Stars and Friends

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The year is 2015. A handful of months fresh from a change of jobs that was, safe to say, not planned as thoroughly as I would have preferred, I (along with my sister who tagged along) joined a curious crew into the beautiful beach of Puerto Galera. This small vacation was both a temporary respite from the sweltering summer heat and an item of curiosity off a pipe dream bucket list. For as long as I’ve started taking an interest in photography I’ve always looked up at the night sky wanting to capture what my eyes saw and maybe even more.

Fast forward to 2018, a trip/adventure that I thought I would only make once has been a more-often-than-annual reason to take vacation leaves. I’ve met some very interesting people, some of them even became friends that I wanted to personally say goodbye to, given my then-looming departure for Germany. I have photographed the beautiful sight of a galactic core from the vantage point of a fringe planet several times—might as well be countless, considering that I thought I would only see this once, maybe twice.

Sci Fi

And to my friends and coworkers, I’ve become that guy with one eye always at the night sky, who can be excused from immediate replies if there’s a super moon on the horizon, and who, with a bulky telescope, prove the science schoolbooks correct. Mars is red. Venus is beautiful. Saturn has a ring. Jupiter has spots, streaks, and satellites.

Lumos!

I remember in January of 2018 when a rare and curious phenomenon graced the Philippines: not only was it a super moon, it was also a total lunar eclipse. It was, of course, something I would not ever miss. What I did not count on was my reputation preceding me at work. In a few Facebook messages, Abie has persuaded me to organize a viewing for anyone else interested in the office.

Despite my aversion to coordinating logistics for just almost anything1, from a heap of inputs and suggestions, I’ve managed to scrap together a workable plan and conveyed those spur-of-the-moment schemes into instructions people could follow.

The night of the eclipse, the taxi we booked was unfortunately stuck in traffic so we had to walk to where he was to save time. On the radio the news broadcast covered the eclipse as it started to take place. We finally arrived at the park about an hour or less away before totality. It was crowded and festive in the pleasant January evening air; we might as well be shooting a music video for Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight.

After finding the group of my coworkers who have arrived earlier I prepared to mount my binoculars to my tripod. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, “I am not prepared for this”.

“For the eclipse?” asked Aser.

“Emotionally,” I clarified.

This will sound kitschy as a German garden gnome but seeing the moon in shades of red is like seeing your lover on your wedding day2. You already know she’s beautiful but seeing her made up and extra pretty just for this one day is sweet intoxicating infatuation all over again.

As I expected, a crowd of strangers queued up to have a look through my binoculars. I normally tend to introversion but I love sharing and talking about things that make me wonder and smile and even more so when my audience appreciates why I am in awe and wonder. Needless to say, I think this passion for the sights of dark and clear skies is something I managed to convey that night.

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Uncharacteristic of me, I did not get to take a lot of pictures that night. The reason being, this was still several months before I bought the compact A6000. By then I only had the A35; though already small for its time, it just doesn’t compare to the new generation.


Moving to Germany, I knew that I would leave more than just my astrocamping gear behind but also friends and this loose collection of acquaintances that’s become an astronomy family/club to me.

Team Stargazing

Still, you can strip a man of all his astrophotography gear but you can’t strip a man of his passion and resourcefulness. One of the first photos I took after arriving in Hamburg is, predictably, of a beautiful spring night sky.

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That’s taken without a tripod and in the still-bitter cold of a Northern German June night. Not bad I would say. Not at all.

Hamburg, for all its virtues, is just not ideal for astronomical observations, unfortunately. In the spring/summer when the skies have slightly better odds of being clear, the days are long. In the autumn/winter, when the nights are an imposing presence even over people’s moods, the weather is cloudy at best.

Still, you make do with the circumstances. Experience so far suggests that spring is the best time for observations in Hamburg. For all the bad things that transpired last year, there were two astronomical events that I was able to observe.

The first is the conjunction of the lovely Venus with my favorite asterism, the Pleiades.

An Offering of Light

This was taken from my apartment’s window, blown up and post-processed from a 50mm f2.8 shot. I did not use a tripod and this would not have been possible if my unit’s heater was not directly under the window.

The second one was harder to observe and not only because of cloudy Hamburg nights. It was also fainter and the lines of sight from my apartment did not afford a direct view into this beauty. For what it’s worth it was visible for far longer as it was no mere coincidental conjunction of sky lights—though I only actively tracked it for almost a week . But for the whole time it was visible, it was also “moving” at least faster than usual for celestial objects.

I am talking, of course, about the Comet Neowise.

The Comet Neowise

Hunting Neowise in late July meant that I had to take some very late-night (or early-morning, depending on how you want to frame things) bike rides. And then staying out in the cold night alone in a dark Stadtpark Eimsbüttel, with only my hoodie jacket. I even feared that I might be mistaken as a vagrant, and would have to explain myself in German (“Herr Polizei…leider habe ich kein Deutsch genug für eine Erklärung.”) but then what vagrant has an interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera and a bike with a smartphone for GPS guidance?3

That Neowise moved across the skies4 also meant that each night I tried to shoot/observe it, I first had to track it, a task that ate into the precious little hours of darkness—not to mention the precious few minutes of cloud clearance—that I had. In the picture I took above, you can already see the clouds creeping up on my view. I planned to take proper long exposures of this—I even borrowed a tripod from work—but I just never had enough time. Thankfully, I can stabilize myself pretty well and the A6000’s sensor is fantastic at low light to say the least.5

It’s not the picture I envisioned I would take but it’s something. At least until Neowise returns after roughly 7000 years.


In the midst of perhaps my busiest spell so far in my current job, another lunar eclipse happened in the Philippines last Wednesday. I wasn’t even aware of it; the first time it was brought to my attention was while my family was attempting to set-up and use Koopman-Hevelius, the German Equatorial Mount Telescope that I left in the Philippines.

The Koopman-Hevelius

I was actually rather indifferent to missing an opportunity to witness a lunar eclipse. Perhaps to my mind I had bigger fish to fry in the form of the tasks queued up at me at work; the past couple of weeks hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing and a timely long weekend has been my only opportunity to decompress.

Imagine my surprise upon seeing a message from a friend telling me they took a picture of the eclipse for me, because I wasn’t there, and sorry they only had a phone, none of the fancy gear I might be used to. A touching gesture as much as it was unexpected. In the crazy reality that’s started in 2020, it’s also quite a nostalgic reminder of times gone by.

I subscribe to the idea that people won’t remember you for what you said but for how you made them feel. That’s why I always try to acknowledge even the smallest gestures of kindness. From a random “Hi” while I’m queued up at the grocery cashier with a heavily-bandaged left arm pushing my grocery cart to taking a picture of an eclipse so that I can see it even if I wasn’t there. They are all very appreciated and I want you to know, you lifted up my mood.

Here’s to the kindness of friends and of strangers, who are just friends we haven’t made yet.

  1. And, as a matter of fact, it was Abie’s job to coordinate events. As usual I’m just your humble but well-paid software engineer. []
  2. Not that I have ever married. In this simile I am relying on Hollywood’s depictions of marriage. []
  3. A vagrant who just robbed a better-off citizen, that’s what! I apologize for my sense of humor. []
  4. Let’s not be physics-pedantic with the definition of movement here, okay? []
  5. And I never really updated the firmware so I don’t have to worry about the dreaded star-eater algorithm. []

Schnee und Schade

February 6. Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf.

UKE

For the first time in about a week, my left elbow felt stable and secure. True, the arm was bandaged firmly to a cast but for the first time since the anaesthesia from Thursday wore off, I can truly say I feel no pain.

I was even optimistic I could be discharged soon. Maybe even tomorrow. And I was eager about it too; due to a gross miscalculation of my independence and recovery capabilities, I haven’t taken a proper bath since I got here. Thank goodness face masks are in fashion.

Of course, I knew that I still have to be extremely careful. Getting myself in this situation was already inconvenient enough. Overexerting during the long recovery process would be an even bigger setback.

In my phone I scrolled through a Trello list of things I wanted to do in Europe, plans for travels that have, of course, been put on hold by a global pandemic. A handful of activities in Hamburg—Asian restaurants, mostly—has been tagged as “POST COVID19”. I estimated that Germany would’ve reopened by the time I’m fully recovered. By then I could ride my bike once more.

And so I looked forward to that. It was motivation to hit my recovery milestones.

January 30. Beautifallage, pun intended.

Snow in Hamburg

Carefully, I start pedaling, making sure to regulate my speed. It’s the cycling equivalent of watching your step over shaky ground, except, should your footing give on shaky ground, a clever shift of body weight could yet help you. On a bike I pretty much have no idea how to adapt should I slip other than to fall gracefully; while most of my martial arts training is focused on striking, I’m no stranger to the concept of break-fall.

Note: Even with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m not sure how advisable a break-fall over ice is. All I can say is, do not expect it to be as effective as performed in training over padded ground.

After a few meters covered, a few crossings without issue, I gained confidence in my ride. Though still riding slow, I considered the snow crushed by my bike wheels as my contribution to de-icing the sidewalks of Hamburg. I didn’t plan to cover such a long distance; I planned only to spend some outdoors winter time in that beautiful autumn park near my apartment.

Beautifallage

Of course, writing about it in retrospect, with a surgical scar for a souvenir across my left elbow, it just seems careless. But at the time I was really curious how it would feel to bike through snow. And it’s not as if it was a completely ignorant move from me either; I made sure to slightly deflate my tires for better grip, the one common advice in all the “biking on snow” articles I’ve read.

To anyone who somehow got here looking for advice on how to bike on snow, here’s mine:

Don’t.

Anyway, returning to my story, after spending a few hours enjoying snow like the first timer I am and slightly fearing frostbite, I decide one final glory lap around the beautiful park, a lap I’ve done numerous times already that day. Except this time, with the small bit of urgency on my mind, I forgot my embargo on speed.

I suddenly found myself flying from my bike. It wasn’t your usual fall; it all happened so fast. I rolled on the snow and somehow felt my left arm go wrong, for lack of a better term.

The only comparison I could come up with was an F1 driver misjudging the wet track on slick tires by a just an inch or two, sending them literally flying out of race contention. Or maybe I’m just making myself sound more heroic after the fact.

The first thing I realized, with a touch of irony, was the surge of adrenaline throughout my body, therefore taking care of my slight fear of frostbite.

So there I was, ass on the snow, perhaps three meters away from my bike. Though I wore a heavy winter coat, I could tell my left arm has rotated in a way left arms are not supposed to rotate. My brain went into a half-confused state. I remember being so sure that I must be bleeding, but the snow wasn’t red, ergo I wasn’t bleeding. Still I wanted to raise my left arm higher than my heart, except that I can’t move it. I must’ve broken a bone and maybe it even tore through my skin, and therefore I should be bleeding.

Thankfully, I wasn’t. It was merely a dislocation though I had to wait in the hospital to get properly patched-up and tested. Thankful as I am for a more-than-decent emergency response system as well as medical insurance, that day I realized why hospitals are such frustrating experiences.

If your case is not serious, they will not prioritize you and you will wait. And if they are prioritizing you…let’s just say it is not the best day of your life.

I have never been more thankful for being made to wait.


Which brings us back to present day. My arm is well but I still hugely over-estimated my recovery capabilities. I managed to keep my proudly-valued independence throughout but I still can’t completely extend my left arm. I can play the guitar though. And draw; I am right-handed.

With Germany currently battling a third wave of this global pandemic, it feels like playing a waiting game in multiple fronts. Waiting for my arm’s complete recovery as I perform my therapy exercises regularly. Waiting for my turn to get a vaccine. Waiting for everyone else to get a vaccine so life can return to normal.

In truth I have very contradicting feelings about the whole situation. On one hand the prospect is just bleak but on the other hand it gives me ample time to recover properly—I’m not missing out on anything. I’m not impatient in that respect.

It’s been quite a boon for my art too. Part of the circumstances why I bought a Wacom tablet is this “lockdown art project” I came up with where I’m basically illustrating stories I wrote. But having a concrete goal meant that I kept to a small collection of tools and techniques that achieves my goal, helps me produce the images I want, in more or less the style I envisioned. It didn’t leave much room for experimentation.

But thanks to having almost nothing else to do, I had time and enough ennui to actually learn the vast arsenal I had at my disposal, thanks to software. For example, with Krita I can add a dimension to my sketches I didn’t have previously. Not just that I am no longer constrained to grays of pencil lead, I can even emulate the texture of other media such as charcoals without making a huge mess.

Eyes and Smile

A couple of notes:

  • Yes, I have previously tried charcoal in real life. I didn’t like it. Too broad, couldn’t get details in. Not to mention too fragile and expensive—traits that are never complementary in a product. I’m pretty sure I was using it wrong but I have neither the time nor the teacher to teach me properly
  • I know I could’ve escaped the monotony of gray in real-life sketches by using—wait for it—colored pencils (genius!) but colored pencils are simply a different experience from your typical Steadtler 3B. They are harder to erase, and that’s just the start of it.

Another thing you have to consider in real life is the paper. When you draw you are basically applying a layer of medium on the paper; add too much and it’s heavy, the medium could seep, even tear the paper. And when you erase, you are basically scraping the medium off the paper, and sometimes you scrape off fibers of the paper too; you can only erase so much.

Not to mention that art materials—high-quality paper among them—are quite expensive. It’s not really threatening my savings but I consider it quite wasteful to just pour money into this hobby when I’m not getting any financial value back from it. I might as well buy a Hasselblad camera.

But with software, the only real cost is my time and my patience. I can study different styles and try to execute it in a piece.

I can try a Sumi-e-inspired gothic watercolor and get it wrong as many times as I need to get a satisfactory result.

Gothic

This wouldn’t have been possible with the small arsenal of brushes I’ve come to depend on. Simple as it looks, there was a lot of time spent on experimentation.

I can even feel daring and try out new palettes. Perhaps due to my extensive work with gray pencil, I noticed that my color choices tend to be dark. So, how about a vibrant portrait in false-chrome worthy of an ad campaign?

Not Gothic

I think avant-garde is French for “I have no idea what I’m doing”.

Which, just to bring this post to a close, kind of sums up my current situation. I really don’t have plans or an idea what to do next other than wait. One day at a time until my path crosses normal again.

Avant-garde. Au revoir. Bis dann.

Battles with Fate, Now with More Uncertainty

Even if you were living under a rock for the past eight to nine months, I’m pretty sure you would’ve heard about the pandemic ravaging the world right now, if only because you no longer need to avoid people; they socially distance themselves from you automatically. And you can treat those who, for some confidently-wrong belief or another, insist to invade your personal space anyway, as crazies. As a modern-day Diogenes you no longer need to invoke your view of the sun to insinuate someone is an idiot. A silver lining, what a relief.

Which makes me wonder if a modern-day Diogenes would read blogs because if not then my whole first paragraph has no audience. But I guess in an age of social media and walled content gardens the personal blog is the barrel in which a philosopher might dwell. Gasp. I was the Diogenes all along.

Anyway, back to the topic. I’m pleased to report that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected me adversely despite living by myself, a stranger in a strange land. Selfishly I might even be thankful to find myself in Hamburg amidst all this. There are only a few ways I can be more comfortable right now.

Not that it hasn’t affected me at all. Whereas so far, thankfully, I’ve managed to stay healthy, the pandemic has got to my thoughts in all sorts of ways. From the usual negative stuff to more positive outcomes like bursts of productivity here and there, and things I wouldn’t have otherwise tried like finally buying a bike.

My key achievement so far is my proposal for a new economic indicator metric: the Toilet Paper Availability Index. It measures citizens’ general confidence in government proclamations at a highly localized level. Fair to say that this has failed spectacularly in many parts of the world during this pandemic, including, unfortunately, in Germany, long-clichéed to be world’s best at just following rules.

I guess, arguably, no formal rule was instituted, Merkel merely implored the German populace to not purchase like hamsters.

That said, it will be disingenous of me to imply that the scarcity I’ve witnessed is any cause for alarm. In fact, for reasons I would not expound in here, my apartment is currently home to an ungodly amount of REWE Double Chocolate American Cookies.

I hear your screams of “Wait, Chad. But. Why?!”. So okay. They are gosh-darned delicious okay? Addicting even. Won’t be surprised if REWE adds meth in these in secret. Okay moving on…

I noticed that my local REWE has stopped stocking these lately. I’m a bit worried as I don’t know why. I’d like to think they grew concerned that I, a loyal customer, will die of Diabetes but it’s probably either (a) they are trying to avoid liability from a loyal customer getting Diabetes or (b) they just stopped stocking it. I would like everyone to know that if I die of Diabetes, I would’ve died happy. But if I die of starvation in my apartment, you have my express permission to call me der Idiot.

(Editor’s Note: I have since discovered that my local REWE still stocks these cookies. They just moved the shelf somewhere else. I have very conflicted emotions regarding this.)

Speaking of worry, I have long since determined that my ultimate frustration is a situation which I can’t do anything about. Having no option but to wait for anything, for something to happen, is my idea of powerlessness. As long as I can struggle for a result, I can find a certain peace of mind.

Which might just be this pandemic’s greatest blow on me. To be honest, moving to Hamburg to work for Goodgame last year is quite a huge personal goal I’ve achieved, the downside of which is a very philosophical/poetic Loss of a Goal. I have, at the start of the year, just resolved to start poking around looking for a new goal. Then, history intervened: The Year In Which The World Changed A Decade. So much change that introverts tired of isolation.

And now I don’t know in the worst possible personal way. I do not want to give the impression that it is such a horrible thing. I just find myself on a plateau, quite a comfortable plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. I’d rather be scaling mountains, trying them just because they are there. The pandemic just made planning that so much harder. I have no idea what to expect when every expectation just goes out of the window more than usual.

I’m used to testing Fate. It’s just that doing that right now comes with so much more uncertainty.


I didn’t want this to end in such a downer so here’s a really pretty photo I took recently.

Dear Autumn,

Though I don’t like you for your tendency to remind me of my own mortality, I can’t deny you can be so pretty.

xoxo Chad

Closure

It was bittersweet finishing The Sandman.

Well, endings of all kinds tend to be bitter, regardless of whether it is happy, or sad, or cathartic. But even more so when what ended was something which made you smile, gave you good dreams, and was a welcome distraction from all the things you should actually be focusing on. Such was The Sandman to me. It did not help my poor emotions that it ended with The Wake–a volume so gorgeous it induces synesthesia. I dare you to read The Wake and not hear Morpheus’ funeral dirge playing as words are said about the deceased, or the song sung by the panels masterfully dictating the tempo of the story.

The final volume has transcended its designation as “graphic novel” into the realm of deep, epic elegy. A fitting one for the King of Dreams, consist of not just words but pictures. And boy don’t each picture tell a thousand stories?

I have a long history with The Sandman. My first encounter with it was as a grade school student, seeing it mentioned in a local otaku magazine due to Yoshitaka Amano’s (of Final Fantasy fame) eventual involvement in the form of The Dream Hunters. In a long chain of association, of one-thing-lead-to-another’s, I ended up finding myself spending late nights Wikipedia hopping, trying to piece out the story, to no avail. And with good reason. In The Sandman, Neil Gaiman makes full use of his medium; mere synopses could do no justice. That the term “graphic novel”, so attached to Sandman thanks to an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman, invokes the idea of a novel liberally illustrated is rather unfortunate as it sells the series short to potential readers1. Not that it needs any further endorsement. But The Sandman is indisputably comics, and it is so much better off for that.

In the process of slowly saving up to buy a copy of the canonical ten volumes of Sandman I ended up deciding what my “Sandman Library” would have. Aside from the aforementioned canon, I wanted a copy of The Dream Hunters, arguably the title that set me on this path, as well as Endless Nights. I also wanted Alisa Kwitney’s The Sandman: King of Dreams “coffee-table” book, mostly because of how cool it looked. And, to cap off the collection, I wanted Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

I never really expected to complete my Library, so much so that for a time, I referred to it as my ideal Sandman Library. The ten volumes alone that forms the bulk of it are expensive and hard to come by. The rest are even rarer and pretty niche, making chances of reprints slim. However, thanks to some fortunate turn of events, my ideal turned into reality at least in quantity, if not in composition, just in my second year of college.

My Sandman Library

I got everything I wanted, save for The Sandman Companion, but in its place I got The Sandman Papers, a collection of academic articles discussing the series. Overall, I could not call myself disappointed with what I ended up with. I have, after all, read everything Neil Gaiman wrote about the Sandman.


Coming from a childhood saturated with Japanese animation, it was quite a jump going into The Sandman. Gothic, at stretches bordering on eldritch, the art was, admittedly, not what I was expecting, especially considering that my earliest exposure to Sandman, no matter how trivial, is because of Yoshitaka Amano.

It is maybe largely due to this discrepancy in expectation and reality that I did not enjoy the first five issues as much as they are praised. They definitely have their moments but overall they felt like just a series of books. Well-written no doubt, but as far as an overarching plot is concerned, there was not much. The Sandman compilations I have, as pictured above, feature a blurb that claims you can read the series either in sequence or as standalone books. That claim holds strong for the first five compilations.

But Fables and Reflections is an inflection point. It may be ironic to say this of a volume that is explicitly a short-story collection but it is an excellent one to set the tone of the second half of the series. Destruction and Orpheus feature after being mere foreshadows of allusions in the first half. The history between the Endless siblings is also hinted at, laying ground for the developments that occur in the next volumes.

I call volume six an inflection point because this is the part where I will beg anyone who would care to listen: do not read anything from volume six onwards out of order. Damn whatever the blurb says.

It is also at this point where The Sandman had a curious effect on me. This is one of those anecdotes which might have a “mystical” air about it especially since we are talking about the King of Dreams here. But it happened, and you can make what you want of it. Back then, I would read a chapter (an issue) of Sandman just before I get whatever formal sleep I can. And that sleep would be refreshing. Sometimes, it would even end with the pleasant memory of a dream but overall, I just remember them to be good sleep, waking up feeling some kind of catharsis.

Lastly, I would say that Fables and Reflections marked the part where the series’ art style took a turn to my taste. I used to think that this is an effect of technology: that Sandman ran for so long that the evolution of comics printing is evident across its run. I used to think that it was largely thanks to technology that, by volume six, the art more closely–though ever so slightly–resembled the Japanese animation I am accustomed to. But lately I’ve come to learn just how much of it might actually be a creative decision on Gaiman’s part.

Or, maybe, it was still more of a creative constraint than decision. It’s just that Neil Gaiman knew his medium well and so played into its strengths and danced to its limits.


When I first took an interest in Sandman I remember foolishly wanting to collect the series on a per-issue basis. Call it naivete: the closest I even got to this was finding one issue–I no longer remember which–in a thrift sale in a shop2 in my local mall which sold an assortment of geeky items. Items I could not afford back then, relying on the mercy of my parent’s purse, but which I certainly returned to when, in adulthood, I found myself well-funded for my hobbies and sundry. Money does not change people, I guess.

Maybe today, if I ever come across another solo issue of the canon Sandman, I would buy it and then keep it in its case, never to be opened, preserved for posterity, and wait until the price for such things sky rockets so I could cash out.

Or maybe, nostalgia will get the better of me, and I will tear it open (after, of course, washing my hands very thoroughly) to breathe in comics fumes from the 90s, see the ads, and compare the original as published with its counterpart in the compilations.

My naive desire to own Sandman in its original serialization was somehow fulfilled a few years ago when Neil Gaiman decided to revisit this particular universe and wrote a prequel, Sandman Overture. Now, buying Overture on a per-issue basis (as opposed to waiting for the compilation that will surely come) was more than a matter of repressed-wish fulfillment. It was also a matter of logistics: my bookshelf, full as it is, could not accommodate another volume of Sandman. It could, however, fit individual issues in between the compiled volumes already housed.

Books before they were crowded

Still, in some strange way, I got something I have already given up on.

But it does not stop there. By the magical convenience of the internet and of public-key cryptography–the combination of which allows online shopping to be a thing–I have, recently, found myself in possession of the missing volume in my Sandman Library: Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

My ideal Sandman Library has been realized in full. And more.


A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.

~ Italo Calvino in Mr. Palomar (?)

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

~ C.P. Cavafy, Ithaka

Like a stereotypical book maniac, I’ve always taken pride in owning “rare” books. Although over time I have come to realize I’m small fry, more like a kid calling trash and trinkets his treasure than a rich eccentric European Lucas Corso would have loved to plunder. My “rare” books are not exactly what book catalogs would list as rare or valuable; they are better termed as niche and maybe expensive, at least relative to my economic well-being at the time of acquisition. A first edition hard bound copy of Deathly Hallows, an omnibus of C. S. Lewis’ nonfiction, two volumes of Borges’ complete works, one for poetry and one for prose–you get the idea3.

Getting a credit card gave my hubris something else to feed on. Books that are maybe not as expensive, though so niche as to be not distributed locally: Templar by Jordan Mechner, of Prince of Persia fame, a comics (“graphic novel”) about a heist perpetuated by members of the eponymous knight order; The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, a German sci-fi author who, as of this writing has not had much of his work translated into English; the complete Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, a beautiful (aesthetically and literarily) sci-fi series written as a pseudo-Victorian memoir. Maybe, just maybe, I could lay claim to having the only copy of these books for miles around, if not in the whole country4.

That includes The Sandman Companion. Secondhand but in good condition and a first edition too5. I would have loved to complete my Sandman Library sooner, maybe around the time I actually got the bulk of the canon, but I guess you can’t rush the universe’s schedule.

I no longer remember what I expected to get out of reading The Sandman Companion. But as I finally laid my hands on my own copy, the anticipation was stale, my expectations almost nonexistent. This was, to me, just a round of honor, just for the sake of completion. At this point I felt like I have read almost everything about The Sandman‘s canon: from interviews of Neil Gaiman, to his blog posts, to The Sandman Papers, and even King of Dreams. Maybe, it would be a shallow kind of debriefing, one where I’m told this is what this activity was going for (like it was not plain to see), this is what happened (like it did not happen to me), and thank you very much (I’d thank you too, out of courtesy).

I could not be more wrong. This Ithaka is not a resting place after all that I’ve encountered. It is more akin to a final adventure, the last one to give the whole escapade its form before I, maybe, really close off this library.

In format, The Sandman Companion is the odd one out in my collection. The bulk of the book is a transcript of Hy Bender’s interview with Neil Gaiman. The content is formatted in a way that is a bit reminiscent of magazines although maybe that should not be so surprising given the nature of the content. What is more unusual are the boxed insets of text that litter the interview transcripts: tidbits of information that is tangential to the topic at hand but was not directly brought up in the transcribed conversation. It reminds me of a common layout element in computer books for end users6.

Reading the Companion is like re-experiencing the whole series in completely prosaic form. The discussion on each volume starts with a summary of the volume concerned but where this differs from my early Wikipedia-hopping is that Bender does not try to tell a story but, rather, explain the inner workings of Neil Gaiman’s creation7. That the story is told in some way nevertheless is a mere side-effect of the process. Fittingly called, The Sandman Companion is like a pleasant tour guide in a beautiful country, pointing you to the wonders you shouldn’t miss without getting in the way of you establishing a personal connection with the place. Alas, the guide is only as good as the country.

Finishing the companion is like finishing the series a second time around. No less bittersweet, it is like a reunion with old friends concluded: we’ve caught up and reminisced, now it’s time to get up and go back into the world. But this time–and I would concede that this feeling might be unique to my circumstances as a reader and a Sandman fan–the conclusion comes with a sense of closure.


“[T]hat man would be scorned by all the others: by the king, by the conceited man, by the tippler, by the businessman. Nevertheless he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Reading the Sandman today is a completely different experience from reading it just as the series progressed. Today, it is unavoidable to be spoiled by statements about the series: how it is about change, that Morpheus dies in the end. Heck, it is not inconceivable that “spoilers” like these could be someone’s gateway into the series. It’s just that the Sandman canon will no longer be the terra incognita it was for those who were lucky to be able to follow along.

Although, as I could attest, spoilers are not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps ironically, what I envy those people is in how Sandman came in trickles for them. An issue a month, I feel, is just the right pace for the intricacy of Gaiman’s story to settle. Repeatedly reading Gaiman summarize his two-thousand-page opus as a story about change, and how the King of Dreams’ inability to deal with this causes his demise, made me take this message for granted that by the end of my first reading of Sandman I am unable to definitively illustrate how it is about change, and how this inability to accept change ultimately kills Morpheus. Shame for such a self-proclaimed Sandman fan.

What I realized from reading the Companion is that beneath the huge ensemble of artistic talent behind the series, beneath the prestige it has accumulated, the Sandman is actually more similar to St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It is about change, yes, but it is also about dreams and hearts8–the things that make us human. Morpheus–like the grown-ups the titular prince encounters in St. Exupéry’s work–is too concerned with his function that he loses sight of how he and his function relates with everyone else. Despite being the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, there is nothing human in Morpheus’ core. And this inability to be human is what he cannot accept that he orchestrates his doom to give way to a new Dream. This time, a Dream that is human in form and humane in the execution of his duties.

I used to admire Morpheus’ approach in life for its stoicism. Perhaps I still do. In the celebrated special, The Song of Orpheus, Morpheus tells his son, the mythological poet who lends his name to the title, the lover of Eurydice:

You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life.

And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.

She is dead. You are alive.

So live.

Solid advice, even echoed by Morpheus’ down-to-earth (and, oddly, much more humane) sister, Death. When Orpheus visits her, she tells him

It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.

Go on with your own life. You have many things to do: many songs to play and sing.

But what differentiates the results of Morpheus’ conversation with that of Death is their further reaction to Orpheus’ grief. Where Morpheus is dismissive and will not hear any more of Orpheus’ laments, Death is understanding and sympathetic to Orpheus’ plight. Ultimately, it may have served Orpheus better had Death not considered Orpheus’ plan to petition his case before the gods of the underworld. But what Death understood and Dream did not is that what mortals want above all is choice, a say in the matter. What Death’s boon gave Orpheus is some semblance of control over his plight. Losing Eurydice to a snake bite on their wedding night, Orpheus is a victim of fate. Looking back at Eurydice’s shadow just as he is about to step out of Hades’ is his own choice, his own failure. Hades’ may have been cruel, less than fair in the deal he struck with Orpheus. But alas, this misfortune is a direct result of Orpheus’ choices. His grief is, finally, his own.


I wanted to go a step further on this final storyline…and so started lobbying for DC to publish directly from Michael (Zulli)’s pencils.

Michael used to send me his pencilled pages, and they’d be breathtaking; and then they’d come back after being inked, and there would inevitably be some loss of detail… Inking came about because it’s easier to reproduce dark lines than feathery pencil work but by 1995, I felt that technology was at a point where anything could be scanned in, even pencils.

DC was very doubtful, so Michael drew a test page of Death with an eagle…the page that resulted was absolutely gorgeous, with no loss of detail… DC ultimately acceded to the idea and let Michael do issues 70 through 73 in pencils only, with no inker.

~ Neil Gaiman on the art style of the first half of The Wake as transcribed in an interview with Hy Bender in The Sandman Companion.

Among The Sandman‘s accolades is a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 courtesy of the issue A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back then, this caused such a controversy that future editions of the World Fantasy Awards explicitly banned mere comics from being nominated9. This had the curious effect that, to date, A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears the distinction of being the only comic to win the said award, let alone being nominated.

I have been told that a hallmark of good art is in how it changes with its audience. Something read in your teenage years could take on an entirely new meaning when re-read in your mid-20s. This is definitely true of The Sandman.

The debate about what is and what is not art will rage on, maybe until Death has put the chairs on the tables, turned the lights out, and locked the universe. But meanwhile, I imagine them–ideas, realized and repressed alike–going about their merry existence in some platonic realm, maybe Dream’s. Happy to be whatever they are, be that a comics series or a children’s book about wizards attending school. The vanity of labels does not concern them.

Dream and Death

Life, after all, is but a dream.

  1. Ironically, my gateway to Sandman, Yoshitaka Amano’s The Dream Hunters, fits this connotation of the term “graphic novel” down to a T. []
  2. Which was called Skybucks for some reason. Not to be confused with a certain coffee cafe chain so well-known nowadays. []
  3. I am so sorry. I can’t seem to write about The Sandman in this blog without bragging off in some way or another. What a show-off! []
  4. Dear me, there I go again. I should really get this topic moving now, to prevent showing off. []
  5. I promise this will be the last time I brag off in this post. []
  6. Which, again, comes as no surprise once you learn that Hy Bender authored a bunch of For Dummies books. What a leap. This info was hidden in the back flap of the dust jacket of my copy, which meant that this was actually the last thing I learned from the book. []
  7. And hence, I call it a re-experiencing, not a re-reading. []
  8. In the chapter for The Doll’s House in The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman notes that, “If you leaf through the series you’ll find either an image of a heart or the word heart in virtually every issue. Hearts are a major part of what Sandman is about.” I am currently re-reading the series in search of these hearts. []
  9. Or, rather, reiterated the rule that comics are not eligible for the said category. True to a recurring theme in The Sandman, the story of what really happened depends on who you ask. []

Oh Witcher 3! Oh Witcher 3!

How lovely are thy (side/main) quests?

And warning: Here Be Spoilers!

At about the 186 hour mark–tracked with Steam–I finished The Witcher 3 including its two main DLCs. I’m a bit disappointed that it did not manage to beat Skyrim‘s 189 hours on record but considering that I started two games in Skyrim with one game getting like 20-30 hours, maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed after all. Besides, I made a couple savepoints at times where The Witcher 3‘s story diverges so I could check out alternative story lines. We could still beat that record comfortably.

Honestly, I was not very sold into The Witcher 3 when I first started it a year ago. This is my first foray into the world of Geralt and I came there expecting to experience the ultimate male power fantasy but instead the intro gave me a bunch of cinematic cutscenes. What a way to be a wet blanket. It was nice the first few times but it wore its welcome fast. Please, I started thinking, more of those spinning sword sweeps and less talk! But, like many before me, I started to care. I found myself enamored with a faux-medieval world where the Conjunction of the Spheres happened and there are people with various stories all around.

And that on top of the fact that my computer could just barely run The Witcher 3. The experience isn’t horrible but the frame rate leaves much to be desired. Kinda leaves Geralt with a brooding stride especially when there are a lot of objects (wood splinters, people, etc.) to render in a scene. Also leaves most of the cutscenes with the sound going faster than the visuals. Gives it an almost pensive cinematic effect, like sometimes the characters take their time reflecting on what was just said rather than going for a quick retort. And at times when the scene calls for a bit more nonverbal language (like an impassioned movement of the arms during an argument) than a mutated witcher would typically be comfortable with, the delay makes it play out like a flashback, slowed down just enough so you can appreciate the details and featuring voiceless stretches of action. Times like this, the beautiful background music really saves the mood.

That is not to say that the brooding stride, the pensive mood, or the flashback feel is not at home with Geralt’s world. I like to think that this makes my Witcher 3 experience unique in a way.

The software engineer side of me, on the other hand, can’t help but marvel at how CD Projekt Red managed to make this game degrade gracefully. Even with a computer such as mine, the bugs I encountered are few and far between. Oh well there’s Roach…

Roach, you horse-demon, horses don't do that.

…but I’d like to think that CDPR left that on purpose as some kind of joke. Also, there’s the fact that Geralt’s hair remains model-worthy despite spending hours on end outdoors, exposed to the sun, with an occasional dose of water hag spit, drowner blood, and all sorts of unsavory things. And have I told you I’m using an AMD GPU so there’s no Nvidia HairWorks to help Geralt’s case?

My co-workers’ endorsement aside, what made me buy The Witcher 3 during a Steam sale is the fact that it is labeled as choices matter, and in how this aspect of the game is told to be a great factor into The Witcher 3‘s emotional impact. Now, something that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, is in how Bioshock Infinite‘s ending left me in such an emotionally-tattered state. This deserves another blog post of its own but, suffice it to say, if what elevates creative output into the hallowed realm of being art is in how it can elicit emotions you would not otherwise feel, then Bioshock Infinite gave me an overwhelming conviction that games can be art.

And, like an addict looking for his next fix, against reason, against logic, I’ve been looking for another game that could trigger the same reaction I had with Bioshock Infinite. And I try to keep my mind open but such is my conviction that games can be art that I am pretty sure only a game, or generally an interactive medium, can achieve the same.

I’ve tried a few, constrained by my free time. Would it bother you to hear that I felt delight when, in the title screen of Life is Strange, there is a link to help you find support groups should you feel you need it so after playing the game? I have, unfortunately, not found another game to rival Bioshock Infinite, The Witcher 3 included. I have begun to fear that Bioshock Infinite is a one-time braingasm you could never feel for a second time.

But that is not to take away anything from The Witcher 3. While it did not give me the mindfuck fix I bought it for, it gave me something else. Against odds, a video game with obviously fictitious characters, made me feel empathy. As the best of fiction should do.

“Do I have to know her to feel sorry for her? Can’t you just help her?”

~ The titular character of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord

I would like to put it here on the record, before I rework through the choices I did not pick in my first playthrough. I got the good ending with Ciri, though I’ve had a few missteps along the way. I went with her to meet the sorceresses, not because I had no confidence in her but because I had no confidence our erstwhile allies against the Wild Hunt would play fair with her. Ciri’s fate had been pretty much sealed in my playthrough when I accidentally learned of my misstep and yet it bothered me. It bothered me that Ciri might think I had no confidence in her, that I did not recognize the strong spirit she undoubtedly has. I did not want her to think that she was just another damsel in distress I had to save. From what I heard, she is far stronger than that. I merely wanted to lend assistance because, by Lebioda, this is the fucking Wild Hunt we are up against. No one has a good chance against them, Elder Blood or no Elder Blood.

Triss, Ciri, Geralt, and Yen. All not smiling.
A family picture I managed to catch. Shame they can’t smile for it.

As Riley MacLeod quotes in his article about his Witcher 3 ending: “It’s bullshit arbitrary video game psychology”. I agree.

And yet…I find myself agreeing with CDPR at how this mechanic in their game actually reflects real life. No matter how contrived it may seem, The Witcher 3 asks you to empathize with its people. Actually treat them like people, not as NPCs that give off experience points. As with real life, it’s not your mere intentions which determine how people feel towards you. You put yourself in their shoes.

Another remarkable instance of this in The Witcher 3 is a very short interaction I had at Novigrad. It was so short, it did not even trigger a quest: So there I was, riding on Roach to complete the myriad of things required by the game’s derided Dandelion arc, when in my minimap I see that exclamation mark that is the game’s way of telling you, it’s Geralt-Jesus time! So I unmount from Roach in a manner just a little more impressive than Orlando Bloom doing Legolas fanservice and what do I find? A bunch of witch hunters harassing an Aen Seidhe woman because they are intolerant pricks. In Geralt’s rough tone, I manage to drive them away without a fight. I turn to the elven woman as a courtesy. It’s all fine now, I drove them away, I don’t like them either, you don’t have to pay me–when she cuts me off and berates me for stepping in uninvited. Tomorrow you won’t be here, she tells me, but they’ll be back, even harsher because of what you did today. I’d rather you didn’t make my problems worse as I can deal with them myself, thank you very much.

Short. Poignant. Powerful. Economy of storytelling right there from CDPR.

All these expressed and I feel I need to remind you that this is my very first foray into the world of Geralt. I had no idea who Ciri is until I got bored by the opening cinematics of The Witcher 3. And yet I cared about her, cared about how my choices affected her. And that elven woman? Game didn’t even give her a name and yet she did a damn good job making me feel sorry about my messiah complex.

I could maybe write a short book about everything I felt while playing The Witcher 3. Maybe in some other blog post I get to tell you about how enraged I was when Priscilla–yet another character I only knew recently–got attacked. So enraged I resolved not to sleep until I got to the bottom of it and solved it the witcher way. Or about the eerie beauty of Iris von Everec’s inner world. Or how I got the bittersweet ending for Blood and Wine because, despite having the hots for Syanna, I gave up on her at the last moment and called her a petty little viper. Or maybe, I like her precisely because she is a petty little viper and that clouded my better judgment.

In contrast, I do not like her sister Anarietta that much. Something about her accent and how she’s an uptight state ruler. And yet…that ending…she did not deserve that. I intend to make amends with the power of savepoints. Just wait for me, duquesa.

At this point, this blogpost has gone longer than I intended it to. It even kinda took the form of the usual review I do here. I just wanted to collect my thoughts (of which there are surprisingly many, and more!) before I wield the power of savepoints. All I want to say now is…

ciri

Damn it Witcher 3. Your quests have no business being that deep and good!