Thursday, August 30, 2007


Standing in line outside of the Japanese Embassy in Manila last week, I tried to avert my eyes away from the skinny, slightly-dirty, probably middle-aged Filipino man trying to sell me a bottle of water, or a Coke, or an iced tea, but it was hard to do, because he was persistent, and constant. (I'm not proud to say that 'I tried to avert my eyes', but it's the truth. If you smile and shake your head, you feel kind of stupid, because he knows that you have more money than he does, and your not buying a drink is a not-so-subtle way of denying him some much-needed coin, so the smile comes across as possibly patronizing and definitely hypocritical, because what foreigner can't afford a bottle of water? But looking away doesn't help much either, because he constantly walked to and fro past the front of the embassy, so it wasn't like I could avoid the dude. Either way, as a foreigner, in a poor place, you feel kind of stupid.)

I then suddenly realized that I recognized the guy. From last year. From this same place, at this same spot, in front of the Japanese Embassy on Roxas Boulevard. While I had been to Japan and back again (and Japan and back again) in the ensuing year, he had been there, in that place, walking to and fro. Trying to sell water. Some Coke. Possibly an Iced tea. Probably ten, twelve hours a day.

Going back and forth from place to place these past few years, I find myself remembering, more and more, the people who work at the places I frequent. The privilege of jetting between countries has made me realize that most people stay rooted in place. So my return to Toronto inevitably finds me, at some point, walking into the Indigo book superstore at Yonge and Bay, and, over a span of three, four, five years, I've grown to recognize some of the staff. The pudgy man in his mid-forties with the shock of white hair quietly shelving books and asking if I need any help. The balding cashier with the dark goatee -- possibly a manager by now? -- in his early thirties who often looks like he would rather be anywhere but there, in that exact place, at the front of the store, serving up customer after customer, tallying up books, placing books in bags, checking the computer for the location of the latest Grisham.

They are fixtures, these people are. I go away and they are still there.

Sometimes I wonder: "Are they happy? Is this where they want to be? Do they dream golden beaches and crimson suns, of turquoise water and hammocks swaying them gently to sleep in the late-afternoon breeze?"

Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe they are exactly where they want to be. Maybe that's why they've stayed.

And then there's the chubby little man in his early sixties who runs the snack counter at the Yonge and Bloor subway. (Whether it's in the North/South/East/West direction, I can't remember.) He's been there since I first headed out to the big bad city of Toronto to attend York University in the fall of 1994, best as I can recall. Always looking tired, and stressed, and bored, and somewhat bloated. Dark, dense rings under his eyes, like soot-stained fingerprints poked in dough. Probably an immigrant. (Not such a tough call, given that Toronto is now composed of fifty percent immigrants.) Sitting there, day after day after day, selling gum, candy, magazines. Watching the commuters be so busy while he stays so still.

And then there's Japan, where I lived for four years in the past and have returned (in two month intervals) twice in the past year, and I've been somewhat startled to see some of the same familiar faces wandering around the train station where I used to teach. I was gone for four years, and there they are, still there, Americans or Canadians, whose names I never learned but whose faces I never realized I hadn't forgotten.

Of course, I've also been on the other side, so to speak. Coming back to Baguio after a few months away, clerks at the Internet cafes remember my name. Korean students who I taught last winter have returned for the summer session and are somewhat surprised to see that I'm still here. I formed a little piece of their mental picture of the Philippines, and to see me again, to be taught by me again, provides a little piece of stability in an otherwise ever-changing world.

We like to form little mental-slots in our minds, ways of understanding different places and different times in our lives, markers of the journey, and we like to fill those slots with the people we met along the way. Seeing them there, in their place, allows us to believe that what is in flux might possibly stay stable. If only for a moment, at least, for the time it takes to buy a magazine before hopping on the subway.

I have gone but they are still here, and
when I come back again, someday soon, or five or ten years from now, perhaps I will see them again. And the world will thus make sense.

That's what I think, anyways.

But the man in front of the Japanese Embassy, the one trying to sell me some water, is most likely thinking of the sun, and its heat, and his feet, and their weariness, and his children, and their hunger.

For that moment, he needs to be nowhere but where he is.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


"Every man has his own patch of earth to cultivate. What's important is that he dig deep."

-- Jose Saramago,
Portuguese novelist

Monday, August 20, 2007


A friend and I recently read the same novel, Q and A, by Vikas Swarup, a funny and involving and moving story about a young Indian beggar boy who becomes the richest game-show winner in international history, and the two of us, my friend and I, came to slightly different conclusions, or interpretations -- conclusions that, perhaps, are not so different after all, upon a little reflection.

Given that the main character's success in answering correctly the questions asked during the quiz portions of the game show resulted from specific incidents from his own life on the streets and in the slums of India, events that provided him with the knowledge needed to win a shitload of money being offered by greedy television executives who didn't really think that anybody would actually be able to answer these queries, was his success therefore a product of his own cunning, his own ingenuity, his own perceptiveness and memory, or was his ultimate triumph nothing more than the working out of his own particular fate, the destiny that his life had been pointing towards all along?

Here's a word or two on this subject from actor Ben Kingsley (real name Krishna Bahnji) recently interviewed in TIME:

Q: What do you look for in a role?
- Catherine Raymond, Bellingham, Washington

A: I look for the echo inside me. Maybe we're all born with our future coiled up inside of us like a spring, and we just unravel this coiled spring and work it out. I'm sorry if this sounds a bit bizarre. I'm trying so hard not to be pretentious because I'm always called pompous and pretentious.

Well, what's he talking about may sound a little pretentious, in person, through the vessel of his voice, if only because Sir Ben Kingsley's diction and overall bearing is probably a bit more distinguished than yours or mine, but I don't think his ideas are particularly pretentious at all. They're what everybody asks themselves all the time, every day, in the morning while nibbling Corn Flakes or in the evening while washing their hair: Is this where I'm supposed to be? Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing? Is here the there I once wanted to reach? And if not, how do I get there, and how will I know what it looks like when I arrive? And will I still be able to get fries with that?

There are many times where I'm standing in front a class full of foreigners, teaching, realizing that they're looking at me as the foreigner, and I realize with a startled flash that I started life on Bayshore Drive in St.Catharines, Ontario, and I'm currently halfway around the world in a country I knew nothing about only a few years ago, and I think: "Whoa -- something happened here."

It can seem so random, the places we end up.

And yet, if I look back, I can see how choice A led to path B, and how from trail C I ended up in valley D. There is a link, and, whether it's random or not, preordained or not, here I am. In this place. At this time. Perhaps the best question is not 'how did I get here' but 'where do I go from here?'

I'm inclined (or would desperately like) to believe that destiny and chance are intertwined, that we do, in the memorable words of Ben Kingsley, look for the echo inside of ourselves, and long, our whole lives, to seek out its original source, its initial shout, its preliminary whisper, its hushed murmur. (Its affirmation of existence, if only in a sigh.)

At the same time, after recently reading a few books recently on evolutionary biology, and a concept called consilience -- the intertwined nature of the arts, sciences and humanities -- I'm beginning to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, we, meaning humans, truly are simply accidental evolutionary byproducts, functioning, intelligent organisms that have developed notions of religion and fate and destiny because, by doing so, it allows us to adapt and understand our place in the universe a little bit better than we would otherwise be able to.

And I keep thinking about all the pathetic people stuck in North Korean concentration camps, or refugees holed up somewhere in the Gaza strip, or children sold through prostitution and living out the remainder of their little lives in a whorehouse on the side of a dusty road somewhere in the backwoods of Cambodia or Laos.

Is that their destiny?

Perhaps we as a thinking species have created these somewhat grandiose concepts of predetermination and existentialism because it allows us to escape from the confines of the 'self' -- that restless, unending state of consciousness that is determined to believe that me, myself and I is a special and unique being. To believe otherwise would be to admit that we are nothing more than arbitrary cogs in an unseen, vaguely understood evolutionary wheel that rotates whether we want it to or not.

And yet, there's always something mysterious and mercurial at the bottom of us, a feeling, a twinge, that I hesitate to label as nothing more than mandatory biological functionings:


When I was a teenager, driving my buddies back and forth to the movies in my dad's car when it was my week for my turn at the wheel, I sometimes would crank up the volume on a silly rap song called 'You Got What I Need', artist unknown, which was already outdated by the time I slipped the tape in the deck but which was perpetually hummable and compulsively hilarious nevertheless. "Oh baby you -- you got what I need/But you say I'm just a friend/You say I'm just a friend/OH BABY YOU..." (Well, it was screamingly funny at the time, at age sixteen, in my car, on a Friday night, with the windows down low, and the spring air warm, and the future stretched out before us like the red carpet of life.) And here I am, a good fifteen years later, and there's a remix of that very same song playing now on the radio here at the Internet cafe, the original song being one I have not heard in well over a decade, and I'm thinking: There's a circle at work here, the circle of my life, and it's an absurd one, a silly one, one that allows for a rap song that was heard at the age of fifteen in southern Ontario to be heard once more in a remix a decade and a half later in the northern Philippines, but irregardless, the circle exists, and it is real, and it rotates, with or without me...

So, which of the three options is it (it being life, and everything in between)?

Is it all random, or preordained, or something in between?

Not a clue.

You tell me.

After all, in the end, it's your call.


It's customary for Korean students in the Philippines to give their teachers small gifts and notes of appreciation when they hightail it back to their homeland, so I thought I'd offer a sample of some of the notes I was given this morning. Along with numerous trinkets, pens and pencil cases, I received the following messages from my group of nine-to-fourteen year olds; the grammar and spelling are not quite stellar, but they did their best, and the sentiment is sincere, and much appreciated, irregardless of the syntax:

Dear. teacher Scott.

Hello! my pronunciation teacher.
You teach me eagerly. so
My English pronunciation is better
than after go here.
Pronunication is very important
Thank you teacher.
You are very funny man.

From your student


Hello, Good morning!
I haven't been
writing a letter to you.
So I feel something strange.
But you're a good teacher
in my phonics class. Also you
are a good teacher because you didn't give me a lot of homework!
Anyway. Thanks for your good
I will
miss you
Bye. See



Teacher Scott
Hi! teacher scott.
thanks for with me.
thank you very much
Scott teacher.
bye, teacher scott!


Dear T.scott

Hello? Teacher. I'm Jeoun. Thank you for teach
me, If I see you again I'm very happy. bye
Teacher, I miss you


Hello! I'm Sky
You are is very god
thank for teachme
bye teacher see you


Dear teacher Scott
Hi. I'm your student Jack Before long
I should go back to Korea I become higher
in pronunciation because of you
If I see you again in Canada. Could you
explain about Canada. I'll miss you.
Bye-bye ^ kind ^ teacher Scott.

from. Jack


Hi, teacher
I am Stella.
I was very glad
to meet you
again. Hahaha
take care!
You are a very
good teacher.
Your pronou-
ciation class was nice!

(accompanied by a drawing of me in a kimono, holding a sword, with the caption: "LEFT-HANDED SAMURAI")


Dear. Teacher Scott

Hi, teacher!!

I'm Liz.

How are you today??

I'm fine.

I miss you.

Bye Bye

From Liz


Dear. Scott.

Hello, Scott. I'm your student, Terry. At first,
I afraid you, because you are the only Canadian teacher
in here. but you are a good teacher for me.
and you are very funny. You gag is gentle,
but very funny. Thank you for teach me,
and I'll miss you.


From. Terry

Saturday, August 18, 2007


You can learn a lot, travelling by bus from Baguio to Manila and back again.

A few things I learned:

- Since Baguio is up in the mountains, it takes about forty, forty-five minutes to descend to a somewhat more level layer of land. You go from being up in the clouds, watching the white, wispy mist slice through the hurtling path of the bus, and then, suddenly, you are in a lower place, and the white is gone, and the sky is blue once again. The sun is brighter. You step out into the first rest stop and suddenly the air is hot, and thick, almost stifling. A sudden desire to step back up into the clouds comes over you.

- Apparently The Scorpions are still big in the Philippines. Or at least they are with the bus driver I had in Manila, who saw the puzzlement on my face as I tried to make out who the elderly rockers were on the TV at the front of the bus. "The Scorpions!" he said, nodding his head in time to the music. "Live from Romania." Ah. I guess the Scorpions are still big in Romania, too. (It was only at the end of the DVD that I saw that the concert was actually taped in Portugal, not Romania. Whatever. Far from the Philippines, in any case.)

- From the windows of a bus most places are beautiful, even the ugly ones. You pass by quickly, seeing slums and barefoot children and random shacks aligned alongside random roads, and then suddenly there is a Pizza Hut, and a KFC, and a McDonald's, and then moments later you are once again plunged into the evergreen fields of a Filipino summer. The swaying palm trees look just like the ones did in Platoon and Apocalypse Now (both filmed in the Philippines), and the sky becomes more vast. Because everything moves quickly, you don't get to dwell on the deficiencies; the bright spots stick out like diamonds and lodge in your memory.

- Some taxi drivers will rip you off and others will not. Taxi drivers in the Philippines are supposed to work by the meter system, something they always do here in Baguio, but once you hit Manila, and are recognized to be that most valuable of commodities -- a white foreigner -- many taxi drivers mysteriously decide that bargaining is a better bet than a meter. The first taxi I spotted at the bus station in Manila wanted two hundred pesos for the short ride to the Canadian Embassy; I haggled with him, but he wouldn't budge, and I was hot, and in a hurry, so I said 'fuck it' and took the cab anyway. Thirty minutes later, on the way back from the embassy to the bus station, the first cab I got in had a meter, and I asked him to use it, and he did, no questions asked, no problem. He was an older driver. (Maybe more moral?)

- Reading the travel advisories offered by the Canadian government at the Canadian embassy for Canadian citizens in the Philippines is not recommended. It's kind of scary, actually, warning of kidnappings and robberies and walking at night and the threat of terrorism. (The only amusing part was its poker-faced description of Filipino drivers: "Drivers here are undisciplined." Um, yeah. Slightly.) If I had read one of these Canadian-advisory-pamphlet- thingees before I left for the Philippines (or Cambodia, for that matter), I never would have gotten off the plane. Ignorance is not always bliss, but it's often a necessary evil in life. Otherwise we would be too afraid to do anything but stay in our living rooms and watch The Price Is Right for a good forty, fifty years.

- Spending fourteen out of fifteen hours on two different buses is an interesting way to spend a day. You ride for seven hours one way; stay in one of Asia's biggest cities for less than an hour; then hop back on another bus and go back from where you came from. It was windy and rainy and dark in the morning, and then Manila was hot and sultry and sticky and clear in the afternoon, and by evening, back in Baguio, it was windy and rainy and dark once more. A cycle had been completed, and within that cycle there were even smaller cycles, life simplified and rotated. You stop at the same rest stops six different times, and you see the same sights, but the people are different, which changes everything. At one of the rest stops, a small store bracketed by outdoor vendors cooking up Filipino food for weary travellers, I watched a skinny old man selling snacks sigh in frustration as he watched the bus he was supposed to be on pull away without him. I wondered how much he made for his daily wares: hopping on various buses, walking up and down the aisles hawking candy and fruit, then stepping off again ten, fifteen minutes later. Was it enough to live on? Did he ever eat his own candy? Was he his own boss? Did he sleep well, or were his dreams constantly interrupted by the roll-and-shake of the bus rides that determined his daily life?

- True Lies, the James Cameron film from the mid-nineties starring Governor Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold, and watched by me on the bus ride back, is actually a bizarre, subversive comedy about relationships and modern moral values stuck inside of a conventional Arnold action flick. I saw it in the theater over a decade ago but didn't think much of it, but this time around I was surprised at what an entertaining, unusual film it is. How did this get made? It's funny, and violent, and nominally what an Arnold film is (or was) supposed to be, but it has a lot of troubling, perceptive, possibly misogynist ideas about modern relationships. Deeper than it looks.

- In Canada or America or even Japan you often see people, homeless people, living under the highway bridges, but I've never seen whole communities, entire neighborhoods set up under bridges like they do in Manila. Small stone houses, tin shacks, clotheslines, the whole deals.

- The buses here (unless you pony up for a deluxe one) don't have bathrooms, which means I can barely drink anything on the bus. Two bathroom breaks in seven hours won't do it for me, otherwise. Who are these people (meaning, the rest of humanity) who guzzle drink after drink and never need to pee?

- After fourteen hours of bus rides, your butt hurts.

- Baguio is a long way from Manila, but everything's relative. The Philippines is a long way from Japan, and Japan is a long way from Cambodia, and Cambodia is a long way from Canada, but I've managed to make my way. If the world is getting smaller, perhaps we can become bigger.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


To understand how completely comprehensive, thorough and exhausting Reclaiming History -- Vincent Bugliosi's book on the Kennedy assassination -- ultimately is, one need only to reflect upon the fact that Bugliosi, the famed Los Angeles prosecutor and the man who put Charles Manson away forever, over forty years after the president's killing, phoned one of Lee Harvey Oswald's co-workers at the Texas School Book Depository to ascertain whether or not there was a soft drink machine on the first floor lunchroom of the Depository building, and whether that particular soda machine was, in fact, a Dr.Pepper one.

Oswald told police that he was having lunch in the first floor lunchroom at the time of Kennedy's killing, and had gone up to the second floor to get a Coke from the Coca-Cola machine located there. This was where he was spotted by a policeman and Oswald's boss, Mr.Truly, only ninety seconds after the killing. Conspiracy theorists have long maintained that Oswald couldn't have possibly raced down from his supposed sniper's spot on the sixth floor and reached the second floor in time. Besides, he was there to buy a Coke, just like he said. Was even holding it in his hands.

But Bugliosi noticed that throughout the testimonies contained in the Warren Commission's mammoth report there remained a consistent, though seemingly insignificant thread: Oswald liked to drink Dr.Pepper. His wife, his temporary housemates, his co-workers -- many of them, at some point in their testimony, in passing, would mention how Oswald would be drinking a Dr.Pepper, or had gone out for a Dr.Pepper, or whatever. Not to highlight the fact -- only as part of a larger point.

This triggered something in Bugliosi's mind.

So he contacted Gary Mack, who runs the Assassination Museum now located on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository. Bugliosi asked: Was there a soda machine on the first floor, where Oswald said he was having lunch, in November of 1963? Mack said that he didn't think so. Bugliosi, undaunted, telephoned one of Oswald's old co-workers -- a young man then, an old man now -- who said that there sure was a soda machine in that lunchroom. And what kind was it? Bugliosi wondered. It was a Dr.Pepper machine, the co-worker answered.


If Oswald was in the first-floor lunchroom having lunch (though nobody credible recalled him eating there at that time), and if there was a Dr.Pepper machine in that same room, and if Dr.Pepper was his favorite drink, as had been readily established through various witness accounts, why would Oswald then walk up to the second floor to buy a Coke, when Dr.Pepper, his favorite soda, was only a few feet away from where he said he was on the first floor? Was that likely? Possible, yes, but given what we know about Oswald, and his consistent drinking habits, was it likely? It's more likely, then, that Oswald raced down the stairs and stopped at the second floor lunchroom when he heard the policeman and his boss heading up from the first floor.

Reclaiming History is built up upon a thousand and one details like that, and for the interested reader, the one who makes it all the way through its 1,500 pages of small print, any sane person can only come to one conclusion: Oswald killed Kennedy. Alone. End of story.

As a long-time conspiracy buff, I'm more than a little, well, saddened to come to that conclusion, odd as it sounds. Bulgliosi's case is so solid, his reasoning so sound, his evidence so overwhelming, that a reasonable, rational person can only conclude, after reading this valuable tome, that Oswald did it. Fired the shots. Killed the dream. Changed the world.

"Yes, but what about --"

That's what everyone always says, (and what I always say, too) and, believe me, you can insert any aspect of the case into this equation, and rest assured that Bugliosi has the answer.

"Yes, but what about the mob?the Russians? the C.I.A.?Castro? Jack Ruby?Jimmy Hoffa?the Second Oswalds?the F.B.I.?the military-industrial-complex?the K.G.B.?the magic-bullet?the bungled autopsy?"

Bugliosi goes into it all. At length. Exhaustively, almost ridiculously.

The first part of the book takes us through those four horrible days in Dallas, from Kennedy's killing to Oswald's execution by Jack Ruby; the second part focuses on the physical evidence against Oswald; the third part is a lengthy biography of Oswald; the fourth is an intensive examination of every major conspiracy theory -- and even many minor, not to mention loony ones.

What tipped the scales for me is the evidence against Oswald, which Bugliosi assembles with the meticulous, careful craft emblematic of the masterful prosecutor that he is. I'd long believed that Oswald played a part, but that he was the victim of larger forces, that he was in concert with others more able and capable than himself: the C.I.A., perhaps; the mob, more likely.

But when we examine Oswald's actions in the weeks and months leading up to the assassination, when we truly examine what an odd, disturbed individual he most certainly was, we realize that he would be nobody's idea of a 'patsy'. He could barely hold down a minimum wage job. He was a bright young man who became enamored of an alternative way of life early one. He was, in essence, a loser who could do nothing right.

The biography section of the book is brilliant in its own right, especially its damning conclusion: Oswald fits the profile of a presidential assassin to a tee. This misguided, Marxist sympathizer was not an identity created by the Warren Commission -- it's who he was, who he had been, who he longed to be, as evidenced by his friends and families and employers. We come to understand Oswald. (A little. He is certainly one of American history's most oddball characters. And so young, too! Only twenty-four at the time of his death.)

And Ruby. Jack Ruby, Oswald's own assassin. Another mentally unstable character, one who, in essence, was in the right place at the right time to fire the shots that he did. It's really that simple.

"Yes, but..."

This is the essence, the mantra, the lifeblood of the conspiracy arguments, but Bugliosi goes into all aspects of the case, ad infinitum. No stone is left unturned. No trail is left unexplored. He even admits some troubling loopholes in the case, and examines where they lead, or don't lead, and why.

And what I asked myself while reading this absorbing work was: If I was on a jury, and the evidence against Oswald was presented to me, would I, in good conscience, beyond a reasonable doubt, be able to convict him?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

And that's what Bugliosi does best: He presents the evidence. He says, in essence: "Look. Here's the case against this guy. It's so solid that the case was essentially solved within five hours by the Dallas police on November 22, 1963, but the past thirty, forty years have muddied the waters so much that we can't see clearly or think clearly anymore. But look at the evidence against Oswald. It's unquestionable. And look at the evidence FOR conspiracy: there isn't any. There, is, NOTHING. There are possibilities, probabilities, grudges, vendettas, but where is the evidence? It's not there. Where's the evidence against Oswald? It's EVERYWHERE."

And that's that.

A truly remarkable work of detection and investigation, this book is, a compilation of everything that's intrigued me about this case for the past fifteen years. (It even features a brief interview Bugliosi has with Oswald's Russian widow, Marina, still living in Dallas, who now believes that her husband was part of a conspiracy.)

In essence, it's a book about logic, and rationality, and common-sense. Let's look at what's before us, Bugliosi is saying. Not what we hear, or feel, or believe, but what's right here, before our eyes. Directly in front of us. Which is more believable: what we see or what we feel? Let's put aside our own pet-theories, and let's look at this case as a criminal case, and then let's see what we find.

What we find is Oswald, and Oswald alone, the sad, dark heart of this American mystery.

And, just to make sure, we'll double-check about that Dr.Pepper machine.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


In 1991, forty-six year old Frenchman Gerard D'Aboville rowed a boat from Japan to Washington State. By himself. Across the entire Pacific Ocean. He rowed ten to twelve hours a day, 7000 strokes a day, and the entire voyage took him 134 days. Over four months. By himself. In a rowboat. On the water.

The urge to do senseless things to find some kind of sense in life seems, on the surface, nonsensical. What kind be learned from acts that, by their very nature, reek of excess and indulgence? (Not to mention irrationality, and, quite possibly, death.)

We are raised, if we are lucky, to enjoy comfort. To seek out success as the ultimate prize, as if life were nothing but an endless game of hide-and-go-seek where the treasured prize is found only by a lucky few. (As long as you keep playing the game, of course. If you think it's boring, or the game's rigged, or the whole thing is a foolish means of passing the time, fine. You can quit. But everybody else will still be playing the game, most likely.) Nobody willingly embraces a life of deprivation (except for the treasured few, usually monks, who are most often impoverished to begin with), and seeking to step outside of that which has nurtured us and nourished us is often met with skepticism, if not perplexity.

But everything's relative. (Even relatives.) Let us imagine that you were a young person from a conservative Muslim family in the heart of Pakistan who decided that Christianity was the answer that you were looking for. One could hardly imagine a more cataclysmic decision in such a place, amongst such beliefs. You would be eradicating an entire world-view with one simple choice. Indeed, you would, in essence, be destroying not only a 'view', which sounds quaintly like the opinions expressed on your local newspaper's editorial page, in between the used-car ads and tucked beneath the wedding photos and obituary notices. No, you would be destroying your world itself, the world you grew up in, the world your parents had so carefully cultivated for you. An eradication would begin.

Another analogy: Not owning a t.v. (Assuming you're middle-class, well-groomed, a regular watcher of American Idol, etc.) Perhaps not as radical as changing your religion, no, but let's extrapolate the consequences. Guests invited over for dinner would consider it odd that no television rests comfortably in the centre of the living room. Questions would be asked. Any answer, in our day and age, would sound slightly unreasonable, if not irrational. No T.V.? How...strange. Not, you know, freakish, but definitely within rifle-range of eccentricity's target.

Let's up the ante even more: No t.v., no computer, no Internet. Only the local paper, hand delivered early each morning by a chubby little boy who would rather be sleeping but desperately wants the new Nintendo Wii. No t.v., no computer, no Internet. You would be considered out of step with society. You would be accused of marching to the beat of a different drummer, except that, most likely, you don't even have a drum you're beating. You're tapping air with imaginary sticks.

It takes so little to throw us for a loop, and we are all so quick to condemn anything that exists outside of our own familiar orbit.

Let's consider anothe completely random and unrelated idea: the notion of the Iraqi parliament taking a vacation for the month of August, an act that has been routinely condemned by the American Congress as the highest level of audacity. American soldiers are dying, while Iraqi government workers are having their fun in the sun. (Or so they make it sound.)

Well, yes. It does sound somewhat unreasonable. People are being killed, daily, Irai and American alike. Blood on the streets. Smoke in the sky. But consider: What is the daily life of an Iraqi parlimentarian actually like? Think how stressful your job gets, and now multiply that by Baghdad.

I would imagine it's quite stressful, being in the Iraqi parliament. Trusting noone. Wondering if they'll be killed that night. I'm sure their security details are lightyears ahead of the average Iraqi, who has none, but I would also think that these same security details are susceptible to a certain amount of suspicion. Have they been bought off? Will they kill me on the way to work? Will my car be blown up on the road to my office? Will my family be kidnapped and held for ransom while I try to figure out who to bribe first? The western media daily details how Iraq goes to hell in a handbasket, but when the government decides that it needs a break, we act as if they are seeking an outrageous indulgence, when it might be nothing more than a chance to catch their breath in between the booms and bombings.

Vacations are okay for us over here, politicians seem to be saying, even though over there American and Iraqi lives are being lost, and even though we started this whole bloody war in the first place, but it's not okay for the Iraqis, who are actually living there, risking their lives on the way to work, when American politicians are risking, at most, a little gridock in D.C. traffic on the way to the Capitol.

Which brings me back to that brave (or foolish) Frenchman, alone, rowing across the Pacific.

"Why would he do that?" we ask. "What is he looking for?"

For me, questions like these are merely larger ones that mirror the smaller ones we ask everyday. ("Why would a Muslim become a Christian? Why wouldn't you want a TV or Internet connection? Why would Iraqi politicians take a summer break? Why would he write a book like that? Why would she dye her hair that colour? Why did you overcook the pizza? Why would he date a chick like that? Why do you think that movie's good when it so obviously blows?)

We can never really know why anybody else does anything at all. (Let alone why we, ourselves, do the things that we do.) All we can do is ask, and infer, and observe, and wonder, until we come to a conclusion that is probably false but that at the very least eases our anxiety and allows us to gain another night's sleep.

We are all trying to make our way through this world the best we can, and, occasionally, we look to acts of irrationality to affirm our own sense of purpose. To help us reach the transcendent, if only for a moment. (Or at least to liven things up a little bit.)

But let's leave the last word to Gerard D'Aboville, that determined, demented rower, who conquered the Pacific with a boat and some oars and a slightly superior, if not enlightened, outlook on life, who expresses some of what I'm getting at far better than I ever could:

Why do some human beings desire with such urgency to do such things: regardless of the consequences, conscripted by noone but themselves? No one knows. There is a strong urge to conquer the dreadful forces of nature, and perhaps to get consciousness of ourselves, of life, and of the shadowy workings of our human minds. Physical capacity is the only limit. I have tried to tell how, and when, and where. But why? That is a mystery...

Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful -- not like an animal at all. Something only a human would do.