07 December 2012

Letter No. 9

Last night, I went to Letters Out Loud (LOL), a sort of open mic project by Candy editor-in-chief Marla Miniano. It's basically to encourage people to write more to other people, and to be brave about reading that writing out loud.

Most of the readers wrote/read about romantic relationships — breakups, waiting for someone, waiting for someone new. I think the standout in that category was Omi Castañar, who addressed his lovely Tagalog letter to his girlfriend Laila about how he'd remain ("Mananatili ako... Nananatiling iyo, Omi") while she went to Australia to study.

Then, there were three readers who wrote other things: Chinggay Labrador started what sounded like a really bitter, "I'm so over you, I'm moving on with my life, and yet I'm writing this letter" letter and managed a neat twist when she revealed that the ex-boyfriend was cancer.

Lia Cruz had a sweet letter to her mother about growing up, womanhood, and coming to see things from her mother's point of view.

Then, of course, there was the reason I was at LOL at all: Cris, who had been pressured by Marla (his friend from college) to read something. He read one short letter from him to friends in the Philippines while he was in China, and one to friends in China about the difficulties of getting to know someone through a shared second language:

"It really frustrates me how the meaning of everything is dumbed down to the textbook vocab and grammar that we conveniently string together during our conversations. We want to sound smart and witty, and dazzle each other with our eloquence. A line from a song here, a movie quote there. This is how i feel about you today. We want to say exactly what we mean. More importantly, we want to let each other listen to what is unsaid. But we still haven't learned the cues in this language yet."

Reese Lansangan closed the event by singing Exploration No. 5, an original song, and playing her cool box ukelele.

Anyway, once I'd stopped being Judge Judgey McJudgerson, I actually enjoyed the event, and it got me thinking about the letters I'd like to write:

+ To all the lonely and waiting, before you write a letter about how you're lonely and waiting
+ To two people whose overtures of friendship I've ignored
+ To everyone else; I apologize for being unfriendly; do not be surprised if I end up an old lady alone
+ To my brother Mon, on his 16th birthday

Yesterday was also Mon's 16th birthday. I texted and then called him but didn't really know what to say. Whenever I think of him, or try to think of something we can talk about, I only see how poorly I know him. I just know he likes computer games, plays the drums, doesn't read much, and doesn't talk much, so any other information I get is secondhand.

I know that because I've been living, studying, and then working in Manila, I haven't seen him get through the past eight happy/horrible years of middle school and high school. So I don't know how he and his friends hang out, how he gets along with teenage girls, or even what he's really good at in school. This time next year, he'll be waiting for college acceptance letters, and I have no idea what he's hoping to study. And when I go home in a few weeks, I have no idea how to start conversations about these things without it being really awkward. Maybe awkward is the best I can hope for, though.

Other things: the other night, Cris joined me, my dad, my uncle, and Grama for dinner, and I thanked him. He thought it was weird for me to thank him for what I guess is a standard girlfriend request, but I found myself explaining that it was because —

I'm trying hard not to compare Cris to my exes, particularly to Martin, or to boast or gloat about how great things are with Cris. I'm trying not to let the past dictate my hopes and expectations. But more than once in the past year, I've found myself explaining to Cris, "Well, I said this / I think that / I assume you won't agree to this because I got used to being treated a certain way / to things being arranged a certain way." And it wears me out.

I'm definitely in a better place, I'm definitely doing better things, and I'm definitely — okay, fine, I'll compare — with a better man, so I think I'm done with a certain way of being. Then some little thing, like feeling like I have to thank him for joining me and my family for dinner and having a good time, makes me wonder if there isn't some old crap I still haven't sweated out, if I can't enjoy the good things in this relationship without the sad specter of the old one there for dramatic comparison.

I want this stupid ghost to just go away already. I'm trying to be busy being happy, and it does nothing but reopen cuts I went through hell to heal. I want it to just leave me, leave us alone.

24 November 2012

Letter No. 8

I joined Glitch, and it was love at first play. Now, I have just a little over two weeks left to have my fill of milking butterflies, cooking Awesome Stew, and exploring the magical world of Ur, because the best MMOG I've ever played is about to close.

I had just volunteered to organize an in-game community event when the news broke, and the forums went up in a collective wail as the players realized, Our world is actually ending.

I'd recently watched "Wreck-It Ralph" twice and felt a jolt in my gut; the fantastic predicament for the glitch in that movie was now very real for us; who knew what would happen to us as the plug was pulled on our own little universe?

The event I was to run was immediately cancelled, to allow participants to say their goodbyes, draw up their bucket lists, and spend their last days as glitchen however they pleased. There was a virtual filing out of the room.

Left alone, it wasn't hard for me to see the precious value of the time I had left. I had only played for about two months. I had just started piecing together the in-game clues to the real story behind the 11 giants. I had only just reached that level of skill and self-sufficiency in the game where I could really do what I wanted. My ultimate project, to build a travelers' rest with cheap food, trip tickets, and free reading material, had just begun to gain momentum.

Now, I had to decide whether to go on with glitchy life as usual, or hang the plans, close my doors, and take that metaphorical cruise around the world.

My brother, perhaps in going about his own end-of-the-world business, generously finished building for me. Partly so his efforts wouldn't go to waste, and partly to avoid disappointing whatever visitors I'd get before the end, I put up the sign, got some furniture, decorated the place, and stocked the vending boxes with whatever I could make out of the ingredients I had at the time. Then, I splurged on some new clothes and set off for both unexplored and beloved corners of Ur.

I trekked through every last one of the savanna-like Ancestral Lands, bounced on the fungi trampolines of Haoma and Kloro, went salmon fishing in Jal, scaled the last rocky ledges of Ormonos, bid goodbye to the bureaucrocs at the Department of Administrative Affairs in the Ministry of Departments, hung out with the bartender of Hell, got lost in a bunch of abandoned basements, attended a party on the moon, and even looked down at Ur from orbit.

The asteroids had become shrines to the game; they were covered with heartfelt letters, favorite foods, keys, toys, old tools, and other everyday-items-turned-mementoes of our glitchy existence. I left my own letter and a bowl of stew before heading out again.

In the ancestral lands. Trees in Ur talk after you interact with them. The paper trees speak in haiku.

The frozen lake in Nottis, Ur's snowy northern region.

Somewhere in Ormonos.

"A mixologist of the underworld, no one knows the true story of Hell's Bartender, but assume he was either really good at pouring bad drinks, or really bad at pouring good drinks in a previous life."The Glitch Encyclopedia

Partying with Mikko on the moon.

The asteroids.

When I was done travelling, I came home to my own firebog treehouse in the highlands and saw that my time wasn't up just yet. I restlessly wandered some more, casting about for something fulfilling to do in the weeks I had left, and finally thought again of my travelers' rest. There was no way I could end the game without at least attempting to make my humble pit stop as wonderful as I'd imagined. So, I bookmarked some good poems, came up with a menu of my favorite dishes in the game, and found myself creating spreadsheets on the ingredients I needed.

I decided to cook 61 of everything; I wanted a two-digit prime number because the game creators liked prime numbers, and the digits add up to 7, my own favorite (also prime) number. I set to work, gathering, growing, harvesting, and buying as much as I can.

That's how I spend most of my free time now. I know it sounds like a waste of time, but that's how attached I've become to Glitch in the short time I've played it. Even if I never cook 61 of all 12 dishes I've chosen and spend the rest of my time in the game gathering 4,758 cherries, even if I have to give up because the countdown to the end of the world is about to begin, I'll at least be able to say that I spent my last days doing what it took to reach my little dream.

I'll admit, it's more than I can say about my life offline. Yet that's also a big part of why I love Glitch. The spirit of the game inspires me even when I'm not playing, and its impending end is as much a good thing as a sad one. I know that I can't depend solely on a fantasy world to make me feel powerful, creative, and generous. I know that my actual life should have its own projects. As I work through the last days of Ur, I remind myself that when it's all over, the next quest will be to find something I can actually create, work toward, and be happy about.

The timing is pretty good. The new year is coming. I'll head back to Chinese classes then, and I want to learn about other things, too: the stock market, drawing, flexagons, Asian literature, Asian history, and so on. There won't be any fungi trampolines, but there will be travelling; I want Cris to see Kalsangi, and I hope to take more trips with him and with my family.

And though it isn't over yet, it's been a truly lovely year. Even with the weird blue funk I've been in for the past couple of months, I am happier than I thought I'd be now, and I am in a very good place. I'm excited about what's next.

But first, 4,758 cherries, 488 bottles of butterfly milk, 1,830 allspice corns, 1,281 bubbles, 610 tomatoes, ....

14 November 2012

Letter No. 7

Tomorrow is Cris's birthday, but we're celebrating tonight. I've got my mind on babyback ribs and a gift half-wrapped in my bag, so the train security guards don't make me unwrap it in line. But mostly, I'm thinking about the guy who changed my life one night by taking my hand and telling me not to be afraid.

It might sound cheesy, but he really did that, and it really worked, though it took a while. Now, seven months in and listing all the reasons I'm glad he was born, the first and best of those reasons is that with him, I am not afraid.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a worrier and a pre-empter, always a little to preoccupied with probable futures and the world in my head to completely experience the actual present outside. For the first time, I can say that I no longer worry about the future — even if it isn't assured. I used to make plans months and years in advance, and the time between now and then would make me anxious for the future to arrive. Now, when I plan and see how much time I have before any plan has to be set in motion, I don't feel anxious, just eager to spend that time acting my age and enjoying myself.

Few people have made me feel quite so comfortable as myself as Cris has this past year — so much that I'm sometimes surprised by aspects of myself I hadn't really paid attention to before. He doesn't make me feel weird or inadequate, but he does make me want to be good.

It's just one of his many powers, I guess. He's really comfortable in his own skin. He's also nerdy in the best way, full of genuine, exuberant curiosity about the world. He's the first guy I've gone out with to get my dad and brothers' sense of humor. He's a pretty damn good cook, with the best homemade bolognese sauce I've ever had. Plus, I could stare at his face for hours. I love his snaggletooth.

So, here's to Cris, my boyfriend and a really cool guy. It's his birthday, but he's the gift.

Recommended listening

30 October 2012

Letter No. 6

The last time I travelled abroad, I fell in love with a country. I hadn’t expected to; I’d only expected to have some fun with my family and explore a new place. But Singapore floored me, and it became the backdrop to my daydreams, a vision of the kind of life I wanted for myself.

This time, I went to China, and the love I felt was for another person, and the dream was for a life that could be lived and shared anywhere, hesitant though I am about such dreams.

Sometime ago, Cris told me that he’d follow me anywhere. Instead of feeling happy about this, I wanted to run away. Someone had made me that promise before, but when I’d finally found a place I actually wanted to go, I learned that “anywhere” really just meant “anywhere around here, because he never, ever wants to leave.” It was just one of several fundamental differences that, when I think about it, led to our breakup. But I don’t want to think about that; that’s in the past.

Today, looking back on the near-week I just spent with Cris in Beijing, I’m starting to entertain the idea of grand declarations and impassioned promises again. Maybe we really can go anywhere now, together.

I had a fantastic time. We saw the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Bird’s Nest, a handful of manmade lakes, the schools Cris attended, the 798 art district, and a load of intimidating architecture and impressive infrastructure. I had dumplings and lamb chuànr almost every day, and the autumn cold was as thrilling as it was, well, chilling.

Yet to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I would have liked it as much if Cris hadn’t been with me. Don’t get me wrong; all the things I’ve mentioned are well worth the RMB. I’d highly recommend Beijing to anyone looking for a great culture and history trip.

It’s just that whatever enjoyment I got out of poking around the palaces and climbing up and down Badaling was heightened by the underlying idea that they were parts of a place that Cris loved, and he was sharing them now with me. Even simple bus rides, brief campus walks, stomping through bustling shopping streets, and ducking into dumpling shops not wide enough to spread your arms felt like secret privileges, little peeks into the life he had as a student there, little chances to try and understand him better. I don’t know if I succeeded, only that the need to feel close(r) to him feels stronger now than ever.

Beijing itself, of course, was a great place for this to happen. All over the city, there are banners and posters for a campaign called “Beijing Spirit”, which the posters say is composed of patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, and virtue. To one longtime expat, the campaign smells of subtle propaganda. But to this tourist, it underscores the awe one feels from that first ride from the airport through modern Beijing, jaw-dropping even in the dead of night after a budget flight, to the end of an eight-hour walk through Qianmen and the Forbidden City with all its bronze dragons, marble staircases, and tantalizing echoes of the emperors’ lives. Beijing smells both of historical greatness and of the promise of great change, and it can get hard to figure out where wanting your life to be part of that promise ends, and where wanting that promise in your life begins.

It’s been a little jarring, maybe sobering, to be back and to go about life as before, to remember to tell the cashier “Thank you,” and not, “Xièxiè,” to swap my thick RFID-equipped yīkǎtōng for the bendy, magnetic LRT cards, and to look out at a skyline not dotted with hipped palace roofs as well as high-rises. I say sobering because, now that the vacation and the subsequent long weekend are over, I’ve had to think hard about what I’m doing and what I need to do next to stay happy where I am. Then, I think of Cris, and I feel worry fade away, and see promise within my reach.

18 October 2012

Letter No. 5

This time tomorrow, I'll be in Beijing. I'll probably be having breakfast in the hostel cafe, listening to Cris plan our day aloud, and trying to get my head around the vastness of the things he's about to show me (“Tiananmen Square is how many hundred Bellarmine Fields?!”). I'll probably be a little groggy and achy already, considering how late our flight will have arrived. And I'll definitely know whether I brought enough clothes for the single-digit dark-hour temperatures.

This will be my second trip abroad since my family returned to the Philippines 15 or so years ago, and my first trip abroad without them. It's also my first trip anywhere with Cris. It seems like a major milestone, a big deal, another important experience on the way to getting older. But I'd rather not overthink things more than I may have already.

I'm just looking forward to the break from regularly scheduled life. I'm going to put it out there: I've been feeling burned out for the past couple of months. My head's been in a fog, and I haven't been doing so well at work; I've been underperforming and letting people down. Our tickets to Beijing were booked months ago, when I hadn't expected or realized that this was where my head would be, but I'm glad now that we'd planned this far ahead, and doubly glad that we're actually going now. Shambling from task to task and trying to pinch and press myself into renewed productivity hasn't been working, so maybe I just need to go away for a while.

I've really gotten into Glitch, but I won't deny that a lot of it has been escapism. There's always something new to do in the world of Ur: a new region to explore, another interesting character to meet, another quest to fulfill, another skill to learn and test, a weird new thing to eat or drink, and even a tiny moment of beauty and enlightenment every day – and every day lasts just four hours, so there's always a new day around on the horizon.

It's time now, though, to really wake up in another place, for real-life exploring, real-life people-watching, real-life new-thing-tasting, and maybe some real-life learning and inspiration.

I'm really grateful that I'm about to take this trip. I know that not everyone can be so lucky or blessed, whichever way you want to look at it, so I really want to make the most of the time. I'm looking forward to seeing the sights – the Forbidden City, the drum tower, the Great Wall – but I'm also looking forward to just chilling out at Houhai, maybe riding a bike, and getting to know a place that Cris loves and sometimes loves to hate.

They say that travelling together is a great test of any relationship, and some might say Cris and I shouldn't be taking this trip so early; we haven't been together a year yet. But I don't want to overthink that, either. For one thing, we didn't plan to take this trip alone; we planned it with friends who, sadly, had to back out at the last minute. I'm not about to back out myself just to satisfy some vague convention. If this trip is a test, then I'm glad it's come sooner rather than later. But, I'm sure we'll be fine.

I guess that's it for now; I still have to finish packing. 再见!

04 October 2012

Letter No. 4

I’ve just found a big bowl of salad at the top of a tree.

I don’t know who put it there. It might have been a bug. It might have been a fellow player. It might have been a gamemaker. It might have been a gift from any of the 11 Giants who are said to have imagined this world. (It’s probably Pot, Giant of Cheffery).

But whoever or wherever it came from, this random-seeming meal from the sky has enlightened me on my new purpose in life. Becoming a master furniture craftsman can wait. I’m going to dedicate myself to cooking and leaving food in weird places, too.

Maybe I’ll start calling myself a food fairy. A food-lanthropist. No, a benefooder! Yes, that’s it.

And I’ll follow in the footsteps of my own benefooder, leaving delicious meals for tired, hungry travellers in my wake. And maybe that will inspire others to do the same, who will fill other bellies and inspire those bellies’ owners to do the same.

And maybe at some point in my journey across the magnificent world of Ur, I will cross paths with the first great being who left me this salad, and he/she/it will tell me that I have been a good follower, spreading the joy of excellent cooking throughout the land, from the snow-capped mountains of Andra to the darkest corners of Illmenskie Deeps.

And maybe he/she/it will finally tell me what makes secret sauce so secret, even if its ingredients make it sound a lot like regular mayonnaise.

Or maybe he/she/it will reply to this post, “You idiot. I dropped the salad there because my pack was full.”

And why not? I’ve only been playing Glitch for about a week, but this kind of far-fetched fantasy seems to be just what this game encourages.

[You can skip this part and scroll down to the next heading. The following is just rambling geekery.]

Let me backtrack a bit, before you think I’ve been munching on mushrooms. (I’ve yet to eat a mushroom in the game, so I don’t know what that does. I’ve eaten a purple flower, though, and the experience was very, very interesting.)

I don’t consider myself a hardcore gamer, mostly because our only console growing up was Family Computer, and my personal computer has been a Linux netbook since 2008. If I really wanted the MMOG experience or even just local network games like DoTA, I’d have to make the commitment of going to an Internet cafe, paying for access, training, paying, and training some more, for days or weeks  before I’d reach a certain satisfying level of progress. It just seems too expensive and time-consuming for something I’ll probably get bored with a month or so down the line, anyway.

Because somehow, I’ve always missed the thing in these games that draws players in for really serious, notebook-filled-with-formulas, level-99999-with-all-the-upgrades play. I do love computer games, and I love playing with friends, but none of the MMOGs I’ve tried so far have been able to hold my interest.

I think it’s because most of these games are essentially war games, and being a warrior of some sort is all you really get to be. Even if some games let you choose a non-martial class, like a healer or a wizard, you’re mostly other players’ sidekick; you don’t really get to fulfill your purpose if you aren’t there at the battleground for the warriors’ benefit.

And no matter how beautiful the graphics, how masterful the world-building, or how rich the story, in the end, you’re still in that story to fight. You never really get to be the bartender, the city tour guide, the blacksmith, the chef, the storekeeper, the farmer, the brewer, the scientist, the local doctor, the monk — all these roles and more are filled by game robots, when I’m sure there are lots of human players like me who would love to take over, instead of heading out into the dessert to kill 200 squishy pink things for a handful of coins.

On the other hand, non-war MMO games these days are mostly designed for the gamemakers’ benefit. They let you level up fast, and then they ask for your wallet and your phone book. Facebook-based games in particular tend to tie your progress to the amount of real money you’re willing to pay and to the number of other people you can coerce into playing with you. After a while, these games become a drag, and you become a drag on your friends, who would like you to stop asking them for imaginary nails.

So, when I read this boingboing post a few days ago, I was intrigued. The computer requirements were netbook-friendly, and Glitch’s about page, quoted below, sounded like everything I hadn’t realized I wanted in online gaming, plus a touch of weirdness:

Glitch is a web-based massively-multiplayer game which takes place inside the minds of eleven peculiarly imaginative Giants. You choose how to grow and shape the world: building and developing, learning new skills, collaborating or competing with everyone else in one enormous, ever-changing, persistent world.
What's different? For starters, it's all one big world. Which means everyone is playing the same game and anyone's actions have the ability to affect every other player in the game. It also involves very little war, moats, spaceships, wizards, mafiosos, or people with implausibly large muscles. Also: we have egg plants. Egg plants make it very different.

I had to see it for myself. I requested an invite to the recently relaunched game, and as soon as it let me in, I was hooked.

[If you skipped all that stuff, you can start reading again.]

As much as I’d like to describe Glitch by comparing it with other games (I sucked my own brother in by telling him it was an MMO version of one of his favorites), I’m afraid this might just make people dismiss it without giving it a try — and I really, really, really want other people to give it a try.

It’s kind of like having read the most amazing book and wanting to shove said book in all your friends’ faces, so you don’t have to feel the way you feel about it alone. Your friends ask you, “Well, what’s it about, what’s it like?”, and all you can do is grunt exasperatedly and say, “Just read it! Read it already! And then tell me what you thought about it!”

That’s kind of the way I’d like to go about sharing Glitch. Forget everything I just said about the MMO gaming experience. Just think of the way you felt when you read or listened to a favorite story as a child.

Think of the thrill you felt, imagining yourself exploring the world of those stories — how spooked you got as you followed some mysterious instinct deeper into the forest, swamp, or abandoned house, and how wonderful it was when you saw the reward at the end.

Think of your old make-believe games where jumping over a hole in the ground was really jumping across a canyon, and how seriously you took your play.

Think of your half-remembered dreams, of conversations where you can’t remember the participants’ faces or what they actually said, yet you find yourself puzzling over what they meant when you wake.

Think of the wittiest, gentlest, wisest characters who’ve made you laugh, made you think, and made you want to improve yourself a little bit — or a lot.

Then tell yourself that Glitch is that kind of story or dream. It’s still in progress, and you get to be one of its people. And if you want, you can be a guru, builder, gardener, wanderer,  healer, businessman, bureaucrat, or benefooder — and no one’s going to force you to be or do anything you don’t want, because the only character class is “character.”

The only way I can conclude now is to say, play. Just play it, play it already, and then tell me what you thought about it.

If all that’s way too vague for you, I suggest you just visit this page. And if you want a more traditional what-this-game-can-do review, this is a pretty good one.

21 September 2012

Letter No. 3

The other day, I dreamt about a sort of family court, in the middle of a ruin in the jungle. It was brown and crumbling, sort of Mesoamerican-civilization-meets-Beaux-Arts, with lush trees, grass, and vines growing inside. Families — dads in their tucked-in polos and city shorts, moms in jeans and sundresses, little kids — came to the ruin to just hang out and picnic under the indoor trees.

In one part of the ruin, there was a large pool or pond. Its water was still clear, and though most of the walls were gone, the ceiling of that room was still intact. It was tiled with something like capiz shells, near transparent.

On one side of the pool sat a couple at retirement age. Their family was quite wealthy, with multiple businesses, houses, yachts, and cars. On the other side was my own grama. They all sat in folding canvas and metal chairs, as if in the park or at the beach, but they were definitely authorities about something. The sun was about to set.

The son of the wealthy couple stood at their side with his back to the wall, which had a hole big enough to see the jungle in the next room and a family picnicking there, and a kid swinging from a tree branch. Grama's granddaughter, who was not me or any of my cousins (weird, yes), stood a little apart from Grama, her back to a less damaged wall, with some steps and a dark doorway to some other part of the ruin.

The son and the granddaughter wanted to get married, and I think they'd come to the ruin to declare their intentions to their elders. None of the elders approved, though. It wasn't for the huge disparity in wealth; each family liked and respected the other well enough. But Grama and the couple agreed that their children were "too young" at 28. Grama told my mystery cousin to wait till she was 30, take her master's, and focus on her career. The young man's parents said something similar, and that it was important to wait.

I was watching from Grama's side, because, I guess, it was my family's side. But while the young man fumbled for words and the granddaughter started to stamp her feet and rant about how unfair the decision was, I got into the pool and started swimming.

The water was perfect. I moved easily, even though I was wearing a work shirt and pants. I floated on my back and kicked slowly across the length of the pool. Above me, the sky was rippling across the shell tiles in different shades of blue and gold; reflected in the water, they looked like jewels or stars. I forgot about the families and just looked up at the sky, and I thought, "Oh, how beautiful."

I think I dreamt this because just before I went to sleep, I'd finished some Archie comics, which had an excerpt from the "Married Life" series. Archie is married to Veronica and faces an important business and personal decision: should he satisfy his father-in-law and employer, yet pull the rug out from under his oldest friends?

Yet I've also been thinking about my own career for a while now.

I realized yesterday, I've done a 180. Since I was a teenager, my dream life involved settling down and having kids as soon as possible. While one tita asked me if I wasn't just conforming to society's expectations, I was actually an odd one out; most of my friends have all said that they'd rather pursue their careers and/or see the world before starting a family — if they start families at all. I, on the other hand, not only pre-selected my future children's names according to birth order and number (if my firstborn was a girl, she'd be L; if a boy, Z; if twin girls, P and F; if twin boys, B and L; etc.), but I'd also decided what kind of toys they'd play with, books they'd read, and schools they'd attend.

What's changed in the past year? It wasn't just that I was single again, though maybe that gave me more time to pay attention to what was going on around me. I cared more than ever about the economy, and whether the country could sustain all this optimism. I started to care more about where my money went, and not least because rent on a better apartment sucked up so much of it.

I also became interested in the kind of life people my age and background had in different countries, particularly around Asia. I compared their worries and aspirations with mine, and I started to imagine more clearly the decisions I'd have to make if I wanted a certain quality of life by the time I was raising kids, not just having them.

Perhaps as a result, my own aspirations changed, too. Gone is the Kat who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom in the province; in her place is some other lady who thinks being a busy, if not working mom is the way to go. And in the process, I thought about the things I wanted to keep me busy, besides family: the kind of work I'd like to do, the kind of organization I'd like to work for, and the kind of interests I'd like to be able to pursue on the side.

It occurs to me, of course, that I now sound a lot like the suited, hooked-on-career yuppies that I disdained as a wannabe bohemian. I am not, as I fantasized four years ago, writing novels and travelogues and shacking up with a painter in a charmingly old apartment near art galleries, pan-Asian furniture stores, and hip little restaurants, where the other characters from RENT meet to celebrate starving for their art. I live in a middle-class neighborhood across an upper-middle-class university and edit advertising-occasioned supplements for a business newspaper, and my boyfriend and I like to talk about China, urban planning, and a friend's tips on the stock market.

I'd like to think that the dream of swimming in an in-between pool of pixellated Van Gogh is my subconscious telling me to take a good look at my direction and decisions, before I make any more. I think of a TV spot for Suits (which I don't watch), where a biker sipping coffee sees the suited protagonist go by and tells his fellow biker, "If I ever look like that, shoot me." I think of "La Vie Boheme" from RENT, of course, with Mark celebrating "riding your bike midday past the three-piece suits" — and thinking now, "But Benny's Cyberland idea doesn't sound half bad."

Then, there's the latest Subnormality comic, where a down-on-her-luck Ethel sets up a meeting with her selves from parallel universes to see how different her own life is from theirs.

© 2012 Winston Rowntree

So I'm asking myself, if I had a meeting like that within the next five years, would I have more or less regret than the other me's who decided differently along the way? I'm already living much differently from how I'd wanted — should I be happy, knowing I have things to be happy about, or disappointed that I let go of some of my dreams along the way?

The comic (go on, read it) touched a particularly sensitive, insecure nerve, because writing is a big part of the conversation. Ethel-in-red-sweater, in the ninth-to-last panel ("You think you're never gonna succeed at writing?") says something about where I am as a writer; that is, not even close to where I once dreamed I'd be. Then there's Ethel-in-glasses ("writing: also a muscle"); some part of me still doesn't want to sound like her, but I know I'm on my way to being her, if I'm not already.

And so, the Ethels' meeting has forced me to ask a question I've been avoiding for the past couple of years.

Do I still want to write?

And if I'm honest with myself, in my bones, I know, yes, I still do — and I want to be good at it.

It's scary to say. For one thing, it doesn't seem to fit into the Ethel-in-glasses-plus-kids life I've been seeking. And for another thing, writing's a muscle I've let atrophy, at least where creative writing is concerned. I've been making all these excuses: I don't have enough experience; my voice is too middle-class and navel-gazing; every other 20-something is writing something like that; I don't know enough about Philippine culture, popular or otherwise; and I'm not as good and/or popular as X, so I don't think I should bother, anyway. But really, I've just shuffled into the vicious circle of not practicing and then being intimidated by the amount of practice I need to be "good".

Perhaps the dream ended with me still in the pool so that I could decide, in real life, at which side I'd get out. I don't think the plight of the young couple was of any real concern to me; I imagine that getting out at either family's side would have only distracted and annoyed everyone. But at the ends of the pool, there were other dark doorways leading to other parts of the ruin. I think at some point, I would have gotten out of the water and picked one.

Like last week's letter, this one has a couple of theme songs. I picked them in college to remind me of what I didn't want to be like, but now, I have doubts about the messages they send.

I want to say that the people in the boxes might actually be pursuing dreams of their own — mostly because, if I should find myself in one of those boxes, I want to be right.

1. Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds
And the people / In the houses / All went to the university / Where they were put in boxes / And they came out all the same / And there's doctors / And lawyers / And business executives / And they're all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same // ... // And they all have pretty children / And the children go to school / And the children go to summer camp / And then to the university / Where they are put in boxes / And they come out all the same

2. Baobabs, by Regina Spektor
And I wouldn't raise my child inside the city anyway / They grow up too savvy / And they grow up too fast / And they know about buying shit / And they know about sex / And they know about investment banking / And also about brokerage firms / And they know about the numbers / And they know about the words / And they know about bottom lines / And also about stones / And they know about careers / And about the real deals / And they all grow up to become people's people with people skills

Ethel is just one of many characters in the world of Subnormality. Her previous appearances:

13 September 2012

Letter No. 2

Call them signs, an emerging theme, God talking, or coincidence. Within a week of my birthday, life was showing/telling me, I'm bad at being with other people; better to get better at connecting while I'm still young.

I don't know if this is normal, but I have problems with episodic memory. This was embarrassingly clear to me when my high school barkada was complete for the first time in months, maybe years, for just one night last weekend. And I could not detail an anecdote from our shared adolescence to save my life.

"I remember when there was a luau. They let us decorate. And Kat pushed Lei into the pool."

Really? I found myself thinking. Then, Oh, yeah. But, I couldn't remember any of the details, just the dim fact that I had indeed pushed Lei into the pool.

The remorse, on the other hand, was pretty fresh; how bad I felt immediately after I'd picked on my water-hating friend, that I can definitely remember.

There are other memories of memories I don't recall. Once, when I was in high school, my senior homeroom teacher told me that she remembered when I was 10 or 11 and threw a tantrum over a lower-than-expected science grade. I kicked like a little kid, she said. I have no memory of this at all and refused to believe it had happened, though I did have a reputation for tantrums back then.

More recently, my lola recalled how my lolo spent his last Christmas in the hospital, and I was horrified that I could not remember this, either. I was there that Christmas, but I don't remember the hospital at all.

I thank whatever seized me at nine years old to start keeping diaries, and I go cold at the thought that I was thinking of shredding them earlier this year. The first thing I'm going to do when I go home is dig them up and take them back with me.

What's wrong with me? I'd like to know. Cris marvels at my ability to learn songs in a snap, but I'd much rather be able to remember scenes from my own life, shared with my nearest and dearest, no less.

Now that I look back and try to pull out specific memories, I'm frustrated to see how wrapped up inside myself I've been. I can remember how I felt and the thoughts I liked to think, fancying myself special. But specific events I do remember can be separated into two main categories: the times I was by myself and felt mostly awesome, and the times I was with other people and felt different shades of bad. A third category, happy memories with other people, is pitifully sparse in comparison.

It's not to say that nobody cared about me; I think it's that I haven't cared much for other people. My memories feature mostly me because I focused on mostly me. I chose friends, crushes, and people to date for mostly selfish reasons: they made me feel good about myself. I probably felt horrible around other people because I was always wishing they'd treat me the way I wanted, instead of simply enjoying their company, much less making them feel special also.

How cold I must have been.

Somehow, I have friends like my friends and family members who are still interested in spending time with me. I would have ditched someone like me a long time ago — and I don't blame the old friends who did. Realizing just how wonderful some people can be is why, in the middle of the sensory overload that was Cafe Juanita on my birthday, I felt so unworthy I wanted to cry.

There's something else that makes me panicky about my lack of connection. Between my mom in physical therapy for some mysterious back pain and my grama recently admitted for appendicitis, plus how bird-like my lola feels whenever I get to hug her and how more defined my dad's face is every time I see him, I can't help seeing how old my family is getting. Dad has more hobbies now. It's my turn now, to — what?

Grama was admitted Monday. I visited her Tuesday, and she told me that it was the first time she'd been hospitalized for anything other than the births of her children. She also told me that with her children grown and scattered, she was thankful for her friends. It wasn't a slight against my dad, my aunt, and my uncles; I think she was just stating a fact. Her friends constantly checked on her. One of them spent the first night with her there in that little ward, before the surgery.

I immediately thought of my own friends, the girls I'd had a slumber party with the weekend before, as well as the few friends I've [barely] kept in touch with since college. Perhaps selfishly, I wondered if, with all of them scattered as well, I'd have anyone like them the way Grama had her friends that Monday night. Again, I cringed at how bad I've been at keeping friends.

And of course, it wasn't until later that I thought about being there for them myself.

I guess the saving grace is that I'm still young, and it can't be too late to be better.

As for my terrible memory for good things, I'll have to be more conscious of the present and my present company. Remember this good thing happening to you and these good people you get to share it with, Kat. Then maybe, when they ask you about something great you did together, you have something real to say.

This letter features a soundtrack: two songs that came to mind while I was writing, and one that followed after I fed the first two songs into Grooveshark. Call it a sign, God talking, or coincidence.

1. Only if for a Night, by Florence + the Machine
The grass was so green against my new clothes / And I did cartwheels in your honor / Dancing on tiptoes, my own secret ceremonials / Before the service began / In the graveyard / Doing handstands // And I heard your voice / As clear as day / And you told me I / Should concentrate / It was all so strange / And so surreal / That a ghost should be / So practical / Only if for a night // And the only solution was the stand and fight / And my body was bruised, and I was set alight / But you came over me like some holy rite / And although I was burning, you're the only light / Only if for a night

2. A Better Son/Daughter, by Rilo Kiley
Then you hang up the phone and feel badly for upsetting things / And crawl back into bed to dream of a time / When your heart was open wide and you loved things just because
And you'll be better, and you'll be smarter / And more grown-up and a better daughter / Or son and a real good friend / You'll be awake, and you'll be alert / You'll be positive though it hurts / And you'll laugh and embrace all your friends / You'll be a real good listener / You'll be honest; you'll be brave

3. It's Cool to Love Your Family, by Feist
And someone loved them once / And someone loves them still / And someone misses them / And someone always will // It's cool, it's cool to love your family

05 September 2012

Letter No. 1

On her 88th birthday, a few weeks ago, my lola told me, "Being old is fun."

I think I knew this from watching her eat ice cream at a recent family dinner. I could hear it in her voice, too, as she shared her travel plans for that week over the phone. But, actually hearing her say those words was an affirmation — you can live so much and so long and (still) be happy.

Tomorrow morning, I will have completed another trip around the sun. I won't be as old as my lola just yet, but I look forward to this new year as much as I look forward to my 88th. This feels like a kickoff to top off all the kickoffs I've made in the past year:

- got over a grown-up breakup
- biked around Metro Manila and didn't die
- learned Mandarin
- saw my kirigami featured in a magazine
- made new friends
- opened my heart again, with the help of someone wonderful
- made peace with the city
- realized how much I (still) love and miss my family
- moved to an apartment
- gained weight
- survived my first year as supplements editor
- saw my own faith staring me in the face

With blogging and other fun online things recently re-banned at work, the days leading up to my birthday have been as good a time as ever to be more thoughtful about a lot of stuff: what I post here, how I think, how I relate to other people, and what I want to do next.

- finally go to Beijing
- go home for Christmas
- make and write more things for myself, and make them well
- stop worrying about the future
- invest in the stock market
- read more books
- buy that box of plain Lego bricks
- turn the added weight into abs
- be less disconnected
- be less afraid
- be grateful
- get old
- have fun

Here we go.

22 August 2012

Dan's Rubik's Cube Solution

If you were one of my college blockmates in freshman and sophomore year, chances are, you would have seen me messing around with a Rubik's cube.

For posterity, I've rehosted the guide I was using at the time.

14 August 2012

为什么 / Why

I've had to ask myself lately why I've been studying Mandarin.

While I do hope it'll come in handy when my friends and I hit Beijing in October, there remains the question of what I'm going to do with Mandarin after that, and maybe also the question of whether I should continue studying at all.

I've entertained daydreams of returning to Singapore for more than just a visit, and that daydream now includes other Mandarin-speaking countries like Taiwan and, well, China. It seems to be the country to follow, the superpower to understand.

But yesterday, Cris (@crisgee) sent me "You'll Never Be Chinese", an essay by an expat who has decided, after nearly 20 years, to leave the great country he loved. It's not merely a laundry list of grievances experienced by a foreigner but a thoughtful look at how China will likely change, given current political and economic conditions.

I recommend reading the article, but if you're just going to stay here, I'll tell you that the writer decided that China wasn't the best place for him or his young family to live anymore. And if things play out the way he predicts, it doesn't seem like the right place for me, either.

What about Singapore, then? Well, today, Dom Cimafranca (@dcimafranca) shared this article about former PM Lee Kuan Yew urging Singaporeans to reproduce, and this one quote from Mr. Lee was especially intriguing:

"Do we want to replace ourselves or do we want to shrink and get older and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders?"

The comment thread below the article was also interesting. Amid complaints about high cost of living, suppression of free speech, and brain drain, commentators commonly ranted about the influx of so-called FT (foreign talent). So, it seems "You'll Never Be Singaporean", either.

Am I actually planning to leave the country? There's another big, important question.

Judging by the headlines in the paper I work for, people (government, private sector, and investors) are generally optimistic about the country's future. I share a bit of this optimism. I'm actually giddy at the thought of the good some practical urban planning and public-transport-related PPPs will do within the next decade or so.

But, I have this fear that after the next election, everything will be for naught.

Potentially horrible government notwithstanding, though, the Philippines actually looks like a good place to stay for now. I guess it depends on where I'll want to be in the next few years.

Yesterday, I also read "Thirty Is Not the New Twenty: Why your 20s Matter", shared by my cousin Didang (@manangdidang). Psychologist Meg Jay's points aren't actually anything I haven't read before, but they were a great reminder to check if I'm on track toward what I want in life. I particularly liked these quotes:

"Too many 20somethings have been led to believe that their 20s are for thinking about what they want to do and their 30s are for getting going on real life. But there is a big difference between having a life in your 30s and starting a life in your 30s. Even Erik Erikson, the father of the identity crisis, warned that young adults who spent too much time in 'disengaged confusion' were 'in danger of becoming irrelevant.'"

"One way to keep yourself honest about the future is by making a timeline. ... It may not be cool to have a timeline, or to admit to having a timeline, but you don't have to etch it in stone. It's just a way of thinking about how your life might, or might not, be adding up."

"Most 20somethings are terrified of being pinned down. They're afraid that if they choose a career or a job, they are closing off their other options and somehow their freedom will be gone and their lives will be over. In fact, getting a good job is the beginning."

"What you do everyday is wiring you to be the adult you will be."

I will acknowledge* here and now that I have a timeline. It isn't etched in stone, but it's there, keeping me in a holding pattern for the next couple of years while I accumulate necessary experience both professional and personal. After that, I don't know what comes next, but it will depend on what I achieve by then.

Maybe that sounds like the same kind of excuse Dr. Jay hears from late bloomers**. But I'm confident that I'm saying, "This is what I'm doing with my life," not, "I don't know what to do with my life."

I'm trying to be smarter as well as wiser for when I get older and, I hope, happier. I'm trying to be more open with my own loved ones and be more emotionally healthy. I'm trying to break bad habits, build life skills, regain the nerdy do-your-homework-as-soon-as-you-get-home attitude I had in high school, and learn to cook and clean properly.

That way, whatever happens in the next few years, I'll be in good shape to deal with it.

I suppose I can only hope that Mandarin will somehow still be useful at that point.

* One favorite lesson from my Intro to Journ teacher was that "admit" should be used for things that are actually wrong or bad, like errors or crimes.
** I do worry about the message Dr. Jay's interview might send to the people who do "start a life" in their 30s or even later. While some things, like viable egg cells, have an expiration date, I don't want to write over-20s off. Despite lot of setbacks could happen to me in the next five years, I want to believe that it will never be too late for me to have a decent life.

03 August 2012

Chinese Names and the Unfortunate Meaning of 精

I still haven't chosen a full Chinese name.

When I first tried to come up with a Chinese name, I looked up the meaning of Alvarez, which is a Hispanic "Alfher's son." Alfher itself means "elf army" or "elf warrior," which is pretty awesome!

"Adventure Time" © Frederator / Cartoon Network

So, I looked up "elf" in my Chinese dictionary and found the word 精灵 (jīnglíng), which is also used for spirits, fairies, sprites, and genies.

精 (jīng) by itself also means "essence," which I really liked. If I went with the traditional meaning of Katrina ("pure"), I'd come out with "Pure Spirit/Essence."

Sounds pretty good, right? It seemed to fit, if I took into account my physical size, my love for fairy tales, and my occasional intellectual pretensions. It even alluded to one of my actual names — when I was even smaller, my dad nicknamed me "Impy."

As I read the dictionary, the cool meanings of 精 kept coming:
  • vitality
  • energy
  • mythical goblin spirit
  • highly perfected
  • elite
  • the [top] pick
  • proficient
And then,
  • semen, sperm

Cue the record scratch, the face-palm, the dizzying pig's blood scene from "Carrie." The magical, wonderful 精, had to be scrapped, lest I suffer some schoolyard "haha, your name is Pure Semen!" taunting.

I decided to put off the search for a proper Chinese name until I'd learned more. In the process, I found that there are actually Chinese words that are recognized as surnames. All of the names I've encountered so far have several meanings, like 精 above, but one of the dictionaries I use also lists "Chinese surname" among them.

Eventually, I deduced three common characteristics or requirements for a decent Chinese name.
  1. The surname character is a recognized surname character.
  2. For non-Chinese people, the whole Chinese name sounds something like their non-Chinese name.
  3. The characters also describe one's personality or ideals, or just something aesthetically pleasing, like "Little Cloud."

My textbook features two foreigners, David March and Natalie Lynn, and their Chinese names are 马大为 (Mǎ Dàwéi) and 林娜 (Lín Nà). I'm not sure if their personalities really match "great horse" and "elegant forest," but I suppose it's also possible some names are more for sound than meaning.

A better example, I think, is Cris's Chinese name, 耿实勇 (Gěng Shíyǒng). 耿 (Gěng) is listed in my references as a surname, the whole name sounds similar to "Garcia," and the entire name itself means "bright, honest, brave" — quite fitting for my boyfriend, if I do say so myself.

Unfortunately for me, there don't seem to be a lot of Chinese surnames that start with A (there aren't a lot of Chinese surnames to begin with). So, I'm looking now at lists of surnames for B, R/L, W, and Z sounds and then picking out what seems appropriate or interesting:
  • 白 (Bái) - white, pure, clear
  • 毕 (Bì) - complete, full
  • 乐 (Lè) - happy
  • 罗 (Luó) - to collect, gather, catch, or sift
  • 饶 (Ráo) - rich, abundant; to spare
  • 芮 (Ruì) - small
  • 文 (Wén) - language, culture, writing
  • 菑 (Zī) - field ready for planting

I also like 平 (Píng), which means "level," "equal," and also "peaceful." While it doesn't sound anything like "Alvarez," it does match my preferred meaning for Katrina, "each of the two."

For the "ka" sound in my first name, I've only got 卡 (kǎ), which means "to stop/block" or "card" — not very interesting. The next closest sound would be three "kai":
  • 开 (kāi) - to open/start/drive
  • 恺 (kǎi) - contentment, joy
  • 凯 (kǎi) - triumph

I'm not too keen on the last one, though; I'm not a very aggressive person.

For T sounds, there is only 特 (tè), which means "special" or "unusual." Lest anyone think I'm being conceited, the rest of the tè aren't really good options:
  • 慝 - evil/demonic idea
  • 忒 - to make a mistake
  • 螣 - mythical flying snake (téng), now used to refer to a pest insect

There are also some tí that are all right:
  • 提 - to carry, lift, or put forward
  • 媞 - just a sound used in girl's names

If I used a B, L, or W surname, I could also go for a first name with L/R and Z sounds for Alvarez, just as Cris's name mimics the soft C and Y sounds in Garcia.
  • 利 (lì) - sharp, favorable, to do good, or to benefit
  • 立 (lì) - to stand, or to establish
  • 历 (lì) - to experience or undergo
  • 瑞 (ruì) - good luck
  • 睿 (ruì) - wise, far-sighted

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find a lot of interesting Z-sound words.
  • 泽 (zé) - pool, pond, or favor
  • 子 (zǐ) - child [this would make a nice allusion to the "son of Alfher" meaning of Alvarez]

Still, there's a lot to work with. I'm going to mix and match these and see if I can make a decision.

Anyone reading this have a preference, or better yet, a reference? Just nothing that means "demonic idea," or "semen."

01 August 2012

Wake / Sprawl House

My great-aunt Luz Reyes died last week. I wasn't very close to her, so I didn't expect her wake to raise all these questions.

One of her former colleagues from Maryknoll/Miriam was there at the wake last night, asked how old Auntie Lutz was when she died (89), and proclaimed, "She lived a very long time."

Immediately, I saw the ratio of my own age to hers, saw my childhood flash before my eyes, and wondered if I was up to enduring about three more turns of my life so far. Then, I looked at my lola, Auntie Lutz's sister, sitting next to me, and thought of all the things she'd experienced in her own life: childhood, adolescence, war, heartbreak, the academe, marriage, children, more teaching, grandchildren, more teaching, the death of her spouse, and now, a quiet life of reading, solving crossword puzzles and sudoku, and occasionally travelling.

Could I live that long, and that much?

I imagined her at my age, then tried to figure out how old she'd been — how long she'd already lived — the day I was born (63; on the brink of retirement), wondered what she thought of her own life, wondered what she was thinking as she sat before the coffin of a sister who'd been just a year older than she, wondered — I'm just going to say it — when will my lola die?, and tried to remember what she'd once said to me — or was it to Mikko? — about death.

I wish I could remember, did she say that she was ready?

I don't fear death, but I want to know, how can one honestly say that they are ready to die?

And I looked at her white hair and her face and her tiny frame in that silvery gray sweater, and I wondered what it was like to be old.


This is a study of a building layout that's sort of possessed me lately. When I first posted the photo on Tumblr, I captioned it, "Small house on the water," but something like "Sprawl House" might be more appropriate.

I don't actually see a house or other structure that itself sprawls. I suppose it could, but really, I'm thinking of the house in great, sprawling environments:
  • Stilt house, with a winding wooden dock, over the water of a vast river or the sea;
  • Remains of an ancient temple, or Atlantis, or Pompeii;
  • Small chapel or shrine set into the rocky red cliffs of a desert, like Sedona or Joshua Tree;
  • Lonely shack in the middle of endless woods;
  • Little cabin on the green prairies or purple moors that stretch on to forever; or
  • Tiny scientific research outpost in the Arctic Circle, during the quarter of the year that the sun doesn't set.
Perhaps my isolated village wasn't isolated enough for me; growing up, I enjoyed stories of people surviving alone in the woods, or of fairy tale heroes finding healing or wisdom in some wizened crone's secret cave / magic hut. I was also a fan of the "Boxcar Children" series, which started out with four orphans making a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar (also in the woods), as well as "The Little Prince," "The Island of the Blue Dolphins," and the perhaps less grand but no less entertaining "Baby Island." Also, many of the stories and games I made up, whenever I played by myself, involved living on a raft or in a one-room house.

Lately, those tingly, make-believe hermit feelings have come back, and instead of stories, I have this layout, as well as the tantalizing idea of much, much bigger paper.

30 July 2012





23 July 2012


1. The company party at Hotel H2O means I have a pretty good time spacing out watching three rays, a shark, and a couple of eels make the rounds of a humongous aquarium.

2. Class getting cancelled allows me to work on a new paper building, the first original piece I've liked in a long time.

3. Cris and I take a nice, long, quiet drive in the rain from Quezon City to Manila, with stops at Dunkin Donuts and Bee Cheng Hiang.

4. My family gets together for my grandmother's 80th birthday party.
a. Cris helps with the party, dances, makes conversation, and generally becomes my most-liked boyfriend ever.
b. My youngest brother Mon says more to me in two minutes about the TDKR shooting than he has about anything else in the past year, and I am pleasantly surprised at how articulate he can be.
c. Later, he shares his plot to make Cris uncomfortable all night.
— "Yeah, and I'm going to stand next to him and say, 'I can smell your fear.'"
d. Mikko and Paolo are the best dancers.
e. My family figures out how those party popper cylinders work (one-time use, my ass) and proceeds to make a mess of the Aristocrat function room.
— Dad (52) and Paolo (7) chase each other around the room with loaded cylinders, using flower foam and parts of centerpieces as ammunition.
— "If we were a Westerosi house, our words would probably have 'projectiles' in them."

5. My parents, brothers, and I get Sunday all to ourselves.
a. We suspect Sakae Sushi stops putting out "that red plate yellow caviar fish" after we take it all off the belt.
b. Drum Tao makes me want to dedicate my life to music, martial arts, and having ridiculously gorgeous abs, arms, and back muscles.
c. Dad buys a table for me in Gensan, takes it apart, brings it to Manila, and reassembles it in my apartment. <3
d. After they leave, I go to bed feeling both happy and lonely.


Last night, I dreamt possibly my best dream ever. I can't remember any previous dream like this where I wasn't on some kind of quest; the most I felt I had to do in this dream was to land a raft to reinflate it a bit. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

My cousins, brothers, and I, plus I think my dad and/or a boatman, took a boat out on a sunny day.

That's it. That's all. No strange baroque hotels with ghost parties, no inability to keep my eyes open while a magical swivel chair took me on a tour of an Aztec temple hotel, no orphan children to shepherd across a purple strait, no Ed Westwick in smoking jacket sneering at me while a horizontal elevator took me through a hotel full of girls, no naked mummy-god-prince to escort past a motorcycle gang, no taxi rides past a hotel that looked like a cross between an Indian temple and a Mattias Adolfsson drawing.

(Yeah, I dream a lot about hotels.)

We just went out on a boat for a swim. We dropped anchor where we felt like it, near some isolated, tiny islands, and just swam around and had fun. I think there was a picnic on the boat. I didn't feel stressed or dissatisfied, just happy to be out and enjoying the beautiful blue water, pale sky, and lovely islands. I only wished Cris had been there. The water felt perfect, by the way, and the sun was just right.

A little later, a semi-submerged inflatable yellow raft came to me, and I recognized it as an ex-boyfriend's, for some reason. This didn't bother me; I just got on and paddled around the sea. I enjoyed myself and the fact that it was okay to have fun with this raft, despite knowing that it had belonged to that ex, as if the raft had been a gift that had literally floated toward me, out of the blue. As it was only half-submerged, I just needed to take a quick break to add more air to the raft, so I paddled to the shore and pulled the raft onto the sand. In the background, I could hear my brothers and cousins splashing and having fun.

I don't think I've ever had such an easy dream before.

20 July 2012

Another Note on 是

I realized that yesterday's examples of "yes" and "no" in Chinese may not have been really clear. Here are some that might better illustrate what I mean about answers requiring more conviction or even commitment.

The word 吗 (ma) at the end of a question means that it's a yes-or-no question, but we weren't taught to actually answer with unique words for "yes" or "no." Instead, the way is to answer with the verb used in the question. So there's no simple "yes" or "no," but a full taking on of the action being asked.

Are you going to Beijing?

I am going.

Do you miss her?

I miss her.

Can you wait for lola?

I can wait.

Note that none of the questions nor the answers used 是. I think you can actually answer questions with 是, but that would be like:

Can I buy clothes here?

(You) are.

I don't know if this is correct or just how I understand the nuances of Chinese grammar and vocabulary, but that understanding is based on what I've learned out of mainland-published textbooks, so....

Cris is meeting the rest of my family tomorrow. That should be fun. :)

19 July 2012

Commuting a Sentence

Yesterday was the first time in a long time I found myself wondering why I still worked this job and lived in this country. Maybe Cris has spoiled me with all the driving around. Maybe I've gotten too comfortable living and working with home just 4km away from work and a minimum of Metro Manila traffic in between. Maybe my new neighborhood is just that much nicer than my old one.

Whatever the case, I would like to express my admiration for anyone who must commute home from work from Ayala Station every day. Yesterday I felt like crying for all of them.

The sheer number of people in the queue, which just takes over the entire station, is astounding. I walked the length of the station last night and then walked back when I saw the exit was blocked, and in the three minutes it took to do that, the number of people lining up (hundreds), crowded, noses smashing into one another's backs, seemed to have doubled. I could only imagine the number of people crowding onto the actual train platform and the number of people on the actual train.

I'm no stranger to the MRT, nor am I a stranger to the crowd at Ayala Station, but this was the first time in the past four years that I actually tried getting home from there at rush hour. I decided to take the bus.

That, of course, meant walking 1.2km back to the correct loading bay on Ayala Ave. in a storm, but I thought it would work.

Okay, as much as I've been driven around in the past couple of months, I'm still quite proud to be a pedestrian and a commuter. I'm also used to walking, and I actually prefer the rainy season.

But yesterday, everything just seemed to get me down. I'd been sick for almost a week and was feeling nauseous. I'd come from a disappointing, demoralizing meeting that made me question my career choices and crave a vacation. I'd had to put off a doctor's visit to carry out a family errand. I'd had to go up, down, and across three different mall buildings looking for the place to carry out said errand. I'd done all that walking in the pinchy meeting shoes already responsible for the ugly black line across my big right toenail. The downpour (and the puddles) meant that there was water in those shoes. Now I just wanted to go home — like everyone else on Ayala Ave. at that hour.

So, it's no surprise I couldn't get on a bus, either, at least not the bus back to Quezon City. I decided to just sleep over at my grandmother's place in Makati, then commute back to QC in the morning. I crossed the street, which sounds simple but, on Ayala Ave., meant a 200m walk to the underpass and a 200m walk to the bus stop actually across the stop I'd just left.

It was the first time in a long time I found myself feeling miserable about Philippine urban planning, which is why I was wondering why I still live here, which led me to think about getting a job elsewhere, which led me to question what's still keeping me at my job here.

Once again, my teal-and-gold-filtered memories of Singaporean streets, Singaporean sidewalks, and Singaporean public transportation swam before me like dreams of summer vacation. I thought of the difference the position of taped lines in front of train doors made (they're supposed to be at the sides!). I thought of the difference crosswalks made versus under- or overpasses. I thought of the difference trees, clean air, and conveniently placed bus stations made.

My brothers at a crosswalk in Singapore.

I also thought of the children and parents in "I Not Stupid." I thought of how many foreigners often see Filipinos, even successful ones in white-collar jobs. I thought of Philippine beaches and Philippine mountains. I thought of the Chocolate Hills, which I've never visited. For some reason, all that was enough to make me feel torn.

How much would I have to give up just to be able to get on the train without feeling like cattle? Would it all be worth it? Or is there not enough in my native country and culture worth staying for? Do I really live in a world where I have to choose between clean air, a less f-ed-up government, good urban planning, and a manageable population, and staying where I've spent ~7/8 of my life to date? What kind of world is this? Why is it so hard to go home from Ayala Ave.?

Here's some language nerdiness that borders on philosophical. I can't find Chinese words for "yes" and "no."

A dictionary like nciku will tell you that "yes" is 是 (shì), but none of my teachers or lessons so far have actually spelled out that 是 and 不 (bù) mean "yes" and "no" in the same sense as "oo" and "hindi." In fact, the very first Chinese lessons say that 是 means "is/am/are/be," and 不 is "not – ," as in,

是不是红的? ; "Is it or is it not red?"

So in dialogues, when they answer a yes-or-no question with 是 or 不是, in my head, I translate, "is / is not."

Another way to affirm or negate is 有 (yǒu) or 没有 (méi yǒu), but that's literally "have/meron" and "have not / wala."

你们有苹果吗? ; "Do you have apples?"
没有。; "(We) do not have (apples)."

你给她打一个电话了吗?; "Have you given her a phone call already?"
没有。; "(I) have not."

Maybe it's just me, but saying that something is or is possessed requires more conviction than just a simple "yes" or "no." I wonder if this is reflected in Chinese culture somehow. I could just be a geek.

09 July 2012

Mid-Year Check

Four days into 2012, I wrote this to-do list for the year. We're at the halfway point now, so I think it's time for a self-check.

1. Sign up for the next cycle of Mandarin classes.
I'm actually in my third cycle for the year and pretty happy with how I'm doing. :)

2. Re-read the Bible two or three times.
Ha. Yeah, this isn't happening.

By three times, I meant once each in three different languages: Tagalog, Cebuano, and English. Things were going well until I hit a speed bump at Genesis 5. Yes, yes, call me lazy.

In the end, I decided that with all the things I wanted to do — apart from all the things I had (have) to take care of every day — I had to accept that I didn't have the time and commitment that such an ambitious project deserved.

I did, however, learn some interesting things about myself and language. Though I never spoke Cebuano/Bisaya growing up and mostly use Taglish in everyday conversation, I found the Cebuano Bible much easier for me to grasp than the Tagalog. Osmosis, I guess; the sounds of Cebuano in my head were just warmer and more familiar.

I guess that's how I came to the only conclusion I got out of this interrupted project: If I ever study a Filipino language seriously (again), it should be Cebuano/Bisaya. While Tagalog seems more practical considering that I live in a Tagalog region, I can't help thinking of this quote I first posted after I finished Basic Chinese 1:
"Learning a language, even a natural language, is more of an emotional decision than a practical one. It’s about belonging to a group."
— Arika Okrent, author of “In the Land of Invented Languages” (source)

There's something special in the conscious choice of a language to study. I didn't choose for English to be my first language, nor did I want to study Tagalog Filipino* all those years in school. Chinese is only the second language I chose to learn because it felt important; Bisaya, now that I think about it, now that I remember how alien I felt coming home from the States, was the first.

*I'm using "Tagalog Filipino" here the same way people use "Mandarin Chinese."

3. Move out of Cubao within the next six months.
It took five months, but it finally, finally happened. :)

4. Finish at least two economics reference books.
Hay, another reading project abandoned, for now.

I am, however, reading more business and economics news these days, and when I remember, I put in a half hour or so at Khan Academy.

5. Use my induction cooker.
Cris gifted me with a proper saucepan, and since then, I've used the stove to boil pasta, fry an egg, and watch Cris make noodle soup, hahaha. Baby steps. Half point?

6. Travel out of the country at least once.
Not yet, but soon, soon. I have a ticket to Beijing in October. :) If stuff goes really sour with China before then, I'd like to rebook for Malaysia or Singapore.

7. Email my parents more often.
I have upped my emails in the past six months, but they're still not as frequent as I'd like. Half point.

8. Get rid of old/unneeded belongings.
I did a lot of throwing away during the last stages of the move. I still have a big bag of clothes and bags to donate, but they can wait under my bed till the next charity thing at Mikko's church.

9. Get my college stuff out of storage and sort that, too.
Hmm, I forgot all about this. :|

10. Invest.
I've actually lost a lot of money recently, if we're talking about the amount in my savings account. But, I suppose new things for the apartment and the massive deposit are a different kind of investment.

Still hoping to get my balance up to a certain amount and then plunge into a financial instrument, though.

11. Read at least 50 books.
So far, I've read 13 new ones this year and am in the middle of a 14th. That's less than I'd like to have read by now, but at least I'm reading.

12. Make more complicated popup buildings.
Only three so far: The Great Wall (1, 2), a kind of landscape of Santorini (1, 2), and an imaginary Aztec temple that I decided wasn't worth photographing.

I hope to have more time for buildings once I've finished settling into the new apartment. I also have to buy a table for working and eating on. :/ Half point for the six-month mark, then.

13. Visit Luneta on a Sunday morning
I've actually been to Luneta twice in the past six months, though both times on Saturday afternoons. It was still nice, though.

15. Use my Ayala Museum membership at least once a month.
Hey, looks like I skipped 14.

This makes me feel so bad, but I haven't been to the museum once since the year began. I wanted the membership for what I'd imagined would be a year of being single and bored.

16. See Picasso's "Suite Vollard."

17. Visit Manila Ocean Park.
I'm thinking of striking this from my list. Friends have told me it isn't worth it. :/

18. See my childhood friends more often.
I've seen them only a couple of times, so I'm not removing this item. Maybe just a half point for this one.

19. Hang out with Internet friends IRL sometime.
I ran into Lance (@bottledbrain) at the museum on the last day to see "Suite Vollard," but I was about to leave already. :s

This kind of thing takes planning and courage — and more planning than courage. I can't even see offline friends without planning a month or so in advance, and something usually happens to cancel the plan. My offline friends are increasingly online friends, too. :|

20. Spend a weekend in Baguio.
Not yet.

21. Spend a weekend in Corregidor.
Not yet.

22. Find out if that thing they keep saying about my great-grandfather is true.
*sigh* Not yet.

23. Be a better editor.
Hmm. I'd rather not go into details, but suffice it to say that I can still do better. Half point?

24. Redesign certain company websites for fun with MAMP and a local Wordpress installation.
I actually did this and then showed the results to someone at the company who had a little more power to suggest Wordpress. But, the group handling the site in question decided they'd rather keep the current CMS. Oh, well.

25. Watch at least two Filipino plays.
Forgot about this one, too.

26. Finish at least one abandoned story/essay and submit it somewhere.
My interest in creative writing beyond this blog seems to fade more every year. There are just so many other things I want to do also.

27. Get a pet.
I'm definitely looking forward to this, but this might have to wait a while. I've got a lot of big expenses coming up in the next six months (a table, a bedroll, people's birthdays, my birthday, Beijing, Christmas, maybe one more cycle of Mandarin), so I don't know if I'll be to squeeze a pet in until next year.

28. Be open to whatever's around the corner.
I definitely think I deserve a full point for this, but I'm not taking it off the list. :)

That makes 10 points, if I've counted right. I guess it's not bad.

Would it be cheating if I made a new list of priorities and things to do for the rest of 2012?

25 June 2012

Hi/Hay, Mom

I know June is the month of Father's Day, but it's also the month of my parents' wedding anniversary, and after spending the day with both of them yesterday, I find myself thinking of my mom.

The morning of my parents' anniversary last week, I was scanning some of my paternal grandmother's old photos. Among the albums, I found this photo of Mom and Dad outside my maternal grandparents' house in Dumaguete. On the back of the photo, my lola's loopy cursive let me know that this was taken in April 1987, just two months before my parents' first wedding anniversary and about halfway through Mom's pregnancy with me.

There was also this photo of her sitting in the shade outside Silliman Church. I think her belly is a little more visible here, but then again, it could just be the dress; Mom was pretty skinny until much, much later.

I guess this is the earliest known photo of us together.

People often tell me that I look like my mom in miniature. On more than one occasion, I've stood in front of her old classmates and received a look of both recognition and bewilderment, perhaps as though they're being visited by the Linda of their Silliman days.

Christmas, two years ago.

But, I've always had mixed feelings about the fact that our physical resemblance is pretty much where our similarities end.

Mom likes pop ballads, romantic comedies, shopping (especially for bags and shoes), bright floral prints, Piolo Pascual, Martha Stewart-y things, and keeping up a busy social and civic life.

I like alternative music, action movies and dramas (and cartoons, which are really both), not shopping, subdued colors, not being a big fan of celebrities in general, TheMarySue/Boingboing things, and holing up in my room with a book.

I like who I am and what I like, but I have this weird guilt knowing that my mom had only one daughter, and that daughter wasn't very interested in the things she liked. I sometimes wish my sister had been born, just so my mom could have had a girl who appreciated kikay-ness better.

When I was growing up, my mom and I didn't get along very well. It wasn't just that we had different interests; I also wasn't a very agreeable child.

That's the face of a rebel right there.

I was satisfied with my grades and my relatively high rank, so I resented Mom for nagging me to study more. I had few friends and wasn't interested in making more, so I resented Mom for telling me to go out and join my classmates at parties, where I just sat in a corner and spaced out, wishing I were home with my books.

I grumbled whenever I had to wear makeup for anything, I could never keep my room clean enough for her standards, and I cringed at some of the things she got me to wear to church on Sundays. I guess it's a classic case of mother and daughter butting heads over her telling me what to do, but we just clashed so much over the years that it was hard for me to be grateful for the things she "got right."

For instance, she picked most of my Christmas gifts "from Mom and Dad" over the years, and some of the books she got me are still favorites today. She was there when we got every pair of sneakers I've ever liked, including the ones I've been wearing for the past two years. In fact, every birthday and Christmas gift she's gotten me, though I may not have liked every one, was clearly chosen with love.

She also baked me a chocolate cake from scratch for one particularly special birthday. Today, I can no longer remember why I thought it was a special birthday, but I still remember the fact that she made me that delicious cake.

When I ended up being the only girl without a date to the junior prom, I think she was partly responsible for finding me one among Gensan's rich sons. That prom night was horrible, but, looking back now, I appreciated her help.

She also helped plan my sweet 16, which was one traditionally girly thing that I wanted because going away to college meant I wouldn't be home for a debut. When I did turn 18, she flew to Manila to spend that birthday with me, even if it was a weekday and I had an accounting exam the next day.

Compared with a lot of moms, she was actually pretty liberal with me. She let me cover one wall of my room with all my teenage ranting. When I asked her in one of our bigger fights to just leave me alone, she actually did for a few months. She let my first boyfriend come over all the time, and she didn't set me a curfew on that last night I saw him, before I left for Manila.

I know from schoolmates that parents have ways of trying to control their children even from far away, so even the fact that I've been independent for the past couple of years is sort of her and Dad's doing (or not-doing) as well as mine.

She's also there for me whenever I do want to hear her opinion, even if only through emails and phone calls. She was the one to tell me that that first boyfriend was cheating on me. She's shared stories of her own college years and 20s, and those stories have helped me feel both more normal and more unique, if that makes any sense.

So really, I'm disappointed in myself because until now, my knee-jerk reaction whenever she suggests something is to be cranky and defensive. My answers to, "You should get this dress," "Why don't you put the cabinet over there?" and even, "You should pick out a good table [which I will pay for] for your new apartment," are unnecessarily terse. Somewhere deep down, there's a 15-year-old girl who still thinks, "Mom doesn't understand me," or, "Mom doesn't know what I like."

Too late, I remind myself, "Mom loves me," "Mom wants to bond with me," and, "Mom just wants to make sure I'm okay," — and that sometimes, "okay" just means I have a rice cooker, some nice kitchen towels, and a good boyfriend who may or may not look like Piolo Pascual.

I love you, Mom. I'm really glad I'm your daughter, too.

19 June 2012

The Fault in My Reading

I do wonder if I didn't enjoy "The Fault in Our Stars," by John Green, as much as others did because of my own history. It just so happens that my ex-boyfriend also had osteosarcoma as a teenager, also was something of a basketball hotshot before that, also was pretty pissed at people who spouted Bible verses and cross-stitched encouragements and all this well-meaning crap, also wanted to leave a mark beyond being a "professional sick person," and even won a local literary award for saying so.

(I also have an uncle on what I guess would be the other side of the living-with-cancer spectrum, the side that's had cancer in three different places, blogs about the chemo battle, and runs marathons to raise money for a cure.)

That's not to brag, really, but just to say that a lot of Hazel Grace and Augustus's frustrations are things I've heard before from someone who's been there and back: Hazel's worry that after her death, "they'd have nothing to say about me except that I fought heroically, as if the only thing I'd ever done was Have Cancer," has a sentiment I've heard expressed quite a bit. So, a lot of the time, reading this book was like staring into pitch-black night with someone you don't really talk to anymore and making that long and awkward silence as long, awkward, and maybe even painful as possible.

I don't know. I guess I can't accept this book based on the recommendation that it's an "alternative" look at life with cancer because it's been the most pragmatic and maybe even best way to look at it for a while now. I also didn't cry at the parts where you're "supposed" to cry, because either I'm a cold-hearted cynic, or, to borrow from John Irving, we are all of us terminal cases — not just the kids with cancer. If I felt sad, it was because someone's friend and child was suffering, not that someone's friend and child was suffering from cancer.

Beyond that, though, the male protagonist Augustus — whose similarities to Martin end above — was right out of my teenage daydreams and therefore unbelievable and sometimes even cheesy. Hazel, on the other hand, was a character I could get behind, and I loved how she (and, okay, Augustus too) was just darkly hilarious and sharp. Despite my cynicism, if you'd call it that, I did laugh out loud at a couple parts.

Perhaps what kept me from enjoying the book more was the constant self-check: if I find this book "inspirational," and go on to say so, I might only be just as misguided as the same people who find the cross-stitched encouragements "inspirational" and thereby fail at the actual empathy that people like Hazel and Augustus — people in general, really — really want.

I guess if there's anything I'd get out of this book, it's Hazel's idea about infinities being shorter or longer, but still infinite (actually, this is mathematically wrong; also, this link is a quote spoiler). It touches on the same "we are all terminal cases," "we all complete," "you got a lifetime; no more, no less," "death from above's still a death" idea that I think would improve relationships if more people had it. Having cancer does not make your life any more precious and special than that of a 120-year-old woman with two dozen grandkids. Your life is special because it is your life.

15 June 2012


There's a patch of skin on my left leg that I scratched a lot late last year. I say it's because of mosquito bites, but I wonder why I still can't leave it alone and why it's taking longer to heal than anything else.

Maybe it's age, I tell myself; maybe you're past being a child with magical super healing skin, when your wounds hurt only a little while.

Why else would something take longer to heal than you thought it would?