July 30, 2011


We were watching a movie the other night and in one part the guy writes a song for his girlfriend and tells her, “For your song I used all the good keys…” Being the sappy, corny person Lady Hiva tells me I am, I really liked the metaphor when I heard it. I thought about it after the movie and wondered if each of us had a song, what would they sound like? Would they sound similar? Or different? There are  88 keys on a piano (36 black and 52 white), which keys are used in your song?

I envision each of our songs are unique, just as we are unique children of God. Some of us with slow peaceful ballads, others with loud pomp and circumstance; a lullaby; a patriotic march; a cheerful melody; a base keeping a fast dancing tempo, or a sullen tune full of emotion.  As I thought about the quote more, I began to disagree with it. Which keys are the bad keys? Which are the good keys? It isn’t the keys themselves that give the song character—one simple key is rather dull and uneventful by itself—it is how we use the keys in succession with other keys that create our personal concerto.This weekend I was able to see how life's circumstances play a part in our song.

We joined some work friends at the pool. USEC (United States Embassy Club) does outreach into the local community. One of the programs is after school for some underprivileged children. 20 of these children came for a weekend pool party. We had so much fun. They were bursting full of energy and loved that all of us were willing to get in a play with them.

Bryan and I would throw them into the pool to see how high they could go. Hiva wanted to introduce them to “chicken fighting.” One person sits on the shoulders of another person and they push another team until one team falls into the water. All of these games we used to play as children but these kids had never seen them before. (We had to stop the chicken fighting because some of the boys got too aggressive and decided pushing was not enough and started punching!)

Bryan showed them what a cannonball was and we then practiced diving. I had to laugh when one of the boys did a belly flop. I physically winced when the loud crack of him meeting the water sounded. I asked him if it hurt when he surfaced, but as soon as he caught his breath he swam to the side and started punching his stomach and saying, “I am strong, my stomach hard!” They were so fun and adventurous. Lady Hiva was teaching one of the girls how to swim and she leaned over to tell Hiva she was “so happy.” It touched Hiva to see how such a simple thing like swimming could bring happiness to another.As we played I could not help but think about the uniqueness of each child and how each one would have a different song to sing.

Their songs are all diverse and extremely different from what my life was like when I was at their age. By experiences alone, their songs reflect a life I only read about in books or heard about when grandma threatened I ‘needed to eat all my food because there are starving children in other countries that do not have anything to eat tonight.’ Yes, I do not agree there are bad keys, just a different chorus.

We all come from so many backgrounds; our life’s song is almost inherently created. Our families, our friends, and our situations all add a few keys to orchestrate the opus. Talents are the tools given to use and with those talents we form the song others hear from us.

What is my song? I am not sure. Most likely it changes with time, but I hope that the main melody is one of happiness and encouragement; something that inspires or makes others want to get up and dance or conquer an obstacle. Most of all, a song  that brings a smile. Often we do not get the luxury to choose which keys fall into our music, but we can use what we are given to weave an unforgettable orchestra.

July 24, 2011

Dog Fur Rugs and Frog Skin Purses

I was telling Lady Hiva today that we may have some culture shock going back to the United States after living here in the Philippines for two years. As I was driving home I thought how the crazy traffic, the honking, the food, the buildings, and the lifestyle, none of it surprises me anymore. I swerve across three lanes of traffic to my exit, bully the little car next to me for space just because I am bigger, drive in a lane that is not really a lane, turn left when it says not to, (I even went up a one way street the other day and people just waved and I kept driving!), and I honk like the best of them. AND the great part is: NOBODY CARES because they do it too! Not much is shocking at this point. We are even getting used to all the salespeople pestering us as we try to walk. Before we would stop a conversation due to their persistence, but we now can just carry on walking and talking.

That being said however, there are moments I still get surprised.

We were at one of those malls with several booths all selling similar things and all of them want your business of course, so the yelling for our attention begins when we enter the door. You can buy anything at these places. I mean it, anything. Decorations for the house, furniture, fabric, toys, electronics, clothes—both real and “real” designers, bootleg DVDs, shoes, food, and plenty of bags, purses and pearls. It is amazing to see all that is for sale for being such an economically struggling country.

We bought a few things and then were walking around while we waited for some friends. We found some really great food places. This one little bakery makes Hopia out of Ube. Ube is a purple root similar to Polynesian yams.  For the Hopia, they cover some ground Ube with dough and then grill both sides. It becomes bite sized yummy-ness!

As we were exploring we saw a few things that surprised me. One of the rug shops was highlighting their newest addition to the exotic collection and there on the top of all the other rugs was BEETHOVEN! He had died and been skinned and was ready for your floor. I am not sure why this was so bothersome to me. I have tried dog meat before and there are several people with cow hide or sheep hide rugs in their houses, but the dog rug was appalling. It still had its black nose and floppy ears! I could not help but think who would want their dog for a fur rug? I can see the conversation now, ‘We would miss Beethoven so much around the house, we decided to have him skinned and made into a rug. We will always have him lying in front of the fireplace like he used to at night.’ Then I would add this to their words, ‘Yeah, still shedding hair and causing dander. Yep. He is still there, except for that fact he is NOT!’

As we crossed over the aisle and went to the next few stores, I passed a whole bunch of purses that looked like frogs. They were tanned and leather looking with plastic beady eyes glued onto them. The mouth was a zipper for your access. After seeing Beethoven skinned I leaned in closer to see if the frogs were real too. I turned slightly to my left and was startled because the sales lady’s face was inches from mine with that eager-to-have-a-customer-at-my-booth-I-want-you-to-buy-something look and she proudly exclaimed, “Real FROGS!” and lifted one off for me to hold. HINT: as I have said before, if you are not intending to buy anything in Asia, don’t point at it and definitely DON’T hold it. If you pick it up, there is a chance you will be walking away with it! Instead of being impressed like she had hoped, I was rather disgusted. Who wants to put their money in a dead frog? Then reach into its throat to retrieve it? NOT ME! So I smiled and said, “Tingnan lang…” (Just looking) and I walked away. As I said, sometimes I am still shocked.

One of the things about Filipino culture that I have not yet mentioned is the acceptance of Lady-boys—sometimes called Mahu in Hawaii or Drags in the States. They are all over, there seems to be quite a few of them that sell in stores or restaurants. In many ways you cannot tell they are not female from a distance. It is only when the female body says, “Hello Sir,” in a deep masculine voice that I do a startled double take. They are always funny to talk with and Hiva got a few to pose for a photo for her. Yes, getting used to the Philippines brings new experiences every day.

Hi all, this is Hiva picking up the story from here.  Bryan the intern was trying to buy purses and pearls to take home to his wife to appease her for missing their first anniversary. So he asked if I would help him pick out purses for his lady folk.  I joined him in the middle of his bartering for purses with the lady boy sales person.  I heard from the lady boy, “Sir, you’re handsome, are you married?”  Bryan blushing and showing his ring “Yeah.”  Lady boy displaying the diamond rings on his left hand ring finger, “Me too, see?”  I playfully asked the lady boy, “Where’s your husband?”   The lady boy burst into teenage girl giggles and happily continued on with the bartering process.  Bryan and the lady boy eventually agreed on a price for the purses and we merrily went on our way.  

July 23, 2011

Reading the Writing on the Walls with a Different Perspective

We finally made it into the American Cemetery—making sure we were there LONG before 5pm so it was open. One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C. is Arlington Cemetery and the American Cemetery here in Manila is very similar. The grounds are manicured, beautiful and peaceful. As you drive through the gates you are greeted by a long drive flanked on both sides by large trimmed trees and at the end is a large off-white monument dedicated to those who died fighting here.

We parked and read the lone information sign detailing that there are 16,500 United States and Filipino soldiers buried here with 32,000 other names listed on the walls of the monument of soldiers who were killed in battle, but bodies were unrecovered.

As we walked the 1 mile to the monument we passed several rows of white marble crosses geometrically lined up to form perfect patterns. The pristine white is stunning against the lush green grass and beautiful tropical flower beds. I remember being younger and visiting Arlington Cemetery and loved to walk along the path and see how the patterns of the stones changed depending on your perspective. Today, I found myself doing it again. Then it struck me, that although this Cemetery is beautiful and the headstones are engaging to see, each one of them represents a person. A person that was once living; someone with a name; a family; parents; dreams; ambitions; and a home—someone with a story.

When that hit me, the beautiful area became more somber. I thought about the fact that most of them died in the prime of life, never making it to even as old as I am now. Due to their sacrifices, many young women at home became widows and single mothers instantly. How many of them thought that they would spend the rest of their lives in a manicured, walled cemetery in the Pacific when they joined the military? What was their story? Who was left behind to mourn for them when they did not return at the end of the war?

When we finally arrived at the monument, it was larger than it looked from the other end of the road. It is a large elliptical grass area about the size of a soccer field with two pillared walk ways enclosing it. It has the appearance of a modern Roman monument. Each pillar, really more of a wall, has thousands of names of those that died in combat. Again, I wondered about each name and who they were. What stories would they tell me if they were standing next to me?

At the ends of each walk way are rooms with map murals made of tiny tiles representing WWII and how the fighting happened. At first it is awe inspiring to just look at the mural and wonder who had the tedious job of creating it. Then it hits that the entire world was fighting for something they believed in, standing up for what they believed was right.

That is when the unknown stories from the writing on the walls began to flow into my own story. Here I stood, in Manila Philippines, as a free citizen of the United States in a country with hundreds of years of history with the U.S. and these people, brave soldiers, fought so I could stand here and feel completely safe doing so. Then I thought about all the other cemeteries all over the world that look similar to this one: Punchbowl in Hawaii, France, Papua New Guinea, Arlington, etc. Not to mention all the Cemeteries in other countries for their dead and victims of war.

How easy it is to forget—Easy to forget those that sacrificed in the past and those who are currently sacrificing now. Then I looked over and saw the lone American flag waving in the center of the monument and was proud of the symbol it represents: The people, the leaders, the soldiers, the ideals. Are we a perfect country? No, we aren’t, but I would like to hope we are trying; Trying to stand with all those who lay in premature graves in manicured cemeteries all over the world.

As we drove around one last time I could not help but think of the names and all they symbolize. Then I saw one last word written on the wall of the building being constructed right outside the fence of the Cemetery. Someone had written the word, “PAIN” on one window. Do we know the pain of all those around us? Regardless of title, race, nationality, or religion? Maybe we need to look again at the beauty of the patterns and reread the writing on the wall with a different perspective.

July 17, 2011

The Cemetery gates are locked: NOBODY is Getting in. The Church is open: NO photos

Boeing was acting up so he had to visit the Ford dealership to be worked on. Our “30 minute oil change” turned into 5 days and several thousand Pesos later. Frustrating? YES...Hiva told me I needed to be nice before  I would call or when we went into the dealership. (That is why she is so great for me, only if I could be more loving like she is naturally) So before I dialed the number or while I was waiting at the desk because the “only cashier is on her lunch break” I practiced my best ‘see-I-am-happy-smile-even-if-this-is-really-really-annoying-right-now smile (if you have never seen someone do it, it is similar to someone that has bad facelift and they are permanently smiling so hard it is painful) and repeated in my head “I can be nice, I can be nice, I can be nice.” I would finish the conversation pleasantly surprised how well I handled it despite my boiling irritation only to have Lady Hiva roll her eyes and say, “You need to remember they are Heavenly Father’s children too. And the cashier needs a lunch at work just like you do.” OUCH! I have SO far to go.

We went to Intramuros just North of Rizal Park. Intramuros is an old Spanish Colony from thousands of years ago. It is surrounded by an ancient wall that if you took out the Jeepneeys honking outside you would think you were in Europe. There is now a golf course around the outer edge and beautiful moss growing on the old rock wall. As you enter Intramuros it feels like an older, slightly dirtier version of a European city. Complete with cobblestone streets, large piazza style homes, and cathedrals. It was fascinating to see.

There were really no designated places to park—I guess the Spanish did not think of EVERYTHING back in the 1500s. So I pulled up to a random empty lot, walked over to the two security guards across the street with really big guns and asked  if I could park there; in Tagalog of course, it seems to get more brownie points that way. They agreed and just to be nice as we walked by them towards the Cathedral I gave them 50 Pesos ($1 USD). The one guard shook his head no, said, “No Sir, its ok.” But in Viper like action his hand snapped forwarded snatched the money and stealthily pocketed it like nothing had happened.

The Cathedral was beautiful. I guess it is the 8th one built on the spot. The first was in 1500 something and built out of bamboo. It burned down…go figure. Candles+wind+bamboo=LARGE S’more party. The stone building there today is stunning. There was a wedding going on so the man at the door  told us the Cathedral was still open but asked us to not take photos. I had the camera so I agreed; knowing that Lady Hiva would not want me to take them anyway. About ten minutes into being there I had veered off into an alcove reading the intriguing history of the building’s many evolutionary stages, Hiva came over and said, “I want some photos, can I have the camera?” So off she went and took photos of the gorgeous building while hiding around the giant stone pillar from the guy at the door! –Wait?! Who did I say was my example earlier? But, hey I did not complain, we have some sweet photos of the place now.

As we were driving in one section of town we passed several poor areas. It is still amazing to me that there are people who drive Porsches and Ferraris, have gated homes with 10 maids, shop at Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and eat at restaurants for $100 a plate and then two kilometers away there are people who ride bikes or push carts that have been built out of scrap materials and usually walk wherever they need to go,  sleep on cardboard under the trees or overpasses, wear the same outfit every day until it falls apart, and could feed the whole family for 3 months for $100. As we drove up one street it was obvious—to the left were miles and miles of poor home structures called “squatters,” and to the right were large pristine sky rises built in the last three years. Photos just don’t do the feeling justice.

We decided to ride up and see the American cemetery. A smaller version of what Arlington National Cemetery looks like. We arrived at 5:15pm and the guard told us it was closed and we were NOT getting in. He gave us a brochure to look at and told us nicely that “you will like to come back tomorrow, very beautiful tomorrow when open.” I thanked him for his kindness and then factiously wondered as I walked back to Boeing if after hours the Cemetery becomes a hideously ugly place after it closes…I guess we will see the beauty of it another day—between 9 and 5 of course.