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.