It was my twelfth birthday when I got my first knife. It was a gift from my dad, a beautiful Victorinox Swiss army classic pocket knife, with a lock blade, screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, and scissors, and on the side were handy versions of a toothpick (which I swore never to use) and a pair of tweezers (which, I swore, never works). A note accompanied it, in his usual all-caps handwriting, and it said, “Be curious, but be prepared.”
I heeded the first part of his fatherly advice with no difficulty. I was always a curious kid, asking questions until adults ran out of answers. Using my Swiss knife, to my mother’s utter annoyance, I dismantled TV remote controls and other appliances in the house, and attempted to put them back together. I was also a voracious reader, and in my childhood converted my parents’ home office into my personal library—The Hardy Boys, Harry Potter, fairytale books, Dante Alighieri’s trilogy, crime manuals, anatomy charts, psychology theses, and more. I read that not all people are nice people. I read that all people die. I read that ugly things in the world existed, like cancer, child labor, abortion.
At 14, I heard my mom crying in the room one day, and, the curious kid that I am eavesdropped into my parents’ argument. I learned that before I existed, my dad had a child with a woman that was not my mother. I am not the eldest child, and having to learn that hurt. At 15, I read in Pablo Neruda’s book that love was a nice thing, and so I tried it. He was 17. He went off to college. Not all kinds of love are permanent, and having to learn that hurt.
And so I understood what my father meant: The more you know, the more you try, the more you can get hurt. So be prepared.
At 16, he gave me an Igorot headhunter’s bolo. A small piece of paper was tucked into its smooth carved scabbard, and it read, “Pick your battles wisely.”
I got into a fight that year in high school. It was with a bunch of pretty girls, they called me names, and I cried secretly in the girls’ bathroom, hating myself for being such a pushover. I fought back with harsh quips, and eventually stopped, but they didn’t. They haunted me with cruel texts and messages on Facebook. They were immature, and immature people always want to win an argument. Months later, I got accepted into the top universities, and they didn’t. A year later, the meanest one who persistently called me ugly and fat got pregnant, and people say she had it aborted. That same year, I was on the Dean’s List.
So I learned. Not all people are nice people, they will all eventually die, and ugly things in the world existed. So pick your battles, because for some, or most, you may have already won.
At 17, my father gave me a Persian dagger. History books called it Desert Wind, sporting a curved blade, like those in Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed. It is extremely sharp, to be drawn in a swift, whipping motion to kill the opponent without making him suffer. My father wrote, “Act fast, but be gentle.”
That year I found out I didn’t make it to the Ateneo’s foreign exchange program in France. In contempt, I skipped all my classes, stopped listening to my professors, and spent my energy writing a two-page angry, bitter appeal letter—which, at the last minute, by some divine intervention, I scrapped and replaced with a convincing CV, to be submitted for an internship under a respected, prominent editor. While my two best friends were in Lyon, France, having the time of their lives, I was working in a newspaper office. I listened, learned, practiced, worked hard and treated people with respect, and shortly before graduation, was recommended to my second mentor, who then was just establishing a luxury magazine. Before I received my college diploma, at 21 years old, I bore the title managing editor.
Four years later, I understood by far my father’s most important lesson: Do good, but more importantly, be good. And good things will come.
By Mara Miano
Photography by Patrick Segovia