Thursday, January 20, 2011

An autobiography told in clothes and pictures

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
— Mark Twain 

I was engulfed by men in uniform when I was growing up. For seven years, we lived in Nichols (now Villamor) Air Base in the Philippines, where Dad was a colonel. Every morning we were trundled off to school in a weapons carrier with an olive green canvas roof that leaked when it rained—which was six months of the year. The drivers were enlisted men of various rank. We called all of them "Sarge." I never did learn to distinguish the stripes on their sleeves.

I've lived 15 years in uniform, all while in school. In mid-life, it would become the itch I needed to scratch, the ditch I clambered to escape.

I went to three different elementary schools and wore three uniforms. I found a picture of myself with my two best friends in the first grade.

You are not having a pre-migraine aura. I tinkered with the picture to protect the identities of my chums. And anyway I've forgotten their identities so I can't very well ask them for permission.

My brother and I were in the choir during our nerdy childhood. I tried disguising his face with more digital tweaking, but his head looked like a giant peppermint lollipop when I was done. So I cropped him out except for his sleeve. I may have forgotten to put on pants that Sunday.

Two high schools, two more uniforms. Add to those the army fatigues required every Friday during compulsory military training my last two years of high school. We all cropped our hair to show the nape. This was in the '70s. No Farrah Fawcett hair for us. May she R.I.P.

All through high school, we wore boys' leather shoes with white socks. I see I've done a lousy job of cropping these photos to where you can't see them. We polished those puppies to a mirror shine, trust me.

Plus there was the Girl Scout uniform. I wore it for a day so I could go on a scouts-only field trip to the lake. Not my idea! Someone lent me her extra uniform. It's the only time I ever pretended to be someone I wasn't. That is, someone who knew how to swim. I didn't learn until I was 17.

Then a uniform through four years of college: That makes a total of nine.

My uniforms were either green, blue and white, or red and white gingham. To this day I will never buy anything with red and white gingham. The term, "back to school" induces nightmares. I dream I'm wandering the halls unable to find my classroom, unprepared for final exam, or unable to get home after dark. Why have I never mentioned this to my therapist?

Fashion was a remote concept to me then. What would've been the point? When would I have worn anything other than a uniform or a house dress and flip-flops? My parents would never have allowed me to go to parties. It never occurred to me to ask. I don't remember ever being asked to one, anyhow, so the situation never presented itself.

It dawns on me now how simple my life was. All those years spent with my nose between a book. I might've been a wallflower, but since I never partied only to sit dances out, who could tell? Who knew I'd end up a dance teacher in mid-life?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My first poached egg, and why I won't blog about food

This being Try-it Tuesday, I thought I'd try something I've never done before: poach an egg. Don't look down your noses at me if this is old hat to you. I've jumped out of a plane like a monkey on someone's back without so much as getting my heart rate up. But the poached egg does not turn up in my cache of childhood memories. Mid-life is as good a time as any to test the waters.

The self-described egg lover eggstraordinaire at Ode to Eggs ( took all the trial-and-error mess out of it. All I had to do was follow instructions, which involved a pin prick at the large end of the egg before breaking it into a soup ladle. Then you lower it into the center of a simmering bath pre-sprinkled with salt and vinegar while stirring the water. This is why God gave us two hands.

See, this is precisely why I don't blog about food. Ever. I just shook my head over my pathetic paragraph. Where is Julia Child's passion, the sensuous description? If I could muster some up, my blog would billow out across the Net, enticing foodies to comment and subscribe, and those loathsome search engines would reward me with high rankings for using sexy Google AdWords like cook (13.6 million global monthly searches), butter (5 million), and pan (11 million, kill me now and put me out of my misery).

Let's try this again: The egg awoke and unfurled its pristine white skirts. What perfection. I grabbed my little point-and-shoot. I stared at my hasty photograph for minutes on end. I thought I saw my name surface from the depths of the yolk like answers on the Magic 8-ball.

And then I snapped out of it, fished my egg out of the water and ate it. It was good! By then of course it didn't look like the picture. The whites had the yolk in a straitjacket.

You know that Meryl Streep movie, Julie and Julia, in which Amy Adams plays the blogger who cooks one recipe a day from Julia Child's cookbook? She takes a bite of her poached egg and waxes poetic about the creaminess of it in her mouth. No, it did not make me want to rush out of the theater to poach an egg. I thought it was pretentious and annoying, the way wine spitters—oh, sorry, connoisseurs—go on about a wine's bouquet and nose, complex tones, hints, evocative notes and pungent whatnots.

Also, I vowed never to give in and blog about something popular but absurdly not interesting to me just to get the readership numbers up. I'm not saying Amy Adams' character did, because she truly was interested in cooking.

By now you've deduced I'm not writing about adventures in cooking at all right now. And you would be right.

Why, you ask, am I not interested in writing about food? Early trauma. In the early '90s I had to write marketing copy for a newspaper advertising supplement paid for by a family-owned chain of grocery stores. Even then I had zero interest in food writing. The marketing manager gave me a pep talk about the sensory richness this assignment needed, and off I went to interview the butcher.

We met with the client after all my articles were drafted. The one about the meat department caused a pained expression to cross the store owner's face. The butcher, who was present at the meeting, protested that I wrote in the wrong name for the knife he had used at our demo-interview. I said I couldn't have come up with that name on my own.

My marketing manager made like a horse and kicked me under the table. I remember thinking, "Oh, it's not just a saying. They really do kick you under the table here in the States." I went back to my desk and rewrote the meat article, my leg still smarting. And then my husband and I boycotted that store until it closed down several years later. The end.

Would I write about food if it meant keeping our house from foreclosing? Hell yeah! Am I hoping food editors notice my blog and consider hiring me? Gawd no. If I were a food editor I wouldn't hire me.

But will I ever poach an egg again? Yesssssss! Hurray for small daily victories.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I love/hate being American

Through the looking glass, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
Or how the famous homeless guy and the mannerless fanatics kept changing my mind

There ought to be a wall to walk through for those of us wearing two identities, neither of which fits well at all times. It's become a way of life for naturalized citizens like me to step nimbly from one side to the other as we choose our cultural and political allegiance. More than our culinary preferences, our accents, the frequency of our visits to the homeland, or any aspect of our appearance, the choices we make in these two areas move us along a spectrum of acculturation: Am I feeling more Filipino or more American today?

I remember the exact moment I realized I'd crossed over politically: I heard myself referring to American troops fighting in the Gulf as “our” men and women. I wasn't just parroting how the media called them. These were now indeed "my" people, in that sense, and my country for which they were putting their lives at risk. It took me six years from when the Boeing 747 landed at the San Francisco airport to reach this point. I wasn't sworn in as an American until the following year.

But that’s how it should be, because a ceremony doesn't make you anything. It declares after the fact, publicly and in a way that satisfies lawyers and record keepers, the shift that’s already happened. This applies to the ceremonies that couple or uncouple you, rubberstamp you as educated, accept you into a cult (!), club, church, or sisterhood, and send your vacated shell on the last leg of your eternal journey. By the time the formalities are performed, you are already bonded, torn apart, schooled, initiated or, well, kaput.

Of course, as any naturalized citizen will tell you, what your passport states as your nationality doesn’t shoehorn you into a trussed up box marked, “Do not open.” Pandora’s curious fingers often pry the lid off, and there are endless things to marvel at, things that make you roll your eyes and question if there ever will be enough years, enough experiences, to tip the scales toward your true, preferred identity.

Am I proud to be an American today? Watch:

The Phelps family featured in the video seems to have one discernible mission: Be loudly obnoxious. At military funerals. With signs proclaiming, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and anti-gay sentiments.

Coming as I do from a military family that has buried three of its members, I was infuriated. I was enraged. More to the point, I was incensed by the gaping loophole in the Constitution that has time and again been exploited as the apron to hide behind: freedom of speech.

In a just world, there is a trade that must be made to earn each privilege. Does that world exist only in fairytales? In the pre-Disney version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel allows Ursula to cut off her tongue in exchange for legs to walk among humans. Something for something. How else would you value a privilege?

The Phelps have done nothing to earn the privilege of freedom of speech. They kick the flag along the ground as part of their putrid choreography. Yet, the argument goes that no one can (legally) cut off their tongues.

Cue the roll of eyeballs. Only in America. Transplant this van of blasphemous hicks to the Philippines and they’d be cussed at, at the very least, and lynched, at worst. Bastos. Gago. Ulol. Have at ‘em.

Fortunately, for every rotten thing about America, there is, if you care to look, something redeeming. Like this:

We love redemption stories like this guy’s.

Astoundingly talented but dragged down by his addictions, Ted Williams was reduced to holding up a cardboard sign along an Ohio freeway. It said, “I have a god-given gift of voice. I am an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Please! Any help would be appreciated…”

His 90-year-old mother says now that she was shamed by it. Ted seems forgiving that she was skeptical of his dreams. He says he prayed she’d live long enough to see him rebound.

His sign reveals he never forgot the one thing he had going for him: his mellifluous voice. He would sound entrancing reading a phone book. That voice, broadcast by a Columbus Dispatch reporter on a video that went viral, brought an avalanche of endorsement offers and radio guest spots, and appearances on morning and late night TV. And now the world rallies behind him and wants him to succeed.

The caveat to all this hoopla is that the character in every rags-to-riches story needs to hit rock bottom before the public finds his restoration newsworthy and Hollywood finds it filmworthy. In this way, Ted’s story reminds me of the Will Smith film, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a biographical drama about Chris Gardner, a San Francisco homeless salesman turned successful broker. There is one scene that haunts me still. In it, Gardner sits with his son on the floor of a train station men’s room, weeping quietly as someone repeatedly jiggles the lock, then bangs on the other side of the door. They have nowhere else to sleep.

Only in American applies here as well. Only in America, without a caste system, can a person pull himself up by the bootstraps and come back from the abyss.

So am I proud to be an American today? Yes, and no. Ask me tomorrow.

It's "tomorrow." (Actually it's March 2, 2011) And the mannerless, heartless, uncouth protesters won.
Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals
"...the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate, ” according to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority.

I salute the lone dissenting voice.  Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.  wrote, " have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

6 reasons why my blog doesn't give advice

Phoenix post-departure, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
…and 3 reasons why it doesn’t go for the gimmicks

1) I am not Ann Landers.
Dear Scrollwork,
Please help me decide if I should break up with my boyfriend. He’s…
Just do it. Just freakin’ do it.

2) I am not a techie. I am not a social marketing guru.
What Wordpress theme would you recommend for my blog?
Do I look like a geek to you?

3) I am not there yet.
I have a dream. I’ve always wanted to…
Don’t quit your day job.

4) I am not a mommy blogger.
How do I get my kids to stop fighting? I can’t think straight with all their screaming and tattling.
Hand each a butter knife and tell them to make it quick, Real Housewives is on.

5) I am not a fashion forecaster. Or particularly tactful.
Will gladiator heels still be in this spring, or should I throw all of mine out and buy blah-blah-blah to go with blah-blah-blah? I’ve enclosed a picture.
I see you’re reading Cosmo. That’s a thick issue. The only things thicker are your hamhock thighs. Those jeans aren’t doing you a favor. Four-inch heels couldn’t save you. Pray that palazzo pants come back.

6) I am not a car mechanic.
My car makes a funny noise when I run the a/c and stereo at the same time.
Turn up your volume. That’s Engelbert Humperdinck trying to be heard above the din. “Please release me, let me go…”

7) I don’t want a lame blog.
Why don’t you hold giveaways? You could have tons of subscribers by now.
But they’d stop coming when I stop bribing. I only want one kind of subscriber: the kind who reads, mindfully. Plus the kind who comments, thoughtfully. OK, two kinds.

8) See #7.
Why aren’t you selling e-books? Everyone’s doing it. You ought to package your life coaching/blog marketing/weight loss secrets/fear conquering advice and sell it.
You lost me at “Everyone’s doing it.”

9) I didn’t sign up for the pissing contest.
What is your readership growth strategy? Maybe if you tried harder you’d have 8 million readers like that Filipina blogger who ranted about not being allowed to use the store landline to summon her chauffeur because she’d forgotten her cell in the van.
I’d kill my blog before my superiority complex gets too big for its britches.

There is no formula. There are only people who want to sell you theirs.