Sunday, January 27, 2008


Part of the joy and agony of going away is wondering whether or not you'll ever come back. Listening to Ringo Starr's new song, Liverpool 8, a sentimental ode to who he was and where he emerged, I found myself thinking about my own hometown -- St.Catharines, Ontario -- and Ringo's lyrics gradually became my lyrics, and Ringo's melody felt, for a moment, like the soundtrack to a life that I am currently living.

Destiny was calling,
I just couldn't stick around,
Liverpool I left you,
But I never let you down

I don't think 'destiny' was calling me, per se (or at least no more nor less than it beckons any one of us), but it's a very odd thing, the choices we make in life, and the various, often diverging paths that emanate from each and every action.

I lived for the first nineteen years of my life in one place, and only left it for family vacations in the spring and summer, sunshine jaunts to Myrtle Beach or cottage getaways in northern Ontario. I couldn't imagine ever leaving St.Catharines -- for how on earth do you leave the only world you've ever learned -- but I knew that I would, and the decision was made somewhat easier by my parents' decision to move to Manotick, Ontario, just outside Ottawa, the summer after my first year in university. Since 1995, I've only been back two or three times to the place that raised me.

In between, I've lived in Japan, Cambodia, and the Philippines, visited Big Buddhas and Khmer temples, slept in hospitals in Thailand and been almost mugged in Phnom Penh. For someone who was raised a diplomat's kid, perhaps, this would be par for the course before puberty, but for somebody from St.Catharines, who considered a trek by city bus downtown somewhat exotic, this has been not only mind-blowing, but mind-altering, too.

When I was little, my dad used to take me flying in the small plane he sometimes flew on weekends, and we would search for our house through all the miles that separated the sky from the land. I think life is like that, and I sometimes wonder if I'm still in that plane. You go up, up, and away, and everything after that is a downward search, through the clouds, seeing what there is to see through the mist that weaves its way through the heavens like chimney smoke that has somehow drifted too high for its own good.

Hearing Ringo's new tune brought back my own love of my hometown, and I wonder -- not often, but sometimes -- how it's doing. How the roads are. (One of the advantages of having started distance running as a teen is that I was able to see my town foot-level through its streets, daily, watching and wondering.) How the winter snow falls on the lake that lay outside my childhood house. Who's running Pete's barber shop in the plaza near my house, where I got my hair cut every month for almost twenty years of my life.

Liverpool I left you,
But I never left you down.

I like that line. As if you have an obligation to honor the place and time that fed and housed you.

I hope I haven't let St.Catharines down.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Every place is some place, and everyone is someone.

It's been interesting, living a long time in places where most of the people I encounter and work with on a daily basis believe very different things than I believe.

The other day I was at somebody's house, and a Christian prayer was said before dinner, thanking Jesus Christ for the heavenly bounty that was set before us. The conversation later turned to the fact that Barack Obama might not, in fact, be a true Christian, because he used to be a Muslim, and who knows if he still might still hold tight to some arcane doctrines from the Koran? And the Filipinos in the south, the Muslim ones, the ones causing all the terrorism -- they're not true Filipinos.

Another day, I bopped into work a little bit early, and one of the teachers was leading the other employees in a Bible study class before the school day began, lecturing about how good works were not enough, good deeds were insufficient, that the only way to get to Heaven was to accept the Gospel and invite Christ into your heart. Period. No exceptions.

I thought back to a few years ago, in Cambodia, where, at one place I worked, all the employees had to sit through a forty-five minute Buddhist cleansing ceremony, where local monks blessed the premises in a simple but lengthy ritual of incense and chanting. And there we were, dozens of employees from Canada and Japan, France and Korea, the Philippines and the Gambia, Italy and America, Sweden and Finland. Nary a Buddhist among us, I'd reckon.

Sometimes months, if not years, go by where I don't speak to a Canadian in person, where I don't commune with someone from a similar background as my own. And this is fine. This is as it should be: life on its own terms, you and the world, meeting and greeting and getting along the best way that you can.

Having lived in three different Asian countries, and having worked under Japanese, Cambodian, British, South African, Filipino, Korean and Gambian bosses, I've slowly come to learn that it takes very little to get along with people. Be kind. Be courteous. Listen to what they have to say. Smile. Nod. Thank them. If they state something that's quite different from what you believe, well, so be it. Maybe state your own opinion. Maybe not. Take it case by case, temperment by temperment. In either case, the day goes smoother when you simply seek to find the common human bonds among us, the reciprocity that allows us to smooth the wheels that move our fates.

So lost in our selves, I think, the isolated entities that shape the world around us. So certain of our own individual assessment of the world. So resolute.

Better, perhaps, to understand the human faults we all share, the misperceptions we live our lives under. (For who are we without our misperceptions? The world is a cruel and mean-spirited place, and without our beliefs, undoubtedly false, certainly translucent, we would be ill-equipped to deal with what the long, indifferent day has to offer.)

By dealing with those who have little in common with ourselves, a necessary paradox emerges: a unity of opposites.

With nothing much to link us, we instead search for the absolutes, however transitory and miniscule they may be. We gaze into the gaps between our words. Listen closely to the silences. What we find, if we delve deep enough, linger long enough, are fragments and shards of humor, and kindness, and sometimes even empathy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


At the beginning of his stand-up comedy career, Steve Martin wanted to create an experience for the audience that simulated and reproduced the best of the high-school hilarity he remembered happening amongst his friends and classmates, the kind of aimless, endless nights where you would sit around your house with your buddies practically gagging with laughter, only to find yourself summing up the stories the next day at school to puzzled listeners with the words: "You had to be there."

In other words, the experience was so unique, the humor so situational, the mirth so transitory and of-the-moment, that later explanations were not only redundant and futile, but somehow offensive, too, as if attempting to replicate such an ephemeral moment in time insulted the nature of spontaneous fellowship itself.

How many times have we faithfully, heartfully tried to relate a joke, an anecdote, a special, sacred, almost revelatory moment from our lives (or, conversely, a supremely silly one) only to see the expression on our listener's face vainly attempt to show comprehension, if not interest? They're not getting it, we think.

"Well," you finally say, sighing. "I guess you just had to be there."

In some ways, such are the stories of our lives.

Moments that overwhelm you with their intensity often elicit bored yawns and vacant glares from friends and relatives. Emotions that assault you with their relevance and horror, insight or compassion, remain almost mute when vocalized, drained of their vigor.

Slowly I'm realizing that most of our lives are lived that way -- singularly. Not solitarily, exactly -- after all, I spent most of the past three months squeezed in between fellow commuters on Tokyo's subways -- but individually, amongst ourselves, leaving us and only us with the means by which to comprehend and assess their impact on ourselves and the world.

Perhaps this is sounding a little academic, or a trifle vague, but what I mean is: All around us every day are people experiencing the most joyful joy and the saddest sadness imaginable, as are we, in wildly varying degrees of pleasure and horror. "Only connect," E.M. Forster wrote a long time ago, but quite often, usually always, that's not as easy or as beneficial as one might expect. A 'connection' implies a link, a spark, a conduit through which your energy can find a receptive circuit. And yet the energy transferred will never be the same as that which was emitted; it will be shaped, charted and transfigured through the other person, until something new is born, and your original thoughts, your initial feelings, may become distorted. This distortion may not necessarily be a bad thing; it may very well result in a greater clarity, a higher caliber of energy, a stronger intensity of purpose and emotion, but still: you give up something of yourselves when letting go. (What you gain constitutes the sum of life.)

What I wish -- for me, for you, for all of us -- is a life of such wonder and incomprehension that any attempt to relate it to others is mandatorily reduced to a familiar catchphrase: "You had to be there." Because it is the 'you' in 'you had to be there' that ultimately reveals itself to be essential; it is the 'you' that keeps the circuit running, the energy moving, the gap between the singular and the communal narrow enough to cross as we see fit.

The common usage of the phrase means: "If you were there, at that time, in that place, you'd get what I'm telling you." Looked at another way, it can become almost a lament, or a plea, because what you are doing is trying in such a futile manner to convey that which cannot be conveyed, and, in a sense, you want the listener to have been a part of it, a co-pilot, to share what you saw and felt what you felt. The experience alone wasn't enough; you need another party to validate that which transpired.

"You had to be there" becomes almost mournful, seen in that light, but a good mourning, if such a state exists, a grieving for a singular experience that should have been communal, that should have been shared. With you. You want to say: "I'm trying to tell you about something that changed me in such a potent way, but you're not getting it, and that's fine, that's cool, no problem, but if you had been there, you would now understand what I'm talking about, and we would have shared something, and that something would have lingered through our lives."

By saying ' you had to be there' I'm acknowledging that I've failed at my original intention -- to let you in on a marvelous moment of mirth or oddness -- but I've hinted at something larger, more inclusive: my desire for you, the person in front of me, to have been a part of my life in the recent past. To have shared something solitary, thus multiplying the both of us. You weren't there, not at that moment, but the hope is that in the future there will be other times, and you will be there, and though we will, as always, be experiencing something singular, it will, this time, be mutual, too.