Wednesday, September 06, 2006

[Essay] Clockwork

I’m not a person who’s fond of watches, or rather, of wearing them. It doesn’t matter if it’s leather or plastic or metal. For one thing, me being skinny as I am, watches are seldom a perfect fit. But the real reason why I don’t like wearing watches is because it irritates my skin. I’ve received many watches over the years, but all of them gets lost from disuse. The only watch I remember wearing for any long duration was one of those gimmick watches that would speak out loud and tell you the time at the press of a button. Unfortunately, it got broken quickly, and I’ve never worn a watch ever since grade school.

Yet for someone who isn’t fond of watches, I’m someone who pays close attention to time. I’m the person who arrives at a meeting on the agreed upon time, if not earlier. During a long pictorial in the middle of the evening, someone asked the time and I predicted it within one or two minutes, and I didn’t even bother looking at a clock. Traveling around the metro, I can give an accurate estimate on what time I’ll arrive at the destination, factoring in the weather and traffic. Perhaps one of the stranger habits of mine is that whatever time I’d set my alarm clock on, I’d always (short of being extremely fatigued) wake up one minute before the alarm rings. There was even this weird phenomenon with one friend that whenever I’d sleepover (a sleepover wherein there’s actually some sleep going on) at his house, no matter what time we went to bed, we’d always wake up at 8 am.

It all began with my childhood. School has this uniform rigidness that when you look at it, is strangely militaristic. As anyone who’s been a student will tell you, everyone looks forward to the school bell signaling the end of a class. It could be they’re looking forward to recess, or perhaps right now it’s simply a boring subject, but everyone is unconsciously counting how long it’ll be before the lecture is over. Every subject, however, has the same duration: one hour. As a student, I had to go through one hour of English, one hour of Science, one hour of Math every single day. 60 minutes, no more, no less. In the beginning, keeping track of time was difficult, especially since I didn’t bring a watch. Instead, I mastered a technique which would later hone my stalking skills: I learned how to spy upon other people’s watches. It’s that moment where to others, you’re not looking at anyone in particular. In fact, it seems as if you’re paying attention to the teacher. But what is actually happening is that my gaze is upon a classmate’s wrist where his watch is wrapped around. Normally, it’s in reverse, and I have to flip the image in my mind. Sometimes, the classmate is farther off, either two desks in front of me, or two desks away from my side. But eventually, I would master the technique of telling time accurately with no watch of my own, thanks to my finely-honed spying skills.

Eventually, however, that wouldn’t be needed. Classes being uniform and spaced out evenly, it would soon be easy to tell the time based on feeling alone. Usually, the bell would ring an hour before the class would end, and I could sense when that moment was near. The teacher would see me packing my things early, and then the bell would suddenly ring, signaling the end of the session. Another sad fact is that school always started on the same time, namely seven thirty a.m., that I’d always wake up at six in order to get ready for school. Eventually, waking up at six was an unconscious habit, unless I had slept really really late the day before.

But perhaps what would hone my time-sense to a whole new level was traveling. In truth, I didn’t really go out much, but there were always distanced to be traversed, even if it was as simple as getting home from school. The moment I’d get into the car, I’d pay close attention to the time as minutes trickle away, either from getting stuck in traffic or waiting for my sister to get out of class. I was always in such a hurry because the best cartoons were usually aired just right after school. I’d make a mad dash for home so that I wouldn’t miss my favorite shows. However, various other activities would try to steal this time slot away from me: clubs, dentist appointments, group projects. And so my obsession with time began once more, honing it to a level that seems like clockwork.

These days, I tell time via my mobile phone. However, even then, I keep track of the variations. Time at my alma matter, for example, runs ten minutes faster than the time followed by TV stations. Time at work also runs ten minutes ahead, which makes it a pain to wake up early in the morning, but a joy to get out of work earlier than most people. I don’t travel much, so airport time is still a foreign thing to me, but I can easily estimate how long it’ll take to reach a certain area depending on the traffic and the distance. Perhaps what even disturbs the accountants at work is how I always leave the office at exactly six pm, thanks to the marks in my time card.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

[Essay] The Perfect Job

Ever since I’ve been attending the annual Manila Book Fair when it relocated to the World Trade Center, I’ve been bumping into familiar faces from my alma matter. Two years ago, it was an upperclassman who was working for Scholastica books, trying her best to sell Harry Potter books in bulk. Last year, it was meeting an even higher upperclassman, an officer from the literary org I was involved with, and she was in charge of public relations for the book fair itself. This year, I ran into someone belonging to the same batch as I was. She was working at Powerbooks for barely a week in what seems to me is one of the coolest jobs ever: reading books.

In this world, it is of my personal opinion that there’s no such thing as a "perfect job", but there are certain occupations which suit certain people more than others. Unfortunately, the world being fickle and capricious as it is, few people land the jobs they want, much less the jobs they’re actually optimized for. Take me for an example. I’m sure it’s someone’s dream job to be working in a rock magazine, doing everything from attending gigs, meeting local musicians, and getting free CDs. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I hate listening to the radio, and I haven’t really gone out and bought a music CD in years.

My dream job would be something like my friend’s. Her official position is book buyer. She gets to pick what books the bookstore imports. Of course in order to make such an informed decision, you need to actually read the book before ordering it in en masse. Imagine getting paid to read books? (Even if it at times, it’s books you love to hate.) And you don’t even have to pay for your book purchases. (There’s also this aristocratic power to determine what books the public will be forced to read.)

Of course there are also jobs that seem glamorous on the outside, but just as gritty as any other job in reality. Take modeling or acting for example. Most people think these professionals are having the time of their life, posing all the time and getting paid huge sums of money. Well, in all honesty, it’s not that easy. Aside from looking hard to actually land such opportunities, you have to pose in front of the camera over and over again, all the while retaining the same enthusiasm, even if the forced smile is killing you. Not to mention all the time "wasted" wearing make-up and trying out the clothes the stylist has for you. And at the end of the day, there’s the usual hassle of collecting payments and following up on your fees. Did I mention paperwork and filing of taxes is hell for a self-employed citizen?

Of course I’ve also met some people who are more enterprising than most. Rather than wait for opportunity to knock on their door, they seek them out and grab them by the proverbial horns. Granted, there’s a big risk involved in such budding entrepreneurs, but most things in life come at a steep price.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

[Essay] Broken Hearts

It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. A very true statement, although most of us would prefer to have loved and won. Heartbreak, after all, enables us to experience two extremes: happiness and despair. To a person in love, all his or her petty crushes and naive attractions simply pale in comparison. It proves to them that they are capable of so much more, but like most epiphanies, it usually comes at a hefty price. Broken hearts are seldom mended so easily. There aren’t a lot of experiences that can much up to it, and to some, the only comfort is in forgetting…

Perhaps what causes rejected lovers so much grief isn’t losing the chance at love, but losing what they perceive to be as their only chance at it. It’s all to easy to imagine, after all, that such a rare occurrence may never happen again, much like catching a glimpse of a shooting star in your lifetime. What could be more elusive, more ominous? It’s not as if we could predict when we’ll fall in love again… if ever at all.

The only true weapon we have is hope. Hope in either having another opportunity to win the love of that person, or hope in rediscovering love in someone anew. Defeated suitors and admirers despair because they’ve lost hope. We become so concerned about the present and the past that we’ve forgotten there’s still a future ahead of us. Memories of what has been and what could have been, however, haunt and plague us that it becomes too easy to succumb to sorrow.

But another way of looking at things is that a broken heart reveals to us how much more life has to offer. Before we can have our hearts broken, we must have a heart in the first place. It would perhaps be more painful to know that we’re incapable of loving, instead of simply falling in love and having our affections unreciprocated.

Some people, however, don’t feel that way. They think that they would have been better off not knowing the person who evokes such passion in us, or perhaps more importantly, better off not hoping. True, the pain would be less, for in this case, the salvation of hope is also a lover’s damnation. But that’s equivalent to choosing to remain ignorant of what one is truly capable of. It’s like catching a glimpse of paradise, and choosing to forget that such a place could exist in the first place simply because it’s unattainable. We forget that if it was truly unattainable, how did we get there in the first place? And sometimes, we think too little of ourselves that we let our self-doubts assail us with insecurities.

Yes, love is elusive, and there really is no guarantee that we’ll fall in love again, or better yet, someone will fall in love with us. Nothing in life, after all, is truly certain. Yet can we truly blame our predicament? Some people, after all, go through their entire lives never experiencing falling in love. Can we truly say that we’re better off not knowing what it is to dream, to hope, to love, even if such notions are unreciprocated?

Friday, September 01, 2006

[Essay] A Random Book Musing

Books can be a double-edged sword. If you own a book (or a bookshelf), it makes us feel smart. If we're not as well-read, however, we might enter a bookstore and feel quite ignorant because of all the books we haven't read.

Moral of the story? Stare at books you've already read before. You'll feel better.

But honestly, intelligence, and more importantly, maturity isn't about how many books you've read or know about. It's about applying what you've read and experienced.

Perhaps that's the beauty of children's books. There's no need to prove to one's ego that you need to read a thick book to read a good book. More isn't necessarily better. And sometimes, the message is clearer, simpler, and more concise. Wisdom isn't exclusive to complexity after all.

There's beauty in long, complicated narratives too. It challenges our self, our discipline, our perception, our cognitive processes, and our soul. It won't always be easy, but medicine didn't always come in sweet packages.

Monday, August 28, 2006

[Essay] A "Modern" Paradigm Shift

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Papayas. That specific phrase was taught to me by my science teacher in grade school to memorize the nine planets of the Solar System. I hear that in other schools, the last word isn’t always papayas: Pasta? Peanuts? Pomegranates? Of course it’s now a moot point since as of August 24, 2006, there are only eight planets in our Solar System. Anyone up for a new slogan to help remember all eight planets?

Pluto’s demotion (and the promotion of certain heavenly bodies) is perhaps one of the biggest paradigm shifts I’ve encountered so far. Well, to my peers if not to me. I mean if you studied the history of the discovery of the various planets (and not just their name), humanity’s awareness of Pluto has only been recent, and its classification has always been ambiguous. It doesn’t really matter to me but I’m sure the change gave people pause and perhaps shock, not because it has a big impact on their personal lives (in the way 9/11 changed the paradigm of Americans, or the first EDSA Revolution for Filipinos), but because it’s something they remember being taught to them at school, etched as a fact in their text books not so long ago.

Unfortunately (for us), knowledge is seldom static. As new discoveries are made, old beliefs need to be disregarded and what used to be a fact is now simply considered historical. If that weren’t so, humans would still think that they live on a flat planet, or that the Earth is the center of the universe. Still, Pluto is far from the only outdated model we have of the world, much less the universe (or should I say multiverse?). I was taught that atoms and sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) were the smallest forms of matter but guess what, there’s quarks and I’m sure in the future, there’ll be something smaller than that. A friend also pointed out that Newtonian Physics isn’t exactly the most accurate, but is the simplest way (because we honestly don’t need to know the complicated stuff to move on with our lives) to describe the laws of Physics.

Of course the latest ruckus over Pluto (at least its name is still the same) also shows us that politics will always be present in every human endeavor, even in something as empirical as science. What was supposed to re-affirm Pluto’s status into a planet did the opposite when public opinion went against it. I’m sure there was lots of debate, cajoling, and coercion on both sides. And human nature being fickle as it is, the decision might be reversed in the future, or it might not. But the fact of the matter is that people decided whether Pluto was to be a planet or not, and people took sides. It’s based on scientific information, but there’s really nothing scientific about persuading others to agree with you, or to rally against those whose beliefs you distrust.

In the end, the issue really isn’t about Pluto. It’s about our concept of the world, and how we react when new ideas are put forth. Some will act as the vanguard of old ideas (and sometimes rightly so, because just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always right), while others are willing to try out new ideas. We’re the same species, after all, that condemned Galileo, tried to appease Hitler, and voted for our politicians.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

[Essay] My Best Friend’s Gay!

Perception on homosexuality has changed over the years. This isn’t about praising homosexuality, nor is it condemning them. This is merely an observation of my high school, and how that tiny microcosm is applicable on a macro level.

I used to be a student in an all-boys, Filipino-Chinese school run by Jesuits. The dominant attitude there, at least back when I was still a student, was quite conservative, as you’d expect from a school that would segregate its students based on gender. Running the statistics (much like calculating the chances that one member of a boy band is gay), there’s bound to be a homosexual in each batch, especially when you factor in our cramped learning environment (i.e. overpopulation doesn’t only apply to the country). Some schools in Metro Manila will develop a reputation for the tendency to have homosexuals in their student population (i.e. “this school has lots of lesbians, this school has lots of gays.”) but the school I went to didn’t have that kind of reputation. If anything, one of my schoolmates took pride in the fact that no one was openly homosexual during their tenure as a student. At least back then.

Not that hints of homosexuality was totally absent in our environment. It was always there, sometimes in the way you talk, or a certain effeminate quality you had. Whatever pegged you as gay, you got teased for it. “Bakla” (gay) was a very common insult back in my day. Of course while there were students we suspected were gay, no one expected them to act out their sexual orientation, nor did we expect them to admit that they were homosexuals. Denials were the norm.

That was the case for the longest time. My seatmate was clearly gay, although he never admitted it during all four years I was with him. It wasn’t until college that I heard rumors that he had come out of the closet, and that he even had a boyfriend. I don’t think anyone was really surprised (except perhaps my mom, who only heard him through the phone, and thought he had a manly voice and suggested I should be like him).

Whether you were effeminate or truly gay didn’t matter in school. You got bullied nonetheless. Me not wanting to be judgmental, I assumed that everyone was the former rather than the latter. I had a best friend (there I go contradicting myself f several years worth of blog entries) in what seemed like the interval between grade school and high school (yes, I know it’s called “summer break”) and while he displayed the symptoms of the stereotype gay guy (he listened to Mariah Carey songs, adored Sailormoon, and had a fashion sense), I always assumed he was effeminate. I even remember him talking about liking (but not physically attracted to) a certain girl when I was sleeping over at his house. And to top it all off, we did what most geeks, I mean guys, our age did: we played video games, video games, and more video games. Oh, and we slept over at each other’s houses, called each other up on the phone when a new book or anime had just come out, and played cards with each other.

It’s only lately that I found out he was gay (uh, reading it from a blog entry doesn’t exactly prepare you for it). It caught me completely off guard, although it’s not I didn’t see all the hints. But as Gerry wisely put it, it all doesn’t matter. He’s still my best friend from grade school/high school, and we can be our genuine selves around each other.

However, I’m sure there will be schoolmates with whom it won’t sit well with, and to them, the word gay will always be an insult.

Of course the stories I hear about my school nowadays have changed. More and more students are coming out of the closest just as they enter high school, not waiting to graduate before revealing to the whole world a part of who they truly are.

Personally though, I can’t help but ask, who else among my schoolmates were gay? Not that it’ll changed how I act around them, but I wonder how that one fact is so integral to their personality that they had to keep hidden, and how it would have changed them, whether for better or for worse.

[Essay] The Silent Conflict

It seems that with each generation, people rally to a certain cause or belief. In America, an example would be the discrimination against African-Americans. In more modern times, it’s a lot of things, from gender equality to tolerance for homosexuality to animal rights. There’s an issue though that’s closer to home, but isn’t in the limelight. It’s a battle waged by certain members of the Filipino-Chinese community, but ends up becoming the struggle of an individual, rather than that of a group. The lessons learned are seldom shared, and the fight is renewed once more with each generation. Granted, there are no legal laws prohibiting the cause these Filipino-Chinese fight for, but it’s a stigma pervasive in their community. What I am talking about is the taboo of Chinese marrying someone not of Chinese descent.

Its history goes way back when certain citizens of China decided to migrate to the Philippines. While it’s easy to claim that the Chinese were xenophobic, xenophobia is also a trait among Filipinos. Echoes of such fears and prejudice can be seen in today’s modern Filipino and Filipino-Chinese: the resentment of the poverty-stricken Filipinos against the seemingly better-off Filipino-Chinese, even if this land isn’t their native country, and the superiority complex the Filipino-Chinese have for their brethren and kin, with preference for their fellow Chinese associates. Suffice to say, the Chinese have tried to carve a place for themselves in the Philippines, and ended up isolating themselves (whether by choice or by circumstance) from the natives, hence the existence of a “China Town”.

Growing up in a Filipino-Chinese school where most of my classmates were of Chinese blood, I was always asked by the parents of my friends whether I was Chinese or not whenever I entered their home (or met them elsewhere as the case may be). The same thing would apply to my parents as well, as whenever I would mention a name, the first question they’d ask was whether he or she was Chinese or Filipino.

It’s not as if the Chinese community have been here only recently, or that their culture hasn’t intermingled with Filipinos. You’d think after more than a century of occupancy and generation upon generation of Filipino-Chinese, we’d be more open to accepting local paradigms. Yet in a certain way, one cannot blame the Chinese either. One could argue that the very same traditions and beliefs they hold dear is the very same reason why they continue to prosper. In a land of foreigners, the Chinese aid fellow Chinese. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the present Filipino-Chinese still see themselves living in a land of foreigners, and that everyone else is a hostile enemy.

While foot-binding and arranged marriages have already been forsaken for more modern customs, some practices are obviously harder to shed. As I mentioned before, it is taboo for a Chinese individual to marry someone who isn’t Chinese. There will be exceptions of course, such as if the suitor is extremely rich, or has great influence (whether political, economical, or social). There is even more consideration for a Chinese person to marry a foreigner, so long as the person they are marrying is not Filipino. Nonetheless, for the most part, me and my classmates were discouraged from dating, much less marrying, someone not Chinese. One of the most severe threats I’ve heard was disownment, while some fathers settle for leaving their sons and daughters out of the inheritance. Again, there will be exceptions, but like most things, double standards as well. There have been Chinese, for example, who have successfully rebelled and married Filipinos without cutting off their ties to family. But the Chinese being descendants of a patriarchal society, it is easier for men to get away with it than women. Even more lenient Chinese families allow their sons to marry someone not Chinese, but forbid their daughters to do so. One of the most hypocritical situations but prevalent nonetheless is when a parent is Filipino-Chinese, but the other isn’t. You’d think they’d bestow upon their child the freedom to choose their significant other but no, the same restrictions still fall into place: you must marry someone Chinese.

Individual Filipino-Chinese have rebelled against their families, some successfully, others not. But unlike a group united by the same cause, the attempt merely ends up being a personal struggle rather than one that concerns the entire community. Worse, it’s not as if the public is totally ignorant of this prejudice, yet it is tolerated and accepted. So what if you have successfully convinced your family to let you marry a Filipino? It doesn’t help the other Filipino-Chinese residing in this nation. It’s not even a matter of waiting for your parents to pass on to the next world. Others will take up their cause: your relatives, your siblings, even your friends. They will all pressure you into doing (or rather not do) what they think is appropriate.

I do not speak of this because I will directly benefit from it. I am bringing up this matter because it is a freedom which has been withheld from us Filipino-Chinese for so long. By no means is it impossible to attain, but every step taken forward is an uphill battle, and all for the happiness of an individual rather than a community. I do not speak up because I intend to marry someone not Chinese, but I fight for it for the mere possibility of being able to marry someone for love, irregardless of race or stature.

Not that such prejudice is without its benefits. Such a dilemma probes into the hearts of every Filipino-Chinese as they ask themselves, is this all worth it for the person I love? Such a marriage entails risking everything for the person you are to marry. For both parties, it’s not just marriage with each other, but a marriage with adversity as well. But at least your significant other will be certain of your feelings, if not your bank account. And who here doesn’t fantasize about having a Romeo & Juliet love story?

But in the end, romance need not end in tragedy. Until people are willing to speak up and rally under a common banner, even the most hard-fought cause will fade into silence.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

[Essay] Sleight of Hand

When I was in college, there was this girl I courted for my entire stay as an undergraduate student (well, more like tried to court her for a year, and spent the next three years trying to get back into her good graces). Needless to say, my intentions were transparent to nearly everyone, from the girl’s blockmates to her friends from other courses. This story isn’t about her though. While me, my blockmates, and my crush had some overlapping classes, my blockmates never suspected (short of me blatantly telling them, and even then…). Instead, they thought I was attracted to someone else, someone closer to home. They thought I was in love with a fellow blockmate.

As a freshman student, my heart had just got broken, and I had given up my flirtatious ways after knowing (and lost) true love. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t the same techniques I used to woo women to gain new friends. It was also a time when I would fall in love once more, but this time, I was a bit more cautious. If I were to do favors for a certain individual, I had to do favors for everyone. Suffice to say, I was still lacking in experience, and the love of my life shunned me.

Enter my sophomore year, still heartbroken but a little wiser. With no individual to focus all my energies on, I had decided to simply dedicate myself to making as much friends as I could. I was in this writing class and my classmates varied, some were blockmates, while others belonged to different courses, or even a batch higher than me. It was on that occasion that one of my upperclassmen caught my eye. I admit I was attracted to her, but not so much as to detract me from giving up on my crush (in other words, my intent was a platonic relationship rather than a romantic one, although I was sorely tempted). By chance (or strategic positioning), she was my seatmate and on our second class or so, she happened to ask me for candy.

Asking for candy is a common occurrence. People will ask it when they suddenly have a sweet tooth, need to get rid of a foul taste in their mouth, or simply for the sugar rush when you’ve had a really bad and tiring day. If you’ve seen me in real life, you’ll also notice that I carry this really huge bag that seems to contain everything from masking tape to staplers… except candy. On that day, I vowed that the next time she asks for candy, I will have some ready.

And just as expected, the next class we had, I had chocolate with me (because you can’t go wrong with chocolate, unless you’re like me and have allergies to it). I thought why settle for simple candy when chocolate is even better? Who knows, the recipient might actually fall in love with me. Anyway, not waiting for my seatmate to ask for candy, I offered her the chocolate, stating her craving the day before. As can be expected, I get the “that’s so sweet” response. Of course I know that if I kept at it, it would seem as if I was courting the girl. Which I wasn’t, nor did I want to project the image of. So I applied my rule of doing favors for everyone. I gave her seatmate, another upperclassman, chocolate too. And then by chance (an inevitable chance), a blockmate of mine passed by. The chocolate, by then, was too late to be hidden. So I offered her chocolate too. And then that caused a commotion as my other blockmates wanted chocolate too. I was hesitant at first, but then one of my classmates said “why are you only giving chocolates to xxx (xxx being my blockmate and not my seatmate)?” At that point, I realized I had the perfect smokescreen as everyone else thought I was pinning for my blockmate rather than my seatmate.

To make a long story short, yes, I gave chocolate to everyone. And I didn’t stop there. These days, when I run into a batchmate acquaintance and I ask them if they remember me, they say of course, and then associate me with giving chocolates.

Moving back to the story, my smokescreen unfortunately worked too well. Even until the very day I graduated, all my blockmates continued to think I was attracted to a fellow blockmate (honestly, she’s not my type and never found her pretty), even when I was obviously courting someone else. And so it happened that when I met my crush’s friends and blockmates, I’d get teased about my crush, but when it gave to my block, I’d get teased about my fellow blockmate.

Well, it did prevent my blockmates from teasing me about my actual crush. But it’s funny the wrong assumption carried on for several years (actually to this very day, until one of them reads this essay).

Friday, August 18, 2006

[Essay] Evolution

It’s human nature to cling to the past. To many, it’s a comfort zone, an idealized world of what things were like in “better” days. We have many words for these kinds of people: conservative, traditional, old-fashioned. Not that these traits should always be viewed in a negative light. There is virtue in the past after all, just as there are vices.

To some people though, there are sacred cows which appear to be unassailable by time: history and language. Yet nothing can be farther from the truth. All things change eventually, even if at times they will revert to a previous incarnation, for change is still present in regression. It is too easy to forget that history and language are tools of humans, and human beings are always in a constant state of flux.

The historians might ask how can history change if it has already happened? A valid question, to be sure, and the cynical might reply that we build a time machine. But one is not needed. We must remember that history, in the end, is about perception, and there are many illusions that can fool the senses. There is an old saying that it is the winners who write history, and there is probably no truer statement than that when you look at the past few centuries of Philippine history. When the country was under Spanish rule, who do you think was the hero that was praised in the history books? For a period in time, Filipinos praised Magellan for “discovering” the Philippines. It wasn’t until the yoke of colonial rule was broken that Lapu-Lapu was hailed as a hero in lessons taught to children. Or take a more recent view of things. Emilio Aguinaldo, the country’s first president, was again hailed as a hero during his prime. What few people realize is that his betrayal of Andres Bonifacio was easily omitted, until election time came once again, and the nation’s first president pitted himself against one of the most political-savvy presidents our nation gave birth to: Manuel Quezon. Did the facts change? No. But the perception of the facts did. In fact, some of the facts weren’t even known depending on the circumstance. Fossil fuel, for example, might be a boon during the industrial age, but who knows what generations from now will think of it? Poison, pollutant, or power perhaps?

But while there is politics involved when it comes to history, how can something as benign as language be affected? It is tempting to isolate politics from language, but the two are more entwined than most people think. Again, one merely needs to look at our nation. Who determined our national language? There must have been an arbiter to declare that the indios of this archipelago spoke Tagalog, and would later change to Spanish, then English, and finally Pilipino. But one might argue there is a change between languages used, and that for the most part, a language remains the same language as it was. What one must realize that language is just as living and evolving as history. The only language that has ceased changing is Latin, yet people can always find new idioms and metaphors for the so-called dead language. Just look at English. There’s no word that has mutated as much as “nice”, for example. From its etymological roots meaning stupid, it’s now used as a compliment. Other languages are more blatant in their adoption of change. The Japanese, for example, have an entire alphabet called katakana which is used for words borrowed from other countries: terebi for TV, oisuki for whiskey. The Chinese spell non-native words either through their literal meaning, or by how the word would sound in Chinese. And Filipinos are always speaking in Pilipino-English (or Taglish) that the line between what is English and what is Pilipino is getting blurred. And these past two decades alone has given birth to several new words in the English language: Internet, anime, blog. And there are several words that have taken the place of their more generic counterparts such as “Xerox” popping up more frequently than the word “photocopy” for example. Or words that have taken new and additional meanings, such as the word “gay” being more than just a synonym for happy.

Yet people will always insist that what they think is true to be the only truth in the world. As if change is a word that is merely spoken, but never applied to themselves or those around them. Not that constancy is a bad thing: if everything was always changing, we’d be in constant state of chaos. People would have no basis or common ground for their history, and communication would simply be ineffective if we continued to speak in varying levels and meaning. But taking that into consideration, where does that leave us? Are we to love change, or loathe it?

One of the most beautiful and frightening things about being human is that we are walking paradoxes. We struggle against change, but we eventually succumb to it. We try to experience new sensations, but old habits are difficult to break. To resist change absolutely is to die, for only the dead ceases to evolve. But to embrace change wholeheartedly is similarly lethal, for we have lost our identity, if not our physical self. Both elements are warring with each other in the human soul, sometimes one side overcoming the other more frequently. But that is not to say we should always be resisting change. As a person greater than me once said, there’s a time and place for everything.

Constancy can be part of memory, while change is something we might aspire or hope for. In the meantime, the present has room for life, whatever life means to you.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

[Essay] Cosplay Part 3: Judging

In any cosplay event, it is inevitable that people will form opinions about cosplayers, both good and bad. And when it comes to competitions, I’m sure people will have their own judgments on who should win, rather than who actually won. I’m far from a cosplay connoisseur, but here are my thoughts on how a cosplayer is judged.

Of course this article is not for everyone. I mean there will be cosplayers who will attend conventions and will have no intentions of participating in the competition. There will even be people who look horrible in costume, but it doesn’t matter to them (we all cosplay for various reasons after all). Still, would-be cosplayers could find a helpful tip or two, even if they don’t plan on winning. It’s not about being the champion in a competition, but honing your craft, and looking good in front of your friends, if not an audience.

Know the Mechanics

Irregardless of what competition you’re joining, it’s extremely helpful to know the mechanics, especially if you plan on winning. Before you start wondering why you didn’t win, or cry foul on someone whom you thought shouldn’t have won, it’s a good idea to check the mechanics first.

If you’re dead set on winning a competition (if you’re the competitive type), knowing the mechanics also enables you to focus more on what’s important. For example, if the mechanics was 70% costume, 30% acting, you know where you should direct most of your energy. Those focusing more on having fun, at the very least, will know what their chances are, and brace themselves for the final decision.

Knowing the mechanics is also helpful if you’re a judge. Obviously, we all have our biases but knowing the mechanics enables us to be more fair. For example, if we have a breakdown of 40% costume, 30% acting, 30% props and gimmicks, we can easily decipher more easily why we favor a certain cosplayer. We might be impressed by a cosplayer’s costume, and give them a perfect 40%, but less impressed with their acting, so give them a 15%, and just to be fair, give another 10% for their gimmicks, or lack of one. As a judge, if you tabularize it and look at it on paper, it’s easier to see the breakdown, rather than give them an arbitrary number of 1 to 10 based on sheer emotion.

Of course some competitions won’t have blatant mechanics, but they’re still there nonetheless. And as usual, some will favor certain characteristics more than others. Take for example something like a people’s choice awards, or where the public gets to decide on who wins. Honestly, for the most part, it’s really a popularity contest. It could be that the cosplayer has lots of friends, or maybe the character they’re cosplaying as is quite popular at the time. Sure, there will be voters who will be taking the stance of a judge and vote depending on their own criteria (unfortunately which, there is no “universal” mechanics as everyone will prioritize different aspects), but for the most part, it comes right down to who has more appeal to the public. And who can blame them? What Filipino wouldn’t be enthralled, even temporarily, to see Voltes V up on stage? Or perhaps you’re a guy and you see a pretty cosplayer in a revealing outfit. Doesn’t your heart go out to that cosplayer? (And before you girls complain, the reverse is true as well: females ogle over pretty boys too.)

There will also be situations when the mechanics are less apparent. Take a look at the recent National Cosplay Competition’s Online Voting. Aside from suffering from the above symptoms, another limitation it faces is its medium: photos on the Internet. If you’re a cosplayer who has lots of energy and acting talent, will that show in the photo? Not as much compared to seeing you on stage. You might also be photogenic but your outfit appears less impressive in person, or you might have a really awesome costume but the camera caught you at a bad angle, again, that puts you in a different disposition compared to being judged in a catwalk. Even those who focus on producing a good costume might lose out in points as some of the minute details and props might not be seen with the small size and resolution of the picture.

And then there will be competitions where the hierarchy of mechanics is more obvious. It could be a fight scene sequence, or a group skit competition. Sure, we might not know the exact mechanics, but we can take a good guess at which factor the judges will prioritize.

Optimum Body Type

Let’s face it, life’s not fair. Some people are prettier than others, and certain people fit cosplaying certain roles better. And to a certain extent, cosplayers struggle with this dilemma: should I cosplay someone I resemble, or should I cosplay as someone I really really love, even if I don’t resemble them physically?

The good news is that sometimes, this isn’t always the case. There are tons of characters who have their faces concealed, for example, and if you’re a mecha fan, mechas are usually a haven as you can be almost any body type (short of being obese, or too frail of a body) and still cosplay as your favorite mecha.

But when you don’t have that option, what do you do? This is the moment when a cosplayer should ask themselves what their agenda for the convention is: am I here to win (or perhaps as a favor to a friend or a group), or am I here to have fun? Either, really, is a valid answer. If you cosplay as someone you physically resemble, that’s additional points when it comes to the judging part of the competition. On the other hand, if you’re cosplaying as someone who’s thinner than you, taller than you, or perhaps even the wrong gender (and you’re not androgynous to begin with), well, brace yourself for some negative reactions from the audience. But that’s fine if you really want to do so. You can make up for it either in acting (see Costume vs Acting at the bottom), or simply do what you came to do: to have fun. Just don’t harbor any illusions.

Costume Complexity

When I was still active in the cosplay scene, a friend of mine (I won’t name names because… I tend to forget people’s names! But you’ll know who they are anyway, trust me.) established a reputation of creating mecha costumes, and having a streak of winning competitions. Thus for a period of time, there was a rumor going that he was winning through sheer size and bulk (because mechas tend to be large).

Honestly, there’s a better explanation for why he was winning. It’s a matter of costume complexity. If we’re going to judge based on costumes alone, who should win between two competitors? Honestly, it’s not enough to have an accurate costume. It must be challenging as well, at least when you’re up against fellow competitors.

Crafting costumes is no easy thing, whether you’re looking for materials or building it from scratch. However, no two costumes are the same and some are more difficult to make than others. For example, a relatively simple costume (but we must give credit as finding costumes still takes time and effort) would be the student outfit. There are tons of anime characters there that wear school uniforms, and well, our school outfits resembles theirs. At the very least, we have an existing template to work with. Compare that to say, a mecha costume. Mecha costumes aren’t exactly something you can buy off the rack. You have to make it, and experiment with various materials (everything from cheap cartolina to Styrofoam to expensive fiber glass). If you manage to pull it off (actually build a decent-looking mecha costume), both of you might gain the same points in accuracy, but the technical difficulties and visual impact between the two cosplayers aren’t the same.

That’s not to say mecha costumes will always win in terms of visual impact and technical skill. There are other, similarly complex costumes that doesn’t involve mecha. One example would be the priestess variation of Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi, as the costume requires a lot of details and accessories.

Of course bear in mind the key word here is also “if you manage to pull it off”. Some costumes do try, but fall short. I’m sure judges will give you extra points for trying, but who should win becomes blurred as people struggle between two choices: the simpler but more accurate costume, or the more difficult but less accurate outfit. Then again, cosplay competitions aren’t based solely on the costume craft.

On a related note, a similar challenge is present when it comes to group cosplay. Anyone who’s cosplayed as a group knows that sometimes, it’s difficult to complete a team. A group of three characters, for example, is easier to form than say, ten. If the latter manages to pull it off, with great costumes and stuff, kudos to them, even if the three-person group was just as impressive.

Costume vs Acting

Now we come to a controversial topic. Which should bear more importance, costume or acting? My answer? See Know the Mechanics above. People will have differing opinions about this, and competitions will similarly have different priorities.

However, both should be present at some level. It’s a cosplay competition after all. If it was simply about the costume, we’d just get mannequins and have the mannequins wearing the costume on display. It’s less taxing on the cosplayer that way. Similarly, you don’t enter a cosplay competition without a costume. Cosplay suspends people’s sense of disbelief, and that’s kind of hard to do when all you have is a t-shirt and shorts, and you’re supposed to be a big, menacing evil overlord, no matter how convincing your acting may be.

Perhaps the hardest trick for a cosplayer to pull-off is to have synergy between costume and acting. It’s not about being spectacular in either factor, but complementing each other. Take for example a friend of mine who won a certain international cosplay competition as Saito Hajime from Rurouni Kenshin. Let’s break it down, shall we? At the time, Kenshin was enjoying huge popularity all over Asia, so that’s plus points in winning over the audience and the judges. The costume itself was somewhere in the middle when it comes to complexity. Not the most technical of costumes to be had, but neither is it easy to craft. (And my friend had a really good and accurate costume.) And as luck (or fate) would have it, my friend has a certain resemblance to the character (an optimum body type). That’s not what impressed me though. It’s my friend’s ability to channel the character, at looking threatening and impressive at the same time. He even had the smoking part going for him. I’m not saying the acting part was the deciding factor for making him win, or the costume, but all these factors played a role in the final decision.

Of course there have also been circumstances where acting has swayed the audience over. I have this friend who cosplayed as Poe (“Iga” in the local dub) from Shaider. The character she was cosplaying as was popular (as no one had done it at the time), and she had a well-made costume, complete with headdress and staff. However, if I were to be critical, there’s just one problem: the cosplayer didn’t have the optimal body type for the character. She was a bit large and didn’t have the thin, androgynous (apparently Iga is a transvestite) look. However, that didn’t bother her. She stuck to her role quite well, waving her staff and chanting her popular mantra. She’s a winner in my book, and apparently a winner in the eyes of the audience as well who cheered and chanted with her. Just goes to show that acting is indeed a factor in cosplaying, and how it can make up for your other weaknesses.

Lastly, there was this group cosplay that’s worth mentioning. It was held in Mega Mall, and the winners of the event incorporated several wacky and comedic stunts during their act. Their outfits were mediocre, some were even obviously rushed, while others were improvised. What made them win? They made the audience laugh, made us fans enjoy the entire scene. And it wasn’t done through sheer costume ability, but due to choreography, and their sheer playfulness on stage. Obviously, such competitions are more biased towards the play aspect of cosplay, but goes to show how acting can become more dominant than costumes in such a situation.

Popular Characters

Choosing who to cosplay also affects your chances of winning. Obviously, more popular characters will receive more fan reaction than obscure characters, but you also have a higher chance of competing with a fellow cosplayer who has the same costume as you.

Theoretically, cosplaying should be about who has the better costume and acting talent, not who’s more well-known. But life’s not fair, and the judges are only human. Let’s say you have 100 participants in a cosplay competition, and each competitor is from a unique anime series. That’s over 100 anime shows the judges should be familiar with, and the way cosplay competitions are run in the country (that is, registration is usually a day or two before the competition), that’s really not enough time for judges to familiarize themselves with each and every character that’s supposed to be present at the cosplay. Cosplaying as a familiar character gives you certain benefits as well as disadvantages.

A problem with obscure characters is that unless the judges are familiar with them, it’s a mixed blessing at best. All the judges have going for them when judging accuracy is the photo you submitted, and that hardly conveys all the details of the character, much less the personality of the person you’re cosplaying as. Details that you should have or shouldn’t have might be missed, and you run the risk of getting scored erroneously (whether you want to win or lose by a judge’s ignorance is up to you).

An example would be my friends who cosplayed as gold saints from Saint Seiya. I’m a big fan of the show but unfortunately, it’s not that well-known here. The costumes they made were great and there were several of them but the audience reaction was ho-hum. Obviously, such an endeavor was done out of a fan’s passion rather than a desire to win (which I applaud, by the way).

However, certain characters draw your attention to them, even if they’re not that well-known. And in my opinion, that’s a great feat and perhaps one of the hardest challenges a cosplayer can strive for. Take for example the original batch of cosplayers dressed up as Trinity Blood characters. The series didn’t have an anime yet and the manga only recently started at the time. Yet everyone was looking at them, from their boyish good looks to fact that it’s an actual group and they had lots of props and detailed costumes that have never been seen before. I didn’t know about Trinity Blood back then but I couldn’t help but say wow.

Still, it’s a different atmosphere when a well-known character appears, especially when no one has cosplayed them before. It’s happened several times, everything from Voltes V to Prince Zardos to Ringwraiths. There’s a great satisfaction, after all, when you have the attention of the audience, and they’re all cheering for you.

Worthy to note, also, are recurring characters, or cosplaying the same character over and over again. Let me put it this way: even if your favorite food is chocolate, if you eat it every single day, you’ll eventually tire of it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t recycle costumes, but there’s a point when you can overdo it. Perhaps worse is the kind of reputation you’re building, as your pigeonholed into a certain character (not even a role), and your name will constantly be associated with it.


Cosplayers friends, upon arriving at the convention, are often disheartened when they see someone having the same costume as them. Me being less emotionally attached (perhaps simply being a spectator has something to do with it), the way I see it, doppelgangers help weed out the weakest link. Here’s why.

First off, there are actually two types of doppelgangers. First are cosplayers who are portraying the same character, but different variations of them. They have different costumes, although they are portraying the same character. For me, it seems that there’s lots of room for flexibility here, and that cosplayers shouldn’t be worried. There’s enough differences, after all, to make you unique compared to the other person. Sure, you’re cosplaying the same character, and the only thing you need to be insecure about is if the other person has a body type that resembles the character more than you. Even then, you can outdo him or her via your sheer personality, or by simply having a better costume.

The other type of doppelganger is when you and the other person are cosplaying the same character in the same costume. Obviously, comparisons will be made, but the good thing about comparisons is that the better cosplayer becomes evident. Of course if you’re insecure about your costume and your character, you will feel disheartened when beside your doppelganger, but that’s why as a cosplayer, you should strive for the best when designing your outfit and appearing on stage.

Comparisons aren’t a bad thing, especially if you’re the one with the superior costume. Your better design, your better attention to detail, will come out. More often than not though, what will happen is that you will excel in certain areas, while your doppelganger will also be good at other aspects. At that point, it becomes a numbers game, and the more areas you excel in, the better. However, if you truly want to impress your audience and the judges, I think this is where acting in character becomes a pivotal element.


Gimmicks could be anything from functioning weapons, blinking lights, a transforming robot, or some spectacular special effect that’s easy to construct. It actually crosses the line between costume and acting, because on one hand, it’s part of the costume and on the other, it’s there to help you act in character more.

Complex gimmicks obviously scores you more points with the audience and the judges. However, my advice is that while gimmicks are nice, they’re there to augment the costume and acting. Without a good outfit, or if acting out of character, the gimmick won’t win you competitions. There might be applauses from time to time, but you’re stuck being a one trick pony, simply relying on your gimmick. A gimmick is nice to watch once, but not repeatedly.

Still, cosplayers who have good costumes and acting talent have been known to win cosplays due to gimmicks, giving them that extra edge to win and gain the people’s approval. Perhaps that’s why it’s favorable to work on your costume early, so that you can include an additional gimmick or two. But if you’re pressed for time, remember that your gimmick isn’t your costume.

I’d also like to point out that gimmicks can really be anything. If you have a talent for singing and your character has been known to burst into song, then you can capitalize on that. If you’re cosplaying as an action-themed character and you can do backflips, I’d count that as a gimmick if you perform on stage.

Sexy Characters

Another common complaint in the cosplayer community are cosplayers who win because they’re sexy. It’s usually applied to females, but the accusation could actually be applied to anyone. As mentioned in Optimum Body Type, some people are more well endowed than others. Should you fault them for biology, especially if the character they’re cosplaying warrants it?

I think that’s really the issue at hand. Is the sex appeal the cosplayer is emulating part of the character? If yes, then they’re simply fulfilling their role. It’s hard to imagine Mai Shiranu from King of Fighters, for example, that’s not well endowed, or a Fujiko from Lupin III who’s not flirty (albeit not straight-out revealing). Of course if it’s an out-of-character moment, such as a strip-tease Miaka, well, then something’s wrong (unless it’s part of a parody in a skit or something).

And then you have to look at the costume as well. Having a good body type is well and good, but that alone won’t win you cosplay competitions. Because honestly, if you think showing skin will win you awards, then try going to a convention as a truly naked Kekko Kamen (Google her if you don’t know who the character is). The cosplayer would win for boldness in my book, but whether she’d win the actual competition, trouncing the other cosplayers whose costumes might have more technical appeal, well, I doubt it.

From my point of view, the “sexy cosplayers” who win have at least points going for them when it comes to the costume. Their sex appeal, yes, is a big plus, but I doubt if it’s the only factor the judges were looking into. Take a look at the Gundam Girl, for example. It’s a partially-skimpy outfit, meaning that on one hand, it’s not supposed to show lots of skin (the chest area, for example, is heavily armored), but it does anyway because of the concept (applying feminity into a robot). But I doubt if anyone would contest that the costume would be easy to make, or that it didn’t have a big visual impact.

And at the end of the day, you also have to give points to someone who cosplayers as a sexy character. It takes guts to do so, after all, especially if it’s a role the cosplayer is not usually accustomed to (you’d be surprised at how many “shy” cosplayers there are).

And honestly, one merely has to look at the history of cosplay winners in the country to see that various cosplayers of varying genre and gender have won cosplay competitions. I’m not saying that all the cosplay decisions have been fair, but usually one or several of these factors have influenced the decision of the judges.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

[Essay] Cosplaying Part 2: Social Dynamics of Cosplay

In recent years, cosplaying seems to have become a staple at conventions, irregardless if it’s anime-related or not, in the Philippines. One wonders why it’s so appealing (or why so many people participate), and it’s executed so seamlessly that people don’t always realize the group effort put into cosplaying, even if there’s just one person on stage.

Obviously, cosplayers like to cosplay but the real question to cosplayers isn’t why they love cosplaying, but rather what part of cosplaying do they love. It might not readily be apparent to people, but cosplaying is a long and complex process. Cosplayers typically like or prioritize a certain aspect of cosplaying , while there are cosplayers who love more than one stage of cosplaying (and perhaps even rarer is someone who loves and excels at all the facets of cosplaying), which is just as well since as human beings, we’re all born with different skill sets and interests.

Babbling about it won’t do much good so I’ll give examples of each stage in cosplaying to illustrate my point.

Everything begins with a concept and it’s just as important in cosplaying. Whether as an individual or as a group, cosplayers have a certain concept for their character or group of characters. It might be cosplaying a certain character who’s never been done before, or it might involve bringing together certain characters together. This is also the point when a cosplayer realizes whether he or she will start and end the entire process by themselves, or with companions. There’s a certain satisfaction in brainstorming an idea, and an even greater satisfaction in making it come true. You might not be the person strutting your stuff on the catwalk, but as long as you helped make the vision come true, from providing moral support to your friend to helping create the costume to choreographing a specific scene, there’s a sense of joy and fulfillment.

Then we move on to the actual pre-production stage. This actually involves several roles, and anywhere from one person to ten (or higher number) can be involved in it. Costume is one half of cosplay, after all, and for the most part, the costume begins and ends in pre-production. I mention roles because everything can be done by one person, or by a group of people. Roles involved in pre-production include designing the costume (since certain costumes need to fit certain body types, or if there’s a particular style you want to emulate as characters will usually have several variations), crafting the costume (whether it’s sewing the costume from scratch or literally building it using exotic materials), making props, scavenging for accessories (which might include the main “body” of the costume), finding the appropriate make-up, etc. This is an important step, and is also a good example of how cosplayers can diverge in interests. Some people take pride in the various roles of this process, such as finding a certain cloth in some far-off shop in the middle of nowhere, or building from scratch a paper mache replica of an accessory or prop. And indeed, there is great satisfaction in the act of creation. However, this need not be true for all cosplayers. There are, in fact, some who see this process as a chore, a necessity that must be dealt with but given the choice, would do away with it. This can be seen by having someone else make the costume, or hire a seamstress to make the outfit. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, and simply goes to show how cosplayers might have different tastes and interests. And in way, these differences between people make it possible for a team to work in cosplaying. For example, you might have a group of four friends. One is interested in choreography, so he goes about planning how the character will act on stage. Another might be interested in creating the costume, and he focuses on that. The third person might find stage performance to be the most appealing, and so he agrees to be the model to wear the costume. The last person might be an all-around guy who has a passion for all those steps, and helps out in all three phases. In a certain sense, I’ve been using the term cosplayer erroneously because well, all those people mentioned are involved in the cosplaying process. Without one, the cosplaying process isn’t complete. Sure, you might have a model with the appropriate personality for the character, but without a costume, that’s not cosplaying. Usually, we assign the term cosplayer to the model, to the person who wears the costume and acts on stage. If you did the entire process by yourself, that’s well and good, but if not, your friends and crew deserve some of the credit as well.

Of course sometimes, it’s also a matter of skill set. Like a seamstress might be talented in making costumes that involve cloth, but what happens when he or she wants to don a mecha costume? Cloth can only go so far, after all, and while he or she may be interested in making the costume by themselves, they simply don’t have the optimal skills. So they go about asking their friends who are skilled in everything from paper mache, crafting, or home economics. Sometimes it’s also a matter of time, especially when you’re going about it with just a few people. Coordinating people and resources is a skill, and some cosplayers might just want to focus on one certain area (such as simply making the costume and not having to worry about gathering the materials). Pre-production has several niches, and you don’t have to like all of them (but it helps).

Once you’ve gotten over the shock that, gasp, some cosplayers aren’t as enthusiastic as others in making the costume themselves (don’t worry, you’re not alone), we’ll move on to the next step. It’s the event itself where you cosplay. Again, while there’s only one person wearing the costume (or two if you have something really big and/or fancy, such as cosplaying as a horse), that doesn’t mean you need to be alone when you’re at the convention. It could mean hanging out with fellow cosplayers, especially if you agreed to go about it as a group. It could mean having friends assist you in wearing an elaborate costume. It could mean having someone help you in applying make-up, or to carry your props. Much like pre-production, there are niches to fill that need not involved actually wearing the costume, but still helps in the overall presentation. And of course, there’s acting out your role, in your full glory complete with costume, on stage and when the cameras are flashing. Again, there are people who live for this role, the actual act of being in character, screaming a phrase or two in front of a large audience, or performing a special move or two. In group scenarios, this might even involve acting out an entire skit. These are people who want to cater to an audience, or impressing friends that they actually pulled the entire stunt off, or agreeing to act as a favor to an acquaintance. Or they could be doing this for themselves, simply for the heck of it. But like pre-production, there are also cosplayers who are reticent of this role. I mean I’ve met a couple of shy cosplayers who don’t seem like someone who would walk in front of a catwalk (especially when it comes to revealing outfits). But they do it anyway, because it’s part of the cosplaying process. Maybe it’s because they resemble the character (or more likely, their body type fits the character) and thus they agreed to do so. It might be because they were coerced by their friends and fellow cosplayers. It might be because well, they like everything else about cosplaying except this part, so they might as well go along with it. It might be in taking pride that they’re wearing the outfit that they themselves made. There are several reasons for reluctant cosplayers to actually cosplay. But the important is that they do, or rather they try to do so (I can’t blame people who try since we usually fail the first time). Some might overcome their stage fears over the years, and some simply don’t. But that doesn’t stop them from cosplaying. Nor should you feel weird if you’re one of these people. Again, cosplaying is layered with many stages, and what makes us individuals is the fact that certain aspects appeal to us more than others. Having said that, don’t be surprised if the cosplayer you’re talking to is shy, even if he just cross-dressed in front of several hundred people, or she walked down the ramp in a skimpy outfit.

The fourth stage of the cosplay process is the judging. If you’re in a convention, you’re most likely participating in a competition, and in a competition, there are winners and losers. This is a case of two faces of the same coin. On one hand, there will be cosplayers who enjoy winning. Who doesn’t, after all? There’s a sense of accomplishment after all when you manage to outdo 99 other participants (and having an actual prize doesn’t hurt either). On the other hand, there will be cosplayers who enjoy cosplaying for the sake of cosplaying, competition be damned. Heck, some of the best cosplayers I know don’t even formally register for the competition, and just show up at the convention to mingle with friends and meet the crowd. It’s also possible that a cosplayer is feeling both emotions, or perhaps alternating between them depending on the event. Both really are valid reasons for cosplaying, and goes to show how people can gain fulfillment from cosplaying, even if their reasons are opposite of each other.

Once everything’s said and done, cosplaying seems over once the convention has ended and the awards have been given. However, there’s still the cleaning up that needs to be done, the packing up, and looking like a civilized person once again. Again, you can go about it alone, or have some friends with you tag along and help bring your costume to the car, or chat with girlfriends in the washroom. Now you can take a deep breath, and you and your companions can rejoice in a job well done. You went through the entire process, from conceptualizing an idea to making it come true. If you did everything alone, from canvassing materials to making your costume to wearing what you’ve made, then congratulations: that’s a tall order for any individual. And if you’ve enjoyed the entire process, then good for you. That in itself is a kind of a reward.

Of course as elaborate as the cosplaying process has been, and how there’s several avenues for enjoyment, that’s not the be-all and end-all of cosplaying. There will be other people and roles not mentioned here, such as the act of actually hosting a convention (without which, the cosplay event isn’t possible), acting as emcee and/or judge for the competition, or simply helping run the cosplay. Cosplaying is a diverse hobby, and different people will give you different reasons why they like to cosplay.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

[Essay] Cosplaying Part 1: Emphasizing Play in Cosplay

I was watching the National Cosplay Competition on TV the other night and I realized how much life has changed for me. Whereas I'd have a first-hand view before, either as part of the audience or helping friends get into their costumes, I'm now stuck watching televised cosplays, or hearing second-hand accounts from friends and blogs.

Of course watching it on TV showed me how the public could perceive cosplaying. If I were lazy, I could sum it up as a glorified Halloween party, but in all honesty, that's not accurate. For me, there's a difference between saying "I'm going to be in costume" from "I'm cosplaying".

As some of you might know, wearing costumes is something humans have a history of. From donning ceremonial masks in spiritual rituals to wearing hoods and cloaks in various initiation rites (I'm actually thinking of the KKK here...) to stylish masks in masquerades to something more mundane such as a birthday or Halloween party, dressing up other than who you are is more common than you think. It seems that cosplay could easily fit into one of those categories but that would be over-generalizing, and fails to differentiate itself from other activities. For example, the highlight of the masquerade isn't just wearing masks to conceal your identity, but it's about the socializing, the dancing, the mystery of a blind date. In that specific scenario, concealing your identity is in the service of something else, and not an end in itself.

So how do we go about describing cosplay? Again, there's a simple way to show what cosplay is, but the impression it gives isn't necessarily accurate. I could say it's a fusion of two words: costume and play. Most people, however, seem to focus more on the former than the latter. And that's what makes this article different as I'll be focusing on the play part. When we speak about "play" in cosplay, it's not just about playing or having fun, but rather an emphasis more on acting on stage such as theater, and adopting another identity and pretending to be someone else. Both elements, costume and play, are important, but the latter seems to be overlooked as of late, and in a sense, both terms go hand in hand with each other.

How do I focus on the "play" part? By focusing on the costume part. Aside from cosplay, where else do you find costumes? Typical answer would be in Halloween parties and/or birthday parties. However, as mentioned above, other events incorporate costumes such as masquerades or rituals of certain religions. Why is that important? Because the next question is where do these people get their costumes? More often than not, costumes and masks will be bought, ready-made and good to go. Of course in certain cases like a birthday party, the mother of a child might sew the costume but in today's urban world, most likely outfits are bought from a store. Attire for fraternities, cults, and organizations (if organizations actually use them) are typically uniform (again, the white hoods and cloaks of the KKK comes to mind), and are mass produced by someone (that would be an interesting initiation if you had to make your own outfit...). However, in the case of cosplaying, those scenarios don't apply often. Unless a certain character is extremely popular, you can't buy your costume off the shelf. Some might hire a seamstress to sew up their costume, but that's a unique outfit and not one produced in the hundreds. Would-be cosplayers might hunt for specific items, such as belts and boots or a certain cloth, but they don't buy the entire outfit off the rack. Which is why I go back to the play part.

In my senior year in high school, I was part of the school's theater group. I did no acting, but instead I signed up for pre-production. Anyone who's worked in theater knows that there are several elements needed to get a show going: you need more than actors, you need directors, managers, and yes, the people who do all your pre-production requirements, from constructing the stage to props to costumes. For me, cosplaying is akin to pre-prod work. Usually, you have a certain concept in mind for a costume, but creating that costume will take time and hard work. You can't buy the costume off the shelf, and instead it'll take you days and weeks to find the necessary items you need, combine it all together, and make sure your props and stage go along with the design. It's a sad play when you're watching Peter Pan and he's not in a green shirt, for example.

For me, the pre-prod work of cosplaying is exactly just like that. Cosplayers might scrounge various areas, looking for the right materials, taking as much as several weeks, all for a one day performance. And it's not just about the costume: it could be other elements as well such as make-up or props. Another thing I noticed about cosplayers here is that they don't go at it alone. In theater, you have a team. It's not just one person doing all the stage setup and finding the right costumes. Usually there are assistants in addition to the stylist, and there's usually more than one costume being made. Same goes for cosplaying. On one hand, you have several would-be designers helping out this cosplayer to make the perfect outfit, whether it's a mecha costume or something just as elaborate. On the other end of the spectrum, you have these bunch of people who are cosplaying as a group, and help each other find the appropriate material for their costume; it's not as elaborate as say, the mecha outfit, but you have just as many people involved, and is geared more towards producing several similarly-themed outfits rather than a single, significantly more complex one. Yes, there are exceptions and there are people who go through the entire process alone, but that's honestly such a lonely procedure, and where's the fun in that? Especially with all the resources that's available, from forums to mailing lists to friends, there's really no need to go about cosplaying alone. It could be as simple as asking someone on the bulletin board if they know where to buy a certain wig or button, and there you have it, you're working with someone else!

So your outfit and props are done. Again, cosplaying is more than wearing a costume. Because if it was, then all the work would end with pre-production. A good cosplayer does more than wear the costume. Heck, I've had several photo shoots and a good model does more than just pose and look pretty. Anyone who's watched Tyra Bank's supermodel reality show should know supermodels do more than just stand there in outfits given to them. A good cosplayer needs to give the costume character. Again, back to the play part, this involves acting.

Acting does not necessarily mean you have to give an award-winning performance. There are several ways to act, and it's more than just a monologue or dialogue. It can be seen in a lot of things, from your body language to the way you walk to the way you smile. It also means having the courage to actually strut your costume in front of an audience. That doesn't mean a cosplayer should be in character all the time, but the moment you're on stage in front of the catwalk, you act in character. It might be fifteen seconds or a minute but in that span of time, you must show that you are your character. Some cosplayers utter a phrase, others do an action pose, some even break into song. It's up to the cosplayer to decide which fits their character more but again, they have to do something. It's what separates the cosplayer winners from the rest. You might have the best costume out there but if you just stand on stage and act stiff, you won't be pleasing the audience or your fellow cosplayers. Honestly, if you're just interested in making the best costume, simply become part of the crew for a cosplayer. A good cosplayer can make your creation better by infusing into it life and personality. Cosplay is one half "play", after all.

While it doesn't get as much media attention as the cosplay catwalk (at least here in the Philippines), cosplaying also has its roots in group performances or skits. The cosplay literally becomes a play as several people, in character and in costume, act out a particular scene. It could be the reenactment or a particular scenario in an anime or perhaps a chapter in a manga. It could also be a fantastical crossover between unrelated shows or a fanfic writer's idea. It could be a dance performance or a group karaoke. Whatever it may be, it involves several participants on stage. I think this is the heart of cosplay and while we do have "group cosplays" that feature such events, it's not enough. That's why there are several attempts at group cosplays during catwalks, either the previous participants remain on stage until the last member appears, or it could be a consecutive string of characters from the same anime (or simply a consecutive string of cosplayers who are all friends, irregardless of their costumes). Perhaps that's why I want to focus on the play part, because a play involves a group of people. And cosplaying is anything but a solo venture.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

[Essay] Science Fiction in the Philippines

For aspiring Filipino writers, it seems that for every reason he (or she as the case may be) has to write, there's another ten discouraging him from doing so. One genre that keeps on bleeping up in my radar is science-fiction. Granted, it has a following in Western society, a question that is often posed, be it in fiction or in gaming, is why isn't it more popular here?

The question has been asked several times and there have been many answers. One answer that keeps on popping up is our lack of science education for the general populace. My initial response is to agree, but after hearing that reason so many times, it has caused me to re-evaluate and reflect. Does that explanation, a lack of science education in the country, really valid for explaining the gap between fantastical fiction (be it fantasy, magic-realism, slipstream, etc.) and science-fiction?

Assuming that fact is really true, I doubt if that is enough of an excuse to explain the SF drought. As much science-fiction is composed of two words, namely "science" and "fiction", the latter has much more weight than the former. Science-fiction, in the end, pays more attention to the fiction part rather than the science part. Look at your classic science-fiction writers, be it Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. There's really little scientific jargon in their stories, and the main focus of their works is either the story or the character. In Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Star, we have a simple science concept, namely that of a space ship traveling in space and a lone astronaut. But that is not the focus of the story; instead, we have a very human character questioning his faith based on his experience. Or look at Asimov's Foundation short stories: it's not a story about the latest scientific discoveries but rather more of a philosophical and historical exploration of human nature. Pop SF even has a different slant: Star Wars and Dune, for example, while set in a future/space context, contains lots of elements of epic fantasy, yet is arguably still considered science-fiction. And even someone like Philip K. Dick, the man behind the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, always focuses on the characters rather than the concept. Granted, while there will be "hard" science-fiction stories which will place emphasis on the science part, the genre doesn't necessarily have to start from there, nor need to be the dominating majority of science-fiction.

Of course personally, I feel the premise to begin with is exaggerated. Yes, it's true that the country needs work when it comes to our education system, but I don't think that's what causes the void of science-fiction literature. If anything, our country is technological savvy; we're just not that conscious about it, or perhaps it holds the least fascination for us. I mean look at us: we're the people who converted surplus jeepneys into public transportation vehicles. We're the people who've cloned everything from CDs to refillable ink. We churn out nurses and tech support agents at a regular rate. Foreign nations harvest our country for the brightest computer engineers and programmers. The Philippines is a gold mine for Telecomms and mobile-related industries, and the Internet gaming boom is starting to pick up speed. What more could you ask for? Are we really as deficient in the science, or in technology, as we think?

That being the case, then why don't we see more of stories like AI's haunting their programmers, or lovers meeting over a chatroom, or call center agents being stalked by customers through the use of technology? I do think there is a reason for the scarcity in science-fiction, but it is not due to lack of education more than a lack of interest. Aside from the social-realism slant of our would-be literati, I think Filipinos have never shaken off the fantastical influence of our culture. Take religion for example. For me, and some might scream "heretic" at me for saying this, but religion, in the end, is nothing but the myths and beliefs of a culture. The only differences between, say, Greek mythology and Christianity is that few believe in the former, and merely treat it as a part of their history rather than as a way of life. Conceivably, the fate of the Greek gods could follow Christianity in the future, if faith in that religion wanes. But here in the Philippines, devotion to religion, be it Islam or Christianity, is quite strong, and part of daily life. When you see the Catholic cross in most public school classroom, or hear a prayer broadcasted over the radio and on TV every 3 pm, you know that religion has an impact on that culture. And as much as we might want to shake that off, religion influences us, and captures the imagination of Filipinos in the form of fantasy more than science-fiction. A Filipino could conceivably imagine talking to a saint who mysteriously appears in his dream more than imagining a saint talking to him from the grave over a chat room. Spanish attempts to reconcile ethnic beliefs with Christianity doesn't help either. Folk Catholicism has a strong following, whether it's in the belief of the powers of minor saints, to the power of talismans such as "anting-antings" or "agimats".

That's not to say religion alone is to blame. Pop culture has also played a role in shaping Filipino consciousness. Filipino comic characters remain part of the Filipino psyche, whether it's the mystical/anthropomorphic Zuma, the magic stone-eating Darna, or the transforming Captain Barbel. And who could forget our sword-wielding protagonist, Panday, who has appeared in comics, movies (several times), and recentlly on TV in the fantaserye (fantasy + soap opera) format. Even the games we play right now are slanted more towards fantasy: Ragnarok Online, Tantra, even PangYa. At best, it will be a hybrid of fantasy and technology, which was popularized in Japan. Just look at Final Fantasy, for example, or card games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!

That's not to say that science-fiction is totally absent in our culture. There will be the occassional story that will contain those elements, as well as the niche we have in the Palancas under the Future Fiction category (which some might contest isn't really fitting to be classified as SF, but for me falls under the realm of speculative fiction, and the call for science-fiction elements leaves the writer to exercise his creativity). It's also made its presence known in the past via the medium of animation. In the late 70's until the mid-80's, Filipinos were enthralled the super robots Voltes V and Daimos. The former's gimmick was electro-magnetism, but I believe the real appeal to Filipinos was the familial bond its characters shared, as well as the juxataposition between cheesy campiness and tragedy the series had. Daimos, on the other hand, contained various soap opera elements, which apparently is popular in our culture.

More recently though, science-fiction in the Philippines is making a comeback through the hearts and imagination of children. If you want a strong science-fiction pop culture identity, you need to look at what was being marketed by toy companies: Gundams, Beyblades, Tamiya 4WDs, Zoids, etc. Fiction-wise, it remains to be seen how this will affect the writings of the present generation, but in terms of comics, I've occassionally seen indie comics featuring robots and/or power armor into their stories.

In this era of Philippine history, it's probably more reasonable to expect speculative fiction more than science-fiction from the country's would-be writers. Seeing how the fantastical plays a big role in our culture combined with how we seem to take present technology for granted, a hybrid between fantasy and science-fiction seems more likely to occur rather than a pure science-fiction story. Still, in the end, it's up to the writers to decide the fate of our literature, and this is all for naught if writers do not write their stories. Or if readers do not choose to read them.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

[Essay] Demonizing People

I'm usually a tolerant person, but one thing that irks me is when people demonize other people. What I mean by demonizing people is that we label them as evil, inhumane, as if the loathsomeness is inherent in their genetic structure. In D&D, this can be equated with giving someone an "evil alignment". But D&D is a game, and people in general can't be oversimplified in that context. Perhaps that's why psychology plays an important role in society: not to serve as an excuse for deviants, but so that we may understand them better, and perhaps to some extent, lessen their culpability (but not entirely removing it).

It occurs more often than you think, and media nowadas doesn't help. I've seen the term "evil" attached to several personalities, both dead and alive: Judas Iscariot, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden. While these people aren't exactly the best of role models, I don't think labeling them as evil is fair. To do so results in only one of two things: either we buy and propagate the propaganda surrounding them, or we are simply redirecting our dissatisfaction at ourselves or at other people. Let me explain further.

Take Adolf Hitler for example. Mostly, we blame him for starting World War II, and the attempted genocide of the Jews. For the first reason, if we take a closer look, Hitler waged war for noble ideals: for his country, for his people. Invading Poland was done not out of some desire to spread evil, but because he (and his people) honestly believed they were doing a good thing. Misguided perhaps, but nonetheless at the surface seems good. I mean who would frown upon a person who was nationalistic? Hitler merely proved Oscar Wilde's adage that "it is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done." As for genocide, everyone's guilty of that to one extent or another. I mean haven't we thought that the world would be better off if certain people were removed from the face of the Earth? Yes, it's prejudice. It could be African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and in the case of the Philippines, the Filipino-Chinese, the Filipino-Spanish, or even fellow Muslims. Or it could take the form of removing those genetically likely to fail: the handicapped, the retarded, etc. After all, in survival of the fittest, they'll eventually die out anyway. Why not speed things up? Or it could be people we think society would be better off without: the idiots, the lazy, the convicts, the criminals. That's what Hitler was thinking at the time: he viewed that the Jews were leeching off Germany. The only difference between him and most people was that he actually took steps to solve the problem (a noble act on other occassions), and conviced the entire nation to go ahead with his plan.

In the Philippines, I see this kind of thought pervading in society. A few years back, many Filipinos were appalled at some of the crimes that were being committed: the rape of children, the rape of one's own kin, etc. The country's solution? Death penalty. My qualm with the death penalty is that it defeats the purpose of jailing a criminal. Theoretically, we jail people so that they can reflect on what they've done, and they'll eventually reform. If we were bent on removing them from society altogether, we'd shoot them on sight, or sentence them to imprisonment in some location forever (note that "life sentence", contrary to what it's called, actually doesn't last your entire life). Obviously, the death penalty removes that possibility altogether. And if you took a long-term view of society in general, it would be better to reform 10 convicts rather than execute 10 of them, because the first option allows the convicts to contribute in society. I'm not saying that this is what happens (this isn't a perfect world after all) but how it should be.

But that is not what appalls me. What appalls me were the reasons Filipinos were advocating for the death penalty. Honestly, if you look at them closely, it's not because we believe it's really a deterrent to crime, but simply because we want revenge. Yes, revenge, a term which we sugar-coat as "justice". Do criminals deserve to be punished? Yes. Do they deserve to be killed? Under certain circumstances, and is a very debatable topic. But any logical person will see that sentencing a person to death because they killed someone else will not bring back the latter. Some can apply the logic that "two wrong does not make a right" but you get my point. Basically, the situation we have is that at one moment in time, a lot of Filipinos believed that a certain type of person (in our case, rapists-who-rape-their-children) should be eradicated from the face of the Earth (all in the name of justice of course). Now if we actually had the power and capability to do just that (our justice system is slow and inefficient after all), then we'd be like Hitler. Some (and I'm sure a lot would) would even see it that we're doing the world a favor. Except you know, we're all guilty of something, and in certain areas, we're all deviants from the "norm". How many of the people we thereotically executed could be reformed? How many of them are actually innocent? How many of them, while they themselves are irredeemable, could give birth to a progeny of people who will be greatly valued in society?

Moving back to the topic at hand, what I am just showing is that "Hitler's evil" is not some external force which happens once in a lifetime. It's really a monster that's within every person, and we live with it day to day. Hitler himself was human, just like the rest of us. There is nothing innately evil about him as a person. What was deplorable was his actions. And it's an action that we're all familiar with.

How about Saddam? Bin Laden? Well, they're treated as leaders, even heroes in their own circles. That should say something about their state. They're not evil, and I think that they believe that what they're doing is actually good. Besides, who here doesn't want to retaliate against the big bad bully which is the United States of America? Some of you might even think that Bush is the real evil person here, but guess what, again, he's simply echoing the sentiments of (some of) his people. Many people condone Bush's actions as much as many are against it. What they are doing are products of human emotions, of human frailties, or human beliefs, not because they are some paranormal force of maliciousness.

Oh, and with regards to Judas? Many people are biased against him because he betrayed a messianic figure in religion. But the question was, did Judas really believe the person he was betraying was really a divine entity? Or, playing devil's advocate, let's say he did. I imagine Judas taking a Machiavellan position, reasoning that the end justifies the means. If he didn't betray Jesus, God's salvation would never come. Yes, he's stuck with the unenviable position, but somebody's gotta do the dirty work. He might love Jesus, but he'll damn the world if he doesn't go through with what Jesus has planned for him. And in the end, Jesus didn't tell Judas "et tu Brute?" but rather to go on with it. It's like Wolverine killing Jean Grey when she was possessed by the Dark Phoenix. What would you have done?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

[Essay] An Anime Fan's Take on Cosplay Culture in the Philippines

One of my passions early on was my love for anime; even before the "anime boom" hit Philippine shores, before anime shows replaced telenovelas on primetime slots, I was already watching anime in foreign languages, and reading manga even if I couldn't understand what the text was saying.

I believe that 2000 was the year anime reached its peak in the Philippines. Yes, it's true that a year before that, we were experiencing an onslaught of anime from various directions: from TV, from toys, from word of mouth. But what made 2000 special is the fact that it was the year where the first real anime convention started. I say real because while in previous years, there have already been conventions of one sort or another, this was the first time that we had a convention that was solely dedicated on anime and its subculture: no more sharing booths with other fandoms like Star Trek, Star Wars, or simply hobby collectors of cards, toys, or basketball.

One by-product of such an event was the rise of a cosplay community in the Philippines. Again, yes, people have dressed up as their favorite fictional character (be it anime or otherwise) from time to time, whether it's Halloween, a small anime screening, or perhaps a kiddie party, but that is different from what arose from anime conventions. It was several elements combined together: lots of participants, a huge crowd, and more importantly, some sense of organization when it comes to cosplaying. What I mean by organization is that well, there's a body judging the merits of a person's costume and how they act (since cosplay means more than simply wearing a costume), and rewarding it, whether with tangible prizes, or simply cheers from an audience. And while some cosplayers are close friends with each other, during that first convention, fans met strangers who shared the same passion as them. Cosplaying was a group of people united by a common bond, a common passion if you will. Not all of them had to be friends or close buddies with each other, but they belonged (and remained) to the same community.

The cosplay community would eventually evolve and become a culture of its own. Whereas it was initially associated with anime/manga fandom, I'd like to think it eventually stood on its own. I mean nowadays, there'd seldom be a convention (not necessarilly an anime/manga convention but whatever fandom you can think of) where there isn't a cosplay involvevd to one degree or another: it might be a video game release, a Lord of the Rings gathering, or a meeting between Trekkies. Whatever the case may be, the word "cosplay" has made the transition from fandom jargon to mainstream slang. Cosplaying is still in the sphere of fandoms, but it is no longer limited to the anime/manga sphere that it was once associated with, at least here in the Philippines.

As an anime fan, what bothered me was the fact that I couldn't really talk about anime/manga with the cosplayers, or at least the circle I was in (I'm sure there are lots of cosplayers who are interested in manga/anime), at least back then. I remember talking about a particular show and there was simply a lack of enthusiasm in the topic. Cosplayers didn't talk about their favorite anime or manga with each other, but they talked about various cosplaying techniques, which fabrics to use, where to find such and such props, etc. This was the point that I realized that the cosplaying community here stood on its own rather than solely depending on the fandoms they were dressing up as. It would come to the point where cosplayers would simply cosplay for the sake of cosplaying: they'd attend an event not because it's being hosted by their favorite fandom, but simply because they were having a cosplay event.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is wrong or that it should be otherwise. It's simply an observation, at how the community has evolved in the span of seven years. Nowadays, I see some cosplayers going back to their roots, watching their favorite anime, reading their favorite manga, and talking about it with their cosplayer friends. Be that as it may, the cosplay community remains an independent entity, a child that has taken a path different from its parent. How this will play out in the years to come remains to be seen. And hopefully, people will be watching.

Friday, March 24, 2006

[Book Reviews] March 2006 Book Reviews

Resurrection by Paul S. Kemp

Concluding the Forgotten Realms War of the Spider Queen series, every page is jam-packed with action and of course, betrayal. Mainly a book for those who followed the previous five books, the ending is satisfying for the nature of the party’s quest (resurrecting an evil goddess). Just when you think you know who’ll be the new incarnation of Lolth, Kemp throws a red herring, making readers doubt their decision. My only quibble is the characterization of one of the characters. But that aside, a good book and fitting conclusion for your standard fare fantasy.

Rating: 3/5.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Exciting from the get-go, Lullaby is one of those concept books where the author throws a lot of plot ideas and mixes them. Thankfully, Palahniuk does a good job of it, even if they all seem coincidental. The book revolves around a small cast, each with their own personal demons. The title is derived from the fact that the main character discovers a lullaby that can kill people. My only problem with the novel is the tone of the characters. Because Palahniuk changes perspective chapter to chapter, I didn’t notice that one of the protagonists was male, while another was female. The fact that the book has a gender-bending scene doesn’t help either. Still, it’s a quick and compelling read, and is one of the books that Palahniuk tries his hand at writing from multiple perspectives.

Rating 4/5.

In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip

McKillip doesn’t lose her touch as she weaves words into a compelling story. The fact that this book is short makes the text tighter, and for McKillip’s case, better. In the Forests of Serre revolves around a small cast as well, as conflict revolves around them. Perhaps what’s admirable is that for most of the story, everything is centered on Serre instead of the typical hero-goes-to-point-A-then-to-point-B. In fact, the characters are literally going around in circles. There’s lots of character development here and McKillip works with the concept that stories become a reality in Serre, as several fairy tales (and variations thereof) show up in the story, each with a unique role to play. It’s quite meta-fictional in fact. A very enjoyable read, and appeals to a wide spectrum of audiences.

Rating 5/5.

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

Another installment in the Song of Ice and Fire, the book is as compelling as its predecessors, although I wouldn’t necessarily say better. The most noticeable thing is that the novel is shorter than the three books that preceded it, mainly due to the fact that Martin had to cut half the character perspectives he planned. That aside, Martin hasn’t lost his touch in characterization and making you love (or hate) the characters. My main quibble is that the “crow” theme gets repeated over and over again throughout the book, even a bit forcefully at times for me. The novel also is the weakest of all four books, although it’s not a case of Rowling’s bad writing/editing as was the case with the fifth book in the Harry Potter series. Still a great read though, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating 4/5.

Masterpieces in Miniature: Stories by Agatha Christie by Agatha Christie

What some people might not remember is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous work gained life through the short story. Agatha Christie, perhaps most popular for her mystery novels, proves that she’s equally capable of mastering the art of the mystery short story. And indeed, she does a good job of it. This collection features four detectives: Parker Pyne, Harley Quin, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Jane Marple. The first two are a treasure as its evident their characters were developed from the short story, which is included in this collection. While the Poirot and Marple stories are enjoyable, we don’t really see much on Poirot’s “gray cells” gimmick, or develop that much empathy for Marple aside from the fact that she’s the most unlikeliest of detectives. It’s a good collection of detective short stories with enough variation to compel you to read the entire thing.

Rating 4/5.

Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer

Upon reading the first few pages, the impression you get is that the setting is set in the far future, with pseudo-scientific and fantastical contraptions at hand. In fact, it’s reminds me of Mieville’s Perdido Station minus all the large chunks of text. In fact, Vandermeer’s strength is his ability to tell a lot in just a few words or sentences. The pacing is actually quite quick and there’s no dull moment, even as he provides exposition for the story. What can I say, I like the book. I really prefer this than to Mieville’s work, even if there are a lot of similarities between the two. However, whereas Mieville deals with concepts, the heart of this Vandermeer novel is character. A moral quandary is also thrown in as there’s a big event that will change the setting of Veniss, but that’s an offstage event, giving more emphasis on the protagonists. The book also contains three short stories and a novelette, which not only fleshes out the world, but acts as an epilogue of sorts as to what eventually became of Veniss. Reading Veniss Underground is about as difficult as reading a Philip K. Dick book: that is, anyone can read it and enjoy.

Rating: 4.5/5.

The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford

The most evident detail about The Girl in the Glass is that Ford takes a different tone, at least compared to his previous novels. Whereas The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque had fanciful and entrancing words, and Physiognomy had this rhythmic tone, The Girl in the Glass is simply mundane. That’s because this is a historical fiction novel, and Ford’s magic-realist tone is left in the sidelines. That’s not to say the book isn’t good: it’s just a surprise. It’s compelling nonetheless, and if you’ve read some of his short stories, is more akin to his coming-of-age stories. The text is as compelling as his other books, and brevity is an art he practices for each chapter. The plot revolves around three con artists as they seek to solve the mystery of a girl who disappeared, and the journey takes them to a far darker discovery. It’s a good book and shows that Ford has a wide spectrum of skill, but if you’re expecting to be mesmerized by Ford’s fanciful play of words, this isn’t the book for you.

Rating 4/5.