Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

margaux-bergen-book-signing

When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

Odds and ends: Previous jobs not written on my current CV

Untitled designModesty aside, I usually wow people when I mention that I have worked for this brand-name organization or studied in that university at home and abroad. Whether I’m really making good use of my education is still up for debate. It makes me feel uneasy and look for ways to respond appropriately. Though most of the time, I only manage an aw-shucks smile, because, truth be told, these people I meet outside of work seem to be doing far more interesting things, like running a tech startup or directing an art gallery.

My CV shows a well-manicured collection of job titles, development acronyms and bureaucratic jargons which, ironically, and I’m afraid, so far-removed from the people we’re trying to serve. But beneath the collection of development-esque and poverty-see language are small gigs and odd jobs I have done to earn an extra peso/euro or two. A few have fell through the cracks of my work history on purpose, scrubbed off my resume and replaced by more impressive job titles accompanied by arcane descriptions, while others will never see the light of day, or in this case, a line of space. Here they are in chronological order:

Telemarketer. For a few days one university summer break, three of my high school buddies and I worked the phones in a small corner office of a pharmaceutical company in Makati. We got the gig through one my friend’s sister-in-law who worked in the same company. We rang up drugstores to update a database containing their contact information. This was in early 2000 before the BPO boom. It was my first taste of the working life, daily commute and all. We were thrilled to have found a ‘summer job’, which were scarce back in the days. We also felt rich with our daily wage of PhP500 (About $10 back in 2001). It’s the one and only job in a private company that I’ve held down so far.

House cleaner. Once tapped into the Filipino expat community in Freiburg, I met many a Filipinas who seem to be mostly working as cleaners. Over merienda one time, one of them (I can’t recall her name now) asked me if I’m interested in a cleaning job at her parent-in-laws’ house. I said yes. We agreed to meet there the next Friday, where she showed and helped me clean the house. And for a few months every Friday at 10 in the morning, I went to the elderly couple’s house just outside the city center to vacuum the floor and carpets, wave a feather-duster on the antique furnitures, and pick-up old, stale bread from the kitchen counter and wipe it clean of crumbs. Yes, the cleaning included scrubbing the toilets. For two hours of work once a week I pocketed 20 Euros (this was above ‘industry’ rates, where the going rate is between five to seven Euros), half of which was spent right away that evening on Weisswurst and a glass of Railer or two.

Restaurant cleaner. Waiting tables is a popular student job in Freiburg, but I never got to do one. One summer, the same lady who offered me the house-cleaning job asked if I was interested to clean in the Thai restaurant where she waited tables. For 7 Euros an hour for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday, I wiped chairs and tables, swept and mopped the floor, and cleaned the toilets before the restaurant opened its doors. I only remember doing it for a couple of weeks, and just stopped getting a call back one day. Looking back, I realize I was laid-off from my job for the very first time, and I hope it will also be the last.

Research assistant. Over wine during one gathering hosted by graduate program, I chatted with the head of the head of the sustainability unit of my university. I told him of my own background on sustainability, and a few days later, got an email from him offering me a research assistant post in his department. The work paid about 11 Euros an hour. I held down the job for about a semester, until I had to write my Master’s thesis.

University blogger. Perhaps inspired by my blog and the emerging new media opportunities at that time, our program coordinator asked me if I wanted to write for a blog led by the university admin, with the aim of promoting my program and the university. I didn’t think twice, of course, and was soon employed part-time as a student assistant. Unfortunately, I can no longer find links of what I wrote.

Editor. Probably the most one I enjoyed doing, I edited thesis manuscripts for ten Euros per hour. Friends and classmates who hired my service got a discount, of course.

Have these jobs helped me in building my career or personal growth? But if you ask me if my apartment any cleaner, the answer is no. Am I a better data collector? Maybe. I mostly worked to earn extra or because I was very interested in writing. On those times I got lucky they were both. I can only think of two take-aways from these experiences. First, friends and acquaintances can open up job opportunities, however odd they are. Second, after working as a cleaner, I am now repulsed by lemon-scented cleaning agents. What about you? What odd jobs have you done, or are you currently doing?

Happy 9th birthday, Freetaste Blog!

Who would have known, this blog will still be up nine years on.Make that six if I were to count my blogging hiatus for almost three years when I started working.

My first intention in starting the blog was, as a writer, to keep the writing going. Also, blogging was instant publishing, not having to wait for the editorial nod. What prevents me from my writing and publishing is a click of a button. I am not a full-fledged writer. Instead, I’ve gone on to work in economics and environment, do grad studies in environmental governance in Germany. Now I work in the US still in the field of environment- and guess what- as a blogger. I have a more respectable title as ‘Moderator’. I work on climate change and development. It is interspersed with online communications and social media, the beginnings of which can perhaps be traced to the blogging format.

Once, back in Freiburg, I met up with an IT guy in a pub, whom I first met in Cologne. We first got in touch via Twitter a few weeks back, when I saw his tweet as he was giving away free tickets to Photokina. I gladly grabbed one of the tickets. Over some drinks, we chatted about the internet and how it has revolutionized the way we communicate, and pretty much the world. He asked me when I started blogging. “Maybe around 2003”, I said. “Oh so you are an early adopter!”, he exclaimed. I was bashful about it, and more so after he brought up the number of daily visitors in our blogs.

I still don’t get an astronomical number of visits. As this blog has become a way to meet interesting people online and offline, and a couple have even found jobs and become my co-workers, I think this blog doing pretty well.

Attending a writing workshop with Pulitzer winners

The day was filled with a collection of literary powerhouse. Out of the seven writers, four are winners of the Pulitzer. One of them, Gene Weingarten, has two. While they eke out their living by writing, it was not true for that one day. This time they had to talk the walk.

I booked my seat for the writing workshop at the last minute. The day before the event, I was still exchanging emails with the organizing team at Poynter Institute; I won’t be surprised if I’ve been the last to register. The lady behind the registration table looked up my name, and found it at the bottom of a separate, hand-written list. While she distributed most participants’ name tags that were computer-printed, I had to write mine on a white sticker.

I read the advertisement from my friend’s copy of the Washington Post two weeks before the workshop. Together with Poynter Institute and Georgetown University, the Washington Post co-organized the event. It was, after all, a gathering of their plum writers. My first reaction was to sign-up right away. To anyone who loves the written word, who would pass the chance to meet and greet America’s best writers? When I read the ad further and saw the $200 registration fee, my heart sunk. That’s a lot of money to fork in in a single day. With that money, I could dine in a fine restaurant or travel to New York and back by bus- for four times. Or maybe buy something I could keep like a book about writing.

This must be the nudge that I’ve been waiting for to kick me into writing gear, expensive as it may seem. Still I was begging a tough question: will attending a writing workshop full of Pulitzer Prize winners make me one?

To improve one’s writing, one must write. By write I mean to do the act of writing. And I can come up with a hundred and one excuses not to do so. There is the tried and tested “I have no time.” I also need to watch ‘The Office’ in the evenings (that’s one off the list- I just cancelled my Netflix subscription). Otherwise, I am busy working after work.

A writing workshop is just that, a workshop. Typically it involves subjecting fledgling writers and their work to accomplished writers’ ruthless scrutiny. But no work was shredded into pieces, no tear was shed. Inside the Georgetown University auditorium, the Post writers were the speakers and we, the wannabe writers, the audience. It was part-lecture, part-talk show, mostly entertainment. Anne Hull used a powerpoint presentation as she talked behind the podium. It could have been a concert, too. Roy Peter Clark entertained the crowd with his keyboard and songs to introduce the next speaker. Later, he interviewed the humorist Gene Weingarten as if in a comedy talk show. Two seats away from me, a mature lady giggled like a little girl. Maybe that was what we were looking for, some fun in the company of writers.

The auditorium was full, and I was one of the many who want to improve their writing. Maybe there was a smattering of journalists here and there, but mostly they were writing enthusiasts, like me.  Over lunch, I shared a table with two elderly men, both lawyers.  One guy from New York wanted to write a family biography of some sort. What brought us together in that gloomy and cold Saturday? I shared that I’ve realized that every time I work, my real job saps my creativity. The other guy agree. You see, I write for myself and not professionally (ok, in a way, yes, if writing email updates IS writing). For some of us, the workshop functioned like a support group for people suffering a terrible case of writer’s block, or those needing a dosage of creativity.

Maybe, just maybe, attending a workshop can make a difference. As if watching and listening to the writers’ advice and antics would allow us to absorb their talent by simple osmosis. No amount of workshop can make a good writer for these gatherings only provide tools. At most, it offered instruction as much as inspiration.

The workshop’s title is encouraging, even admonishing. It speaks well to us participants: “Write your heart out, Washington!” And write our hearts out, we will.

Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

This year’s Blog Action Day tackles climate change.  What am I doing then, other than contributing to it?  It is a coincidence that I am again doing an internship at this time of the year when the Blog Action Day is held.  I was under the same circumstances last year, with a topic on poverty.

Now I am a Climate/Energy intern at the World Future Council (WFC).  The WFC  is a foundation-cum-think-tank that basically wants to save the world for future generations, so in that sense I think I fit in the organization. Through this six-month internship I am doing my little part, if not solving the problems that go with climate change, then at least understanding the phenomenon.  My main goals for undertaking this internship is to learn more about renewable energy politics, and meet people dealing with the topic.   I am one month into my internship.  So far I have been fulfilling my expectations.  We recently finished the annual general meeting and Future Policy Award the other week.  I rubbed elbows with a couple of former parliamentarians and top UN officials, a Maori community leader, and a nuclear physicist-philosopher were just some of  characters I got to know.

During the Future Policy Award which acknowledged exemplary policies on urban agriculture, I met high-profile denizens of Hamburg.  What have all these got to do with climate change?  Studies suggest that agriculture will be one of the hardly-hit sectors of climate change.  As temperature increases, long episodes of drought will be inevitable.  These people support and contribute, in one way or another, to the cause of WFC.

Who knows if this single blog post will actually make a positive difference?  No one, to be honest.  Maybe it won’t.  But there are at least 7000 other bloggers who are raising awareness on climate change.  That is equivalent to roughly more than 11 million of potential readers.  Are they affecting climate change?  Maybe,  by further raising awareness and elevating the issue to the political agenda.  At least one reader whose actions would change and take precaution is enough.  And it could be you.

Shooting an event for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

The Historisches Kaufhaus.  On the background is the Münster.
The Historisches Kaufhaus. On the background is the Münster.

Next to the towering Münster in the Münsterplatz, the Historisches Kaufhaus is probably the next building to stand out. Who can miss the deep red structure and its pillars that form into archs? This color extends all the way to the yard beyond the view of prying tourist eyes. I’ve been inside the building once, a few weeks after I arrived here in Freiburg in fact. There we were whisked to the opening ceremony of our German language course- the programme consisted of speeches and musical performances. One that I can remember was an alternating recital of funny Badisch poems (No, I didn’t understand it, but some of the audience were laughing) and music. Later we helped ourself savor glasses of Badisch red and white wine. The place is apparently the unofficial welcoming venue for visitors of Freiburg, akin to the function of the Altes Rathaus in Bonn.

Again I had the privilege to get inside the buildinga couple of Fridays ago- not to be welcomed from my holiday in Berlin- but to take photos of the renewable energy forum organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). My classmate, Peter, who’s a scholar of FES, tipped me of this photography gig. I said yes to this opportunity to hone my photography skills.

What kept me preoccupied was botching the batch of photos after taking hundreds of them. You see, this is not just any random forum in Freiburg. The powerhouse speakers included the State Secretary of Bade-Wuerttemberg for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety and bigwigs of Fraunhofer Institut for Solar Energy System, Badenova, among others. The discussion was moderated by the former mayor of Freiburg.

I browsed through the internet for endless hours about events and flash photography. Should I use bounce, diffuse, or direct flash? I imagined the walls and ceiling of the room was red as well, just like the color of its exterior shell. I already assumed it has a high ceiling because it is typical for old buildings in Germany. Bounce flash won’t work there, I learned from not just one photography website. Regie told me to be wary of the colors in the room should I use bounce flash, as this might add a cast on the photo if the ceiling is other than white. So I sneaked in the venue an hour before the event started to survey my working area. It was the only way I could prepare. My memory card wasn’t even empty and my camera battery indicated three quarters of charged.

I let out a sigh of relief after reaching the venue. I was right in assuming it had a high ceiling, but at least it was white. After meeting the organizers and taking test shots of Peter, I was ready to ‘bounce-flash’ and shoot away. I felt privileged to walk around, stand, and stay where I pleased as the official photographer, while the event rolled by. I probably took 300 photos, and in the end sent a hundred of them.

One press officer approached me during the event, asking for a couple of photos of his boss. I told her I still have to ask my own boss for that job, FES. She got in touch with them the next working day, Monday. I sent her a first batch of photos, a second, and a third. She was looking for a solo pic where her boss didn’t look skeptic. I resorted to cropping one of only two photos where he was smiling. In his other photos, indeed, he seemed to be pondering on what the others were saying. I didn’t get the chance to pay attention to the discussion in German (yes, it still requires effort!) as I was busy zooming in and out, composing shots, and shooting the event. Did the discussions ruffle the feathers of skeptic boss? I’m not sure.

What I can only speak of are my learning for that night. As I reviewed my photos, my bias for street photography showed. I saw that most of the shots I tried to capture and obviously liked are the candid ones- arms and hands of the speaker extending as he emphasizes his point, the faces of the panel simultaneously smiling during a light-hearted moment, and probably that skeptic look. I needed to be conscious to take the perfunctory shots: the portraits, the audience, and the group hug after the forum. They say that when a writer is asked what his writing forte is, he shouldn’t answer the question. A good writer should be versatile to take on all writing assignments. Does the same answer apply in photography?

100 Kwentong Peyups (100 stories of UP)

The Philippine Daily Inquirer published today an article I wrote (Section C, page 5). It is one of a hundred stories the University of the Philippines (UP), my alma mater, publishes in major dailies in celebration of its centenary this year. I recounted the roller coaster ride I took to get a slot in the university, and eventually a UP education, arguably the best education one can get in my homeland.

Unfortunately it is not available online and you have to buy the paper to read it!

Updated: click the photo above to read the article. I especially like the artwork!

(newspaper and photo courtesy of my mother and brother. Salamat!)