Thursday, October 28, 2004

Blogger Isn't Being Cooperative

Ironically, it's when I want to post a new entry that Blogger starts acting up.

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Metamorphosis of the Mundane to the Mythical

Anyone can write about a spectacular event. That's why certain subject matter eventually become cliche or worse, boring. One just needs to look a few years back to see an example of this. The tragedy of 9/11 is perhaps one of the most overused material in the past two years (no offense to those affected by the tragedy or those who wrote about it). The mark of a skilled writer is when he or she can transform something so common, so ordinary that it is something many people often overlook, into an interesting read.

When writing such a piece, one actually has a treasure trove that merely needs to be dug up. Your advantage as a writer is the fact that you're constantly exposed to it, making you familiar with the subject matter. There are two beliefs when it comes to writing and one of them is "write what you know". You not only have your own experience but other people's experiences to draw upon when writing about a mundane object, person, place, or event. Your other advantage is that readers are too acquainted with the subject matter that they fall prey to the disease of familiarity--it has lost its mystique due to the fact that they are constantly exposed to it. Your job as a writer is to rekindle that mystique and make it as memorable as the first time you cried yourself to sleep, the first time you humiliated yourself in public, or even the first thing you bought when you got your first paycheck.

But in this endeavor, we must also remember the basics of writing. While we may want to mystify our subject matter, it must at the same time remain familiar to the reader. One mistake we could easily fall prey to would be to exoticize the object so much so that it is totally unrecognizable to the reader. There's a difference, for example, from choosing the right words and jargon. We might also be tempted to delve too much into the technical side of our subject matter that readers quickly lose interest. Or we could simply be using the wrong tone. Just because we want to add glamour does not mean we transform our subject matter into something totally alien. In the end, we must remember that our subject matter has character, and the subject matter must retain that character when we write our piece.

Yes, our subject matter has character. Character is what makes it distinct and unique, setting it apart from the rest. Character is what catches the reader's attention and makes the piece an interesting read. Without character, we have nothing. When we write, we must always keep in mind the reasons for writing and why we chose that particular subject. What is our agenda? What makes it special? What is its history, and how does it affect the present? We must have focus and not waste the reader's time by showing off our esoteric knowledge of the subject matter. That is not the point of writing. It's never about you. It's always about the subject. And then and only then does the subject inform your reader who you are.

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Despite being struck by insomia the other day, I seem to be in a creative mood for the past twenty-four hours, at least when it comes to writing.

Perhaps it's me making up for the lack of entries in the past few days. But that's really bad on my part; writing is a discipline, and consistency is required.

On a side note, thanks to those who replied/clarified regarding my Taho entry.


I'm not really a beer-drinker but one thing to really look forward to is this weekend. So much is happening! For starters, book-lovers would want to be informed that one of my favorite bookstores, A Different Bookstore/Ink & Stone, will be having its three-day sale. That's as much as 20% discount.

Neutral Grounds will also be having its 2nd convention at Eastwood on Sat. and Sun., with the Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Duel Masters, Star Wars Miniatures, HeroClix, MechWarrior, Spycraft, and Warlord events on the first day, and VS, Legend of the Five Rings, Pokemon, Mage Knight, Pirates of the Spanish Main, and the cosplay on the 2nd day.

There's also the Mos Eisly event tonight at the Hard Rock Cafe, and will be having it's EB on Saturday.

And of course, NaNoWriMo begins after Sunday!

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Minimalist Best Effort

To a lot of people, that statement might seem like a contradiction. I mean minimalism has always been viewed as a negative trait. If you do less, you earn less. Best effort, on the other hand, is something often encouraged by institutions like schools. Teachers, and sometimes our parents, tell us that in whatever we do, we should give it all we've got. "Never give anything short of 100%" is what they might say. And of course, the current paradigm is that you're either one or the other. You're either minimal, or you're exerting your best. There is no middle ground, no gray area for both to coexist. We often generalize that people who are minimalist are lazy, while those who exert their best effort as hard working. If you're somewhere in between, you're normal. But for both kinds of traits to exist in one person at the same time, well, that's what some people might call a paradox.

To me, that's not necessarily the case. Minimalism and best effort aren't necessarily two faces of the same coin. Sometimes, they're two separate coins, and thus able to coexist. And as strange as that may sound, it's also something all of us practice.

For example, you're working on a paper, whether it's your homework, your thesis, or a report you have to file in the next day. You approximately have 12 hours before the deadline so you cram. You forego sleep and work 11 hours straight just to finish that paper and use that last hour to submit it. Did you not exert your best effort there? In those 11 hours, were you not utilizing 100% of your abilities? So best effort is established. What about the minimalist aspect? Well, let's say you the paper you passed was satisfactory. If it could be graded immediately, it was a B+. Perhaps if you were given more time (either you did the paper earlier or the deadline was moved to a later date, or perhaps a later time, even if it was just an hour or two), you could have improved on it. If you had the extra hour or so, you could have proofread it more and edited the work, meriting you an A instead of a B+. And let's say you are capable of such a thing, provided you had the additional time. Isn't the A paper your best effort as well? But wait! The A paper and B+ paper can't both be your best effort! In actuality, it is possible that both papers are you best effort. The only difference is the time constraint. And this time constraint is what I call minimalism. I mean we didn't work on the initial paper for 13 hours because we only had 11 hours to do it. Theoretically I could have done that A paper but it would mean not passing it on time. That doesn't mean I wasn't working at my best during the first 11 hours but rather in order for me to churn out the best, I need more than 11 hours. In fact, since there's always room for improvement, perhaps the perfect paper would involve working on it day and night, revising it endlessly. But alas, we're not immortal. We're only human, and we have these constraints called deadlines. And that is what I call minimalism because we have to limit ourselves. We have to limit our working hours to the set deadline, so that we can actually submit it. I mean as a writer, if I constantly revise and revise my work, it'll never get published!

The constraints we face doesn't necessarily involve time. Another example I have showing minimalist best effort is when you're acting host to a party. Let's say you invite five friends. As a host, it's your responsibility to keep them entertained. But since you're only one person and there are five of them, you cannot each give them 100% of your concentration. Usually you'll chat with all five of them and introduce them to each other, and then perhaps share a conversation or two with half of them before moving on to the next pair. And obviously, when we're talking to more than one person, we're not necessarily addressing everybody's needs. It's physically impossible to do so since we only have one body. That doesn't mean that as a host, you're not giving it your best effort, but rather you're limiting yourself so that everyone can have a better overall experience rather than giving one person 100% of your attention and neglecting the rest.

Minimalist best effort is also a prevalent mentality a lot of us have, but we just don't recognize it. Let's say you earn P20,000 a month. And let's say you work 8 hours a day, five times a week to earn that income. If you were given the opportunity to work for 4 hours a day, three days a week for the same amount of income, doing the same thing, which would you choose? Of course we'd choose the latter! We want to avoid suffering (assuming that work is actually "work" and not something we really enjoy) unless it's absolutely necessary. We want to reap the best reward for the least amount of exertion. That's minimalist best effort! And it's a great mentality; that's why we've developed the concept of machines, whether it's a simple lever or the computer that you're using right now. We want to make things easier, yet at the same time come up at the very least with the same amount of output (if not more). That's not to say we shouldn't work at optimum efficiency or that we should be lax in our jobs, but rather we look for ways to be more "efficient" since it benefits everyone.

Of course smart people epitomize the concept of minimalist best effort. I mean the owner of McDonalds, for example, is earning income right now from his fast food chains. Is he physically working? No! Is he earning income? Yes! Why? Because he came up with a great idea, and the beauty of his idea is not only is it effective, but also allows him to earn with the least amount of exertion. And similarly, business-minded people are looking for ways to earn the highest possible income with the least amount of investment. People are being both minimalist and exerting their best effort at it! It's not baffling but logical.

In itself, giving something your best effort is good. But what would perhaps even be better would be the minimalist-best effort mentality. Minimalism isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean the greatest irony about wanting to be a lazy person is that in order to be able to afford such a lifestyle, you have to exert your best effort to achieve it.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

My Traveling Experience

For the past few years, my parents have been urging me to go abroad for my vacation. When I was a kid, the normal routine involved me going to another country (whether it's Hong Kong, Australia, or USA) during summer break (thankfully, I never had to go to summer class because I passed all my subjects). During those times, it never dawned on them to ask me whether I enjoyed the trip or not. The yearly vacations were a fact of life to me; it wasn't something I chose but rather an event that happened, much like having to go to school, or having to attend the birthday of some relative you really don't get along with.

Perhaps what made the trip uneventful was the fact that I traveled with my family. I mean I don't really talk to mom and dad, and they simply can't relate with me. My sister was younger than me, and at the time, barely more than a toddler, so she wasn't exactly someone I could converse with. Perhaps given different circumstances, I would have enjoyed my trips. But the problem that as a kid, it was your parents who scheduled everything for you. And it's probably because of that fact that I've developed an aversion to Chinese food. Or more specifically, the Chinese food that my parents order all the time, no matter what Chinese restaurant we eat in (and since Chinese restaurants are present in a lot of countries, no luck for me when it comes to variation). And this repetition can be seen in how they plan our trips as well. I mean whenever we go to Hong Kong, perhaps their primary amusement for me is Ocean Park. It's really fun at first but when you're going there year after year, the place loses its charm. The same goes for Disneyland and Universal Studios whenever we go to the US.

Again, it all wouldn't have been so bad if perhaps I was in the company of different people. I mean I'd sure enjoy a trip to Hong Kong if I were with my grade school friends perhaps, or even my cousins. But I'm with my parents, whom I'm always with anyway, and they're quite familiar with the place, so they know where to bring me and where not to bring me. Perhaps one of the biggest attraction of travel is the fact that you get to experience new things, learn new insights.

I eventually fell in love with books and the one thing I can get excited about when going abroad is the fact that I have access to books that are otherwise unavailable here. Of course it was then that it hit me what I also didn't like about traveling abroad. I'm at the mercy of my parents when it comes to finances. If I want something, I have to notify them. There's no one to give me an allowance for expenditures. I'm sorry to say but to me, an allowance is like an illusion of independence. It's like a salary: once you get it, it's yours to do as you wish. I don't need to notify other people of what I'm going to do with my money. It's mine. There's also the illusion of saving money, storing it day after day so that you can afford an item that would otherwise be out of your reach. It's something people take for granted, the freedom to purchase an object without having to ask permission from someone else, the ability to buy what you want just because you want it. When overseas, I'm robbed of that luxury.

And Filipinos being who they are, a trip abroad also means that there should be a plan. It's a common Filipino perception that tourists shouldn't squander their time doing nothing since it's not everyday that you get to travel, so you might as well see the sights and places the country has to offer. I didn't want that. I wanted to be alone with my books and actually read them. And of course, my parents would give me the sermon that it's not everyday I get to travel. Never mind the fact that they probably had travel plans for next year and the year after that.

There was also one time that I had to go to Australia without my parents. I was left under the care of my uncle and cousins. Which was actually fine although I spent most of my time sleeping (and again, my relatives would complain that I'm in Australia so why would I waste the opportunity by merely sleeping, which I could always do at home). Of course in the end, I really wasn't empowered; the power of authority was merely transferred. I mean one thing many urban Filipinos take for granted is the fact that Metro Manila is a congested metropolis; that means that when I step out of my house, I'm in the city and have access to luxuries that only a city can provide, such as accessible public transportation or shopping malls. Overseas, I wasn't living in a metropolis. If I wanted to go to a mall, I'd have to walk distances I won't even dare (and I'm the person who walked all the way from Katipunan to Greenhills). It's also not like my parents gave me any money. Again, I was dependent upon the mercy of my relatives.

So when the next year came around and my parents foolishly asked me where I wanted to spend my vacation, I told them I'd stay here. In the Philippines. I reasoned out to them that most likely, I'd just be sleeping during my summer break, and that's something I can do here. I'd save them the cost of the plane ticket, among other things. I also told them that I was bored to death abroad, and that I'd only be a burden to our hosts. And of course, I told them that the peso was depreciating (a handy excuse since it's always depreciating), so travel would be expensive, and I'd help the country more by staying here. I could see the frown on their faces, and offerred to take the cash-equivalent of the plane trip instead. Unfortunately, they declined.

Nowadays, I don't get invitations to go abroad. Perhaps it's because the times are harder these days, and we don't have the luxury to take a vacation overseas. Not that there's any shortage of sites to visit here in the Philippines. And when you're unemployed like me, you want to take a vacation from your permanent vacation. But at the heart of it, I don't really mind. Because there really is no place like home. And sometimes, it's not about the physical place, but more of the people you're with. What is Philippines without Filipinos after all?

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In Metro Manila, a number of delicacies are being peddled in the streets. There's the infamous balut (an egg with an unborn fetus inside) which has made its appearance in Fear Factor. There's also chicharon (the equivalent is probably pig skin) which is a crunchy, addicting snack, especially when paired with vinegar. Then there's Taho (and I'm saying it with a capital T to represent the entire meal).

I don't think Taho originated in the Philippines (I surmise it's probably from China considering some Chinese restaurants, both here and abroad, serve it as well) but we've certainly incorporated it into our own culture. Taho in itself is a white jelly-like substance. However, there are several variations of this, which is mainly achieved through its sauce.

The Taho which Filipinos have come to know and love is the one being peddled in the streets, sold by a man constantly shouting "taho!", all the while acting as a fulcrum to a stick with two huge steel containers on the opposite ends. One container houses the taho itself; it is kept cool and fresh, and the vendor scrapes off the liquid that accumulates on top whenever he serves it to customers. The other container, while identical to the first, is actually more complex. The container is divided into two sections, one housing the sauce, and the other containing sago (also known as "pearls" thanks to the Zagu fad a few years ago). The sauce is dark, sticky molasses. Sago, on the other hand, is perhaps what can be best described as a spherical gummy bear without the sugar.

When purchasing Taho, the vendor grabs a transparent plastic cup (which hangs on the same stick that holds the steel barrels) and opens the first barrel. He scoops out some taho and fills the cup, and then moves on to the second barrel. He liberally pours sauce on the cup, slowly transforming the white chunks into inky black, making sure that the sauce goes down deep. With a spoon, he sprinkles the sago on top of the cup, and then pours in more syrup just in case.

This combination of taho, sago, and syrup is actually a mixture of opposites. First, you start out with two bland products. I mean no one in his or her right mind would eat taho in itself. In the cooked meal variant, I'd probably douse it in lots of soy sauce. It is soft and easily breaks, but in itself, taho tastes like nothing. Similarly, sago is squishy and chewy, but it is more or less tasteless. It is the syrup that completes this meal, the one that gives taste--taho and sago merely absorb the the sickly sweet (in a very Filipino way) sauce. The syrup and taho are also opposing elements: the former is hot (so much so that sometimes, I have problems holding the cup) while the latter is cold. Yet when the two are combined, you can feel the excitement in your mouth, with the sago as your lukewarm middleground. Sago and taho are opposites too: taho is too fragile, which is why sago is there: to give the meal substance, to make Taho a meal rather than a drink. And then there's the sago and the syrup, two ingredients housed in the same container yet distinctly separated in more ways than one. These unholy triumvirate comprise the Filipino delicacy that is Taho.

Yet the image Taho inspires would not be complete without the peddler, the man carrying it to every street and district of Metro Manila. He is truly the mass-man, the poor, hardworking father who must work every morning, afternoon, and evening, just to provide for his family. He is the man which the two steel barrels are balanced upon, the person who makes P10 ($0.20) for every serving of Taho he sells. And he too is a man of multiple contradictions.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Writing Habit

Well apparently, it's not much of a habit, which is why there's been a lack of entries lately. It's not even due to the fact that I have nothing to blog. The past few days has been exciting to say the least. I mean I managed to catch Dean yesterday as we played Carcasonne. Which reminds me, I also need to change my blog layout to incorporate the new blog urls since people seem to be changing servers as of late.

I Need a Job!

Aside from the money, I find great value in... working. Or at least being busy.

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