One morning last week, I woke up, washed my usual backlog of dirty dishes from the day before, and happened to glance at my hand. There on my right thumb were two small holes – one had broken skin with the red showing through, and the other was only flaking. As I tried to figure out any way that a pair of tiny round holes could be caused by anything other than two small teeth, I realized that it was time to get a rabies shot. Did my dogs get a little overzealous welcoming me home from my late-night drinking the night before? Did a rat sneak into my bedroom and bite me in my sleep? Either way, it was off to the Animal Bite Clinic for me, or there was a small but meaningful chance that I could die in one of the worst ways imaginable.
As a child growing up in Austria, or wherever, I was dimly aware of rabies as something cartoonishly scary but pretty much non-existent, like the Black Death or the Zombie Doom Virus. In the West, rabies is presented as a hilariously implausible threat in cartoons and comics, where frothy-mouthed dogs are offered to us in the spirit of animated whimsy.
Rabies is also treated as a punchline in live-action media like Fun Run, an episode of the American version of The Office. In that episode, a lot of mileage is derived from bumbling office head Michael Scott trying to organize a fundraiser for something that presents no threat to anyone, and has in any case already been cured.
After spending some time in the Philippines, it belatedly dawned on me that things aren’t so simple in much of the world. For example, such is my naivete about the state of global health that I only recently discovered that Polio is still very much a thing here and in many other countries – something that would’ve never occurred to me with all the back-patting done over its elimination in the West; ditto for leprosy. But the slowest and scarest awakening involved my realization that rabies is not a joke.
DISCLAIMER: Skip this part if you want to allow my post to develop organically, but I wanted to avoid causing any unintended offense. This post basically asks the question, “What if someone was pompous and stupid enough to believe that Jollibee is supposed to be a French fine dining restaurant?” No disrespect intended toward the Big Bee – I’ve probably eaten my weight in Chicken Joy at this point, and I really hope they’ll bring their Pastillas Sundae back one of these days. I love you Sabado, pati na rin Linggo! Hintay ka lang, Jollibee, nand’yan na ako! Anyway…
I was recently enjoying a stroll through Salcedo Village when a restaurant caught my eye: a simple-looking local establishment by the name of Jollibee. (Oops, I mean Jollibeé – when you are fluent in the language of food, as I am, diacritics are a must.) As an international gastronome (or, as coarser types would have it, a “foodie”), I am always looking for new restaurants around the world that successfully capture the immortal culinary spirit of Le Cordon Bleu, so I sauntered inside hoping for a fresh new take on foie gras.
When I entered, I admit I was a bit underwhelmed by the decor; but the logo, at least, suggested a serious culinary experience: the apian mascot is clad in a toque, or chef’s hat, presumably as a profession of unwavering devotion to the secular religion of fine French dégustation.
As I looked more closely at the menu, however, I was baffled by the lack of authentic French offerings: more hamburgers and hot dogs than bouillabaisse and rouille, as it were. I sampled their so-called “Chicken Joy”, but it proved to be typically lacking in authenticity. And in spite of its name, it certainly provided none of the joy of say, devouring an ortolan drowned alive in Armagnac.
Finally, I found a couple of dishes on the menu that had at least a whiff of the Continent about them. First up were the so-called “French” fries, or pommes frites. Of course, anyone who is not embarrassingly ignorant of culinary history knows that these are, in fact, a Belgian creation, and so I will not defile a serious review of a French restaurant by giving them any serious consideration. Next up was the Champ Burger, short for champignon, or mushroom. Perhaps I was about to experience an irreverent fusion-style take on parmentier de champignons? When the dish arrived, I bit into it with a mix of disappointment and befuddlement: on the one hand, it did not succeed in evoking even the merest hint of my earlier culinary pilgrimages in Provence; on the other hand, they seem to have found a way to make mushroom taste uncannily like ground beef – a triumph of food engineering, if not necessarily of gastronomie.
The wine selection also proved woefully inadequate: more Sprite than Syrah, so to speak. My requests to speak with their resident sommelier were met only with confusion. I left soon afterward, my stomach filled with mushroom, but my heart empty of jolliness and joy.
In the end, I must begrudgingly acknowledge Jollibeé’s efforts to make haute cuisine affordable to the masses. Unfortunately, it takes more than a French name, a toque-clad mascot, Belgian-fried potatoes and a French-in-name-only mushroom burger to embody the spirit of hundreds of years of Gallic culinary tradition. If anything, the Jollibeé dining experience ends up being more Filipino-style American fast food than French fine dining – which would be perfectly fine if that’s what they had actually been aiming for!
Of all the creatures that walk, trot, crawl, climb, slither, slink, fly or swim upon God’s greenish Earth, few can match the wicked-coolness of the pangolin. Native to Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, the eight species of pangolin are akin to eight flavours of awesomeness!
Perhaps the appeal of these little-known, little-understood creatures derives from their striking combination of cuteness and sheer weirdness: their sad little eyes and protruding snouts are offset by their monstrous claws and alien-looking scales – and in fact, they are the only mammals with scales. Wicked cool! (more…)
Day 1: Around 6 PM on a Friday night, the running water gets cut off in my house. I spend the evening working at home while feeling dirty, itchy and gross, and decide to cheer myself up by going out to buy myself an unhealthy snack at the 7-11: a bottle of beer and some chicken asado siopao.
While walking to the 7-11, I notice a party taking place at a nearby house is known throughout the village for its loud, late, and frequent celebrations. I stop to ask if they have running water, and after informing me that they don’t, they insist that I join them for some beer and karaoke. Who am I to say no?
In the course of imbibing Red Horse and singing Funky Town and other super hits from the ’70s, I get to know a few of my hard-partying neighbours. One of them informs me that Maynilad, the Manila Water Company, will be doing maintenance from 6 PM to 6 AM every day for the next week. I contemplate this news while entertaining a great deal of attention from several gay men. After politely refusing the request of one man, who I had just met, to sleep over at my house, I head home to snooze off the Red Horse and the Funky Town. Sadly, water is still off.
Day 2: I wake up around 8 AM to the sound of running water inside my house. As I stand up from my bed, I immediately connect all of the pieces in my head. “Oh shit!” I say aloud, to no one in particular. Consider:
My bathroom has a faucet near the floor used for filling buckets, which is the traditional Filipino method for showering and flushing toilets (though I do have a proper shower head and a toilet with its own flush, as well).
If water is not running, it is difficult to tell when the faucet is closed – there is no increase in pressure as you move it into the “on” position, so you must memorize the positions and be very mindful of where you leave the switch.
Recently rats have begun to crawl into my house through the bathroom drain, which is connected to another drainage area in the back yard. As such, I have gone for the rather low-tech solution of covering the bathroom drain with an old pestle when I’m not using the shower.
With all of this information in my mind and the sound of running water in my ears, it only took me a few seconds to realize that I might see something very bad when I opened my bedroom door.
Sure enough, I opened the door to see my house flooded with water that had been running steadily for about two hours. It had long since overflowed from the bathroom and spread out into my guest bedroom, my living room, and all the way to the kitchen. My first thought was of my electronics, so I rushed to my surge protector on the floor and discovered that it had burnt itself out, literally caved in while immersed in a deep pool of water. I did turn off the main circuit breaker for the house, but in retrospect I can’t remember if I did this before or after I unplugged the surge protector – in other words, I could have conceivably killed myself. Since I live alone, my dogs could have eaten the face off my decomposing corpse before anyone found out.
I spent the rest of the morning trying to clean up the water without the benefit of indoor lighting. I swept into the dustpan, poured the dustpan into a bucket, and poured many buckets of very dirty floor water down the toilet. I stopped halfway through to shower off my thick coating of sweat, then resumed my sweeping. Once the water levels were low enough, I moved on to mopping. After three hours, I was done. I went to the mall to treat myself to some especially unhealthy fast food and buy a new surge protector, without yet knowing how many of my electronics I had destroyed through my recklessness – I was giving them time to dry off first.
I returned home to test my electronics. My laptop had been safely off the floor, but I had no idea if plugging it into its previously dampened power supply would fry it. Miraculously, aside from the imploded surge protector, everything worked fine. I spent the rest of my day filled in bliss and gratitude, and celebrated by cooking huge portions of pasta primavera and ginataang kalabasa’t sitaw (squash and string beans in coconut milk) with a very dear friend. We watch Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, which is a pretty dire piece of cinema. Next time I get to pick the movie!
Days 3 & 4: I find myself fully in the groove of coping with the water cuts. They’re long, but at least they’re predictable, so I can keep my barrels and a wash basin full, do my nightly jog and shower before 6 PM, and I’m good. My knees ache a bit from hours of bent-over sweeping on the previous morning, but I still manage to get in my daily jogs. This week will be over in no time!
Day 5: On Tuesday, I am surprised to find the water cut earlier than usual, at 1 PM. I haven’t had the chance to fill my water stockpiles completely. I don’t take my dogs for an evening jog because I can’t spare the drinking water that they will so thirstily consume afterward. My shower with a pail is a bit meagre, and doesn’t quite leave me feeling clean. While walking back to the house from some errands, I notice a large announcement from Maynilad posted on the community bulletin board. I stop to read it, using my mediocre Tagalog skills, hoping to shed some light on the suddenly unpredictable schedule of water cuts. Before I can read the announcement to the end, my womanizing neighbour passes by on his motorbike and offers me a ride home. Who am I to turn down a ride from such a handsome young man? Off I go on the back of his motorbike, like so many ladies before me!
Day 6: I wake up to discover that the water has still not come back. I am forced to forego my usual morning ritual of washing the dishes that have piled up since the last water cut started. The dishes are already looking pretty funky, and I still have no sense of when the water will be turned back on. I start to really wish I had been paying more attention when my landlord showed me how to turn on the electric pump for well water, which earlier tenants used before Maynilad began providing service to our neighbourhood.
I have a work meeting in Quezon City the next morning, so I decide to make the trip up that night after traffic on EDSA dissipates, and grab a short-term hotel room – preferably one without mirrors on the ceilings. According to MMDA’s realtime reporting, northbound traffic on EDSA can be heavy until as late as 11:30 PM – Manila traffic is a topic fully worthy of its own blog post, one that will be written in due time. I get on the bus at 2 AM, which is generally not considered the safest thing to do in Manila, arrive in QC without incident, and check into a hotel, 38 hours after my last drop of running water. As soon as I enter the room, I take advantage of the running water to shave off the thickest beard I’ve ever grown. My mass of facial has achieved truly monumental proportions, partly as a protest against the lack of running water, partly because beards are in now, and partly out of sheer laziness. After I finish my shave, I have an extremely satisfying hot shower, crawl into bed, and fall fast asleep.
Day 7: I start my day in QC by reading my eBook about ExxonMobil over a leisurely McDonald’s breakfast – still my favourite breakfast in Manila! I have no difficulty making use of the free coffee refill as I learn about ExxonMobil’s devious struggle against Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government. From there I proceed to my meeting, which is pleasant and productive. My colleague suggests that I can check at the Barangay Hall to find out if Maynilad is distributing emergency water supplies to its customers.
On the way home to Muntinlupa, it starts raining hard. I stop to pay a bill at a pawn shop nearby (because you can do pretty much everything at pawn shops in the Philippines), and the cashier cheerfully informs me that the water came briefly in the morning, but is now gone again. In other words, when I get home I can expect a full toilet and nothing else. The rain is too intense for me to visit the community bulletin board, so I take a tricycle straight home. I still get soaked on the way, but am sadly unable to squeeze any of it out into my toilet or wash basin.
I do, however, get a true royal welcome from my dogs. They rush out into the rain to greet me, yelping with joy. The house is still filthy, my dishes are still covered with two-day-old toothpaste, I now smell like wet dog (though that part is admittedly kinda cute), and there is nothing I can do about it. I make an urgent trip to the bathroom and waste about ten litres of filtered drinking by dumping it into the toilet bowl to flush down the contents. In my misguided efforts at rationing this relatively expensive water, I repeatedly underestimate the amount that must be dumped into the toilet, thereby causing me to use even more in the end. As I consider the monetary value of that single toilet flush, I feel very decadent indeed – this must be what The Good Life is. Nonetheless, I do not look forward to a Day 8.
Ever since my days as a pretentious teenage jackass, I have flirted with Buddhism as a useful set of guidelines for daily life. But recently, as the happy-go-lucky hedonism of my 20s has fallen victim to diminishing returns, and as my old mechanisms for self-distraction seem to grow creakier, I’ve returned to Buddha’s teachings more seriously – if not as a full-fledged religious creed, then at least as something deserving of my sustained attention.
For a time, I was far too caught up in life’s many wonderful distractions to really see the appeal in a religion that, at least in some of its grimmer variants, essentially teaches us that everything in life is terrible. But as I’ve achieved many of the modest goals of my youth – having the freedom to work where and when I choose, a modest degree of financial independence and security, a home I can be happy with and the company of good people – I’ve begun to find myself slipping backwards on the hedonic treadmill. I am now presented with two choices: either redouble my old efforts to keep on hitting the fast-moving, constantly zigzagging target of happiness; or, go for an entirely new approach.
And constantly hitting that target can be a tremendously tiring endeavour. It’s not easy to generate endless new variations on The Good Life that will provide fresh new experiences while still fitting within one’s delicate personal balance of new experiences and comforting familiarity, of challenge and of leisure, of fresh internal and external validation. And as each carefully calibrated combination begins to get dragged down by diminishing returns, we have to work even harder to find something new that still manages to meet our precise needs.
In the end, it’s exhausting – Whenever I have a home, I want to move out of it and travel for months on end; whenever I’m traveling, I want to have a home – and so on, and so on. Oh, and I also need to be loved at all times, and to have this love visibly and constantly expressed. See? Exhausting!
Here in the Philippines, where people seem so grounded when compared to the existential angst-ridden cultures of the west, a life filled with simple pleasures and the validation of one’s peers does seem pretty persuasive at first. When I would see how incredibly happy people here seem to be while sharing a meal with friends or family, it’s tempting to believe that you don’t need anything more. And for about a decade of my life, my experiences told me that having fun and being loved and esteemed really was enough.
That may, in fact, be true in a culture where people are so deeply interconnected with their families and social circles, and where most individuals are still heavily occupied with meeting their basic needs outside these moments of bonding and togetherness. So perhaps the staleness and diminishing returns that have set in are not due to some universal attribute of the human psyche, but are the result of my being raised in a culture that teaches constant dissatisfaction – with your possessions, with your body, and even with your own level of happiness. An economic system whose entire survival depends on convincing people who already have everything that they don’t yet have enough probably doesn’t help, either. (Although, as I wrote previously, Filipinos unfortunately seem to be increasingly falling sway to the culture of dissatisfaction, as well – I suppose that’s what you would call progress.)
On the other hand, this dissatisfaction with life’s fleeting pleasures is apparently embedded deep enough in the human condition that it was also experienced by a restless prince named Gotama about 2500 years ago in India. So, maybe there’s really something there.
The advantages of ridding ourselves of all this restlessness, and of our insatiable desires for new experiences and for constant validation, are fairly self-evident. The single-minded focus on fulfilling these desires takes a toxic toll on the psyche, on the environment, and on our fellow human beings, who we use as means toward these paper-thin ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. Perhaps we’re spewing out megatons of CO2 on our way to next international adventure to compensate for the staleness of our daily lives. Maybe we’re dressing up in shiny clothes sewn by Bangladeshi child slaves in order to earn the esteem of our peers, then discarding the clothes once they fall out of fashion. No matter how we pursue these cravings, a colossal amount of waste and suffering are the result.
As I felt this restlessness grow inside me, I began to voraciously consume Buddhist scripture. The more I read it, the more I realized there was something meaningful to be found – something I had never been able to fully appreciate before, either because of the point I was previously at in my life, or because it was too hard for me to separate the power of the Buddha’s teachings from the undeniable flakiness of many of his followers.
One of my favourite things about Buddhism is its approach to morality. Most religions express their morality in terms of our actions or thoughts being just or unjust in the eyes of a higher power. We may act justly to avoid punishment in the afterlife, or we may act justly because we wish to win the love and the approval of a creator. We may even act justly simply because it is the right thing to do, although this sadly doesn’t seem to be as strong a determinant in many people’s ethical decisions as we might hope: witness the convictions of many religious that anyone without faith is bound to become a murderous psychopath.
Buddhism looks at morality from a somewhat different light. The most famous teaching is, of course, karma, the universal law of morality that causes all moral actions to have consequences in this life and the next – not due to some vengeful deity, but merely as a result of the underlying structure of the universe. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and the world contains plenty of very bad people living extremely well, so I can’t accept the idea of karma in the narrow sense that most people understand it.
However, my own experience teaches me that our actions do shape our psyche in the long term, for better or for worse – in the end, we are what we do. Many of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life have the inside of my head a worse place to be, although some of my bad decisions have eventually led to wake-up calls which have, in turn, helped to clear away at least a bit of the spiritual rot. Perhaps karma’s mechanisms of cause and effect are more complex than we can imagine – I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my sins will cause me to be reborn as a slug, though. (And after all, how does a slug make moral decisions that will eventually help him to be reborn as a human being?)
But for me, the teachings on karma are still not as important as the division of actions into the skillful and unskillful, something that is especially important in Theravada Buddhism. I can’t say I understand the different schools of Buddhism perfectly, but I can at least grasp the broad division into Theravada, which focuses more on meditation and personal enlightenment for a select few “spiritual athletes”, and Mahayana, a more inclusive view that focuses on universal compassion, uplifting the masses and guiding them in their daily lives. I hope I am not revealing my snobbery too blatantly when I say that I skew more toward the Theravada school. I guess that’s because I have a lot more difficulty loving other human beings than I do loving my dogs, but I can certainly grasp the idea that hurting other beings for the sake of my temporary gratification is an unskillful way to live. In other words, it’s not only wrong just because it’s wrong (which I’d like to think is the case, though I’m not sure if that’s true in any objective sense); it’s not only wrong because the laws of karma will react against our bad actions (which I only accept in a narrowly non-religious sense); it’s wrong because it shows a lack of skill.
Using other living beings to temporarily satisfy our cravings and provide us with small scraps of fleeting, non-sustainable happiness is simply unskillful, especially when the alternative would be a self-generating, unlimited source of joy. A form of happiness that does not rely on other beings and their pain, and does not depend upon the delusions of constant novelty, shallow gratification and external validation would be stronger, more self-sufficient, more sustainable – more skillful. And although I would recoil at the idea of someone judging me as a just plain bad person, it would be hard to argue with the judgment that I should pursue my happiness in a more skillful way. And – here’s the most appealing part for a borderline narcissist like myself – skill is not something that must be gained by surrendering yourself to a higher power. Skill is something that can be created through extreme internal effort and discipline. In a way, Buddhism tells us that overcoming one’s egoism requires the sheer arrogance of believing that such a thing can be achieved by one’s effort alone (albeit perhaps with the help of a teacher).
The problem is, the pursuit of new experiences and the satiation of the ego are such all-encompassing occupations in most people’s lives that it’s hard to say what’s even left if we take them away. I think that’s one thing that makes Buddhism so daunting, and has made it so much harder to digest than religions that basically promise worldly pleasures magnified many times over in the afterlife. With so many of the world’s religious people taking solace in the idea that they’ll be reunited with their dead relatives in the afterlife, what are we to do with a religion that tells us that even wishing to see a lost loved one again is an unacceptable form of craving?
There are no easy answers, and sometimes I feel like my early forays into the Buddha’s teachings have left me more confused than ever. What I can say at this point is that what I’ve read and lived so far has given me a clearer framework for viewing my life and for assessing my growth as a human being. So far it’s been a lot less fun than the earlier hedonistic phase of my life, but I’m willing to accept it on faith (there’s that word!) that this process of soul-searching will eventually lead to more skillful sources of happiness than the ones I’ve drawn upon in the past. If nothing else, it has certainly given me a greater sense of focus and purpose amidst all of life’s colourful distractions.
For more on my circuitous journey, look for upcoming blog posts that will probably have titles like The Ego Kills Everything, so Kill the Ego and Searching for the Gap.
And finally, while on the topic of skills, here is a closing song upon which to meditate:
As much as possible, I like to buy my fresh produce in Manila at the traditional market (or palengke) instead of the supermarket. I don’t do this as an affectation or an attempt to be “quirky”, and I don’t do it out of a desire for authentic cultural experiences. After having lived here for this long, I am no longer searching for the exotic, and at this point pretty much everything feels normal to me, anyway – it’s just my everyday life.
What remains, however, is an appreciation for the friendly, casual chaos of Manila street life, with vendors crowding the sidewalks and shouting out alluring descriptions of their wares. I like it even more when I compare it to the stifling corporate culture of the malls and supermarkets. Market vendors are more fun to talk to and more likely to joke around with me (even if it’s at my expense), without fear of being fired by their malevolent corporate overlords and quickly replaced with another minimum wage-earner in the single-minded pursuit of maximum profit.
Plus, the vegetables at the market are fresher!
When I want to grab a few things in a hurry, there are plenty of vendors in my neighbourhood that will do the trick, including a small local market. But if I feel like buying so many vegetables that I risk tearing the straps off my heavy-duty eco-bag, I usually go to the Alabang Public Market. The Alabang district of Muntinlupa City is known mostly for housing old-money types in high-end, heavily fortified gated communities like Ayala Alabang; it’s also becoming increasingly important as an up-and-coming business district. However, away from these moneyed enclaves and closer to the expressway, you will discover that Alabang also boasts plenty of lively street life, from a seemingly endless supply of sidewalk sock vendors to the charmingly dodgy karaoke bars and surplus TV stores that lurk underneath the viaduct. Best of all, you can experience it all without some of the more pungent odors that your nose might pick up in more crowded areas of Manila.
Alabang is just a short ride from my house, so let’s go!!! And buy some beans!!!
To get there, we hop on a passing jeepney along the highway. Given the swarms of jeepneys that dominate the roads in the Philippines (and have earned them the moniker Kings of the Road – and verily, they are cruel tyrants), it’s not a long wait. In fact, if you have to wait 3 minutes for your jeep to come in Manila, you’ve waited too long! Sorry, sucker!
We’ll be taking the expressway to reach Alabang without getting caught in Manila’s notorious traffic, and not just any jeep is street legal for that purpose. Only jeepneys with jerry-rigged gates at their rear entrances are judged worthy to pass through the Gates of Toll, presumably so that passengers don’t simply slide out the back at 80 km/hr – something that would certainly be within the realm of possibility. Interestingly, each expressway-ready jeepney gate seems to be a unique piece of hand-made craftsmanship. The number of different ways that they slide, lock or are tied into place is truly impressive, like an infinite number of unique and precious snowflakes that allow public utility vehicles to legally travel in the winter wonderland of the expressway. The jeepney driver brusquely instructs the passengers to close the gate before the jeepney enters the expressway, and the passengers closest to the back are stuck having to fumble their way through each completely unique door-closing mechanism.
One morning while I was puttering around the house, cooking rice and sweeping up dog poop in the yard, I heard a feeble “Tao po?” (Is anybody there?) emanating from my front yard. I ambled outside to discover a fresh-faced young man with a hopeful expression on his face, standing outside my gate.
“Good morning, sir. I am a working student from Biñan, Laguna…” he began. Inevitably, anytime someone in the Philippines tells you that they are a working student, they are about to try and sell you something. I have almost never heard anyone here describe themselves as a working student for any other reason.
I was about to brush him off, when suddenly he raised two packages of biscuits into the air. He now had my full attention! I asked him what he was selling. “Biscocho and broas,” he answered.
Biscocho? Since it’s kinda like Italian biscotti but not nearly as good, maybe not.
Broas (pronounced “Bro-ass” – well, OK, actually “bro-as”)? Although I am a total bro, I’ll pass.
“Do you have otap?” I asked, hopefully.
To my delight, he quickly produced a package of otap, one of my favourite Filipino snack foods, from his bag of treasures. Why didn’t he mention it in the first place? I can never resist the flaky, buttery goodness of good otap from the Visayas. In fact, I melt before it just as quickly as it melts in my mouth.
Happy to have the chance to help a working student – arguably the hardest-working type of student – while also helping myself become grotesquely fat, I purchased one package and began to munch away. And as I snacked, I got to thinking: That would be a great way to murder someone (not, I must hasten to say, that I would ever want to do such a thing myself)!
Think about it. In the Philippines, at least, door-to-door vendors are not uncommon. All you would have to do to dispose of your enemy would be to send an innocent-looking young man to their door selling packages of poisoned biscocho, poisoned broas, and, if the victim actually has good taste in snack food, poisoned otap.
After a day of sporadic otap-snacking, I still feel fine; I guess the otap really was just a way for a dedicated young man to make a bit of extra tuition money, rather than a nefarious criminal ploy. If there’s any lesson here, I suppose it’s that we constantly put our lives and personal safety in the hands of others, and even with all the dangers in the world today, it’s a miracle that our tattered social contract continues to hold up as well as it does. OK, I’m probably overreaching now – I think I’ll just shut up and eat some more otap.
Note: My macabre train of thought may have been unconsciously inspired by the pretty terrible story of the milk tea poisoning deaths that recently occurred in Manila. It’s really a horrible tragedy, and my heart genuinely goes out to the victims and their families. I don’t want my readers to think that I really find humour in the idea of a real human being actually dying from poisoned food – except, of course, for myself!
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hedonic Treadmill. According to Wikipedia, the Hedonic Treadmill
is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill)
In other words, just like a real treadmill, no matter how fast you go and how hard you push yourself, you will always end up back in the same place.
The Treadmill has been much on my mind myself a bit less happy these days – not really sad, just kinda middle-of-the-road content. I find myself in this situation even though I seem to have achieved a lot of my goals and have created a life that seems pretty good on paper.
Were all the heady thrills of my youth just temporary jolts of happiness before sober adulthood brought me crashing back to my current weak-tea version of contentment? Will I have to keep force-feeding myself a constantly escalating diet of new countries, new challenges, new adventures, and more expensive toys just so I can keep feeling something, even though all I really want to do now is stay at home with my dogs and practice the guitar?
Although the Treadmill seems to be a widespread phenomenon, either due to something inherent in human nature or through the success of demand-driven western capitalism, it all seems more ludicrous when living in the Philippines, a country with so much highly visible poverty. On the one hand, I’ve met plenty of Filipinos who seem happier than I could ever be without a centavo in the bank, and in some cases without ever having traveled more than a hundred kilometres from their hometown. That’s not to downplay the challenges that many Filipinos face – the idea of a life with almost no social safety net is absolutely terrifying, especially for someone from a developed country who is accustomed to universal health care. No amount of positive thinking can erase the pain of losing a loved one due to lack of money for medical treatment or medicine.
But as the economy here continues to boom, buoyed by the country’s amazingly skilled, highly-educated English-capable workforce, you can see more and more people climbing dutifully onto the treadmill to begin their endless ride. Mixed in with indisputably beneficial rewards like good employer health insurance and increased opportunities for travel come the usual trappings of the treadmill: the idea that the higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more expensive the treats, toys, and gadgets must be to provide a suitable reward for your labours, to make it all seem worthwhile, and to recapture just a bit of the original thrill of getting your very first paycheque all those years ago. In spite of all the obvious benefits of economic growth, it’s a pretty depressing sign in a country where so many people can still find so much happiness – maybe greater than any happiness I’ll ever know – with only their family, their friends, and God.
But the real injustice of the Hedonic Treadmill is that the constantly escalating amount of money that goes into powering people’s treadmill workouts could be used to increase the health, safety and security of those who are not lucky enough to make it onto the Treadmill – increasing fundamental determinants of quality of life, and not just increasingly expensive efforts to stay in their current position on top of the conveyor belt. I’ve met young Filipinos who had to stop their university studies for half a year or longer because they were 1000 pesos (around $25 US) short on tuition. In other words, there are people out there for whom 1000 pesos is enough for them to realize their dreams, to complete the application requirements for a new job, or to avoid being kicked out of their homes. On the other hand, I feel a burning sense of shame when I consider what 1000 pesos really means to me, and how much happiness I could actually buy with at this point in my treadmill ride. (More than you’d think, considering that I’d rather spend it at the palengke than at Vikings, but still not very much.)
I can remember the incredible excitement I felt the first time I stepped on a plane to take a domestic flight within the Philippines – to Cebu, I believe. Or the first time I flew from the Philippines to another Southeast Asian country – Thailand. Now it’s hard for me to get really excited about anything short of visiting a new continent. I still want to see all of the continents, but before I run out of continents, I may have to do a bit of soul-searching. Maybe I’ll have to start giving more to charity before I end up feeling completely like human garbage. Maybe all of us with the luxury of deciding what to do with the money that’s left after we pay for our rent, utilities and groceries – a luxury not afforded to most of the world’s 7 billion human beings – should look past the tired, predictable refrains of “it’s my money, I earned it” and feel a bit garbage-y, too. Because aside from the obvious environmental and social impact of trying to find happiness in disposable consumer products and an ever-expanding carbon footprint, there’s also the damage to – and I kinda hate to use this word – the soul. Maybe by reflecting on the rusted tin cans that clutter up my soul and thinking about what the fundamental, inner determinants of happiness really are, I can get off the treadmill and possibly even help others in the process. And maybe doing that could be worth even more than a new GoPro.
Recently, PHILVOLCS (the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology) released its Valley Fault System Atlas, mapping the West and East Valley Fault Lines that cut directly through Metro Manila. After two years of research, residents of the Metro and nearby provinces can now see exactly how close their homes are to fault lines that have the capacity to unleash earthquakes with a magnitude of up to 7.9.
Considering that the Atlas arrived hot on the heels of the massively destructive Nepal quake, which measured somewhere between 7.9 and 8.1, the new publication has made people understandably skittish. The fact that there have been no major quakes along the Valley Fault System in several hundred years has been taken by many as a sign that we’re past due for The Big One, though I suppose you could just as soon argue that it means the chances of The Big One happening anytime soon are pretty low.
Of course, just releasing an atlas that makes the risks so disturbingly visual doesn’t actually increase the risk to anyone. My house in Muntinlupa City is really, really close to the West Valley Fault, the potentially more dangerous of the two. I really, really love my neighbourhood, and the idea that it could be reduced to a smouldering heap of rubble is pretty upsetting to me. The thought of seeing my beloved dogs buried under piles of rubble from collapsing houses next door, both of which tower over my modest and somewhat rickety one-story house, is not a very nice thought at all. For a while, I thought about moving somewhere safer after my current house lease ends, even if it meant tearing myself away from a place that has truly become my home.
But risk is a funny business in the Philippines. In my home country, wherever that is (somewhere in North America or Europe, I think), really big natural disasters are a rare occurrence. On some years we may see floods that ruin people’s basements (which is probably one reason nobody has basements in the Philippines), but when it happens, it’s considered something extraordinary. In the Philippines the only uncertainty facing us each year is: regular typhoons or supertyphoons? When each year pretty much guarantees flooded streets and houses as a bare minimum, with the risks escalating from there all the way up to death, you have to look at risk differently. No wonder bahala na is such a big hit here.
So, if the Big One does come, I only pray that my fellow Manileños and I will come out lucky and unscathed. And if that’s too much for ask for, I will at least hope for a quick and relatively painless death for me, preferably under something large and heavy enough to squish me without too much wasted time. Not that I’m hoping for anything more than many more happy days in Manila – it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, and it’s finally stopped being so damn humid here. Plus, my dogs are looking really comfortable sleeping on the floor next to me. I’m pretty sure they’re quite happy in their total ignorance of seismology, and maybe I could learn a thing or two from them.
By now, most of you are probably already big fans of Dog With A Blog, the hit Disney channel TV show about a dog… that blogs! Wow… crazy!
Whoa… What’ll they think of next?! Pretty weird, huh?! I didn’t even know dogs could type!!!
But then it got me thinking: Everyone loves dogs, but what if we took it to the next level? What if, instead of a dog, we had a human with a blog? I mean, think of all the adventures a human being could have. After all, human beings aren’t even required by law to be on leashes outside their homes. The possibilities are limitless – or at least less limited than they would be with dogs – and that’s what Bloggerbels is all about. Let’s go – It’s gonna be off the chain! Heh, heh, heh!