22 January, 2009

Easy Cheese

22nd January 2009

I went to America in 1999, and one fateful evening I went to a grocery store with some friends, and that’s when we found it. “It” was a can of spray cheese.

Disbelieving my eyes, I looked closer, and closer, and closer. Once my nose was upon the dire artefact, I had nothing left to do but utterly change my vision of reality: I had found Easy Cheese.

The thing suggested it was essentially cheese in a spray can. Being European, that was a wholly new concept to me, and I couldn’t grasp it. How do you put cheese, a generally solid matter, into a can, from which you could spray the stuff? I pondered long and hard, and came to the conclusion that my friends and I had just found nothing less than the very end of civilisation.

Cheese, in Europe, is some age old tradition that moustached men in their 50’s create in rustic little wooden and stone houses up some mountain or something. That’s cheese. You can buy it at your grocery store, it comes wrapped in plastic, but it’s solid. For at least 6 or 7 years, the mystery remained. Until one day...

One day, then, a friend of mine from St. Louis, Missouri, decided to send me some fudge, which I had never tasted, and since I had mentioned time and again my encounter with the end of civilisation, she thought she’d put a can of Easy Cheese in her package, along with some crackers, which I had never eaten before either.

I tried the fudge first. Just looking at that can of spray cheese made me nauseous. I generally dislike anything in a can, really, all the more so when the stuff inside isn’t even supposed to be there in the first place. Fudge is delicious. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s chocolate something, extremely dense. You eat a handful of it and you’re stuffed for the day. I forget exactly how it tastes or feels inside one’s mouth, though. Maybe it was slightly melting on your tongue; at any rate, it was good stuff. It was fudging good.

My Missourian friend also sent a jar of peanut butter, which is available in my country, but I had never really had much of it. I had some hate/love relation to peanut butter at first, some taste you don’t really like, but you want more anyway, like a sore tooth you need to pull at. I eventually really liked the stuff, but that’s another topic entirely.

I handled the can of spray cheese as though it was some alien unhallowed item of horrendous blasphemy. I questioned the motives of the person who invented this, the person who one day thought, “Gee, cheese is good, but couldn’t we possibly put it in a can and spray it?” Why would anyone even conceive of such an evil plan? My uneducated guess is that I don’t have a clue, except that I suppose the idea wouldn’t have emerged in the brain of a European, because that’s not how we think of cheese at all. Again, for us, cheese is made by middle-aged men with moustaches that are extra long who wear white aprons and are a little bit overweight. They stir some giant pot of molten cheese – milk, in fact – and then they store big round chunks of cheese in dark caves, beside thousands of other identical big round chunks of cheese. That’s cheese in the European mind.

So there was this can, and allegedly, there was cheese in it, and according to the legend, I could spray cheese out of it. Paraphrasing Mitch Hedberg, who said it better than I ever could, crackers is a product that has, on its very wrapping, suggestions as to what you could put on them; in other words, other products; and thus, crackers are a product that has no faith in itself. Liking just crackers is probably cheap as dirt. I mention crackers because that’s what spray cheese is usually sprayed onto. That’s why my friend from St. Louis sent some along.

It took me around 20 minutes to actually mouth some of that cheese. Seriously. First I analysed the appearance of the can, its opening, etc. I thought I was going to witness a miracle if I pressed on that thing like you do a whipped cream can. I took a cracker out, and prepared myself for the impossible.

I pressed, and sure enough, there was cheese on my cracker. Some yellow cheese at that. The yellowest cheese. I’d never seen cheese this yellow outside of cartoons. This neon-colour-like substance was much less solid than cheese habitually is, which was to be expected, seeing as it can be sprayed out of a can, for God’s sake.

Apprehension was all the rage as I beheld this exotic amuse-gueule. I thought I might vomit. This wasn’t cheese, this was an extra long line of snot at best. But I had gone this far, I had to continue, like a brave European crossing the culture boundaries of his native nation. You can’t get Easy Cheese here unless you smuggle it in, an offence which is likely entirely legal.

Then, finally, I tasted the stuff. I was so repulsed by the appearance of this thing, from the can to the substance itself, that at first, I couldn’t even think it might taste anything but synthetic chemical crap, so when I actually had it in my mouth, my brain couldn’t neutrally analyse Easy Cheese’s cheese. It took several mouthings to get past the biases of my European brain. But eventually I managed to realise it actually tasted good. It tasted just like the cheese you find in McDonald’s cheeseburgers, which I worship.

The repugnant thing turned out to taste good. I had to deal with conflicting signals in my head about this. It took many a sprayed cracker. But then I really enjoyed it. In a couple of days I was coming to the end of the can.

The end of the can is actually quite some fun. Since it’s pressured air that propulses the yellow ooze, when the stuff runs out, it sputters out too. Concretely, this means that you’re pressing the can, and nothing comes out for a split second, and then, oh oh, miniature chunks of ooze come out at high speed, like a shrapnel explosion. Sounds fun, but by God is it messy. It also makes a little explosive sound. The image this gave me was that of a diminutive dwarf trying to shit through a painful constipation, his yellow turd breaking off into explosive segments of constelised microscopic bits of cheese. (“Constelised” doesn’t exist, but I invent it right here, so it does now, feel free to use it and spread it, one day it’ll be in the dictionary with this chapter as reference for origins, believe it!)

So there I was, eating the golden excrements of an imaginary dwarf whose sphincter was possessed with the nastiest constipation ever. And the sputtering out does sound like mini farts. This was just what you needed uh. Not only does it sound monstrous as a concept, Easy Cheese, but then it also makes fart sounds. Thing is, this did not deter me from eating more. This is revealing. It means I’m definitely crossing cultures there, I eat food that sounds like farts. And I like it! God have mercy...

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe you could say that like so many other American things, they look like ass on the outside, but if you care to try it, and I mean really try, you might find those things are good. Sure it looks like shit, sometimes, and sometimes it even farts, but at the core of what matters, it is good stuff! And don’t ask me about how healthy Easy Cheese is, I suspect it may not be the American equivalent of a salad. But hey, health matters only to a point, everybody dies eventually, and nobody needs to be a healthy corpse in the end.

01 January, 2009

Interview with Christian Oliver Cruz

1) At what age did you start drawing? What drove you to it?

I really couldn’t remember at what age I started drawing, but my first memories actually involved drawings. I remember myself (I was around 4, I think) fumbling through the drawers of the office desk of my parents, looking for paper I could draw on. And I would usually end up getting the expensive linen papers that I knew my parents were reserving for important business letters. I really loved the smell and texture of those linen papers, and the effect it made on my doodles. Soon, my parents would find out I was looting the paper and would be fuming mad, and would try to hide it in other places. But I would always eventually find it. I remembered being always hungry for paper, and when there was no paper in the house anymore (or I just couldn’t find them anymore), I ended up drawing on the walls, floor and ceiling of our home. And I did cover every inch of the second story of our house with doodles… Airplanes, stars, planets on the ceiling, animals, towering trees and buildings on the walls and rivers and fishes on the floor. And they’re not just simple drawings. I knew I was creating this virtual environment that I with my brothers could play in. I was a silent kid (in fact, my mom suspected I was autistic) and really couldn’t express my thoughts and feelings straightforwardly all the time, so I guess I was trying to express myself though drawing. And the lack of paper didn’t stop me from doing so.

2) How come you work in Moleskines? And how did you find out about those things?

Well, I don’t just work in Moleskines, but it just so happens that my recent journal drawings have found their way in this nifty notebook. The first time I heard about Moleskines was when I was browsing the internet looking for sketchbooks and notebooks. And I happened upon this forum describing Moleskines as the “legendary notebook used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries.” That intrigued me a lot, and though it was expensive, I knew I just had to experience it to believe it. So I bought one, and the art that you’re seeing now, is actually on my first Moleskine. I already have another one waiting after I fill up the first one, another for my clinical notes. I know a lot of people complain that these notebooks are very expensive. But I guess it’s that knowledge that when I’m writing or drawing on something of great value that prompts me to make every entry worthwhile. I have a lot of sketchbooks but I reserve my special drawings in this notebook.

3) Your art is rather deep and very thoughtful, do you read a lot?

Thanks! I do read a lot. I love books. I actually grew up around books (as you can see in one my journal entries) of all sorts: encyclopedia, story books, textbooks… and I devoured every page of these books. I remember lingering over interesting photographs and drawings in those Time Life books. I enjoy staying in school libraries and book shops… I have a wide taste in books so I really can’t say which genre of books I enjoy reading. But among the authors I’ve read, I tend to really enjoy C.S. Lewis especially his theological treatises, and most other Christian writers (Scott Hahn, Laurie Beth Jones, etc.) I read a lot of self-help inspirational books, fantasy and even children’s books (Children’s books are the way to go when you’re stressed!). These days, I find myself reading a lot of graphic novels by independent artists.

4) Are you really a doctor?

I’m not a doctor. But I actually work as a clinical director of Quality Life Discoveries (http://www.qualitylifediscoveries.com/), an integrative rehabilitation center. By profession, I’m a physical therapist specializing in ergonomics (I have a masters degree in Ergonomics) and aquatherapeutic interventions. I wouldn’t be surprised you would ask me that, because a lot of my clients also mistake me for a doctor.

5) Tell us about your relationship with God, as I understand you are Christian, Christian.

Although most of my friends call me REV, my real nickname at home is IAN from Christian. I remember this bit of teaching one of my high school professors taught me… “What happens when you remove CHRIST from CHRISTIAN? Well IAN is left… which means I AM NOTHING” I’m a Roman Catholic and I was raised as one and studied in a Catholic school. There was a time in my life when I actually contemplated becoming a priest, actually applying to seminaries, but I guess I really wasn’t called to be really one. I have a very personal relationship with God, and just like any relationship, there are numerous times when I have turned my back on Him, lost my trust in Him and even doubted his existence. But almost every time this would happen, I would always find myself yearning for Him. In very brief terms, I can really say that without God’s presence in my life, I really would be nothing. Hehe, I really don’t want to sound so preachy here, but that is exactly how I feel.

6) Do you have artistic influences? What people inspired you to draw among visual artists and authors, and others?

I have lots of artistic influences. When I was a kid, I looked upon the drawings of the great masters (like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, etc…) and made my versions of their works. I also grew up inspired by the works of Filipino local artists (Amorsolo, Botong Francisco, Blanco, etc.) My art is quite diverse in styles, as I adjust my style depending on what I think is best for a particular project. I think it helps to be in constant awe of the skills of many artists, trying to emulate them, and finding your own “voice” through these styles.

7) Have you published any of your work so far? Do you have projects?

I haven’t published any of my work yet, but hopefully by February, the children’s book entitled “Spinning” will be published by Anvil Publishing Inc. I illustrated this wonderful story by Irene Sarmiento about a boy with autism and his family. I’m pretty excited about this because I myself through my professional work as a physical therapist am quite involved in improving the quality of life of kids with autism and helping their families cope with this. So through this book, I hope to help kids and their parents.

I have several projects ongoing. I have a bunch of ambigram and logo design commissions I have yet to finish, and other book illustrations (wink wink) and personal paintings I have yet to complete. I have many T-shirt designs in my mind that is just waiting to materialize – and I have yet to print one of my T-shirt designs. I have a project in mind which involves sculptures, but I already have the conceptual sketches ready. I have comics and a graphic novel brewing with some writers. I guess, the main issue here is TIME, TIME, TIME. Haha.

8) What materials do you use?

For my moleskine art, I use a variety of materials. I start with ordinary pencils for the sketches. Then I ink them using ordinary tech pens. I usually use from 0.2 to 0.5 for the graphics, and 0.1 to 0.2 for the texts. After inking it, I use watercolor pencils for the color.

I basically use whatever materials I could get my hands into for my other projects. I do watercolors, oil and digital stuff, so I really have to use a variety of materials for it.

9) How important is the written word in your Moleskine drawings?

You will notice that there are some entries that are stand alone illustrations without any text on it. But there are some that are heavy on the text component. I guess, it depends on the context of the particular entry. If I feel that the illustration is enough, and would want the viewer to be inspired with their own interpretation of it, I minimize the use of text. You will see this in most conceptual pages. But in some pages where I draw inspiration from a particular material (for instance books, or historical facts, or specific personal experiences), I feel the need to write. It is very important for me in these cases that the text flow from the pictures or at times the pictures flow from the text seamlessly. I hope I was able to achieve that.

10) Do you listen to music when you draw?

Now that I think about it, I am not really particular whether I listen to music or not when I draw. I don’t set up my environment in such a way that I choose what music I would have to listen to in order for me to draw. Oftentimes, I prefer to work in a silent environment as I find certain music to be distracting. But when I work on my moleskine, I tend to be in different venues (oftentimes, passing time in cafĂ© shops, in my office, in the commute), so I really can’t control the auditory ambience, but if there would be music, I tend to be more “productive” in soft mood music.

11) Tell us about your country, the Philippines. How is life there? And how did living there influence your work and life?

The Philippines is a very lovely country, with a colorful history and cultural heritage. We have several natural wonders that I think people around the world should visit, see and experience. Life here is just like life in other countries - there are some things you can brag about, and there are some that you feel ashamed of talking about. The Filipinos are a very talented people and we tend to excel in any endeavor we put our hearts into. But sometimes I wonder when our country as a whole will be able to stand on its own feet again, be able to solve its problems ranging from poverty to poor governance and corruption. It’s this interplay of positive and negative emotions you feel about your country which tends to inspire you to strive for the better. And I see this in my work and life. Most of my friends have gone abroad to seek “greener pastures” and more adventures, but some of us have stayed, though not as rewarding financially, but rewarding nevertheless. I admire people who stay here to do charity and service work when you know that they could earn a lot more if they do otherwise. But you can’t otherwise judge those who have left, because they have their families in mind to support. That’s also one thing I admire… Filipinos have a deep sense of FAMILY and TOGETHERNESS… and you could feel it in our works.

12) What are your dreams?

Dreams? My mission in life is to “inspire faith, learning and creativity in others” and I hope I am able to accomplish that throughout my life through whatever means and context. Of course, I can’t help but wish that I find success in everything I do… become a published artist, a respectable physiotherapist and specialist in my own field and a successful entrepreneur in the near future. But most importantly, to be able to find peace with myself…

13) Do most people in the Philippines speak English as well as you do?

You may say that English is the 2nd language of the Philippines. It is the main language used in our government and educational system. And with the proliferation of American films and shows in our media, you wouldn’t be surprised why most Filipinos can speak English very fluently.

See more art by Christian Oliver Cruz here.