job

It’s a Sunday night and I’m sitting in front of a fully-protected doctor asking me my personal particulars before they assess if I should be screened for the new coronavirus or not. Only some parts of his skin are exposed, I cannot see his face. He positions his gloved hands on the keyboard and pauses to ask behind his face mask, “what do you work as?” I have been asked this question multiple times – in family reunions, on dates, while traveling, in parties (I don’t party), and what not – and it has been rarely fun trying to explain it. I resist saying I’m an instructional designer because the chances of him understanding what that means are far more dismal. It’s 10 pm and I want to get over the anxiety of not knowing whether I have become a harbinger of the virus or not – sounding smart won’t help. “I’m a medical writer”, I answer. “Oh, like insurance?” “No.” I explain using a mouthful of words, then catch myself by condensing it with an “it’s hard to explain”. I understood my grandfather and the generation he came from when he assumed that I wrote drug literature (which I don’t) for my day job, and I try to understand the fact that what I do is not a conventional job description that most people have the familiarity with to understand. The same way I tried to understand when someone I went on a date with had asked me, “the smart girl” as he had annoyingly labeled me, what my PhD was on and I said “tissue engineering”, and him getting surprised that toilet papers needed to be engineered. It’s not uncommon for me that people reduce medical writing to something more akin to medical transcription (which is not lowly work by the way). Though I have also repeatedly experienced people who replied with a more overestimated assumption of “oh, you’re a doctor!” To which I answer with not any more hope of them being closer to the real definition with a, “well yes I have a PhD, but no that’s not what a medical writer is”.
When I was still in academia, I thought explaining what I did was already difficult. It seems like that challenge haunts me until now. I’m actually not a traditional medical writer, although I do some things that a medical writer does – which is to write all sorts of materials on healthcare: slide decks, detail aids, newsletters, down to invitations, flyers, and what not. It’s like copywriting, but with a necessity for disease and therapy understanding. I still read scientific journal articles and clinical trial papers (something I thought I’d escape outside academia), but the fun part is getting to communicate this in a far more effective, clearer and prettier way. As an instructional designer, I specifically keep in mind learning theories and user experience whenever I write content – and that’s why more than writing, I’m also designing. The end goal is of course to deliver effective learning. Our clients are pharmaceutical companies, which probably explains why this job description is overlooked by many as we work behind these bigger names. Think more around e-learning modules, training toolkits, interactive pdfs, patient awareness materials and the like. We bridge the gap between scientists and different stakeholders like doctors, nurses, drug representatives and patients – the science doesn’t simply pull through without us.
In hindsight, it was much easier to say “I repair broken hearts” back when I was doing my PhD on cardiac tissue engineering. At least then I was providing an easy way out to the predictable come back of “oh, could you repair mine?” Unfortunately my answer then was always both a figurative and scientifically-backed “no”. Because you can never regenerate hearts to their previous functionality once you “break” them (ie post myocardial infarction).
Now if only I could figure out a way to explain my current job description just as coyly.

third

In keeping up with tradition, I am again dedicating a post to mark the beginning of this year and remember the year that had passed.

There are numerous things that come back to me as I remember last year.

I went somewhere late January to pursue adventure, and either of the two – love or closure. I never was able to determine which exactly was it. But by the end of that trip, I definitely secured the former, and as for the latter two, it felt for a good while that I got neither. There is difficulty in explaining it out of context, but if you can imagine an experience where you both fall in love with a person even more while simultaneously realizing how impossible that love is – that was what it felt like. I left that place in tears. I cried a full day, which conveniently equated to the entire journey back, if you don’t consider the fact that it meant I cried in the bus, in the airport, in the plane, and in the cab. The strange thing was that it mostly wasn’t for the failed love story, but for the profound confusion that it left me with.

I tried to write about it over the entire course of the year, to salvage the adventure I had there which was truly remarkable and worth writing about. I even tried to write about it now, but ended up deleting it. In any case, as a result of that experience, my positivity when that year began had to be set aside because I felt I had given away too much of myself. If I didn’t find those pieces again, at least I had to replace them. Only then would I have anything to give.

On one hand, this left me slightly callous, more cautious, less feeling, a little bit jaded – in a lot of ways too independent. On the other hand, my deliberate creation of space around me allowed me to rediscover and pay more attention to the relationships that mattered. I made time consciously for people I wanted to be with (including myself), and things I wanted to accomplish. There weren’t any big goals achieved last year, but there were numerous small goals that I wish to celebrate – rekindled friendships, strengthened relationships, newfound friends, new hobbies, new places, consistent exercising, a good year at work. In less abstract words, everyday phone calls to my dad, spending more time on relationships I had previously neglected, forging new friendships, getting into sports climbing, my first trip to Europe and the Middle East, traveling with good friends, sticking to a 7am swimming habit, working on both my strengths and weaknesses at work, and everything else in between. In truth I wasn’t able to do everything that I had set out to do when the year entered, nonetheless it was a year worth celebrating.

In spite of this, there are numerous shortcomings I became more aware of. My lack of long-term plans, how I’ve left my faith obscurely defined, shutting people out of my life as a defense mechanism, and being more self-centered rather than selfless. I am thankful that somehow despite all of this, I managed to overcome what I thought was the slow disappearance of my belief in love. I was in fact still able to love my friends, my family, other people. Imperfect love, but love nevertheless.

Yesterday, as I stood in the room of a person who I could call “lolo” (grandfather) yet truly wasn’t quite anyone to me – a distant relative, we’ve had limited past interactions perhaps less than a handful of smiles exchanged in this lifetime, I was gripped by the sight of him. He was my father’s distant uncle, his daughter requested for a visit in my dad’s capacity as a nephew and a doctor. He’s been confined in bed for 6 months, protein wasting is evident with his lack of muscles, missing dentures, and weakened strength. He was in good hands with his family, he had everything he needed. It was simply a consequence of old age. Yet the sight painfully reminded me of life wasting away, of my mother during her last few months, of the fact that my parents – our parents – are approaching the end of their lives as well. In a decade, maybe more, perhaps just a few months even. I thought I knew death better already after writing the book about grieving my mother, but it surprisingly still made me physically uneasy. I saw in his eyes the pure happiness from a simple visit. It made me realize that only company could console you in your dying days, yet perhaps it was also company that mattered the most in your living days. It made my first few days of the year spent in the company of my family feel more precious.

This year, I want to feel more again. To be softer, but still a little bit reckless in the spirit of adventure. To be more resolute, and to acknowledge my dependence. I want to buy those tickets to follow my heart, and those tickets to come back home. I want to continue the cycle of this life’s ups and downs – losing and rediscovering myself again and again.

I apologize to anyone I’ve hurt or offended. To relationships I’ve allowed to fade or fall apart, perhaps there’s a chance of reconnecting in the future, or perhaps just wishing you well is for the better. Most importantly, my wholehearted gratitude goes to the people who have filled my year with great memories, life lessons, opportunities of growth, and genuine affection. I will leave you all unnamed, but know that every small thing matters to me.

In turn, I hope you’ll also be able to recognize and appreciate the small things that I will try to do for you.

photo6086809394441464037Negros Oriental, Philippines

 

 

Lolo

Nanay, I believe, was always the one who kept my Ama, aunts and uncles together. She was the string that held the family.

But in my generation, I believe that was Lolo. Nanay was gone too early for many of us while all of us up to this point grew up with Lolo. Lolo is an institution in all of me and my cousin’s memories. In recent years he had been the king of long-drawn multiplication games and grand plans of taking over Philippine television with his Multiplying Bee quiz show. Before that, he was the person with never-ending stories about his Access to Science project that was always hard to escape. And ever since, he had always been that person who lived and slept among his piles of newspaper clippings, research and writings. But all that aside, Lolo was our ever-present graduation guest, if lucky also our birthday and weekend guest. For some, he was their math tutor while for others, he was their inspiration for pursuing science and teaching. I will always see Lolo as the embodiment of lifelong learning. And lifelong living, because I’ve rarely seen Lolo without a smile in his face and a skip in his gait – even when he was already using a walker, there was always spark in him. I will remember Lolo as the previous generation’s father – unconditionally loved by our parents even if scolded for his money-making schemes when he was much older. Our childhood have all been filled with stories about him. I will remember Lolo as my number 1 fan – I never really appreciated enough how he proclaimed my achievements at every single opportunity without fail, even when everybody already knew. Although I never did practice being a chemical engineer nor a scientist for too long and recently he had told me he was not proud of me for becoming a medical writer after getting a doctorate – I know it’s only because Lolo’s dreams for all of us have always been big and he has always inspired and motivated us to strive for the better. I remember Lolo for his tireless passion to teach – he will always be a teacher to many. And knowing him, I am sure he was quite the professor.

I remember Lolo for pulling me aside one day to tell me to take care of my Ama when my mother passed away. I remember Lolo for visiting my other grandfather and bringing back his smile while he was already bed-ridden through his signature humor and favorite Cobra drink – agreeing to travel all the way to Paranaque and back to Makati just to cheer another old man up. I’m happy knowing they’re now laughing again together. And he was like that to literally anyone who would listen, never hesitating to share his thoughts and positivity. I also remember Lolo for all his promises and grandiose claims – although mostly unfulfilled, he showed us what life was for – and that was for hoping, doing and living.

I’m sure you’ll be the life of the afterlife party – you will be missed and remembered for long. A man larger than life, raised a family of ten (or most probably bigger), held 3 jobs at one point, and never stopped dreaming and doing. Though you may not have achieved all of your big plans of blessing us with Porsches and millions, rest assured that you have definitely left your seed in all of us. We are all proud to be your descendants carrying your name.

And if any of us have any regrets for things left undone and unsaid after a life lost after almost a century, may we make up for them with our dearest who are still living.

 

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failure

This is what it looks like.

I sat comfortably at Soup Kitchen downing the last few spoons of my Tangy Tomato and Basil. It was at a busy mall basement and the after-office crowd crawled all over the place. As I stared ahead into nothing in particular, a man caught my eye. A frail, old man who tightly clutched a worn-out shoulder bag. He looked agitated – disturbed in fact. He constantly looked left and right with a purpose I couldn’t quite discern. I wondered if he was trying to ask for money, but he never did make any suggestive gesture to anyone. I followed him with my eyes, trying hard not to blink lest I miss an act of begging. He shifted his position to a few meters away every now and then, and soon enough he had walked to somewhere out of my view. I finished up my plate and took out from my wallet all the cash that I had left to place it somewhere I could easily reach. As I walked towards the direction he went, I observed that he continued to do the same. I wanted to ask him if he had a problem, but I was scared he might not understand English. I lingered around somewhere near, casually observing and just waiting for the tiniest sign that he was there to ask for help – still he never gave one. Something told me he needed it, but I needed a sign that he welcomed that help. I felt frustrated at why he didn’t make it easier – people usually held signs if they wanted to ask for money. But then again I thought to myself, I don’t always give those people money. It seemed futile so I walked away to buy something that I had intended to buy after eating. The thought of him didn’t leave me, so I tried to look for the old man again after my purchase. After searching a few places, I found him. It was strange to keep walking around so I decided to stand a few meters away from him. I watched him as he stood near some kids with their mom. He smiled at the children and I wished that perhaps the mother would give him something so that I could follow suit. But after they bought what they were in line for, they simply walked away. I stood there paralyzed by my irrational fears. I was afraid to insult him if he didn’t need money. I was afraid he might be crazy and make a scene if I handed him the money. I was afraid I’d be embarrassed if he didn’t take the money. After a few minutes, he started walking towards me. That was my chance – I looked at him, ready to fish out the cash and hand it quickly. As he walked towards me from the crowd, we held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. But he ended up simply walking past me. I gave up after a few more minutes of hanging around and walked away. But a sense of failure haunted me as I retreated from the situation with my newly purchased hundred dollar eyeshadow palette, my thousand dollar phone, and what not. It wasn’t the same feeling as failing an exam. It wasn’t the same feeling of making a mistake at work. It wasn’t the same feeling as offending someone. It was the feeling of failing as a human.

And I’m not writing it to get any kind of sympathy which I clearly don’t deserve. I’m writing it because it’s one of those failures which are better not learned through experience. May this serve as a cautionary tale of what this kind of failure looks like.

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Vergelle sent me a song today, supposedly for someone you used to love. I’d usually, admittedly, have someone in mind when I listen to sad love songs. My placeholders can either be brought about by nostalgia, recent experiences or lingering feelings. I always wonder if it’s a coping mechanism or some form of masochism. But my running playlist is in fact a perfect reflection of my emotional transitions. As I listened to the song she sent, I had the sudden realization that I in fact thought of no one. I felt nothing, not empty. And right at that moment of discovering that I had again reached this elusive state of neutrality, I honestly felt pleased. It does check out, my playlist has been mostly wordless as of late. As I look back to how I dealt with this last one, I also realized that I didn’t use writing to deal with my emotions. I have a lot of unfinished drafts that I could have published, but for some reason they never reached completion. Definitely a first, because writing has always been what I use to process difficult feelings. Ironically, it was what he told me to do that I used to cope.

When in this state, there’s only two possibilities. It’s either to stay, or go for a new ride. Let’s see how it goes. But for now, I’m celebrating this full recovery.

(Although it does disturb me that I seem to be getting good at this.)

For Kat

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I bought this book before a flight last January. It stood there among the bestsellers and the accolades on the cover spoke of it well. It looked like one of those books you should be able to finish within a day if you kept at it. When I started reading it however, it was not as engaging as I initially thought. I would read a few pages at night and just feel the drag of the story’s slow plot. I’d put it down, only to pick it up a week later – sometimes even longer. At times I thought it was because I had just finished an epic novel of a man who lived life on the edge. This novel, on the other hand, was about a grumpy old man who wanted to stick to a strict routine of a life. It felt like a bad choice after Shantaram. By the end of the year’s first quarter, I was still halfway and tempted to leave it unfinished. I had already finished two other novels in between. But I don’t like leaving things undone.

As I ploughed slowly into Ove’s life – the story unraveled that he was a widower. I thought to myself that at least it was another reason to finish this book – to maybe understand something that my father is going through and to be able to give this to him after I finish it. I love giving books as gifts. While a handwritten letter from me is the penultimate way I say that my gesture is deliberate, giving a book I’ve personally read and loved is the ultimate. Because when an author writes a life lesson beautifully, there is no better way to share it but to give it whole. And lessons are best given indirectly for someone to discover themselves. A book is perhaps a step less from an actual experience, but it still requires patience and an open mind. There are of course people who are not fond of reading at all – and in those cases I’d always have a headache figuring out what to buy.

The power of a book is almost completely passive. If you choose not to pick it up and read it, it can lie in its pages undiscovered for ages. That was what I realized yet again as I closed in to this book’s ending. While I never laughed to it out loud, it had brought me to tears on several occasions. The fact that it has made me write is a stronger testament to how much it proved itself worth the time. But I will not elaborate on Ove’s story for the same reason I give books as gifts.

Now why are there two copies of this book in this photo? -Just one of those serendipitous things about me and Kat – reading the same book at the same time by chance. And because between the two of us, nothing much is left to chance (we can be serial planners like that), it wasn’t by chance that we decided to finally finish this book together on this trip. Like me, she struggled through the slow pace of the story (which speaks volumes about our personalities haha). But for all the plans we’ve made and executed together, it’s the unplanned chances we got on this friendship that I’m most thankful for. Because it would have been a shame to have left things undone.

walk home

I moved into my new place the first weekend into my current job. It hasn’t been that long ago – roughly 9 months. I chose this particular location because it was near the office, and practically at the center of everything. It was a tad more expensive than I would have liked, but I paid for the cost of proximity and convenience. My current landlord is beyond nice, my previous crazy landlady pales so much in comparison. There’s a narrow but good enough lap pool and it allowed me to let go of my gym membership in favor of swimming. I was getting bored of doing weights in the gym anyway. My room is just as big as I need – spacious enough for my things and storage, and small enough not to feel desolate. Another important but not so important point was that it’s near the haven for Indian food in Singapore.

Ever since I moved, I’ve been walking home from the office. The walk takes half an hour. I get off usually a little before the sun sets on good days and I walk through just enough crowd to remind me that I live in a city, but still providing enough breathing space for me to get lost in my thoughts. Although I prefer taking the train in the mornings to avoid breaking into a sweat, I hate taking it back home. It’s cold, it’s cramped, and the physical enclosure somehow makes me feel constricted. When I walk home, the streets have no end and the breeze touches my skin. It’s the only duration in my weekdays that I truly feel free. In addition, not everyone I encounter is in a rush. My favorite sight is a group of elderly men who sit in front of an old shopping mall. They take it upon themselves to feed the pigeons with bread every late afternoon. I’ve been wanting to take their photo for some time now but at the same time I don’t want to intrude in their little ritual. It might be to them what my walk home was to me. I always miss them when I get off late – I wonder if their freedom stops then.

This isn’t supposed to be my next post since the last. It should have been my trip to India more than a month ago. But I had such a cathartic experience there that I couldn’t even write about the entire trip. It’s quite uncharacteristic of me, when in fact the entire trip was incredible. I used to be able to have the urge to write the most when I was sad. This time around, I was so confused and distraught at the mixture of emotions that I couldn’t even bring myself to write. Writing would force me to relive the moment at a whole different intensity compared to just reliving it in my head. So in writing this entry today, I know I’m one step closer to healing again. I look forward to writing about that trip soon. As an abbreviation of Murakami’s wise words go, “time…what time can’t…, you…”

P1160057Meesapulimala, Munnar, Kerala, India