Back in the late 70’s I was finishing up high school and enjoying various bands on vinyl such as Supertramp, STYX, Fleetwood Mac, Tears for Fears and Joe Walsh to name just a few. Little did I know that their songs would follow me decades later to the Philippines.
Every so often someone will ask me, “So, how’s life treating you?“. My most accurate, yet short, answer to that is, “Better than I deserve.”. It’s been a long strange trail that led me to now sitting here at my laptop, tapping out this article from my nipa style patio as I look out upon a lush, green Philippine courtyard. Meanwhile my lovely girlfriend is singing from somewhere inside the house. The weather is balmy, as it it most of the year here in the tropics, and while I only jump in the ocean maybe once a week or so it’s nice knowing it’s just on the other side of the trees just down the driveway.
The skies are pristine blue with puffy, cumulus clouds floating lazily along overhead. Not even the slightest hint of that brown smudge of smog in the sky that would often overtake the valley basin area back in California. I don’t worry about my bills and I never have to check a mailbox. I meet cool, interesting people every week of the year (in fact, meeting a new expat for dinner tonight) and literally made hundreds of new friends in person during my four years here in the Philippines from all over the world. I must know at least four guys from Africa alone, plus a whole lot of Aussies, Brits, Canadians, a Frenchie, Jamaican and a lot of Americans from just about every state. I can say without a doubt I have a fantastic girlfriend and we spoil each other daily. No arguments, jealousies, kids, extended family or drama to deal with. (She just now asked me if I was hungry and is busy cutting up some apple slices for me.)
And for a nocturnal person such as myself, the nights here are amazing. In California I waited all year for the ‘sweet spot’ of summer evenings in August. When the weather was still warm at midnight and being outdoors felt like a warm embrace. Here in the Philippines, it’s like that all year. Not for just three weeks a year.. but all year. I love it. There’s nothing like getting on the bike at midnight and taking a leisurely tour of town with the streets all to yourself and the warm air under the stars. Stopping along the beach to listen to the jet black water hit the shore while a full moon’s reflection dances into the distant horizon. Even the rainy evenings are warm and enjoyable. The rain can come down as if the ocean itself was pouring down from above. Lightning and thunder rip across the sky from only a few miles away. It’s nothing short of amazing, these late evenings in the tropics.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that an inevitable trait of life is ‘undulation’. Just like the high and low tide, Life has it’s high and low points for all of us. I look back on some of the hell I have been through in the past. Some of it was my fault, some wasn’t. But either way I had found myself in the past in situations where I honestly felt it was just time to throw in the towel and die. When death looks like an improvement to your situation, you know things are going badly. And yet, here I am. In the Philippines this day. For now, the tide is high and who knows what tomorrow will bring. But for now, life is good.
Which brings me back to Joe Walsh. One of my favorite songs of his is, “Life’s Been Good“. Some of you may be familiar with it. Despite all the weirdness I’ve survived over the decades, “life’s been good to me, so far.” Decades ago I worked for about nine months in a room which was no bigger than fifteen feet wide and long. For 8 hours a day myself and an older woman had the monotonous job of opening small boxes all day. Several thousand a day. For months. To pass the time we talked about books and of course, our own life experiences. At one point, after sharing a bit about myself, this elder woman from the Midwest looked at me and said, “So you’re one of those people.”
“One of ‘what’ people?“, I asked. She replied, “You’re one of those people who can fall head-first into a pile of crap and walk out smelling like a rose.”
That was way back in 1985 that she said this and it’s stuck with me since. Not because life has been easy for me. Not even close. But I do eventually come out of it and things turn out okay. Not always as fast as I’d like, but somehow I find myself rescued from some of the most life-ending situations a person could face. I suppose I’ll go into detail on that when I get around to writing my autobiography. But sitting here now, looking at the mango and palm trees swaying in the afternoon breeze, I am thoroughly amazed I made it this far. I was sure I’d be dead by the time I even reached twenty-four. Yet, here I am.
As Joe Walsh sang, “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.”, so it is with me. I have much to be thankful for. I almost feel guilty. Almost. By sheer good fortune I have been loved all my life. I was born in a country (USA) that allows me to travel to any country and get all the education I was willing to reach for. I’ve had the freedom to pursue various businesses and my own way of life. I have a loving circle of family with my Mom, three sons and one daughter. I have much to be thankful for. And because none of it was the result of my own efforts, I have nothing to boast of. I am just a lucky recipient. I could have just as easily been born as a starving kid in Haiti or some war-torn village in Africa. It was just the luck of the draw.
But every so often, I do complain. Only rarely do I complain out loud though. Usually I complain inwardly, silently, to myself. And it always come back down to the question, “Why??”.
“Why do we need mosquitoes?“, comes up every so often. What positive role do they play in the circle of life? Couldn’t we get along fine without them? I’d like to know. And why do I have zero compassion when swatting mosquitoes with an electric swatter (or spraying down a cockroach).., and yet just a moment ago I saved a small fly from a spider’s web here on the table? Should I have let the spider have it’s meal? The fly will never comprehend nor be able to thank me for my act. So why even bother? Yet I did. But “Why?” and what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things?
When I’m out riding through town, navigating traffic, so many complaints come to mind. “Why is that guy endangering his life and mine by texting while driving a motorbike in the oncoming lane?” “Why is it that elderly woman finds herself at the end of her life collecting plastic bottles to make ends meet?” “Why is that kid tossing garbage out of the jeepney with zero regard for blatant littering?” “Why must these mall workers work for so little pay?”
I could go on and on, and many days I do.. in my head. It becomes such a stream of, “Why?”s that at some point you have to just shut it off. Without a solution, it’s enough to drive a person insane. There are more problems in this world than any one person can fix. And to make things worse, as if it were some perverse joke of the universe.. often the people who try to fix a problem end up being punished for it. Like some expats I read about several years ago who came to the Philippines to start an orphanage. Next thing you know, a bitter neighbor made false claims of sexual abuse of the children against them. The man was held in jail. The kids were dispersed to random families. The orphanage was shut down. And eventually it was seen that there was no evidence, no testimony and all charges were dropped. Just two people trying to alleviate some of the suffering they saw around them. A couple of people who saw those kids, asked “Why?” and then tried to do something about it. That was their reward. And all it took to destroy a good work was one bitter neighbor’s malicious gossip.
I could go on about the man who tried to save the coral reefs in Palawan for years. That incited resentment from the dynamite fisherman and next thing you know, he and his small family are all murdered. Again I ask, “Why?”. Or I could mention the man who devotes his time, money and energy into feeding local school kids and improving their school.. and then his own business gets robbed.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It’s sad but there is too much truth to that. Which is why I have such great respect for anyone who does good for others, and sticks with it even after suffering some unjust setbacks. Some of it is caused by others. Some of it is just part of life. But despite changes in their health or encountering bad fortune, they continue to help others in some minute, specific way. They may not be solving national issues, or even community issues. But they are making a positive difference. And that is admirable.
In my own case, I’ve lived with my girlfriend being faithful, loving and compassionate with her. And she’s a very happy woman for it. And yet on occasion I find myself asking, “Why?..” do some people feel the need to spread the most horrible of slanders on her and I when they know nothing of our personal life? I could account it to jealousy, envy or just general hatred.. but why it has to occur in the first place is my real question.
It’s my belief that all people are by default a practicing philosopher and theologian. They often cannot articulate what they believe if you ask them to. But they do cope with life by having a certain belief about religion (or the absence of it) and how they believe the universe operates on a grand scale. Not all people believe in or practice morality, but they definitely have an opinion about it that they live by. And often their belief and their practice may not even be the same at various points of their life.
Getting back to the 80’s, I rarely watched television and I never watched the Arsenio Hall show. It simply didn’t interest me. However as I was scanning channels one day I saw that on his channel his guest was Mariah Carey, during the debut of her career. After she performed, Arsenio came out and just before fading to commercial he said to her that he believed her career would sky-rocket because, “Good things happen for good people.”.
True, good things ‘do’ happen to good people. But rotten things happen to good people all the time as well. In fact, it’s the rotten people in life who specifically target good, decent people as their victims. Single mothers get raped on their way home from work. Unarmed civilians get suicide-bombed in a street-side cafe. School buses of kids go off a bridge into the river. Tornadoes rip a church of people to shreds and pass by the local casino untouched. Robberies, murders, gossip, slander, beatings. Bad things happen to good people all the time. And in contrast, ‘good’ things happen to rotten people as well. Police don’t catch some criminals for their crimes, ever. And then there are just the ironic instances, such as one case which happened at a company I worked for. The weekly State lottery was coming up again and so several hundred people on the production line, who could really use the money, each bought a ticket for the State lottery. Guess who won? The high-five-figure senior executive in the company who already was earning more money than he knew what to do with. Go figure. He even got an extra ‘spin’ for even more winnings after the initial win.
I’ve put a lot of energy my entire life, starting since I was about 8 years old, into trying to make sense of this ‘Life’ I found myself engaged in. I didn’t sign up for it. I was simply awakened one day and told, “Your alive now. Deal with it.” Thus far the only solid conclusion I’ve come to is, “Life is strange.” There are some principles and fundamental elements about human beings that apply in most cases. But never to the degree that you can predict what people or circumstances may put into your path ten minutes from now.
I suppose I could do as others have done. Look at the futility of it all and go into a deathly depression about Life. I’ve read of some who went that route after trying to “make a difference” and seeing so little progress after their life’s work had passed by. Instead I choose to be thankful.
I’m thankful that I have food to eat and clean water to drink. I’m thankful I have a place to lay my head at the end of the day. I’m thankful I have friends and family who genuinely care about me. I’m thankful for the great weather and I’m thankful for the warm rains. I’m thankful for the health I have. I’m especially thankful my neighbor just came by and gave us some home-made flan dessert.
Several studies have been done trying to find out from those who have lived beyond 100 years of age what common denominator was among them. The diets they had were of all varieties. Their genetic background had no commonality. But there was one thing found among so many people who had lived so long and it was their sense of humor. They didn’t take the massive heaviness about Life’s injustices too seriously. I’d say that thankfulness is a part of that. Being able to deal with the stress of just ‘living’, year after year. It’s also known that carrying a lot of mental and emotional stress is a killer. And that expressing yourself can alleviate some of that stress. It’s not good to keep it all bottled up.
While I still haven’t found all the answers I’ve been looking for, I do know this much; being thankful and having a sense of humor are two virtues worth keeping in practice. I’d say having a realistic outlook, seeing things for what they are, is also one of Life’s essentials. Some say, “Life is good.”. Another says, “Life is vanity.” And still others say, “Life is what you make of it.” Me, I’m reminded of lyrics from a Tears For Fears tune..
“Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you
“Acting on your best behavior
Turn your back on mother nature
Everybody wants to rule the world
“It’s my own design
It’s my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the most
“Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world”
In closing, all I can say is; Life is a trip, so travel safely.
Author: Reekay V.
Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.
Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.