Saturday, August 26, 2006

How and Why I Won a Philippines Free Press Lit Award

…Is a goddamn mystery.

Last Wednesday, my story, “Blind Spot,” landed on second place [which I’ve uploaded on the Skirmisher for the uninhibited reading pleasure of the morbidly curious] in this year’s Philippines Free Press Literary Awards held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Makati. I wasn’t there, but my sister was.

It’s one of those genuine surprises that only rarely come. It’s like those times you’re facing a horde of Eastern Europeans with a silver MAC-10 Elite ready and loaded in your hand, only to be instantly shotgunned to death by somebody who had sneaked up behind you [Black]. Or running across no-man’s land and storming a bunker, grenades ready in your teeth, and suddenly you kick the bunker door open and Lo! There’s the smoking muzzle of a machine gun with a sniggering Nazi behind it, who proceeds in blasting you to a thousand little yucky pieces [Call of Duty: Finest Hour] [I’ll try to come up with pleasant similies next time once I get to play pleasant games].

The surprise of winning felt more or less like those things, only in this real-world instance, it felt good. Really good.

I never took “Blind Spot” seriously. I realize maybe all writers who win something always say they didn’t take their winning works seriously, but I’m stepping out of the shadows to say I really didn’t take it seriously. But so what? Big deal. It won. It probably has something that I’m just too blind to see, which is bad for me: this means I can never be trusted when it came to judging literary worth. Which means I’m a chronic hitter and misser, mostly misser. Which means this is one gaping, bleeding tsamba.

The first surprise was when Paolo Manalo emailed me several months ago that “Blind Spot” was in the short list. I didn’t even know it was accepted and published. I had emailed it I think in February 2005 without even bothering to tighten it in places. When I received no reply from the Philippines Free Press (which usually is either the bad “Oh no, please, no” or the good “We’re publishing this something, something, something”), I just shrugged it off and moved on. Last week, Paolo emailed me again and this time, it was a shotgun blast to the face: he said something like, You won, dude.

Usually, I’d gush. What Paolo didn’t see was that I was laughing my head off in genuine disbelief.

I have two reasons why I’m so happy winning in the Free Press. One, it’s the shit when you’re a guy with nothing to do but write down some daydream that hit you while doing some non-amazing household chore. Oh, did I say “chore?” Replace that with “mission.” That’s better.

Second is, aside from being one of this country’s most respected, most desired, oldest annual literary competitions, it also pays pretty good prize money – 40 grand for “Blind Spot.” Forty thousand bucks for some daydream you wrote one boring afternoon is like shit hitting the fan and discovering yeah, you can eat that shit and even like it. Ask anybody around and they’ll tell you forty grand is forty grand is forty grand. And there’s the trophy, made of glass, which my sister says is so cool it’s almost “sacred.” Like you could kneel before it and pray ten Hail Marys and feel guilty about the profanity. What makes it cool is that it says something about me having made a “great contribution to Philippine literature.” Say something like that to Gina my Guinea Pig here, and she’ll bite your testicles to make you swallow back whatever nice things you say about me. That is, if Gina were human and allowed to have some scrap of an opinion. I’m saying this because I know my pet detests me so much; whenever she sees me, she suddenly stops chewing her food and glares at me. I also stop chewing my food and glare back at her; we’re like Newman and Seinfeld greeting each other in mutual disgust. But we both know I’m boss, so I tell her things just to rub that fact in like, “One day I’m gonna sacrifice you in the name of science,” or “You know, in Peru, they fry their guinea pigs alive.”

The feel-good is double because for many Filipino writers, or maybe this is me speaking for myself, writing fiction is like fishing – you do it in your spare time. You do it when you’re through with the bathroom, when you’re done with the girlfriend, after all the day’s crap and real work. You do it when that very rare moment actually arrives where there’s only you and a blinking cursor, a tumbler of iced tea/mug of coffee/beer and old Brazilian jazz. And that’s rare. Which even makes the feel-good triple.

After I was told I won in the Free Press, my head grew so enormous you could see it from outer space. I realized it got very large and swollen when I tried walking out the door moments after reading the wonderful emails from Sarge Lacuesta (Free Press incumbent literary editor) and Paolo Manalo (Free Press former literary editor); I couldn’t go out because the sides of my head wouldn’t fit through the door. When I managed to somehow slip through by using many jars of KY Jelly and a handy chainsaw, some girl at the fastfood was so shocked at the size of my goddamn head she ran out screaming.

The old lady in the line with me tipped her eyeglasses and looked me over. She asked, How’d your head get so swollen like that?

How big you think this is, I asked, because I had no idea how grotesque my head had become.

She said, I think that’s even bigger than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I shrugged, in that awkward, tottering way anybody with an enormous head could be able to shrug. I told her I’m a chauvinist male pig and that when my ego gets inflated, it’s literal. I told her I just won in the Free Press.

Free what?

I said never mind.

I later tried the time-honored cure of getting my ass kicked in Fight Night by the likes of Erik Morales and Muhammad Ali. I haven’t discovered the strategy with this game yet. So I always end up a bleeding pulp on the canvass, the world spinning all around me, Mr. Padilla the referee counting, “8…9…10… You’re out!”

I took a long, cold shower. I paid Gina my Guinea Pig a visit to annoy her by scratching her nipples. She hates it. Touch her nipples and she flies up in the air, squeaking and grumbling like an old lady.

I then checked the blog, and checked the progress of my other two “top-secret” web projects whose content will be “magically” supplied purely by algorithm, just like Techmeme.

Then I asked my sister “remotely” for pictures of the event.

She said she forgot to bring the necessary gadgets. She told me there was Up Dharma Down’s female vocalist, who’s very pretty in person, but who would believe her without at least some pictures that she could email me?

My sister’s the type who impulsively gets off the bus on Roxas Boulevard to take snapshots of dead fish and ugly birds on Baywalk. On ordinary days, she takes pictures of her friends straddling some lamp post in Luneta and pretending to be hookers. You send her to an important event at some swanky hotel, you tell her it’s some fucking big deal for me to vicariously see it, and she doesn’t even bring at least a camera phone. She should’ve at least sketched the whole thing on a napkin. She should have stolen some ashtray, or one of those gold-plated metal things you always see on tables of respectable places (my office drawer in my former job was half full of Eastwood City silverware from those years of doing PR work--slash--stealing shiny things on tables—slash--convincing my female officemates to do the same—slash--assembling pirate ship made of stolen silverware inside a bottle). But no, nothing.

So I asked her, Did Cristina Hidalgo bring with her that niece or daughter or whoever that was with her at Jorge Bocobo Museum some years ago, some girl who oozed with so much hotness she gave off her own sunstorms? A girl who looked so good she probably sometimes fainted whenever she saw herself in the mirror?

She said, Who’s Cristina Hidalgo?

I said never mind. Then I either went back to Gina to snap a rubberband on her nipple, or tried reading Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I just don’t remember which. My head was fast deflating back to normal size, and I felt dizzy and depressed and acutely caffeine-starved.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Philippines Should Go Web 2.0

If Iran’s president could blog, why not Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?

He’s boiling nukes in his backyard, Bush (who everybody knows is such a terrifying badass) lovingly thinks specifically about him as the American rancher so carefully reads Albert Camus’s tale about “killing an arab,” he’s unloved by Western governments for his exciting views on the Holocaust and Israel — Mahmood Ahmadinejad must be a terribly busy man.

Yet he can blog. Not only that, his blog is also using icons by the same designer as Styleboost, with some AJAX bling thrown in. Cool.

So I believe this is a fairly legitimate question: Why not the Philippines’ president go the web 2.0-ish way?

Eliminate the middle man. Chuck the press secretary. All the kids in the Philippines — yes, those “pesky activists” — will be able to read her innermost thoughts and undying hope just moments after accomplishing one non-achievement after another, and maybe eventually, there’s a morning when all these non-admirers begin seeing her way. The blindly blazing, sugar-crusted, over-self-edited, web 2.0-ish way.

If she’d blog about her diarrhea and alcoholism in lurid, juicy details, I’m subscribing to that feed.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Email Conundrum

I’m a guy with a short fuse. There are many things that could suddenly piss me off, and my reactions to these things have become sort of “legendary.” So when I began using email six years ago, I discovered to my disappointment that email plus my temper could be a bad mix.

Very bad, indeed.

There have been countless times when I’d check email in the morning, I’d see something that gets my goat, then I’d mindlessly fire off with whatever garbage that comes to mind. It’s so easy—you just make some mouse-clicks and there you go. The problem is, I’d usually end up regretting the stupid things I’d send.

Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall said in an interview several months ago that emails are the most dangerous form of communication because of its peculiar character: email “compels” the recipient to send an answer immediately, and with usually a huge number of emails waiting in our inbox, we usually end up saying things we wouldn’t say in person or on the phone.

“I remember when I worked for Lewis Leakey,” Jane said. “He was very impulsive. He’d get a letter in the mail, and he would open it, and it would be perhaps something from a scientist he thought was quite ridiculous. You could hear him muttering ‘Bosh! Rubbish!’ The poor bit of paper would be scored with his marks, and he’d turn to me and say ‘Get so and so on the phone!’ I got very wise to his moods, so I would pretend the number was engaged, or the man wasn’t there, and then an hour or two later, he was rational again.”

That kind of distance, that sort of emotional buffer, is banished in the form of communication email provides. Everything is instant. That’s the ugly thing. The first human reaction is usually the honest one. But the human brain has built-in prejudice. Compound that with the so-called Reptilian Complex, add some temper into the mix, and you get a fair picture of how ugly impulsive human reactions could be.

Unfortunately, the technology around us panders to such impulses. There is probably profit to be earned in keeping people from digesting things and allowing them to think first, before swiping that credit card or clicking that Send button to fire off some angry missive. If Joseph Dobbie didn’t use email to confess his love for Kate, for example, he wouldn’t have found himself in deep shit (on second thought, maybe he didn’t really mind).

In a way, email and all these new ways to “communicate” have even made it harder, more confusing to reach out to the Other. We’re all engaged in a daily balancing act of sending thought from one place to another. And while the “tight rope” seems to have gotten easier and faster, it has also become much more fragile that it can snap at any moment—leaving us tottering in an insecure place where we might just find ourselves destroying bridges in a zap, instead of building them.

There’s a Close-up TV ad that drove home the point of technology having made us more connected, but not necessarily closer. Although we usually enjoy it and we don’t mind, technology probably is smothering us more than we care to think.

But it’s also utterly foolish to pine for the good old “innocent” days. Personally, I’d still choose technology over throwing the proverbial sabot. But maybe, what’s required of us is to face these new, increasingly ubiquitous things with a sense of control and a greater presence of mind. Like avoiding checking your email every 10 minutes, or sticking to a schedule. Or remembering that not because “it’s there” that you can access it as often as your impulses demand.

These days, whenever I’m checking my mail, I make sure there’s something posted near my desk that reminds me to take things easy and never react as swift as lightning to “provocative” emails. Something like a Post-it note that says, “Back off” or “Take it easy,” or “Count 100 electric sheep” or “Stupid mails can get you fucked”—and I realize these small things can make a whole world of difference. These small reminders buy me enough time to think it over first. And they help me make sure I won’t be burning the things that are increasingly becoming more and more fragile.

Like the few bridges I haven’t destroyed yet.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reverse Superheroism

I think the happiest people on earth are the “bad” guys, the super villains. You see them on TV, in movies, in comic books. You know that they’re fine specimens of persistent optimism because they always laugh, even when they’re plotting against superheroes who they know, in the pit of their guts, they’ll never ever defeat.

I can’t think of any villain that doesn’t have that peculiar laugh. My head is full of memories of villains chortling on screen. There’s the Joker, the Riddler, Lex Luthor, Dr Evil, my old professor in advertising. I don’t have a long list with me, I don’t remember every name, but I recall faces and always that laughter. Always that unsinkable optimism.

Take Penguin. The guy would scheme an elaborate plan to blow up Gotham City, and when I say elaborate, I’m talking about Rube-Goldberg-machine elaborate. Of course, we all know he fucks up each of his attempts. But that’s okay; he has his birds, his monocle, money, liver. When the shit hits the fan, he just laughs and escapes and vows to return…again and again and again.

Something tells me a guy like Penguin should instead be emulated by kids as some sort of “idol.” He’s the champion of the fat and short, the patron saint of the ugly and miserable but happy, the de facto hero of people who never win but who never cave in. Penguin should be mentioned by authors of self-help books. Oprah should guest him. Bush and Blair should have photo-ops with him as some sort of reinforcing hope in hopeless situations like Iraq and Michael Jackson’s face. Somebody should whisper to Fidel Castro’s ear as he’s lying on his deathbed (assuming that he did come close to lying on a death bed, and that somebody actually wants him to remain alive), “Remember the Penguin.” Celine Dion and Charlotte Church should mention the Penguin in one of their saccharine songs.

Penguin and Joker and the Riddler—that’s some holy trinity, if you’d ask me—should be the poster boys of shrinks so that shrinks could talk about them with patients. “Look at them fabulous wankers,” the shrink would tell some manic-depressive during rare lulls in a session. “They always fuck up. Is Gotham City destroyed? No. But are they giving up? No, no, and no. They’re still at it in all these years. Shining examples of positive-thinking, never-say-die individuals. And here you are, all you think and talk about is your aches and pains, your Xanax, your Prozac, your ‘they don’t understand me’ bullshit.”

Maybe the shrink would never say “pain” to a patient’s face, but you get the picture.

The funny thing is, these villains are mortals: they go about their honest business of trying to destroy the world by the sheer power of their wit, cunning, and humor. I remember jumping up and down at home chanting “Lionel Luthor! Lionel Luthor!” after the guy survived for the umpteenth time in a Smallville episode, then realizing a piece of wisdom I’ll pass on to my great grandkids: Lionel Luthor is very die-able, yet he survives. Superman is invincible by default, and of course, he will always survive. Between the two of them, who do you think I’ll give my candy?

Which brings us to the subject of Lex Luthor, who is also awesome. Does anybody have any idea how tough it is to travel all the way to the Fortress of Solitude in Antarctica, in the middle of fucking nowhere, just to snoop in on Superman? If there’s anything we know, it’s that going to Antarctica when you’re bald and a weakling is a fucking superhuman feat.

Shoot a bullet through Luthor’s head and he’ll die; do that to Superman, and he’ll just flash a Colgate-y, American Dental Association smile. Which reminds me of a line in the film Angus. Angus’s grandfather tells him one night why Superman is the biggest coward in the world. So Angus asks, How is that so?

The grandpop says something like, It’s because Superman does not know fear; he’s immortal, indestructible, kryptonite notwithstanding. He has no capacity to be brave. Courage is the territory of guys who can feel physical pain, who can be hurt, who can and will in fact die; courage is doing something you know will kill you but you do it anyway for the sake of something you believe in. Not Superman. He’s forever out of the whole bravery business.

Grandpoppy words of wisdom you’ll always love to live by. But here’s my question:

Who’s the dumb motherfucker responsible for Superman’s outfit?

And why?

The best answer gets candy, too.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Julius Babao Demonstrates How to be a Real Jerk Without Anybody Noticing It

Cheryl Sarate, a 16-year-old girl from Davao, Philippines joined Lord and Lady of Utopia beauty pageant, but her fairytale-inspired costume caught fire from a candle on the catwalk. She burned as everybody in the hall stared in shock. Three days later, the girl died at the hospital.

And today, on early morning TV, I’d find Julius Babao asking the girl’s mother very “emphatic” questions.

Julius: Cheryl seemed a young girl with high ambition. What were her dreams before this accident happened?

Mother: [some standard lines like Cheryl wanted to finish college to go abroad, etc, etc.]

Julius: And now, what do you think will happen to those dreams?

Let’s all pause to ponder the wisdom behind these questions; this is the part where you have to scratch your head.

Time for some flash back.

[Flashback; music: “Maalaala mo kaya”]

July 16, 1990 earthquake: a reporter shoves a microphone to somebody pinned down by a huge rubble from a destroyed hotel in Baguio. The reporter asks awesome questions like, “What do you feel? Is it painful?”

The interviewee couldn’t even answer; there’s a huge boulder on his back and he’s gasping. It’s clear as daylight that he’s “fine and well and happy” in his situation. His face surely says, More Questions Please.

He’s dead many hours later, still trapped under the boulder. Oh, the reporter wove that into a touching narrative, too.

March 1996, Ozone disco fire: a smooth-skined reporter asks one of the burn victims, whose face looks like a horribly melted candle that sort of reminds you of Audrey, Jr. from the Little Shop of Horrors: one look at him and you know his life will never be the same again.

The reporter asks, “How do you feel now that you’ve been burned [implied: “and you look disgusting”] and your life will never be the same again?”

The interviewee tries to speak, but nobody could understand him. It’s tough to mouth out words when your lips have melted and you have no mouth to speak of (and to speak with). So the reporter interprets the burn-victim-with-no-lips language for the benefit of the audience eating dinner in their homes.

[end of sentimental flashback and music]

Julius asks the mother: Now that she’s gone, what do you think will happen to her dreams?

It’s a “very important” question; one that Julius had to ask. A question that instantly made me dance around the room, yapping: yeah, rub it in, baby, rub it in. Until it’s raw and there’s no blood left. Drive it home for her the fucking magnitude of her loss. Make her actually say it, you shitbag.

Julius Babao’s “innocent, malice-free” questions make me sorely miss the vocation I’ve chosen not to take. All those good old days of “journalism.” I say, Bravo! I say, continue doing all that shit in the name of “uncovering” truth and justice and inserting fingers in somebody else’s deepest wounds. I say, more of these in-your-face MTV-like interviews with the dying and grieving for the benefit of us millions of insulated, safely-distanced voyeurs. We absolutely love that. We crave for that kind of stimulation every now and then.

If there’s a day in the future I might choose to be a “journalist” again, just to see for myself how far I could go with my own stunts, there’s nothing more reassuring than the likes of Julius Babao to keep me inspired and full of faith and hope for humanity. And yeah, throw in some of the Tulfos, too.