Because things do dwindle, out there.
And we need a safe space, at times.
Our little pocket of the world.
Because print has gone the way of tinder in a California brush, just before the final careless spark sets it ablaze.
Blah blah blah.
I’ve been writing about life abroad (mostly in the Philippines) for close to half my life, and I like to think a few of my thoughts can be preserved.
These are my preservatives.
My list of ingredients:
• “X-Pat Files” columns in archival form; perhaps divided into categories.
• New, untested theories and thoughts.
• Bits of art and apocrypha.
• Travel pieces.
• Random photos.
• Stuff about our band, The Garceaus. (#thegarceaus @the_garceaus)
• Dead Manuscripts.
• Who knows what else.
Because someday the ship has to go down. There are few life preservers left out there for the written word. This is an obscure port. I’m not over-eager to have people snuggle into this harbor. But it will become my harbor.
I love writing. It comes as naturally to me as breathing. But modern times have robbed me of a lot of joy in writing.
Even reading has become an online necessity, a chore.
I guess I miss the joy of reading something that makes me escape the daily suck for even a moment, that reminds me of the special magic of someone's ephemeral thoughts, how they feel separate from the dying earth around us.
I want to rediscover that pleasure in writing. both in my own and in others.
Two collections of "X-Pat Files" essays are in print. Here are some selections.
A few travel pieces from "The X-Pat Files" over the years. (WIP)
A lengthy diary of The Garceaus' recording process with Jazz Nicolas, Mikey Amistoso and Peavey Nicolas for our EP in 2018.
More recent semi-regular bits 'n' pieces.
A spotty journal recording the last two months in Enhanced Community Quarantine.
Seems like a lifetime ago we held our "Power Trio" art exhibit at Robinsons Galleria. It closed up on the day that everyone went into lockdown.
So back in 1999, when me and my wife Therese Jamora-Garceau had already sort of settled in the Philippines, I found myself working on the Front Desk of the Philippine Star and writing a column of expat observations which became a book.. Working on a front desk, btw, is a goldmine for funny news items, outlandish English ("holderuppers"), mangled phrases ("bomb-snipping dogs"), and a great grounding in how important a free press is for Filipinos. They will — literally — die for it.
I saw some crazy shit at the Star's Front Desk, but eventually I found myself plunked down in the less-dangerous Lifestyle section. People don't usually get shot over press releases.
This led to a second collection of essays, "Kano-nization (More Secrets from The X-Pat Files)."
This was a pretty weird and new thing in the Philippines at the time: foreigners weighing in on local customs. You've got to understand: there wasn't YouTube yet, so there weren't thousands of white backpackers doing their Taal mountain bike videos or how to pronounce Tagalog food phrases or the like...
It was new territory then.
Now, EVERYBODY knows the Philippines and its food and its people — and I'm really glad about that!
Founded after the EDSA Revolution (1986), the STAR was/is one of the most widely read English newspapers in the country. It pioneered strong, anti-Marcos journalism; later, it was the first to introduce color graphics, the Lifestyle section with a different focus each day.
Yes, this was back in the day when daily newspapers were REALLY BIG in the world. Therese and I were around for a lot of the changes in the paper and the industry.
Now, we're still writing, and the biz is changing, splintering, mutating.
Does a newspaper still even matter? Hey, try getting along without a press to report all the shit that's going down right under your noses.
My fellow artists Dennis D'Bayan and Julius Sanvictores. Thanks to all those who turned out, right before all of Metro Manila went into lockdown. It was a blast!
So we held the launch party for "Power Trio" exhibit, with music sets by The Garceaus, The Black Vomits and The Executives. Here we are trying to work through some technical kinks with our opening set...
It’s weird, what you miss. The taho guy, walking down Derby street with his cart, shouting “Tahoooo!” in 8-second intervals. No more. No more Magnolia ice cream jingle either. People have adopted the mask look, furtively going about their business by day, disappearing by night. Fewer lights in the metro skyline. Fewer cars. Not dead, just stunned and sleepwalking.
It’s 9 am. The pack of annoying little dogs next door are no longer yapping stupidly whenever somebody knocks on the neighbor’s gate, because nobody knocks on the neighbor’s gate. There’s a calm in the air, but that’s a lie. People are scared inside. Every day brings a development that pushes the bounds of what people will accept. Curfews at 8 pm. New IDs required for media just to do their jobs. The measures seem necessary and draconian at the same time. Maybe irreversible. We don’t know where this is headed. This script isn’t like other scripts.
You hit the streets and notice it at the first intersection on Katipunan: walang beggars. No kids or blind folks being led around to cars with their hands out. Begging is on temporary suspension. Is it a lack cars waiting at stoplights? Or an understanding that nobody wants to lower their car windows at a time like this?
We’re early in: it feels pretty real.
If we look at the charts, we hope it heads to a flattened curve. The spread is slowed, the cases peter out, and become easier to cluster and identify. We all become mini CDC doctors, advising calm, sensible behavior, avoiding complacence.
We joked about cabin fever on Day 1, even before that. But the ever-changing case scenario, means you never get too complacent. This is real.
In some ways it eerily echoes all the virus apocalypse movies we’ve seen. That lull, the period when the most have died horrible deaths, and it’s an evening out. People go around in masks, cautiously, amid surreal displays of non-normality. Empty plazas, empty malls, supermarkets where cars are lined up outside, and inside empty shelves, carts full of food, snaking around the aisles. And yet this, too, is business as usual.
But that’s a false picture too. We hear “the worst is yet to come.” So that fake lull is to be viewed with caution. It’s dangerous.
As it hits bad, it hits home. And yet home is wherever you happen to be. Your tribe is your tribe. People are self-isolating, social distancing even from a few blocks away. Haven’t seen my brother-in-law and family in over a week. They’ve closed down, closed in. My family is here, now: the people in this household. We have to pull together. Even my family in the States: they’re largely on their own. Talking to my parents on the phone, with the shitty internet and dropped calls, is somehow worse than just imagining they’re all right, getting by. My brothers are in radio silence, not much different from normal times.
These are not normal times.
Things are the same, only less so. Seeing a creeping authoritarianism in this gated community, stationing armed guards — men and “lady guards” armed with shotguns at entry points. Not to mention armed military from nearby Camp Crame patrolling Katipunan Ave. for “masses of poor people” storming communities and looting, per last week’s fake news posts that went viral. Yeah, this is actually all happening. So the fake news was dismissed as fake by the Palace, but the guards still stand. Enhanced security to go with the enhanced lockdown. Keep the poor away from our foodstuffs.
What it resembles, from my research, is Martial Law Lite, and it’s the citizens who are pushing to raise the stakes, not the government. Sure, there are curfews, and checkpoints. But there’s also panic buying and loose weapons talk that feels like it’s straight out of Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
In any case, a lot of this past week’s developments feel like a bad “movie of the week” script.
* * *
It’s hard to get a grip on what this feels like. There are few parallels in my history. 9/11 maybe, and its aftermath; or the 2009 economic crash that swept Obama into office. The ash fall earlier this year from Taal Volcano comes close, more recently. But it basically meant sweeping up the ash from parked cars, bad air quality, wearing masks for a few days. This one feels uncertain, and that can feel… permanent.
Existentially, it’s even harder to understand what it all means. This could all be telling you to just chill and disengage from the A.I. hum of our devices and take stock; it could be telling you to reach out and help somebody else, to donate your goods or time, or musical talents (via Facebook and live feeds); it could make you fearful and greedy, one of those people with chains of grocery carts, waiting in line; it could be a “teachable” moment, with everyone trying to improve themselves with YouTube videos.
But even that can feel like an unwanted prescription. “Here’s 10 Productive Ways To Spend Your Time in Lockdown.” Ugh. What if you just want to veg out? That’s an existential pathway as well.
I spent most of the morning doing errands for people (getting subdivision quarantine gate passes for my sisters-in-law, buying groceries for them from increasingly bare supermarket shelves. I thought this problem would go away by now). In the afternoon, Therese and I jammed for over an hour (worked on Blackbird as a bossa nova, did a rough duet on Game of Thrones theme), which was fun and kind of like exercise.
The evenings are filled with dinner talk and deciding what movie Therese’s mom will watch, sketching some things, surfing; then Therese and I end up watching some CNN, Westworld, Outlander on Netflix.
I spent the first week trying to watch every virus/pandemic movie or series I could find on Netflix, ostensibly for a column in the STAR, but it hasn’t run yet (corona is taking a beating on advertising, so not much print space). That was fun, rewatching World War Z and I Am Legend and such, but it mostly got to be a drag. Not because of the subject matter, but the boring ways most flicks tend to treat pandemics. Too many zombie apocalypses, nothing interesting or original. Did like 93 Days, a true-life story about the spread of Ebola in West Africa in 2014; and the Korean series Kingdom, set in 1500s, is unexpectedly watchable and well done. But the subject matter itself — whether it’s rabies, killer bats, creatures that kill if you make a sound, or if you don’t wear a blindfold — it all starts to lose its luster and novelty after a while. So back to regular random programming for now.
Yesterday I learned to play Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done on acoustic (tricky picking pattern); and today I practiced Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E Minor. I’m not saying I can play either of them well; it’s just fun to learn something new, and surprisingly pleasurable to master a new task.
I think that’s what’s been missing in our lives: making time to actually experience things without worrying what it means to others, or what the world might think. I realized the thing I like reading the most in the morning isn’t the latest news, but poetry. The last good collection I picked up was Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing, filled with Sharpie drawings and doodles and poems about his monastery stay.
Poetry is just something that makes sense in the morning: you ease into the day with short lines, compressed with meaning the way a juicer compresses an orange; you feel the pungency of fewer and fewer words, how their scarcity awakens something in you. The connections are easier to make when there are fewer entangling lines.
So yeah, poetry. In the morning. I recommend.
* * *
The other shameful secret of all this lockdown time is that I ACTUALLY KIND OF ENJOY IT. It turns out that social isolation and me get along just fine. I have become very possessive of all this “me” time, and I’m not sure I want to go back to “normal” anytime soon. I know the horrors going on out there — the hospital front-liners, the lack of food, the people not getting paid, relatives dying. This is a real shock to the system. Suddenly, none of the hustle-bustle matters. Let’s face it: We are in an uncertain limbo period, no one knows what’s next, and it may be a time to rethink what it all means. Find something of value to learn, or share, or give back. In any case, it’s a very different perspective on what matters. And a very necessary vacation from The Machine.
You wake up from not quite a dream at 1:30 am (we sleep earlier when there’s less to do), and hear the lazy circular thwop of helicopter blades rising up, then receding, sinking us back into sleep. But the thwopping continues. What’s happening? It’s anyone’s guess.
We live very close (adjacent) to Camp Crame, the military headquarters which was the battleground for several coup attempts under President Cory Aquino back in the late ‘80s. Maybe my family here in White Plains are familiar with that 1:30 thwopping sound; maybe it woke them up, too, until it no longer did. As of now — March 28, 2020 — it betides dead-of-night operations that we can only speculate about, sitting by the screened window in the hushed quiet of post-midnight: Are there outbreaks of violence or looting somewhere that require helicopters to scoot out of Crame into the nocturnal sky, one after another, heading south apparently? Is this normal preparedness exercises? Is martial law just a few short breaths away? Is this what martial law felt like? Was it bearable at first, not so much as it lingered on, without rhyme or reason or justification? Was history, in retrospect, naïve to believe that that was as bad as government adventurism could get? Was martial law mild in comparison to what could happen anywhere, anytime now, because the coronavirus has rewritten the world’s rules once again, made them easier to kick under the desk in a crumpled heap, fold one’s hands and stare into the camera eye of the world’s public, and lie to them with unbroken, bloodless sincerity?
What are those helicopters up to?, I wonder, before crawling back off to bed and sleep.
We diluted alcohol yesterday, big gallon jugs of 99.9% alcohol, mixed with 30% water, to fill our various spray bottles and such with a safer/more effective/won’t kill you on contact 70% solution. That felt like a good use of free time.
Now, in my free time, I sift through a pile of entertainment options (old movies on old burned CDs, a treasure trove — for me, anyway). Will this be the week I finally get Therese to sit still and watch Solaris? Would Soylent Green be a hoot? (Or maybe Omega Man?) Can we revisit The King of Comedy in light of Joker? Will this Rolling Stones ’72 concert film pair nicely with Dig!, about Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sort-of feud with the Dandy Warhols? I think so. But I’m usually a minority of one, in the Time of Social Distancing.
* * *
It’s still absurd and shameful, but this Lockdown time is still useful to me. Does anybody really miss the daily driving and traffic, the constant events, the invites, the assignments and press cons and stupid, meaningless demands? I MEAN, THAT STUFF’S NOT IMPORTANT! PEOPLE ARE DYING! RIGHT???
So I do not miss any of those things. I’m in no hurry to get back into it.
But people need to work, to get paid, to buy food and eat. And drink beer in local beerhouses.
What we have right now is a weird limbo, a vacuum not unlike those long flights to LA or New York. I feel like being mid-air is a limbo state, but not one of uncertainty; it’s a waiting room where you’re perfectly comfortable to suspend time.
And that’s how I feel about Lockdown. Most of the time.
We’ve passed April Fool’s Day. The joke continues.
Flights have been cancelled, future trips and plans for the year have evaporated into air
I pick up The Stand, an old paperback edition from the late ‘70s, the one I remember starting but never finishing, 40 years ago. Never too late to finish, I suppose.
(It is a hellaciously effective read; King was on fire back then, all his pop cultural/horror movie/descriptive synapses lit up like a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. If we ever see one of those again.)
Sometimes I feel like it’s End Times, or at least “end times” — the end of something, so many things. Perhaps no more commuting? Perhaps the end of certain industries? Will print survive? Is there still a place for a pair of fairly competent proofreaders and writers?
Our days fall into fairly predictable parabolas: early morning news check, to see how things are falling apart; coffee, some sort of attempt at breakfast; working from home, editing articles via email; a task or two (fixing something I broke, fixing something I didn’t break but which broke nonetheless); a Goal of some sort; some kind of “artistic” endeavor, whether playing piano or guitar, learning a song, or starting/finishing a column. A few fleeting attempts to contact my parents on my cellphone, either via FB Messenger or Magic Jack.
Lunch time rolls around. Lola, Lolo and all of us (there are few excuses for not joining the group meal now, unless you’re sick, in which case you should be quarantined). Some new items for conversation or amusement, but not much.
I also feel duty-bound to head to the office on Fridays, to join another sucker, Kathy, our managing editor who coordinates the two layout artists. Technically, all this could be done from home. Having been on the Desk during floods and highwaters in the past, I guess I feel a weird personal pride in pitching in to help, even if it is a little dangerous. (After all, the Philippine media did boast of the highest murder rate during GMA’s time; so this is nothing.)
I do find it irksome that there’s now a liquor ban in effect for the rest of this lockdown period. Really: How the hell else are we supposed to get through such a bleak stretch? What the bloody hell is the point of cutting off alcohol sales in the middle of a damn lockdown? Do they imagine people are going to be so crazed on liquor that they’re gonna go around with lampshades on their heads, infecting people in the streets?
But anyway. It’s not the first crazy action of this government. Now Duterte is threatening to “shoot people in the streets” if they violate the lockdown (and in fact, they did so: blasting one old drunken idiot who had the temerity to complain about lack of food supplies being distributed at a checkpoint). So it all has the feel of Martial Law crossed with a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror/horror movie episode, the final bloody act of which is unwritten.
* * *
I feel good about some things, bad about others. I feel good when I help out, get groceries or requested items, or sit with the in-laws for a movie or something.
I feel bad about my parents, whom I’m unable to really talk with. My dad, in particular, is now incommunicado; he hasn’t picked up his phone in four days, leading me to my worst thoughts. I’ve contacted my brother, sis-in-law and nephew on FB to see what’s up; they didn’t sense my urgency, so I called the Quincy police late at night and laid out the situation: a senior, age 80, hard of hearing, lives alone and hasn’t answered his phone for four days; doesn’t have a regular caregiver or regular visitor other than Meals on Wheels; could you be so kind as to pop around and check if he’s breathing? I apologize in advance saying it “could be nothing,” but I am concerned. They haven’t got back to me yet.
I feel bad when I get cross, as I did with my daughter for “volunteering” my rubbing alcohol/disinfectant spray bottle to the helpers downstairs. I shouldn’t have got angry; she was just trying to help people who are more in danger of infecting each other than we are (two of Lolo’s helpers are actually in self-quarantine for two weeks, just in case). I hope we can smooth moments like that over.
Otherwise, still getting along fine with Therese, because we need to help one another through all this. We actually give each other massages regularly, which is good intimate bonding time.
* * *
The afternoons are a loose arc that ends with the girls doing exercise in front of a YouTube video on a laptop at sunset. We stick around on the balcony until the stars come out, listen to Spotify playlists, spot Venus and Siruis and other faraway celestial bodies.
Then, after an hour’s lull, there’s dinner, with fewer things to discuss, maybe some other Spotify jazz playlist playing in the background (usually veering towards the Swing era).
The rest of the evening is usually devoted to TV bingeing, for such is the state of things. There’s some CNN, some Late Show or Daily Show on Comedy Central, some Seth Myers or John Oliver on YouTube to catch up on, then downloaded TV series (Westworld, Devs, Homeland) or Netflix (Outlander, and lately, the 7-part Tiger King which is about as crazy as these times feel). Followed by playing games on our phones or surfing some more on our laptops, and the simple act of reading.
And you know what? It actually feels all right to wind the day down like this. It’s not depressing at all. It feels like: normalcy. Comfort.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness”?
Welcome to the death throes, people.
Say goodbye to:
• A free press. When did we decide that it’s okay to let a president willfully lie to the press? That somehow, lying to the press is “not a crime,” so it’s no biggie? As long as you don’t lie under oath, you’re fine, pal! Since we have a president who belittles the press at every opportunity: that’s when. So lying to the press becomes an exttra poke in the eye that your base just loves (except when you need ‘em — right, Fox News?)
• Checks and balances. Maintain a firm death grip on the Senate, so you can choke the life out of any legislation emerging from the Democratic House, rubber-stamp every Supreme Court nominee and euthanize any efforts to call witnesses in your impeachment trial? Check.
Eject an attorney general who won’t involve himself in defending your crimes and troll around until you find one who will gladly do it, in the shape and form of William Barr? Check.
Surround yourself with a TV defense league to maintain a stonewall around White House activities, thus out-Nixoning Nixon when the truth threatens to surface? Check, check, check.
• The illusion of participatory democracy. We can all see how this goes now. Popular vote doesn’t matter anymore. (Right, Hillary and Al?) You’ve got a TV lawyer mindbendingly arguing before the Senate that whatever a president does to ensure his re-election, in his mind, is considered “in the national interest.” And since we’re dwelling in the cerebrums of presidents now, asking ourselves what did the president “mean,” or “think” about this or that, rather than focusing on specific impeachable actions, then we can say that, why, yes, the president meant only good things for the country — in his mind! This is classic gaslighting, people.
• Transactional everything. Lest we cling on to any other illusions about what President Make A Deal really has in mind, consider the 100 or so people who have left his administration and cabinet amid clouds of scandal, ethics violations, arrest, imprisonment, not to mention “policy differences” over whether it’s right or wrong to shake down other countries for dirt on political opponents. The president believes everything is a transaction, meant to generate a buck — whether it’s thousands of US troops being dispatched to Saudi Arabia as, basically, mercenaries because “the Saudis are paying us big time” for their services, or it’s viewing Kim Jung Un’s missile-flanked beaches as a prime resort opportunity with the “TRUMP” name emblazoned on its façade, or it’s suddenly becoming the world’s most unlikely Emissary of God to the Christian conservatives, who clearly are into the transactional relationship thing bigtime in embracing a character like Donald Trump.
* * *
Now, the only avenue left for Americans is to vote. Those who see this whole charade in the Senate for what it is have only themselves left to change things at the ballot. (Or in the streets, if you prefer.) This is a lawless government, people, maintained and reinforced by two supposedly independent, co-equal branches of government.
- The Justice Department has been co-opted, so expect more tightening the screws on immigration, environmental policy, press freedoms and anything else Bill Barr deems as subject to the president’s unlimited power under his cockeyed view of the US Constitution.
- Expect a Supreme Court tilting full right, no matter whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg lives to be 190, as we all wish and hope for.
- Expect the grinning snapping turtle who goes by the name Mitch McConnell to continue packing the courts with conservative justices nationwide, remaking America into the conservative right’s wet dream.
All this as we hopeful Americans who used to believe in participatory democracy do our November duties, casting our ballots in the baseless hope that we actually make a difference, trying once again to get behind a Democrat who will not wilt and wither in the face of a tyrant-in-charge, but will actually try to lead this party, trying once again to thread the needle through the electoral college all-or-nothing carny cheat game with our measly popular votes!
I say: it’s better than nothing. And once you’re armed with these inescapable facts, and how diligently the other side is trying to hide them, it makes your choice much easier.
I keep thinking what kind of argument the Democrats will have to convincingly make to win the White House in 2020. Lately, they’ve been pretty meek in the face of this COVID threat; Biden seems content that his nomination is locked up. That’s really not enough, Joe. You’ve got to make the case that, not only do you have a bold plan to reverse the debacle of the past two months (going on three and a half years); you HAVE to illustrate — very plainly — to every American why another four years of the current guy is a dangerous, precipitous thing for America, and possibly the world.
Something like this:
“As we head into the 2020 polls, we as Americans should really take stock of where we are. Remember the Trump slogan in 2016? ‘Make America Great Again’? Ask yourself: How is that working out for you, today? A $2.3 trillion rescue package that American taxpayers’ kids or grandchildren will probably never be able to pay off; a Dow and stock market in the toilet, because the bettors sense when to lay low; the loss of countless industries due to a shutdown that is now longer than it might have been if steps were taken earlier by this president.
• The President had the economy to brag about, one partially rebuilt by Barack Obama. But it was juiced by a huge tax cut for the rich, pushed through by Republicans, that was supposed to trickle down to the average American. Did it? Did you feel it, out in Michigan and Ohio, where factories remain shuttered?
• The ones who felt the biggest boost — the stock owners, those with disposable income to play the markets —you might have felt a thrill in seeing the Dow going up. That’s the little thrill that Trump gave you, made your hair blow back as the roller coaster went up the track. But look at it now. I know a lot of you lost millions during this COVID crisis. And maybe it’s not 100 percent Trump’s fault. But he was resting a lot of his message on that stock market. Are you all good with that? Easy come, easy go?
Ask yourself this: Do you really want to keep riding the roller coaster with this man?
• The president promised to “bring all America together” during his campaign, and when he got into office. He has done precisely the opposite. He revels in splitting people down the middle. You know this. It improves his chances. There’s a bit in The Art of War that says, “Divide and conquer.” President Trump never cared about bringing Americans together. You could see it in the way he played both sides in Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”), and even today when he gives mixed, confusing messages about the coronavirus (“you can wear masks if you want, or don’t. I don’t think I will”). He knows there are still people who hang on a president’s word. That’s why he’s sought to hijack the coronavirus briefings into daily harangues of the press — for doing their jobs. He knows there are those who will applaud him for sliming the people whose job it is to have the AUDACITY to question his pronouncements, even as they go against the best medical and scientific expertise he has assembled on that stage to actually address the crisis.
This is a president who doesn’t care about the truth. He likes a situation where people can no longer trust what is said, so they will question the truth of EVERYTHING they hear. He figures he can pick up the pieces from people’s doubt. He figures he can benefit from it.
“Figuring,” in fact, is what this president does a lot of. He’s not figuring what’s best for the country, but he is figuring which angles work best for him. So the divisions continue, because rather than pulling people in the same direction, he wants to confuse and discombobulate them. Ask yourself: would any other president leave hanging out there so many contradictory, unclear statements about a major pandemic as this one has? Wouldn’t a real president want to be as clear, consistent and transparent as possible, to minimize panic and confusion?
So you’ve got to ask yourself this: Do you really want to keep riding the roller coaster with this man?
• Rather than embracing new technologies, creating new forward-thinking industries, fixing roads, trying to move the planet towards a future that doesn’t kill the only climate we have, this president has made a gamble: he’s gambling that it’s somebody else’s problem; future generations, all those kids who are starting to balk at the idea of extreme weather, natural disasters that are incinerating forests and swamping coastal areas and throwing tornadoes into the mix. The science is clear on this, but this president has thrown in with the deniers, the business-as-usual guys; he doesn’t want to hear about alternate fuels and technologies, because it mucks with the oil industries, the huge donors to his campaign and his party. And the Republicans are in lockstep behind him, every time.
But guess what? Betting the planet is a pretty huge gamble to make. And we didn’t sign on for that kind of gamble.
So you’ve got to ask yourself this: Do you really want to keep riding the roller coaster with this man?
• In this COVID crisis, we have seen not a wartime president, but someone at war with reason, and facts, and science. He goes with his “gut,” because that’s the unerring gut that’s led him to several bankruptcies, transforming the GOP into a party of abrasive, race-baiting, socialist-bashing conspiracy mongers who slavishly turned their time-honored party into Trump’s party, then got himself impeached by (repeatedly) doing things that a less risk-addicted man might have shied away from.
We know that Trump does not drink, having seen his own brother die of alcoholism; he’s against booze, but gambling is another addiction, and we have never seen a president so risk-oriented and self-destructive as this one. It’s his crack. He goes with his “gut,” because he loves the thrill of being proven right. And if he’s wrong? Guess what? There’s a long line of people around he will blame for those decisions. “I don’t take any responsibility” for the slow reaction to COVID cases growing on US soil, he famously said.
Mark those words: he will try to turn whatever death count emerges from COVID-19 into a political “win” (he already is! As the pandemic spreads and still kills countless numbers!). That’s his love of “risk” at play: the biggest dopamine-releasing crack-pipe hit for this guy was “winning” the Electoral Map in 2016. He still feasts on that memory, that red map, like it’s a leftover crumb of freeze-dried coke inside a metal tube: he joneses for that moment.
This guy’s roller coaster is the American economy, American public opinion, America’s environment, our future, our reputation and standing, our history and principles and beliefs. He is willing to gamble…all of that… for another hit.
So you’ve got to ask yourself this: Do you really want to keep riding the roller coaster with this man?
Got this in a National Book Store bargain bin years ago. Seems fitting to pick it up now, with its daily ruminations on art and human behavior.
July 19 entry: “The reason conservatives cohere and radicals fight: everyone agrees about fears, no one about visions.”
He’s got lots to say about recording with U2, The Cranberries, etc. (was published in 1996), but also about listening/recording music: “Cage’s realization: that ‘composing’ could consist simply of creating occasions for the act of listening.”
It’s a meditative, humorous book, and as advertised, the back half is a very hefty series of footnotes and appendices to points raised in the “diary” section. Maybe it’s a good approach to journaling during this “lockdown” time.
The flood came to every shore, every cluster of life huddled at the coast,
every city piled high, overlooking the mastered sea. It waved across Manhattan, Shanghai, London, Manila, Boston and San Francisco, Seattle and Amsterdam like warm, lapping death and those who saw it coming were powerless to turn away. Maybe they wanted it all along, to succumb to its endless depths, find themselves weightless, dragged along and under by its unrelenting churn.
The flood was real, its dominion complete. You didn’t take sides, didn’t debate it.
It was all a matter of how you accepted things, or failed to accept them; some leapt to their deaths, others tried to float as long as possible, refusing, even in the end, to believe their end had come.
Science cracked at some point, faced with the fact that some truths truly are irrevocable, unforgiving and eternal.
Religion had nothing to say; smugness was wiped away by real terror, not manufactured human terror; it made believers out of all mankind, then showed them that belief, in the end, didn’t amount to much after all.
There was a push to the highland, but there is always a push to the highland.
Some held out longer there, but the rising waters forgave no one in the end.
Holding one’s breath gave way to the inevitable necessity of drawing one’s last.
The flood judged no one in the end. It swept up all, every thing and everyone,
in its cleansing final embrace.
A little before Valentine’s Day, my wife and I rewatched the Richard Linklater trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) in rapid succession — not by design, but because we had a natural curiosity about the passage of time on these characters. We kind of remembered how Sunset and Midnight went, and how Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) looked as the nine years between each film passed, but it was the nuances of those changes that kind of drew us into the marathon (well, a three-night marathon anyway, which counts as bingeing at our age). We wanted to revisit their characters.
Linklater stands up pretty well as a filmmaker who survived the indie ‘90s. From Slacker (1990), he moved on at a rapid clip, rarely stopping or looking back, hitting every genre that caught his fancy, from high school (Dazed and Confused) to commercial hits (School of Rock) to critical hits (Boyhood), to bombs (Newton Boys, Bad News Bears), well-meaning semi-docs (Fast Food Nation), through his Rotoscope period (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly).
But when he did bother looking back, it was always at that Celine-Jesse tandem. It kind of served as his signpost along the way: working with screenwriting partner Kim Krizan, then adding Hawke and Delpy into the writing mix, the “Before” movies allowed Linklater to work in not only topical concerns (the political gripes that Celine often tosses out) and philosophical obsessions (Jesse’s epistemological theories) but more personal fixations. It’s hard not to see a bit of Linklater’s uncomplicated fascination with sports in Jesse — it turns up in so many of his films, like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some! But you also see a lot of Hawke — who perhaps didn’t love the media spotlight put on his marriage and literary sideline (The Hottest State, etc.), and perhaps liked the idea of escaping the idea of being Ethan Hawke. And it’s not hard to see the “Before” movies as an at least partial reflection of Delpy’s personal life — music, politics — over the years. (Her character Celine gripes about this in Before Midnight, how she used to love writing and playing songs, like the ones featured in Before Sunset, but somehow just stopped, because she had to take motherhood and life seriously; Jesse, typically, shrugs that off and says why, if it made you happy?)
In short, there’s a lot of truth about real relationships and marriage (even though Jesse and Celine never actually do get married) as the trilogy unfolds. You’ve got the bittersweet Paris reunion in Before Sunset, where Jesse does a book signing at Shakespeare & Company and the two spend a few stolen hours before Jesse’s flight to catch up; you’re both haunted and intrigued by the physical changes of nine years: before, they were so young, fresh, with almost a Botticelli glow — now gaunt, etched with frown lines, wear and tear, a few wrinkles. You end up thinking, along with your own partner, about the indelible effects of time: How we’ve changed. And what has remained the same.
But as conceived, there’s also something a bit one-dimensional about Jesse and Celine: a guy in a black turtleneck with a Europass, a French girl reading her book quietly on a train. Linklater actually enlisted Krizan to help write the female character (an impressive bit of insight into his own weaknesses as a writer), but they cooked up what amounted to templates, which largely had to be filled by the intuitive casting of Hawke and Delpy (imagine if their second choices — Michael Vartan from Never Been Kissed and Sadie Frost from Bram Stoker’s Dracula— had won the roles). Despite the easy rapport of Hawke and Delpy, the joints and hinges of those templates become exposed a bit more with each movie. Their characters are both deeper and somehow more constrained by their fictional origins. By the end, you end up thinking Jesse and Celine — even while enjoying a vacation in Greece with friends — have a tendency to walk around and complain too much for their own good. Meanwhile, Hawke’s voice grows lower and gruffer with each iteration, lending his constant sexual come-ons a kind of leering predictability. And Celine’s constant carping about the environment and death and aging seems — well, as one-dimensionally European as she perhaps was originally plotted out on paper.
And yet those one-dimensional notes endure. We do care about what happens to them. What will happen to them. The predictability, as we learn by Before Midnight, is part of the package: the reason why people may choose to stay together, even as they are sometimes tempted to split apart from sameness and simple everyday boredom. It’s a romantic notion: People want a comforting presence in life, and Before Midnight hints at this truth even after its explosive breakup moment (Celine, enacting the cliché of the Parisian woman having a tantrum — something that her younger version made fun of in Before Sunrise, “Oh, it’s so French, it’s so cute — bleech!”).
Do we want to see another walk-and-talk with Celine and Jesse in 2022, after nine years have passed since Before Midnight? Will they be married at this point, or still free to hit the road? Will their physical ailments be the focus as much as their politics and philosophical concerns? And will the final film, as Linklater joked, be “a comic remake of Amour, where one euthanizes the other”? It all depends on how much we’re willing to grow old together with them. Life, sometimes, is just watching it all play out.
(Feb. 16, 2020)
I’ve been following Jim Carrey’s Sharpie art output over the past few years, much of it focused on skewering the Trump administration. It’s lurid stuff, and meant to be: full of fanged Kellyanne Conways and rumpled Mike Pompeos, Donald J. Trump as a Wicked Witch or a flaming meteoroid about to crash into earth. You could call it Expressionism, in its most disturbing form. In a way, it’s like courtroom sketch art, dashed off by a mental patient or someone experiencing severe gaslighting.
Like many onlookers, Carrey — who used to do portraits of Jesus and Lincoln —apparently struggled to find humor in the current state of US politics. For a funny man, that can be a real handicap. So he turned to art therapy, and I’ve enjoyed the gestural urgency of that art over the past years as much as I’ve enjoyed Stephen King’s occasional Twitter rants and late night TV hosts’ nightly takedowns.
Now Carrey’s hanging it up. He’s “done” with the Trump-trolling phase of his reportage, and one wonders if the aborted impeachment trial in the Senate had anything to do with him throwing up his hands and putting down his colored magic markers.
He says his art was meant to be a kind of beacon in the dark night. “To me, that was like a time where I just wanted to be the lighthouse that was saying, ‘Hey, stay off the rocks, you’re headed for the rocks,'” he told Yahoo. “We’re still headed for the rocks, but I’ve decided, ‘You understand my message, I don’t need to be steeped in it anymore.”
Political art, like any other commentary these days, sparks wide division. Carrey wants to say he’s not about that. “What I want to tell people is that it’s never been a matter of hating anyone, that I can sit down with anyone in this country and break bread. I love people,” he explained. “To me, we got tricked by politicians and weird corporate concerns to believe that disagreement is hatred. I will never go for that.”
The comic actor’s not given up art, though. His new fascination, after the extended Orange Period? “Kind of obsessed with mangoes right now,” he says. “They’re the fruit of the Gods. They represent abundance and sweetness and the gifts of the universe. So that’s where I’m at.”
I think we can all agree on mangoes. Right, Filipinos?
As long as Mikey Amistoso follows his pop muse, and he does it in the company of Ciudad (with bandmates Mitch Singson, Justin Sunico and Jeff Cabal), there is a glimmer of hope that a shaft of Brian Wilson-esque light will continue to shine on Pinoy music.
That’s not to limit Ciudad’s sound to any kind of Beach Boys comparison. The things we love about Wondermints or High Llamas are only the jumping-off point for their own musical idiosyncrasies; same with Ciudad.
I’m listening to new album “Ciudad Forever, Vol. 1” on Spotify, part of a two-disc retrospective that’s loaded with heavenly pop moments. How do these guys pull it all off onstage? You’d be surprised.
With a trio of recent singles headlining it, “Ciudad Forever, Vol. 1” both expands on Ciudad’s evolving sound and pays homage to the things that launched them. Opening cut Caught Me at the Worst Time starts things in throwback guitar epic fashion; Oh, Christian! and Get You Closer are piano-driven tunes that plumb some pretty harmonic heights (there’s even a jazzy McCartney-esque sax solo — perhaps keyboard-based — trailing off on Get You Closer).
How do you get to celebrate your 25th anniversary as a band? By growing your sound. If anything, “Ciudad Forever…” tracks an increasingly mature band, something hinted at during 2012’s “Follow the Leader,” but they ain’t ready for rocking chairs yet. They still rock. Guitars were a big part of the band’s ’90s appeal, though they’ve toned down the fuzz-scuzz tones and replaced them with… well, details. The banjos in One Summer Kiss, the mounting, interwoven harmonies in Goodbye, Brilliance, the vibes at the coda of A Rotten Idea.
Having spent time in the studio (Big Baby, Peavey Nicolas’s baby) with Mikey and Jazz Nicolas while recording The Garceaus’ EP (find it on Spotify, people), I got to both witness and absorb (hehe) some of Mikey’s pop habits and habitats. Anything lying around becomes a pop weapon of choice. They both think in terms of detailing your songs, and that’s probably not the level of engagement you’d get from most producers anywhere else. Anyway, having Mikey and Jazz do backup harmonies on our songs Facebook Blues and Bigfoot was a pop milestone — a miracle — for us.
Check out “Ciudad Forever, Vol. 1” for more evidence that the Pinoy pop landscape still has places to expand and reclaim… possibly forever.
* * *
Go to 123 Block today, Ciudad is filming a live performance (for something or other) at 3 p.m. #CiudadForever
My UP Creative Writing classmate Noelle Q. De Jesus launches her second short story collection, Cursed and Other Stories, tomorrow, Feb. 2, 3 p.m. at National Book Store, Greenbelt 1. This follows Blood, which won the US-based Next Generation Indie Book Award for Short Story in 2016. Ask her to tell you a story; she’s game.
Yassss, come out for the exhibit, curated by our friend IGAN D'BAYAN, which will include music (Black Vomits, The Garceaus), snacks 'n' things and collected works by myself, JULIUS SANVICTORES (aka drummer for Black Vomits) and DENNIS D'BAYAN,
Do you know THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU and I have a band? THE GARCEAUS started as a White Stripes duo, did a few gigs with our devoted friend BRYAN ESCUETA on lead guitar, and lately we've added FRANCO CHAN on bass.
Last year, we recorded an EP with sonic geniuses JAZZ NICOLAS and MIKEY AMISTOSO as producers, and PEAVEY NICOLAS as engineer at Big Baby Studios.
You can check out The Garceaus music on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, Deezer, CD Baby, and lyric videos on YouTube, etc.
I want to include much more here about The Garceaus, including Big Baby Studio Diaries and videos of us recording our 5-song EP. Stay tuned.
"The X-Pat Files" has appeared in Philippine Star for over 20 years, covering Mundane Expat Observations, Travel articles, Concert, Book and Movie reviews, etc. Soon, we will add columns dating back to 1997.
Email's basically a big trashcan, but drop a line if you like.
My official designation here in the Philippines — the one stamped on my paperwork and my passport — is "Resident Alien." As an American living abroad, it's a term I've come to accept, and even gain certain observational mileage from. After all, being an alien has its advantages. You're not expected to know everything about local customs. In fact, the local population tends to forgive your off-center observations about their culture, comforting themselves in the knowledge that you will eventually go back from whence you came.
Except I'm still here.
I first visited the Philippines in 1993 with my fiancée Therese Jamora, and decided to come back to stay in 1995. I've been a deskman for The Philippine Star for two years, a position from which I am allowed to channel my cultural perplexity into short musings for the Lifestyle section of the same newspaper.
Somehow, the "Resident Alien" tag has worked its way into my consciousness. The term may seem oxymoronic, but haven't we all felt like "resident aliens" in certain situations? Being a resident alien means being an invited guest — with certain privileges and liberties, of course. One of these liberties is the right to see our surroundings however we wish. To complain freely about everything that passes our eye. To become aghast at the things that everyone else takes for granted. Being a resident alien is not unlike being a backseat driver — and just about as useful.
As an American, I occupy a rather spongy middle ground here. I'm not really part of the "ex-pat" community here in Manila; I spend most of my time among Filipinos, though, regrettably, I am unable to speak Tagalog. God knows why my presence here is even tolerated, let alone my views. Perhaps it has something to do with the tradition of the fool among us, pointing out our absurdities.
Some readers may feel that the Philippines I've depicted in this book bears no resemblance to the Philippines they know and love. My apologies in advance. I can only say in my defense that I have tried to depict the more humorous aspects of life here. Between the lines, I hope you will find more than a few compliments. Maybe you'll even find something (or someone) you recognize. After all, another part of being an alien is learning to love the things you don't really understand.
Maybe that's why I'm still here.
The name is Scott.
I only mention it because people have such a hard time pronouncing my name.
It sounds easy on paper, but apparently, it's a tongue-twister to Filipinos. People here seem to have a devil of a time getting my name right.
As Al Pacino's character says in The Devil's Advocate, "I've had so many names..." Well, I've been called by many names in the Philippines, but they weren't "Scott."
A curious dyslexia seems to grip the tongue whenever someone attempts it; the data gets scrambled; the results are usually hilarious.
"Scotch" is the most common pronunciation. That one I can live with. It's even become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I expect to be called Scotch, and I am rarely disappointed. To save time, I usually add "...on the rocks," just so they know what I'm drinking.
How about "Stock"? (As in "out of stock.") That one comes in a close second. I get that one from salesgirls and receptionists a lot, whenever I am asked to give out my name. I recite it slowly. I try spelling it out, flashing my card or an I.D. — but what's the use? Let them call me whatever they want. They will anyway.
The guards in my building still refer to me as "Mr. Scoth," apparently an experimental hybrid between Scottish and Gothic. Let 'em. As long as I get my mail.
Then there's "Stop." I don't know what to do about that one. Should I stay or should I go? To me, "Stop" sounds like the punctuation in a telegram. Maybe they're trying to send me a message.
My editors at work have suggested I adopt the nom-de-plume"'Isko Garcia." At least people can grapple with that name. But I already have a name. The name is Scott.
One editor, when I was first introduced, shook my hand and called me "Spot." I immediately felt like crawling into a kennel. But I guess there are worse things to be called. "Bruno," for instance.
My surname gets me into trouble here as well. Manila, in particular, has a large number of French expats, who naturally assume that, with a name like "Garceau," I must be perfectly fluent in the mother tongue. Au contraire. They look aghast when I don't respond to their pleasantries en francais, and I feel like an impostor. I try to explain: I'm American; we're excused from being cosmopolitan.
The single worst mangling of my name, though — the one which I can't quite forgive — came on a Christmas card from a presidential candidate last year. I was amazed to even get a card from a presidential candidate, but when I opened it up, it began: "Dear Scrot..."
Ouch. Well, he lost my vote in May (that is, if I had a vote). Everyone seemed to have a good laugh over that one, though, passing the card around, giggling. The laughs would die down for a while, then someone would say "Oh, Scrot..." again, and... well, you get the picture.
So what's in a name, anyway?
It's not so difficult. Say it with me: "Scott."
Granted, it's not the easiest name in the world to pronounce; it doesn't roll off the tongue like "Alfonso" or "Vicente."
Perhaps I should change my name to "Scottie" — after all, everyone here knows Scottie Pippen. People are familiar with the Star Trek phrase, "Beam me up, Scottie."
But I don't want to be a "Scottie."
The name is Scott.
Democracy is a wonderful thing. As the elections draw near in the Philippines, it's good to reflect on some of the inalienable rights which we all hold dear.
For instance, the right to cross lanes without signaling. The right to shop from sunup to sundown in air-conditioned malls. And, of course, the right to sing off-key like a gut-shot dog in the local karaoke bars outside our offices.
Karaoke — and its suspicious offspring, videoke — is certainly one thing we couldn't imagine the Philippines without. If there's nothing written in the Constitution about your right to videoke, there should be.
Everybody in the Philippines sings, and almost everybody has a passable voice — and those who don't aren't about to let a little thing like that stop them.
For instance, every night, our streets are filled with the drunken warblings of men — and women — who pass the time woozily recalling the words to "MacArthur Park" — with feeling. It's one of the things that makes the Philippines such an entertaining place to live.
Karaoke, of course, is designed not just for the enjoyment of those gathered around the would-be crooner, but for those listening from afar — safely in another room, or standing across the street, for example. There, from that distance, the background music drops away, and all you can hear is the unadorned human voice, warts and all. You hear what sounds like the mating process of seals. You think they're showing that documentary on the Discovery Channel again, and then you realize it's your Uncle Alex, drunk, belting out "Send In the Clowns."
Sure, it's easy to laugh. Outside our offices, the air is filled nightly with music. "Footloose" is a favorite — never mind that no one ever remembers the words. "Unchained Melody" — the megahit spawned by the movie Ghost — gets a regular workout, and it usually lives up to its title, suggesting a ship that has lost its moorings.
Meanwhile, customers at the side-by-side beer joints are advised to stick to "3 Songs Per Table" — perhaps out of fairness, perhaps out of mercy. The great thing is, everybody has a good time.
But while most Filipinos take to videoke machines like ducks to water, Americans in general are a little less ... eager. Most people who saw the movie My Best Friend's Wedding can probably guess why. In that film, a young woman is forced to pick up the microphone at a videoke bar by her fiancé and scheming ex-girlfriend, only to find out — surprise! — she can't sing.
Americans, it needn't be pointed out, are not natural born singers. Karaoke bars scare us. We will talk a blue streak about anything, but get us near a microphone with the intro music to "Hello" building up in the background, and we shrink. It's not that we lack soul — the spirit is there, ready and willing. It's the vocal cords that are weak.
The few times I've been induced to sing karaoke have been less than spectacular. Being drunk helps, since it blots out your memory of the experience (though it does nothing to prevent others from reminding you about it later). Drinking is pretty much a necessity before anybody goes near a microphone anyway— Filipino or American.
When you actually do pick up the mike and warble a few notes, you quickly find your voice is not only out-of-key — it doesn't even sound human. It's as though your voice has slipped off the scales completely, into some other tuneless netherworld. This is called "warming up."
Eventually, when you locate the key, and try to follow the merry dance of words across the screen, you quickly notice something else: This isn't easy. This takes practice. Your eyes flick around the room, searching for the nearest "EXIT" sign.
You think to yourself: This machine is busted. I know I've sounded better — somewhere — at some other time in my life (Oh, the lies we tell ourselves). In the shower. Driving around with the radio on. In church. All those places, of course, that have the benefit of smotheringour voices, masking them in noise or competent musicianship, rather than putting them on raw display.
The worst part is realizing for the first time how long a pop song can actually be. You slog your way through, verse-chorus, verse-chorus, seeming to recall that "If" used to last only 2:11, but it now feels like eternity before you reach the final crescendo.
No, karaoke is designed for humiliation. Whoever came up with the whole idea must have known on some cruel level that there was much mirth to be had by challenging people to sing in a given key — in anykey.
But that doesn't stop the endless parade of singers outside our offices, who are now attempting a duet of "Almost Paradise." Not bad, actually.
Oh, well. When it comes to karaoke, Filipinos have the advantage of being issued microphones practically at birth. Americans, meanwhile, are issued attitudes. And while the national pastime here is singing in public, the national pastime for Americans is needless and expensive litigation.
So, which one sounds like more fun to you?
Right. See you in court.
In the movie Gattaca, people carry around special photo IDs which either grant them passage to an elite world of supermodels and uber-humans, or keep them from achieving their dreams. In Gattaca, success depends largely on looks.
The Philippines isn't quite Gattaca yet, but there is a strange fascination with photo IDs which I, as an American, can't quite fathom.
How can I put this? Filipinos are really photo-crazy. That's the only explanation I can come up with. Whenever there's a camera within the vicinity, watch the smiles spread and the GQ and Vogueposes take over.
Almost every transaction, it seems, involves a photo. I first noticed this fascination with job applications. Almost every person looking for a job is asked to "include a 1 x 1 photo with biodata." These are not fashion model jobs we're talking about; not even jobs that require you to deal with the public on a regular basis. They are not photo-op jobs. Yet employers seem to want to know what kind of faces they'll be interviewing. It's almost like cramming for a blind date.
You have to understand, in the US, employers are not allowed to ask for photos from potential job applicants. They would get slapped silly with a discrimination suit, even if they were only discriminating on the basis of looks. That's right: in the States, you can get sued for being a "lookist." Plus, the whole "send us a photo and maybe we'll hire you" thing just seems a little seedy: I can just imagine some sleazy guy poring over the many job application photos, maybe passing them around the office for examination, comment, criticism.
Speaking of blind dates, I understand that people here will often ask for a picture of the person before they consent to take them out on a blind date. Isn't this a little bit like cheating? Doesn't it take the "blind" factor out of the dating? Or do most people prefer to know what prize will be inside the Cracker Jack box before they open it?
Anyway, I just got through submitting four passport-size color photos to my travel agency. The previous four I submitted were a bit too small, they said. However, I never got the first batch of photos back again. Where do all these pictures go? Is there a black market in "Foto-Me" pictures? Is someone busily pasting them into fake passports somewhere?
There are photos required for job applications, drivers' licenses, student IDs, and any dealings with Immigration. Even schoolkids have photo IDs. Someone I know prints up calling cards with her boyfriend's baby picture on the front. Cute as that may be, this photo stuff has really gone out of control.
The weirdest experience I had was getting a student ID at UP. The ID person asks for a photo. I fish around in my pockets, knowing I have a spare shot somewhere. Out it comes, I hand it over, and the ID person files my photo in a box, under a handwritten card with my name on it. I am then instructed to go behind a curtain and have my photo taken. I'm not kidding. This second photo is the one used for my ID, you understand. In other words, I had to surrender a photo of me, before they would surrender a photo of me. It was eerie. It was like some weird cult that requires a personal object from you so they can perform black magic with it. Anyway, it was the weirdest photo session I've ever attended.
It also seems kind of ironic that one reason the voters' ID plan failed was because they couldn't get the ID pictures taken in time. Imagine the lines at the Foto-Me booths all over the country. Imagine the time it would take to snip each and every photo down to proper size. Imagine the amount of lung power needed to blow air on each and every little photo so it doesn't stick to the little paper envelope they give you. No wonder voters will have to rely on those easily-duplicated registration forms! Too much trouble to get pictures taken! (Come to think of it, maybe that's where all those black market photos are going: they're building up a stockpile for the great Foto-Me Election Fraud in 2004.)
But how can you expect the Commission on Elections (or any electoral body) to handle this kind of task, when they can't even tear down all the photos of candidates plastered on public walls, sidewalks and telephone poles? Actually, they probably should have turned over the photo-taking duties to the insurance companies that did Estrada's and De Venecia's insurance cards: at least they would have sent those cards out to voters before election time.
As for me, I have resigned myself to the fact that no matter what the amount of planning, grooming or lighting, no ID photo will ever look good. It's guaranteed to be dark, smudgy and make you look like a criminal. But until they come up with a better way of proving who I am, I guess there's nothing else to do but smile and say "keso."
I could never understand those rate-distance problems they gave us in high school. You know, if the car is moving at a rate of 70 miles per hour, how long would it take to travel a distance of 47 miles? I would always think: What if there's a cow in the road?
— Tama Janowitz
Substitute "carabao" for "cow" in the above passage, and you have a pretty good description of driving in the Philippines. There are without doubt more challenging places to drive in the world (Rome and Pakistan come to mind), but this is where driving actually becomes surrealistic, stretching your long-held notions of physics and logic. Once you throw a large domesticated animal into the equation, math and science suddenly don't do you an awful lot of good.
For instance, there is the comfortable notion — held in many countries throughout the world — that, as you're driving along, the road will continue to be there. This crazy, unfounded belief has caused many a car accident in Manila. Because here, it's always an even bet whether or not a road will continue to be a road for any reliable stretch of time or distance.
Remember the "Road Runner" cartoons, in which Wile E. Coyote would pedal his legs over the edge of a cliff, oblivious to the fact of gravity until he eventually looks down, then plummets to the bottom in a cloud of poof? Well, that's often the situation of driving in Manila. You think you're on a road, but you find you're actually in a pothole big enough to contain the Titanic.
But, after all, what is a "road"? Webster's traces the word to the Old English "rode" — which literally means a way that has been trod upon by a rider. Notice it doesn't say anything about asphalt paving. So maybe we need to get rid of our comfortable assumptions about this thing we call "road."
For instance, there is the stubborn notion that a road should be free of large, unwieldy obstacles which are usually found offthe road — things like boulders, piles of dirt, chickens, carabaos. (And, yes, pedestrians.) Well, you can take that notion and stick it in your exhaust pipe, because here, the road belongs to everyone and everything.
Ever notice how oblivious pedestrians seem to the cars whizzing by them from every direction? That's because they've worked out a peculiar arrangement with drivers. Drivers here have apparently accepted the idea that roads are meant for cohabitation — they're to be shared with whatever spills over from the sidewalks. Thus, vendors, pedestrians, workers — whatever traveling circus is passing through town on a given day — seem quite comfortable occupying space that, in theory, is meant for motor vehicles. The Beatles once posed the musical question, "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" They would have found many answers to that question on the streets of Manila.
Not only do people share the road space, but so do objects that — common sense tells us — don't really belong in a road. Trees, for instance. There are actually trees growing in the roads. Somebody do something!
To be fair, the road trees are usually planted close to the sidewalks. Perhaps whoever planted the trees didn't want to deprive pedestrians of the use of sidewalks. But they didn't have to worry about that, because people don't walk on sidewalks — they're too busy walking in the road!
(My wife informs me that trees share the road space because they are considered sacred in the provinces — to cut them down would be a sin against nature. Well, if they want to protect trees from harm, maybe they should consider keeping them somewhere safe — like off the roads!)
While we're on the subject, telephone poles don't belong in a road, either. Nor do ladders, upon which workers can be seen diddling around with utility lines, oblivious to the dangers their protruding ladder legs present to motorists.
And whoever came up with the idea of marking open manholes and road construction sites with rocks and stones? Rocks and stones don't actually warn us of approaching road hazards; they more or less camouflage the road hazard. A nice, big, orange blinking sign that reads "WARNING! BIG HOLE!" would actually do a better job.
Am I perhaps overreacting to all this? Do I sound ticked off? Have I become a Road Worrier? Isn't it easier to just accept the "cow" or "carabao" factor in our daily driving, and get on with our lives?
Well, I've never been one to take the easy route. No, I have always made it a point to take the road less traveled — and that's usually how I end up in a ditch.
Actually, the whole road issue is nothing compared to the problem of idiot drivers. Now, don't get me started on idiot drivers...
(NEXT WEEK: IDIOT DRIVERS)
It's an old joke, but here goes:
Q: How do you prevent someone from driving in Manila?
A: Break his middle fingers.
It's true. On the road, especially among us men, the middle finger is always sharpened, poised and ready for action. With so many birds taking flight out there, you'd think EDSA was one big aviary. What makes driving in Manila such a hair-raising — and finger-raising — experience? A quick look around will tell you.
Basically, there are too many idiots on the road. In addition, there are too many cars on the road. With an average one idiot per car, you can see the mathematical possibilities are distressing.
First, there are people who overtake on narrow two-way streets.
Then there are people who blithely ignore red lights. (Call me old-fashioned, but I like to stick around for that comforting green light.)
There are people who insist on creating additional left-turn lanes, forcing all other traffic to squeeze through the one remaining lane.
Then there are bus drivers. And jeepney drivers. And cab drivers. And anyone else who stops unexpectedly in traffic.
Of course, in calling certain drivers "idiots," I realize I should take great care. They're not all idiots, at least not in the classic textbook sense. Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who came up with the IQ test, placed idiots way down at the bottom rung, mentally, somewhere beneath imbeciles (20-50 IQ points), morons (50-70) and dullards (70-90). Not all people who change tires in the middle of EDSA or use their left turning signal and then proceed to turn right are "idiots." In fact, this kind of reactionary name-calling is a grievous insult to actual idiots, who at least have an excuse.
But I prefer to call them idiots, to differentiate them from the other species of bad driver.
Basically, there are two types. First we have the aforementioned idiots — these are the hapless ones, the oh-my-God-the-car-is-moving-what-do-I-do-now type of driver who is simply clueless and incapable of making split-second decisions behind the wheel of three tons of hurtling metal. They are best thought of as deer hypnotized by the oncoming headlights: they don't mean to be road hazards, but they are.
Then we have the a-holes. A-holes are malicious and aggressive drivers, and though their numbers are fewer, they are clearly more dangerous than idiot drivers. A-holes should know better, but they choose to be a-holes anyway. Reluctantly, I confess that I sometimes find myself in the latter category.
Why are there so many bad drivers on the streets? We all know why. A certain agency that shall go nameless (all right, it's the Land Transportation Office) continues to hand out driver's licenses to people who are not fit to drive a grocery cart.
On top of that, we have traffic managers who are incapable of managing a successful bowel movement. On top of that, we have more and more cars on the road every year. You get the idea.
Let's face it: it's ridiculously easy to get a license at the Land Transportation Office. Apparently, all the applicant needs to do is point at the steering wheel, and they're deemed capable of driving.
Oh, there's some paperwork to fill out, too, but those with little time for such technicalities can always get a "facilitator" to take care of it — for a little extra paper.
The LTO is aware of the problem of unqualified drivers, and they're trying to do something about it. They've recently announced the opening of a one-hectare driving park, where license applicants will have to test their driving abilities first before hitting the road.
The image of fledgling drivers zooming around an obstacle course may give us a chuckle. But isn't Manila already a vast driving park, with drivers of various skill levels all trying their luck on the roads? If at first you don't succeed, drive, drive again.
So I guess dealing with idiots and a-holes on the streets of Manila is something we all have to live with. And like Nietzsche said, "That which doesn't kill us only makes us stronger." Right? Wrong.
A myth persists about the educational benefits of learning to drive here, something along the lines of "if you can drive in the Philippines, you can drive anywhere." You can sort of see the logic: with all the critical decisions drivers need to make on a constant basis just to avoid getting hit, most of us should be proficient enough by now to fly a US Space Shuttle, right?
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. If I ever attempted to duplicate my Manila "driving skills" elsewhere in the world, I would surely be arrested and put in Bad Drivers' Jail for the rest of my life.
Which is probably a much safer place to be.
The sports arena in town was like any other derby pit in the provinces, though probably cleaner. Expecting a scruffy, unruly bunch, I was surprised to find the crowd surrounding the cockpit was quiet, attentive and serious. Far from being a stranger to this place, the mayor of this small town near Ilocos Norte led us to a section that was clearly reserved for him and his friends.
My first invitation to a cockfight came unexpectedly. The mayor, who had joined us for dinner at the palatial home of a local architect, mentioned over dessert that the sabongwas popular there “on Sundays and holidays only.” When I registered a flicker of interest, he widened his eyes, leaned forward and asked: “Would you like to go tonight?”
Since it was a Saturday night, and not a holiday, I was a little surprised by the apparent contradiction. But I agreed, and even asked if could bring along a camera.
As our small caravan of Pajeros glided through town — a town cited as one of the “Cleanest and Greenest” in the country — the mayor assured us the municipality was very quiet and very safe. He knew this, he said, because he was out patrolling it most nights until 4 a.m. He said there had been some troublemakers in town when he first took office, but after having them rounded up by the local police, these same troublemakers quickly "got lost." The phrase left no doubts that he meant the verb actively, not passively.
Back at the arena, as brightly-lit as a movie premiere, two trainers were already holding their birds up, and a third cock was brought in to incite them. Odds were registered on two separate chalkboards bearing the gamecocks' names, and when a bell sounded, the betting began. Suddenly, the crowd erupted, waving hands, fanning fingers, holding up money. They made side bets amongst themselves as the trainers held the birds aloft. Finally, the last odds were announced, and the birds were aimed toward one another.
Cocks are raised to kill; indeed, they are trained to die. There is everything, and nothing, beyond the face of this truth. The first match happened so quickly, I failed to raise my camera in time. There was a flurry of activity, then the removal of a bird which did not appear to be dead. Money was paid out, and then the games resumed.
I wonder at what statistical point do we stop noticing, or caring, about the deaths we witness? How many TV murders does a child have to see before he is no longer affected? Is there an exact number? I looked upon the events that night with muted emotion. If I was to be moved by the violence taking place in front of me, it would probably have to come later, recollected in tranquillity.
Two more gamecocks were brought out, one named "RDC-1" and the other called "Golden Lion," due to its extraordinary blonde comb. This was a beautiful bird, and the owner seemed proud as he fluffed up its neck feathers. We watched as the trainer carefully wrapped the steel gaff around the bird's right leg. The mayor explained this had to be done precisely: if the angle of the gaff is off by a fraction, it can mean life or death in a match.
The birds were finally pitted, and released. They looked to the left and right, bobbing their heads stupidly, as if blind to the opponent. Then they struck. The feathers rose as the birds flew together. Golden Lion's beautiful comb was glorious for a moment. Then a stream of red gushed from his left breast and he was dead. Again, it was over in seconds. The owner held up RDC-1 and the crowd cheered, although most of them had bet on Golden Lion. Apparently, the thing that was beautiful in the bird was no more.
In an obscure book called Erotism (1959), George Bataille writes of the ritual of animal sacrifice, and its significance to social order. He notes we have a strange fascination with death, and the sacrifice of lambs and other animals in religious ritual represents for us a kind of voyeuristic engagement. We watch as creatures, writhing and jerking at the penultimate moment, suddenly pass into a state of peace — or “continuity,” as he says. Meanwhile, we, the discontinuous, ponder over this spectacle, trying to hold onto the receding sensation. The parallels to sexual ecstasy are inescapable.
Death, when it is sudden, always seems to knock us awake. There is that unexpected glimpse of something opposed to life, rudely taking its place onstage. Its arrival almost seems dirty, a dirty trick: life is there, and then it is gone.
But the frenzied moment, the moment of release which draws our attention, is fleeting. Golden Lion was dead for less than 12 seconds before an attendant dragged him from the silent pit. Another attendant arrived with a broom and pail and briskly swept up the feathers. Next, a layer of dirt covered up the stain of blood left behind.
In the films of Martin Scorsese, writer Joe Queenan notes, there is never, ever death with dignity: there's just death. And Scorsese may be one of the few filmmakers to acknowledge the true ugliness of death, its essential indignity.
Working for the desk of a daily newspaper, more than a few gruesome photographs pass before your eyes, and sometimes you’re not prepared for them — even when a senior editor warns you to finish your merienda before attempting a look. This, too — the looking — is a ritual, one which can’t be escaped if you want to learn to deal with the facts before you. Those who wish to jump aboard must put their stomachs aside. There are the photos of car crashes. Photos of bloody police shootouts. There are bloated corpses being fished from the Pasig. Through it all, next to revulsion, there emerges a strange sense of injustice: the dead can’t help the way they end up. They can’t protect their image. The living must do that.
We watched one more fight that night, between “Roxanne” and “Viper.” Again, it was a quick battle, so this time the mayor noted for my benefit the clinical nature of Viper’s attack: the gaff is used to strike the breast, near what we would call the armpit; or else it is used to slice at the opponent’s spine, to sever the nervous system. Each strike is deadly, he told me.
Looking at the scene, I was reminded of Nathaniel West's description of cockfighting in Day of the Locust. I couldn't help thinking that he got it all wrong: that he imbued the moment with epic significance, when there was only death. In the book, one rooster is slowly, agonizingly killed by another; the whole episode takes pages to describe.
West seemed to miss the suddenness of death, its cheapness. The whole thing happens in seconds. Oh, I suppose there is something sublime to be found there in the cockpit, if one looks hard enough. At one point, after one pair of birds failed to sink their gaffs decisively, the birds were "cornered" and released again. If one of them failed to peck at least twice in a row, the match would be over: he would lose. I watched one bird look at his opponent, then turn and limp away, the fight clearly out of him. He wasn't killed, but he would probably never fight again.
After Viper felled Roxanne, I finally saw something that got through to me. I thought the fight had ended, but as the crowd continued to roar, the trainer held Viper over Roxanne’s broken body and allowed the victor to peck away at it. For the first time, I felt like I had seen too much.
Possibly for West, the cockfight was something that served his metaphorical depiction of Hollywood: a place of methodical, heartless killers. He wanted to invoke pathos in the reader. But the sabong is not a place of pathos, though the trainers may feel pity and grief for their fallen birds later, in private, perhaps.
What purpose, then, does it serve here in the Philippines? I couldn't say with certainty, but driving home through the Manila streets the following night, and watching a young child dart heedlessly in front of my headlights, I thought how fleeting life can be, and how carelessly it is embraced. We take our chances at life every day, and much more so those who struggle to survive in the Philippines. And sometimes, looking at the sabong and at the street, I could not say whose odds are better.
The endless sight of painted jeepneys puttering along the right lane, and the impatient desire to pass them, is my first impression of how varied a culture this is. Even slower are the tricycles, which, in turn, swerve lazily around the pedestrians. If a culture defines itself in terms of speed, there are many speeds to choose from here. We pass so many tricycles holding the middle of the road, and miss so many by inches, that it's easy to visualize your life here in terms of time and space at the same time: an obstacle in all four dimensions.
The slow-going motorcycle taxis all bear talismanic names, like "Magic Man," "Charley Horse," "Baby Nine" or "5 Aces." One trike ambling along near the tollway bears only the word "Somewhere" on its rear. Taxis are chief moneymakers here, and it's not surprising that people inscribe them with personal affectations.
It's also not surprising that the ambitious and the successful in Manila resent them like meandering oxen, and will drive primarily with their car horns, swerving dangerously to avoid the scattered debris. It's an all-too-easy metaphor for the educated class being held back by the poor and oblivious, but it's true on many levels. One clothes designer trying to open a shop here complains of the lack of loyal help, and how unambitious employees can mean the difference between a new business failing or prospering.
Manila is a sprawling city with inadequate roads, and a large financial district that squeaks efficiently under the lubricant of money invested, money made. The lack of adequate modern infrastructure gives rise to a need for internal infrastructure, i.e. the tidy enclaves of Alabang and Fort Bonifiacio, and the mushrooming megamalls, which offer the opportunity to feel ordered and pampered as one wanders in a relatively stress-free, controlled environment. Such are the attractions of all malls, all enclaves.
The other result of the lack of viable arteries in Manila is the growth of subdivisions, not unlike the walled suburbs of Los Angeles. The theory goes that subdivisions emerge as a community tries to become more self-sufficiently tribal, and the need for security in the private zone grows correspondingly as the gap between rich and poor widens. This is certainly true for LA, but in Manila, the growth of subdivision communities may have had as much to do with the fear of coups d'état as the rise of the underclass.
The city's many flyovers represent this gap as well: a criss-crossing of fast lanes and slow lanes, representing the economically swift and the sluggish. Flyovers offer a super-visionary view of life, or at least of commuting: the smooth flow of traffic, high above the polluted street level, must give added psychic cache to those who deem themselves smart enough, swift enough, to choose the best route, the right direction.
We near the guard shack of a brightly-painted subdivision: a flash of I.D., a salute, and we enter a barrio of gated villas, heavy on privacy and security. At the house, a servant opens a metal gate, and the car enters a carport. Inside the house, another iron gate separates the downstairs area from the upstairs bedrooms, a necessary deterrent to "inside" burglary jobs engineered by untrustworthy servants. The reality of the situation demands such fortress-like adaptations.
Cellular phones represent another layer of infrastructure, one which has freely replaced space with the convenience of time. Physical impediments have launched thousands of cellphone and pager users, and again, it is strange but not unusual to see the forced juxtapositions between idealized speed and street-level reality: the sight of a Makati executive, for instance, clicking shut his e-mail for the day, strolling down to the lobby of his building and ordering balut from a sidewalk vendor.
We are trudging down dark, rainy streets in a small town called Kalibo in Aklan, most notable to tourists for its nearby airport, which is shut down this evening due to an approaching typhoon. Most foreign visitors arrive here only tangentially: it's a midway point to the pristine beach island of Boracay. A group of these visitors, mostly Europeans, has just been turned away from the airport and sent out into the streets of Kalibo to find some roost for the night, or until the storm passes. The dark streets remind us how far from civilization we have suddenly come, for the airport, with no landing lights on its runway, is as desolate as the unlit center of Kalibo, as we search for a telephone relay station in the rain. Merely by turning a corner, how far we have come.
The province is also notable for the Ati-Atihan celebration, a sort of Mardi Gras merging of aboriginal and Christian festivities, which appears to be in rehearsal this evening up and down the otherwise ghostly streets.
The rain greets us everywhere, a steady, eventually soothing presence. To our left, another sound drives it down: a disco called Father's Moustache, pounding out an old Rick James single at street-filling decibels to cut through the fetid heat and funk and the lace curtain of rain impeding our journey. Few patrons are visible, inside or out, and the club's existence seems an exercise in metaphysical futility; but somewhere, we see, someone is drinking, somebody is dancing.
Next door over, we begin to hear people singing and clapping, a growing sound: a marquee as bold as the disco's red pulsing light proclaims "Fellowship of Christ." Inside, the forces of Christ are gathering, planning, raising their voices, singing and clapping; stopping, then starting up all over again.
It's a battle of sorts out here on these wet, heat-swathed streets where people surface from various dark corners and single-bulb enclaves to seek their own inclinations, for sin or salvation.
But mostly salvation, it seems, for as we turn the corner, a marching band in preparation for Ati-Atihan passes in front of us: two drummers, one xylophone player, and the marching pace of ten or 12 followers who are wearing early stages of makeup— a wakeup call for God as the wind pelts the streets.
The din created for Christ here is as loud as any we've ever heard in our experience, either in the pristine church organ vaults of New England or the loud baptist sessions of Georgia. It rises up through the fetid rain, the impending typhoon, the constant calls for sin.
It's a considerable din, and I have to say it, it convinces me there are stronger Christians here than any other place I've been. You can feel the call to God, palpable, like the serum rising from a fresh-cut green stem. Maybe it's so much more in evidence because they are so much more under siege here.
Signs of siege, like the typhoon tossing their boats and jeepneys and flooding their streets and fields, are more immediate here, more visible, like the signs of sin duking it out on a small, rainy street with red lights and dark halls.
You can see people want to be good here. That's why they throw themselves into Christianity so passionately and elementally. It might not be an answer to everything, but it's a clue. And perhaps their utter conviction makes this corner of the world, and many others like it, a special vacuum that must be filled with greater and greater challenges, relentless attacks by weather, corruption, sin.
Whenever my wife, a Filipina, asks me what I first noticed about her, I invariably say it was her smile. She never seems quite satisfied with this answer, as if it contained some sin of omission by not including her other qualities. In any case, it probably seems shallow: a smile, of all things.
So I try to remind her of the circumstances under which we first met in the States. I was working at a public television station in Boston, and she had very recently been hired in the same department, fresh from a master's program in journalism. She must have felt supremely awkward, jumping into her first big job in a strange country. But there she was, with a friendly, beaming smile on her face. Not the kind of smile, usually paired with a cocked eyebrow, that said: "Look at how much I already know." But an open smile that said, honestly, "This is who I am; this is how much I want to learn."
The long and short of it is that we ended up together, me following her halfway around the world to the Philippines, and in the process seeing much of the world through each other's eyes. This fact is of enormous interest to the many Filipinos — and many Americans — we've encountered along the way. They usually trill melodically at the idea of me — an American — picking up my roots and relocating here to be with the woman who would become my wife. But how could it be otherwise?
Even my brother-in-law, who was our best man at our decidedly non-traditional wedding ceremony here in Manila, alluded to my migration in his reception toast: "He came all the way around the world to be with her, so I guess that shows what she means to him." The crowd loved it.
I guess the story is of more than passing interest in a place where romance is in the blood. You would have to look far and wide to find a Filipino or Filipina that doesn't have a "senti" streak. This says a lot about the capacity for strong emotion here — though, of course, along with the more sublime and romantic emotions come their opposite: jealousy, envy, pain and anguish, all the ingredients of Filipino radio soaps.
The natural assumption from this tale is that there is something intoxicating about the Filipina, some overpowering mystique that led to our lives together. I would not dispute this. First of all, the Filipina has remarkable qualities, charms both physical and emotional. We can go beyond the surface of her inviting smile, her beautifully-shaped eyes and intriguing cheekbones to immediately find a woman of iconic status, a woman who has been represented by her social image, be it the hard-working OCW, the strong or not-so-strong national leader, the beguiling model or movie star.
Anyone with eyes can see the physical beauty. In the Filipina we find a fine blend of Malay and colonial Spanish features — a unique Asian synthesis.
As the modeling industry grows infatuated with Asian and Eurasian models of beauty, we find more and more Filipina faces entering popular culture. Even the cartoon visage of Disney's "Pochahontas" is said to be modeled after a Filipina.
She is the stuff of dreams, and amazingly real and down-to-earth at the same time. Sometimes I look at Filipino men, and think: you guys have it better than you know. It's no secret that many foreigners have made the Philippines their home, and along with the other inviting aspects of the culture — its hospitality, sense of community and festivity — things which compensate for daily traffic problems and the like — one must put close to the top of the list: the Filipina. It's a kind of unspoken treasure, one which recently prompted a tourism official to urge a roomful of German investors and businessmen to "marry more Filipinas." Clearly, his exuberance got a little out of hand. But maybe he was just being honest.
Of course, the Filipina is strong, even a symbol of national strength. Whether running her own business or career, or in the equally-difficult role of "queen of the household," the Filipina possesses a certain indomitable spirit, a desire for action and results. Think of the number of them overseas, supporting entire families with the money they send back. It's only a matter of time before their numbers increase in Congress, and as the economy continues to boom, expect to see a bigger focus on women's issues here.
In addition to strength and independence, Filipinas possess a great sense of humor, and an appreciation for the fun and ridiculous. This sense of humor probably preserves their youthfulness, and helps them not to take life's headaches so seriously. It probably saves them from the blue-faced, obscenity-laced tirades about traffic and bureaucrats and golf to which Filipino men are so prone. Let's face it, the women have a better attitude about life's little problems: c'est la vie.
Finally, what I find most lovable about Filipinas is their true femininity. Not the girlie-girlie, too-precious-to-walk-on-earth variety of femininity, but one which comes from being themselves. Maybe it's just a refusal to become too blasé and ultra-hip and Westernized about everything, but Filipinas are most lovable when they are just themselves, not somebody's notion of who they are or should be. This natural warmth, sweetness and understanding is probably what made me choose a Filipina as my lifetime mate.
With all that in mind, I have to be honest to my wife's question and say it wasn't the fact of her being a Filipina which originally caught my interest and eventually led me to return with her to the Philippines: I didn't know she was Filipino when I first saw her. But something of that very same quality must have come through in her smile. It's taken me a few years living in the Philippines to recognize what that something was: being here has brought the picture into clearer focus.
(Cosmopolitan Philippines, 1997)
Let's play a game. Try naming any major world or cultural event in the last 50 years in which a Filipino hasn't been involved to some degree.
How many degrees? Let's try six.
That's the ultimate number of degrees separating each person from any other person on the planet, according to Will Smith's character in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. And that's the number of degrees separating the omnipresent Filipino from every big event in recent history.
Unconvinced? Think about it: Filipinos somehow manage to turn up in the unlikeliest news stories, inserting themselves into every nook and cranny of history, often without even trying. Sometimes it's a cameo. Other times it's a minor supporting role. And occasionally — as in the case of the Marcoses — it's a starring performance, with endless curtain calls and numerous catcalls.
Go ahead, give it a shot. Name a big story. Then spot the Filipino.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal? A Filipino White House steward named Bayani Melvis testified in the case. Only two degrees of separation there.
The death of Princess Di? Three degrees. She was pals with designer Gianni Versace, who was reputedly stalked by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who, it turned out, was Filipino.
How about US President Clinton's missile attacks against suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden? Well, Clinton was allegedly targeted for assassination by the Saudi millionaire during his 1994 visit to Manila. Bingo!
That famous Michael Jackson child-abuse case? You may recall that two of his former housekeepers — both Filipino — blew the whistle on The Gloved One's hijinks with young boys.
The breakup of the Beatles in 1970? Well, we all know how John, Paul, George and Ringo received less-than-loving treatment from Ferdinand Marcos's goons at the old Manila International Airport back in 1966 (legend has it that Ringo was nearly scalped). After that, the Fab Four quit touring altogether, a move which may have hastened the demise of their esprit de corps, and hence, resulted in their breakup.
In many of these cases, you will note, Filipinos pop up unexpectedly in the thick of a breaking story or major scandal, sort of like Woody Allen's unassuming character in Zelig.
For instance, who can forget that haunting photo of Robert Kennedy, moments after being gunned down in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles? The person cradling the senator's head during his dying moments — rumor has it — was a Filipino.
Why is that Pinoys turn up in the center of big stories? It could be that Filipinos love publicity, intrigue, scandal, and are naturally drawn to wherever the action is. It could be, as some co-workers have noted, that most of the Filipinos mentioned are in some way connected with kitchens and households, and are thus privy to the most hush-hush details. Or it could be that Filipinos are simply at the center of some cosmic nexus, and their presence is a catalyst for world events.
The biggest cosmic nexus in history, of course, was the rule of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. God only knows what behind-the-scenes impact they had on world events, but for years, their Palace gates were open to a bewildering array of world leaders, royalty, celebrities and shady characters. A presidency that could entertain the Reagans, Sean Connery, Liberace, Sultan Bolkiah, George Bush and George Hamilton must have had its fingers in a lot of pies, so to speak.
But the beauty of the theory outlined in Six Degrees of Separation is that the participants don't need to be intimately related; even a casual link or contact between two parties can keep the chain going. By this criteria, you can connect a Filipino to every major headline story in the past half-century, and this is where the game involves a little more skill and imagination.
Take JFK's assassination, for example. Where's the connection there? Original Warren Commission members were interviewed by director Oliver Stone as background for the movie JFK. Stone, as we all know, filmed Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July here in the Philippines, two films which earned him Oscars. However, Filipinos like to point out Stone broke his chain of good luck by filming his next effort in Thailand (Heaven and Earth), which flopped at the box office and at the Oscars. A chastened Stone has reclaimed his good-luck charm — he says he's coming back here to film his next epic, Little Brown Brother.
Hollywood, you will note, lies at the crossroads of a lot of these connections. For instance, if you're looking for the connection between the fall of the Soviet empire and the Philippines, just recall that glasnost architect Mikhail Gorbachev made a cameo appearance in the 1993 Win Wenders film, Faraway, So Close (the sequel to Wings of Desire). That film also featured Willem Dafoe as a wayward angel, and Dafoe, you will recall, was here in the Philippines for the filming of Platoon. There you go.
And what about this whirlwind phenomenon that recently swept across the globe, holding everyone in its helpless sway? No, I'm not talking about El Niño; I'm talking about the movie Titanic, the first Hollywood epic to gross $1 billion. Turns out there are several connections between its two major stars and Filipino phenomenon Lea Salonga. During Miss Saigon, Salonga played opposite Jonathan Pryce, who worked with Robert De Niro in the movie Brazil; who starred with Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life.
On the other hand, Pryce also starred with Emma Thompson in the artsy-fartsy Carrington; and Thompson, of course, starred opposite Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility.
Scary, isn't it? If Salonga plays her cards right and takes advantage of her invaluable Pryce connection, who knows? She just might be able to sing the theme song to the next James Cameron blockbuster, Titanic 2.
Finally, just to bring things all the way back to the beginning, it was the blockbuster Independence Day that made Will Smith, the young actor from Six Degrees of Separation, a major superstar. You can give thanks to screenwriter Dean Devlin — another Filipino — for that.
What does all this mean to the average Filipino? Think of it this way: every event, celebrity and historical moment on the planet is linked together by — at most — six degrees of Filipino. Whether turning up in the middle of a sex scandal, a tragedy, a comedy of errors, or a worldwide phenomenon, Filipinos can feel proud that their presence is felt everywhere, in every corner and pocket of the modern world.
After all, in this day and age, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
Kano (ka-no’) n. — Any American sighted in the Philippines.
Kano-nization n. — The process of seeing yourself as locals do, warts and all.
My wife supplied the title for this collection. She is a keen observer of phenomena, especially of changes in me, and she says she’s noticed her American husband’s gradual kano-nization since first landing here in 1995.
It started innocently enough. As a foreigner, an expat wandering the streets of Manila, I have always been aware of the looks, the stares, the pointings in my direction. Then, behind my back, or under the breath, I would hear: “Kano!”Fortunately, I have never felt insulted by this description. Kano, of course, is the local contraction of “Americano,” and there’s no sense denying who I am. But being an American and being a kano are two different things: an American may show up in Manila, enjoy the beaches for a few days, visit the historical sights, politely taste the food (even the exotic varieties), and yet still remain an utter tourist.
I’ve never felt I had that luxury of distance. From the first, I’ve been engaged by the Philippines, with or without my consent; asked my opinion about every new experience here; pressed to compare this or that to life in the States. (Of course, I was also literally engaged to my Filipino fiancée at the time, which made my ordeal easier.) In any case, since I was openly invited to express my views on the strange and unusual in my midst from the start, I’ve grown happily accustomed to the role.
Little did I know that people were just being polite.
But when did I become a kano? It didn’t happen overnight. One becomes a kano when one starts to feel caught up in the mainstream of life in Manila. You can spot us walking around, sometimes wearing ridiculous shorts, sometimes driving badly, sometimes cursing. Truly, we are chameleons, having adopted protective coloration in our new environment. We try not to stand out too much like pale sore thumbs.
But the real process of kano-nization is internal: it’s when you stop seeing the world around you as a foreigner does. You even forget that you are a foreigner. You gradually drop some American habits, and pick up a few local ones instead. Whether standing still in EDSA traffic, or standing with the crowd at EDSA Shrine, you become part of the great, garish technicolor movie taking place around you. And when that whispered word hits your ear again — “Kano!”— you hardly even notice it’s you they’re talking about. You just smile.
Ever since I came to the Philippines (about four years ago), people have been trying to teach me Tagalog. From day one, I was baptized with "Mabuhay!" greeted with "Kumusta ka?" and shown the difference between "Magandang umaga" and "Magandang gabi."
I wish I could say I've made great progress since then; that I'm now fluent in conversational Taglish and understand every Filipino joke. But alas, hindi.
My Tagalog sort of plateaued around 1996 and has been flatlining ever since. Efforts to revive it have been sporadic, and sadly, half-hearted at best. I remember uttering my first phrase one morning — "Isang tasa ng kape?" — which was met with the kind of hyper-enthusiasm that adults lavish on small children who manage to put one foot in front of the other without falling over.
Those days of easy victories are gone, however. After those first baby steps, I quickly noticed that people expected more and more from me. They would fire questions at me in Tagalog, and I would fire back blanks. As in blank looks.
Worse, it seemed that my little tidbits of Tagalog were vastly amusing to Filipinos, who would coax me to say a new word or phrase, like a trained parrot. At least parrots get rewarded for their efforts. Instead, I would get corrected: "No, no: not hin-dee. Hin-deh, hin-deh!"
Oh well. Nobody ever said learning a foreign language was easy.
In truth, on a good day, my Tagalog vocabulary runs about 50 words. Hardly enough there for a few good paragraphs, let alone a conversation. But here's the real problem: 50 words seem to be my limit. That's all my Tagalog word bank will hold at one time. After that, I experience Taga-lock.
This means that, whenever I try to learn a new word, I literally have to dump something else out. It's quite vexing, really. Perfectly good words have to be sacrificed, just so I can go on learning. But for some reason, one of my first "baby" words — sapatos, the word for "shoes" — is still stuck in my memory, taking up vital space. And I never even use it.
I should mention that at one time I did learn a lot of Filipino curses, the "bad words" I quickly picked up during my first few weeks working on a news desk. But, sorry to say, I've forgotten almost every one of them. The reason is simple: when I'm truly angry, I tend to swear in English, because it's more familiar to me. So you see, not even the bad Tagalog words are given a chance to take root.
I'm not making excuses, mind you, but part of the reason I don't speak Tagalog is because I work for a daily English newspaper and most of my time is spent around people who speak English. I like it this way, by the way. There's nothing more disconcerting than being plunged into a room where everyone speaks a language you don't know. Also, I've found that processing English all day is enough of a challenge. I'm not really eager to think in another language at the end of the day, usually; most of my thoughts, if translated into words, would look something like this: "GWREEESSSHHHH WUUUUUMAAABABA ZZZZFFFTTT..."
I prefer it this way, actually. Coherence is way overrated.
Anyway, after spending all this time in the Philippines, I thought I could pass on a few vocabulary tips to foreigners who are equally puzzled by what to say in certain situations.
I thought I could do this, but I was wrong. Instead, I'll just offer some useful words and phrases to help those who may suffer from Taga-lock from time to time:
• Talaga? A very useful, all-purpose word that can be inserted when someone is done speaking Tagalog at you. It means "Really?" and should be accompanied by rapid blinking of eyes to suggest disbelief. This then encourages the Tagalog speaker to continue with his/her amazing story, and you are off the hook for a while.
• Oo. This word — pronounced "Oh-oh" — means "yes," but it also sounds a lot like "Oh," and can therefore convey the impression that you understand something when you actually don't. (Added tip: Don't just say "Oo" and nod your head to everything said to you in Tagalog. You could be unwittingly agreeing that your smell is offensive, that you have a low IQ, or that a certain dress makes the speaker look fat.)
• Ano? Means "What?" but can also used by Filipino speakers when they run out of English to imply that the word is just on the tip of their tongue. (e.g., "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the, ano...?")
• Wala. This word can mean "nothing," "no more," "all gone," or any combination of the above. The all-purpose answer to most of your reasonable requests, it's usually accompanied by a shaking of the head and both hands to suggest emptiness. (See: "Out of stock.")
• Sobra! This means "Too much!" and usually describes some over-the-top aspect of Filipino culture that goes without saying.
• Sayang! This means "What a waste!" and is used far too often in day-to-day Filipino life.
• Ay, naku. Means "Oh, dear," and is usually uttered with a wistful air, to express the shortening of one's patience or the heavy burden that life has placed on one's shoulders.
• Ngeh! A comical exclamation that usually accompanies the realization that you've made an awful mistake, or are looking at the photo of a particularly unattractive person. (See: "Pangit.")
• Ssst! Used to draw your attention, it is usually accompanied by a sharp release of breath through the teeth, and a downward waving of the outstretched wrist. It means you have been summoned.
• Buwisit! My wife has told me this means, "You are so endearing to me," but her expression of exasperation while saying it leads me to think it really means: "Go away, you annoying insect."
Now, once you've grasped all of these essentials, will you have done your part to ensure that Tagalog remains a viable and important national language? Oo.
And will you have reached a minimum level of proficiency in Tagalog that will allow you to fake your way through simple conversations? Hin-deh! Hin-deh!
In many ways, Filipinos are models of decorum and modesty. Sure, there's a lot of irreverence here, but there is also an emphasis on social etiquette that should not be taken lightly.
Take, for example, simple manners. Filipinos are extremely polite, I don't mind saying. Whether this means bowing deeply while passing between two people engaged in conversation, or extending full use of one's home and refrigerator to visitors for as long a period as they care to stay, Filipinos are the very definition of "courteous," and quite kind at heart.
But of course, in other venues, all bets are off. In traffic, for instance, courteousness abandons just about anybody behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. So let us return to the domain of civilized society.
I have found, after years of living and working here, that Filipino society is built on a delicate network of rules and social guidelines. Without this skein of social grace, all the wonderful things we take for granted — relationships, business transactions, simple conversation — would all fall apart.
Take the business of eating. Common sense dictates that one should never, ever turn down food in the Philippines. This is a grievous insult to the host that may result in massive repercussions, including the activation of the dreaded "grapevine." Word of your unfriendly appetite will make the rounds of Manila, and you will never be invited to lunch again. Moreover, you will be compelled to bring home bags and bags of the food you initially refused, which will sit in your refrigerator accusingly for several weeks.
The "grapevine," in fact, is a powerful social tool used to keep unsavory social impulses in check. Where would Filipino society be without the telephone, I ask you? Turn down a social engagement, and you'll know what I'm talking about.
One must also take care to respect one's elders, either through the use of the formal "po," or by adding "Mang" before the old geezer's name. With elderly folk, it is considered polite to "make mano," by taking their extended hand and pressing it to your forehead. However, be prepared to switch to a simple handshake if it becomes clear from their expression that they don't consider themselves that elderly.
In Filipino society, it is also considered impolite to point, except with one's lips.
Similarly, it is considered impolite to point out the obvious strings attached to any gift or gesture that comes your way. The recognition of utang na loob is not considered a valid reason for you to question the social contract. Just live with it, as I have.
Staring is another thing that is considered bastos , or rude. In fact, staring is not only a social faux pas, it can get you killed. I recall one "Metro" story that was headlined: "Bad stares cause deaths in Quiapo." I naturally thought it was a typo: they probably meant "Bad stairs." But in fact, it was an unfortunate man's persistent, hostile stare that led to him and his barkada being gunned down in this etiquette-conscious section of Manila. So you see: staring is just not a good idea.
From the familiar sight of Filipinas exiting jeepneys with their hand daintily shielding their décolletage (even when there's nothing to shield) to the way people nearly hug the floor to avoid blocking your line of vision when they pass, it's clear that fear of embarrassment underlies a lot of Filipino etiquette. We can thank the Catholic Church for this, in large part. Women, as you know, are remarkably modest and demure, at least in public, and men will often try to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. The usual method of passing in front of a TV screen or a conversing couple is the "prayer" position: head bowed down, hands joined together in order to "part" your way through.
This modesty extends to social intercourse as well. Filipinos are said to be "non-confrontational," and this is usually true. It's considered better to convey your displeasure about something through intermediaries rather than face-to-face. In this way, the trifling matter can be blown up into a major disagreement, emotional scenes can ensue, feelings can be hurt, and the final outcome is usually a "make-up" gift or gesture extended to the offended party — just the opposite of what you hoped to accomplish. The lesson is: Don't complain about anything. It's just not worth it.
With all these social landmines to navigate, it's no wonder that so many people have questions about etiquette. After all, this is a country where one of the most popular newspaper columnists is Mary Prieto, the etiquette queen of Manila who answers such pressing and delicate social questions as the following: "Dear Mary, even though I am married, I have been having an affair with my driver for three years. Though I love him more than anything, he has now asked me for a substantial raise, which, etiquette tells me, should be the exclusive prerogative of the employer. How do I deal with this? I hope you can answer my question, since you are my favorite columnist. More power!"
Miss Prieto usually responds with gentle, yet firm, advice: "Your concern over the social faux pas is understandable, but clearly, you have overlooked the essential error of your situation. Your husband should be the one to extend the raise, not you.”
Yes, let's be honest: there's a certain paradox involved in Filipino etiquette. The delicate social network often masks a great deal of raunchy behavior. Green jokes, bold films, GROs and gigolos abound. And while in some ways, Filipinos can be paragons of prissiness, in many other ways, they are basically unshockable.
For instance, I tried a little experiment in my office, replacing my old coffee mug — which featured the menacing glare of Marvin the Martian — with a new mug that bears the less-subtle message, "Piss off." I thought the new mug would at least raise a few eyebrows, maybe earn me a dirty look or two. But few people noticed or cared (though, in truth, most people in my office tend to pay me very little mind anyway, so it's hard to say whether it was the mug). Undaunted, I decided to deliberately flaunt my new "attitude" mug, to see if I could get a rise out of my co-workers.
"What do you think of my new mug?" I asked one colleague.
"It makes me think of urine," she replied, determined to take no offense at my deliberately rude desk item.
Oh, well. I guess it takes more than rude coffee mugs to get any attention in the Philippines.
What's almost as long as Christmas in the Philippines and twice as dramatic? Holy Week, of course.
As the only largely Catholic country in Asia, the Philippines has a reputation for pulling out all the stops. From Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, visitors are often astonished by the brightly colored parols (the Christmas lanterns that decorate streets and homes here) and the atmosphere of gaiety that prevails — the longest observance of Christmas in the world.
The days running from Lenten season up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday are no less remarkable, for a number of reasons. Ash Wednesday follows quickly upon the heels of Valentine's Day, as the sight of roses and red hearts is immediately replaced by the sight of foreheads smeared with ash. (In the Philippines, you will notice, there is precious little breathing space between holidays.)
Most remarkable is that during Holy Week, Filipinos mark the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ with live rituals held throughout the land. Dramatic reenactments of the Passion (known as senakulos) are presented in such communities as Malabon in Metro Manila and Talim Island in Rizal, and other parishes in Bulacan, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija.
During one long car trip to Baguio City for Easter weekend, I saw for myself the way simple roadside barrios are transformed into living pieces of the drama. The agonizing march to Calvary is recreated. Flagellants scourge themselves with whips, or are beaten on the backs with pieces of wood until bloody. Some penitents line up to have themselves nailed — temporarily — on wooden crosses. The Philippines represents the most dramatic, vivid display of religious ritual and sacrifice of any Catholic country one could name. Few do the Passion with such a passion.
But as thousands of faithful Catholics climb into cars, buses and jeepneys to head for the provinces every Holy Week, an even more dramatic transformation takes place in Metro Manila: it becomes totally deserted.
And this may be the thing that foreigners notice the most when visiting the Philippines' biggest city during Holy Week: Manila, which is usually chaotic, smog-bound and teeming with traffic, becomes as empty as a movie theater showing a Claire Danes festival. It's almost like the situation faced by Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (minus the cabalistic vampires, of course).
Surely, it would take something quite miraculous to empty out a city of 11 million people over the weekend. And that's what Filipinos observe en masse during Holy Week: a miracle. The other miracle is how those 11 million people manage to pour back into Manila through the few available roads by Monday morning.
What is a visitor who is not drawn to live crucifixions and acts of flagellation to do over the weekend when Manila becomes a ghost town? Anything he or she wants to, of course. Suddenly, you find yourself free to walk — even skip merrily — through deserted shopping malls, able to swing your arms back and forth without fear of upsetting someone's Tastee-Freeze drink or earning a nasty glare from the security guards. You have complete license not only to occupy one lane of traffic without fear of being cut off by another motorist, but you actually have several lanes to choose from.The buses that are usually such a reliable nuisance on EDSA and other main arteries have been banished to the provinces. You find your average cruising speed jumps from eight to 80 kilometers per hour.
Another added bonus: there are no relatives left in town to invite you to weekend gatherings that normally would require the stealth of James Bond (and the lying skills of Bill Clinton) to dodge. That's right: the relatives are all in Cavite, Bulacan and Pampanga, eating chicharon and watching the wooden-masked Roman centurions march through town. They're buying pieces of wood to join in at taking a few whacks at some poor flagellant's back. What do they care that Megamall is empty?
For the holdouts in Manila during Holy Weekend, though, an eerie ... silence ... begins to descend. Gone are the blaring jeepney horns, the ringing beepers and cell phones, the plaintive cries of balut and taho vendors. A certain hush permeates the city, not unlike the atmosphere of solemnity that characterizes Good Friday in the United States.
Yes, people do still observe Good Friday in the US. Granted, it is a little less flashy than in the Philippines. American churches are generally less crowded. One hears the tolling of church bells around 6 p.m. and the sight of black- or gray-clad Catholics heading dolefully to service; one feels an overwhelming sense of gravity, which is certainly appropriate to the occasion.
Meanwhile, back in the Philippine provinces, the spectacle continues, with the siete palabras (Seven Words) of Christ recited from noon to three in the afternoon. By Good Friday evening, the soledad (solitude) takes place, with the image of the mourning Virgin Mary paraded through towns on floats, accompanied by musicians who comfort the Virgin with songs.
In Marinduque, an island south of Manila, the Passion spills over into side characters: participants reenact the story of Longinus, the Roman centurion who proclaimed the divinity of Christ at the last moment. During the Moriones Festival, an actor portraying Longinus is chased through the town of Boac on Easter Sunday by men wearing colorful Roman soldier masks, and finally “beheaded” — his large wooden mask is removed and impaled on a sword before the gasping crowd. Meanwhile, in Santa Rita, Pampanga, an effigy of Judas Iscariot is hoisted on a pole and gradually blown to bits by firecrackers, representing his fate at the Suicide Tree.
For those remaining in Manila, however, things are decidedly less dramatic and more Western. After Sunday Mass, families converge to hold Easter egg hunts, as creative parents hide colored eggs in gardens, under chairs and sofas, even inside folded articles of clothing (which is definitely cheating). Afterward, of course, there's the prospect of finding Easter lunch.
If you are fortunate enough to have family or friends who are serving food on Easter Sunday, do take this opportunity. Otherwise, you may be forced to seek out Easter dinner from among the few restaurants still doing business over the Holy Weekend. There are no traditional dishes associated with Easter dinner here — none of the baked ham, boiled cabbage or mashed potatoes of the States. In any case, whatever is served, expect Easter dinner to be a feast of Biblical proportions.
And at the end of this joyous feast, visitors and Filipinos alike are invited to slip into a stupor or simply fall sleep, perchance to dream of the next holiday in May, the secular but no-less-moving, and ever more commercial, Mother's Day. Or, perhaps, they can take the opportunity to savor Manila's decongested idyll for as long as it lasts.
That is, until the Second Coming on Monday morning.
(Originally published Mabuhay magazine)
Every so often, I am roused from my favorite Sunday afternoon position (in front of a TV and a stack of videotapes with titles like Wild Things and Carrie 2: The Rage) by the following question:
"Want to go check out a foreign film?"
This usually prompts me to hit the pause button on my remote control, chuckle knowingly at the questioner (typically a breathless, over-eager college student) and answer:
"Why would I want to do a thing like that?"
The questioner then feels entitled to scowl at me as if I’m an unenlightened boor, and am somehow missing the boat by not rushing out to see the latest Iranian coming-of-age masterpiece or Polish slice of life. And I am left shrugging my shoulders and offering this defense: Hey, I’m an adult, my life is complicated enough; I don’t need to see any more foreign films.
Don’t get me wrong: I used to love foreign films. Really. Couldn’t get enough of ‘em. I would sit through anything starring Gong Li, walk a mile for a John Woo flick, and looked forward to each film in the Krzysztof Kieslowski trilogy, from Blue to White to Red. And yet when my wife and I recently sat through a showing of Francois Girard’s The Red Violin in a near-empty moviehouse in Makati, it suddenly occurred to me that I was no longer in the mood for the unbearable heaviness of being. It didn’t help that there were no subtitles for the film, which jumped blithely from English to Italian, German to French, or that none of the six or so other people in the theater seemed to know or care what was going on. Somehow, it all just seemed like too much effort, and I couldn’t help checking my watch and wondering who would be guesting on Conan O’Brien later that night.
So why is it that most adults reach a point where their entertainment needs to get dumber and dumber, instead of more sophisticated? Why is it that, after three decades on this planet, I no longer have any desire to sit through four-hour subtitled movies about Manchurian China? (But I will go to see a movie called End of Days, even though I know it will suck horribly and will star Arnold Schwarzenegger.) In short, what happens to the budding intellectual of our college days — the part of us that would rush out to see the latest Jean-Jacques Beineix or Zhang Yimou epic? The part of us that didn’t mind reading subtitles, didn’t mind long, slow-paced movies, and didn’t mind pretentious French films with titles like Un Coeur en Hiver or Tout les Matins de la Monde?
I’ll tell you what happens: We grow up.
When you’re young, hanging out in college, and discussing weighty philosophical matters semester after semester, you begin to think that life will pretty much continue in that vein forever. That’s why French films start to make sense: all French people ever do in movies is discuss weighty philosophical matters. Oh, and have sex, too. But mostly they talk, talk, talk — and not just about text messages and malls. No, they talk about life, and existence, and a lot of heavy poetic European stuff. You can see why all this appeals to young college students.
Flash forward ten years: these same pseudo-intellectuals are standing in a video store, trying to decide between There’s Something About Mary or American Pie. They don’t want to know about Cambodia’s up-and-coming female directors. They’re not about to submit to three hours of Merchant/Ivory melancholy. They just want to get through Thursday night without injuring too many brain cells.
What happened to turn these budding subtitle-gazers into hopeless couch potatoes? Well, there are two little English four-letter words which explain the transformation: W-O-R-K and L-I-F-E.
Let’s be honest: most of us get a huge dose of "cinema veritè" in our ordinary grinding lives, and the last thing we want is an extra dose of "meaning" with our entertainment. Work is hard, life is difficult, and we don’t need foreign films to explain this to us. Face it: how many people who work for a living really want to come home to a video called Tea With Mussolini at the end of a long day? Not for all the tea in China. Instead, we gladly succumb to le cinema de Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. Anything to prevent us from having to think.
There are several reasons why foreign films seem less attractive to the average seasoned moviegoer these days. For one, independent film-makers like Doug Liman (Go) and Todd Solondz (Happiness) now offer jaded viewers what used to be supplied by foreign films: a more daring alternative to conventional Hollywood fare. This means foreign directors have to work extra hard to get worldwide attention.
Secondly, foreign films just aren’t as good anymore. Gone are the masters like Kurosawa and Fellini, the French New Wavers like Truffaut and Godard. Instead, we have the more exciting foreign mavericks jumping ship to Hollywood, as John Woo did with Face/Off and Luc Besson did with The Fifth Element. We have crowd-pleasing stuff like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which managed to convince the Oscar committee that it wasn’t a foreign film at all, even though it had subtitles. Instead of deep, meditative Swedish dramas, we get proof that even Czechoslovakia can turn out saccharine mush (Kolya). And once a year, we get a film about miserable working-class people set either in Scotland, England or Ireland (Trainspotting, Secrets and Lies, Angela’s Ashes).
Kind of makes you want to reach for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, doesn’t it?
As for me, even watching local films is mostly a "foreign" experience, since I don’t understand much Tagalog. The situations are familiar to me, but I miss out on the delicate nuance of the dialogue. Of course, I respect the local film industry, especially those directors who try for more significance and art in their movies (such as Rizal, Muro-Ami and Bayaning 3rd World). And if I didn’t have to keep nudging my wife every few seconds for a translation, going to see local movies would be an even more enjoyable experience, both for her and me. I guess it’s one of the few times where the sight of subtitles would be a blessing.
But for now, when the weekend rolls around, I’m perfectly content to explore le cinema de Rose McGowan, guilt- and subtitle-free. And if someone asks me to see another obscure foreign film, I’ll just say "No," "Nein," "Nyet," "Nej" and "Non!"
Which English is Filipino English?
Is it American English or British English?
The question is not merely facetious. We all know the United States left a lot behind during its brief "occupation" of the Philippines. Not just American brands and toxic wastes wound up on your shores: the English language was one of our unsolicited "gifts" as well. The US set up public schools here which instituted (American) English as the medium of instruction for decades.
If you ask local linguists, they will say that Filipino English is a totally new species — a unique hybrid of American, English and local terms. According to Isagani R. Cruz and Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista in A Dictionary of Filipino English, "No one country can claim today that its variety of English is 'correct' or 'standard.' Instead, every country — including the United Kingdom and the United States of America — is on equal footing when it comes to English. British English is as 'valid' or 'acceptable' as Singaporean English ... or Philippine English."
This is why Edilberto N. Alegre can claim in the book, Pinoy Forever, that English never colonized Filipino language or culture: "We negotiate our everyday life in our own languages, not in English."
True, Filipinos are strongly resistant to giving themselves up freely to a foreign language, and rightly so.
So what's with all the British English here? Look around you. People don't line up; they "queue up." You don't take the overpass; you take the "flyover." My, my, my, how absolutely Anglican! Next thing, you'll be having tea breaks over a round of chucker!
Mind you, I have nothing against British English. After all, it's their language. They did a much better job of keeping it together than we Americans did. Our English is fluid, porous, constantly in flux. Politicians and pundits invent words and phrases every week, keeping columnists like William Safire very, very busy.
But when did Filipinos start acquiring British English? Last time I checked, the British were just passing through. They never stuck around and forced their manners or language down your throats. And yet, forms here are not "filled out," they're "filled up." You even refer to the bathroom as the "CR" (comfort room). How Mary Poppins can you get?
Sure, American GIs probably dropped their own references into the local parlance — the toilet, the can, the john. But these are hardly ever used in polite society (for obvious reasons).
Now, we know that Americans are known for being somewhat uncouth. But what makes the Brits so "couth," anyhow? A perfect balance of manners and acute discomfort, that's what. No wonder they must seek out the "comfort room."
And while we're on the subject, why do you bring a "C.V." to a job interview? Isn't the "curriculum vitae" just a wee bit pretentious? Why bring Latin into the picture? What ever happened to our good old friend, the "résumé"? I guess the French weren't good enough; a perfectly fine word like "résumé" just didn't cut it in these parts. No, no, no: we must bring a "C.V."
Other words have somehow crept into local usage. Here, you refer to traffic "counterflow," which is suspiciously close to the British "contraflow." You have the VAT, or value-added tax, which originated in England. Philippine police were once known as the PC, or police constabulary. In other words, you had constables, just like the helmet-wearing, nightstick-twirling bobbies of merry old England. And, of course, President Estrada says he is eager to chuck US-style democracy and institute a UK-style parliamentary system here instead.
Where will it all end? Soccer matches at Cuneta Astrodome?
I'm kidding, of course. Not even the British Council can explain why British English has made its small but indelible mark here. The British only "occupied" the Philippines for one year, sometime in the late 1800s. So this doesn't explain the use of words like "flyover" and "queue."
It turns out, though, that part of the function of the British Council is to introduce more British English into the Philippines. Through its information center, teacher-training sessions and arts events, the Council hopes to promote the use of even more Britspeak among Pinoys. Good luck, old chaps!
Anyway, in the final analysis, American is American, British is British, and Filipino is Filipino, and never the twain shall meet. That's why some words just never make the transition.
For instance, what Americans call an attorney is a solicitor or advocate in Britain. But here, an attorney refers to someone who dances with older women for money.
America has its subways; England has the tube; the Philippines has the LRT and MRT.
In America, you smoke a cigarette; in England, a fag. And here? You "have a stick."
Similarly, the US has apartments; Britain has flats; the Philippines has condos.
We Americans walk on the sidewalk. Brits choose the pavement. There is no equivalent in the Philippines, of course.
We Americans put stuff in the fridge. Brits, for some reason, call it the icebox. Here, it's either a "ref" or a "Frigidaire."
Americans drink a lot of soda, the English drink soft drinks, while Filipinos invariably ask for "a Coke."
Brand names proliferate, eventually turning into generic nouns. Thus, you ask for Kodak, Kleenex or Colgate instead of film, tissue or toothpaste. And you ask somebody to Xerox something instead of photocopying it. American manufacturers must be so proud.
Filipinos also use the expression "I'll fetch you," meaning "I'll pick you up from such and such a place." In the US, the word "fetch" is only used in relation to dogs. I'm not quite sure what sort of things the British fetch.
And, as you may know, there is a device in the States that we call an air-conditioner. The Philippines has shortened this to aircon. Britain, of course, has no air conditioning, because it's always drafty.
As you can see, there is no proper, homogenous, standardized English. Words come and go like ships in the night. And maybe it's better this way: three separate languages for three very different cultures. Why have one when you can have three? Thus, when an American addresses someone who doth protest too much, he is likely to wisecrack: "Don't get your panties in a bunch." A Brit, on the other hand would announce crisply: "Don't get your knickers in a twist." Whereas a Pinoy would laugh and say, "Don't be so high blood, pare."
Think back: has there ever been one single believable Filipino character in Hollywood history?
Rack your brains, sift through your memories, consult your Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide if you must: it's hard to think of any full-fledged Pinoy characters in the movies. It's even harder to find flattering portrayals of them on the silver screen.
Why does Hollywood persist in viewing Filipinos as housemaids, shrewish girlfriends, and harbingers of wacko beliefs in general? Obviously, Philippine films don't count here, even though they also perpetuate some of the same stereotypes. We're talking about the corrective (and sometime politically incorrect) lens of Hollywood.
The most recent example I came across was in the Joel Schumacher film, 8mm, purportedly a gritty, disturbing take on the porn industry and snuff films in particular. Snuff films are a sick cinematic genre in which actual murders are reportedly filmed. Leave it to Hollywood, though, to show actor Nicolas Cage watching a grainy film of an Asian woman being tortured to death, only to remark in disgust: "Who makes these films?" His sidekick/guide through the porn underbelly, Joaquin Phoenix, remarks blithely: "I don't know. Looks like the Filipinos." One of the killers then brandishes a meter-long bolo. "Definitely the Philippines."
Now, granted, the actors in this little bit of snuff did look a bit Pinoy. And it sure was grainy enough to be a Filipino film. But that's no reason to imply that the Philippines is the snuff-film capital of the world. (Actually, I've heard the capital is located somewhere in South America.) Anyway, I don't believe there would be much of an audience for snuff films here; between bold films and snuff films, most people would rather forget their day-to-day troubles and look at some T&A instead.
But who knows? Maybe in Hollywood's eyes, Filipinos spend half their time making snuff films and the other half graduating from places like the "Macrobiotic Institute of the Philippines." That's the fictional college mentioned in the movie Trial and Error, a place where imposter lawyer Michael Richard's "expert witness," a wacko American nutritionist, is said to have earned her credentials. This film, which also starred Charlize Theron, had nothing to do with the Philippines, but it used a courtroom scene to trot out a decidedly non-credible witness and suggest — with a snicker — that she studied at some looney-tune college in the Philippines. As a graduate of UP, I object! Maybe the makers of this film need a little bit of litigation themselves from the Pinoy Anti-Defamation League.
If you want to talk about nutty beliefs, though, The X-Files is a good place to start. I've always felt that Chris Carter could do an entire season of the hit TV show based right here in Manila. Actually, the country has been mentioned at least once on the show, by Gilbert Praise, the chess-playing child prodigy who said his diplomat parents had been based in the Philippines. His only complaint? He "didn't get any good TV shows" there. (This was ironic, considering we were watching this episode of The X-Files in the Philippines.)
So, besides bad TV, nutty beliefs and snuff films, what else does the Philippines have to offer Hollywood? Slinky girlfriends, of course. More than once, the small, supporting femme fatale in a Hollywood flick is played by, or rumored to be, a Filipina. Hell, the career of Tia Carrere (who is Filipino, though she claims to be Hawaiian) was built on playing slinky, Mata Hari-like girlfriends. Remember her in Wayne's World and True Lies? Other potentially-fatal Filipina bombshells turn up in Strange Days (where Ralph Fiennes asks a client to regard the "drop-dead Filipino girlfriend" standing next to the bar). Then, there's the shrewish Filipino wife in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert who spouts some unsavory Tagalog to her fat Aussie husband. Unless Lea Salonga inserts her wholesome foot in Hollywood's door, there may be no stopping the Filipina bimbo explosion.
Sometimes, it's not just Filipinos that get a bad rap in movies. Even when the Philippines receives a casual mention in a film, it's associated with something disastrous. Take Pierce Brosnan's name check in the big-budget volcano flick, Dante's Peak. Where did volcanologist Brosnan get his experience with big, bad eruptions? "I spent some time in the Philippines. Pinatubo," he says with a knowing squint. Isn’t it wonderful to be noticed as the disaster capital of the world?
There are other unintended insults, of course: the two Pinoy housekeepers in the Tom Selleck/Paulina Porizkova flick, Her Alibi, whose accents kept Filipino audiences in stitches; and the two alleged "Filipinos" who spot the flaming cattle herd in Mars Attacks look distinctly Chinese. (Guess they all look alike to Hollywood.)
(Since this article first came out, two more local references have popped up in Hollywood films. In Drop Dead Gorgeous, there is the beauty pageant runner-up who, it is said, can now be reached in Manila at “1-800-X-Beauty-Queen.”And there’s the scene in Man on the Moon in which Jim Carrey, playing a cancer-stricken Andy Kaufman, announced his intention to visit the Philippines. “What are you looking for there?” he is asked by friends. “A miracle,” he answers. Unfortunately, what follows is a really fake psychic surgery scene involving squeezed chicken bones and blood, which does little to spruce up the country’s image, needless to say.)
To be honest, not only Filipinos, but most Asians and Middle Easterners suffer from Hollywood's blind spot. That's because Hollywood tends to cater to a certain American need for stereotypes, especially in casting its movie villains.
It's also true that real life has cast many Filipinos in less-than-sterling supporting roles (you know: the Filipino maids who busted Michael Jackson, the White House intern who finked on Monica Lewinsky, Andrew Cunanan, etc.) And, as I've said before, if there's a big-time scandal, a Filipino is likely to be — at most — six degrees away. So good role models for Hollywood are probably hard to come by. At least Rizal was one attempt to bring positive Filipino characters to international screens. Let's hope that Filipino filmmakers — and Hollywood — start to recognize more of them.
In the meantime, let's pray that Claire Danes keeps her mouth shut.
Pinoy English has a certain vitality, an appetizing freshness, a juicy abundance that somehow makes one think of food. In fact, Filipinos in many cases will gladly eat their own words.
Let me explain. You see, I’ve found that a lot of idioms and phrases in the local parlance deal with food, or animals, or a combination of the two. I’m not sure why this is.
Take the phrase “crab mentality,” for example. Almost as soon as you arrive in the Philippines, you become acquainted with this descriptive little idiom. It refers to a certain jealousy or envy, or a bitter unwillingness to allow others to get ahead. The common image is of a bucket of crabs, with each clawing at the others to escape the bucket, thereby only managing to drag one another down. But crabs, it need not be pointed out, are also quite delicious, especially when served with a butter sauce mixed with a little vinegar.
(Americans are fond of another food phrase, “sour grapes,” referring to Aesop’s fable about the Fox and the Grapes, but somehow this phrase lacks the juicy resonance of “crab mentality.”)
And speaking of grapes, what would Filipino life be without the infamous “grapevine,” that unofficial network of news and tsismis that relays information faster than any cellphone?
And have you noticed how Filipinos always describe their school year classmates as “batches,” like they’re trays of freshly-baked cookies? Hmmm…
Then there’s “turn turtle,” that colorful phrase used to describe any motor vehicle accident in which the car somehow manages to turn over on the highway. The phrase always puts me in the mind of turtle soup, and for the life of me, I can’t help wondering if it’s the real thing, or just a mock, whenever I see one of those creative little mishaps on the road.
So why is it that food gets mixed in with so many local idioms? I’ll just hazard a guess here: food is a pretty big reference point for Filipinos. It doesn’t take a great deal of persuasion to get people thinking and talking about food. As an experiment, I’ve sat in a room of people who were watching TV or discussing things non-food related, and just casually muttered “pizza” or “ice cream” under my breath. Before you know it, the discussion would swing to Little Caesar’s or Selecta’s Brand of the Month, and it takes a phoned-in bomb threat to swing things back to another topic.
Yes, food is a major area of discussion, so it’s no accident that it ends up spilling over into your pet phrases.
After all, you have your “sugar daddies” and your “sugar mommies,” sweet local expressions used to describe those wealthy benefactors of either sex who keep pretty young things in cell phones and designer shoewear. Sugar is sugar, whether it comes from Negros or from wealthy dirty old men and women.
“Onion-skinned” is another of my favorites, that wonderful local version of “thin-skinned” which manages, once again, to work food into the discussion. An onion-skinned person, one presumes, is easily given to tears. But I’ve always thought of an onion as having countless layers of skin, making it fairly resilient. Oh well, food and language don’t necessarily sit at the same table.
Then there’s the term “crocodiles,” often used to describe corrupt policemen or soldiers. The word does connote a lazy, graft-fattened individual. But I’ve actually had a chance to eat crocodile meat, and, though it’s a bit tough and leathery, it’s not so bad. Especially with a butter sauce and a little vinegar.
My Dictionary of Philippine English lists a food-based colloquial term for testicles: “eggs.” One must be very careful when tossing this term around, however.
The same dictionary also refers to a “person in misery” as a “wet chicken.” I have seen wet chickens before, and they certainly didn’t look too happy about their condition. Personally, my favorite kind of wet chicken is plucked and dressed and ready for roasting.
I have also heard of anyone who acts the martyr being referred to as a “sacrificial lamb.” If nothing else, the phrase does stimulate the taste buds. And if you’re going to sacrifice that lamb, I’ll have my chops medium-rare, with a light parsley garnish and a side of mint sauce.
For dessert, many here still enjoy a nice halo-halo. But the phrase has come to refer to any mixture of dissimilar elements. This article, for instance, is a halo-halo of thrown-together ingredients. Naturally, your personal tastes will vary.
Not even one of your national heroes, Lapu-Lapu, the man who defeated Magellan in the south, escaped his culinary fate: you ended up naming a fish after him.
So is there anything in Filipino conversation that doesn’t eventually find its way back to food? Well, as Edilberto Alegre has written, the Philippines is a “culture of orality.” Tagalog is full of food terms, and the enjoyment of food is seen as a means of communication between people. So it’s no wonder that food terms are borrowed from English to add extra flavor and spice to the conversation. Ultimately, there’s only one word that adequately describes the rich banquet of phrases and food references ladled out in Filipino speech: “Sarap!”
It was over 30 years ago that the Fab Four came to these shores, during an extended tour of Asia which included a gig at Tokyo's Budokan Hall and the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium here in the Philippines.
Imagine: tickets were only P80, back when the peso stood at a strong four to the US dollar. Unfortunately, those present during those heady days say it was not the most joyous expression of Beatlemania on record. In fact, according to The Beatles Anthology, a documentary shown on RPN-TV a while back, the surviving Beatles (Paul, George and Ringo) still have pretty mixed feelings about Manila. (Maybe they should compare notes with Claire Danes.)
As many will recall, it was here that the Beatles — then the biggest pop music act in history, bigger than Oasis, the Backstreet Boys or any combination of boy bands you could assemble — were attacked, allegedly by Marcos goons, at the Manila International Airport. What was their crime? Snubbing an invitation from Former First Lady Imelda Marcos that had been scheduled on their "day off."
What really happened? According to interviews with the individual Beatles, it was a misunderstanding that led to the most frightening and disorienting experience of their lives. (Obviously they never tried driving near a bus lane on EDSA during rush hour.)
"Somebody just set (the invitation) up," John Lennon tells one interviewer. "We didn't know about it, and you just had to go along with it."
Paul McCartney is a bit more testy: "It is, indeed, a great honor, but ... it's our day off, so we can't go. We're not stuffing in some sort of royal reception, you know."
The Palace luncheon had been set for 11 a.m. on July 4. Scheduled to play Rizal Stadium at 4 p.m. that same day, and another show at 8 p.m., the Beatles declined the invite from Mrs. Marcos.
But the reigning kings of the pop world made one tactical error: here in Manila, there was one force arguably much stronger than Beatlemania: Marcosmania. With the usual lightning speed, the chismis spread from Malacañang to the media. The following day, The Manila Times ran this banner: "Imelda Stood Up!"
"I put on the TV, and there was this… horrific TV program with Madame Marcos screaming, you know, 'They've let me down!'" chuckles Ringo Starr, the Beatles' affable drummer. "The cameraman would tilt the camera onto these empty plates and up into these little kids' faces, all crying because the Beatles hadn't shown up."
(Face it: that is so Filipino...)
Guitarist George Harrison still seems a bit spooked by what happened next: "We tried to get to the airport the following morning. Nobody would give us a ride. We couldn't get a car. There was nothing available!" (Obviously things haven't changed much. It's still nearly impossible to find a cab willing to take you where you want to go in Manila.)
"Finally, we managed to get a car," continues George. "We got in and this person drove us to the airport. But it was like there were two things happening simultaneously. There were these grown-ups, or whatever, government officials who were trying to punch us, yelling, waving their fists at us; and underneath that was the young kids who were still doing the mania..."
When they reached the Manila International Airport, an angry crowd greeted the musicians as they entered the transit lounge, chanting "Beatles, alis diyan! (Get away from here!)" That was precisely what the Beatles wished to do, but they were about to hit a few additional snags. Some say 50, some say 500 people — allegedly Marcos supporters and goons dispatched to the airport — soon made themselves busy kicking, punching and shouting at the Liverpool lads.
"We got to the airport, and we got put into the transit lounge," remembers Paul. "And then we got pushed around from one end of the lounge to the other."
"You're treated like ordinary passengers! Ordinary passengers!'" adds John, imitating the rough treatment the group received from airport personnel. "An ordinary passenger doesn't usually get kicked, does he?" (Let's hope it wasn't a PAL employee.)
The interviewer then asks John if he, himself, was physically injured during the encounter: "No, I was very delicate and moved every time they touched me."
They didn't escape unharmed, however. Ringo suffered a sprained ankle and had his hair clipped by rabid Marcos goons, while two of their road managers received cracked ribs and a spinal injury.
After the Beatles "escaped" Manila, vowing never to play in the Philippines again, an acid-tongued John summed up the experience: "Ah, well, we'll just never go to any nuthouses again."
The story doesn't end there, though. According to my research on the Internet (which, as a source, is about as trustworthy as Linda Tripp), the Beatles were actually never paid for their two concerts in Manila.
The local promoter, Ramon Ramos, used the brouhaha over the Beatles "snub" as an excuse to withhold payment. Then, there was a little matter of performance taxes. Misael Vera, then chief of the Philippine Tax Authority, insisted the group could not leave the country until they remitted some $18,000 for a concert which they were never paid for!
Perhaps fearing for his life, Beatle manager Brian Epstein was forced to turn over the amount from the group's performance bond in order to settle the matter.
What do we learn from all of this? Well, for one thing, times sure have changed. Nowadays, rock stars call the shots and local promoters bend over backwards to accommodate — and profit from — their visit to the Philippines. One can't imagine, say, Michael Jackson playing in a foreign country without dictating every term and every moment of his own schedule.
Secondly, even in those days, kids — no matter what their nationality — were much more interested in having fun than in playing politics. To their credit, the Beatles recognized it was the political forces behind the scenes that had orchestrated their "attack" at Manila International Airport. They never blamed their fans, and certainly not the Filipinos. Too bad their one and only visit to the Philippines was destined to create such a bad first impression.
Finally, in a way, Beatlemania and Marcosmania are not so far apart. Both are cults of personality based on mass hysteria. The Beatles whipped up their young fans' emotions with music and hair-shrugging. The Marcoses fused their identity with the national identity, and if that didn't work, they sent goons to reinforce the impression that their name was synonymous with the Philippines. Thus, to snub Imelda was to slap the country in the face. In this historical showdown of manias, it seems the Marcoses won a round, albeit not without violence.
Paul, ever the diplomat, tries to put a positive spin on the Manila trip, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight: "The nice thing about it is that, in the end, when we found out that it was Marcos, and what he'd been doing to his people, and that it was Imelda, and what she'd been doing to her people, and the rip-off that the whole thing — apparently, allegedly — was, we thought, 'Great. We must have been the only people who dared snub Marcos.'"
Getting all the Eraserheads to show up for a press conference must be a feat equivalent to achieving cold fusion: extremely rare, and not always reproducible. Musicians, after all, are not known for their punctuality. (Nor are journalists, for that matter.)
Guitarist Marcus Adoro wasn't there when the Heads started their press conference at Hard Rock Cafe last Tuesday, but no matter: E-heads members Ely Buendia, Buddy Zabala and Raymund Marasigan were more than ready to talk about the new album, “Natin 99,” and perhaps the new outlook of the band.
After all, this is the first Heads album where main songwriter Ely Buendia takes a backseat role, with other band members offering up the bulk of the songs. To say it's different from previous Heads albums is redundant: every album is a departure of sorts; “Natin 99” (the title is an all-purpose band in-joke, as well as a pun on "1999" and "not in '99") is no exception.
This time round, drummer Raymund supplies five songs (thanks, perhaps, to an excess of energy from his side band Sandwich). Bassist Buddy pens three, the most since Fruitcake; while Marcus has the obligatory "Ringo" allotment: one song, South Superhiway, which he penned himself.
That leaves five songs by Ely, including the first single, Maselang Bahaghari. So was it hard to get Buddy, Marcus and Raymund to contribute songs this time around?
"I forced them to," joked Buendia, finally shedding the stereotypical rock shades that have adorned his face for most of the press conference. "Everything for the band is done willingly," he says. Ely is much thinner these days, more laid-back: he lets the band speak for itself. After years of penning the band's carrier singles, Ely recently admitted that the pressure to come up with hits nearly led to a nervous breakdown, one reason for the high output of songs by other band members.
The new album is being described as "cut-and-paste" and even (God forbid!) drum 'n' bass by some. But the band members say it's all part of the natural creative process. "This is first time we can use digital equipment (to put it all together)," says Raymund. "Most of our old equipment is analog. We do our parts at home. Most songs start on acoustic guitar."
Buddy says the process can be pretty solitary: "Everyone has a tape recorder or video recorder at home. Everyone records, then we bring the pieces into the studio. We just agree on the key and the BPM (beats per minute)."
Then there's day after day of layering tracks at Tracks, the recording studio where the Heads put together “Natin 99” and past albums. These days, the process is more sound by sound, thread by thread, resembling the weave pattern on the album cover by designer Cynthia Bauzon. "We're evolving more into a cut-and-paste band," explains Raymund. "You can cut and paste, you can fix songs. This is the first album where everyone played their hearts out. It's very exciting."
Marcus arrives then, and sits down next to his bandmates. But no words spill forth. Band-watchers have come to accept that Marcus mostly communicates non-verbally, donning sunglasses, looking up occasionally or tilting his head sideways in a quizzical manner.
But when the band is asked about the use of the word natin (ours) in the album title, Marcus suddenly speaks up: "We use 'natin' for everything. Like, 'Amanda Page, natin yon.' It's kind of a magic word."
For the upcoming "Natin Tour," Raymund says the band is not in any danger of perfecting their studio sound onstage. "Basically, our live show is back to basics. It's just the four of us (plus keyboardist Noel Garcia). We don't want all this digital equipment, with computer systems crashing onstage."
A film by the band is also in the works, which they're now dubbing the "Natin 99 Movie." "Of course, there'll be music involved, we're still musicians," Ely says, downplaying his interest in directing (he did the video for With A Smile). "It'll be a period piece," he adds, cryptically.
Mostly, the E-heads have been busy the past year touring all over the country and in other countries. Playing live may be where the E-heads feel most at home. Their loyal fan base flock to gigs, no matter where, and the Heads can be as endearingly sloppy and hard-edged as they want to be. It's out there, on the record charts, where they perhaps feel a bit overscrutinized.
They talk about some of their favorite gigs outside the Philippines. "Our best experience was in the US, the West Coast," says Raymund. "We met Beck. We saw a lot of bands, too." It was also their first trip there, so the place must have made a lasting impression. But on the East Coast, the Heads confess they had their worst gig experience ever at New York's CBGB's: "They f***ed us over," Ely offers. Apparently, the band was shunted off to the basement of the legendary punk club, where their set met with a less-than-legendary reception.
As for the rest of the time when they’re not recording and touring, the E-heads have pretty low-key interests. "We have our own stuff that we do," Buddy says. "This is work for us, so we need to relax."
"I try to lead a normal life, watch a movie," says Ely.
And what about those many side projects, such as Raymund's band Sandwich, due to release their own album next month? Or outside production work, such as the debut by local band Fatal Posporos, helmed by Buddy and Raymund? Are side projects good or bad for a band? "It's healthy," Raymund says with a smile.
"It's not that we're straying from the band," Ely says in defending the time spent on side projects.
"It's different from the Heads," offers Buddy, who contributed to the recent Manila Blues Summit and has a long-standing jazz project with Raymund on the side. "We found out that playing the blues is fun."
As always, the E-heads draw their sonic inspiration from sources both musical and non-musical. "I'm influenced by driving around the city of Manila," says Ely. "You know, we're fond of that. So a lot of songs deal with street life, relationships. There's no socio-political stuff, we're not that serious."
Buddy shrugs when asked about his influences for this album: "I watched a lot of TV, I guess."
Raymund gives a more effusive answer: "We started writing songs that weren't written on guitar. We started writing with machines. Ely started writing more on piano for his songs."
And Marcus' influences? "Computer, traffic, Ely."
Ely perhaps exaggerates later when he says that BMG picks all their singles. The band has a strong say in choosing the best tracks for commercial release. But since the budget for videos is in BMG's hands, the record company does exert a great deal of control, which doesn't seem to bother Ely.
As for the production, Ely agrees “Natin 99” is more polished than earlier Heads releases. "We were criticized for our messy sound before," he admits. He says Raymund had a bigger hand in cleaning up the production. But Raymund disagrees: "I don't think it's polished, I think it's noisier than ever." He credits that to the many samples which were obtained under less-than-pristine recording conditions — you know, like people's living rooms. These samples were then processed and mutated through the Heads' equipment to form the basic rhythm tracks. One song, Peace it Together, even includes drum licks from each band member (you can sort of note the different styles) all stitched together in one of their most ambitious tracks. Almost a theme song for “Natin 99,” Peace it Together recalls the days of positive-mantra singles by the Beatles such as All You Need is Love.
Raymund also offers the opening two cuts, Sinturong Pangkaligtasan and Dahan-Dahan, the former a drum 'n' bass instrumental that is musically unlike anything the Heads have done before. This segues into the rousing rocker Dahan-Dahan, more familiar territory for the E-heads. Not to be typecast, Raymund also contributes his most radio-friendly Heads song yet, Kilala.
There are the usual in-jokes, like the way the chorus of Game! Tama Na! echoes David Bowie's Fame. Then there's the lengthy sonic collage tacked on at the end of the album, a mixture of textured water drops and voices from around the world, all blathering on about "natin."
If there's a tug-of-war between styles on “Natin 99,” it's actually less noticeable than on “Stickerhappy,” their last studio album. Here, the Heads seem to using the studio as an instrument more, and the textures blend pretty seamlessly. All in all, to my ears, the album is more instantly likable than “Stickerhappy,” though it may be packed with fewer hits.
The songwriting indicates that Ely remains the consummate craftsman, still very influenced by the pop forms of the '60s and '70s. Like the subject of Popmachine, Ely will probably continue to write hits until somebody makes him stop. Buddy follows this path, and his contributions sound the most like the early E-heads. Tama Ka, in fact, sounds like a vintage Heads single, showing Buddy is building on lessons learned over the years.
Raymund, meanwhile, is pushing the alternative envelope, experimenting with new sounds and directions which probably wouldn't have caught the band's fancy five or six years ago. The Beck influence is very strong in his emphasis on cut-and-paste technology and rapping, but so is drum 'n' bass, evident in the opening track.
In a way, “Natin 99” pushes all the band's strengths forward: they're still developing as writers in the "classic" songwriting vein; but they're also exploring new sounds, some successful, some not so, and stretching their definition of themselves beyond comfortable notions.
The main thing is, the E-heads are changing. They're moving on, and those who want to are invited to come along with them.
Being a foreigner in Metro Manila, I still find myself surprised at the number of heavily armed guards posted at the doors of most business establishments here. You enter a KFC or McDonald's, nod to the guard, and realize there's a rifle muzzle pointing down at your feet.
Why is McDonald's guarded by M-16s? Is it to keep away roving bands of Hamburglars? I could understand this going on in the US, where people have been known to walk into a McDonald's and open fire (as someone did in Texas a few years back). The paranoid scenario presented in the movie Falling Down (in which Michael Douglas' character orders a fast-food outlet to make him breakfast at rifle-point) is often a reality in America, and it's not just because the service sucks. No, the US is simply a place where armed guards might be a good thing to have around, say, in a McDonald's. But here? How many people rob Mickey D's? I'd like to see the statistics on that. (I know: they don't, precisely because there are gun-wielding guards stationed at the door.)
Why are guns everywhere in this society? Let's be honest: guns are there to protect property. I once calculated there are some 11,000 handguns, pistols, rifles and other firearms present in all the malls of Metro Manila, a veritable arsenal. Records at the PNP's Firearms and Explosives Division (FED) show some 572,000 licensed guns are in the hands of civilians, police and military personnel (never mind how many unlicensed firearms are out there). Incidentally, an amazing 387,000 of that number belong to professionals, businessmen, private citizens and movie personalities. Some 94,000 guns are licensed to security guards. Police and military personnel hold 83,000 weapons; corporations have 8,000.
Meanwhile, signs at the entrances to restaurants and subdivisions read: "You are welcome, your guns are not." Even a print ad for a year-end sale at Linea Italia makes morbid reference to Andrew Cunanan's slaying of Gianni Versace: it shows the designer mouthing the words: "Leave your guns at home."
Blame it on Quentin Tarantino. Blame it on Kurt Cobain. Blame it on Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Blame Voltes V, while you're at it.
Our culture — our global culture — is infatuated with guns. While the US remains the world's biggest killing ground, with a higher homicide rate than most other countries, it can't be denied that one of its biggest exports has been the culture of gun worship.
Local movies testify to this, with their emphasis on tough-guy shootouts modeled directly after the cinematic work of Simpson and Bruckheimer (the Hollywood producers who brought us Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, The Rock, Con Air and almost every movie in the past two decades in which gun-wielding men are shown running toward the camera in slow motion to escape an exploding fireball).
Just walk through your average mall here, and note the number of gun shops. We're not talking hunting rifles; we're talking Brownings, Berettas, Glocks, Colts; not to mention M-14s, M-16s and 12-gauge shotguns.
The stores all have cute names, too. There's "Pointblank" and "Stronghand Inc.", which I must admit have a snub-nosed, masculine appeal. One gun dealer calls itself "Final Option" (obviously competing directly with another gun dealer in town called "First Option"). "Guns & Bullets Dynamic" hawks its wares inside Toys for the Big Boys on Wilson Street. One of my favorites is "Magnificent World Guns & Sports," which conjures up a happy landscape of twittering birds and romping fauna, all punctuated by the sound of rapid gunfire. And, of course, there's "Guns for the Good Guys," which has two branches in Metro Manila.
The logo for Guns for the Good Guys in Greenhills has a playful "Wild West" font. One can imagine the rigid safety checks that go on in this place before people are allowed to purchase firearms. ("You're a good guy, right? You're sure you're a good guy? Don't lie to me, now...")
I spoke with one gun-shop owner over the phone for this article. We talked about the mechanics of getting a weapon. I found out there is a 15-day waiting period before you are allowed to pick up your gun. (Actually, the FED allows certain owners to purchase two weapons — one long-arm, like an M-14 or M-16, and one handgun, from which you may choose among the following mathematical possibilities: .45, .22, .380, .38 or 9mm.)
I mentioned the fact that I am a foreigner, and the owner suggested getting a gun would still not present a problem. The most popular weapon for home security, he informed me, was the Heckler & Koch Glock 9-mm. pistol (though he may have been just saying that to push their big surplus of HK Glocks that week). Anyway, what I really wanted to know was how I could purchase an AK-47 assault rifle (the one you need "when you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherf***er in the room," according to Samuel Jackson's character in Jackie Brown). To my surprise, the gun shop owner said this could also be arranged, if I'd just "come by the office." Somehow, I got the sense this was no regular business transaction we were talking about.
There are other requirements to buying a gun, of course. You need four pictures of yourself. You need a barangay clearance certificate, to prove that at least your barangay captain doesn't consider you a rampaging psycho. If you're a business requiring a gun, please bring a financial statement as well. And if you plan to sashay around town, poking your gun at people in public, don't forget your PTCFOR — Permit to Carry Firearms Outside of Residence.
I submit that in the Philippines, deaths involving guns (or at least the accounts written about them) are, in a MacLuhanian sense, nearly always "hot," as opposed to in the US, where they are "cold." The Canadian theorist Marshall MacLuhan noted that media tend to be either hot or cold. Television is "hot" because it is tactile; it appeals to several senses at once. Radio is "cold" because it requires more analysis, cerebration, linear processing.
Murders involving gunplay in Manila tend to be of the hot-blooded variety; we immediately understand what happened, what went tragically or stupidly wrong. A headline like "Teased about his singing, man kills 2" is instantly grasped; the motive is obvious. Whereas in the US, murders are often cold-blooded, resisting easy explanation ("Two boys, aged 11 and 13, open fire on Arkansas schoolmates").
The US media went through weeks of hand-wringing on that Arkansas shooting, in which five children were killed. "How could something like this happen? How do we prevent our own children from exploding in violence?" they asked. Well, one way is not to leave a stockpile of loaded weapons lying around in your home, as the parents and guardians of Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden did. The other is not to encourage and instruct the future killers on how to fire those weapons.
But here, incidents like the "karaoke killer" are so common that we in the media tend to get jaded, giving the stories a light spin, putting them on the Metro pages. The above-mentioned story opens like this: "He did it his way — the violent way." It tells how the singer (a barangay captain, incidentally) was irked by two customers who laughed at his Sinatra interpretation. Weapons were drawn. "But the (singer) was quicker on the draw, and shot the two men, killing them instantly." That's the way it is in the Wild, Wild West, an era which we, as readers, still seem to pine for.
But there's always some killjoy, trying to spoil the fun. One legislator recently filed a bill calling for a ban on plastic toy guns, which he said were being used to stage armed robberies. I wonder if any of his colleagues bothered to point out to him the absurdity of this — that anyone foolish enough to try and rob a bank with a plastic Uzi would be mowed down in a hail of real, live bullets.
Better the legislators should find a way to keep real Uzis and automatic weapons out of the country. It's not as though you have a lunatic fringe like the American National Rifle Association to contend with here (though, of course, if someone suggests there should be fewer guns in the country, they are instantly shouted down with tired catchphrases like "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," or "Guns don't kill; people do" — the sort of brilliant logic one would expect from people whose brains have been rattled by years of close-proximity munitions fire).
No, it seems unlikely that guns will be removed from society or culture any time soon. Guns are here to stay.
After all, once you start removing dangerous machinery from people's hands, the next thing you know, there'll be no more cars, jeepneys or buses on EDSA.
A colleague of ours died in his sleep recently. This event naturally sparked discussion of bangungot, and speculation that the 43-year-old employee, who lived in a squatter section of Quezon City, had succumbed to this strange indigenous phenomenon.
What do we know about bangungot? Not enough, I’m sure. It afflicts Filipino males almost exclusively (although similar cases have been noted elsewhere in Southeast Asia) and is passed along as lore to children: something along the lines of: if you eat certain foods before sleeping, you will have nightmares from which you will never awaken.
William Burroughs cites it in his book Naked Lunch, though he gets the Tagalog wrong. (“Death occurring in the course of a nightmare… The condition occurs in males of S.E. Asiatic extraction… In Manila about twelve cases of death by Bang-utot are recorded each year. One man who recovered said that ‘a little man’ was sitting on his chest and strangling him,” according to Burroughs. Bang-ungot literally means “attempting to get up and groaning”; bang-utot actually means “attempting to get up and farting.”)
Most people here claim to know someone who has died from bangungot — or know someone who knows someone — though there are few documented cases, since the dead are no longer around to provide details.
I personally know three people — Filipino males — who have experienced dreams (or nightmares) so vivid and oppressive that they sound uncannily like bangungot.One, a Catholic, claims he was visited by the figure of Satan, who sat in his room while he lay in bed. Another says a figure sat on his chest, preventing him from moving or escaping. Another chooses to believe he was abducted by aliens at an early age, though the scenario described — strangers surrounding him in his room, at his bedside, at night —also sounds like bangungot. In each description, there is a kind of interrogation, a compulsion of some kind. One is held against one’s will. One feels the terror of never awakening. As mentioned, bangungot means “waking and groaning.” For many of its victims, this groaning is their last.
There is always a dog, curled up under the coffin. Usually, one enters through a curtain to a makeshift viewing room. The living room is now a room for the dead. There are candles. For a fee, the local funeral parlor will provide a scrap of carpet, usually red, to slide beneath the coffin dolly. Red drapes hang from the walls in crazy-quilt patterns; a menagerie of tarnished brass candle stands (flickering with red lightbulbs) flank the coffin, wobbily.
A single candle sits atop the casket, next to a jar partially stuffed with 10- and 20-peso notes. The spouse is usually at the foot of the coffin, wailing intensely, and this establishes an intimacy you just don’t find in commercial funeral parlors. Wailing, and stroking the foot of the coffin: “Bakit, Naro?” goes the lament (“Why, Nar?”). It is hard not to be moved. “Bakit?” The dog, curled up under the box, is not oblivious; animals sense distress very keenly, and this pet acts with perfect decorum. The walls are full of knick-knacks, the kitchen lies a few feet away behind a stretched power cord.
Catholic artifacts are everywhere: Leonardo’s Last Supper reproduced in the kitchenette; Mary beads draped across the doorway; the wobbly Christ firgure on his wobbly parlor stand.
Outside, alongside the dark estero, a game of cards ensues. Music is played, not loudly. Neighbors are gathered tonight near this drainage canal in a show of grief and support — some of the gambled money might even reach the bereaved widow.
We are shown two worlds here: the intimate parlor of grief, with its cloying, infectious air; and the riotous clink of coins, beer bottles, the slap of cards right through the doorway. Both are part of the same experience, separated by time and luck and a little distance. The roles could just as easily be reversed.
The unofficial explanation for most cases of bangungot is heart attack, and any armchair observer could pick from among a hundred possible culprits: smoking (he was not a heavy smoker), pulmonary failure brought about by bad air (possible), bad diet, stress. Or maybe fear. Maybe bangungot…
There were premonitions, his co-workers said. Signs, like his joking about death just the day before (laughing that he “might not live to enjoy his 13th-month bonus,” after coming in on his day off to collect it). Or, as one employee noted, the mysterious lightbulb near his work station that refused to come on the morning he died — then, just as mysteriously, lit up again. These things are always in the air for Filipinos to notice. If there are signs, omens, these are the folks who will divine them.
Then there is the oft-cited bangungot explanation: how his children tried to wake him at a certain time that morning — only too late. They say his arm was raised up in the air, as if to fend off something.
A man dies in his sleep. Someone heard him groan. No one knows if it was bangungot—the sleeper took the secret with him, slipping into the dream forever. The most common link is fear, a feeling of severe oppression. But oppression by what? Is it related to colonialism, economic hardship, toxic ingestion of a world too much with us? It’s hard to think of that smiling colleague as oppressed, unhappy, harboring a secret or a deadly burden of stress. If so, like many others, he hid it so well.
After Feb. 8 meeting at Pancake House, we set a start date for recording. Our first visit to Big Baby is Feb. 27, to check out the setup, but we don’t start until April 24 (for fuck’s sakes) because of Oscars, Vegas, New Zealand, etc.
So here we are, April 24 2018. We spend about an hour setting up mics near drums, Peavey getting levels from inside. We try a dual click track recording of “Bigfoot,” both of us in the drums area, me on guitar to get a rhythm track. But the headphone levels prove unusable. Whatever live synergy we have is thwarted by the click track. I actually can’t really hear it, or myself, over headphones. So this method is abandoned, as we go with me laying down a scratch guitar track to 120 BPM click. This is okay, so we do a scratch vocal in the console booth as well. (“Console” actually being a Mac with Pro Tools.) Peavey is good at levels. I take the vocal so seriously, mistakenly thinking this is “it,” but anyway we get a good first take.
Then we lay in Therese on sticks on a snare rim, then doubling it on a wooden chair for good measure. The rest is 4/4 beat, which she gets on first take. She is officially dubbed “First Take” Therese. (Little did we know that “first takes” always have hidden lags here and there and cause consternation later in mixing.)
• Next, Jazz and Mikey go into “inspiration” mode. First time we’ve seen this. They murmur words I don’t get, in Tagalog and musicalese, about chord structures. Jazz pads over to (a slightly out of tune) piano, lays out some lush chords to accompany my Dm. It starts to sound fuller.
• I point out I have some synth parts recorded on Garageband demo, and Mikey helps isolate the track and makes an AAC file, we USB it to Peavey who lays it right over the chorus parts. Suddenly, there’s a bottom to it. Jazz records some piano chords overlaying the punch notes on the chorus; Mikey picks up the bass (there is no bass in original) and comes up with some soaring bass parts. This is getting good. As we listen to playback, I can see this is how they work: they get inspired by original demo, but the ideas only start to fully emerge in the studio.
I’m trying to soak up learning here in Big Baby. I’m seeing Peavey Flex-time drums, etc. I’m watching Jazz and Mikey come up with vocal ideas, and how they stack harmonies. Sometimes a 3rd above, a 5th below the lead. Sometimes sticking to a single note for oblique motion harmony. Other times, I can’t fathom it. They have accumulated many, many recording tricks. I’m in awe, but I want to learn..
• There is guitar to grapple with. The original scratch is bare, ugly and naked. I use my Zoom pedal (some kind of spongy, squelchy delay which is how we play it together live) and redo the guitar over sticks/drums and scratch vocal. It suddenly has some cool bouncy echo.
We are done for the night. We’re happy with where the track is going. Next will be vocals.
“Time to find your inner John Mayer.”
After some setup time, I am positioned in the vocal booth. Jazz suggests one phone off the ear, one phone on. For this take, I want to kind of shout it, and I do. But the chorus goes much higher, of course. Jazz gets me to the right notes. Sounds okay, but it’s when you start double-tracking that vocals suddenly “pop.” Suddenly, anyone can sound like a studio angel. (It’s perhaps the reason why, when we sing along to a classic track, we think we sound better than we do: we’re hearing that overdubbed double track vocal, and mistaking it for our own contribution, “filling” things out. Double tracking covers up a multitude of sins.) We do a third vocal over that, and the thing gets lusher. Mikey wants another layer, breathier: “It’s time to find your inner John Mayer, Scott.” I know it will sound better, so I do. There’s some real mojo that goes on between a human voice and a mic, I’m learning. It’s the human machinery meeting the electronic machinery, something like that. I think of how Lennon felt, using the delay straight into his cans for “A Day in the Life.” Or Dylan on “Visions of Johanna.” Eerie, live-wire vocals. I’m not there yet.
• I notice something else in the final chorus (“Ain’t I fine enough…”), during the second pass where Jazz has added a 7th or 9th chord on piano over my Dm guitar: it calls for a slight shift in my vocal to give it a more minor feel. So I do this, almost instinctively, adapting to Jazz’s added chord. This adds so much to a song, just a slight variation somewhere in the repetition of choruses. These guys are jenious…
• A lead vocal now in the can, our producers think about harmonies. Jazz offers some breathy accompaniment on the 2nd chorus. Then Jazz, Mikey and Therese offer up some “ooh”s in the lulls during verses after the guitar cuts out and sticks come back. It’s an object lesson in harmony: Therese sticks with a single note (“G,” I think) while Mikey and Jazz “ooh” above and below it. It’s suddenly “Rubber Soul.” I love it.
• Jazz gets another idea, maybe he’s done it a million times, but it’s new to me: he’s holding my lyrics up and saying, “Can we take a couple lines from here and do a call-and-response thing during the chorus?” So you get “You’ve got my number… Don’t call no other…” going on as a counterpart to the descending chorus. It all sounds perfectly natural, and a thousand miles away from my demo. They just took the best parts and made it… better. That’s why we chose them as producers, I guess. Jazz adds some nursery rhyme high piano chords at the ending before final lines; when Peavey mixes it all later, the chords are subtle, down low. We listen to playback and we’re ecstatic. I tell them: “Thanks a lot guys, for helping us create something that we’ll never be able to play live.” We laugh, but it’s kinda true.
“The weird thing is, your vocal melody still fits.”
Months pass. Everyone’s got work, gigs, trips. We resume with “Beautiful Mistake,” which, it turns out, I don’t remember the chorus chords to. Well, we’ve been playing it for years (with Bryan) but apparently, I never wrote down the chorus chords for the demo, and that’s what Jazz and Mikey now scour, to figure out what I originally played.
First, Therese plays it through the first time with a super long outro. Like three extra minutes. She doesn’t know quite what to do, but Jazz tells her to “go crazy” in the outro. Therese lays in fills on every other four bars, and we now have a 6-minute song.
• We do a rough guide track with me on naked guitar to the click, then a scratch vocal. Scratch, indeed: Jazz and Mikey are scratching their heads at the guitar chords. “Show us what you play in the chorus.” I do. “That’s not the same as the demo at all,” Jazz says. “But the weird thing is, your vocal melody still fits,” even with the wrong chords.
About a half hour commences of Searching for the Lost Chords. Mikey hits upon the progression first, and grabs a bass, then guitar. Jazz earlier remarked that my guitar and bass lines were "interesting," but possibly that was just his nice way of saying they were "naive" or "non-technical." Nevertheless, Mikey takes off from my bass line, but adds some subsonic texture that was only implied in my demo. Then he goes about deconstructing and reconstructing the guitar spaghetti madness that is the chorus. He shows me the finger positions on acoustic, and I start to get the new chorus progression. He does a chugging acoustic track (he pegged Blur’s “Coffee and TV” for this song) and I do the electric guitar part. Good, but not quite enough. Later, he comes up with a two-note pattern leading to an arpeggio that will also play through the chorus. I gotta say, I’m not hearing how this will all fit together. But I lay it down it (badly) for Peavey several times on electric. I’m no guitar wiz.
• Mikey proceeds to lay bass through the whole outro, against the endless, unchanging guitar riff so it can sound like a jam. We’re all kinda puzzled about this ending. Will it be the super long dance remix? Peavey and Jazz get some weird guitar filters to attach to my Strat, and I’m just supposed to fiddle with tone knobs on the outro. I do, some patterns sound good; most of it is unusable, though. We put a pin in this outro for now.
• Next is the guitar solo. Jazz likes to double everything — acoustic melody, guitar riffs, vocals; he’ll double a chorus with keyboards, vibraphone, anything lying around— so he has me double the guitar part. It’s as simple as shit, so I play it twice. It sounds good — Peavey is very intuitive about post-production guitar textures. He knows I want some delay like in the demo, and — bing! — there it is.
Not sure what we have, though. It’s definitely a WIP (work in progress).
Another long gap as Mikey travels, I travel, Therese travels. This session is doing vocals and other business on “Beautiful.” During the weeks, I’ve home-recorded a guitar outro solo that’s actually three parts intertwined: a single note repeated, then mutating into some XTC/Steely Dan type licks at the end. Kinda dreamy. It goes long; I want to splice Therese’s drum fills around it. I’m canny enough now to bring in an isolated track on USB for Peavey on this session, and he drops it into place. Same BPMs, so it fits. I like it, for now. Doesn’t need a crazy outro solo; I feel it should come down, mellow out. (I think I was also, again, inspired by Justin’s outro guitar to “Love Team” which brings it all down after the heights of the chorus. Such a great song.)
• Rest of session is working on vocals. I again do about three layers, no harmonies yet. Jazz is very specific about emphasizing certain notes, phrasing, etc. He gives good tips, demonstrates it from the booth. I try to comply. It sounds good, but bare.
• The harmonies are next, and it’s just a few syllables on the chorus (“lines form,” “hearts break”). Therese and I share a mic to do it, and I start drawing out my syllables to contrast with Therese. Mikey says it’s “cute” that we’re sharing a mic, but I’m asked to step out; Therese does the backup alone. They use my “sinking syllable” idea though and instruct T to do it several times — Mikey uses hand gestures from the booth to indicate “swoops.” It’s a fun session. You do what’s necessary for the song.
• We also spend the final half hour doing rough guide track and drums for Track 3, “All the Songs.” So we can hit the ground running next time.
• At the end, I’m not convinced of what we have for “Beautiful.” Those separate guitar parts feel separate and clunky on playback; my lead vocals are too high in the mix. I get a little anxious that it’s all going to fit together; Therese tries to talk me down. It’s hard to believe this will sound like anything.
Finishing up “All the Songs,” laying down rhythm track for Track 4, “Facebook Blues.” My guitar skills are rusty: I try laying down the country-ish picking pattern for “Facebook” at 120 BPM, but it’s sloppy as hell. We slow it down to 110 BPM, I lay it in. (Later, Jazz tells me I should practice a more simple pattern to lay down as the basis, then add embellishments over it – a good cheat for guitar novices like me. And he’s right: the original demo is just strummed, reverbed 12-string acoustic.). I throw over a guide vocal, and Therese proceeds to drums. She’s got the shuffle pattern down, now adding an extra kick-drum accent a la “Ballroom Blitz.” She sounds good, at least.
• We set this aside and return to “All the Songs.” We proceed to fill up the 12 instrumental bars before the outro. I play them the mix I did (with riff/power chords/horns), they agree to all, but have their own ideas as well. This one sounds like it’s going to build into an epic production. We start with me playing the tremolo part over the bridge in the control booth, sitting down. We then do the guitar pattern over the 12-bar instrumental break, which takes me a while cuz Mikey changes a note here or there. But I try to get through the 12 bars and the outro without too many fuckups. Then I double it, to get a richer sound. (Jazz then cleans up my fuckups using Flextime or something like that.)
• I plead for some guitar grit, some “Ziggy” chords over the 12 bars, and they lay it down tentatively; Mikey then adds his own distorto layer beneath it, to fatten it up. Sounding better. (Later, hearing those two guitar grit tracks isolated from the mix, I like it even more.) Jazz hears organ somewhere in there, so he does a part on this rinky-dink laptop size keyboard they use on the fly. We are starting to sound like J. Geils Band. I even brought a chromatic harmonica, at Jazz's insistence (in case we want to go full Dylan). Then I say “What about the horns?” Therese is recruited, plays 1-2 passes on the rinky-dink keyboard, and it’s done.
• I start saying what about repeating that “Just where it belongs…” burst of harmony, maybe bringing it in for earlier verses as an end accent? But they have something better in mind: a bunch of “ooohs” after “Just where it belongs…” Starting with fourth verse, Therese is in the booth laying down a descending line of “ooohs” (coached by Jazz). Then Jazz adds his, then Mikey does both a single note drone and doubles the “oohs” for good measure. The “oohs” echo the guitar riff in the middle 12 bars, but build on it even further. On playback, it’s brilliant – especially when Jazz drops out the instruments and we listen to just the isolated backup vocals in the booth. Awesome. This is why I wanted them as producers: they’re the only ones who “get” harmony like this. Ever since listening to Itchyworms and Ciudad’s songs, I’ve been a fan of their ability to sweeten everything with a well-placed harmony. Well, here we have our own little Simon and Garfunkel moment. (Later, I catch similarities to the outro of The Carpenters’ “Goodbye To Love,” with that guitar solo over the harmonies. But why not steal from the best?)
This is why I love pop music: you can craft the hell out of it. You can make it any shape you want. You can perfect it. Only people like Brian Wilson or Prince or Phil Spector or George Martin or Jimmy Page got this. We have our chance here to make this sound as great as possible. Of course I’m onboard. We listen again and they start joking it’s starting to sound like a Christmas album. Jazz cues up some sleigh bell sample to play over the “ooohs” and we fall about laughing. Then Jazz picks up a tambourine and goes to the mike to record a groovy pattern over the “oohs.” That’s the final touch. We listen again, pleased as punch. The harmonica stays in my duffel bag. Untouched, thank God.
“Skiffle’s not dead!
An earlier-in-the-day session for us. It’s weird coming in while the sun is still shining. After a few cancellations, we get our Tuesday locked in again, but Jazz has a gig later that night, so we try to wrap things up by 7 p.m. We spend some time chatting about Steve Lillywhite, whom Jazz worked with for a Globe songwriting forum. Not too many stories, but the guy’s a legend. It must be cool just to soak up his gravitas. Jazz says he’s “not too musical” in that he doesn’t play an instrument anymore, and can’t really read music. He just uses his ears; Jazz has to offer him various chords on piano until he just nods and approves. Interesting. This guy recorded U2, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen.
• We are trying to grab hold of “Facebook Blues.” Jazz tweaks the drums for some time while Peavey sets up mics for 12-string. (He uses two: one aimed above the sound hole (unidirectional?), the other about 2 feet away and higher (omnidirectional?). Then Therese sits alone in booth with a snare drum and does “accents” for the drums. She’s game, goes through it a few times until she really makes those up-beats pop. “Parang skiffle,” Jazz says. Later, during playback, I joke: “Skiffle’s not dead!” which gets a laugh.
• I bring my 12-string acoustic and resolve to give it an easy, energetic strumming pass. Jazz is okay with it, the simpler the better. In general, my hammering and “pickin’” is frowned upon; I lack the necessary chops. Even the “break” parts are simplified to downstrokes: more punk or rockabilly, I guess.
• When Jazz is satisfied, we look to other instruments. As is often the case, one or the other producer picks up a bass (our songs are largely bass-deficient, which they see as an opening). Mikey starts playing a funky line that suggests “Down on the Corner” by CCR crossed with Nick Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” We joke it’s starting to go a little calypso (“Kiss de girl…”) Played by Mikey with a pick, it’s essentially lead bass. (So far the guitar is just an echoey 12-string.)
• I’ve come to realize I have to fight for things or raise my voice in the studio to get what I want, or what I hear in my head. So I play Mikey the little 8-bar guitar “solo” from my demo, he nods yes.
The problem is, I hate recording it in front of them. We generally do these solos right in the control booth, without headphones, usually double tracked. But Peavey gives me a slightly distorted tone (there are issues with my tone knobs and tuning on the Strat) and we get through 2 passes deemed acceptable and move on.
• Since we’re still on distorto guitar, during the playback so far, I start doing my country picking in the outro. Jazz: “Yeah! Do that!” It’s not that they don’t think you’re capable of something; they just don’t read minds. You have to bring it to them, show that it works in the context of the song. So now we have some nice patterns in the outro, over which we will build massive harmonies. I can hear it already.
• We’re pretty much done for the day. Peavey emails me a rough and later, I work up a more acceptable guitar solo on Garageband (double-tracked), include some shaker during the break (will a minimal harmonica fit there as well?); also the outro guitar. I will later present this as an AIFF or ACC track for Peavey to “drop over” our song, same as with “Beautiful Mistake” guitar solo. Next session is for vocals, harmonies, final touches — and the foundation drums/keys for “She Just Loves.”
After several more missed Tuesdays, we meet up again. We don’t start until 10:30, cuz Itchyworms are mixing their new song with Chino, Echo around.
So we commence miking drums for Therese, I haul out Nord and play “She Just Loves” to a click track (80 BPM), then do a guide vocal. Therese lays down a few passes with brushes (Jazz and Peavey add a chain bracelet to the cymbal, for extra resonance; a nice trick). Therese’s drums are deemed complete. Then Jazz, upon hearing the demo again, wants us to slow it down to 70 BPM. Easy for me and Peavey: he just adjusts the time on Pro Tools. But Therese has to now learn to play it much slower, more deliberately. It’s hard on her.
I’m glad when we put away the results, which I can’t really imagine sounding great at this point, on the backburner for the night.
• We return to “Facebook Blues.” “When did you write that?” Mikey asks. About four, five years ago. “When Facebook was starting out?” Yeah, I tell him, when I started noticing it taking over people’s lives. But now the lyric, for me, has a different resonance: the plight of a company that’s gotten lots of bad PR, etc. So “your status quo is upsetting” could easily apply to FB itself.
Anyway, we’re working on vocals tonight. I want it to sound strong, so I kinda belt the lyrics. Jazz has me do 1, 2 passes. We double track the “pictures that I posted…” lyric only. On playback, I think it sounds shouty, like I’m barking the words. But I let it go.
• I also have a USB with new guitar solo/guitar outro to lay over the track. Peavey obliges. “Why? You don’t like to do the solos here in the studio?” Mikey asks. I mention it’s hard for me, in the booth, without headphones, to come up with a “perfect” take. I can definitely craft something better at home, on Garageband. They accept my changes, and agree that a shaker would be good for those “pictures” interludes. (Not my shaker, though: Therese will redo it.)
• Next is the gorgeous outro hole that needs to be filled: mountains of harmony. We start with mine, doing an up-and-down “all” after the final line “anything at aaaaall…” Then I add another 1 or 2 passes below it, descending. Jazz directs it all from the booth. Mikey then goes in and adds his vocal cords to it. It’s a start.
• After playback, they keep cueing up the demo, listening to the interweaving harmonies again and again. It’s kind of a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” type melody. They keep trying to deconstruct it. “There’s some chord there…” Mikey goes. They decide to add a higher “ahhh” (with “Mary” melody) that Therese is sent in to add. She does several passes. It shapes up even more. (I hope Therese is feeling well utilized tonight: she’s done drums, vocals, shaker, and later we do handclaps together.)
• It’s getting better. Then Mikey starts singing a really high, Beach Boys/Franki Valli/Flaming Lips type swoop over the outro. Therese does that one, too, then doubles it. Now we have 15 different vocal tracks.
• Around 12 midnight, Mikey starts hearing handclaps. We decide to add during the outro. To add extra punch, we have Mikey, Therese and me in front of 3 mikes. We have fun adding a kind of Bo Diddley beat with handclaps.
• On playback, Jazz isolates just the vocals and handclaps: it sounds amazing. “What if we add this a cappella with claps to the beginning, as an intro, before the drums come in?” Oh, yeah, I say. Let’s definitely do that. Another great Jazz notion.
• During final playback though, I start to loathe my lead vocal. There’s no double-tracking. I just sound barky. Mikey tentatively agrees and I do it again. “Just pretend you’re onstage, strumming a guitar, singing it to a crowd,” Jazz says. Unfortunately, that’s what got me shouting in the first place. A song I’ve been singing with Therese for over a year, I have a hard time nailing in front of a mic. It still sounds shouty. But as we head into the outro, I start improvising a bit. Jazz likes this. (I notice you have to kind of present Jazz with things out of nowhere, like pull it out of your kit bag. It sparks him to do something different.) “Do some ad libs over the outro,” he says from the booth. I try some, experiment a little. Then he suggests, for the first 2 lines, repeat “they don’t mean anything at all” a little bit ahead of the beat. It’s brilliant; I wish I’d thought of it. So I do that a few times, then start ad libbing “don’t mean anything, don’t mean anything, they don’t mean anything, anything at all…” on several takes. Jazz says “Now I wish we ad libbed outro vocals on all the tracks…”
(Therese says later that Mikey was marveling at this kind of Bob Dylan thing I was doing. He didn’t mean I sounded raspy, though I did. He meant that ad libbing thing was hard for Filipinos to pull off; if a white guy does it, though, he can get away with it. Har-har.)
• Still hating my lead vocal, I stew about it later.
On the next session, we even try a redo of "Facebook" vocals. We did one that's more breathy, more “whispery,” according to Mikey. Double-track it. They convince me the original was more “lively” though, and I say sure, if you can add some reverb or ketchup or whatever. The final track is presented, with a cappella outro chorus stitched onto opening as an intro. It passes muster.
To wrap up this early morning session, though, we get to hear Jazz and Peavey’s first “final” mix of “Bigfoot”: They cleaned up the drums a bit. They even made my vocals sound semi-pro. Wish I could hear the opening sticks as I originally wanted, with gated-reverb. But it's fine as is.
After all that, it’s about 2 a.m. We spend a while talking about Spotify options and CD pressing, then we head out. Next meet is in the afternoon, to shape up “She Just Loves.” That should be a doozy.
“Such strange chords.”
• We move on. “She Just Loves” starts to take shape in the control booth, me setting up the Nord Electro 3 for electric piano. My part is done fairly quickly: two passes at the song, just me, a sustain pedal and Therese’s drums and a rough guide vocal. The second take works okay, and we move on. (I always imagined someone — some brave soldier — would jump in and say, “No, no, let me handle the keyboards…” It doesn’t happen. I’m at least comfortable from playing it so many times with Therese — and also, it becomes clear the chords are puzzling Mikey and Jazz. Jazz wanders around as it plays back: “What are you doing here, for the chorus?” I show him, practically all black keys. He shakes his head and wanders off.) Later he stops while fiddling with a bass line. Mikey notes my use of “broken chords” on the piano (basically playing notes of a chord separately in various sequences, rather than together as a chord.). “Such strange chords,” Jazz mutters. He laughs.
• None of us has discussed beforehand what will fill the rest of the track; we basically listen to the demo, Therese’s brushes at 70 BPM with a guide piano and vocal several times, until Mikey, or Jazz, call for a bass. One is plugged in, and they both listen again a number of times. Mikey takes a crack first, and his riff is melodic and thoughtful; they keep conferring about the song chords in Tagalog, one nodding to the other as they work it out. Mikey eventually passes the bass to Jazz, who listens to the brush intro and lays down a kind of stalking, deep-funk line that sounds right. (Full Resting Bass Face in effect.) (Later, I can hear that the bassline sort of takes off from the strings in the demo. That’s another thing they’re very good at: transferring a musical idea or riff into any key, any instrument. It’s all material to be borrowed and repurposed or moved about.) Suddenly, She Just Loves becomes a deep, almost slow-jam hip-hop. Jazz takes that stalking bass line to the bridge, and there he stops: he surrenders the bass to Mikey, who pieces out the bridge accompaniment.
This is a fun part of recording, for me: I get to see Jazz and Mikey work together, figuring out what fits. I can almost see them thinking. (That these guys care enough about the song to keep searching for what works is why I wanted them as producers in the first place.)
• As Mikey and Jazz work out, piece by piece, the bass line for the song — which quickly adds spine and, crucially, a late-night vibe to the proceedings — I listen to the Nord on headphones: I hear piano droplets, like early Todd Rundgren, and some synth strings. They should come in on the snare hits. I don’t show them till later, though.
• Having laid down the bass, they want to proceed to vocals. And why not? But first I say: I hear piano, heavy with reverb and decay dropping in between the snares. I play a few chords. It’s getting very dubby in Big Baby, but I assure them it will work. It does. I then suggest strings, basically running through the playback so far with various sounds — Mellotron, horns, synths, strings — until Jazz chooses one. Strings are deemed acceptable, and Jazz has me lay down several parts which Peavey dutifully records. The strings are subtle, under the song, lifting it.
I keep thinking Jazz will take my place at keys, or Therese. No chance. So I do my thing. I think the parts work; I find piano droplets oddly compelling in a late-night, spacey kind of way, and strings (with sustain pedal) lend an underlying portentous accent that I like. Played all the keyboards myself on this.
• Listen to the track a few more times, then I head into the booth for vocals. This is harder than expected. The first pass, monitored by Mikey, is strong, then we double track it. But Jazz wasn’t there. When he comes in afterward to hear it with “fresh ears,” he approves — except for the title line: “She just loves.” For whatever reason, I’ve strayed from the original demo to something that sounds like: “She just loaa-uh-uh, oh-oh-oh-ohves….” Jazz does not approve. “Is that how you sang it in the demo?” I confess it is not. I did the demo over 20 years ago, and never did like the way I sang “She Just Loves.” Rehearsing it with Therese, I kind of slid all over the notes, ad libbing like crazy. “Try to sing it like the demo,” Jazz insists. I head back into the booth.
What follows is about 20 minutes of me being punished by singing “She Just Loves” over and over and again, until I get it semi-right. “Lose the aitches,” Jazz counsels over the headphones. He wants less breath, more hum between the syllables. I try to summon my head tones. I do it over and over. My breath runs out constantly. Finally, though, we arrive at a triple-tracked vocal. He says they can piece it together, and I’m satisfied.
As I walk out I shake my head at Jazz. “That’s hard.” Jazz just shrugs. “It’s hard to make something beautiful.”
• While in the control booth, though, I mention maybe Peavey can “add some ADT” if he can’t get two decent doubled tracks. This was the Beatles’ favored method of avoiding double-tracking, especially John. Invented by Ken Townsend at Abbey Road Studios, it doubles the first vocal but runs the second signal through a random oscillator or flanger to get a varied vocal quality. John Lennon loved it, because he was so lazy, he hated doing a second vocal; the others soon insisted on using it on every track from “Revolver” onward. Do you actually have ADT? I ask Peavey. Yeah, it’s an Apple Studios plug-in. He’s never used it, but he dials it up now, and I’m floored. I can’t believe I’m getting my vocals ADT-ed! What results is definitely “of its time” — it’s a rather psychedelic effect, a little hazy but oddly enveloping and soothing.
(Beatles History 101: Abbey Road Engineer Townsend took the idea of “doubling” the recorded vocal and instead of overlaying it over the first — which would just sound the same —or shifting it slightly — which would result in reverb — he patches the second feed through flanger. Your first signal is fed through the flanging device, doing mini-oscillations while the patched feed does the same next to it. You can change the parameters of the “random” oscillations. Autotune sounds like shit next to it.)
Basically, if you want to sound like the Beatles, ADT is the way to go. It has tons of modifications in the oscillation rate, etc. But what we hear over the speakers already sounds pretty cool: a very heavily overdubbed (at least three passes) reading of the line “She Just Loves” that has that “Rubber Soul” feel. “Sounds a little like Girl,” I mention to Mikey. He nods. Have they ever tried using this ADT? “I’ve never heard of it till now,” Jazz says.
I’m pleased. The track now has a real late-night, fuzzy, herby, blissed-out vibe. Someone — Jazz or Therese — adds extra shaker over the choruses, and Mikey also doubles the “She just loves…” line a little higher, and we’re good. I don’t know how the final mix will sound, but this feels just about right at 2:30 a.m. as we wrap up our final recording session at Big Baby.
For the next several weeks Peavey, Mikey and Jazz work on final mixes. The final mixes, as they roll out one by one, are astonishing to our ears. We are in love with this EP.
What followed was several nights of final mixing (which actually concluded in November-December, 2018). The thing I soon came to realize is how each separate part of this process is different and equally important: the writing, the playing, the production ideas, the mixing. Peavey’s mixing — under the guidance of Jazz and Mikey, usually taking turns — adds depths to the sound not even hinted at during playback. “I keep finding more layers to work with,” Peavey says, while mixing the tracks “Beautiful Mistake.” I definitely let him do his thing. The mixes come about through a process of “yay” or “nay” — sometimes we like, sometimes we have some qualms. Therese and I give them notes, and there’s some things that I like from earlier takes (and notably, I could never quite inspire Jazz enough to come up with something interesting for those sticks in “Bigfoot.” I wanted a gated-drum sound, but he vetoed that idea, said it would take distract from the rest of the song). But the final takes, when they roll out one by one, are astonishing to our ears.
Very briefly, a note on the roles we played in the studio:
• Therese and I are the core instruments, based on my song demos. Sometimes, the drums originate from the demo; other times we craft them in tandem. Sometimes I have bass lines on demos, or keys; other times not.
• In the studio, we lay down the core song. I do song on guitar (or keys) to a click track for length and sections; she lays down drums to the click and guide tracks.
• PRODUCERS: I’ve come to see Jazz and Mikey as selecting the sounds for each song, and each part of each song. They not only yay or nay certain guitar sounds or rhythm patterns, they hear something I never would; they use the toys/tools at their disposal in the studio to push the tracks somewhere I might not. There are shakers and clicky hand-rhythm things and odd keyboards, and guitar boxes that emit noisy loop patterns just by touching a string, and these might work for one band and not another.
For us, we focused on bass and piano embellishments; Jazz was into mapping out the chords (say in “Bigfoot”) on piano and making it more “jazzy.” Mikey has a fierce bass attack and took up those duties on most songs. I imagine they listened to the demos once or twice (to select which songs to do) and then again, maybe right before the sessions began. They might have concrete ideas before we record, or spontaneously add in the studio.
The vocal embellishments built on the demos and added perfect grace notes. I might have suggested more vocals on “All the Songs,” but they then took my descending chord pattern and built a great backing vocal chorus that took it to pop nirvana. The outro (and a cappella intro) to “Facebook” is pure Mikey, but it’s built on the original vocal blend I did on the demo. These guys always make things sound sweeter.
(I also brought in my own ideas, literally, on WAV files: things like the synth line over the chorus in “Bigfoot,” and my own outro guitar solos played at home; they maybe frown on that, because Peavey likes to control the recording as much as possible. I was inspired to add plinky echo piano notes on “She Just Loves” just by being there in the studio, hearing the track shape up; I felt a Todd Rundgren vibe.)
• ENGINEERING: If Jazz and Mikey select the sounds, Peavey makes each one sound as good as possible in a final mix. I can’t overstate the importance of the mixing he did, together either with Jazz or Mikey. Engineering is not just “capturing” the best signals; it’s understanding the ratios and proportions, and how to mic drums and acoustic guitars. A clean signal — even if you record with pedal effects — is crucial for the Engineer so they can deconstruct and rebuild each sound at the deck.
BIGFOOT (AIN’T I FINE ENOUGH)
Scott – Acoustic and electric guitar, Zoom G5 pedal, vocals, synth
Therese – Drums, sticks, wooden chair, backing vocals
Mikey – Bass, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Jazz – Piano, backing vocals
Scott – Various guitars, vocals
Therese – Drums, shaker, backing vocals
Mikey – Bass, backing vocals
Jazz – Backing vocals
ALL THE SONGS (AND YOU STILL IN THEM)
Scott – Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals
Therese – Drums, keyboard horn section, backing vocals
Mikey – Piano, acoustic and electric guitar, water piano, backing vocals
Jazz – Bass, ballpark organ, tambourine, backing vocals
Scott – 12-string acoustic, electric guitars, vocals, backing vocals, handclaps
Therese – Drums, snare accents, shaker, backing vocals, handclaps
Mikey – Picked bass, guitar, backing vocals, handclaps
Jazz – Backing vocals
SHE JUST LOVES
Scott – Nord Electro 3: electric piano, strings, piano droplets, ADT vocals
Therese – Brushes, drums, shaker
Mikey – Middle 8 Bass, backup vocals
Jazz – Bass face
MOSCOW – I guess you had to be there. The eight of us, bouncing along the road in a van with shocks that hadn’t been changed since the end of the Cold War. My wife and I, my mother-in-law and aunt, my brother-in-law, his wife and my sister-in-law – all heading for the city limits of Moscow like the Beverly Hillbillies, looking for culture and food and maybe something a little more mysterious. Our Russian guide, Aleksandr, reminded more than one passenger of George Costanza – the balding, diminutive, bespectacled crank from TV’s Seinfeld. He even lived with his parents. But he was a sharp one with the facts, and he laid out fascinating details about the surrounding landscape on the long road between St. Petersburg and Moscow. You have to imagine a thick, slow-as-molasses voice, one part Boris Badanov and another part Henry Kissinger. Irony was pretty hard to detect in his iron-clad monotone.
He got off the cell phone and turned to face our group. We sat up attentively from the back seats. "That was… the travel agency… They say were able to get tickets… to Moscow Circus."
My mother-in-law was aghast. Her expression fell apart. "Moscow… Circus?" She had booked tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet weeks in advance. Visions of dancing bears and acrobats now filled her head. "No, no, no… We asked to see the Bolshoi Ballet! Ballet!"
"They say tickets are for circus. You go to circus."
"No, no, no! We asked for Bolshoi…"
Aleksandr’s implacable voice continued like this for several more kilometers. It was impossible to clear up the matter on the road; we were still 250 kilometers from Moscow. It’s the kind of uncertainty that one comes to expect in Russia. Snafus do occur, though ultimately it all turns out all right in the end.
We were there for a week visiting the two great cities of Russia, St. Petersburg and Moscow. We already had an inkling that things were done a little differently in Russia. Bellhops, for instance. At the Brothers Karamazov Hotel, where we stayed in St. Petersburg, there were none to be found. You could not locate a person to grab your bags for blood nor money. (Contrast this with the Philippines, where bellhops are so conscientious that you expect them to move right into the room and stay with you.) Well, a lack of smiling, helpful bellhops: that’s not too big a cultural gap, we thought.
We had seen wonderful things in St. Petersburg. White nights had just begun, wherein the sun refuses to set for about three weeks (a consequence of being so close to the Arctic Circle). Thus people wander around after midnight, visiting cafés and bars, acting as if permanent daylight is a normal human condition. After a while it spooked us a little, like Al Pacino’s character in Insomnia. But the sun glistening off church windows at 1 a.m. – that was a sight to behold.
There are riches embedded in St. Petersburg: the opulence of Peter the Great and Catherine II preserved in public museums like the Hermitage. Or the 64 gilded fountains of Petrodvorets, a kind of Russian wonderland facing the Baltic Sea. There are eye-popping paintings, great and famous works picked up by Catherine during her travels through Europe. There is the fabled Amber Room at Catherine’s Summer Palace in Pushkin – a remarkable and unique display of craftsmanship that was ransacked by the Nazis and later fully restored.
There were wonders everywhere, highlights on the map of Russia’s thousand-year history.
Then there was the food. Our first meal introduced us to borscht – the thick beet soup that is a staple of Russians, or so our guide informed us. We eventually suspected that borscht was actually Russian for "tourist food." Yes, it was borscht here, borscht there, always making with the borscht.
And bread. Thick hunks of Russian bread that sometimes, but not always, came with butter. The bread was good for dunking into the borscht. But our aunt quickly found another use for the omnipresent bread: baon.
Only Filipinos know how to prepare under such conditions. Meals are approached with cunning and precision: what can be turned into a snack later on down the road? Our aunt Didi was the queen of baon: after every meal, she would lead cleanup detail, piling the leftover meat (usually veal or chicken patties) between slick slabs of Russian bread. Each meal was a "sandwich opportunity." The Bolsheviks may have starved during Russian winters, but we would never go hungry.
Upon entering downtown Moscow, we traveled along Gorky Street, passing a scary block-large building that once served as the home of the KGB; we passed the Bolshoi Ballet theater, heaving a collective sigh about our messed-up tickets; then we visited Red Square, that archetypal image of Russian history, the place where czars were proclaimed and revolutions begun. Fronted by St. Basil’s Church, Red Square is no longer so forbidding. It’s a cross between a public square (nowadays, people like Paul McCartney perform there) and a public burial ground. The walls surrounding the square actually contain the remains of famous Russian cosmonauts, scientists (such as the inventor of the atomic bomb) and, of course, the tomb of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Waiting to see Lenin’s Tomb is an all-day affair, so our group decided to head for more familiar territory: a nearby mall called simply GUM (short for Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin).
Near Red Square is the Kremlin, 25 hectares that can take days to explore. Full of amazing archives and Renaissance-inspired churches, the Kremlin (or "fortress") was conceived by Peter the Great as a kind of "Third Rome" that would encompass the political, cultural and spiritual center of Russia. We checked out the Fabergé egg collection recently brought back home by a Russian billionaire (who bought it from the estate of Malcolm S. Forbes). It was exquisite proof of how Russian life is a delicate balance between the ornate and the fine – a unique dialogue between Dionysian excess and refined elegance.
Our guide Aleksandr noted that Kremlin today is also a popular venue for pop concerts, such as "Tina Turner, Mariah Carey and The Sting." (Honestly, it was a joy to ask him questions; after several minutes of cogitation, he would respond with a deadpan one-liner delivered in a standup comic’s Russian accent.)
"Here on your right are technical devices for having fun." (Gesturing to an amusement park on the road to Moscow.)
"Joking with medical substances is very popular today among the youngsters." (Referring to casual drug use among Russian teens.)
"Inside, there are many places to fulfill your culinaric interest." (Pointing to a food court near Red Square.)
Speaking of food, we didn’t limit ourselves to McDonald’s and our daily borscht. We visited one excellent restaurant called Podvorye ("The Yard"), which is reputedly the favorite of Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin. A log cabin decked out with stuffed bears and other curios, it features an elaborate menu that is a fine entry to local tastes. Items such as "Stewed Rabbit with White Mushrooms," "Elk or Wild Pig Cutlet" and "Reindeer (Slightly Smoked and Stewed)" somehow all made it to our table, which we washed down with Kvass, an amber-colored drink made from bread that tastes a little like Cali Shandy.
After dessert that included blini, or pancakes rolled with caviar or salmon, we were invited to sing and play along with the house band, whose balalaikas rang out in the afternoon. We noticed a few leftovers on the table, though: big hunks of reindeer meat had somehow escaped our massive appetites. No problem, according to my brother-in-law Gary. "Give it to Aunt Didi. She’ll make baon."
No other Metro stations in the world can match Moscow’s. Designed by Stalin as "underground palaces for the people," each of 14 stations threading through the city is decorated in a particular motif: some have stained glass, others ornate chandeliers; still others feature enormous statues or tile mosaics. It’s a great way to kill a day, simply hopping from one station to the next. But we had somewhere else to go: the Bolshoi tickets had finally come through, and we were off to see Romeo and Juliet.
The new Bolshoi Theater is next door to the classic old structure, and features more "modern" performances by the company. Gossip was that the lead actress had slept her way to the top of the company: some company members griped she was too tall, others too fat to carry. To me, she looked like a more muscular Sandra Bullock, and the production was riveting. Set to Prokofiev’s classical score, the minimal sets and slashing light work let the company do its stuff in strange, wonderful configurations onstage. The buzz of the night was that President Putin and wife were in the guest box for the evening’s show; hearing this, our large party snuck down to the balcony after intermission to catch a glimpse of the youngish president who is well-liked in his homeland. This was a fitting end to our tour of Moscow: a glimpse of the president. And surely, it’s not unheard of at the Bolshoi to see a row of Filipinos with cameras poised, ready to snap away like maniacs as soon as the final curtain falls (sadly, none of the shots came out). Things like that happen in Russia all the time.
(August 8, 2004)
SAITAMA, Japan — I had good reason to master the Tokyo subway system during my recent visit there: I wanted to check out the John Lennon Museum in Saitama, which is about an hour north of downtown Tokyo. Why so far? And why place such a museum in Japan to begin with? Well, it turns out Saitama is Yoko Ono’s birthplace, she being the sole executrix of the Lennon estate, including all of his music, art and personal belongings — even the use of his name.
Yoko still gets a bum rap in many quarters, but I give her respect for turning over some 170 personal items, and not just the kind of trinkets that end up decorating a Hard Rock Café somewhere. Painstaking care was given to choosing the Lennon-alia and deploying the artifacts along two floors, covering nine spaces that sum up the iconic musician’s life.
Well, summation is a funny, subjective kind of thing. The museum tour begins with a seven-minute film that divides Lennon’s life into two phases: before and after Yoko. It’s implied that John was both hugely talented, and hugely unhappy… until he met Yoko. The Japanese avant-garde artist is perhaps still ahead of her time. I tried listening to “Two Virgins” the other day, and, what with her atonal yowling and John’s co-dependent acid ramblings, I figure it might take another 50 years or so before we ever completely “get” Yoko.
So, leaving the theater, I was expecting a rather Yoko-centric experience. But the truth is, Lennon’s personal items lift this museum well above many other tributes in terms of conveying what the ex-Beatle meant to so many people. It’s a chunk of history, in fact.
Where else in the world would you get to see John’s original yellow “Sgt. Pepper” costume — the very one he wore for the famous cover shot of the 1967 album? Or who else can claim to have such an extensive collection of his guitars — the battered Rickenbackers, the Epiphone Casino he played on the rooftop of Apple Studios during the Beatles’ last “live” appearance in 1969, and even the banjo given by his mother, Julia, on which she taught the young Lennon basic chords and songs?
This stuff is magic to Beatle fans. And the John Lennon Museum is the kind of place a fan can linger and dawdle over for hours. Unfortunately, I had to take an express, one-hour tour because I had a plane to catch back to Manila. As I approached the museum — inexplicably located at the base of the Saitama Super Sports Arena —I noticed there were no other visitors inside. It was a weekday morning, of course, and the Japanese were no doubt at work or school. But I also felt the location was a bit out of the way. Maybe downtown Tokyo would draw larger crowds, but of course the real estate is a bit pricey there, even for Yoko.
You set eyes upon a huge mural in the lobby— a cluster of hundreds of photos taking in Lennon’s life —before heading upstairs to the main gallery space. No photography is allowed, so you’re all but forced to buy a museum program as a souvenir. It’s worth it, though, if only for the detailed listing and color photos.
With Lennon’s birthday coming up this week, it seems only fitting to look back and consider what was so unique about the guy. Starting with his childhood — a merchant seaman dad who was never around, a mother who left him in the care of an auntie — Lennon had to tap into his precocious talent, perhaps to express himself, maybe just to be noticed. On display under glass are his first glue-together books, comics like The Daily Howl with cartoons and stories (a precursor — in tone and even layout — to Lennon’s later published book, In His Own Write) and a sports scrapbook called Spotlight on Sport, Speed and Illustration with quizzes, fake ads, even editorials. Like a lot of talented lads, Lennon sought an outlet through art. His mom taught him banjo, but Elvis Presley taught him to rock: the next room features a convincingly grotty mock-up of The Cavern, the Liverpool club where John and the early Beatles were “discovered” by Brian Epstein.
Beatlemania fills up the next room, with real eye-popping trinkets: original lyric books with Lennon’s scrawled words to If I Fell, In My Life and other classic songs; a Hohner blues harp used by John to record such songs as Love Me Do; the original “Mr. Kite” circus poster that inspired John’s psychedelic ditty on “Sgt. Pepper; the lotus-pattern jacket he wore during the worldwide TV broadcast of All You Need Is Love in 1967. Really, Yoko must have dug deep into her walk-in closet to come up with such benchmark items. Fans will have a field day spotting famous concert jackets (the one with 10 buttons worn during the Beatles’ Japanese tour in 1965), or the trademark round spectacles John wore in How I Won the War — the specs that launched a thousand hippie Lennon-likes. Set in one glassed case is an original tape recorder from Abbey Road (formerly EMI) Studios — a rickety relic that makes you do a double-take: They recorded “Revolver” on this?
We next enter the “John and Yoko” years, after the Beatles went up in smoke amid lawsuits and acrimony, and the art duo adopted New York as their new home. The so-called “Lost Weekend” is given a brief gloss, though the room has a decidedly political bent, with documents showing how Lennon was targeted for deportation by J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon. The sleeveless “NEW YORK CITY” T-shirt is there and, yup, the army jacket he wore in the Live in New York City film, too. It’s really kind of eerie, and perhaps akin to what Elvis fans feel when visiting Graceland, to come face to face with memorabilia that has been a part of our consciousness for decades.
The next room delves deeper into the Yoko influence, in case you missed it. A recreation of London’s Indica Gallery, it features a staircase you walk up toward the ceiling, where the word “Yes” is carefully written. Thus you get to recreate the moment when Lennon (as legend has it) first gazed upon Yoko’s conceptual art, and found it to be good (“It was positive!” Lennon would enthuse years later). A motion-sensitive wall installation flashes Yoko koans (“Listen to the sound of the earth turning,” “Make a way for the wind,” “Imagine 1,000 suns in the sky at the same time”) as you descend the stairs and enter a very large, white environment. You can’t help feeling, in a way, that this building is a womb —Yoko’s womb, in fact, giving birth to the Lennon legend. The walls are lined with wondrous trinkets — like Lennon’s personal copy of Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream that inspired the singers most fetal yelps on record, and a funny little Indian notebook that he kept at the Maharishi’s retreat, in which he wrote lyrics for “The White Album” and later solo work — but all in all, the room feels given over to Yoko. A larger-than-life chessboard occupies one area; all the pieces are white, with the words “PLAY IT BY TRUST” decorating each facing side.
Ascending an escalator, we enter a space that seems a reasonable facsimile of John and Yoko’s Dakota apartment in New York. A white Steinway piano takes center stage, while the walls contain numerous nooks and concave spaces filled with Lennon’s doo-dads and personal belongings, as though you’re perusing the top of his dresser: you find a few colorful neckties, a cigarette case filled with Gitanes, an ACLU card, an Elvis pin, Fender guitar picks, a Mickey Mouse watch with a red, white and blue cloth strap. It’s oddly personal, this random gathering of the things he carried and kept around. Also shown in the Dakota space are personal artworks — things like a single piano key carved and engraved by John to Yoko, and a custom-designed Yamaha acoustic guitar with a dragon design signed by Lennon. Personal photos of the couple taken with son Sean in Karuizawa, where they vacationed between 1977 and ’79, are displayed. Demos of songs — apparently recorded in the comfort of the Dakota and later to appear on the “Double Fantasy” album in 1980 — play on in the background.
In truth, I didn’t want to leave this space, though I knew I had a train and a plane to catch. I could have lingered in this gallery for another hour at least. For Lennon fans, it feels like a genuine tribute, not some ad hoc gathering of multimedia inputs.
The final space seems like another Yoko inspiration: a large, sunlight-filled room with a massive glass wall occupying the center. Clear plastic chairs are positioned around the wall, inviting you to sit and contemplate the dozens of Lennon phrases and lyrics etched across the glass. One caught my eye: “Don’t be hard on yourself/Give yourself a break/Life wasn’t meant to be run.” Lennon always had a tendency to write in slogans, but for some reason this phrase struck me, perhaps in the way Yoko’s “Yes” had affected John back in 1966. It seems that Lennon, at some point, did learn to live a Zen-like life, and actually did find love, or completeness, despite what the cynics say. A quote from Yoko near the exit completes the cycle: “As I said a long time ago, there is a wind that never dies. I didn’t know that was you.”
This would have been a fitting enough epitaph, but I had one further question to ask the two girls on duty in the near-empty museum on the way out: Why here? Why in Saitama? (At the time, I didn’t know Saitama was Yoko’s home turf.) The two girls shyly conferred, then, smiling politely, pulled out a single sheet of paper and pushed it my way. On it were written two Japanese sentences, translated a bit shakily into English: “This museum was approved by Yoko Ono. Yoko doesn’t care about the place that expresses John’s spirit correctly and honestly.”
Must get that question quite often, I thought, as I headed for the Saitama subway and sped off to catch my plane.
(Sept. 26, 2006)
HO CHI MINH CITY — "How’s the dong doing?”
I asked a resident of downtown Ho Chi Minh City. He was a shop vendor taking more than a casual interest in my backpack, camera and American face.
He nodded, grinned, as if to say: “Oh, great. I haven’t heard that one 600 times today already.”
We were off to a great start. Me, an American journalist visiting the place officially named after the Communist leader and unofficially called Saigon by everybody else; he, a vendor who was determined to peel away as many dong as possible from my sweaty money pouch. I ended up buying a small cobra in a rum bottle, pickled in some kind of amber fluid. The vendor called it “snake tea,” but I’m more of a coffee man, so I wrapped it carefully in newspaper as a souvenir.
Souvenirs are very big in a city that continues to sell the Vietnam War experience, increasingly to American vets who,somehow, can’t seem to leave the country behind. They come here seeking “closure,” or at least souvenirs. They come in increasing numbers, most often to visit places like the Cu Chi Tunnels on the rural outskirts of Ho Chi Minh.
But downtown, they mostly look for war relics — or more likely faux relics, such as the piles of Zippo lighters inscribed with personal G.I. messages. The really cheap fakes are obviously churned out in a factory; the more lovingly crafted fakes have been carefully aged and corroded — after being churned out in a factory. Really, now: how many actual American G.I. lighters could still be circulating in downtown Ho Chi Minh City to this day? Even with 58,000 US casualties in that war, there are only so many Zippo lighters to be left behind.
I’d heard about the Vietnam economy taking off, mostly due to tourism, which accounts for about 20 percent of the economy’s growth. Americans do not lead the tourist brigade in Vietnam; the Chinese and Japanese do, followed by Europeans. Americans can still elicit a lot of curiosity here, if not bitterness. They do bring dollars, after all. I was interviewed briefly by a Hanoi-based TV crew who asked my impressions of the country. I’d only seen downtown, but I said that, of course, I was interested in the country’s culture and its “history” with the United States; also, I wanted to see how the economy was doing. The TV people seemed happy with this response. Later, I talked with one of the journalists who spoke English very well (his girlfriend spoke none); I learned that language is pretty much the business of one’s private schooling; along with Vietnamese, some kids get to learn French, or Russian, or American, depending on where they attend. He was upbeat about the socialized economy, though he conceded that socialized housing was none too great (he and his girlfriend wanted a bigger apartment).
To me, Ho Chi Minh seemed like a lot of Asian cities now, hustling to get ahead, full of recently purchased motor scooters or motorcycles, though not as many flashy cars as, say, Hong Kong or Manila. The mix of ugly concrete structures and colonial architecture also reminded me of Manila, but some spots of downtown Saigon are quite picturesque, with open park spaces such as the one near City Hall (graced by a looming statue of Uncle Ho, of course). Nowadays, conical-hat-wearing lime vendors perambulate the streets against a backdrop of chi-chi shops like Louis Vuitton and Prada — though few small shops accept credit cards. Still, the streets are literally crawling with tourists. For a war-devastated country, it gets almost as many arrivals as the Philippines. Hard to fathom, I know.
The more I saw Ho Chi Minh’s smiling image plastered on road signs, banners, T-shirts and postcards, the more I was convinced there was something familiar about that face. By the third day, I figured out what it was: I was passing a KFC downtown (there are many) and got a glimpse of Colonel Sanders’ visage on the sign. And shoot me if he wasn’t a doppelganger of Uncle Ho.
Yes, Uncle Ho and Uncle Sam: more alike than they might imagine.
I also got a glimpse of the prototypical “ugly American” in our hotel lobby at the Sheraton Saigon. I was purchasing stamps from the concierge desk when a newspaper loudly slapped down next to me. It was held by a red-faced man, complaining loudly that the only paper the hotel offered was the Vietnam Times. “Don’t you have any American newspapers? USA Today? Or even the Herald-Tribune?” Uh-oh, I thought to myself. The two Vietnamese at the concierge desk blinked and, thinking he wanted breakfast, directed him to a lobby café. This further irritated the American. Granted, the Vietnam Times is a little thin on “news” and heavy on handpicked wire stories; but the hotel broadcasts CNN, for crying out loud. How obnoxious can you get? The guy stormed off, and I thought maybe Uncle Ho and Uncle Sam aren’t ready to be kissing cousins yet after all.
Of course, the big attraction of Ho Chi Minh is the Cu Chi Tunnels Memorial Park, which has become a de rigueur stop for tourists. Located about 70 kilometers outside the city at the crux of Route 1 and the Saigon River, the tunnels were built up to six meters below ground by National Liberation Front guerrillas starting in 1956. The tunnels once spidered out underground near both the US 1st Infantry Division military base and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a famous supply line for Chinese-made war supplies to the guerrillas.
Of course, from the perspective of today’s Vietnamese, it was not the “Vietnam War”; it was “the American War.” Our 30-something tour guide at the Cu Chi Park couldn’t disguise a bit of national pride in displaying the many methods by which local Vietnamese turned their rural crafts skills into reshaping US shrapnel into landmines, booby traps, rocket launchers and other makeshift weapons against the growing American presence. After the war, they retooled these skills into placing dead baby cobras inside bottles for sale to tourists. The 1960s-era video we watched championed local women farmers who were skilled “American killer heroes.” I must admit, I felt a little uncomfortable sitting in a dugout watching this video. We moved on to the tunnels next.
The preserved network of tunnels at this park runs only 180 meters (out of the 75 miles originally used during the war years), but most visitors don’t find it obligatory to crouch their way through the whole underground length; they usually bail at the second or third exit point along the way. The tunnels have been widened from their original 60-centimeter dimensions to accommodate heftier Westerners, and perhaps portlier Chinese. Your first impression, crouched in the tunnels — in which people cooked, crapped, pissed and lived for months on end to avoid detection — is that the Viet Cong must have suffered some serious leg cramps and muscle strain in the upper quads. After only 45 meters, my legs felt like I’d been power lifting for several hours.
The park has another interesting feature: a nearby weapons range where guests can pay $1.30 per bullet to fire off a few vintage M-16 and AK-47 rifles at some empty barrels. So foreign visitors trekking through the forest, occasionally bumping into military-clad tour guides and employees, have the added thrill of hearing live ammunition randomly going off close by while they investigate booby traps and trenches. It’s not unlike being inside an Oliver Stone movie.
I also thought about how strange it must be to come to work here every day, dressed in fake battle fatigues from a long-gone era — to, in effect, relive a war your parents might have fought in but you have no direct experience of, every single day. Is it kind of like being in a war, except you collect a paycheck and avoid getting killed? Or does history distance the experience for the employees, as it has for most tourist visitors?
I wasn’t sure. At the exit, I spotted a couple of “Viet Cong” taking a cigarette break at a picnic table. I smiled and hauled out my camera. One of them smiled and said “Bang!” before I shot the picture.
(Sept, 28, 2008)
AMSTERDAM — T his is the strategy: you enter the Van Gogh Museum at Level 1 and work your way chronologically, breezing past the early paintings like “The Potato Eaters” until you reach Paris and Arles, the bursting of color and technique like a sunflower, the style like a newfound Japanese bloom. You spend some time in Saint-Rémy and Auvers-Sur-Oise, because you want to soak it all in, but you know you only have an hour.
One hour to appreciate some 200 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, in the world’s largest collection, in Amsterdam.
Of course, you are hypnotized by “Wheatfield with Crows,” one of Van Gogh’s final paintings. It may not be the suicide note that some insist it is; but considering the artist took his own life the same month he painted it, it is not incorrect to read anguish into the clipped black marks, the telegraphic brush strokes. This is not “Sunflowers” after all.
You are only there an hour, and an hour seems like an eternity, somehow, trapped in Vincent’s world of cramped bedrooms and Gauguin’s chair, all contorted, somehow, to fit in a rectangular space that never quite seems comfortable containing its subject; but then an hour doesn’t seem like more than a moment, you don’t want to leave, you never want to leave Vincent, the poor bastard, his explosions of color and his disrupted, downward-spiraling field of vision that could only end in a nuthouse.
Van Gogh started painting late, at age 27, in 1880. In his remaining decade of life he completed over 800 paintings and over 1,000 drawings. Much of the remaining booty is contained in the upper levels of the Van Gogh Museum — if you get to see even a fraction of it in one single hour. The tour bus is leaving soon, they say.
Vincent tried to follow in the Dutch masters’ steps, “The Potato Eaters” owing something to Rembrandt’s lighting. But he also wanted to depict the rural farm life of Millet, without the sentimentality. Lacking models, he did dozens of self-portraits. It was the Impressionists, and Paris, which guided him toward color: his brush strokes and compositions acquired the layered rhythms of Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Yellow, for some reason, became a constant in Van Gogh’s palette. (Some doctors theorize it was the artist’s love of absinthe that caused so-called “yellow vision”; others point to lead-based paint or the presence of plant foxglove digitalis, which may have affected his vision.)
Vincent also studied Japanese prints, and one can see the effect on his compositions: slanting horizontal lines making up fields, rivers, bridges — the forced perspective of vertical Japanese paintings. It was a technique that remained with him in the countryside, in Arles and the artists’ village of Auvers-Sur Oise.
It’s clear Van Gogh suffered bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, or at least symptoms consistent with this condition: seesawing periods of manic lucidness, energy and passion, swept through by the scythe of isolating depression, self-doubt, anguish.
At Saint-Rémy, where Vincent checked himself into a mental health clinic in April 1889, he must have experienced that seesaw. But it also brought out remarkable epiphanies, like a cherry blossom he painted for his art dealer brother Theo on the birth of his son: its colors are uncharacteristically light, almost pastel-like, almost Japanese in their gentleness. Set this lightness aside the brooding corridors, the dark, overhanging cypress and olive trees of Saint-Rémy, the beauty and danger that seemed to threaten Vincent every time he attacked the canvas.
You know his rare high periods at this point — his transfiguration of Millet portraits and Japanese prints into something new, a language all his own — were only half of the seesaw; such highs could only be accompanied by roller-coaster lows, and today, Vincent would probably be prescribed Tegritol and Lorazepam to tweak the edges of his manic-depressive cycles, and he would probably end up displaying, with a calm, ironic smirk, sharks pickled in formaldehyde inside glass tanks.
And so Vincent was sent on one final bender around July 1890, this time because his brother Theo could no longer afford to support him, was losing hope at all the unsold paintings, and was thinking of finding a more stable career. At this time, Vincent was receiving care from Dr. Paul Gachet, an eccentric and amateur painter himself who taught his patient some etching techniques. There is, up until the very end, the naïve enthusiasm of the auto-didactic in Van Gogh’s work. Who knows where his technique would have led him, if he hadn’t shot himself in the chest at age 37?
“Wheatfield with Crows” is not the final painting on display at Level 1 of the Van Gogh Museum, but it should be. It says it all, and perhaps it captures what Vincent felt and could control by that point: how much he was trapped by his own vision, his own language.
The hash marks making up the crow wings and the swaying wheat stalks and the threatening sky are blunt, urgent, almost desperate. Telegraphic. Individually, the strokes can seem like cries for help. But it’s too tempting to read into this. Added up into a canvas, they are a culmination of his style, an acknowledgement of its limitation and heartbreaking expressiveness. He could not be more translucent.
Vincent died in bed after two days from his gunshot wound. Theo died some months later, and they were buried side by side in the cemetery at Auvers-Sur Oise. You stare at “Wheatfield” some more, even as the tour bus is filling up, because it wants to say something to you: it’s not there in the visual symbols — the scattered crows, the roads leading nowhere in the field — but somewhere behind it. It’s something broken, yet still transmitting to us, somehow.
* * *
Down another road in downtown Amsterdam, Prins Hendrikkade, you find yourself seeking another signpost. You drift past the canals and the shimmering lights reflected off the black waters of the Oosterdok, until you find yourself at the end: the end is where the Prins Hendrik Hotel stands, a three-star establishment that, for now, has only two neon stars lit up. Not exactly a dive, it is a small three-story building near the Amstel, and it is the place where jazz trumpeter Chet Baker lived until he fell out of his hotel room window around 3 a.m., Friday the 13th of May, 1988. Baker was not exactly at the height of his career: an unreformed heroin addict, he played and sang with dentures to appreciative Europeans into his late 50s, though he looked about 72. Baker led a life of bad choices and inclinations — he spent a year in an Italian prison after a drug bust, and was banned from most US cities because of his habit — but his music was always his music. A plaque honoring Chet stands in the square directly in front of the hotel. It’s a dark square, filled only with the echoes of cobblestones and canal walls late at night, and you’re not sure what led you down this particular road, a road that did come to an end, unlike the one in Vincent’s painting, but you’re willing — even glad — to take in the view nonetheless.
(December 30, 2007)
ASTI, Italy — In the foyer of Marc Lanteri’s Michelin-star Ristorante al Castello, up in the hills of Asti, Italy, there hangs what looks like a classical oil painting: a red castle in the distance, a man and his dog kneeling in the foreground. On closer inspection, it’s a photo of the chef, Marc Lanteri, holding a truffle up to the nose of his canine, a Lagotto Romagnolo (local hunting dog) skilled in sniffing out the prized fungus. (It’s debatable whether truffles are technically “mushrooms”; they are, in fact, fungi descended from aboveground mushrooms.)
This is truffle-hunting territory, and passing though the hills on a bus earlier that day, Annika, a seasoned Norwegian blogger, points to a man leading a dog through open fields: “Looking for truffles,” she says. Hunting season ended a month before, but you still see, driving through the Asti countryside, men leading dogs across the terrain, likely looking for leftover truffles hiding near the roots of poplar, linden and oak trees.
Our guide Martina says she organizes truffle hunts in nearby Canneli, and it’s become not only competitive, but dangerous as well — for the dogs. Competing truffle hunters are known to poison each other’s canines — all for the love of white wild fungus. Martina says there are stricter guidelines for hunters now — licenses and such — after several such incidents.
People think of pigs as the best truffle hunters. But Italians use dogs instead. Why? Italy began banning the use of hogs in 1985 because the porkers tend to eat the truffles before hunters can get at them; their rough trotters can also damage the mycelium in the soil, preventing further truffle growth (dogs are better trained, though it takes up to four years to train them).
Truffle hunting is big business here in Piedmont, a region of northwest Italy. In nearby Alba, 30 kms away, they’ve just wrapped up white truffle season in October. (Alba is also famous for its Ferrero coconut-covered chocolates.)
Winemaking is an even bigger business in Piedmont, producing half a billion bottles yearly, but the wild truffle is kind of the icing on the cake; it’s another way this region is blessed. No wonder UNESCO lists the hills of Alba and Asti as Human Heritage Sites. In nearby Canelli and Alba, there are truffle festivals and contests (they’re judged on size, quality, pungency, and how cleanly they’ve been uncovered by the dogs).
Truffles are abundant here, but expensive. Going for about 20 euros per gram (about P2,000), many of our group were tempted to tap a local truffle supplier and smuggle a few precious clumps home.
For me, it was enough to enter the restaurants and shops and enjoy the permeating smell: inside Lanteri’s restaurant, you walk into the central dining room and you’re almost knocked back on your heels by the scent of white truffles: if there’s such a thing as Truffle Heaven — the one Lanteri’s Lagotto no doubt dreams about — this must be what it smells like.
And so generously served. During truffle season, those white clumps are grated over your handmade taglierini or risotto as freely as parmesan. It adds an extra layer of sublime richness to this already blessed territory.
To fully appreciate Asti and its great wines, you must dig deeper — into its food. So that’s what we did: invited by Consorzio D’Asti D.O.C.G. and International Exhibition Management to the sparkling wine towns of Asti, journalists from around the world were treated to three days of mouth-watering wine-pairing events at Michelin-star restaurants. (#ILoveMyJob)
We also did our own share of cooking. Touching down at the International Culinary Institute for Foreigners (ICIF) in Asti, we spent a day sautéing porcini in Moscato d’Asti sparkling wine, poaching eggs and then frying them, and whipping up a risotto with a local Barbera red.
There’s something both nerve-wracking and satisfying about being instructed by an Italian chef whose rapid-fire words are being translated into English as we hustle to poach eggs in boiling water, fry up those mushrooms in delicious wine, and struggle to make our risotto look as perfect as our maestro’s. Elsewhere, in other kitchens, our journalist comrades tried their hand at crafting desserts (Moscato-infused cream for the sponge cake) and pasta (hand-pulled taglierini made with 20 eggs). It’s a bit of hands-on experience that really makes a trip to Italy, and Asti, memorable.
(Dec. 30, 2017)
BERLIN — The subject of national surgery has always interested me. Places like Korea, which can be arbitrarily divided up by leaders and surveyors into two neat portions. The American South, which was sliced into lucrative pieces of slave pie in antebellum times before the Civil War threatened a permanent carving.
Then there is Germany, and the garish line drawn through its capital, Berlin, in 1961: the infamous Wall. Instantly, people were no longer Germans, they were East Germans and West Germans. I remember doing a map project on these two countries for history class back in fifth grade; it was ridiculously easy to gather data on West Germany, because my atlas had plenty of it: gross national product, exports, population, demographics. Not so with East Germany; so little data of interest existed that my charts looked lopsided.
Walk through downtown Berlin today, and you'll be reminded of its historical surgery because the scar still remains: running through the center of town, markers with arrows pointing east and west, like a Valentine heart shot through by Cupid's errant shaft. But Berlin is modern, well to do, hip and arty; the Berlin Wall is just something they’ve absorbed into their history lessons. Something they don't forget, but never dwell on too much.
I was attending a press conference there, and the German representative of a car company gamely pointed out that even the room we were sitting in had been divided right down the middle, some 50 years back. He then said something so curious that I had to ask other Germans about it later: he said, in way of introduction to his comments, "I'm not proud to be German, but..." And then he allowed that he was proud of his company's engineering record, etc.
What was the deal with German pride? Were they still feeling constrained, by a previous half century of errant behavior, from expressing self-satisfaction? "I hate it when Germans do that," one of our German guides muttered under her breath afterward. "Just make your remarks. Don't apologize." Apologizing seems to be wired into some Germans' engineering to this day. But it struck me somehow as false modesty, like saying: "Look, we are great, we know it, our economy's doing much better than the rest of the EU, we no longer have to crow about it. So here's a few crumbs of humble pie for you." This was all subtext, of course. But in Berlin, you have to look closely to see the hidden lines.
I had a few markers in mind myself, one of which was the famous Hansa recording studio, said to be on my tourist bus route. This is the place where Bowie, Iggy and Eno recorded classic albums like "Heroes" and "The Idiot" and "Achtung Baby." Unfortunately, I didn't get to visit Hansa, because I couldn't find the correct stop and my bus driver was more intent on the premarked tourist destinations and didn't have a clue what I was talking about. So I could only visualize the place where Bowie wrote such lines as "I can remember standing by the Wall..." Bowie and Eno were reportedly within eyeball distance of the East German patrol guards while recording stuff like Joe the Lion and Warszawa back in 1977.
I ended up, as most tourists do, at the Berlin Wall East Gallery, a kilometer of salvaged concrete and steel given new life by scores of graffiti artists after most of the wall was torn down in 1989. (If you’re wondering what happened to the rest of the Berlin Wall, pieces of it have been donated to a hundred or so countries around the world. That stuff they sell in tourist shops? Probably not bona fide Wall chunks.) The street side of the East Wall is a stunning journey, with its colorful and heartfelt messages of freedom; but few tourists venture along the back wall, with its more modest artistic contributions, or check out the riverside restaurants and bars that come alive after the tour buses stop running for the day.
I found myself earlier at Checkpoint Charlie, where facsimile guards let you pose near the remaining guard shack at the division between east and west; they'll take a picture and put a fake stamp on your visa for a few euros. More moving is a nearby museum devoted to the place where thousands of East Germans tried — and mostly failed — to cross over to the Western side. Initially dividing the city, the wall spread to 140 kilometers, effectively cleaving the country in two. Parts of it were as high as 12 feet, laced with barbed wire. Some 5,000 people managed to cross over from East Germany to the West; approximately 200 people died trying.
Our group had earlier passed by the remains of an old railway station downtown, the Anhalter Bahnhof. Someone in the group remarked that it was "pretty" before our guide informed us that it had been used as a central departure point for railroading Jews out of Berlin during the Holocaust. Not so pretty.
The Holocaust came up again as we wandered downtown, where a large array of granite monoliths were set vertically in a public space. At first resembling a graveyard, we quickly discovered it was Berlin's Holocaust Memorial (or its more explicit title, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), designed by Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005. It’s a vast 4.7-acre field of 2,711 concrete slabs set at unequal depths below street level at slightly different angles, inscribed with the names of victims. What looks like a monotonous field of concrete soon reveals itself in slight differences, the individual angles of each slab or stelae. You descend down an incline when entering this memorial and soon are overwhelmed by the monoliths. It’s unexpectedly moving, though not without its controversy: some complain that it only memorializes Jews, not the thousands of homosexuals who were murdered during the Holocaust (a smaller memorial to them exists at Tiergarten park across the street).
With such weighty history, you could easily forget that Berlin is lots of fun, very hip and young. Eastside, Kreuzberg is the boho area of the city, a system of concentric neighborhoods overflowing with bars, galleries and clubs. Art museums are everywhere, and each turn, stunning pre-war architecture commands your attention. My favorite respites are the beer gardens — just acres of outdoor tented tables where you can eat, drink and listen to bad Cat Stevens covers. Or there’s the old dancehall, Clärchens Ballhaus, near Hackershermarkt, which is popular for movie shoots and features gypsy musicians. Near the East Wall is the bridge over the Spree that Franka Potente ran across in Run Lola Run. Pulsing beneath it all is an arty vibe, a desire to awaken the urban senses to something new.
Of course, you will no doubt check out the Brandenberg Gate and Reichstag, and you will no doubt order a doener kabab (lamb sandwich) and currywurst before leaving the city. The beer is also fabulous in Berlin (try a malty, heady Berliner).
Still, there are things that disturb. I was in an open plaza one afternoon, watching some strapping German youths harass a homeless guy. I didn’t understand German, but the context of the exchange went something like this: “Why are you hanging out in this public place, old man, smelling bad and looking unsightly? Why are you not young and worthwhile to society, as we are?” They were surrounding him and clearly questioning his value to the planet. It was an ugly moment.
Yet Berlin is a well-functioning, multicultural place. It actually hums, it’s so well functioning. Yet, when you gaze between the lines, there are still traces of that old divide: between young and old, between man and machinery, between proud Germans and less-proud Germans. Some scars are hard to erase; some walls are not so easy to tear down.