Penman No. 31: The (Ink and) Paper Chase

Oxblood

Penman for Monday, January 28, 2013

ONE THING that fountain pen fanciers rather quickly realize is that their obsession (read: expenses) won’t end at buying another Parker, another Sheaffer, or another Pelikan. You can have bread without butter, or even without coffee on the side; but you can’t write without ink and paper, so that anyone who habitually buys and collects pens soon metamorphoses—even without meaning to—into an ink and paper hoarder as well.

Indeed, inks and papers have become collectibles on their own, and not necessarily together. I have friends who couldn’t care less about pens, but for whom the sheer texture and even the faint aroma of paper can trigger paroxysms of pleasure. These are the people who seek and haunt stationery and art-supply shops, pawing through exotic papers from Thailand, Japan, and Italy, paper that might not even end up being lettered on but pressed into some other service. (And while we’re on this subject, please, please never say “stationary” to refer to writing paper; it’s “stationery” with an E, referring to “stationers”—the people who, in medieval times, sold books in fixed places, as opposed to peddlers who went around with their wares.)

My wife Beng, a watercolor painter and professional art restorer, has one such mecca on 3rd Avenue in New York City, on the second floor of which, up a steep flight of stairs, can be found an astounding array of the world’s finest art papers. But when she visits, Beng’s not looking for paper to paint on; instead, she wants a delicate, silk-like paper made in Thailand that she can use to lay over and stabilize patches of paintings where the paint has begun to flake off.

Forty years ago, when I worked briefly as a printmaker (another of the many hats I’ve worn—and I still wear them now, the real ones!), I too rhapsodized over art paper—the thicker and creamier the better—and on good days or for special jobs, I’d splurge on Strathmore paper, whose texture somehow made any print I designed, however poorly, look rich.

Indeed, it seemed rich of me to get so picky about my papers when, just a few years earlier in my mid-teens, the only paper I knew and cared about was bond paper (the kopong bond we bought at the corner store for 5 centavos a sheet), ruled pad paper for school, and yellow legal pad paper. For special purposes, there was oslo paper and onion skin, and maybe when we got moony we bought some fancy stationery at the bookstore (mine had a picture of the Beatles on every sheet) to write the crush of the moment on (yes, all I’ve ever had in my meager arsenal all my life has been words, words, words).

I still look for good paper these days, but it’s no longer to woo the wenches with (better not, says Beng) nor to pen my next novel on, but simply to test my nibs and inks, like a driver might look for a pristine stretch of track on which to lay some nasty rubber.

And what’s to like and not like about paper? While many kinds of paper—especially the smooth ones—may all look the same from the top, on the microscopic level, they could vary a lot, in terms of the makeup of the fibers and how closely they’re packed together. That means that when the ink flows out of the pen’s nib and gets onto the paper, it will either hold together and more or less stay in one place, or spread out like mad through spaces in the fibers and saturate the paper in such a way that the ink will bleed through, or be visible from, the back side of the sheet.

This latter process is called “feathering” and “bleeding.” You’ll know that your paper feathers when the line you write quickly becomes thicker and fuzzier, sometimes to the point that the letters become hard to read; bleeding or bleed-through, on the other hand, is obvious when you turn the page over and can see the ink. Feathering, I think, is worse than bleed-through; at least you can write on just one side of the paper and still have something crisp and clear, but paper that feathers horribly will leave you with one big blur.

As a general rule, cheap paper—thin, with loose wood-pulp fibers—will feather and bleed. More expensive papers, such as those that use linen, will tend to be thicker and more compact, and therefore offer a more pleasant writing experience. A simple pad or notebook could cost many hundreds of pesos, especially if they sport leather covers and other accoutrements.

In our pen club, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, members are forever on the hunt for good but affordable writing paper, even as we may indulge ourselves in the occasional pad of proven performers like Clairefontaine and Rhodia, available in some local bookstores. One sad and surprising discovery that fountain-pen users make early enough is that the iconic Moleskine notebook—whose design I love and have offered whole essays to—isn’t fountain-pen-friendly at all, showing awful feathering and bleeding.

Thankfully, many alternatives to (and copies of) Moleskine now exist, some dearer and others cheaper. A recent experience of mine seems to prove a point. Feeling more expansive than usual on my birthday, I went to the bookstore and spotted a very handsome-looking, leather-bound Jadeco notebook with what appeared to be excellent paper; the tag price of nearly a thousand pesos made me gulp, but what the heck (as I often rationalize these days), at 59 I can excuse anything. I picked it up, paid for it out of my birthday budget, and soon confirmed my expectation that the paper would hold up well to runny fountain-pen ink. The following day, on another sortie to National Book Store, I saw a small spiral notebook (that’s all it says on the kraft-paper cover: “Notebook”) that cost all of P28; on a whim, I bought that, too, and discovered to my chagrin that it performed almost just as well as the Jadeco. I would later learn from friends that some good compromises can be found in the middle of these extremes; I found another one myself a week later, at Fully Booked, under the brand-name Schützen—a regular-sized spiral notebook for P285 that didn’t feather and bled just minimally.

This brings us to inks, which really deserve another column-piece on their own (which I’ll do some other time). Let’s just say for now that inks can even be more bewildering and exhilarating than paper, given the seemingly infinite range of colors and hues you can produce from a mixture of water and pigment. Some inks are also thicker and more saturated than others; some are permanent, and others washable. Some specialty inks, like De Atramentis, can even carry the scents of fruits, flowers, and wines.

I’m not a very adventurous person ink-wise, and for the longest time wrote only with black, blue-black and brown inks; green, bright blue, purple, and red (not to mention yellow and orange) were simply out of character for me. They still are, but I’ve since nudged my range a bit to include Diamine Oxblood (a robust maroon) and Rohrer & Klingner Sepia (a greenish gray reminiscent of old manuscripts) in my small stable. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect blue-black, alternating between the Parker, Pelikan, Montblanc, and Lamy versions. Most days, I just liberally mix things up, turning my desktop into Inkspot City. (Better than alchemy, drop in at Scribe Writing Essentials in Eastwood Mall for a plethora of inks such as J. Herbin, not to mention many fine pens.)

Do take note that the final appearance of your ink will depend not just on chemistry, but on the paper quality, and also on the pen and the nib you use—a wider nib like a stub will deliver a thicker line that shades beautifully as it moves along; that’s what sends pen pushers into seventh heaven.

And what do I write with these exquisite implements? Aside from the occasional signature, absolutely nothing meaningful. I’ve come to realize and to accept that this is how I relax and make myself feel good: by taking hold of a pen worth what someone else more practical might have paid for a fridge or a flat-screen TV, and doing nothing more with it than doodling for hours on premium paper. I liken it to driving around on a lazy weekend to nowhere in particular, just enjoying the scenery and the sweet hum of a perfectly tuned engine. Such are one’s pleasures on the doorstep of one’s dotage.

Penman No. 30: Music to Lose Weight by

Penman for Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

AS I’VE been reporting lately, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight since my doctor ordered me six months ago to take brisk walks and go on a sensible diet to fight the onset of Type-2 diabetes. I seem to have hit the wall at a weight loss of 45 pounds, but I guess I should be happy where I am, in the low 170s. With my blood sugar in the 100 range and my blood pressure steady at around 110/80, I’m a whole lot better off than where I was a year ago—and, I suspect, than many men my age.

But this isn’t about cholesterol, triglycerides, and all that; rather, it’s about another unexpected side benefit to all this huffing and puffing. Because I take 30-minute to one-hour walks around the UP Academic Oval several times a week, I’ve rediscovered all the music I’d stored away in my iTunes. I have about 2,000 songs all in all—apparently not much by the standards of today’s kids, some of whom I’ve seen to profess having 10,000 songs in their playlists (of which, I’m pretty sure, 9,900 will sound all the same to me).

As you can imagine, most of my music is made up of what seniors know as “standards”—vintage pieces from the likes of Doris Day and Bing Crosby that can put a 20-something to sleep in 30 seconds, the kind of music you’ll hear on FM radio at 2 pm. Of course I have the complete Beatles collection (and could probably sing 80 percent of it from memory), a boatload of Broadway, Sinatra from here to eternity, Michel Legrand in both English and French, opera like I knew Italian, enough bossa nova to make me wish I knew Portuguese, and instrumentals from the likes of Jackie Gleason (yes, he was also a bandleader). Henry “Pink Panther” Mancini, and Toots Thielemans, who can make a harmonica sound like a love letter with your address on the envelope.

I do have quite a few new songs—but “new” to me usually means something 20 or 30 years old. Instead of Linkin Park, I have Led Zeppelin; instead of the Eraserheads, I have Heber Bartolome and Banyuhay. OK, I have a couple of songs by Journey (what else but “Open Arms” and “Faithfully”) and one by INXS (“Afterglow”) but no Nirvana, no hip-hop, nothing to disturb my hard-won equanimity or my illusion that the world is anything but an ordered whole.

It’s that old-guy sense of order and purpose that drives my left foot in front of the right and the right in front of the left, for 2.2 kilometers around the oval until I reach the Oblation and then do it all over again. I have to believe that all of this exertion will actually mean or bring something good, and for that I need emphatically optimistic music.

Broadway, I find, best puts me in this mood. If anything—from Carousel to Les Miserables—Broadway’s been built on selling the power of love and the indomitability of the human spirit, so you could whistle a happy tune and never walk alone and look to the rainbow and be sure that the sun will come out tomorrow. I might start with something light like “Dites Moi” from South Pacific or “Question Me an Answer” from Lost Horizon, progress to something more dramatic like “We Kiss in A Shadow” from The King and I or “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot, and then push myself for another turn around the oval with something truly rousing like “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady or “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. I’m singing all of these in my head, but being deaf to the world with my noise-canceling earphones on (not the smartest idea on the open road), I’m sure—from the strange looks I get from people I pass by—that I’m making noises I’m not hearing.

Next to Broadway, my two favorite genres are Latin music and OPM. I don’t really speak anything more than schoolboy Spanish (thank God for the old Spanish Law, which of course all of us detested in our time), but whenever I listen to someone like Luis Miguel, I find myself feeling foolishly sorry that we kicked those Spaniards out. I have eight versions of “Sabor a Mi” in my iTunes, and savor both Andrea Bocelli’s and Ennio Morricone’s versions of “Amapola” (which Morricone used for the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America). Speaking of Morricone, how could anyone resist “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission, especially when it’s Yo Yo Ma doing the honors? And speaking of Yo Yo Ma, how much sweeter can a cello get than on “Doce de Coco” from his Brazilian album?

Ah, Brasil, where hearts were entertaining June, and we stood beneath an amber moon…. I’ve told my wife June (also known as Beng) that when I croak, the kind of music I’ll want at my wake will be that of Antonio Carlos Jobim, especially “Desafinado.” There’s something in the gentle insistence of the bossa nova that speaks to my own temperament. And here I have to bring up one of my favorite divas (aside from the inimitable Barbra and our own Sharon—yes, I’m an unabashed Sharonian)—the Japanese-Brazilian chanteuse Lisa Ono, whose “Pretty World” never fails to add some lift to my shoes.

For something more soulful I’d turn to Laura Fygi’s “Abrazame”—and it may be an odd way of looking at these ladies, but if Laura Fygi and Lisa Ono’s voices were like ink, Laura’s would shade to purple and Lisa’s to green. To top off my Latin section, no single album gets more airplay in the car or in my earphones than the soundtrack of Woman on Top, which has an upbeat vibe you can listen to all the way to Baguio. (I was playing it in the car once while driving around Pampanga, and everyone with me wanted a copy.)

And did I say OPM? Much as I may appreciate exotic melodies like “Dein ist mein ganzes herz” or “Les moulins de mon coeur,” they can’t get me going like Sharon’s “I-Swing Mo Ako” or “Bituing Walang Ningning.” When I’m rounding that long bend around the Sunken Garden and am tempted to linger under the acacias for a lick of sweet sorbetes, I strengthen my resolve by drawing on “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas”: “Kahit na ilang tinik ay kaya kong tapakan, kung iyan ang paraan upang landas mo’y masundan… Kahit ilang dagat ang dapat tawirin, higit pa riyan ang aking gagawin!

And that—plus a lot of kangkong and hasa-hasa in sour broth—was how I lost 45 pounds in six months.

Penman No. 29: Some Things Meant to Be

Penman for Monday, January 14, 2013?

MY LATE father Jose Sr.—Joe to his friends—would have turned 90 this coming Saturday. An incorrigible chain smoker, he died of an aneurysm in 1996, and there’s hardly been a day since when I haven’t thought about him. Whenever I travel, which is fairly often, I find myself talking to my dad to tell him, “Tatay, I wish you’d seen this, and this, and that.” He was a simple man whose feet never left his country nor, pretty much, his home; his joys were in the kitchen and in the garden, and his favorite pastime was doing crossword puzzles.

Indeed, in his own way, he was a man of words, a gifted writer who—like I would do, myself—ghost-wrote speeches for far more powerful but much less articulate men. As modest as our circumstances were, there were always books and magazines at home, and even before I could read or write, my father fired up my imagination by reading stories to me at bedtime. In brief, I would not have become a writer had it not been for him.

Nor, speaking of my quaint obsessions, a fountain pen collector. In his last days my father wrote with a cheap plastic Bic ballpen—the kind you can now buy by the box and forget or throw away after a few uses—but in his prime he had some Sheaffers and Parkers that he would load up with blue-black ink, whose ability to bloom into a dark-hearted rainbow on a wet napkin brought me endless fascination. Regretfully none of his fountain pens have survived—which is probably why, as with most enterprises driven by some deep longing, I keep amassing pens, as if they would somehow bring my father back.

Now, begging your indulgence, here’s where this memory detours into the story of a pen and of a box.

A few weeks ago, after months of eager questing, I acquired what collectors call a “grail” pen—an object of acute desire, usually for reasons of great beauty, scarcity, or some sentimental connection. In this case, it was purely a matter of esthetics and collectability: the Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial would simply be a big, black, overpriced pen to most sensible people, but to me it was the noblest of the modern Duofolds, a reincarnation of a classic 1920s line that established the Parker name for the rest of the century. Made specifically to commemorate the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England—which Beng and I visited around the time the pen was made in 1999—the pen was a special edition with a limited run, and had become rather hard to find.

When I found one on eBay at a price I could afford, I was ecstatic, filling my posts about the find with smileys and dancing bunnies. It was near-mint, the chevrons incised into its black cap and barrel deep and lustrous, its gold fittings rich and warm. Its regal nib was a joy to write with. I couldn’t have asked for more—or perhaps I could, as it came to me without its presentation box. Pens of this caliber always came in pretty wooden boxes in themselves worthy of collection, and indeed, in one discussion of the Greenwich in a forum I frequented, another collector had reported seeing “a small but fancy box with what appeared to be a European cityscape picture on the inside of the box cover.” I wasn’t sure why, but that description sounded oddly familiar to me then.

When the pen arrived from the US I put it to happy use, doodling away, writing loopy notes to no one. The Greenwich was truly an impressive pen and it sat haughtily in my pocket, but now and then I would be besieged by the collector’s constant fear of losing or dropping a valuable pen, and I would begin wishing that I had its box to put it to bed in, before I scored the exquisite chasing on the pen or, worse, let it slide out of my attention in one of my poker binges. But then of course, I didn’t have its box, and I couldn’t bear to stick it in anything beneath its stature.

And then, a few nights ago, something strange happened. As I was idly surfing away to more pleasant distractions (meaning, more pen-related Websites) in the middle of finishing the draft of another commissioned piece, I stumbled on a picture of the Greenwich in its original wooden box. And at that instant, the familiarity of the box and of its pictured scene overcame me, as I realized that, of course, I’d had that box somewhere in the house, somewhere in the very room I was in. Years ago, I had found the varnished receptacle in a thrift store in America, and had been taken by its plaintive beauty—plaintive because it was clearly a box for some majestic Parker pen (the Parker name was proudly emblazoned on it), but it was empty, and I had no idea then what model its proper occupant might have been.

I bought the box for a couple of dollars, and brought it home with me to the Philippines, where I decided that it would house the most precious pen in my collection—my dad’s battered Bic ballpen, the last thing he wrote with before he died. So I was certain I had it somewhere, and I began ransacking my den, pawing through shelves of empty pen and ink boxes (you can imagine what a collector’s nest looks like). Sure enough, there it lay behind a stack of ink bottles, the box that opened to a “European scene”—a cluster of neoclassical buildings foregrounded by a sailboat on the water. (I would later discover that it was a depiction of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, seen from the north bank of the Thames.)

It was the box that had been designed for—and only for—the rarefied Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, and by some stroke of what the poets called serendipity, I had found the box years before I found the pen. I took my father’s crystal Bic in my hand and smiled, thinking, “Tatay, what strings did you pull to make this happen?”

So I put the Parker where it was meant to rest, and now I had to find new and no less suitable quarters for the Bic. Fortunately, on the same shelf was an old Japanese box, gleaming in black lacquer, that I had found in another discount store on Avenida Rizal, and which would originally have carried chopsticks. I didn’t think Tatay would have minded the switch, being an excellent cook.

And finally, I resolved that, in honor of Jose Quinton Dalisay, Sr., the Greenwich pen would henceforth use nothing but blue-black ink, a choice its golden nib seems perfectly content with. My other pens can gorge on Diamine Oxblood and other fancier concoctions, but I had been soundly persuaded that some things are just meant to be. (And here’s to a happy 90th, Tatay!)

Penman No. 28: Traveling with Pens

Vacumatic

Penman for Monday, January 7, 2012?

IT’S THE day before New Year, and I’m on my way to Kuala Lumpur with Beng for the last jaunt of the old year and the first of the new one. In my shirt pocket is a 1999 Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, a big black pen I’ve had for just a few days and which I’m putting through its paces; in my bag is a leather two-cigar case that’s transporting not Cohibas but two more Parkers—another Duofold, an orange International from around 2008, and a Vacumatic Oversize that goes all the way back to 1938.

I don’t even know why I travel with fountain pens. Lord knows how many valuable ones I’ve lost on the bus or in some stranger’s car, where it’s probably moldering under the back seat alongside an ossified wad of gum. (Probably the most valuable pen I lost, I didn’t even see. Twenty years ago, my grad-school friend Joe mailed me a pen in a box along with a book—I grabbed the book and threw away the box. “How was the pen?” asked Joe when I thanked him for the book. “What pen?” I asked. “The silver-filigree vintage Waterman that I tucked away in a corner of the box. It was meant to be a surprise,” Joe said. This was a couple of days after the box had gone to the dumpster in Milwaukee.)

It’s not like I write novels on the road, or write anything substantial, period, with my fountain pens. I have a thick pad of gorgeously creamy Clairefontaine paper at home, and all I ever write on it is “This is a Parker Duofold from 1931” or “This is a Bexley with a broad nib that I stubbed” or “This Waterman 52 flexes oh so nicely” and pages and pages of figure 8s. If I ever become truly famous, I suppose that pad of doodles and scribbles will be worth something to someone, but they’ll be disappointed if they’re expecting to find the first line of a new novel or some deep dark secret in it.

I keep that pad on my desk for whenever I get a new pen—maybe two or three times a month—for its ritual initiation: I’d write “This is a Pelikan M600 in tortoise” and see how the nib performs. I like my nibs broad, wet, and stubby, and if they aren’t any of these three (I do keep a few fines and mediums unmodified), I work on them with very fine 2500-grit sandpaper, finishing off the job with an 85-peso nail buffer from a Korean cosmetics shop (it always raises eyebrows when I walk into one of these mall shops and get three nail buffers all at once).

It takes care and patience, but there’s a lot you can do to improve the flow of ink in new pens, whose nibs will sometimes be “hard” writers requiring just a bit of tweaking to perform optimally. Beyond the flow, modifying the nibs themselves requires special knowledge and more than a dash of daring; I can stub or flatten nibs and make them write more smoothly, but it takes the skills and workbench of someone like my friend JP Reinoso to turn them into crisp cursive italics. For even more difficult jobs like straightening bent tines or adding iridium or tipping material to old nibs, we go to the best of the world’s so-called “nibmeisters”—people like John Mottishaw, Greg Minuskin, Mike Masuyama, and the now-retired Richard Binder.

But where was I? Oh, traveling with fountain pens. As I was saying, it’s something no one really needs to do these days. In fact, I also bring along a ballpoint or a rollerball pen for the inevitable task of filling out immigration and customs forms, especially those that require duplicate copies. (It was the necessity of the carbon copy, back in the ‘40s, that would eventually spell the death of the age of soft-nibbed fountain pens and the start of the world’s love affair with the ballpen or the “biro” as it was first called, after its inventor Laszlo Biro.)

A vintage fountain pen in your pocket might even spell fashion disaster inflight. Today’s air cabins are properly pressurized, and I should say that I’ve yet to have a pen burp on me airside and cause an inky bloom on my shirtfront, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that not all pens or filling systems may be so well behaved. Conventional pen wisdom says that you fly with your pen either completely empty or completely filled.

Being a gambler, I travel with fully loaded pens. I might write a line or two with them on the road in my Moleskine notebook, but again it’s not the writing I carry them with me for—for that menial task, I have the trusty MacBook Air that I’m typing this piece on, in seat 7-D of our AirAsia flight. So what is it that I need to bring three pens for to an exotic destination like KL—where, ironically, I’m going to be picking up five more pens for friends from PenGallery (www.pengallery.com), one of Asia’s and the world’s best pen shops?

I suppose my pens are like the kids or pets I never had—and I know, I know, sometimes kids are better left at home, but you still want to know that they’re safe and that they’re where they’re supposed to be, and what better place can they be but right with you? I can’t possibly bring all of my dozens of pens along—I keep about nine or ten of them in the daily rotation—so I choose favorites for the week, and perhaps go for a mix of old and new, of ink colors (my staples being blue-black, which reminds me of my father’s writing, and oxblood, which lives up to its sanguinary promise), and of nib sizes (a fine or a medium for note-taking, a broad stub for signatures). A pen’s pleasures are both visual and tactile—the smooth curl of a line or a letter on the page, the feel of a precisely tuned instrument at your fingertips. Knowing that these pleasures are literally within reach, wherever I may be, gives comfort.

I like my modern Duofolds (a reprise of a classic design from the 1920s) because of their heft and balance, but I’ve taken the burgundy 1938 Vacumatic out of its 18-year storage and put it in my cup of daily writers after convincing myself that if I had a pen this precious but never used it, then I would have foregone one of life’s rarest privileges. (Yes, this is the very pen I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and which provoked the writing of the short story “Penmanship,” a desperate attempt to justify the impulse buy of the pen and to recover its cost.)

As you can see, I’m something of a Parker partisan, although I like and collect all kinds of pens, including the relatively inexpensive but ever-reliable TWSBI and Lamy. I have nothing against Montblancs—I have quite a few of them and treasure one of my 149s for its ability to write a sharp wet line even after weeks of being left unattended—but I remind my corporate and lawyer friends that there are other fine pens out there without a white star on the cap, such as Pelikans and Sheaffers, and they don’t all come with five-figure price tags. (Try Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood Mall and the pen counters at National Book Store for more options, or join our pen club at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fpn-p/ for more information and great company.)

Speaking of vintage pens, I found a couple of noteworthy ones just before Christmas in an antiques shop in Quezon City. I had taken Beng out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant and right beside it was Siglo, which we hadn’t visited in ages. There under glass were two pens that had been waiting all that time for me: a 1920s Waterman safety pen inscribed “Conchita”, and a 1947 Parker 51 once owned by a “Julian T. Navarro.” Some pen collectors don’t like these personalizations, but I’ve never minded them, taking them as provenance and proof that these once were more than objects for someone’s collection.

Vintage pens

Like I told another collector-friend, I see myself much less as an owner than a caretaker of things that will pass on and give delight to someone else, and hopefully revive some tender memory of me. I have no way of knowing who “Conchita” was, but thanks to the wonders of Google, I was able to locate the obituary of Julian T. Navarro, who was born in the Philippines in 1907 and who died in California in 2003. He had been a war veteran, and then a contractor, and would have been 40 when he got the Parker in 1947—a man just approaching his peak at the end of a devastating war. I can just imagine him writing with that Parker, its now heavily tarnished gold cap gleaming in his hand. What hope and optimism would have flowed out of that pen.

I suppose that’s why I bring these babies home, and carry them around with me wherever I go.

KRIP YUSON already wrote the literary tributes I would’ve offered for the late Emy Arcellana and Jerry Araos, so let me just add my fervent sympathies to the families of these dear departed friends. Their lives enriched and brightened ours, and they will be much missed. Beng had visited Jerry just a week or two before the end, and he had told her, “I want to go home.” And so he did.

Penman No. 27: One for the 5

Penman for Monday, Dec. 31, 2012

WITH ALL the literary reportage I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t found the time and opportunity to indulge in my favorite pastimes (aside from poker, which I really can’t promote too much in this family-friendly corner), so let me use these holidays as an excuse to talk about my preferred stocking-stuffers.

Yes, you guessed right—they have to do with gadgets both digital and analog, namely phones and pens. If these things don’t excite you even half as much as they do me, you can turn the page now—or you can forget who you are and forget who I am and just join me these next few minutes as I transform into a 58-year-old boy taking out his tractors for a spin on the living-room floor. I’ll save the pens for another time, and focus on that object of desire that my undergrad students swore they couldn’t live without (as their professor quietly agreed), the cellular phone.

The phone on my mind and in my hand is, of course, the iPhone 5, and I’m writing this piece partly to answer the question that many friends who know me as an Apple fanboy have been asking lately: “How’s the iPhone 5 and do I need to upgrade it to it now?”

Let’s answer the easy part of that question first, which is the second part, and the quick answer is “No.” To be brutally honest—something that won’t come easy to those terminally ill with gadget lust—nobody really needs to upgrade to anything now or almost anytime. Seriously. That phone or that laptop or that camera that served you so well this past year or even longer should be able to do the same thing for you for a few more years, with reasonable care.

What we might call “upgraditis” is a terrible affliction that makes old useful objects—once sparkling with charm and oozing with sex appeal—suddenly look dumpy and inutile, leaving you with little option but to dig into your meager savings or even go into credit-card debt for something newer and shinier. Solid-state hard drives? More gigabytes. Digital cameras? More megapixels. Batteries? More mAh (milliampere-hours to the uninitiated). Upgraditis also leads to a state of mind that equates “want” with “need,” and makes a P35,000 phone or P70,000 laptop look not only a reasonable but an irresistible buy.

So, knowing all these nuggets of wisdom so well and dispensing them so liberally, why did I upgrade my iPhone 4S, barely a year old, to the IP5? To be honest (I make that sound easy), because I’m 58—59 in a couple of weeks—and I don’t need an excuse to get anything new, with my profound awareness that I don’t have too many more sentient years ahead of me to enjoy all the wonderful gadgets that they’ll design in Cupertino and manufacture in Shenzen; I’d be lucky to be around when the iPhone 12 rolls out of the factory, so I’ll take the 5 right now, thank you.

That was actually easier said than done, given the traditional lag time between a product rollout in the US and its appearance on Philippine shelves. The IP5 was released in the US, with the usual fanfare, last September 21, and it didn’t have an official Philippine launch until two weeks ago, on December 14, when Globe and Smart released their stocks (Smart slightly ahead of Globe, at a midnight bash). I couldn’t wait that long, and like a few hardcore Pinoy techies, I got mine in the US when I was there last October for a conference. Other members of our Apple users group (www.philmug.ph) got theirs in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, Australia, and even France. Why these countries? Because iPhones are sold factory-unlocked (often by law) in these places, so you can use them with any GSM network worldwide, unlike in the Philippines, where most network-supplied cellphones will require a touch of Greenhills magic to set free.

The US iPhones come in several varieties (Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint), and to spare you a long discussion about 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks and what will work here, let me tell you that the most compatible, factory-unlocked iPhone 5 version to get in the US for Philippine use is the Verizon one (yes, it’s a CDMA phone, but has a GSM capability as well) that you can now get contract-free from places like Best Buy. That’s what I got off eBay last October, and at the December 14 Philippine launch I got Beng a white IP5 for not too much under a retention plan, so now her iPhone 4 goes to my mom, who’d been using an iPod Touch. Why are we all on iPhones—us here, and my mom, daughter, sister, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law in the US? Because of what I think is the iPhone’s true killer feature, for binational Pinoy families: FaceTime, the free, limitless videoconferencing app that’s even easier to use than Skype and virtually pays for the cost of the phone over time.

So what’s so great about the IP5? Frankly, for me, nothing too earth-shaking; it’s just nice to have if you can cough up the cash. If I wanted to rationalize the hit on my Amex card (minimized by the quick sale of my 4S to my happy sister), I’d say that the IP5 is narrower, thinner, and lighter in the hand; the screen is bigger because of the phone’s extended length, the already-good camera is even sharper, the processor is faster, and the phone is LTE/4G capable, meaning that it’s good to go for the faster networks our telcos have promised to build. (I tested LTE on Verizon in New York, and it was blazingly fast.)

On the downside, the iPhone’s uninspiring battery life hasn’t really improved, at least in my own field tests, so that I’ve taken to carrying a power bank—a rechargeable battery—in my bag or glove compartment just to get through the day and my all-night poker binges. (I use my phone as a business machine rather than a toy—I check my email, surf, and even do school work and write articles like this on it—so I can’t afford to employ battery-saving tricks like turning 3G or Wi-Fi off.) Also, unlike the hard glass and tough plastic of the 4/4S, the anodized aluminum back and sides of the IP5 have been reportedly prone to scuffing in both the black and white models. (Another problem may be network-related; what’s the use of a 4G capability if your network is so slow, even on 3G?)

So what’s my bottomline on the IP5? Five million people apparently felt that they just had to have it within three days of its first release, but if you’re happy with your iPhone 4/4S or even your Samsung (and if you’re not 58 and bothered by your mortality), stick with what you have; it should serve you well for another year or so.

Otherwise, bite the bullet, sell the farm, and queue up for the iPhone 5 at your nearest Globe or Smart branch. Remember all the tedious routines and forms you’re going to have to fill out (there was much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth at the December 14 launch over the four-hour queues, messed-up reservations, and unactivated nano-SIMs). Why? Because I’ll bet you my black 32-gig iPhone 5 that—for all the moaning and groaning and the buyer’s remorse that you’ll be going through now—you’ll be doing it all over again for the iPhone 5S, 6, 7, and 8.