Penman No. 120: Hello, Helvetica

Human2Penman for Monday, October 27, 2014

ALMOST TWENTY?years ago, in a column for another paper, I said “Goodbye to Garamond,” in reference to how the world of typography—the way by which the printed word is presented to us by publishers, advertisers, and the media—was perceptibly changing.

Printed letters—like the ones you’re looking at this very instant—are shaped into what are called fonts (a term often used interchangeably with “typeface,” although some experts will insist that there’s a subtle but important difference). They’re how the letters physically look, which in turn may convey psychological, emotional, or subliminal messages to the reader. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, here’s a bit of what I wrote back then:

“Have you ever wondered about those fonts whose letters look as though they had been scratched onto plywood with a nail by a heroin addict going through withdrawal? Remember the flickery font they used for the credits of Brad Pitt’s Seven?… These, folks, are examples of what’s been called ‘grunge’ typography and ‘degenerative’ art. The idea seems to be to produce aesthetic pleasure through severe disorientation…. Goodbye to Garamond, and all those reassuringly clean and classically balanced fonts. Hello to something like WaxTrax, which fairly drips all over your screen. And so it goes in the BraveNewWorld of cyberspace.”

Cyberspace and the Internet, of course, were still a novelty for most people back in 1996, and were full of raw and rough edges—visually and even audibly. Remember when you could count the dots on your screen and on your printout, and remember how mating modems screeched like cats in heat? Not surprisingly, the digital aesthete had all the finesse of a frontiersman, wielding his mouse like a chainsaw rather than a sable paintbrush. In other words, things looked pretty ugly—including titles and words on the computer screen, which had become the new page.

Or ugly, at least, to someone like me, who grew up with typewriters and liked the evenness of letters on a line, and the little feet (the so-called serifs) that grounded the shapely curves and angles of the A’s and M’s. That’s what I came to love about a graceful font like Garamond, which traces its origins to the 1500s, but which has been tweaked many times over the next 400 years—among others by Apple, which not surprisingly called its version Apple Garamond, used in the word ”Apple” itself by the company in its branding.

Speaking of Apple, this brings me to my little plaint for the day. Over the past month or so, Apple came out not only with the iPhone 6/6+ and with upgraded iPads and Macs; it also put out new versions of its operating systems for its devices and computers—iOS 8.1 for the portables, and MacOS 10.10 or “Yosemite” for the bigger machines.

So I dutifully upgraded to Yosemite, only to discover to my great dismay that—despite nifty new features here and there like being able to text non-iPhone numbers from your Mac and a better way of dictating text into Microsoft Word—I kept getting bothered by one small (and I mean literally small) thing: the new system font, called Helvetica Neue, which replaced the longtime, rounder Lucida Grande. You’ll see Helvetica Neue in the title bars and the bookmarks and tabs in your Safari Web browser—thin, narrow, and barely legible to my 60-year-old eyes.

What was Apple thinking? Well, certainly not about me (although we baby boomers were the original Apple faithful); “leaner and meaner” seems to be the mantra for the millennial computer user, and Apple is serving up the look in spades. And unlike what you could do with previous OSes, you can’t change or even tweak the size of the system font now, although you could enlarge individual windows in Safari and fonts in Word, probably because the system architecture would come crashing down if you had that option—the look is embedded into the package.

Why is this a big deal, at least for the fussy folk like me? Because it’s another sign—and a very visual one at that—of how the planet’s trendsetters see the present and the future, in the same way that blackletter fonts (more popularly if mistakenly called “Gothic” or “Old English”)—the kind you see in medieval Bibles—evoked an arch, elevated, not-very-accessible mindset.

Fonts and typefaces became more readable over time, and in the modern age, sans-serif (footless) fonts like Helvetica, Univers, and Futura became all the rage. Helvetica (the word itself means “Swiss”, in a tip of the hat to its origins) has been around since the 1950s, and can now be seen everywhere, along with its brethren. Being blocky, sans-serif fonts work best for titles and headlines, but can tire the eyes over long stretches; thus, older, footed fonts like Garamond, Palatino, and New York are still better for body text, because the little feet actually define the letters more sharply (try this by looking at a word like “human” in serif and sans-serif).

Lufthansa

I’ll agree: Helvetica’s a handsome font, and by now probably the world’s most popular one for signage and ads. (Just think of the logos of Lufthansa, American Airlines, Microsoft, Panasonic, Scotch, JCPenney, and The North Face, among others.) Maybe I’m actually sad in a way that Apple’s joining the pack rather than leading it as it often has—and if there was anything Steve Jobs almost literally imprinted into his designers and engineers, it was his fascination for typography.

But please, Apple, when the next upgrade comes around, give us something our aging eyes can better read, even if it isn’t Garamond.

Penman No. 119: Bulosan in the Heart

Penman for Monday, October 20, 2014

 

TAKING A?short break from my fellowship in Washington, DC, Beng and I flew off to the West Coast a couple of weeks ago for a weekend with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry. Demi was celebrating her 40th birthday (can you believe it?) and had sent us tickets to join them in Seattle; they live in San Diego, but they’d loved Seattle from a previous visit and wanted to share that discovery with us.

Over three days, we did the Seattle thing, and had loads of fun: the Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, a glimpse of the Chihuly glass garden, antiquing in Snohomish, and a boys’ tour of the Boeing plant in Everett. But it was an unexpected turn in the program that made it all the more worthwhile.

On the drive into the city from the airport, I had mentioned to Jerry (who had been born in Rhode Island to parents from Bicol) that two Asian-American icons—Carlos Bulosan and Bruce Lee—were buried in Seattle. Jerry’s an engineer in the aviation industry, but like Demi, he has a keen interest in culture and in his roots.

Bulosan’s name holds a special significance for our family. In high school, with some help from Beng, Demi had put together a book report on America Is in the Heart—Bulosan’s sprawling semi-autobiographical novel about the Filipino immigrant experience in America, first published by Harcourt Brace in 1946. I myself had written my undergraduate thesis at the University of the Philippines on Bulosan, fascinated by his often paradoxical appreciation of America, which he described as being at once “so kind and yet so cruel.”

Born in Pangasinan, he shipped out to Seattle in 1930, and never returned until his death from bronchopneumonia, also in Seattle, on September 11 (yes, 9/11) in 1956. (There’s some debate over the year of his birth, which has been variously listed as 1911, 1913, and 1914.) In the US, without the benefit of college, he became a voracious reader and taught himself to write, and became known both as a writer and a labor activist. Since the 1970s, many critics such as Epifanio San Juan Jr. have championed a reappreciation of Bulosan and his work; in 1973, the University of Washington Press republished America Is in the Heart, which was translated into Filipino as Nasa Puso ang Amerika by Carolina S. Malay and Paula Carolina S. Malay and published by Anvil in 2000.

When Demi and Jerry made plans to marry in 2007, I knew what I was going to give them as a wedding gift. After a long and eventful search culminating in a meeting with the seller in a Jollibee in Diliman, I had just acquired a first edition of America Is in the Heart, and carried it with me to San Diego. This copy had been inscribed by Bulosan to his friend Fred Ruiz Castro: “This story of my life will, I hope, bring me closer to you and our native land through our good friend J. C. Dionisio, with my best wishes, Carlos Bulosan, Los Angeles, 3-6-1946.”

Upon receiving the book in Manila almost a month later, Castro—who became Chief Justice in 1976—also signed it on April 4, 1946. I signed the book on a following page on April 2, 2007, and Beng and I presented it to Demi and Jerry on April 15. The book now rests proudly on their bookshelf in San Diego. (When I first wrote about this in my column—about finding that “holy grail” of a signed first edition and giving it to our only child on her wedding in America—I got a pleasant surprise upon my return: the gift of another copy of an early edition, acquired by another Filipino writer when he was in college, Greg Brillantes. That book, signed by Greg, now sits on my topmost shelf in Diliman.)

Now back to Seattle. On our last full day there, after touring the Boeing plant in the morning while our wives did their own thing downtown, Jerry and I were hit by the same brain wave in the car: why not look for Carlos Bulosan’s grave and pay our respects to our literary hero? A little Googling quickly revealed his gravesite, at the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. We picked up Beng and Demi at the hotel, and located the cemetery not too far away.

GPS helped bring us there, but it couldn’t pinpoint the exact grave among the many hundreds on the site; thankfully, Google also yielded a picture of the grave itself, and the four of us spread out across the cemetery, looking for visual markers—particularly a white obelisk in the distance; it took about 20 minutes until Demi yelled “I found it!”

It was, ironically, very close to the cemetery gates, on the left side. Beng picked some flowers nearby and offered them at the foot of the marker, which read: “CARLOS BULOSAN 1914-1956 Writer Poet Activist,” followed by an epitaph that Bulosan himself had written: “Here here the tomb of Bulosan is / Here here are his words dry as the grass is.” It was a pretty spot, truth to tell, and the grass was hardly dry. After the cemetery, we visited Seattle’s International District near the waterfront, to peek at the Bulosan exhibit through the windows of the historic Eastern Hotel, where Bulosan and other Filipino cannery workers lived.

Demi and Jerry don’t know it yet, but they have another Bulosan memento coming from me: a copy of the Saturday Review of Literature from March 9, 1946, on the cover of which the famous pen-and-ink portrait of Bulosan first appeared. One of these days, I’ll pay another homage, to the Bulosan memorabilia on exhibit at the University of Eastern Pangasinan in Binalonan, where they keep copies of his letters, commemorate September 11 as Carlos Bulosan Day, and teach a 3-unit course on his life and works. There’s a trove of material on him at the University of Washington library, and perhaps on another visit to Seattle, with more time, I might look into that, too. But as every Fil-Am and indeed every Filipino should know, a pioneering voice like Carlos Bulosan’s can ring everywhere and forever, in the heart.

Bulosan

Penman No. 118: To Teach Is to Persist

To-teach-is-to-persist-Penman-Butch-DalisayPenman for Monday, October 13, 2014

 

SOMEONE REMINDED?me that World Teachers’ Day was celebrated earlier this month, on October 5. I forgot about it because I was—I am—overseas, on sabbatical leave until mid-2015. In our department at the University of the Philippines, we normally get just one sabbatical leave over the course of our teaching career, and typically, professors take it a few years before retirement. I’m five years away from that crossroads, so this is a good time to be away from the classroom and to recharge, which is what the sabbatical leave was originally designed for.

Wikipedia tells us that “Sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a ‘ceasing’) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, a sabbatical lasts a year.”

This sabbatical, however, is shaping up to be anything but a vacation, or a rest break. I may be cool and dry in an America turning pretty with the onset of autumn, but my workload is as tropically toxic as ever, with several books to complete, columns and articles to write, faculty advising duties to perform, and sundry interests—totally and thankfully unscholarly—to pursue.

I do get a respite from the classroom, but, perhaps ironically, that’s the part of teaching I miss the most. As we celebrated World Teachers Day, I also realized that I was marking my 30th year of teaching this November, and I asked myself what three decades of teaching have taught me. After some reflection, it came down to this: to teach is to persist in the perfection of our humanity and our citizenship. That sounds awfully grand to the point of being pompous and pretentious—don’t we, after all, just grab a book, drag our feet to class, and preach bunkum for an hour to a roomful of people with the pulse rate of zombies to earn our lunch and gas money?

There are, of course, many days just like that in a teaching career, days that blur one into the other until the end of yet another semester. And at some point, it’ll get to you: your speech starts slurring and your eyes get glassy, and you can’t wait until the bell rings or the hour hand moves; you had a long rough night, the car needs new tires, the bills are piling up, your thoughts keep drifting back to Paris or Palawan, and the last thing you or your students want to talk about is disease and social order in William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.”

Maybe ten years ago, I had such a day at the very start of the semester, and without realizing it, I must have been so bleary-eyed that I gave off the impression of not quite being there. To my great shock and dismay, one student later blogged about her disappointment with what she had seen; she had expected a stirring performance from her professor on Day One. It was a wake-up call, and I woke up; I promised that student that I would do my best to live up to her expectations, and I hope I did; we’re good, and she’s since gone on to a promising career in writing.

What I became acutely aware of then was that every teaching day is a performance, not unlike a show a professional actor studies and rehearses for, with the additional challenge that one simply doesn’t repeat the previous show, but keeps adding to it, improvising when possible to adapt to changes in the composition and the mood of every audience. I mutter my first lines to myself on the steps up to my classroom, ticking off the day’s main points and questions in my head; I take a deep breath, step into the door, flash a brief smile, and the day begins. And like the pro I have to be, I’ve learned to take care of myself, so I can teach well—to stay healthy, to sleep well (especially before a class day), and to think of something new to say or to bring to the next class.

So we all have our bad days, but it’s precisely on days like these when we need to remind ourselves of what a tremendous opportunity we have to make this Tuesday or Wednesday one of the most memorable in our young charges’ lives, through something we say, an idea or an experience we share, that will turn a key and open a door in their minds. Only in teaching can an ordinary, even a boring, day suddenly become indelibly special, with nothing more than thoughts and words—and the teacher’s persistence and faith in every student’s potential for transformation into someone more aware, more human, more Filipino. Perfectability? It’s more about the effort than the goal—and I’m sure that whatever we do for our students, we teachers do for ourselves as well.

 

SPEAKING OF?teaching, my department has asked me to invite all teachers and students interested or involved in translation issues to attend the 6th Asian Translation Traditions Conference (ATT6) to be held October 23-25, 2014 at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.

The official flyer says that “The rationale for the ATT series is to challenge the Eurocentric emphasis of Translation Studies, which is largely due to the “unavailability of reliable data and systematic analysis of translation activities in non-European cultures” (Hung and Wakabayashi 2005). The ATT series was initiated by Professor Eva Hung of Hong Kong in 2002. A small but successful workshop was held in London that same year, followed by well-attended international conferences in India, Turkey, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates. It is hoped that ATT6 will lead to theorizing on translation and developing methodologies on translation arising from the specific historical and contemporary contexts of Asia.”

Hmmm, I think that needs to be translated: this conference will explore the theory and practice of translation in an Asian context. For more details, please visit http://asiantranslation6.up.edu.ph/.

{Illustration by Igan D’Bayan of the Philippine Star.)

Penman No. 117: The Way We Were

IMG_4726Penman for Monday, October 6, 2014

 

I’D LIKE?to thank the people who’ve given me their time and accorded me their hospitality during my current visit to the US. I’m here to do more research for a book project—an oral history of the First Quarter Storm (the story of my generation, in other words)—and so far I’ve had wonderfully productive interview sessions with some people who were either active participants in the anti-martial law movement or were on the other side of things (or simply on the roadside) at the time.

Those who’ve helped me out, either as interview subjects or facilitators, include former campus journalist and retired engineer Gerry Socco and his wife Chet; lawyer Rodel Rodis; editor Rene Ciria-Cruz; tech journalist and developer Joey Arcellana; and journalist Gemma Nemenzo and her husband, Col. Irwin Ver. All of them are conveniently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Beng and I flew out there from DC for a long weekend of interviews and reunions with old friends.

Rodel and I go back all the way to the Philippine Science High School, where I served as Rodel’s associate editor when he helmed The Science Scholar. It was also in high school—when I myself became editor in chief—that I first heard of Joey Arcellana from our adviser, Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea (mother of the accomplished Doy and Rey Vea), who told me one day: “There are two young writers I’d like you to read. One of them writes for the UP Collegian, and his name is Joey Arcellana. The other is still in high school and writes for the Highlights, and his name is Gary Olivar.” Gemma, who now edits the ezine Positively Filipino, also edited the late, lamented Filipinas magazine, which I used to write a column for. Gerry I knew from the pre-martial law College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and we met again in the worst of possible circumstances—as fellow political prisoners in Bicutan; today, in our sixties, we share an unabashedly bourgeois passion for collecting vintage pens and watches.

In Washington, DC, where I’m formally based through my association with the George Washington University, I’ve been lucky to meet and to interview one of the torchbearers of the anti-Marcos resistance on the East Coast, Jon Melegrito, a retired librarian at GWU who now writes for the DC-based fortnightly Manila Mail. I’ve also been glad to gain the insights of three former State Department officials: former Ambassador John Maisto, who headed the old Office of Philippine Affairs and served in Manila in the late 1970s; his colleague Hank Hendrickson who now serves as executive director of the US-Philippines Society, of which Amb. Maisto is the president; and Santiago “Sonny” Busa, a Filipino-American who has served as consul in Manila, Addis Ababa, and Kuwait, and who has taught International Affairs at West Point. I’ll be doing a bit more traveling to see people in New York and possibly the Midwest.

So far, I’ve interviewed about 30 people for the book, which I’ve begun to write at my sister’s place in Virginia. It’s very strange in a way to write about bloody encounters in coconut groves in the Philippine South while reveling in the sight, outside my window, of bluejays and robins perched on the branches of trees just beginning to acquire an autumnal glow. But perhaps it’s precisely this physical and psychological estrangement that I need to handle such an emotional project—emotional, at least, for members of my generation.

Sometimes what I hear gets a bit too much; for the first time, after having written and published over 25 books with a very dry eye, I wept as I listened to an account of someone I knew shooting—executing—someone who had been her best friend. At the same time, events that might have been terrifyingly life-threatening 40 years ago can now sound absolutely hilarious—or deadpan ironic, such as when firebrand Fluellen Ortigas, selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of 1968, stands beside President Marcos at the awarding ceremonies, with a book titled The Essentials of Marxism in hand. “Join my staff,” Marcos tells him. “I can’t,” Ortigas replies. “You’re going to be a dictator!” Ortigas would later work for Ninoy Aquino, go underground in Panay, get arrested before martial law, get released in 1976, flee to the US via Sabah, get an MBA, and become a businessman in San Francisco.

I have many more stories like Flue’s to tell, each with its own highlights and insights—Elso Cabangon being ambushed on Taft Avenue and taking four bullets, one of them tearing through his cheek; Boy Camara auditioning for the role of Judas before eventually playing Jesus Christ, Superstar; a female comrade being married in the rites of the Party, one hand on her heart, and the other on Mao’s Quotations (it’s a marriage, like many in the movement, that will unravel). But they’ll have to wait until the book itself, which I hope to finish by early next year.

Even now, many old friends and comrades are probably wondering why I haven’t approached them yet or asked so-and-so to be interviewed, because they have interesting and important stories to tell. I’m sure they do, and I have to extend them my apologies in advance, simply because I just don’t have the time or space at the moment to include everything and everyone I should be covering. I’m almost certain that this oral history will lead to a sequel, all the way to EDSA (a book that someone else should begin writing soon). Some people I’ve asked haven’t replied or have declined, and I can only respect their implied wish to be left alone.

Again, this book will be about the past, and while we might bemoan the innocence we lost, or even wax romantic about the way we were, I don’t think too many of my respondents will want to relive their lives in exactly the same way, knowing what they do now. We might not regret what we did—it arguably needed to be done—but we or our children don’t have to repeat it, if it can be helped. That’s how history helps the future.