The tradition of becoming a grown-up

I’m writing this on the eve of my 38th birthday, which is a good time, I suppose, to be thinking about becoming a grown-up.

When I was little, growing up was – at least in my mind – an actual, geographical place. When I noticed my parents dressing up to go out, I’d ask where they were going, hoping that I’d be taken along. Sometimes I would be. But other times, the answer was, “We’re going to pagtanda,” a Tagalog word which means maturity, old age. To me personally, it translated to a place for grown-ups, somewhere you can go when you are older.

Growing up, for me, happened in stages. There were certain things I had to wait until I was a certain age to do: wear nail polish, make-up, high heels; carry a real leather handbag; go to mixed parties; have a later curfew. I look around now and see toddlers with painted finger and toe nails, and ten-year-olds wearing make-up, and I think – sadly – that growing up seems to have become a lost tradition. There are too many young girls and boys today who are much too old for their years…perhaps through no fault of their own. What child doesn’t long to grow up? But every child needs to be told, “Not yet.” It’s not cruel, but a good and wise thing to be made to wait.

So at 38, am I finally grown-up? Truth be told, I never thought I’d make it this far. Not that I thought I’d die young, but when you are a teenager, your thirties – somewhere far off in the misty future – seem to be the pinnacle of ripe old age. I’m looking now at a photo of myself and my friends taken at my 18th birthday, and I’m smiling at how dressed-up we were and how grown-up we felt – and how little we really knew.

Well, we’ve all had our growing pains — and now we’re starting to reap the rewards that come after much struggle. Growing up is indeed a privilege that’s earned.

18 was a good year, but 18 + 20 is even better.

The tradition of sincerity, straightforwardness, and substance

Christy Wampole, an assistant professor at Princeton, wrote this piece on the dangers of today’s ethos of irony, about which my mom and I just had a lively discussion over Sunday breakfast. Irony, we concluded, does have its uses as an artistic or literary device, but when wielded in daily life, it can only do damage.

“The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism,” Ms. Wampole writes. “The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise…This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche.”

To counter-act this trend, she suggests, for a start, “saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values.”

Her words strike a deep chord. My dad always told us, “Let your yes be a yes, and your no be a no,” which meant that we needed to stand by our decisions, and that promises, once made, were expected to be kept.

My mom also had strong views on sincerity. She took every opportunity to make it clear that the worst thing you could do to her was tell her a lie. For me, this meant owning up when I dropped the handset of our new-fangled cordless phone and broke it, and when I mistakenly plugged the TV into a high-voltage socket and blew the TV up. It also meant being honest about where I was going, with whom, and what we would be doing there. Because in the end, her anger at our wrongdoing was nothing compared to her wrath when she found out that we had lied about it.

Looking back, I realize something else: we all got our share of tongue-lashings from our parents, but one thing they never inflicted on us was sarcasm. Although we siblings love verbal sparring and could have a field day being sarcastic towards each other, it’s rarely our weapon of choice—I suppose because we instinctively know that it’s rude, hurtful, and demeaning.

Both teachers, my parents frowned on vacuity and vapidity. Although my dad was a very funny guy and liked to hear his kids laughing, as soon as he sensed we were getting too hysterically silly, he’d say, “Ok, that’s enough now. Don’t be frivolous.” When I reached high school and got sucked into the breathless, sickly sweet world of teen romance novels, both Mom and Pops were understandably dismayed. To their credit, they never took a book out of my hands, but they did their best to steer me towards real literature. And in my defense, I did read The Lord of the RingsLittle Women, and Wuthering Heights with more lasting enjoyment than I did the annals of Sweet Valley High.

My parents never let us simply scratch the surface of an experience. Whenever we watched a movie, went on a trip, or tried something new, they asked us questions. What had we seen, heard, tasted? More important, what did we think? Did we like it or hate it, and why? Often my dad asked us to write essays about our experiences, especially at the end of a trip. I’m not going to lie (haha)—more often than not, we rolled our eyes at these interrogations and academic exercises, feeling they sucked the fun out of everything. But now, as an adult, surprise surprise—I ask myself those very same questions. In fact I fill journals and craft blog posts with the answers, and I’m trying to make a living out of writing about experience.

I think this is one of those cases where it’s permissible to appreciate the irony. As with so many life lessons, I’m appreciating only now the greater significance of  what I thought were just annoying and incovenient parental idiosyncrasies. They were trying to raise us to become sincere, straightforward men and women of substance.

Thanks to their efforts, and those of other like-minded parents, perhaps some of us will turn out better equipped to rise to the challenge of being counter-cultural in this age of irony.

Let’s talk tradition

Newly arrrived in Montreal, I went out one fine late-summer morning for breakfast with my sister. On our way back up St Catherine to the metro, we passed a second-hand bookstore. Of course, we had to go in and check it out. It was small but well-stocked, and in their bargain section (4 books for $15) we found some treasures: Longitude by Dava Sobel; The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik (which we promptly sent to my nephew and which he was thrilled to receive and couldn’t put down); the wickedly funny Hotel Bemelmans (stories for grown-ups, written by the author of the Madeline books); and a little book called The Seventeen Traditions by Ralph Nader (with the added bonus of the author’s signature on the title page).

When I finished reading The Seventeen Traditions, I couldn’t help thinking how much my dad would have enjoyed it—and how much I would have enjoyed discussing it with him. Mr. Nader’s stories of his childhood and of his family’s traditions resonated deeply, calling to mind my own upbringing and my own recognition, as an adult, of how important it is for each family to form a sort of “culture of the home”—based on solid principles, bolstered by mutual self-giving and sacrifice, and nourished with lots of laughter and good food. I can’t imagine a richer legacy for parents to leave their children.

The book got me thinking about my own family’s traditions. Many of them are similar to the Naders’, and some of them are all our own.

I’ve been thinking, too, that soon it will be my nephew’s and my dad’s shared birthday, and two days after that, it’ll be a year since my dad died. And it’ll be Christmas soon. All in all, a good time to be dusting off and polishing up those good old traditions and sharing them with others.

So after mulling it over for a few days, I’ve come up with seventeen traditions of my own. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The tradition of meals together
  2. The tradition of order
  3. The tradition of reading
  4. The tradition of learning
  5. The tradition of letter-writing
  6. The tradition of prayer
  7. The tradition of travel
  8. The tradition of good humor
  9. The tradition of quality
  10. The tradition of forgiveness
  11. The tradition of moderation
  12. The tradition of excellence
  13. The tradition of hospitality
  14. The tradition of rising to the occasion
  15. The tradition of sincerity
  16. The tradition of conversation
  17. The tradition of becoming a grown-up

I’ll be elaborating on each one, likewise in no particular order, starting with: The tradition of sincerity.

The best thing about being my age

Last weekend I read a newspaper story about how one woman, growing dissatisfied with her book club for its lack of meaningful conversation, gave it up and formed, instead, a bookless club: quite simply, a round-table dinner discussion, with intelligent and interesting people, answering pre-formed questions designed to provoke thought, spark dialogue, encourage the sharing of ideas, and generally enrich the lives of all involved.

This woman, fired up with the success of  her bookless club’s first meeting, generously shared their next list of  questions with readers.

When did you really and truly feel like a grown-up for the first time?

What was the nicest thing a stranger ever did for you?

Do you still, sometimes, drink milk from the carton?

What’s the best thing about being the age you are right now?

I was instantly intrigued but lacked the time to form any immediate answers. It’s been a mad few weeks. I simultaneously finished an intense, year-long diploma program, packed up my belongings to move to another province, and said goodbye to family, friends, and the city I’ve called home for twenty years. But all the while, in the back of my mind, I’ve been turning these questions over and over against each other, like Chinese soothing stones, achieving the same calming effect on my often-shattered nerves.

And now, with nothing to do but simply sit back and fly, I can finally answer them.

I’ll start with the last one.

What’s the best thing about being the age you are right now?

I finished re-reading The Good Earth recently, and there’s a great line about one of the characters who managed to achieve a graceful middle-age: “Youth and age were equally far from her.” It never struck me with the same force as it did now.

In this era of extended longevity, it seems to me that age is become more and more a relative concept. My recently widowed mother is told by everyone, “But you are still young!” She’s in her mid-fifties. So, both comparatively and chronologically, I am younger still. And yet I am no longer a spring chicken. Babies I diapered, my younger siblings and cousins, are now acquiring drivers licenses, getting married, having their own children. This, more than anything else, makes me feel my age.

So that line of Pearl S. Buck’s puts things neatly into perspective. No longer young, but certainly not old. Old enough to have learned a few things about life, but still young enough to realize that there are so many things I have yet to know. Old enough to have put down deep roots in a place I love, but young enough to start over in a new city and be eager to explore the entire world.

Maybe the best thing about being this age—about being any age—is the ability to combine the very best of whatever ages we’ve been so far.

I like to think that I have a thirty-something brain and a seventeen-year-old heart.

The brain warns me about any potentially risky decisions.

And the heart tells me which risks I should take.

Stronger than death

I buried my father a week ago.

In the days since, I’ve been helping my mother and my siblings sort out his affairs and belongings, receive countless telephone calls and emails, and write dozens of thank you notes.

At times, it’s as if a bright, shining light has gone out of our lives.

But there are other moments when I feel as if I’m finding parts of my father that I never knew existed. For instance, an old friend of his wrote us the following email:

I was Vic’s classmate since first grade all through high school, and was deeply shaken to hear of his passing.

The last time I saw him was in the late 80’s. I had resettled in Iloilo and it was tough starting a family and adapting to the new surroundings. Vic had arrived on the same flight as my visiting Dad and shouted out a childhood jeer at the airport’s baggage claim area. We had dinner together that night after he took care of business commitments, and I will always remember that night because Vic’s infectious confidence and spirit helped refresh my commitment to make a go of my new life in the province.

It’s been several decades since that night, and I now live a comfortable, happy life in Iloilo. My resolve would have been shaken a few more times had I not met your Dad back then, and for that I will always be grateful. My deepest sympathies and prayers go out to your family, and I look forward to meeting Vic again.

If I could ask my dad now about that meeting, his face would probably light up with a grin, and I can just hear the affection in his voice, because that’s the way he talked about all his old school buddies. He truly thought of them as his own brothers. But I don’t think he would ever mention how much his good cheer helped his friend make a success of his new life. I don’t think he would even have suspected how much of a difference he had made.

But I’m happy to think that now, he knows how much everyone who knew him really loved him, from us his family, to his friends, to the pharmacists who served him and the doctors and nurses who looked after him, to the clients he continued to assist and advise, even after he officially retired.

My mom and my sister and I chose a headstone for his grave today. Just a simple block of dark granite, etched with a Latin phrase he liked to repeat to us, especially when we were freaking out about one thing or other. Omnia in bonum. Everything for the good.

And I wondered how a man who started life in a tropical country across the ocean could come to end his days in a cold northern city, and be laid to rest on a windy hilltop surrounded by winter trees. Nothing to show for a life but a block of stone on a piece of earth. It all seemed rather bleak, until I thought of a phrase I had just come across in a book I was reading.

“…the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

A beautiful life. This is my dad’s legacy, and the best one I could ever have hoped for.

Droppings ni Lolo — or, Shit my grandpa says

Until the day she died, at the ripe old age of 93, my Lola Anita – God rest her soul – could remember all her family members’ birthdays (day, month, year) and full names (if you are familiar with the Filipino tendency to have three or more given names, you will admit that this was no mean feat).

Her son-in-law, my Lolo D, has a remarkable memory too – remarkable, that is, for its unreliability. He doesn’t forget names and terms – he just mixes them up…often with hilarious consequences.

I remember he used to call our household help by the wrong names. Not each other’s names, but his own made-up approximations of their real names. It was a great source of entertainment for all of us, as we constantly had to guess whom he was referring to.

He calls roast beef drippings “droppings” and describes scantily clad people as “wearing nothing but their heebie-jeebies.” Maybe because the sight of scantily clad people gives him the heebie-jeebies.

Newly settled in Montreal, he was informed he had to obtain a hospital card in addition to the provincial health care card. Accordingly, he and my mother went to have the necessary paperwork filled out and filed. The clerk assisting him asked, “And in which department of the hospital is your doctor practicing?”

“Gynecology,” Lolo D answered.

The clerk gave him the fish eye over the top of her glasses and said, “I don’t think so.” At which point, my mother, red-faced, intervened. “It’s geriatrics. Geriatrics.” And in an aside to my grandfather, “You are embarrassing. I’m never going with you to the hospital again.”

The latest incident occurred at the dinner table just last week. I wasn’t there, but my sister was. She told me all about it over the phone, and we both laughed till we cried.

Lolo D had brought home a box of donut holes, or as we call them in Canada, Timbits. Mom popped them into the fridge. Later, while they were having dinner, someone wondered aloud what to have for dessert. Lolo D turned to Mom and asked, “Where are my balls?”

He blames all of this on a family propensity for malapropisms. My grandmother called it “having senior moments.” Whatever it is, I think I’ve inherited it. I told my sister the other day that I had learned a new word. Guddling. “It’s what you do to a mint leaf to bruise it before adding it to a mojito,” I explained.

Long pause at the other end of the line. “I think you mean muddling,” she said at last.

Oops, okay. Muddling. “But guddling is a word too,” I insisted.

Another long pause. “Uh-huh….” she said. “But it’s definitely not what you do to a mint leaf.”

Wondering why the long pauses, I looked up the word “to guddle.” Of Scottish origin, it has many meanings, some rather less savoury than others. And my sister was right – none of them has any connection to mint leaves whatsoever.

I guess I’ll be thinking twice from now on before laughing at Lolo D’s latest. There’s just no escaping heredity. Or karma.

Remembered roses

Valentine’s Day is approaching, with all the attendant symbols…Cupids, hearts, and bouquets. Perhaps this is why lately I find myself thinking about roses.

There are three roses that stand out in my memory: one was given to me to say thank you, one to say sorry, one to say Happy Birthday. All three were pink, because pink ones are my favourite and the givers knew this. All three came with no tender sentiments or declarations of devotion, but with great affection and respect.

A friend of mine, a father of daughters (and, incidentally, giver of rose #2), observes with some worry that boys nowadays don’t seem to know how to treat girls properly. I would venture to say that perhaps part of the problem is that some girls don’t demand or even expect better behaviour from their male friends.

I count myself blessed that all the men in my life, from my grandfathers down, knew how to treat women right. I grew up knowing I deserved to be treated like a lady, with affection and with respect, and gravitated naturally towards boys – and later, men – who understood this.

It’s a lesson that needs almost no words, because it’s most powerfully imparted by a father’s tangible love for his wife, and his combined gentleness and strength in his dealings with his children.

I wish all girls could be so lucky, and sadly know that a lot of them aren’t, so I have only this advice to give. Girls, please don’t be fooled by the counterfeit that modern society calls love. And don’t think that you need to debase yourself in order to be esteemed.

And during this amorous time of year, when people tend to get a little carried away, remember that romance is like a lightning flash – intense, but pretty short-lived. True love lasts a lifetime, and can even be stronger than death. Until you find a love like that, you’ll want and need real friends to stand by you. And if you never find love here on earth, you’ll still have those friends. Just because friendship isn’t passionate doesn’t mean it’s any less strong, or any less real.

In the end, I won’t be remembering dozens of red roses…just three pink ones.

The Original “Fear Factor”

A few weeks ago I read that putting iodine and alcohol on cuts and scrapes is a home remedy that doesn’t actually work. In fact, these substances can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin and nerves, and therefore shouldn’t be used on wounds at all.

This major scientific discovery has come a few years too late for me. My mother used both alcohol and iodine in equal and copious amounts on my four siblings and me in our time. But I couldn’t resist showing the article to my mother, who sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to the time when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie pecked busily nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my nanny, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you have to understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my nanny shrieking curses at Charlie and my mother scolding and dragging me into the house. I had my eyes shut tight, a reflex which had probably saved them, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. At one point I finally opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine.

I thought I was going to die.

So, in response to Mom’s question: yes, I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, but it’s a miracle we’ve lived to tell the tale of our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life, how to clean up our own blood quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying, or getting squeamish. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more important, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing of the wound with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented. Kids these days definitely have it easy. The no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multi-coloured bandages that are available today seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

She took the same no-nonsense approach when it came to toothpaste. Now that I’m an adult, I rather like the sharp, stinging sensation of minty-fresh toothpaste in my mouth, but it’s not so pleasant when you’re a kid. Candy-flavoured toothpaste had been invented by then, but my mother saw no reason to buy two kinds of toothpaste. In this situation, one word sufficed. “BRUSH.”

 And brush we did.

The truth is, my childhood was the original “Fear Factor.” The only difference was that there was no prize money waiting at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges to be met at every turn.

Take dinner for example – for most people, a nice, relaxing meal. But if you’ve ever had a Filipino friend, chances are you know that we eat some pretty weird food. Most foods that I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino dishes can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

Just like the contestants on Fear Factor, I also had to deal with gross and slimy animals – and I’m no longer talking about the ones that sometimes ended up on my dinner plate. I’m talking about toads. Live toads. I hate them and they are one thing I have not learned to like. Behind our house was a grassy field where toads abounded. At night they came hopping out onto our street – you could see entire families of them in the pools of light from the street lamps. I never went outside at night –except when we were coming home late from a party or from my grandmother’s, and I was the one who had to get out of the car to open the gate so my dad could drive in. I felt faint and sick every time I did it. If I hadn’t been so scared and disgusted I’d have noticed that the horrible creatures hopped away from and not towards me as I approached. Anyway, my biggest fear – that one would hop onto me – never did materialize. Still, I would rather have gotten out of the car to face a pride of lions than those toads.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have realized a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you strong. My mom learned her mothering techniques from her mother, and they are the strongest women I know. I don’t know if I’m as strong as they are, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine my mom saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it is real. If she is hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. I’m sure this is true for all mothers. So the next time your mom pushes you, don’t fight her, because chances are she is pushing you in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand while working in the garden the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it up. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol anymore, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This….isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”

Today we’re changing her dressings, and I say to her, “You know, if I were really evil, I’d have replaced this no-sting stuff with alcohol.”

“You wouldn’t,” she says, pretending to be horrified. She’s right, I wouldn’t, no matter how sweet the revenge would be.

Then I start grinning. At least I can enjoy the idea for a while.

The way to a person’s heart

Saturday evening is the time I usually get to talk to my sister, who lives in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in the American Midwest. In the middle of our conversation tonight, my nearly-six-year-old nephew comes on the phone to say goodnight, and I send a noisy kiss down the wire. When he’s gone to bed, my sister tells me that on the way home from school yesterday, she asked him how he had liked the lunch she packed for him that day. “It was really good, Mommy,” he said. There was a pause, then he added in a small voice, “But Jeremy (not his real name) said it was gross. He always asks what I have for lunch, and he always says it’s gross.” My sister twisted around in the driver’s seat to see tears rolling down his cheeks.

When told this story, my mother asked, “What did you give him for lunch anyway?”

Just leftovers, my sister told her. Sliced sirloin steak with a balsamic vinegar reduction, and roasted broccoli with pine nuts and parmesan cheese.

“Well, that explains it,” my mom said. “This Jeremy kid is just jealous.”

There is one thing you have to understand about my family. We are Filipinos, which means we enjoy our food more than most people. Two Japanese friends of mine had lunch at Cucina Manila recently. They arrived at one thirty and lingered over their meal for over two hours, pleasantly surprised that the restaurant did not close down for the afternoon lull, because there was none. Even way past lunch-time, there was still a constant flow of customers, they reported to me with some astonishment. I explained to them that for Filipinos, any time is a good time to eat.

Not only do we enjoy our food…for us Filipinos, and especially in my family, cooking a meal, and consuming it with appreciation, is the highest expression of love. This is why the first question you’re asked when you walk in the door of any Filipino household is, “Kumain ka na?” (Have you eaten yet?) This is why my siblings and I were never packed off to school with nothing more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (“That’s not lunch,” my mother would have said in horrified tones.) And this is why my nephew, bless his dear heart, cries when some kid tells him his lunch is gross. Little as he is, he knows that a lot of love goes into the food his mommy prepares for him.

And besides, he genuinely likes his steak and broccoli. To the Filipino, you truly are what you eat. So if you tell us our food is gross, we’ll take that as a personal insult to ourselves and to the person who made the food in the first place.

But let’s be fair. Maybe Jeremy comes from the kind of family that thinks PBJs are a good enough lunch. Maybe my mom is right and Jeremy is jealous. Which means that maybe the best solution to this conflict would be for my nephew to offer him a bite next time. Filipinos do love to share their food after all. And then maybe Jeremy will learn what my nephew seems to know by instinct: that the way to a person’s heart really does pass through the stomach.