See, I had been working my ass off since college. I never had the chance to slack out and be a bum like the majority of the world’s fresh graduates. To do absolutely nothing—complete, slothful, what’s-on-TV, reflective nothing. That was every human being’s obligation in that sweet lacuna before unemployment and prostitution, este, work. As a working student, I never got to taste that luxury. Which was ironic, considering that many of my literary heroes were slackers of the highest water.
Since third year college, I was already a contributor to a major daily. I was also juggling guitar duties for two bands. On top of that, I had to maintain high grades to keep my Inquirer scholarship. Let’s just say that it kept my proverbial plate fucking full. Immediately after college, I went straight to work.
Until the year 2001. It so happened that I won at the first ever NCCA Writers’ Prize for Poetry. The prize was a grant of a whopping P250,000, a fortune for any literary contest here in the Philippines, not to mention government-sponsored. The deal was: government gives you a shitload of dough, you write a book.
For one year.
At that time, I was into my sixth year as a newspaper staffer (I dare not call myself a “journalist”). My beat was lifestyle and entertainment, which basically meant anything and everything from obscure experimental film festivals at the CCP to lengthy profiles of the latest Seiko starlet.
Then it hit me, that most attractive prospect: a year of doing absolutely nothing—with pay (which is essentially hard-earned taxpayers’ money). So I quit my newspaper job. I didn’t know what I was thinking. My resignation was a leap into the dark. What if the NCCA ran out of funds? What if they made a mistake in the selection and I didn’t really win? What if a coup d’etat broke out? Such questions. But sometimes, to quote the slogan of that shoe company that employs Chinese child labor— you just have to do it. Just shut up and do it.
So there I was. Well, strictly speaking, it’s not completely doing nothing. There’s the poetry collection to finish. But, really, who were we kidding? Who really sits down to write poetry like it was a scheduled corporate memo?
For six years inside the newsroom, my nervous system had been trained to be on overdrive combat mode between 3-9 pm. For that certain period of the day I was conditioned to an office filled with screaming, threats and cusswords exchanged, incessant ringing of phones, and thousands of keyboards clacking away.
The first few weeks of my “sabbatical” were a case of horror vacui. On that hour when your adrenaline was supposed to pump away like Peter North’s bodily fluids, I found myself doing nothing. I was nervous, fidgety, feeling like, at the back of my head, that something was terribly, terribly wrong. I was supposed to be doing something, but now, my day’s biggest challenge was whether to watch a Bruce Lee DVD or Discovery Channel.
It took months before I got used to this new routine. But when I did, I settled into it like a warm corpse sinks into an even warmer bathtub. It taught me patience, that not everything runs according to print-deadline schedules, and not everyone is a kiss-ass PR operator. It taught me the real meaning of afternoon siesta and the true essence of breakfast that has nothing to do with expedience and itinerance. It relearned the lesson of slowing down. I learned how it was to wake up and not curse the alarm clock, the name of the boss or whoever was criminally responsible for your interrupted sleep.
But it also ruined me in some ways. It somehow neutralized the nervous energy that I usually summoned in cases of deadlines. I got soft. To paraphrase Hemingway, fat collected around my brain. Blubber had covered my soul. The so-called writing muscle turned to mush. For six years I was so used to whipping out two or three articles a day, on top of editing pages. During my sabbatical, things were terribly different. The few times I was asked to write something, what took me an hour to finish took days.
Did I regret quitting my job? Hell, no (Turns out that said newspaper folded and merged with another company). I believe that once in our lives, we must become friends with sloth and sluggishness, in order to regain gumption and thrust.
And that book I was supposed to finish in 2001-2002? It only got published recently. Recently, as in, two years ago. But I still got the money. You ask: where did I spend it on? My answer is none of your fucking business but it made my neurons extremely happy. Thank you, Filipino taxpayer.