I was not able to write my monthly logs this year, so here goes a mid-year recap with diary entries and ink sketches from January ’til June.
I STARTED THE YEAR with an obligatory determination to do better.
The preceding semester was one of my worst — I passed all my classes but my GPA dropped, effectively killing my chances for admission to competitive post-grad programs. Still, I wanted to do better.
Most of my classes this term were electives. There was one on machine learning and another on fault-tolerant systems. If only I were wealthy and smart, I would definitely pursue higher studies in those fields.
The second part of my design class also started this month. My team aced the proposal last term, but during meetings and consultations I could tell that neither the client nor the adviser knew anything about my task. When I asked them for guidance on how to solve the possible lapses in my design, all I got were empty attempts at advice (e.g. “take it one step at a time” or “it’s okay if it doesn’t work as long as you understand why”).
I realized that I was more results-driven than I thought: it mattered to me that I made my design work. I couldn’t get on board with the focus-on-the-process it’s-the-climb mindset — I had a goal and I knew the joy of learning would come only when I achieved that goal.
So I pretty much worked on my own. My teammates were also dealing with their own issues, plus our master plan was to work separately anyway, at least until we’re ready to put our respective parts together. I spent weeks combing through online forums and pestering engineer friends back home, and I even drafted emails to popular developers only for the eureka moment to arrive just before I hit send.
Finally I was able to get a breakthrough before January wrapped up. I wish I could share more details, but all you really need to know was that I felt damn proud (mostly of myself, which very rarely happens).
MOST OF MY FEBRUARY was spent working on the same design project. Every time I solved a problem, a new setback popped up. The level of frustration expanded like water turning into steam in a cork-shut bottle. I was always tired, and I had to constantly remind myself to not stress over things that I wouldn’t remember ten, twenty years from now.
I mainly worked in the lab where the basic equipment was, but many of my classmates worked in the ECE Shop. Whenever I passed by the Shop, I would see my friend Pat sitting by one of the computers rendering some 3D design for his project. One time I walked up to him to ask how the 3D printers worked and apparently he wasn’t sure either. I’m just winging it, he said. I guess all of us were pretty much self-learning at this point.
Pat and I met through Ip a long time ago. It was also through Ip that I met Gigi who invited me to go salsa dancing with her so we could both relax and cheer up. The residues of the New-Year-New-Me attitude had not yet worn off, so I told Gigi yes, sure, I’ll go salsa dancing with you.
It was a weird night, the salsa night. The first hour was dedicated to learning the basics of salsa, and I learned that I sucked at it big time. When they said move the right foot forward, I moved my left. When they said turn around three times, a-one and a-two and a-three, I just shuffled around aimlessly and barely completed a second spin. Nakakahiya. All I could think of that night was that I really, really needed some alcohol.
Gigi enjoyed the night though and I understood why. The event was in a local town hall, no beer cups in sight, and many of the attendees were old Latino couples. The energy was pure and wholesome, like a village fiesta where strangers laughed and talked and asked each other to dance with none of that sleazy vibe in tugsh-tugsh bars.
Looking back, I guess the night wasn’t all that bad. Gigi asked me if I would ever dance salsa again and I told her yeah, whatever — I could probably give it another try but only if I was drunk.
That was my last social interaction. Two weeks later, the pandemic was declared.
PEOPLE WERE ONLY MAKING jokes about the virus in early March. I overheard conversations about “overreaction” and “paranoia,” and I myself did not grasp how serious the issue was until the university suspended all in-person classes. The Shop and the other labs were also shut down when the province declared a state of emergency.
My team was lucky because our project was pretty much done by mid-March. The hardware was working, the automation part of the software was almost complete, and my part of the project was also ready for integration. Our plan was for me to bring our prototype home and make sure that everything was working properly in time for the defense-slash-presentation.
On the day that I was supposed to bring home the device, one of my teammates said that his code had major errors that he wanted to fix. I agreed to wait and work with him that day. We finished writing and debugging his code until about past midnight.
While we were transporting the device to my car, the cap slipped and the circuit board fell off. All the pin connections were also broken off. We went back to the lab and tried soldering back the pins, but after multiple attempts of reconnecting the wires, the device no longer worked as it should. It was a quiet 2am and I was dying to scream.
A series of unfortunate events snowballed from there: we realized that our prototype had a frame that would not fit in my car, we got locked out of the school building, and we had to leave the device outdoors in the winter chill. I returned early the next morning. I brought a drill with me so I could disassemble the frame, but of course dios mio santisima I forgot to bring a drill bit that fit.
Pat drove to school with his tools to help me disassemble and shove the device into the vehicle. I was able to bring the prototype home eventually, all thanks to Pat.
At home I had to re-assemble the frame, re-wire the pins, and re-tighten the bearings on the shafts. I took me ten million tries before the prototype started working again. I was relieved, but it was also around this time when COVID-19 cases were rising exponentially all over the world. Businesses were forced to shut down, mass gatherings were banned, and people were losing their jobs. The uncertainty of it all was only starting to dawn on me.
ALL MY CLASSES HAD been moved online since March. Not everyone was thrilled about the online lectures, but I think everyone agreed that it was much safer than showing up to school.
Our situation was of course different from, say, the situation in Philippine schools. Even before the pandemic, email was already the primary form of communication in my university. Students and professors were all expected to have basic Internet access, but it doesn’t mean that everyone adjusted smoothly when the classes were shifted over to cyberspace.
Some students lost their jobs, some got kicked out of their apartments, and some were forced to take care of children and elderly folks at home. Everyone had their own struggles that made it difficult to learn, online or otherwise.
But the hot topic in our university was not about “mass promotion” or the lack of technical resources for remote learning. The biggest issue, believe it or not, was about final grades. After a two-week deliberation, the university made a ruling that all grades for the semester would follow a Pass-or-Fail system. To relieve us from the stress brought about by the ongoing crisis, the university decided that no letter grades would be given this term.
When the decision was released, some students went apeshit crazy. They whined on Reddit, they flooded the emails of school administrators, and they wrote petitions about having “the right to be recognized for [their] hard work and academic excellence.” Nakakaloka.
For context, other universities like Columbia and UToronto decided to give their students a choice between displaying regular letter grades or just showing P/F marks on their transcripts. The “academically excellent” students of our university were pushing to also have the letter grade option.
To be honest, I could sort of see where those students were coming from. Even though grades are ultimately insignificant, they do matter in post-grad admissions. In January I set myself out to get better grades, and I knew I could have achieved that goal and boosted my GPA this term.
But I also knew that not everyone was in the same privileged position as I. My silly little goal was precisely that: silly and little (and annoyingly careerist). In the end, the university stood its ground and went with the most equitable grading option. Buti na lang.
Meanwhile, students and teachers in the Philippines could barely even go online.
And here we are in the center of the First World, sings The Submarines — it’s laid out before us / who are we to break down?
MAY, OH MAY.
When I learned that I passed all my exams, I knew that that was it: I was finally graduating.
The caveat, of course, was that I was graduating during a coronavirus pandemic, a country-wide recession, and an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. In my lifetime, 2020 is probably one of the worst years to join the workforce, second only to 2008 when the US real estate bubble was inflated and later punctured by corporate fucking greed.
So May was essentially the month when I became officially unemployed. I had no job prospects at all. I should have started the job hunt as early as last year, although I also heard that many job offers got rescinded after the pandemic was declared. Times were tough, indeed.
Every now and then someone would ask me about my future plans. My honest and go-to answer was that I would simply continue looking for a job. When H suggested that I take an FPGA class online to beef up my resume while passing the time, I realized how burnt out I was. I knew taking an online course was solid advice, but I couldn’t bear the idea of studying another electronics class this soon. I was too tired and too disillusioned.
In May I wondered if studying engineering was the right choice. On one hand, I earned a chance to pursue a career without having to go to grad school. On the other hand, I am excruciatingly average at it. Average grades, average skills — the last five years were essentially a glowing reminder of my own mediocrity.
What if I studied sociology or classics or English studies instead? I would have finished a year early with better grades, and law school would have been an obvious path. I don’t really wish to be a lawyer; I guess it’s just nice to fantasize a different reality in which I am doing better at something, anything other than this.
Oh, the unbearable lightness of being burgis! I never imagined that my worth would be reduced to whatever arbitrary regard my educational attainment affords me, to whatever capacities I have in contributing to economic production.
Many say that college graduation is an important rite of passage to the quote real world unquote. To me the transition into adulthood happened a while back when I realized that the things I used to read about, I now get to experience firsthand. Alienation is no longer just a concept to “relate to” in indie movies, and current events are no longer just conversation topics to form opinions on. Hayayay buhay.
So I guess May was also the month for reflection. There was nothing much to do anyway.
WAKING UP AND GOING to bed used to be two different things. Three months into the pandemic and now I can hardly tell the difference.
Everything I do, I do on my bed. I sleep on my bed, I watch movies on my bed — heck, I even eat on my bed. The few things I do outside the bedroom are things that are physically and logistically impossible to do on a bed, like taking a shower or shopping for groceries.
My bed has essentially become the centerstage of an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. I am still unemployed, yes, and I think I may have gotten a little too complacent, a little too okay about being unemployed.
I didn’t try as hard to find a job in June. There were days when I felt worthless and desperate, but there were also days when I just let myself breathe and appreciate the things that were going relatively well.
At the beginning of June, for instance, there were only 30 active COVID-19 cases in our city of around one million people. The province also expanded its testing policy so anyone could set an appointment to get tested for the virus. Under this new policy, a person does not need to have the symptoms or to have had close contact with an infected patient to qualify for a swab test. Everyone was encouraged to get tested.
Some of the imposed public health measures were also lifted. Certain businesses were allowed to re-open, and the limit for the number of people in outdoor gatherings was increased from 100 to 200. Pat actually invited me to a small get-together at his house but I said nah, maybe next time. Despite the numbers, I was still extremely paranoid about being that unlucky witch who catches the virus the one time she leaves the house.
By the end of June the number of cases shot up. The increase was expected, according to the health department. The provincial government assured the people that they had duly prepared for the worst-case scenario based on their models, and they continued to encourage everyone to remain cautious and to practice physical distancing, constant washing of hands, etc.
I know other countries are not as fortunate, and it deeply bothers me, to be honest. I don’t think I have ever felt this conflicted about living overseas. An old friend recently sent me an email asking if I still had plans to go home, and boy did I struggle to answer that question. Hindi ko alam e. There are objective and subjective factors that I am struggling to assess and make sense of, so I honestly don’t know.
But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Maybe I shouldn’t even worry about the big questions yet. Maybe all I need to do, really, is to first get off the bed.
All images were drawn by me. Some were based on drawings I found on Google, some were completely made up.
As always, please stay safe everyone!