Friday, July 31

How to Disappear

Frank Ahearn helps people disappear. For 20 years, he had worked as a "skip tracer," a private investigator who specialises in finding people. He later realized that he could reverse his strategies and instead of finding people, he could make them vanish without a trace.

Ahearn outlines three key steps to a successful disappearance:
First, destroy old information about yourself. Call your video store or electricity company and replace your old, correct phone number with a new, invented one. Introduce spelling mistakes into your utility bills. Create a PO Box for your mail. Don’t use your credit cards and the like. Then, create bogus information to fool private investigators who might be looking for you. Go to one city and apply for an apartment. Rent a car in another one.

The next, final step is the most important one. Move from point A to point B. Create a dummy company to pay your bills. Only use prepaid mobile phones and change them every month. It is nearly impossible to find out where you are unless you make a mistake.
The rules are easier to follow if you are self-employed, but harder if you're on a payroll, like if you're a bus driver or teacher. (Drats.) Over the years, Ahearn's clientele included witnesses to a crime, women who are stalked (for this, he works free of charge), and a lot of men in their forties or fifties who want to be free of their responsibilities and start over somewhere, as an entirely new person. Ahearn explains that "There is something romantic about the idea of starting a new life and walking away into the sunset, but for most people it’s just a daydream." Of the ten people who inquire about his services, only one will seriously pursue it. And like a doctor, Ahearn cannot get attached to any of his clients. Very few them will afford Ahearn with updates of their new lives. He gets the occasional e-mail though, and always a different e-mail each time. They have learned their lessons well.

Thursday, July 30

Sharks Playing Ball

A team of scientists attempted to measure the pain of rejection. It has been a long held belief that such pain is unquantifiable--or perhaps something that targets emotion, ego--but this time, the scientists rigged a system that included small electronic doodads and a group of people playing ball. The ones who were "outed" from the game eventually felt "rejected" and there was a corresponding hit on the gadgets attached to them.

So now there's proof that the pain of rejection is undeniably also physical--gut being wrenched out inch by inch, the bread knife stabbed into one's back and pierced the heart and turned approximately eighteen degrees to the left.

Bonnie Kozek even has an interesting aside to the scientists' findings: "'Why' does rejection hurt? Their concluding theory is that 'rejection' affects the brain because it is deeply-rooted in our DNA. Long ago, mammals relied on social bonds to survive. Broken social bonds put survival in peril. Mammals therefore feared any diminishing of these bonds. And this congenital fear is so entrenched that today’s mammals still see any form of exclusion from social connection as a direct physical threat."

It's not just a physical manifestation of pain then. Even more scary for the mammals of today is the pain of not being part of the game being played out there to celebratory shouts in the field.

Wednesday, July 29

Whose Memory Is It Anyway?

Karl Taro Greenfeld has a problem: "Had some of my earliest memories actually been implanted by reading my father's book about our family as a very young child?"

In writing his memoir about growing up with an autistic brother, Greenfeld kept comparing his own memory with that of the already published version--his father's books. He says: "Many of us have recollections that turn out to have been created or nurtured by family photos we have seen or stories we have been told. But most of us aren't writers setting down a life's story. One could argue that the more fortunate memoirist is the one who doesn't have another writer also weighing in on his childhood, who doesn't measure his own memories against those of some external, recorded source."

In a way, Greenfeld is writing his memoir with the conscious effort of not merely echoing the story that has already been told. Later on, he realizes that memory is a tricky thing: there's same game of catch and yet his father's account was similar and in other ways different. Then incident about a graduate student who spanked the very young Greenfeld when he threw a tantrum over dinner. This he remembers with clarity, but his parents cannot recall it ever happening. In the end, he resolves that "The memoirist's ultimate responsibility is to himself, his own version of his life, his truth and reality. If he does not stay faithful to that story, then why is he bothering to write it at all?"

Monday, July 27

Pomo: A Few Notes

From Megan Fox and cars to Judd Apatow's movies, it seems like anything and everything can pass for postmodern these days. Chris Daley weighs in on the abuse of the use of the term "postmodern" in mainstream media: "When the term “postmodern” is used in major international publications, does it bear any relation to its theoretical roots, or has it been hijacked as yet another hot, empty signifier, like 'iconic' or 'staycation'?"

And Daley should know what she's talking about, as she "pays hundreds of dollars a month in student loans for a degree that certifies she has studied postmodernism extensively ." Ah, the indignation of the Comparative Lit major.

Daley gives us a few things to consider about the term postmodern:

1. It was first used as early as the 1870s, but theorists Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard and Frederic Jameson are generally credited with making the term "postmodern" popular.

2. When used in an academic setting, “postmodern” usually refers to a sense of style featuring “disjunction or deliberate confusion, irony, playfulness, reflexivity, a kind of cool detachment, a deliberate foregrounding of constructedness, a suspicion concerning neat or easy conclusions.”

3. Postmodernism is more concerned with process than product. This can be seen in the meta “[blank] about [blank]” construction that often identifies the “postmodern”: art about art, writing about writing, architecture about architecture, etc.
It seems like postmodern is the go-to term when you're not sure what else to say but you want to sound smart. I.e., the actress Megan Fox describes her next project, a film written by Juno's Diablo Cody, as "really dark” because Cody’s “like a postmodern feminist or whatever.” Since nobody's really sure what it means anyway, you're free to use it. Ta-dah. Instant smartness.

Elsewhere in the L.A. Times, to ensure that you know what you're talking about when you're blinding us with jargon, they've prepared a list of 61 essential postmodern reads. It comes with a cheat sheet of qualities that pomo writing has.

The list includes David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (Yep, pomo, that one) but also Shakespeare's Hamlet and Tristram Shandy, which again leads us to ask: How can a text written before the modern period ever be postmodern? (And a tangentially related question: How can anyone say that one of the things they're looking for in a date is "He must be postmodern?" But then again, maybe this is a gay guy thing.) What the hell does that mean? This is why Postmodernism (and I'm tempted to say "and everything connected with theory") is the Root of All Evil.

Sunday, July 26

Lois Lane's New Boyfriend

Jonathan Goldstein's story "Man Not Superman" gets the Post-It treatment. An interesting premise: If Lois Lane and Superman break up, what sort of relationship will she have with the regular guy she hooks up with after her Super Romance?

Told from the point of view of Lois Lane's new boyfriend, Stuart, who is forced to suffer the faith of all well meaning exes: Let us all be friends together, Super Friends included.

And, of course, something has to be said about that other odd couple--Batman and Robin:

Elsewhere, in his 1971 essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," Larry Niven asks the unsayable: "What turns on a Kryptonian?" In McSweeney's, "Superman's Fortress of Solitude."


Thursday, July 23

Fast Food Mafia

O dahil ang mafia ay matatagpuan kahit saan at hindi lang sa guerrang pang-Fezbuk:

Kung matagal mo nang pinag-iisipan kung ano ba talaga si Grimace, heto ang sagot: Isa siyang hitman na nasa payola ni Ron "The Don" McDonald. Isa lamang sila sa mga fast food mascots na inimagine ni Silent Sketcher sa kanyang Deviant Art portfolio. Kasama sa pamilya sina "The Colonel" Sanders ng Kentucky Fried Creatures, si Wendy, si "Little" Caesar, at ang Hari ng mga Burger.

Wednesday, July 22

Keeping Out the Joneses

Christian and Abrams posit that the development of cities--fortified, walled--was a matter of keeping out the Joneses. "[T]the first settlements – before bronze age, before iron age, even probably before the stone age – didn’t happen because folks liked each other’s company. As the old saying goes: there really is safety in numbers … and fortifications."

The city state was established as a common defense against invaders. When people stayed together in a permanent location, they brought their valuables with them--heads of cattle, goat, a barn of farmed grains. They needed to band together against marauders even if they weren't exactly fans of each other.

Or it can be the other way around. They loved each other so much that they didn't want to let anyone else in. Perhaps the Chinese had this idea first: They didn't set out and conquer the way the Europeans did. Maybe they were thinking, "Why pollute our fabulous gene pool with barbaric Mongol blood? Let's build the Great Wall!"

Meanwhile, in old Castilian Manila, the Chinese were being kept out of Intramuros. They stayed in their own Parian, prosperous though much discriminated against. Here's another point of development in urban areas: "But it wasn’t long before these separate city/states looked out from their battlements and discovered that instead of keeping themselves safe they were keeping their good neighbors out." Soon, Manila wouldn't just be Intramuros, it would expand and take in other neighborhoods, and on to the Metro Manila as we know it now. But back then, when one said Manila, it meant Intramuros. Just nuns and priests and Spanish dons. The Chinese stay in Parian.


Tuesday, July 21

Riding the Scandinavian Crime Wave

These days, it seems to me that everywhere you look (around the web, at least), people are talking about Scandinavian crime novels. In his Slate essay, Nathaniel Rich claims that the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers. He offers a few reasons why the genre flourishes in the region: "The crime novel, and particularly the British crime novel, has been enormously popular in Scandinavia for decades. And the famous Nordic pragmatism is well-suited to the intricate mechanics of crime investigation plots. But the best explanation is the most mundane: Crime novels sell." Rich proceeds to list down the writers who started their careers in a more literary vein, but eventually, the poets, playwrights, novelists and translators found a bigger audience--and a bigger paycheck--in writing about crime.

If crime novels sell and the writers profit from it, there must surely be a very good reason why readers like it as well. For this, Rich points out that the allure of the Scandinavian crime novel from others is "not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness." There something a little bit troublesome about Rich's assertion. Rich fetishizes the blood on snow image as something close to the divine.

On the other hand, Larisa Kyzer of The L Magazine looks deeper into Rich's assertion that Scandinavians write the best crime novels. Kyzer believes that there is more to it than just the inherent creepiness--or even exoticism--of having blood spreading against pristine white snow. The narrative concerns of the Scandinavian crime novel do not stray too far away from those of the established literary tradition. It still finds its roots in the police procedurals and detective stories. However, "more often than not, the gruesome goings-on in Scandinavian crime novels have their root in everyday societal tensions and shortcomings: racial/ethnic/religious prejudices, the marginalization of 'outsiders,' governmental corruption, unacknowledged domestic abuse."

The Nordic countries are peaceful because of homogeneity. If everyone is like everyone else, then it would be too hard to disagree with the public sentiment. But because each of these countries started seeing more faces different from their own in the last several decades, change started to seep in. And according to Kyzer, "more often than not, [it] created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook." They cannot sustain their unofficial motto, "Be like everyone else. Thus, this disturbance is articulated in their fiction: the rise of neo-Nazi gangs, Swedish townspeople getting all antsy because of their Sami neighbors, arson in refugee camps, shutting down child prostitution rings.

The writers of crime fiction are holding up a mirror to the welfare states' shortcomings. If so, then the uniqueness of the genre comes from its "unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents."

The curious question is this: the Scandinavian countries have a social system that works, the citizens are among the world's happiest even if they perceive their governments can do better. The low crime rate pushes the writers to imagine "tawdry crimes." On the other hand, the Philippines has a government that cannot be trusted to deliver even the basic services, most of the population live in dire poverty and yet steadily confesses that they are a "happy" people, and crime is so prevalent that you only have to step out of your house and see it happen to someone you know, perhaps committed by someone you know. We have seen all manners of killing people--the usual ice pick stabbing, boys playing basketball and on the way home they get riddled with bullets, a woman's body chopped into pieces, left to be discovered in several plastic bags, or a man killed and body sealed in a drum filled with cement and dropped into the river. Sometimes there is a desperation to the crime: I am thinking of that mother who cannot afford to feed her children, and so takes them in a Jollibee in the mall and then poisons them all.

Scandinavian crime fiction functions as a critique of a society that has its ills, is only starting to feel the disturbance of having a varied society. It also offers a way of escape, a different reality from their "we're all the same, modular Ikea" existence. But crime fiction is also a very straight forward kind of narrative: here is a body, thereafter lies a solution as to who did this and in what manner. Problem, solution. All is right in the world.

However, if crime is all around you, so desperate and gruesome that you want it to be something that you merely imagined, is it even possible that you would want to write about it? Of what use is fiction then for our collective imagination? Does this explain why crime fiction isn't flourishing in the country and yet we have stories about dragons and dwarves and a strong fantasy-oriented community of writers? If we have chosen our manner of escape, it seems we have favored magic over material explanations. But we must also have a venue for critique, something that forces us to consider our ills, and even if only imagined, a way to make things right in the world again.

Saturday, July 18

July Reading Stack

Since school started, haven't really had much time left for personal reading. I got my copy of Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man around registration period, and I'm barely a third of the novel in. However, that scant reading lead me to a curiosity about the musician Leonard Cohen and how he's just goyish. The novel has this running commentary about which things/people/habits, etc are Jewish and which are goyish. Cohen stepping into a cafe placing a very green order of soy mocha latte is goyish. It's difficult to explain if you haven't read the book. The novel is also described as "postmodern." Now there's a term which people are always hardup to explain.

Last weekend, faced with the prospect of having no book to read, I ducked into a trusty Booksale branch and got a copy of Alex Garland's The Tesseract, which is set in Manila--lots of crime, dirty little hotels with naked bulbs and blood on the sheets, weather so hot that the lead guy opted to stay inside a McDonald's and watched rich little kids have their blasted kiddie parties. The first chapter reminds me so much of the opening chapter of The Beach. It also reminds me that I still have a cling-wrapped copy of The Coma somewhere in my shelves in Manila. Maybe Garland is a writer best appreciated when you're in your early 20s and with a good head trip.

Also still in its original plastic wrap is The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki. The cover is a nice brown craft paper and orange, and the back cover features a body with the parts cut into parts and meant to look like a paper doll that you can join together with staples or something. The series tag line is "Your body is their business!" According to the blurb, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is about "five young students at a Buddhist university find there's little call for their job skills in today's Tokyo...among the living, that is! But their studies give them a direct line to the dead--the dead who are still trapped in their corpses, and can't move on to their next reincarnation! Whether you died from suicide, murder, sickness, or madness, they'll carry your body anywhere it needs to go to free your soul." Given the topic, the plastic is there to warn off those with weaker stomachs and those under 18 who can't properly appreciate this odd blend of Pushing Daisies, CSI, and maybe Conan the Kid Detective. (The undead also reminds me of Pizzeria Kamikaze, an Israeli comic book wherein all the suicides end up in a world similar to ours, except everyone there died by their own hands and given another chance at, uhm, living. First followed it in Bipolar and it's been turned to a movie: The Wristcutters. Anyway.) There are 5 stories in the volume, so the episodic nature allows you to jump and enjoy one of the adventures. The pullback is that this is just Volume 1 of 9 (as of last count) and it's not exactly as cheap as the other mangas, so following the adventures will be costly.

The last and newest one on my stack is Xiaolu Guo's 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. I read part (or most?) of it by hanging out in MPH and Borders in Kuala Lumpur last year. It's about a farm girl who tries her luck in Beijing by being a film extra. It's funny and (a lot of people will stone me for this) quite different from all the other Chinese writers I've previously read who have written about Mao era China. The book cover is rather pretty. But of course, the other attraction is that Fenfang works in the film business and that has always been interesting to me. 20 Fragments was published in Chinese eleven years ago, and only recently translated into English. Since then, Guo has written one other novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was her first try at writing in English. Also read bits of that last year, but alas, I was too poor to buy it and now it's not available in the bookstores in KL anymore. But I'm looking forward to finishing not just 20 Fragments but all these books really, really soon.

Tuesday, July 14

The Cartography of Childhood

In his essay "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood," Michael Chabon writes about the importance of childhood adventures while growing up. Adventure is being allowed to explore the world to its limits. It means playing in neighbors' yards and vacant lots, riding your bike to visit classmates in their houses across town and knowing what flavor popsicle their mothers serve. These adventures, according to Chabon, provide a child with mental maps of their worlds which they can endlessly revise and refine. "Childhood is a branch of cartography," he says. And childhood is the first and ultimate adventure:
That's because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true. We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.
But in the years since Chabon's growing up years, children have been increasingly forbidden to explore even the very street they live in. Many barriers were put up against adventures: Wear a helmet when riding a bike, don't ride to where your parent can't see you. Don't ride that bike or you break all your bones. The world has become too dangerous for adventuring.

In his essay "Coming of age in the years of living dangerously," Bill Briggs also looks back on this time of childhood daredeviltry with nostalgia. Kids growing up in the '50s, '60s and '70s inhaled second hand smoke from their chainsmoking parents, ate wildberries, were allowed to roam the fields and strange streets without fear. Kids were allowed to live. But now that adventuring--and effectively, living--has been outlawed in favor of a safe and monitored environment, a 47-year-old mortgage broker asks: "Who would have thought 30 years ago that it would be necessary to run public service announcements encouraging parents to get their kids outside playing?”

Choose Your Own Ong

The Institute of Creative Writing Panayam Series hosts Charlson Ong's lecture this afternoon, 2.30 PM at the Claro M. Recto Hall in Bulwagang Rizal, UP Diliman. If you're free, please go. It'll be quite interesting to see what he has to say about novel writing, Facebook, and whether he can beat Bob Ong in a karaoke match.

Monday, July 13

Harry, Neo, Kirk and Luke: Different Hero, Same Story

In class last week, we were talking about how Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek and even The Matrix are actually the same movie. The journey is the same, or as Brandon Root in Spiteful Critic put it:
Once upon a time, Luke | Kirk | Neo | Harry was living a miserable life. Feeling disconnected from his friends and family, he dreams about how his life could be different. One day, he is greeted by Obi Wan | Captain Pike | Trinity | Hagrid and told that his life is not what it seems, and that due to some circumstances surrounding his birth | birth | birth | infancy he was meant for something greater.
It's not that writers and directors of the last 40 years have not had a single fresh idea since the birth of the summer blockbuster; the similarities of the heroes' journeys, as pointed out, have to do with the persistence of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth.

To illustrate, here's Say No to Crack's point-by-point play of how Harry Potter and Star Wars are really just the same story:

Another interesting read, James Parker's Atlantic Online essay "Sex and the Single Wizard," on how Rowling really doesn't have any idea how to deal with the awakening of adolescent sexuality.

On a side note, I'm a bit pissed that I have acquired "premiere" tickets to HP6 on July 17th, as I learned belatedly, a day after the movie officially opens. At Php225 a pop, I feel like I've been ripped off. I bite my thumb at you, UP Stat Soc.

Friday, July 10

Facebook: The Movie

Carson Reeves of Script Shadow gives us a glimpse of an Aaron Sorkin penned script about the kids who started social networking Facebook. The premise: "A look at the rise of Facebook and the effect it's had on its founders." It is also described as "an epic story that would capture the drama of late-night status updates, the power of the poke, who and who not to limit profile access to, and of course, the all important and always necessary "delete friend" feature. Okay, well, maybe it wouldn't be about those things per se. But it would be about computers and software and code and snobby rich kids."

It has to do with a kid who gets commissioned by a pair of rich brothers on the rowing team who want a website that's sort of like MySpace, but cooler. The kid teams up with a friend, works on the project and then comes up with something else as a dorm room experiment, TheFacebook. The friends will part ways later with the entrance of another web figure, Sean Parker, founder of Napster and the "informal adviser" who told Mark Zuckerberg to drop the "The" in TheFacebook.

Reeves insists that the Sorkin script is "a story about two friends - one a computer genius, the other a business expert - who began a website that became the fastest growing phenomenon in internet history. Three years later, one was suing the other for 600 million dollars (or 1/30th of Mark Zuckerberg's worth). It's a story about greed, about obsession, about our belief that all the money in the world can make us happy. But it's also unpredictable, funny, touching, and sad. It gives us that rare glimpse into the improbable world of mega-success."

So in the end, the kid who earned a bajillion dollars creating a web tool that connects people is ultimately disconnected with his friends and the rest of the world.

So who's throwing in the money to make "The Social Experiment" possible? Sony and producer Scott Rudin are supposedly attached on the project slated for release in 2011. Plus David Fincher is tagged as potential director. I loved most of the things that Fincher directed (Fight Club, Se7en, esp Zodiac) with the exception of Benjamin Button. If this turns out to be a good movie, then everything will be forgiven.

Thursday, July 9

Judging the Book by its Author Photo

Melanie Marquez had it wrong: Don't judge my brother, he's not a book. But what if the brother is an author whose photo appears on the dust jacket? Then he probably needs a good author photo. What's an author photo for? David Adams weighs in:
To a large degree, they satisfy the vanity of the writer; those small peephole portraits are a way for them to claim ownership, to make their long struggle at the keyboard valid (they also provide a good ID when writing a check at the bookstore). Photos are a publicity tool, of course. Something for publishers to enlarge to poster size -- depending on the author's degree of beauty -- when promoting book signings at the local bookstore (a process that would have hindered, not helped, George Eliot back in the day).
Marion Ettlinger has been taking gorgeous black and white photographs of writers since 1983, some of which were compiled into a book. My favorite is Raymond Carver's:

I have the same reaction as David Adams' when I first saw that photo of Carver's staring at me from the cover of Where I'm Calling From: "He's seated at a table, one arm slung over his chair, the other on the table, forming an L, one-half of a frame which immediately takes you up to his face. His eyes are like cigarettes burning holes in your brain. Carver stares directly at the camera --through the camera -- as if to say, 'Sit down and let me tell you a story. It may not be pretty, but it will be real.'"

But it helps to be real *and* pretty. Like this one:

where Jhumpa Lahiri is just smouldering at you from the back of cover of Interpreter of Maladies. A student of mine saw the photo and said, Wow, I didn't know Jhumpa Lahiri is hot.

If hot is impossible, then perhaps take a few serviceable ones that don't obscure your face, like this:

That's just one way to take a bad author photo. Salt Publishing offers nine other ways, none of them flattering and would never help you sell any books.

Wednesday, July 8

Dial up my asterisk

Transient Ink educates us in typography and tart cards, a British term referring to the small advertisement cards that prostitutes leave in phone booths to garner more attention for their services. Or to put it simply: If your typeface were a prostitute, what would her card look like? asked designers from all kinds of backgrounds to create these cards for their favorite fonts. The results range from subtle and coy

to kitschy, like this one by Emma Thorpe reminds me of some t-shirts that teenage boys wear, sometimes with bunnies

and on to the really risque, like the one below: