the University of the Philippines, and will run for a month. I’ve seen it, and I can guarantee—especially to my fellow men—that it’s a marvelous eye-opener.


AS THE minders of an empty nest, Beng and I can be excused for being foolishly footloose—running off to unlikely destinations like Melaka and Ho Chi Minh City on budget tours, leaving our daughter Demi with little more than a clutch of leaky old fountain pens for an inheritance. But we’ve never forgotten the fun of finding even cheaper thrills right here at home. Indeed, for all the traveling we’ve done, Beng and I inevitably come to the same old conclusion: it’s more fun in the Philippines.

A couple of weekends ago—after both of us had slogged through a particularly tough week of work—we decided to blow the weekend off on our favorite pastime: shopping for ukay-ukay bargains. For many years now, the two of us have been shameless and ardent ukay-ukay and thrift-shop habitués, partly out of necessity but more, I’d say, for the sheer adrenaline rush of getting something for next to nothing. Now and then I need to put on a blazer for business, and two of my favorites—a Zegna and a Ferragamo, brands whose posh boutiques I’d never think of stepping into—were both Cubao ukay-ukay finds, for about P150 each. (And, of course, being the inveterate tourists that we are, we’ve carried the habit overseas, scoping out and revisiting our favorite resale shops in New York, Virginia, and San Diego. The highlight of my shopping year is our October jaunt to the flea markets of Manhattan—a treat I’m going to have to forgo this year, my semestral break already consumed as of this moment by other commitments.)

This time we had a special address on our weekend itinerary: the old Berg department store on the Escolta, where a group of young artists had organized a Saturday market. Beng spotted the notice on Facebook (she’s on it, I’m not) and it took little to convince me to go. I still remembered the Escolta of my youth, and how swanky it was back then. And they didn’t get much swankier than Berg, which was there before Rustan’s, before the malls, before eBay. (I have this recurrent dream of time-traveling to the past and walking into a store like Berg to the pens section, and, seeing row upon row of pristine Parker Vacumatics, picking out a blue and red Senior Maxima or maybe even a gold Imperial—the grandest of the ‘40s Parkers—and paying no more than P40 for each, a princely sum at the time.)

When we got there—from our parking spot in front of the iconic Savory Restaurant on Plaza Goiti—we saw that a crowd had begun to gather in the concrete cavern that was all that remained of the old store. Vendors—about 26 of them, I would later learn—had claimed their 2 x 2-meter squares on the bare floor and had laid out a cornucopia of books, clothes, shoes, trinkets, records, old bottles, cameras, bags, and other staples of the flea market trade.


The people behind the event were the members of 98B, a “collaboratory” of young progressive artists led by Mark Salvatus, one of the brightest new names in the contemporary art scene. We had a happy reunion with Mark, whom we had come to know purely by chance almost ten years ago when we strayed into the Salvatus home and folk-art shop in Lucban during one Pahiyas. He was just starting out then, and we were glad to see him again—in old Escolta, of all places. His collective thought of the Saturday market as a way of revitalizing Escolta, a shabby relic of its old stylish self. “We’d like to encourage local businesses to grow,” said Marika Constantino, another 98B member, “which is why we didn’t bring in any food concessionaires, so locals could set up food stalls outside.” Another familiar face we ran into at Berg was that of Jason Moss—for many years now, Beng’s personal favorite and mine, another brilliant artist whose rise we’d predicted and followed. “He’s one of our guiding spirits,” said Mark. We gathered that 98B would look into regularizing the Saturday market—a great idea, going by the inaugural turnout.

Since we were in the neighborhood, Beng and I then availed ourselves of the opportunity to enjoy a hearty lunch of machang and pancit at Polland in Binondo. We walked off all that starch in our stomachs by following Ongpin all the way to Avenida Rizal (passing by another culinary landmark, the Ramon Lee fried chicken place in Sta. Cruz). Benighted as it may have been by the LRT overhead, this avenue—another childhood paradise—still contains many treasures for the bargain hunter. (I remember when, back in the early 1990s, I picked up a trove of gorgeous vintage pens—sold as new old stock—from the shops on Avenida for 1960s prices.)

This time, we plunged into a succession of ukay-ukay stores—one turned up a smart herringbone Ralph Lauren blazer (P380)—culminating in the three-story Japan surplus shop that we had visited years earlier and were glad to see was still there. The usual racks of clothes occupied the first floor, but on the top floor—the houseware section—were all manner of china and cutlery. Beng pounced on the bowls and teacups, but I took away a lovely lacquered bento box (P180) that I would use for my ink bottles. The floor also yielded possibly the day’s best score: two good-as-new Japan-made titanium eyeglass frames (P200 each) that Beng and I are now wearing with prescription lenses.

As if Escolta wasn’t enough, we took to the road the next day for more good food and cheap fashion—in Tagaytay, which has some of the best roadside restaurants and ukay-ukay palaces in the country. I suppose we use one as an excuse for the other—the eating and the shopping—but no one really needs an excuse to spend a lazy Sunday in Tagaytay, a treat we shared with Beng’s mom Juliet and her caregiver Meann, and our driver Vic. Food took priority, and our great discovery of the day was an unassuming restaurant along the ridge (turn right at the junction) called Tootsie’s. We had never been before, and were taking a chance since the usual suspects (bulalo at Leslie’s for me) were full to the brim, but we got lucky. Much to my mom-in-law’s delight, Tootsie’s proved to be something of a Visayan oasis in the Tagalog heartland, offering such delights as kansi bulalo (P485, soured with Bacolod batwan) and sus kadyos (P335). The crispy daing na biya (P137) was a terrific appetizer, and the roast chicken kawi (P305)—described by Chef Ed Quimson as an “unexpected, unintended chicken concoction on the way to a busy day” was a big hit, with its subtly smoky flavor.

Then we were off for a quick run to the ukay-ukay shops near the junction—I came away with a linen Giordano blazer for P200, and Beng picked up a straw hat for herself, rubber sneakers for Meann, and a cap for Vic—before dessert of halo-halo, turon, and mais con hielo at Ming’s on the way home. I tried not to eat too much, mindful of the inevitable connection between food and fashion. (The most visible beneficiary of my recent weight-loss program has been my waist, which dropped from a salbabida-size 40 to a more manageable 34. I had to send all of my pants to the tailor for alteration, but that’s easier to do with pants than shirts and jackets, so it’s also given me a great excuse to refurbish my wardrobe—all, of course, in the ukay-ukay. For the first time in years, I’ve been able to wear shirts marked L—without the X or XX—or even M. And thank God I didn’t throw or give away my linen Ferragamo, whose buttons I could barely close; today there’s room to spare.)

And so a fun weekend was had by all for not too much; we would morph back into working stiffs come Monday, but as we patted our stomachs and surveyed our haul from our forays that Sunday evening, Beng and I could only look forward to that long and endless weekend upon retirement, to be spent in the city’s and the world’s finest junk shops and food stalls.


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 and on its local site,—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

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 and (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.