Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Last name

Morgan and Me. It was raining.
This afternoon I had my copy of The unexpected everything signed by its author, Morgan Matson. I gave her my card so she won't misspell my name and, after reading it, she said, 'Oh your name is so beautiful'.

Before I could finish my 'Thank you', thinking she found Razel quite cute, she exclaimed, 'Even Estrella (she pronounced it Es-Tre-LA)—that means "star", right?'

No one has told me that before. Razel is quite an ice breaker, but Estrella (except for that time when our Physics teacher asked us on the first day of class, as a way of getting to know each other, the origin of our names) didn't really generate any excitement.

I always tell writer friends that I don't have a writer name. Something sonorous, something resonant. This blog was, for a long period, under the pseudonym Diwata Nakpil (good times). And I've been fantasizing about marrying someone with a last name that would, when attached to my first name, make that sound that a latch makes upon locking the door. That click. That feeling that lets you know, it fits; it's safe.

Embarrassing that, no matter how old and mature you think you are, you still need another person to be your mirror and light. Convinced by her that my name is 'so beautiful', I'll look at my byline with a kinder attitude from hereon.

Morgan Matson. That rolls off the tongue. It has lots of things going for it—alliteration, assonance, consonance. Wonderful writer name. Wonderful girl.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Soaring language

Me and Paula
“The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known…” begins the narrator, coaxing the reader to draw in his mind’s eye a feathered creature, complete with beak and claws. By the end of the sentence, however, he’ll learn that the bird being spoken of is made of steel: “…and somehow mine to fly.”

With those few words, author Paula McLain right away sets the tone of Circling the Sun. The novel — her follow-up to her best-selling debut The Paris Wife — will have adventures, twists (whether in plot or thought); and conveyed by language that soars.

This same lyrical voice manifests itself when you speak with McLain. It’s the voice that’s able to admit, “I’m never ambitious” in a gentle yet unapologetic way. “No one in my family had ever been to college. And I grew up in foster homes, and no one in those families had been to college. So no one ever said to me, ‘You should be a doctor, an astronaut, the president of the United States,’” expounded the California-born fictionist.

It wasn’t until she joined a writing program, an MFA in Poetry at the University of Michigan — where she was surrounded by other writers and professors who took notice of her talent — that McLain saw herself differently. After trying her hand at a memoir, she thought of writing from the point of view of someone who lived in history. “That was my big idea that gave me a readership,” she remarked, referring to The Paris Wife, which centers on Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.

McLain’s work became her ticket to travel around places she wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. Last month, she was in the country for The Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, where we had the chance to meet. “We (writers) go in pretty incredible places in our imagination, but it’s also fun when we actually go into the real world and collect stories,” she said with an openness that eluded her younger self. “I was socially awkward as a kid,” she shared, “so it was easier to fall into a book and just kind of be not where I was — not on a school bus — and talk to people.” Putting up a wall made of books, McLain kept to herself and wrote poems.

She published two poetry collections at the start of her career and also penned non-fiction. Her newest opus, Circling the Sun, is another biographical novel. Here, McLain revisits the life of female aviator and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham, whom she calls “badass.” Toying with historical events sounds tricky, but McLain’s obsession with her subject and command of language make her a narrator whom you’ll trust to take you on a smooth, enjoyable ride back in time.

My copy of Circling the Sun

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Wearing sunglasses on rainy days

1. Wearing sunglasses on rainy days.

After a successful LASIK surgery in 2009, my ophthalmologist prescribed the usual: eat healthy, exercise, sleep well, do not marry the computer screen. And then the unusual: wear polarized lenses.

My idea was to (technically) go under the knife, so I could once and for all do away with glasses, which are a hindrance to an active lifestyle, not to mention expensive in the long-run. But before I could object, the good doctor reasoned: they (1) reduce glare and eyestrain; (2) improve eyesight; and (3) protect the eyes from the sun, dust, and other harmful elements, natural or otherwise.

Paranoid and obsessive about my brand-new vision, I bought the best sunnies my money could afford. Since then I couldn’t leave the house without sunglasses. They’ve become apparatuses of extreme importance (along with my watch and cellphone, and former prescription glasses) that I couldn’t be bothered to take them off even upon entering a mall or when the weather turns gloomy.

The other morning, on my way to work, someone shouted, “Lakas ni ate, nakasalamin,” declaring the absurdity of wearing shades while the rain is pouring. To be fair, ten years ago, if I ran across a lady sporting Ray-Ban aviators in the middle of a windstorm, I’d be equally perplexed. But how I wanted to shout back at the rude passer-by: “Wala kang pakialam!”

2. Throwing ‘dialectic’ in casual conversation.

It doesn’t get any easier in your thirties. You’d think at this age, you’d stop feeling the need to explain yourself and conform. You’re wrong. The teenage confusion, the doubt, they don’t go away; they evolve into a new, adult form called over-thinking.

At a friend’s party, the conversation over sushi rolls took a socio-political swerve and one of the more sober participants was arguing her case. She was about to drop the term “dialectic” but instead opted for an easier-to-digest alternative that I don’t remember now.

I can smell fear of sounding too intelligent from a mile because I harbor it, too. Being told, “Wow, lalim!” after every statement you make will make you want to shut up for life — which is impossible. And this is one root of over-thinking. I can’t do that, it’s offensive… but I have to stand my ground. I can’t say that, they won’t understand… but that’s condescension. I must own my eccentricities, but I don’t want to drive people away. I hate people.

3. Approaching the cool girl.

Why was it easier to make friends in grade school? Back then my seat mate instantly became my best friend. Was it because we were stuck beside each other in the same room every day for months that we learned to bond for survival? Or was it just pure childhood innocence?

What I know so far is that my days of innocence are gone and taking its place is a crippling self-awareness. Even if I — by the grace of universe — were seated beside an interesting lady (I know because I follow her on Twitter), I couldn’t bring myself to say hi. Because other than the possibility of her being a total snob, I might say something embarrassing, or worse, bore her.

4. Failing.

And not in a grand, romantic way. Not in a way that makes for a classic graduation speech or a plot point of a blockbuster sports film; but in an everyday, “Damn another red light” kind of way.

In school they ask us, “What do you want to contribute to the world?” The question presupposes that whatever we are (and are not) doing now has no impact on our immediate environment. This framework endorses the notion that to do good (“to have succeeded”), we have to do something measurable — huge, to be precise: support a charity, write a patriotic novel, become president.

But it’s the little things, yeah? What defines us are the small, daily decisions we make when no one’s looking — sorry, documenting. I personally don’t fear failure as much as I fear the label “failure.” If we stop beating ourselves (and each other) up when things don’t work out despite all our efforts, then maybe we could do more and be more — or simply be.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Saturday, August 20, 2016


In The Mix. August 18, 2016.
The 1975, James Bay, Panic! At The Disco
Third Eye Blind, Elle King, Twin Pines
When Brendon Urie said, 'If you heard about my band the very first time, it was probably from this song,' I thought they were going to play Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off, because that’s the song that introduced me to Panic! At The Disco (it was my ringtone at one point in time).


I kind of enjoyed Panic!'s set more, even though I mainly came for The 1975. My box was dancing silly when Panic! was playing. When The 1975 came out, most of them were glued to their phones.


Girl on our right was screaming all the lyrics to all Panic! songs. ALL.


Girl on our left only came to life when The 1975 took the stage. She had this one-dance-move-fits-all-songs going on. ALL.


My favorite surprise was You (which light play was poetry). Didn’t expect them to perform it. When I was just discovering the band, I'd leave their EPs on loop till I fell asleep. You's chorus—the repetition of those simple words, 'It takes a bit more', and that hurried guitar-strumming against an andante tempo—would wake me up like a gentle but scared child, asking to be held in the dark.

It is the sound and song structure that I will always associate with the band.


It was the best concert I've been to since working in the media industry. It feels great to buy tickets to support artists you believe in and not worry about framing the experience in a sellable story.

Most of all it feels great to throw both your hands up in the air.

But you can't take the digital jungle out of the girl. I had to have some souvenirs, so I took out my phone during the performances of my least favorite songs.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


Tiny downer: Thought of having dinner first while waiting for my friend. Rain poured and delayed things as it often does. When we entered the arena, Third Eye Blind was already wrapping up their set. (I was also looking forward to seeing them.) Glass half-full: I heard Jumper and Semi-Charmed Life live.

What did I miss? Did they perform How's It Going To Be, Losing A Whole Year, Deep Inside Of You, Never Let You Go, and other hits?


My original companion had to cancel at the last minute. I was stressed out a bit because that might mean one wasted ticket (I could always sell it to scalpers or be a hero and give it to a desperate fan, but those were the last options).

Long boring story short, I managed to tag Nicole along. It didn't take much convincing on my part because she's a big fan of The 1975 and Panic! as well—and now a James Bay fan.

Classic case of things falling into place.

If I may quote her: 'Yesterday was just a blur of good surprises. The kind of day that just shakes everything up and reminds me a lot of good things happen, too.'


Do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, dance

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Road to Justice

1. The press release landed in my inbox May last year. “In 2007, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay — better known together as Justice — released the single, D.A.N.C.E., which infectious beats captured a multitude of music fans… On May 14, 2015 the Parisian dance production duo will drop by the Philippines to heat up the Valkyrie dance floor,” it read. Why have these infectious beats not captured this music fan yet? I asked myself. So I searched for the song, which turned out to be catchy as fu…advertised (all those nods to Michael Jackson adding to its charm). I saved D.A.N.C.E. to my music bank then moved on with life.

2. The trailer for DJ film We Are Your Friends, starring Zach Efron, came out in the same summer. Included in the motion picture soundtrack was Justice’s remix of Simian’s Never Be Alone. Despite Efron’s good looks and my inclination towards EDM, other forms of distraction won my attention at the time. I neither saw the movie nor heard the OST.

3. YouTube recommended that I watch this Zedd interview, so I did. One of the questions was what got him into electronic music (he was a drummer for a metal band before becoming Zedd). His response: he bought Justice’s album, “Cross” and figured he wanted to make music like that. While metaphorically throwing my hands up, I thought, That’s it, I need to sit down with Justice.

4. Played “Cross.” TTHHEE PPAARRTTYY, with its relaxed, almost-bored cadence, instantly appealed to me. But it was the vocalist’s affectation of coolness and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that sold the song. Imagine Paris Hilton playing dumb blonde — it’s so easy to be annoyed by it if you take it seriously; but take it as an act and you’ll enjoy the ride. DVNO also stood out as a sing- and bop-along tune that has a sense of humor about it (part of the hook goes, “No need to ask my name to figure out how cool I am”).

5. Went on a stalking spree. What are Justice up to now? Are they touring? Do they have new music? Research led me to this Euro 2016 ad, which features Genesis, the first track on “Cross.” Maybe it was the setting of the video, but watching it made me realize what I liked about Justice: theirs is the kind of music I would leave in the background — not overbearing, not boring — and before it could fade in the subconscious, a soaring phrase will suddenly grab you by the collar, demand that you return to listening. Like classical music, only electronic.

6. Played “Cross” again. Tracks sans lyrics highlight how rhythmically engaging Gaspard and Xavier are, and how thoughtful their musical decisions are. Let There Be Light is particularly rewarding. It opens with fast drum beats, then by the fourth bar a distorted sound drills through and grows coarser every eight measures. At the three-minute mark your grandma might already condemn the noise; but let it run for a few more seconds and the notes shall gracefully fall into a quiet, pleasant version of the distortion — there’s the light and we discern the supple skeleton of the song.

7. I wanted more. Listening to their discography was imperative. Listening to what they listen to was sheer pleasure. I checked out every available mix they made and stumbled upon Jamelia’s Something About You and The Paradise’s In Love With You — songs I just knew I’d play for ever but wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for the French duo.

8. Justice released Safe And Sound last month. For some reason the single reminds me of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus — perhaps due to the choir singing, the dream-like vibe, and the fact that I can’t immediately make out the lyrics. Jenkins is said to have utilized the human voice purely as a musical instrument and thus created “words” integral to the sonic experience. I’m not one to read much into a song’s lyrics, but I think Safe and Sound’s work both on the sonic and, however cryptic, semantic levels. In short, I like it.

9. I regret not catching their show when I had the chance (the pain is aggravated each time I listen to their live album, “Access All Arenas”). But I’m not too late a fan. Justice confirmed that they’ll soon release another studio album. I’ll be waiting, stalking, and — negative reviews aside — watching We Are Your Friends till that moment arrives.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Saturday, July 9, 2016

I love your work so, so much

After years of underlining bits of text I deem too beautiful to forget from whatever reading material I get my hands on, this particular year proves the utility of the practice.

The internet and the nature of my job increase the likelihood of me interacting with people whose works I admire. Visual artists, musicians, writers. Just last week, I probably had the biggest small exchange of my life.

I posted Alice Fulton's 'What I like' on my Twitter, and she thanked me — and even said my name [EXCLAMATION POINT]

So I had to say something in return, it was my chance to, not out of the blue, tell her what I've always wanted to tell her, how brilliant I think she is, but of course in a very dignified manner. And, but, all I came up with was:

Since then this passage about what we truly mean when we say we love an artwork, that we think it's beautiful, was floating in my head. I knew I've highlighted that in one of those theory books and I knew it was either Ann Lauterbach or another female writer (Anais Nin, maybe; or Jeanette Winterson; hardly Sontag, coz I remember the prose being very lyrical and, um, kind). So I picked up 'The night sky' and saw that it was mildly annotated.

But there it was. What a pleasure to know exactly what you're looking for and then finding it, and then finding out you're getting more than what you expected. Rereading the lines plus the entire argument behind it lent me a new clarity.

A young poet friend remarks, "The divine part of humanity is its capacity to see the interconnectedness between all things. To be that interconnectedness." If this is so, then the Divinity we wish to resemble is testing us in subtle new ways, asking us to worship at the Temple of Information, whose Disembodied Oracular Source (who is speaking?) is lost in a thousand transcripts flying through the stratosphere, like pixilated ghosts, each with its particle of fact. To see connections in this, to find in it the syntax of the heart, to invent compelling stories and stunning images: to impose on this astounding influx form?

Form, after all, is chosen limits.

Limit, as a formal characteristic, is the expression of choice in the service of the possible.

The possible is the indeterminate futurity of meaning.

Form posits the optimum conditions for meaning to occur.

. . . .

When limits, or choices, are displayed in the service of the possiblity of meaning, in the making of art objects, we call the result beautiful. That is, we stand before a painting by Vermeer, or we read a poem by Paul Celan, or we listen to Shostakovich's Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for piano, and we say this is beautiful. But what we are really announcing is our pleasure and gratitude in the fact of the choices the artist has made [emphasis mine]. We recognize something in how one stroke of the brush brushes up against another stroke of the brush; how one note moves toward and away from the next in an astounding sequence; how one word attaches itself to another and to another and to another until something that has to do with all the words separately—the history of their meaning—gathers into a nexus which allows us, which invites us, to experience something like the meaning of meaning.

. . . .

Art is not entertainment, and it is not decor. It is one of the rude fallacies of our time to want to reduce all art forms, and in particular literary arts, to their most facile and elemental role, and so deny their potential to awaken, provoke, and elicit our glee at being agents in the construction of meaning.

So the next time I meet one of my creative heroes, I'll show my appreciation by slapping them with Ann Lauterbach's 'The night sky'. Kidding. Will tell them, Thank you for making these creative decisions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Keep creating

There is a scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood where divorcée Olivia tells her college-bound son Mason that it is the worst day of her life. Asked why, she replies, “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones — getting married, having kids, getting divorced… getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral! Just go and leave my picture!” Confused, Mason tells her she’s jumping way ahead, to which she answers back with resignation: “I just thought there would be more.”

This scene hits a chord and resonates with me until now, for it highlights my suspicions about success — our definitions of it (an accumulation of goals being one) and if it, as we seem to believe, enables happiness. Because I’ve been there and heard the same confession from others: getting what you want and still feel lacking.

What I do know is when people recall their happy stories and assert their identity, they rarely speak of “getting” but rather of “doing.” At least this job reveals to me as much. Interviewing artists, writers, and musicians — picking their brains about their craft — affirms the pleasures of creation (an occasion to be truly in-the-moment). It’s the one constant source of joy for them.

—Full story on GIST.PH