Friday, September 29, 2006

Sacha and U.S. Consul

When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I needed to take her to the U.S. Embassy to apply for a visa.

I brought with me all the documents that I was expected to show, if and when asked, to prove that we have ties to our country that would make us come back – land titles, business papers, bank statements etc. I had two briefcases of such documents.

When her name was called, we approached the counter. The interviewing consul very formally asked – “Your daughter’s name is Sandra Jean Chua?” I said yes. “Do you have her birth certificate?” So I looked in one briefcase and then another, frantically shuffling through the papers, but could not find it.

While I was in panic-mode, my daughter tiptoed and asked with a sweet smile on her face - “Why do you need my birth certificate? I’m proof that I was born.” The consul smiled at her, and asked, “Where do you want to go?” “Disney” was my daughter’s quick reply. “Well, then, have a nice trip” and stamped her visa application – “Approved.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Holy School

My eldest daughter was in prep and I was eager to attend my first PTA meeting at her school, St. Scholastica’s College, a Catholic school just a few blocks from where we live.

Before the meeting started, I sidled up to her teacher and asked in a whisper, not wanting to let other people in on my ignorance – “May I know who St. Scholastica was? You know, I went to a Catholic school myself and I thought I was familiar with names of saints, but I never heard of her.”

“Mama!” In a hushed and embarrassed tone, my daughter chastised me – “St. Scholastica was the twin sister of St. Benedict. She was a holy person. When she died, she became a school.”

Monday, September 25, 2006

Conversations with a Cobra

Kathy welcomed a group of 35 students under Ms. Judy Sibayan, her former thesis adviser who came on a field trip to visit our studio. Aside from showing them around, she regaled them with stories of how she not only survived Ms. Sibayan, but also actually learned how to be a better photographer because of her. (Incidentally, although she did not receive the highest possible grade, her thesis was adjudged best thesis of her batch’s).

Although Kathy’s assignment was to photograph endangered Philippine endemic animals, her thesis adviser wanted her to include the Philippine cobra, which is not an animal on this list. Kathy thought that Judy just wanted to see her dead.

To top it all, her adviser wanted her to use a film camera. It would have been easier to use a digital camera which would allow her to see right away if she got the pictures right.

Reluctantly and fearing for her life, she set up her photo session with the cobra. The Zoo did not have any anti-venom in the premises, and the nearest one was at the San Lazaro Hospital, just a few kilometers away but an agonizing three-hour ride in Manila’s horrendous traffic.

Judy wanted it photographed on a white background, with its wings flared – all poised to attack. With one eye looking through the viewfinder, and another eye watching out to see if her subject was aiming for her, and her hand shaking, Kathy tried to photograph the cobra. Because she was using film, she had no way of checking if her pictures would turn out alright and had to use up the entire roll of 36 exposures and hope that at least one would be sharp, properly exposed and with the cobra within the frame, and doing what was expected of him! It was a tall order for both the photographer and the cobra!

“Aren’t you done yet?” asked the cobra.

“Just one more, please,” pleaded the photographer.

“Okay, hurry up, I’m busy.”

The students laughed at Kathy’s funny way of storytelling, and Kathy continued with her narration.

She presented her photos to her thesis adviser, who thought that it might be better to use a black background. Unable to argue her way out, but convinced that her teacher was resolute in seeing her dead, Kathy cried all the way home but went back to the zoo to re-arrange for another shoot.

“You again? What do you mean, you have to re-shoot?” was the cobra’s reaction. Kathy pleaded with the cobra and explained that her adviser wanted a different background.

“Make it snappy. I get angry when I get too tired. Or impatient.” So Kathy rushed through another roll, careful not to displease her subject.

She then faced her thesis adviser, whom she feared as much as the cobra, and presented her with the second set of contact sheets. Briefly browsing through the new images, Judy chose the very first portrait of the cobra – on white background!

After narrating the story of how she survived her ordeal with her subject and with her thesis adviser, Kathy turned to the students and declared “Whatever does not kill you, will make you…” and she waited for all 35 of them, and Ms. Sibayan, to say in chorus, “…stronger.” “I would like to reassure you that you would live through Ms. Sibayan, as I have.” And with that, they applauded her. More than a talk on photography, it was probably what they needed most to hear.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Paper Curse

Sometimes I wish our roles were reversed. My husband John, as a photographer, goes from project to project with very little paperwork and if he had his way, would work without any. He does not care about Job Orders or Delivery Receipts, and does them only to comply, or perhaps just to avoid trouble with me.

But I am buried in paperwork, and many times feel that I am deprived of time to do great things (my excuse anyway) because of my responsibility to attend to the paperwork, whether in the office or at home, while John is free to pursue all his dreams.

My midlife crisis brought me tears and resentment towards my work and my role at home, which paralleled my responsibilities in the office. Why could I not be free of paperwork? Why must I manage and as a manager read reports – production reports, sales reports, financial reports, bank statements, collection summaries, accounts receivables and a thousand and one other reports? Why couldn’t I be the artist? The photographer? Why couldn’t I be the free spirit who can look at paperwork with disdain and declare without remorse – “I hate paperwork!”

They say to attain immortality, one needs to do any one or all of three things – plant a tree, give birth to a son or write a book. Unfortunately, at that time, not one way was available to me – not even planting a tree (our studio/home occupied our property from boundary to boundary, without an inch of ground for planting a tree). I had no talent or time to write a book, and the only writing I had time for was to prepare what I call my paper curse – office forms and reports as basis for managing office and household and for complying with government requirements.

In 1990 something, dying to break away from the daily office grind, I heeded the call of my soul to do art instead of accounting, and actually went to enroll in art classes at the College of Holy Spirit – a Catholic university for girls. My classmates were in their teens, and I was in my 40’s. They were curious about me – not only was I exempt from wearing the school uniform, but also my teachers seemed to favor me (I suppose it was because my teachers knew I was there because I wanted to, and not because I had to, like most of my young classmates). I arranged to have classes only once a week because I could not get away from the office as often as I wanted to.

But, as if fate was teasing or testing me, my most valued clients would insist on setting appointments on the Fridays that I was supposed to be in school. Reluctantly, I would miss classes to attend portfolio presentations, biddings, feasibility and/or preproduction meetings. And of course, get caught again in the paper work of preparing cost estimates and submitting quotations and project proposals.

I would have continued to resent my role at our company and wallowed in self-pity but I was fortunate enough to come across a book called “When Money Isn’t Enough.” The author listed the hierarchy of people at work. At the top of the list were people who truly enjoyed their jobs, and who would work even if they weren’t paid – sounds like John. Second to the top are those whose work afforded them what they enjoyed doing. I looked through the list, all the way to the bottom - those who hated their jobs and earned very little but could not leave because it was all they could do. I thought that I fitted the description of the second happiest – so maybe I was happy but just didn’t know it? My work earned for me enough money so I could enjoy all the things I loved – to travel, to splurge on books and stationary, to buy gifts for the family, and to occasionally have lunch or dinner with friends. For the first time since I turned 40, I stopped resenting my work. Me on second place? That’s not so bad, especially since I am living with the first placer.

Nowadays, while angst against my work is gone, my fight against paperwork is not over. I make a conscious effort to relax and not become too much of a control freak. I have to make sure I know when to stop working (five o’clock is when I put on my homebody hat, especially now that we have a home separate from the studio to go home to). I resist all temptation (and pressure) to do office work on weekends; I’ve learned to delegate work; I’m training somebody to eventually take my place (she loves designing and filling up forms!). Most importantly, I know that both the business and I would survive even while letting go of some office work.

Letting go. That’s what I need to find my freedom from the curse of paperwork.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Riding a Taxi Home

I do have my own accomplishment reports to do at the office, so this blog is for writing about my personal accomplishments. It is also to help me develop the discipline to write.

What I did and learned today may not be considered by others as accomplishments but I am writing primarily for myself, and I will declare what I consider personal victories or milestones, whether they are significant or not to others.

Riding a Taxi Home

At age 60, I still don't drive, so I am always at the mercy of those who do, whether they are family members (my husband John or my daughter Kathy) or the company driver who regularly drives for me. It’s not all that bad – I don’t have to be stressed by Manila’s notoriously undisciplined drivers, I can read or take a nap while stuck in traffic, I can enjoy the view when we are out in the country-side, I can make calls or sms without endangering myself or anybody else, I can eat and drink with a tray on my lap while the car moves, and best of all, I never have to worry about finding parking space. But, once in a while, when someone to drive for me is not available and I am in a place where public transportation is not dependable, I often feel helpless and I guarantee you, it is not a nice feeling.

Today, the driver was not available, as he had to drive for G-nie, our photographer, for a location shoot in Subic. I wanted to come home to Alabang and I was glad that Kathy also needed to be here. Unfortunately, she needed to have some prints made at the Alabang Town Center and to deliver the photos to her client right after. I didn't know whether I should wait for her or not. Since she didn't know either how long she would have to wait for the printing to be done – or for her client to meet her, I could be sitting in the car for a long time. Not an attractive prospect (especially since my computer did not have a battery – it was one of many that Apple recalled). Besides, the gardener, Soy, who comes once every two weeks, was waiting for transportation to get out of the village after a day’s work. It was 5:30pm and he needed to go home. I decided that I preferred to take my chances with public transportation.

In terms of accessibility, Ayala Alabang is the exact opposite of our other home on Bautista Street. All we need to do to get public transpo from our house and studio in Makati is to get out and stand in front of our gate or front door. There are buses, and taxis, not to mention those ubiquitous pedicabs, running there 24 hours a day.

On the other hand, I chose our house in Alabang precisely because it is away from the main street. It is quiet. Our curtains do not turn black with soot from exhaust of buses. All I hear is a symphony of the walis tingting of our maid sweeping away leaves on the street fronting our house, and of our neighbors’ maids doing the same.

But the price of living in a quiet neighborhood is the inconvenience of being dropped off at the town center, a good 4 kilometers from the house, without a clear idea of where to get the shuttle jeepneys that service the village. Our house is still 2 or 3 blocks from the nearest jeepney stop.

Leaving books and other packages in the car, I chose to just carry my computer. I was confident that I could find the jeepneys terminal. Security is tight and they strictly screen everyone coming in by public transportation so I looked into my wallet to make sure that I was carrying my village ID.

I walked through the car park and hesitated to approach the drivers who were waiting there. I was going to approach the person manning the teller’s booth to ask where the jeepneys terminal was located when I saw a vacant taxi on Madrigal Avenue, and decided it would be a better ride than a jeepney, which was nowhere in sight. I flagged it down, and asked if he would take me inside Ayala Alabang. “Of course, mam. That would be P150.00” “Isn’t that a bit high? I asked and planned to get off but I realized that taxis were scarce in the area – I have never seen a taxi even at the mall driveways- and my computer was getting to feel heavy in my arms.

Nevertheless, I needed to weigh my options so I asked him where the jeepney station was. He pointed to farther than where Kathy dropped me off, and I decided I didn’t want to walk that far. I had walked away from the jeepney station instead of towards it, and I didn’t want to take the chance of losing the only taxi that was available.

The taxi driver explained that the charge was high because he would not have any passengers on his way back. That made sense. Alabang residents, I suppose, have their cars, and the househelpers would not ride taxis. Besides, I remembered that the gardener could take the taxi on the way back, and that would make the fare fair.

I settled in and told the driver where to go. I queried the driver. Does he normally wait for passengers at that spot? Would he respond to a call, could he give me his cell phone number, would he fetch a passenger from inside the village, are there other taxis servicing the village, what hours does he drive his taxi, where else do they wait for passengers, does he know our street? Before we could reach the next block, I got all the information that I needed to get in and out of the village on my own – by taxi, plus a hint at where to find the jeepneys.

Soy and Jeanna, the maid, were in front of the house, looking partly surprised why I came in a taxi. I told Soy that the taxi would take him all the way to the jeepney terminal, that the fare had been paid, and that the security guard at the gate had been told that he would be riding in the taxi. I opened the front door and entered the house feeling proud of myself. I sms’ed Kathy that I was home, smiling to myself that I made it home in 5 minutes.

I found my way home using public transpo – well, sort of. I still have to learn how to ride the village jeepney, but I know I can do that. I am proud of what I learned today and more importantly, with Edgar’s cell phone number and all the information that I got from him, I can get in and out of Ayala Alabang in a taxi.

I don’t feel so helpless anymore about not knowing how to drive.