26 April 2011

Priorities 3

Remember that post about how my brother and I seem to have different priorities? I decided this morning that I would start looking for a new place to live, even if I might be there for only a few months. But the catch is that I can't afford a better neighborhood* unless I can split the rent with someone. Since moving in with Martin will probably get me disowned, the closest other option for me is to get a place with my brother when he returns to Manila for his new job, whatever it is.

So, I texted my parents to ask them how his job hunt was coming along, just to give myself an idea of how long I had until / how long I had to wait until his return to find a place.

Dad: I think not serious yet as he still enjoying vacation.
Mom: Its underway daw while he playstations on the couch wahaha!

I guess I'm happy that he's having some fun before buckling down, but it also means having to deal with the leery neighbors a lot longer. Oh, well.

*When my folks were in town, they went with me to Cubao so that I could drop off some stuff before our activities for the day. As we were driving back toward EDSA on the grimy, piss-stained side of Aurora, my teenage brother said, "This place looks ghetto." It kind of is. Once you turn past this part of Aurora and the girly bars and into the streets named after American colleges, however, you actually find yourself in a relatively quiet, if sooty, residential area.

Unfortunately for me, a hardware store, repair shop, employment agency, and some truckers set themselves up on the same street as my boarding house, so I have to go by a lot of leery guys whenever I go to and from work. I wish I could be the kind of girl who didn't give a rat's ass about whistling and catcalls, or else got off on them, but they're the biggest reason I want to move.

25 April 2011

FTW? Eh. (end-book review)

The prediction I made at the end of my last post was true: I was just a few pages away from when things got exciting, and I had to keep reading until the end. However, I think I'll stand by my original declaration that this is Mr. Doctorow's worst novel ever.

"For the Win" lacks the depth I've come to expect from the author. Certain events designed to make a reader feel a certain way fell flat and felt unnecessary to me. After a while, I felt like I was watching a so-so TV series with a forced cliffhanger at the end of each episode, put in not necessarily to add to the story, but to just keep the audience interested.

In that sense, certain characters' deaths were also unnecessary. The first one didn't have to happen as the larger event it was part of was horrific enough. I kind of think this one was put in just to make two other characters cry.

The second one was even more melodramatic, and the inspiration it was supposed to lend to everyone else felt superficial; the others were already operating on their own and would have kept going even if this character hadn't died. No need to pass a baton they were already holding. (I realize that this was kind of the author's point, but he didn't have to make it this way. Already, the others were on their way to the big meeting without this character; this one could simply have receded into the background and happily let things take on a life of their own.)

I'm not saying that just because I was attached to the characters because, again, it was hard to feel deeply attached to any of the characters.  Despite their importance, they still fell in the lower half of the meaningful death scale of redshirt to Sirius Black.

All that said, "FTW" has its good points. I liked the interludes where Mr. Doctorow explained certain economic concepts; I now have a better handle on inflation and shady financial deals than I ever did in school or looking stuff up on Investopedia (though it's still a pretty good resource).

I also liked the author's eye and ear for local color and culture. I like how he captured everyday life and the background sights and sounds in each place (Mumbai, Singapore, Shenzhen, California, etc.) without exoticizing any of it.

For all my complaints about characterization, it's also nice to see his brand of strong female characters: smart, resourceful girls who serve as important additions to the story, not just as the token chick in the ragtag team.

My closing statement? I probably wouldn't read this again, but with an intriguing premise and the huge potential for a diverse cast, I'd line up for tickets if it got adapted for a smart summer blockbuster.

24 April 2011

FTW? WTF. (mid-book review)

I'm now in the third act of Cory Doctorow's "For the Win," and I have to say that this is probably his worst novel so far.

After reading most of them before this one, plus several of his short stories, it's safe to say that I have a handle on his style and his favorite themes. "Outsider bucks the system" is a theme that nearly everyone loves, but what's special about Mr. Doctorow's work is that he chooses systems that people overlook, take for granted, or discount completely--things we are only vaguely aware of and not very interested in learning, at least till it makes the headlines. The politics of running a Disney theme park? What entrepreneurship will look like within five years started to look like beginning sometime in '09? Workers' strikes and the economies of MMORPGs?

I couldn't have told you that I cared much about any of these things before reading Mr. Doctorow's novels. And I wouldn't have cared if he hadn't been so good at showing us just how plausible--no, real some of these situations can be. We're probably still at least 30 years away from being able to download ourselves into clones after we die, as in "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom," but the idea of esteem/coolness someday functioning as a currency and being online all the time already makes sense in the age of the Internet. This country's security protocols are nowhere near TSA levels, but anyone who learned anything about the Marcos regime can grasp that the horrific government abuse in "Little Brother" could happen here if our leaders were smart about it. The power of bloggers among the media, the arrival of 3D printers, and what Limor Fried did with the Xbox tells me that Mr. Doctorow was nothing short of prophetic with "Makers."

I've realized, however, that plausibility is only half, maybe one third of what's made me enjoy Mr. Doctorow's work so far. His first and most fantastic, far-fetched work, "Down and Out," was built around a (dare I say old-fashioned?) conspiracy and murder mystery. I cared as much about finding out who killed the protagonist and how he was going to save the theme park from total reinvention as I did about what it would be like to have a spliced girlfriend from outer space.

I cared about the protagonist, period, and I wanted to be on his side. I wanted to be on the side of all Mr. Doctorow's protagonists because, even though they sometimes bordered on the Marty Stu*, they cared about their work and their freedom, as any human being should.

The problem with "For the Win," which tackles the age-old problem of workers' rights in the world of online games like Ragnarok and World of Warcraft, is that I don't really care about the protagonists. I almost wish that plausibility was a problem, but because I've actually tried a few MMORPGs, I'm free to focus entirely on the characters and their problems, and they don't excite me.

Some might say that it's because there are too many of them. I say having many characters shouldn't be a problem if they are memorable and their conflicts are compelling. I don't really mind when an author jumps from character to character and scene to scene if he or she maintains the feeling that they all have a connecting thread--and I suppose that's what Mr. Doctorow wanted to do: show that labor problems affect all workers everywhere, even online.

The trouble is, neither the characters nor the scenes in "FTW" feel very fleshed out. And while it's not hard for me to keep track of what's happened so far to whom, there are significant gaps between scenes, so I feel somewhat cheated.

For instance, my favorite character was Mala, the Indian schoolgirl and gaming general from the slums. Her resourcefulness and inner strength made her a breath of fresh air in a sea of shy, male gamer geeks, and of all the characters, she experienced the most dramatic, character-shaping ups and downs. Mala was torn between earning the money that helped uplift her family's condition and her desire to get out from under her boss's thumb. Given her independent spirit, I believed it was only a matter of time before the union won her over to their side.

Several scenes later, she's working against the union and threatening to burn the whole slum down with a petrol bomb. What? What?! Without any explanation, this just seems horribly out of character. This girl beat up her own would-be rapist. Her hunger for justice and equality is just mounting and mounting with every scene. What happened to break her great spirit? When did she become so cynical? I'd love to hear the answers, but because Mr. Doctorow's now telling the slum storyline from Mala's best friend's point of view, I don't think I'm going to get them. The next time I see Mala, she's seen the light, but the disservice to her character has already been done.

As for the scenes, I'm starting to get tired of Mr. Doctorow's "one guy explains things to another guy" or "one character's internal monologue explains things to the reader" fix. (There's no "one guy makes an inspiring speech to the group" yet--it's another of his favorite tactics--but given the worker's rights angle, it shouldn't be far behind.) The interludes where he addresses the reader directly to explain some more actually interest me more than when the characters are doing it; I almost wish he'd just written the whole thing as a long essay (but then again, maybe I wouldn't have read it).

For the first time, I actually understand what all my teachers meant by "show, don't tell." I actually think telling has its uses, and I like how story may be advanced just as well through dialogue as through action. But this is just getting boring--especially considering that I don't care very much about the people doing the talking.

Yes, people get arrested, tortured, even horribly scarred. But when the novel cuts to a scene where people are just sitting around talking and making plans, but not yet really doing anything right afterward (it's fitting that I'm writing this review in the middle of the scene where Mala's asking Ashok the economist-planner why things are taking so long), it becomes hard to care about them. It's ironic that instead of eliciting outrage over an important problem, Mr. Doctorow's done a good job of desensitizing this reader, sort of the way news outlets do--now oil price hikes, now celebrity gossip, now a corruption hearing, now a lizard that can play basketball.

So, it's Wei-Dong enjoying his inheritance. Now it's Lu and Matthew listening to rebel radio. Now it's Ashok and Yasmin talking to other union people. Now it's Connor making a bet with his co-worker. Now it's Big Sister Nor and her pals checking out of the hospital--oh, yeah, they got beat up last time. What are they going to do about it? Stay tuned, because it's Wei-Dong's turn again.

The other problem is that you'd think this kind of story would have given the Man a face by now. In "Down and Out," it was that sneaky girl who wanted to take over the theme park. In "Little Brother," it was Severe Haircut and her government goons. In "Makers," it was that guy from Disney who wanted to bust an intellectual property lawsuit on everyone's ass. But in "FTW," we just get this vague idea of corporate bigshots pulling all the strings from the shadows. Maybe Connor, the guy who works for the games and enjoys it, is supposed to be their face, but we don't actually get enough facetime with him to be reasonably scared of his power.

I know Mr. Doctorow's capable of telling a good story. "Chicken Little" was so polished and chilling that I almost couldn't believe he had written it. It's now not only my favorite work of his, but also perhaps one of my favorite stories ever. But because it's so good, I'm wondering how he could let the mess that is "FTW" pass.

Maybe it's not fair to review a book when I haven't finished it yet; maybe I'm just one scene away from where he drops the big one and turning each page is no longer a chore. Maybe "FTW" is full of win after all; there'll be a kick-ass finale, and I'll be glad I didn't give up. I'm just starting to worry that this hope is for naught--I'm well into the second half of the book and it still feels like nothing's happening. This is the first time Mr. Doctorow's produced a novel that I could put down.

* "Little Brother" and "Makers" both featured sex scenes in which one of the geeky, loveable heroes gets it on with a girl from the cause. But maybe I shouldn't complain; the girl is always smart, funny, and more sexually experienced. Nothing like this yet in "For the Win," but my money's on gamer Lu or gamer Matthew hooking up with Jie the rebel radio host.

15 April 2011

Investment Banking is Good for the Soul

My soul, anyway.

I'm sitting in a cafe on Paseo de Roxas, abusing the electrical outlets in between interviews. Both my sources are part of (one of?) the country's largest organization(s) of fund managers. I still understand just the tip of whatever iceberg they're floating on, but listening to them makes me happy. Why?

They believe in the country. They believe that what they do can make it better. They believe that it will get better.

And I believe them. Sure, there's a lot under the surface that I don't know, stuff that I need to keep learning to understand why the country is where it is now, and I don't doubt that some of them might have dirtied their hands at one point or another--but if every manager believes what they do, and works on what they claim, then I wouldn't be asking myself if I should leave. I'd want to be here, just to see if they can pull it off, and maybe along the way, I'd find my own place in the pursuit of progress.

I think this is the thing I like most about my job. I get exposed to all these things that are going on, things I probably wouldn't have seen if I'd stayed a webmistress or gone into glossies, and I feel like a better person for it. Pity that it's only a small part of the other stuff I have to do.

Working weekend for me. Hope you have a good one.

07 April 2011

Out of the Lion City, or Acceptance

I know I shouldn't let a week go by without saying something here about Singapore, although Tumblr followers will probably want me to get over it by now. Aside from a complete list of public links to my Facebook albums of the 4.5-day trip, I've got a queue of 120 favorite photos unloading at a rate of four photos a day. That means Tumblr will suffer just under a month more of my Singapore phase.

If even I sound tired of it, I think it's because I thought I'd be over it by now. Early on, the trip had presented itself to me as an exercise in acceptance.

I had to accept that I would not have enough time to see and do everything--not the zoo, not all the lovely buildings, not all the museums and temples and parks and townships to be seen. I had to accept that I would have to leave. I had to accept that the life that awaited me back in the Philippines would not be as efficient, glittering, clean, or sunny. I had to accept that I had already chosen to stay home, and changing my mind just to indulge my not-so-sci-fi fantasies (I'll get to that later) would only lead me away from my path.

(Sorry for that last bit of vagueness. This is the same thing I've been unable to talk about on this blog and on Xanga for the past two years now. It should actually be pretty obvious for those who know me well enough, but until I make any kind of official-sounding announcement, I won't talk about it, no matter how much I'd like to.)

I hadn't realized that there was a difference between knowing you had to accept something and actually accepting it. Telling myself to just have a good time while I could, and actually having it, hasn't stopped me from still feeling all this regret one week later.

People who know me, or at least are familiar with my blog, know that I have a love-mostly-hate relationship with Metro Manila. It has its charms, and I can identify certain pockets in which I would happily settle down. But I still hold some doubt that I would be truly content, and some part of me is always longing for the simplicity of my hometown. Singapore was a dream come true; it showed me that cities could, in fact, have the hometown feel that I crave. I never thought I'd ever say any city was my kind of city--I thought I didn't have a kind of city--until I'd been to Singapore.

The regret comes, then, from feeling robbed. Until I'd been there, places like Singapore existed only in works of fiction, especially science fiction. Even when I read about such places at work and saw the words, "Such-and-such place has such-and-such amenities and systems in place, making it the most awesomest place evar 'cause you can totally ride your bike everywhere," they weren't real to me. Even now that I've been to Singapore, Vancouver and Auckland aren't real to me.

And so whenever I encountered something both wonderful and everyday in Singapore--a student sitting in an open-air campus cafeteria by the roadside, working with no regard for noise or pollution because there was none; gorgeous historical buildings standing strong and side-by-side with gleaming modern skyscrapers; art in various forms proudly and tastefully displayed in MRT stations and other public spaces; people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds sharing the same spaces without getting stares; etc.--the feeling of awe was followed by a quiet kind of anger. Oh, God, it is possible. Then, Why the hell haven't we done it, too? Which was really just, Why can't I have this for myself?

Adding to this odd sense of injustice--that it could be done but stupidly hadn't been--was the general feeling that I hadn't traveled to another country at all. The climate, vegetation, and general look of the population had me under the illusion that I could still be in the Philippines. It helped that we met Filipinos everywhere we went. I even entertained myself with the idea that I'd traveled through time instead, to perhaps Davao or even General Santos in the not-so-faraway future.

I think if I hadn't made this mistake, it would be easier for me to accept that Singapore and the Philippines are, in fact, different countries, with different histories that have ultimately led to different presents--and I that live in this one, not theirs. (What if we'd had Raffles instead of Magellan?)

But instead, I find myself thinking back to the morning of our fourth day, while on the train to Jurong East. I looked out the window at one of many green-and-yellow apartment buildings and saw a bald, middle-aged man step out of his flat with his samoyed on a leash. For some reason, that image, more than any other, convinced me that I could live in a place like that--that I practically had a right to a life in a place like that. And that's why I've peeked at job listings in Singapore, or possible graduate degrees I might like to take up there, and then raged internally at my stubborn adherence to my prior personal commitments.

I can guess what you're going to say now.

"But, Kat. You're the one who made those commitments (whatever they are, you nerd. Pa-cryptic-cryptic ka pa diyan). You can break them off and do whatever you want. Why deny yourself the chance to make a fantasy real if it's not so far out of reach? It's not like you're asking to fly to Pluto tomorrow; all you have to do is send out a couple of resumes."

As sound--seductive, anyway--as this argument seems, I want to keep my word. This probably borders on the masochistic, but I suppose that's what happens when you make this kind of promise to yourself: I will stay where I am because this is where it will begin, "it" being the mysterious thing I can't talk about.

Of course, I'll then come up against my mother's line of reasoning: "That's ridiculous. If it's meant to be, then it's going to happen even if you move to Antarctica. Go see the polar bears while you're still young and they're still around."

(This is a metaphor; my mom did not actually say this. If I were my mom, though, I would probably say this.)

So then I have to write it all down and/or go over it in my head over and over again, just so I can return to the same conclusion:

This is what I've decided for myself. If I want it as much as I claim to, then I'm not going to change my mind.

And then my life, the way it is now, yet on the way to what I want more than anything else, more than a dog on a leash, a pretty apartment, and my own RFID train pass in a fantastic city, somehow becomes easier to accept.