Thursday, November 25, 2010


Abundance, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
Nothing like paring down to bare essentials to rediscover what exactly those essentials are. In January of 2010, I scribbled some thoughts.

"There's a line from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie:

'Know what you have, what you want, what you can do without: inventory control.' 
— Frank Wheeler, Revolutionary Road

I had to pause the movie to stew in the parallel to my life right now.
The story is set in the 1950s and portrays suburban angst and lives of quiet despair within cozy white bungalows. The angst would ring hollow if set in contemporary times, when holding on to a job and a home would mean you’ve escaped the famine…for now.

Hollywood, and the fans that support this massive system, make “living your dream” a religion.

I don’t dare claim the privilege of having a dream. Right now it’s a daily victory if I manage to quash the fear of my husband also becoming unemployed.

Being unemployed has me envying the postal worker who complained she has to work on Saturdays. It has me being even nicer and more appreciative toward service workers, retail clerks and food servers. Everyone with a job is doing the honorable thing.

When I did have a job, I spent money as one who makes burnt sacrifices at the altar of the implacable god of the economy. I was pumping out stimulus money in a microeconomics way, picking up the tab when friends and I would lunch. What serendipity that I spent the first half of 2009 doing what would turn out to be a dry run for being unemployed: I lived on half my net income, resolutely paying off my credit card debt with the other half. It’s how I learned what I can do without.

Turns out, plenty. I can do without twice-monthly massages and monthly chiro adjustments, haircuts, meals out that hardly satisfy, movies at the cinemax, several bags full of clothes and knickknacks on a whim every weekend, and any acquisition from a junk mail catalog."

Eleven months later, I find that my outlook is different. It's not about what we're doing without (and don't even miss), it's what we had all along that barely merited a glance.

Happy Thanksgiving. Tomorrow when I celebrate another birthday, it will be with full awareness of the abundance with which we have been blessed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Between me and the deep blue sea

I am afraid of my sewing machine. There, I’ve said it. It wouldn’t matter much, except my fear is what stopped me dead on the tracks as I zipped along toward my reinvention. In my dream new identity, I am a derelict clothing designer, upending mediocrity in women’s apparel and thumbing my nose at cubicle convention. I offer slices of delicious escape to women weary of conforming. I aim to dress fellow misfits who want to make peace with their weirdness.
It’s farfetched when you consider that I have zero background in fashion design and business management. In the last decade I had settled into making a living writing about abstract concepts—leadership, mentorship, gender equity, the value of higher education. Every job I’ve had was a step off a cliff. I had no practice as a reporter, speechwriter, desktop publisher or instructor before becoming one. Whatever skills I didn’t already bring to the table I learned on the job. Fear never derailed me.
Most people fear spiders. I squish them without squirming. Many quake at the thought of public speaking. Pffft. My first job out of college was teaching public speaking to sophomores at my alma mater. My last day job was coaching a CEO on delivering the speeches I wrote for him.
Some people freeze on the edge of the dance floor. As an instructor in ballroom and Latin dance, I demonstrate the promenade, the Cuban chase, the infinity spin and such in front of crowds of strangers and perform several times a year.
But the domestic arts have always been my Kryptonite. That sewing machine haunts me. For years, I kept it boxed in a dark closet in a room I never enter unless I have to store more stuff. It’s not even mine; I bought it for Mom when she visited more often. Now she pleads old age. She says she’s too frail to get on a jetliner and cross the Pacific Ocean.
Summers when I was a tomboy, Mom tried to get me to sit still and learn how to sew. She was an effortless seamstress. I wore a lot of her creations. I should’ve been more appreciative. I should’ve paid attention. I should’ve made my own Home Ec projects instead of letting Mom earn the grade.
Somehow I managed to live nearly five decades without ever feeling the need to know how to sew. Call it a midlife crisis, but a year ago I burned out rehashing the same tired concepts on the job and set off to release my inner Ungaro, upcycled version.

I lurked on forums, absorbing, keeping notes, hearting examples. I studied business start-up advice, amassed a roomful of vintage and thrifted material, took out a seller’s permit and designed a digital banner. I handsewed stitch by painstaking stitch, turning out flowy dance pants, frilly tunics, quirky skirts.
I fed my ferocious need to remake something in the image of my vision. It must be a control issue. There are few enough things over which we have control, so let’s let loose with what we wear when we’re doing something for ourselves. Let’s dress for life—not for approval.
I may have the beginnings of my business manifesto! It’s coming together and falling into place. Except for the pesky part about not knowing how to sew by machine.
Here’s the thing: most of those times when I learned how to do something new, I was doing it for the boss.  Learning how to sew will be for me—for the new me I am trying to fashion out of disheartened and disgraced remnants. Do you know what it feels like to attempt this reinvention?
My nephew, Vince, that eagle-eyed spotter of oddities that make great fodder for wry comments, noted Google map’s directions for getting to China from Taiwan. Head west, take this ramp, take this exit, turn left, turn right. They seem regular enough, until you come to:
Step#24: Swim across the Pacific Ocean.
Right. There. It feels like I am about to swim across the Pacific Ocean, and I don’t know how to doggy paddle.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Staring is taboo

Omniscient, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
The longer I live in the United States, the more foreign I feel around Filipinos.

I marked the silver anniversary of my immigration this past summer. At this point I’ve lived in California more than half my life. People from here don’t ask me, “Where are you from?” as often as they did in the early years. What hasn’t changed is the way some Filipinos react when they see me for the first time: they stare. Openly and unrelentingly, as if they were seeing me in a line-up from behind a two-way mirror.

They want to know if I’m a fellow Filipino. Unable to conclude this from my accent or perhaps the lack thereof, and hesitant to ask me outright, they resort to sizing up my features. I’ve been greeted in Niponggo by the Japanese and optimistically proclaimed Korean by a Korean. The Vietnamese ladies at the nail salon usually ask if I’m Chinese. The Chinese are extra nice to me at their restaurants. I must remind them of their eccentric aunt.

But my countrymen and women, they stare. More so the women. That’s how I know they’re Filipino. In trying to identify me, they give themselves away. We’re not talking about the adoring gaze that your dog bestows upon you post-Kibbles. I am reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which pod people point and scream to “out” those unlike them.

Staring is taboo in most Western cultures except in Hollywood, which has its own culture the way the Vatican is a country within a city. If we lived in Hollywood, for which I thank God we do not, I am certain none of the attention would be wasted on me. Unless they were casting for the mother of Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom I somewhat resemble if my brother-in-law were to be believed.

A former colleague who expatriated to Japan encountered the opposite phenomenon: the natives’ aversion to looking him in the eye, even during conversation, rendered him an invisible, unwelcome stranger. He rationalized that in a society as compactly quartered and politely ordered as Japan’s, the last bastion of personal space is visual. Sardined in a bullet train, one must compensate for the pressing of flesh against flesh with sustained look-aways.

I feel it behooves us to retain identifying behaviors that would preserve our heritage in this diverse land. We can be mini versions of Vatican City. Thus, I am preparing to engage in staring, and not only dabble, but be downright adept at it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Apart or a part? Are you a soloist or orchestra player?

Fruit, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
Are we better as part of something bigger than us, or do we hit our peak potential only when we tune in to what makes us unique? Do we bear more fruit—or sweeter fruit—on our own or on demand?

I was getting ready to send out a Friday wind-down greeting on Facebook. The message would have encouraged friends and family to put down the workday yoke, take off the company mask and spend time being only who they choose to be as individuals. Easy for me to say; I've been self-employed for a year.

Would the transition be at great cost? Would it make their Monday mornings suck even worse? Is it all that bad being part of a machine that works, given the stability and benefits?

I chafe at the good-soldier expectations that come with employment but look around my house and see everyday examples that more can be accomplished as a part of a whole—even as a mediocre part: one light in my outdated chandelier; one blade on the ceiling fan; one leg on the table.

When I post status updates as a dance teacher, the key message is, "Join us!" The implication being that life, meaning yours, is lacking if you don't learn to cha-cha with us. I position our dance studio as something you need to make your life richer, to color the corporate grays away.

When I post a link to this blog, the message is "Come away with me." Turn your back on the blur and static, and focus on this one thought of mine, how it affects you, what thoughts it might provoke.

For a loner, I'm such a joiner. For a joiner, I'm a loner. I am an intensely private introvert who has built a career that hinges on incessant public contact. I am a regular contributor of photos to who has yet to join a flickr group even when I know that it will spur me to create with even more passion. I am the youngest of six who lives 8,000 miles of ocean away from siblings, has visited once in 25 years, and has never wished I had a twin. But I devour the substitute memories contained in my sister's Facebook album collages!

I am a believer in the Christian faith, embracing the definition of sanctified as "set apart from the world," yet intrigued by the Buddhist perspective of everyone and everything being one and indistinct. The latter viewpoint draws me in with its take on suffering, conflict and oppression: if ego is a fictional construct, conflict with another is conflict with ourselves. Why fight? Being oppressed (by bosses, road rage drivers, rude customer "service" clerks) is less a personal affront, because even the oppressors suffer—from their own diminished status as human beings lacking in compassion.

I am a Filipino ex-pat who has by choice acculturated apart from the immigrant community, but has of late realized that my privilege as a bicultural person comes with the duty to voice the experience to validate the experience of others.

I am the patient nibbler of pomegranate and atis, with seeds that must be teased apart but flesh that my mouth can only appreciate en masse.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Speak the truth in love

A friend of a friend shared on Facebook the other day, "One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter."

My friend then quoted Henry Vandyke: “Tact is the unsaid part of what you think; its opposite, the unthought part of what you say.”

Expressing ourselves triggers vulnerability. There could be good or bad consequences for both us and the ones who hear our words. I once heard a simple, memorable, and sensible gauge for deciding whether to say something or not. I wrote about it
here. We ask ourselves, "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" If it meets all three conditions, then we may say it.

But what if it's true and necessary, but unpleasant? I thank God I'm not the boss who has to take employees aside and tell them they need a breath mint. Or the cop/minister/doctor who has to let a family know their loved one is a fatality.

In our ordinary lives, the unpleasant truth is more likely to be that someone is driving us crazy. I'm so lousy at lying I don't even bother. I haven't been a big fan of white lies, either, but I've managed a clear distinction in my head between hypocrisy and civility. Even if I can't stand the sight and sound of you, if we have to work together, you can always rely on my professional courtesy toward you — no matter how big of a jerk you're behaving toward me. Once that working relationship is over, though, you won't see me initiating or reciprocating any social interaction. My silence will say what was left unsaid. (Hear that, former co-worker? former boss?)

I wish I could be as unambiguous with the friends I've de-friended over the years. I stopped all contact with the first one because she was the kind of flaky we're all supposed to outgrow; the second for her undeserved sense of entitlement (to my resources, time and undivided attention); the third for unrelenting, clueless self-centeredness; the fourth for crying over the smallest thing, thus turning the office into a daycare circus; and the fifth (and last, I hope) for being a staggering, obnoxious drunk at a party while expecting me to babysit her.

I haven't begun to figure out if there might have been any way to speak the truth kindly to any of the aforementioned. As relaxed as I usually am about friendship, my standards exclude the flaky, the leeches, and the heavy baggages who don't even try to control their emotions or addictions. If you come up with a loving way to say that to a person, you know where to find me.