Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined.?

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.)?

Penman No. 145: Another Watch to Watch

Penman for Monday, April 20, 2016

KNOWING WHAT?an Apple diehard I am, friends have been asking me about the forthcoming Apple Watch, and if I’m going to get one. So I’m going to make another little digression today to answer that question—although, arguably, technology is art and culture in contemporary society, particularly when it’s something close and familiar enough to wear on your person.

As half the planet now knows, Apple announced the Apple Watch last September 9 in a splashy event helmed by the company’s new and nimble CEO, Tim Cook. It’s due to be released this Sunday in the US, and preorders opened last April 10; within six hours, most models—about a million units—were sold out.

That’s the kind of first-day frenzy and manic marketing that Apple might as well take out a patent on, because no other company even comes close in making people line up on the sidewalk a week before the store doors open. It’s also what turns Apple haters—and there are more than a few—apoplectic, refusing to understand how the mere whiff of a new toy from Cupertino, California could leave a fourth of humanity in a hypnotic trance.

Well, the Apple Watch is finally here, heralding Apple’s entry into the fashion market—make that high-fashion, with its top-of-the-line, solid-gold model selling for a toe-curling $17,000 (base models start at $349, or about P15,500). It comes in two sizes and a number of finishes, with an array of attractive watchbands (attractive to most people, anyway, who sadly don’t include old leather-loving codgers like me.)

Given those numbers, it’s safe to conclude that the Apple Watch was made to do more than tell the time. While hardly in the same stratosphere of high-end watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, Apple hasn’t done too badly as a horological upstart. Designed to work best with an iPhone, the Apple Watch can receive your email and text messages, and show incoming calls. It can do Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most hyped of all, it can track your health stats. It can play your favorite tunes, and store some of your favorite pics. You can still use it without an iPhone for neat little tricks like Apple Pay (if and when that comes to our shores).

What are its downsides? It doesn’t have built-in GPS; you’ll need your iPhone for that. And with its touted 18-hour battery life, you’ll probably need to recharge it every night.

Many of these features, I should point out—except for the Apple-specific apps—were and are available on other smart watches, for a lot less than what Apple is charging for their sum total. Before the Apple Watch, Beng and I had some fun with our his-and-hers Pebble watches, which basically told the time and displayed our email and SMS messages on a monochrome screen. Eventually, we both got tired of charging the buzzing beasties, and went back to our analog Hamiltons.

Which brings me to my answer to my friends’ question. Am I getting an Apple Watch? Heck, no—and this will probably be the first Apple rollout since the Newton that I’ll be passing on. But why not?

I’ll admit that the price is a factor—the Pebble didn’t cost me more than $100, and it’s way below that now (feature-wise, of course, the Pebble can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch). But in truth, cost never did turn back the Apple masses, who seem convinced that the pricier and sleeker something with an Apple logo is, the more compelling it must be to possess.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of features, either, that I’m not in the buyers’ queue (where I was for the iPhone 6; I had ordered mine as soon as the online counters opened, and received it via UPS last September 19, the first day of delivery in the US). The Apple Watch is abundantly capable and versatile, and we’ve only seen the barest suggestion of all the lively apps that are going to be developed for this device.

Instead, I may have to admit, as I’ll do now, to the onset of what we might call digital fatigue—that awful sensation of drowning under an onrushing wave of 1’s and 0’s. I’ve never felt this before, and it must be my biological age showing, but it took the Apple Watch and its kaleidoscope of colors to tell me that I’ve had enough. Please, not another device to tether and feed like a pet goat, and one that will bleat mightily when some silly text message comes in selling a condo I can’t possibly afford, and one that will remind me with a smug chirp about how overweight I am.

I know that I can talk to the Apple Watch, which will be the coolest thing for my students to see since I stepped into class with a Nokia the size of a shoe strapped to my waist in the early ‘90s. But I have trouble enough talking to my phone; I hate making and taking phone calls, because they usually mean problems to deal with. My iPhone is, first of all, a camera, a jukebox, a browser, and a datebook; and then it’s a phone (come to think of it, it’s also and already a watch, and a damn good one).

As it is, I don’t even use my iPad often enough, and I have to remember to charge it after letting it idle for a couple of weeks in solitary stupor. There’s a nest of charging cables at the foot of my bed, with phones, power banks, and digital recorders huddled like suckling pigs; I can just see the Apple Watch joining that blue- and red-eyed menagerie—but again, I’d rather not.

The ultimate reason for my self-denial is, I guess, the romantic one. I love my vintage and my two-handed watches too much to trade them for some blingy upstart. I believe a watch’s first and only duty is to tell the time. I believe a watch should have a clear, round, and honest face, from which I can read the time at a glance, without breaking my train of thought. I believe a watch should have a soft and pliant strap, like good leather; it should be beautiful, but quiet and undemanding, except for the occasional turn of the crown.

Appwatch95

Kind of like the original Apple watch from 1995—I think the happiest watch ever designed—which everyone seems to have forgotten about in the mad rush to get the new one. I dusted mine off the other day, put a new battery in, and gave it to Beng. It tells the time, and puts a smile on your face. What more can you ask for?

[Apple Watch pic from wired.co.uk]