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The Trip Part 6: The Birthday Party of the Century

You’d think that after exploring Intramuros, Corregidor Island, and eaten copious amounts of mango fresh from the tree, that we had seen all that we could see of Manila in one week. But no, the last night of our stay had even more surprises in store for us.

One of Don’s Colleagues was holding a birthday party for her granddaughter on Saturday night, so Sara and I were invited. We were a little trepidatious at first because we didn’t know the family, but we were so flattered by the invitation that we accepted it. As we meandered through the highway, Judy mentioned that there would be the kid’s party first, then the adults’ party after dinner. At this point I wondered what exactly Sara and I had gotten ourselves into.

This was our answer.

To say this was the most extravagant birthday party I had ever been to was an understatement. They had a DJ leading the kids through games of finding coloured golf balls and seeing who could say “Happy Birthday” the longest. There was a vintage ice cream cart, a cotton candy machine, Transformers goody bags for the boys, Disney Princess goody bags for the girls, and chair covers. As God as my witness, I have seen chair covers at a child’s birthday party.

But what really floored me about the whole party was the parents. What were they doing while their children were being over-stimulated with toys and sugar and all that nasty stuff? Again, as God as my witness, they were chilling. Just kicking back with their drinks and watching their kids have the time of their lives.

Now this is a scene that is completely foreign to my home country. If this was going on in a Canadian backyard, no matter what income level, you’d have parents in the middle of the games making sure the “bad” kids kept their distance from their precious little snowflake.  Someone would be grilling the caterer over little Jimmy’s gluten allergy, or there might be a small cache of parents gossiping about what a bad influence the DJ is. They would not be catching up with their cousins over fruit cocktail.

Now, you might say I’m only making this observation as a non-parent, but believe me, I was nervous too.  Someone was making toy swords with balloons, and Sara’s 10-year-old triplet cousins were having a full scale battle with the other kids. I fully expected to hear a piercing wail coming from a kid who got hit too hard or whose balloon sword had popped. All I heard was laughter. Sara and I were talking with Don’s colleague’s neighbour, who has twin nine-year-old boys, and she asked if Sara had any kids and when she was planning to have any. Her tone was more akin to asking “When are you going to Cancun?” rather than the “When is your life going to be ruined too?” or “Can I have your mat leave?” tone that I usually hear when the question of children comes up. At that very moment, something clicked into place. A solution with clues reaching far back into the trip.

We all may have heard at some point or another on celebrity talk-shows or chick-lit novels that you need to get a Filipino nanny because, you know, they love kids. You might think, well, they come from a developing country and they would appreciate the Canadian/American minimum wages, so they’ll work hard. The party was a big “No, no, no, you don’t understand,” to that statement. They LOVE kids. They are not only our future, but they are one of the pleasures of life. The sound of children playing is considered the background noise to a life well-lived. In the malls, there are all of these playgrounds and rides. I saw no less than 5 places in one mall advertising that they host birthday parties. You could tell that the tour guides were directing their stories at the triplets, and any other kids we taking the tour with. Judy even told us that in Geneva or Canada, people would see her with a triple stroller and give her looks of pity. In the Philippines, people with no more with 5 pesos to their name would go up to her and tell her how blessed she is.

Does this mean that they value children in the Philippines more than we do? Of course not, but the concept of children is approached with less emotional baggage and less fear. Our culture makes it tough to be a parent. “Where are the parents?” is the first question people ask when they hear about kids shoplifting or beating up each other in the news. Then you’ve got the other side of the coin, where parents are pulling their kids from dance school because they were playing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” at the recital. Parents are basically being judged all the time, which makes them paranoid. Everyone else is paranoid of the paranoid parents. We are all actively trying to avoid each other, so our parks are empty, our kids can’t relate to anyone, and under no circumstances do we have big, fun, birthday parties.

So what am I going to do, knowing what I know now? Again, I’m not a parent yet, but I want to be some day. I’m not going to be leading a one-man revolution against paranoid parenting, that’s just too much for me or my kids. We can’t just socially engineer away all of our problems. I will be looking to them to see what makes them happy, and try to balance that with the knowledge that I have that will keep them that way in the future. And most importantly, I will enjoy myself.  I think we can always choose the way we react to life, and if an entire nation can make their child-rearing years the best years of their life, I think I can too.

The Trip Part 2: Ayala Alabang

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Once Sara and I had adjusted to the time zone a bit, Sara’s Uncle Don took us out for lunch at the Asian Development Bank where he works as a lawyer. The ADB makes their business by helping Asian governments finance public works projects, like dams and bridges. The head office seemed more like a self-sufficient compound than anything else. There was a full-service garage with a gas pump, and the company store shipped in groceries from anywhere in the world for their international team of economic hotshots. The restaurant had a piano player and made quite the fine steak. From there we drove to Don and Judy’s house in the suburb of Ayala Alabang.

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Aside from the Spanish colonial architecture and security checkpoint, Ayala Alabang looked like a pretty normal gated community. There was a church, a community field, a country club, and even a small convenience store. The neighborhood is home to quite a few expatriates, as well as the staff that maintains all the houses. The wages in the Philippines are as such that houses like these will employ cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, or combinations of all three. Don and Judy’s house was no exception. They had a gardener named Nestor, a cook named Natty, and a housekeeper named Anning.

Judy and Sara with Simon, Jonah and Noah respectively.

Judy and Sara with Simon, Jonah and Noah respectively.

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Don and Judy's House

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Guest House

Guest Room

Guest Room

Now, if you know Don and Judy, you may have heard of their three boys, Simon, Noah, and Jonah. They are fraternal triplets and are 10-years-old as of this writing. They are very intelligent and inquisitive. They go through books like nobody’s business, and I think they came up with a plan to buy an iPhone through buying and selling beanie babies after I showed them my own device. Since Judy is trained as a teacher, she home-schools the boys in a small classroom in the second level of their guest house where Sara and I got to stay.

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Channeling my 10-year-old self, I thought it was very cool. Everything was very hands-on. They had charts to count in English, French, Roman and Mayan. For projects they completed relief maps of Africa and clay models of human skin layers. The construction of their tree-house was used to teach geometry. My personal favorite was their comparative novel studies. Simon, Noah and Jonah go through so many books that they were able to follow authors like Gary Paulsen, and made charts of all the similarities and differences between their novels.

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Natty, Sara and Anning

I must say Sara and I never ate as well during the whole trip as we had when Natty was cooking. For dinner there was food like stuffed peppers, chicken stir-fry wrapped in banana leaves, and curried beef. Breakfast included waffles, french toast, bacon and eggs. Sara and I should e-mail them for some recipes. However, I doubt we’ll ever get the presentation right!

In Search of New Sci-fi

So after paying my library fines last week, I swore to myself that I was going to take out one, and only one book that day. Hopefully a light, entertaining jaunt that I could get through in a few days. Perhaps it was part of a series so I could enjoy those characters that I fell in love with again and again. Oh, and it had to have spaceships.

I decided to go with “The Shadow of Saganami” by David Weber. It’s actually the first novel in a spin-off series of the Honor Harrington Saga, which I remembered from the snazzy cover art I’ve seen grace the shelves of the bookshops from time to time. The novels star a female starship captain name Honor Harrington who spends most of her time kicking ass for an anachronistic constitutional monarchy out among the stars. While the novel didn’t directly star Ms. Harrington, it promised more of the same. A space opera full of shady political deals and massive starship battles. It seemed perfect. I took it home, cracked it open, and got to the beginning of chapter two before closing it again for good.

I realize that this might not be a fair review of the novel. After all, the book was meant for long-time fans of the series who were familiar with the universe, the terminology, and the characters. However, I didn’t get too far before I found that reading the rest of the book would just be a chore. The straight-laced characters seemed to have little to distinguish them outside the pips on their uniforms. I have a friends and relatives in the military, and in an industry where there is a culture of funny story battles, you’d think there would be more interesting ways to introduce a military officer character rather than having her checking over her dorm to see if she forgot anything. The dialogue was written in the same stilted American dialect that every major science-fiction universe has used since Larry Niven’s “Known Space” novels in the 1970’s. They also do that thing where they stop using contractions and use larger words to signify that they’re being sarcastic. They’ll say something like, “I am sorry I cannot acquiesce to your superior demands, O so-called viceroy of the surrounding sector and its principalities”. It makes me want to put my head through drywall.

So, back it goes to the library. My cousin recommended Neal Stephenson’s latest, so I think I’ll give it a shot. The problem is, I know why this series is a New York Times bestseller. The descriptions of the space battles are grand and detailed. If there is ever a TV show or movie from the Honor Harrington universe, I’d probably watch it (if only because David Weber wants Claudia Christian from Babylon 5 to play the title character). However, there was such an ennui in the tone of the book, like everything I was watching through the text had been done before. I find this is a problem with most science fiction after the 1980’s. As hard sci-fi concepts like computers and space travel become commonplace, writers put less effort into describing those things with the wonder and mystery that they used to. This is why I read older novels from authors like Heinlein and Niven. The novels still read like they are fantastic, even though the technology in them becomes dated by our standards. It’s important to remember that in science fiction, technology is more than just a way to get from plot point A to mcguffin B. They are symbols of humankind’s hopes and dreams.

Parts Of My Geekiness I Am Losing

According to some I should have turned in my geek card the minute I got married. Then again, there are many married geeks, and even my wedding wasn’t completely Star Wars free. However, just as Superman gave up his powers to be with Lois Lane in Superman II, I find I am losing components of my geekiness to the mists of time, such as:

-The ability to be personally offended by following: the Wii’s game line-up, Anime voice acting, Live-action adaptations of comic-books, novels or video games

-The ability to discern anime character designers

-The ability to participate in the eternal Star Destroyer v. Enterprise debate.

-The ability to stomach any Expanded universe Star Wars

-The ability to watch anime all night

-The idea that Freelancing is a romantic occupation of freedom and bad-assery as opposed to paper-work and shaking down clients for money

-The idea that spoilers will ruin any and all enjoyment of a book, movie or TV show

Does this mean that I’m just growing up? Hardly. I still watch Doctor Who and Macross Frontier. I check io9.com about twice a day and I often peruse Hobbylink Japan the way many people would peruse a Jaguar dealership. I still think professional sports is like paying to watch other people have fun. What has changed is how I perceive my free time. As I get older, time seems to move faster. It feels like high school lasted longer than my 20s. I no longer have the luxury of indulging my interests to completion. Delayed gratification has its merit, but not when you’re trying to be entertained. Slogging through a 52 episode series when 26 of those are filler is no way to go through life. In fact, it’s no way to enjoy a series. The same goes for relationships. Make an effort to enjoy yourself and those around you.

Adults Who Are Young

I’ve been checking out the Young Adult genre for the past little while now. Harry Potter and his ilk have completely changed the publishing industry and apparently “saved reading”, so I wanted to find out what the fuss was all about. Harry Potter was okay, but not without certain nitpicking flaws. James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series was so inexcusably bad that I couldn’t make it through the first few chapters. Sara introduced me to another series by Rick Riordan called Percy Jackson and the Olympians and surprisingly, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s the story of Percy Jackson, a dyslexic, ADHD twelve-year-old boy who one day finds out that his long lost biological father is none other than Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. After a desperate escape to a demi-god summer camp in upstate New York, Percy is assigned a quest to retrieve the Thunderbolt of Zeus from the Underworld, which is now in LA (Mount Olympus is respectively now on the six hundredth floor of the Empire State building. It’s a long story, read the book already). It was heavy on action and self-referential humour, but it was complex enough to get me to read all three books in the space of a week.

Now, as I was going through all of these books for “young” adults, I realized I had gone sour on most adult books of the same genre. Truth be told, most of my friends had as well. The Author of Old Man’s War, Jon Scalzi wrote a really neat post on what is happening to the industry. Without mentioning titles, YA Science Fiction titles are outselling adult titles two to one. YA Fantasy outside of Harry Potter is outselling adult Fantasy by four to one.

So, Young Adult authors are moving books like gangbusters, and we can reasonably assume that an increasing portion of that readership is made up of adults (including yours truly). The question is why? It’s not because the books are shorter either. The Harry Potter series topped out at 900 pages. There hasn’t been a Percy Jackson book under 200 pages. The answer then, is hidden in the adult books.

I’ve also been doing a long, painful parallel study into adult science fiction novels, particularly David Brin’s Uplift War, Verner Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky and Greg Bear’s Forge of God. In all three books I found ideas that would blow your mind. A Galactic culture based on cultivating animals into sentient races, 1000-year-old computer programming traditions, and roving fleets of self-replicating killer robots. The problem is that the books are an utter pain in the ass to read.

In all three of these books, the authors seemed more concerned about getting the science and social concepts right rather than concentrating on writing an entertaining novel. The ideas in these books are great food for thought. You could debate for hours on how the societies and technologies in these books actually work. Unfortunately the characters are either unlikable or unremarkable, the language is obtuse and the conflicts are unsatisfying. In Uplift War, everyone except the sentient chimpanzees speak the same “alien” dialect that’s devoid of any slang or color. If you’ve heard Mr. Spock open his mouth at any time you know what I’m talking about. The Qeng Ho space traders in A Deepness in Sky were so insipid that by the time they had defeated the Fascist Emergents, I just didn’t care any more. I feel really bad about Forge of God, because I loved Greg Bear’s Blood Music. But in this book, so many of the characters are just stalwart experts and scientists. I can’t properly tell the astronomer advising the president from the geologist held in quarantine at the Airforce base. The President in this book decided to lay down arms in front of the impending alien invasion, but the description of his thought process was so mushy that I wasn’t aware of the decision for about two chapters.

It’s important to note that all three of these books are Hugo award winners, the top honor among literary science fiction. Some fans out there may scoff my claims, that these books are too advanced for my primitive brain to handle. However, all of these books are guilty of the sins described in George “1984” Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”.

In the essay, Orwell writes that difficult prose with too many long words, jargon and adverbs is not only difficult to read, it might as well destroy western civilization. By making political speeches and decrees unclear and lacking of any strong imagery, you can justify any monstrous action you can imagine. Take George W. Bush’s definition of “freedom”, for instance. The same rules apply to fiction, only we don’t use it to pick leaders, we just don’t want to get bored at the bus stop. It’s impossible to enjoy yourself when you’re puzzling over what “circumlocution” means.

It wasn’t Harry Potter who saved reading. That series was only a conduit, a lightning rod for a public that was tired of bloated prose, threadbare imagery and indulging author’s neuroses. We should keep in mind that it’s enough just to keep it simple, stupid. The very best of the genre will walk the edge of pandering and indulgence. Most Adult SF and Fantasy are on the indulgence end of the equation. If the genre is to survive, then this time a little bit of pander is in order.