Solving The Puzzle
When I turned 35 I remember thinking “I’ve lived half my life, with the next half to go.” I had this thought again at 40, 45, 50, and each time I’ve convinced myself I have at least half of my life yet to live. I won’t be able to do that at the next five year mark which is approaching at a rapid clip. 55 will be my reality check. The official start of the downhill and yes I’m being damn optimistic but with relatives that lived past 100 and with modern medicine perhaps I’m not fooling myself too much.
Now I’m doing something similar. I’m dividing my life into tenths (because tenths are easy) and evaluating ten-year blocks of my life, of course assuming I’ll live to be at least 100 years old.. Here we go for the ride.. soon you’ll see what I mean by the puzzle.
Remember the old beach movies with the surfers at the beach, woody wagons, and later the drug and sexual revolution of the 60’s, right into the disco 70’s. I spent almost the first 2/10th’s of my life in Santa Monica California when I could ride my bike to the beach with my surfboard in a side carrier, wheel my bike to “my spot” and surf all I wanted and not worry about my bike being stolen. Later I could drive up and down the Pacific Coast Highway (hwy 1) and it was exactly like the movies.. which is where they were filmed. Parking was everywhere and free. Traffic was reasonably light. Girls.. my gowd the girls. I look back at that period of my life and realize I must have been truly blessed. I lived a dream that most people only see in the movies. In fact many have told me since then how they wish they could have had my first 20 years. But the funny thing was it didn’t feel like the dream then. I was hungry most of my childhood, anything new was rare and far between, my home life was fraught with adult conflict. Yet now I realize how blessed I was.
The next 2/10th of my life was spent traveling to more countries that I can remember (2 I lived in long enough to learn the language) while jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and helping people see the wisdom of doing things my way. The power we wielded was way beyond our maturity or experience, but fortunately our leash was properly minded. Still, pick any country where fit young men would love to spend time and we were there. Many times. It was like a Hollywood movie that never ended with good times and bad times. But at that period of my life it was perfect and I did my best to moderate my responsibilities the best I could. Of course I’m condensing over 20 years of my life in a short paragraph so I’m leaving much out, but you get the picture I’m sure. Since, many have told me they wish they could have done what I’d done. In many ways I was blessed, especially in that I can still sit here and write this missive. But the funny thing was.. Yep, it didn’t feel like it at the time.
And then just turning 40 I remembered one of those countries I’d visited which really caught my attention and was soon on a plane to Thailand. Admittedly my life wasn’t all honey and roses and the preceding 3-4 years hadn’t been easy ones both physically and emotionally, but Thailand promised to fix all that ailed me and renew both body and spirit. Perhaps it was because I had extensive experience living overseas, or maybe it was because I was unusually disciplined, or maybe because by this point in my life I had a generous and secure retirement and the confidence I could keep earning as much as I’d a mind to, but I thrived where most of the westerners I knew with few exceptions would stay from a few days, to a few years at most, and then head home. Out of money, out of spirit, out of mind.. they’d leave like prizefighters who had lost a title fight. Head held low, shoulders slumped, and no prize money.
Due to poor planning or perhaps just bad luck, at each economic downturn they’d leave one after the other sad, beaten, uncertain of their future. Relatively few were able to remain and still live well and to be brutally honest we all had the same characteristics. First and foremost we al handled money well. We saved where others spent, we invested where others spent, we worked where others spent, yet we lived remarkably the same. It was in the little things. A group of guys would go out drinking and chasing women, but one would be just a bit more careful with his money, go home a bit earlier, not take someone home with them as often. Or maybe they’d shun the scene altogether. But behind the scenes they managed their financial lives well.
And they were as careful with their personal lives as they were with their finances. They held their lives close to their vest. Those who didn’t do well here were often quick to share every detail of their lives, while those who did do well would be the ones listening and giving little away. Sure, they’d still laugh and have a good time, but they were cautious.
In addition they would carefully guard their reputations. Instinctively knew how the Thai’s looked at Westerners who brought home bar girls so they were careful to never bring them home. Maybe they’d get serious about someone, but unless they were of a quality background they didn’t bring them around their home or work. They also caught on early that anything inside their home that would be negative, poor eating habits, too many empty bottles, questionable habits of any type, were noticed by housekeeping, who shared with the manager, who talked to the neighbours, who would eventually become a source of information for any future women of their lives.
They realized the importance of their reputation and how everyone would eventually know everything about them unless they were very careful to compartmentalize their lives. There’s a lot more, but I was fortunate enough to do well in Thailand and subsequently was able to enjoy Thailand to a much higher level, I think, than those who didn’t. Why? Because someone usually doesn’t just leave and go home. They enter cycles of ups and downs where the downs eat away at their finances and their souls, and too much of this doesn’t make for a quality life. Keep in mind I’m not saying you needed a ton of money to be successful, you only had to manage what you did have well. I know a school teacher who managed his life quite well, and other professionals who did the same. And more than a few on fixed incomes who lived a comfortable life through strict discipline.
I lived my life in Thailand pretty much as I would live my life anywhere. I had a great job, or rather a business I truly loved. It allowed me to travel throughout most of South-East Asia, especially Thailand and its neighboring countries. I investigated, I photographed, I taught, and I wrote. I was on the road in my SUV or truck 2-3 weeks of every month, traveling with assistants who I truly appreciated and helped them achieve their own goals. When I was home in Bangkok I’d have clients who flew in to spend time with me learning. I’d visit with good friends, we’d cook and eat at each other's homes. And I loved my home. Quality western friends was a shared trait I truly appreciated.
16 floors above the streets of Bangkok I had the privilege of living in a 2500 sqft apartment with large balconies on three sides of the building. My bathroom was all glass and I’d take my shower in the morning or evening looking out over the city, still not believing I was living this life. I’d watch the sun rise and the sun set. I could hear the cooking stalls below start their coals in the early morning, the muezzins call to prayer from the nearby mosque become so ingrained that living without them was at first uncomfortable. 10 minutes from Disneyland East, 90 minutes to Disney World (Pattaya), 150 to Hua Hin, from my bedroom I could see both the main surface roads leading downtown, how traffic was doing on the expressway, and later I could see the skytrains moving around like the monorail at the real Disneyland.
I loved the city and my life within it. It was truly luxurious, but reserved at the same time. But eventually I’d have enough and I’d pack my cameras and gear in the SUV or truck and head out to a new location. I spent months in the insurgent south interviewing both sides of conflict and learned about the insidious third. For years I’d visit my favorite orphanages and refugee camps along the Burma and Laos borders. And when I needed to renew I’d head to the mountains of the Tak province or take a short flight to my third home in Siem Reap and spend a few weeks photographing Angkor Vat.
And let’s talk about that last trait those successful in Thailand shared, and which I valued above all else. The people. Those who did well in Thailand universally spent time around the Thai people who enhanced their time in the Kingdom. Those who taught them the real Thai customs, shared their knowledge of the food, history, their favorite family getaways, maybe the family tailor who made quality goods, or the gold dealer who could be trusted. I truly loved my Thai friends, and I respected and valued them. Some more than others. One more than all. I gave my heart to Thailand but my wallet stayed in America andI never lost site of reality. To do so would mean certain failure and a long plane ride home.
Yes, I’ve seen the bad. I investigated the bad. I photographed and wrote about the horrific. But keep in mind that every country has a dark side and if you hang out in certain types of places you’ll discover such dark places everywhere. Those who did well in Thailand never let this side of Thailand get too close, but they knew it was there waiting to suck them in if they stood too close to the edge.
I made great friends in Thailand from many countries. Holland, Australia, Britain, Scotland, Germany, Spain, Qater, Japan, Taiwan, and of course America. There is no way I could remember them all. I had younger friends who I watched marry, and later have children. Older friends who died. I had friends at the VFW who were my greatest source of historical data and who had lived in the Kingdom longer than you ever here about on this site. They’ve forgot more about Thailand than I could ever know.
I lived in Thailand for over a decade. More than 1/10th of my life. Towards the end of my stay I understand what I had and looking over the horizon what I was about to lose. I’d finally learned it’s the journey and not the destination. I’ve never been too bright, it took me almost half my life, over 50 years to achieve this understanding. To really believe it. I stopped chasing the dollar (which wasn’t moving that fast anyway), stopped thinking about that new luxury car and McMansion home. Instead I started to see the now for what it was. It was the dream. It became easier to truly appreciate every minute of every day, every conversation, every bite of my Big Mac.
I’m back in America now. My youngest lives with me and for the last 3-4 years we’ve been best friends. We do everything together. My second son lives only 12 miles from me and I was there when his first son was born, when he was presented his masters degree, when he stood on his own two feet and acting as a man should put his marriage back together and moved back in with his wife and made it work. I’ve started a new business which has grown and is doing well. I have a good life and this is going to be 1/10th I’d never trade for anything. I know it won’t last. My youngest will finish his masters and move on to start his own life, while my second son is just starting his Ph.d. In a few years one will be starting his own life and the other already has little free time. I’ve re-established communications with my first son, and anyone who knows me knows this is huge and means the world. Yet, no one is looking at my life and saying “Steve, you’re living the dream. What a great life you have. I want to do what you’re doing.” No one is saying that. If only they had the key…
But they said it all the time when I was in Thailand. They’d see my life and they’d want to do that. I’ve had more than a few who actually copied my life right down to my website. I’m flattered. They thought I’d found the key. And maybe I had.
Maybe I’d discovered the key long ago sitting on my surfboard off Venice Beach waiting for the next “outsider” to ride to shore. Or maybe the key was enjoying the life of a high speed operator jumping from 30,000 and not pulling until the ride had to end. And the next key on my chain had to be Thailand. What a dream life! I loved every second of it because I refuse to remember the bad. And now.. in my 5th 10th of my life I’m closer to my sons than ever and I count my blessings. I give thanks. Now I understand. I’m living my dream.
You ask: “The Key?” Yes, the key to life.. the key to the puzzle we all search for. It’s not one place, or one person or one anything. It wasn’t scenic beach towns, surfboard and young blonds. It wasn’t high adventure. Nor was it the exotic life in the Kingdom of Siam. And it wasn’t the Midwest with the close relationships with my sons. The key, if there is one, must be enjoying the life provided us through whatever circumstances in which we’ve participated. Understanding it’s the journey and making it count.
Had I not left my idyllic beach town I would have seen it grow over 100x in population, the beaches become polluted, the people change, parking at the beach cost $35 an hour. If I’d continued my life of adventure my life might not have reached the comfortable age I now am. And if I hadn’t left Thiland when I did, would I have been as happy as I was with all that I’ve read on this site and in the papers? I don’t know. Luck has been on my side.
Now in the middle of my 5th 10th of life I can’t help but wonder when and if I’ll make my return to Thailand. I think it will be after the “that sorrowful day” that which is nearing soon, that day which will change every Thai’s life forever. That day is certain to come sooner rather than later. That day will set off events which will change Thailand forever. Maybe then I’ll return in time for the 6th tenth of my life. Maybe by then I’ll need a warm beach and blue pills. But I’m sure it will be yet another key on the chain. They key to that puzzle.. the key to happiness which we all believe is out there and that for which we spend a lifetime searching. The key is behind us, with us, and in front of us. To all sides of us. The key is now.
Until next time..
Wait.. One more thing please:..
It wasn’t long after my first arrival into Thailand that I discovered this site, www.stickmanbangkok.com. This site became a center from which everything “Thailand” spread. I’m honored to call the site's owner a good friend and I don’t say that lightly. Good friends can walk in my front door any time, in any country, without notice.. and stay as long as they wish. So understand when I saw “good friend” I don’t say it lightly. Many of my best friends I met in some way through this site. Because this site has given me so much, I’ve tried to give back in return. I’ve penned over 150 submissions and for years I wrote the weekly photography column “In Focus, Bangkok Images.” When asked I gave. It didn’t matter what it was. And I’m sure many of you know exactly what I mean.
Stickmanbangkok.com has become an important and I dare say an integral part of our lives. Its owner has managed above all to display an uncommon maturity which allows him to stay above the fray while balancing the needs of the site with the needs of the users. I’ve taken great pleasure in reading the skillfully written weeklies and from a professional standpoint watch the quality of photography improve over the years to an truly artful level. No one covers the nightlife with the access and skill Stickman I’m sure modestly enjoys. I’m his biggest fan even if he doesn’t know it.. J
This site is our barometer. We come here to check the atmospheric conditions of the kingdom. Is the low season here yet, how high is the high season, any new places to eat, who’s just left Thailand and did they have a good time, and who will be here next. Nothing significant or worthwhile about Thailand goes unnoticed or unwritten. It will be covered in some way.
What happens when the man behind the curtain stops pulling the levers, flicking the lights on and then off, and ringing the bells? If my own site is any indication it becomes a ghost town. It’s still there, hundreds visit it every day because Google's spiders just can’t get out of the habit of crawling every page, but it sits void of new content, the paint because weathered and starts to flake off and more and more people just drive by without stopping. It’s there, but it’s a shell of its former self. You debate putting it out of its misery but you can tell from the numbers many still enjoy it.
Is that the fate of StickmanBangkok? Better that than sold to someone without the skills or worse yet, without the soul, someone unable to understand what it’s meant to so many of us. We can’t expect Stick to dedicate his entire life. This isn’t his opus.. or is it? I wish him much success and happiness and when he’s had enough of all that crap he can get his butt back here and run this site again. Yep, that will work.
Thank you, Stick. For everything.