” Why must summers be so penitential?”

graduates 2This is the last line of Michael Tan’s column today in Philippine Daily Inquirer. It is not just a question but a plaintive plea coming from an educator, a chancellor of a prestigious  state university. His column today tackles an all too familiar situation – the  financial burden of acquiring a college degree in a third world country like the Philippines.

It is a common story replicated thousands of times among the poor. Parents sell their land and farm animals to raise enough money to send their children to college. For them, a college diploma  means to unshackle the curse of poverty. It is also mostly for this reason that ten million Filipinos are now working abroad as medical professionals, teachers, engineers, seamen, hotel employees, laborers, maids, and entertainers. They persevere through homesickness, cold temperatures, discrimination and even abuse to send their children, siblings and other relatives through school. A college education is given prime importance in our society, woven  tightly into the fabric of the Filipino psyche, that it gave birth to ” Anong natapos mo?” ( an abridged question meaning ” What college course did you finish’?)

The hardship of sending children to school is evident during the summer months of April and May. Michael Tan writes, ” This is the time of the year when after paying income taxes families have to scrounge for funds to pay off end-of-school-year debts, so students can be promoted to the next year’s level, or even to graduate. Others are  now finding ways to get funds together as private schools starts enrollment in May.”

It strikes close to home.  The hubby recently raised the funds for our son’s tuition fee just in time for enrollment next week. Our seven-year old studies in a Jesuit run private school with an excellent reputation and a beautiful, sprawling campus. But we have to pay very high tuition fees for Joshua to be educated well. I worry if we will be able to afford the tuition fee and its annual increases every year. Friends who have successfully put their children through college assured me that we will be able to survive  by God’s grace.

My son, at this moment, is blissfully playing his video games, unaware of my worries. I look at him and I  tell  myself how lucky he is to be studying in a good school. Last year when he was being obstinate about his studies, I told him in a fit of frustration how his Daddy is working very hard so that he can study in Xavier. He defiantly answered, “I did not ask to study in Xavier. You and Daddy want me to study there!”  His words stung me and I should not have made him feel guilty. But what does he know?  He is only seven. And what do I know?  I  am 54 and yet only in my seventh year as a parent.

Times flies fast. Soon he will grow up and, hopefully, appreciate the summers of opportunities that have been laid out for him. I am keeping my fingers crossed.



Sixteen Years of Adventure


February is the month of our wedding anniversary. On the 28th, the hubby and I will be celebrating our 16th. I know it is a cliché but allow me to write it here. How time flies!

Rommel and MarissaWe met in a Catholic community for single men and women and were friends for three years. We dated for ninety days and got married five months after.  I was 38 and he was 41. I was hesitant to get married so quickly. I felt we needed to know each other better and save up for the wedding. He said we will never really get to know each other unless we live under one roof. And, he added, as long as we keep the wedding simple then we would not worry too much about our finances.

We did have a simple yet elegant wedding. Many of our family members and friends were so generous…

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Chicken Corn Casserole Memories

It was a busy day. I had to cook something really quick with the chopped chicken but I did not know what to do with it.  Not chicken pork adobo again, I told myself. I am not  a talented cook. I learned to cook when I got married 16 years ago. But I did it ( and still doing it) only out of my survival instincts.

Will I leaf through my cookbook or Google a recipe? On a rush of inspiration, I remembered my Mom’s small wooden box of recipes. I tiptoed hard as I reach for it on top of a book shelf.  I blew off the bit of dust and opened it. I smiled at the 5 x 7 inch recipe cards, all alphabetically arranged. My Mom was always organized. I looked under the letter C and as I pulled out her recipe for Chicken Corn Casserole  a wave of heaviness filled my chest.

I suddenly missed her for she died many years ago. As I studied her familiar sweeping strokes, I remembered the wonderful dishes that she cooked for our family. It was a triumph for someone who was clueless about cooking  during the early years of her marriage. She  lived at my Dad’s family home together with Lola Mary, my paternal grandmother. My grandmother  taught her how to cook. I suppose my Mom did not have a choice. Lola Mary was known for her culinary skills but she was a stern disciplinarian in the kitchen.  It must have been hard for a young bride but she was determined to learn. Many years later, Lola Mary spent her vacation in our Marikina home. My Mom whipped up an array of delectable dishes. My grandmother was very much impressed as she declared. ” The student has outdone the teacher.” My Mom beamed with joy for days.

I sighed and wished I can cook like her. My disinterest in the kitchen frustrated her no end. She would shout my name while she was cooking so she could teach me. But I preferred to bury myself in my books. I overheard her telling my Dad that my few attempts at cooking ended up disastrously. She knew I couldn’t be a whiz in the kitchen and that fact disappointed her. To make up to her, I studied hard and brought home instead consistently good grades.

My husband was to arrive in two hours so I hurriedly cooked the Chicken Corn Casserole. The hubby’s verdict? ” It wasn’t bad.” For my taciturn husband that was a low-key compliment. Maybe there is still hope for me. My Mom would have been proud.

Chicken Corn Casserole 

1 kilo chicken cut ups

2 Tbsp cooking oil

1/2 cup chopped onions

2 cups corn ( fresh or canned)

1 cup chicken stock

salt and pepper

2 Tbsp butter

2 Tbsp flour

1 cup green peas

1/2 cup celery


Brown the chicken pieces slightly and set aside.Saute the onions until wilted. Pour chicken stock and simmer over low fire. Mix the butter and flour and put the roux in the stock. Swirl the stock a bit then mix in the chicken pieces, green peas and celery. Salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until chicken is cooked. Serve hot either with rice or crusty bread.

A Great Teacher is a Blessing

The hubby and I just attended the last Parent Teachers Conference (PTC) in my son’s school. On the way home, we discussed about our son’s grades and the teachers’ comments on his conduct and effort in school. We acknowledge that we are the teachers’ partners in our child’s education.

What do I do as a parent? I have chosen to be very hands  on with my child’s studies. As early as in pre-school, I made sure that Joshua has a set time for play and study. I did not need to read a  parenting book to know this. I learned it from my own Mom who helped me develop good study habits. Now that Joshua is in grade 1, I control his TV time and even his video games are reserved only for the weekend. I buy him books and educational toys. Just recently, the hubby bought a telescope for Joshua because he wanted to observe the  moon and the stars. I encourage our son to do this because I know that basic astronomy will be taken up in the grade 2 Science class.  This summer, he will take up basketball and, hopefully, some art lessons. I also plan to bring him to an interactive children’s museum in the city.

But I can only do so much as  a parent. His teachers play a crucial role in developing his mind, emphasizing values and discovering his potential talent. Teaching is a noble yet demanding profession. Many are called to be teachers but few are cut out to be greatly revered. Lucky is the child who ends up with a technically proficient teacher. But blessed is the child who has a teacher with the unique ability of knowing each of his students well  beyond the grades in the report card. A passionate teacher who challenges his students yet creates an inspiring, and loving environment for learning deserves admiration.

I was blessed to have been taught by an amazing  Literature teacher in third year high school. I remember her fair skin, and  chinky eyes hidden by atrociously thick glasses. The first thing that I noticed about her was the husky voice and her graceful, swan like neck. English Lit was considered a boring subject in our high school but she made it alluring for a class of clueless 15-year-old girls. I would wake up excited to attend her class, ready to imbibe the beauty of the written word. Yes, she taught us all there is to know about poems, short stories and novels and their authors. But she was not the type who just wants us to pass her subject. She was adamant that we should have fun first in her class. For her, the grades were of secondary importance.

One time, she asked the class to write a short story on any topic. I wrote a  descriptive story about  a family with the mailbox as the narrator.  She gave me a high grade on that one. I floated with happiness on my way home. She wrote frank assessments of my succeeding stories and told me I have a knack for writing.  Read more books, she advised. Write, write, write. Be original.Discover your own style, she egged me on to write.

Because of her  wonderful influence on me, I decided to take up journalism in college. I became a feature writer of the college magazine and a book/play/movie critic of the university’s student publication. I have never really thanked her for mentoring me. Oh sure, I did the perfunctory thanks but I was afraid to say what was in my heart. In my naivety, I thought gushing in front of her might embarrass both of us.

Last year just on a lark I typed her name on Facebook. Lo and behold there she was!  I introduced myself and poured out my long-delayed heartfelt thanks to her. She was pleasantly surprised and, of course, could not remember me. ( That was 40 years ago!) But she was gracious about it and was flattered that I looked her up.

I wish for my son to receive the same blessing that I had. A teacher who has the exceptional gift of making you believe in yourself. 


A birthday, polvoron and the women of Payatas

A week ago, I watched Christiane Amanpour of CNN interview Tom Colicchio, a celebrity chef in New York, about his advocacy on hunger alleviation in the US.  Though it was not a surprise for Tom to know that there are hungry people in the US, their growing numbers have unsettled him and his Food Policy Action organization. While I was listening to the interview, I compared how the issue of hunger is treated differently in the Philippines. Hunger is so prevalent in our developing country that the populace has become immune to its existence and eventually take it for granted. That, I am ashamed to admit, included me until I received a call from a good friend five years ago.

Woman Payatas She asked me if I will be interested to spend my birthday  in a very unique way. Her friend Jane  has a personal advocacy. She invites people to celebrate their birthdays with the  underprivileged by sharing one’s talent or skill with them.

Intrigued, I contacted Jane immediately. She said that my birthday party should be informal, free wheeling and, yes,  I can bring food but nothing lavish.  The participants will be women from Payatas, the poor community in Quezon City infamously known for its open dumpsite. What is important, she stressed, is that I should be able to impart a simple talent or skill that they can either appreciate or learn to earn additional income. I was stumped. Unfortunately, I did not have any skill to share but Jane told me that I can bring a friend to help me out.

I invited my high school friend Weng who is known for her tasty polvoron ( powdered milk candy) to demo on how to pan fry the all- purpose flour, powdered full cream milk and margarine and then  wrap it in multi-colored paper ( locally known as papel de japon). The polvoron is a popular and inexpensive local dessert or snack. Weng was willing to do a good deed and, just like me, she was very curious  about Payatas.

Payatas was and still is a glaring symbol of poverty in the country. It has  managed to land in the news several times when garbage landslides occurred burying the scavengers. The scavengers make a living by picking up from the mountains of  trash items they can sell to the junkyard. It is not unusual  for them to look for frozen food disposed by restaurants to recycle as the day’s meal for their families. Their  emaciated faces have been featured in the foreign media by countless photographers, horrified and fascinated, at the same time, by their pitiful condition.

polvoronMy friend and I were not sure if the women will receive  us well.  Jane assured us that she knows one of the community leaders who enthusiastically gathered the women in her own home. Around twenty married women were already there as we arrived. Weng did not waste any time as she immediately demonstrated how to measure the ingredients and pan fry it over low fire. She then showed them how to make the polvoron into oval shapes using a molder. Weng also taught them how to do the costing properly and where to source the ingredients.

During the demo, I noticed that the women were interested but reserved. It was understandable. We were considered outsiders coming from the other side of the socio-economic fence. While we were  having our birthday snacks, I wanted to break that invisible barrier on the spot. I decided to loosen them up by narrating about my life. I emphasized from the start that we were not rich. I said my parents struggled to put me and my brothers through college. I also met my husband quite late in life because I was busy earning a living to send my youngest brother to school.  Lastly, I decided to end our impromptu talk by sharing  how I met my husband, our whirlwind romance, his unique marriage proposal and our memorable wedding. Kinilig sila ( They were tickled pink.) and brought smiles on their faces.

In an instant, their shyness banished and to my surprise some of them shared their own life stories. All of them were at their wit’s end trying to raise a family with  very little income. Some run a sari sari ( variety) store  and they hoped selling the polvoron will mean an earning of a few extra pesos. They talked among themselves about some neighbors who had no choice but to pick up frozen food at the dumpsite just to survive. Life was hard  for these women but throughout our encounter they were cheerful, even gossipy, and very appreciative of our polvoron demo. For many of them, that afternoon was the best excuse to leave their responsibilities at  home for a while and just be themselves.

Afterwards, Jane drove us near the dumpsite. I had seen it several times on TV but nothing prepared me for it. It was smelly, smoky, and surreal. I was quiet on the way home. I have never had a birthday celebration as thought-provoking as the one in Payatas. Up to this day, my admiration for those women has never waned. They are poor yet brave in the face of insurmountable economic obstacles. In my eyes, that makes them so beautiful.

I wear my pajamas the whole day

I decided to work from home in 2003. Some of my former  colleagues advised me that it was not a wise move.  I need to have a regular source of income, they said. I will be bored, they warned. I will end  up wearing my pajamas the whole day while working in front of my computer. This one came from a fashionista friend who joked, ” But, of course, you are only allowed to do this if your pj’s is a Natori.”

Being a woman, I let intuition took over my decision  to quit my 9 to 5 job. Throughout my career, I worked beyond those hours. I had to travel out-of-town even during weekends. I burned the midnight oil  with the creative department to pitch for  lucrative accounts. I managed with  the accounts team countless product launches, sales conferences and press interviews. The ride was amazing and a workaholic’s dream.

In my early 40s, I had a ” stop the world, I want  to get off” kind of epiphany. It came like a whisper, niggling me, until I could no longer ignore its siren call. Is this all there is to it? I asked myself. I was burned out from doing public relations and events management work. I took the plunge and for the first time in 23 years I was out of the corporate world. I did not have a plan on what work I will do at home. But in my gut I knew I will be fine partly because I had the support of my husband.

During the first year, I literally had time to breathe. I would wake up early in the morning, smell the air  while doing my stretching exercises. I also had leisurely lunches with my precious friends.Some of them envied me for they say I am no longer a corporate slave. Eventually former clients got wind of my ” no work” status and began hiring me as a free-lance writer. By accident, I also dabbled with wedding coordination services after helping out a cousin plan her wedding. Other part-time event coordination projects managed to come my way.  For a time, I even put up a corporate gifts and novelty business with my best friend. It did not last long but I had fun along the way. My income now cannot be compared with what I used to earn as a middle-level executive. But it is enough to keep my body nourished and my soul happy.

 I will soon tackle some writing projects  that were temporarily shelved these past two years. I am nervous on the demand it will put on my time yet I am so excited to see it come to life. I guess this would means lots of  laptop work while wearing my favorite pajamas. 

Sixteen Years of Adventure

February is the month of our wedding anniversary. On the 28th, the hubby and I will be celebrating our 16th. I know it is a cliché but allow me to write it here. How time flies!

Rommel and MarissaWe met in a Catholic community for single men and women and were friends for three years. We dated for ninety days and got married five months after.  I was 38 and he was 41. I was hesitant to get married so quickly. I felt we needed to know each other better and save up for the wedding. He said we will never really get to know each other unless we live under one roof. And, he added, as long as we keep the wedding simple then we would not worry too much about our finances.

We did have a simple yet elegant wedding. Many of our family members and friends were so generous with their time, effort and their financial gifts to make our wedding unforgettable. Even our Boracay honeymoon was paid for by my business partners! We felt truly blessed.

It is said that marriage is the perfect union of two imperfect persons. Amen to that. There were struggles during the early years. I had some difficulty in adjusting to the fact that I am now a “Mrs” no longer a ” Ms.” I was used to earning my own money, making my own decisions and going off to the beach with my friends at a snap of a finger.  I was so uncomfortable the first time I had to ask money from my husband for our household expenses. My work involved stage/production work which meant coming home late at night was not unusual.  One time he asked, ” What time do you want me to pick you up?”  I was so used to driving myself home that for a minute I forgot that I can ask him to fetch me.

I also did not know how to cook. Sure, I can saute some strips of meat and veggies. That was just about it. The hubby was brought up to be an alpha male. He is the eldest in the family, doesn’t cook and refrains from doing household chores. During dinner, you have to serve him his meal hot and ready. His mother was a wonderful cook and she even baked! I was glad she was no longer around when we got married or else she would have disapproved of me.  I had to learn how to cook though I admit I will never be a good one. I had to know my way around the wet market, be familiar with the various cuts of meat and learn how to haggle with the vendors.

I think we were meant to be together because we are opposites in a lot of ways. He hoards things.  I am merciless in  disposing of used or old items in the house. He finds it difficult to wake up early in the morning. I am up and about at the first ring of the alarm clock. I like things on schedule even during weekends while  he is more laid back. He is a carnivore and I, on the other hand, loves tofu and veggie salad.

But we both love books. The love of reading came naturally to us when we were both very young. The bookstore was our our place while we were dating. It is no surprise that our attic is now crammed with books. We are also crazy over supermarkets. Whenever I say this, my friends get puzzled and scratch their heads. I dubbed it as our supermarket fix. The hubby and I find it relaxing as we flit from aisle to aisle looking for the best deals or the newest products to try. We find it ridiculous in rushing to buy the groceries.

I was once asked why the hubby and I are still together.  God’s grace is the number one answer. He is the crucial third-party in our union. Our marriage is similar to a wild roller coaster ride. Through the years, there were  many “lows” like heated arguments and the stress brought about by my fertility treatments. But the scale was balanced  by the “highs” of our travels together and bringing up our smart and funny son, Joshua.  We have also learned to live with each other’s idiosyncrasy, and to appreciate the core goodness within us.

So what will happen next? We are still on that exhilarating marital ride, hands held tight, ready to continue with our great adventure.