Tuesday, February 26, 2008


We all know the old adage that, if we're lucky, five or six or maybe even ten people we know will be thinking about us on a daily basis, but what about the people we don't know all that much -- are they, too, worried about our welfare?

For no reason whatsoever this morning, while slowly strolling through the streets of Baguio I flashed back to an afternoon last fall, waiting at the Baguio City Immigration Office for my visa to be processed. Sitting across from me was an ordinary looking gent in his mid-thirties reading a book about Japan. A history book, I think it was. I asked him if he had been to Japan, telling him that I was leaving in a few days for that very place. He said no, he hadn't, but he'd always wanted to go there. He then took a look at my passport, saw that I was Canadian, and mentioned that though he was American, his parents were, in fact, legitimate, bona-fide, born-in-Montreal Canucks. He, too, had once had a Canadian passport, in fact, but over the years hed let his citizenship slide away.

From there we made small talk, the way you do with people you don't know. He was in the Philippines on vacation, the second or third time he'd been here. He was from Oakland, California, and he worked in his family's pawn shop. After a few minutes, my number was called, my passport was picked up, we exchanged good-byes, and that was that.

I haven't thought about that guy since last autumn, but suddenly, today, out of the blue, I remembered that conversation.

Which got me thinking:

What would happen if I wandered around the pawn shops of Oakland, California? There can't be that many, right? Let's say fifty, tops? (Though I could be aiming way too high or way too low in giving that estimate.) And if I saw him behind the counter, I would probably remember his face, though I can't for the life of me bring it back to mind right now. Would he remember me? Probably not. Would he even remember our encounter in a distant land? Hard to say. I would simply be another customer in his pawn shop, browsing for whatever it is people in pawn shops browse for. (I've never actually been in a pawn shop, I'm just realizing, so I'm not even sure what's available there: Jewellery? Dishes? Guns?)

We don't know the effect we have on other people. We can never be sure of who will remember us, or why, or for how long. Sometimes I'll remember somebody I forgot that I forgot -- somebody I met only briefly, in a store, or at a restaurant. A stray conversation.

Do they remember me? Do we need to remember those who we don't really know?

Probably not.

But the brain is a funny thing. There's so much gunk stored up inside, useless knowledge and random trivia, and memories sometimes, or actually often pop out into the air and then promptly dissolve as quickly as the fizzy foam part of the Coke in your glass.


Think about it: Somebody you don't really know could be remembering your face, your words, even your breath. And we have no way, ever, of knowing who is doing this, or when, or why.

I think it's actually cool to think that somebody random is thinking of us, for no reason whatsoever. It means some sort of impression has been made, a footprint in the sand of our collective consciousness.

The alternative is that nobody is thinking of us, and that would make for a lonely little life, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Sometimes I feel sorry for inanimate objects. A saucer lacking a cup. Shoes without laces. A portable fan left stuck in the corner of an empty closet, an innocent mechanical victim of the cold December chill. These things are missing that which will make them, if not whole, at least content.

Planets, too. I think planets are lonely. Maybe it's because I've been reading a fair bit of science-fiction books recently, but on the way back to Baguio from Manila the other day, I stared out at the empty stretches of grassland that periodically line the landscape, and the lack of anything other than green suddenly reminded me of a planet, an empty one, and I realized that most planets, maybe all planets, other than Earth, are empty. There's nothing on them. No people. No cars. No billboards. No baseball diamonds. No lamposts lighting the way. Just...air. And ground. And mountains. And cold. And heat. These are actual, real places, these planets are, locales that we may in fact someday land on, geographical certainties that, even now, at this moment, are filled with billions of particles of cold, wet, hot and dry stuff, millions of molecules that would, in fact, stain our clothes and cloud our vision, were we there, but without anything living to anchor them, to root them, how can we conceive of these planets as anything but lonely? Abandoned, almost.

That, I can get behind -- the fact that these planets were once populated, in the distant past, perhaps, but are now abandoned. Because then I can almost feel a tangible sense of sympathy for them; they were once occupied, but now lay vacant. Somebody, some extraterrestrial species, perhaps, once loved them, drove across their plains, skiied down their mountains, harvested their crops, and then, because of necessity, or boredom, or simply seeking another diversion, they moved on, leaving Mars and Jupiter, Mercury and Venus to silently mope amongst themselves.

How can all these planets exist, as we know they do, and yet be so utterly barren? Thousands and thousands of miles with nothing to show for it.

At night, in bed, restless for sleep, I sometimes think that there are, in fact, forms of life that exist on these planets, on all of them, but they are so unique from our own way of living, so diverse in their composition, that our earthly scientists currently have no realistic, feasible means of detecting their presence. Perhaps they breathe different kinds of air, these Martians and Venuians; perhaps they sustain themselves on mere wisps of water floating through an atmosphere we cannot yet see, let alone comprehend.

Thinking that gives me some comfort. For not only are we not alone, meaning us humans, but neither are they alone, meaning those planets. They have somebody making tracks in the sand, paths in the snow. They are not mere mountains and valleys. They are being used in the best possible sense, made viable, even without our detection or knowledge. Their cups have found saucers, and their fans are blowing once again, no matter the season.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Flipping through an old paperback copy of Freakonomics I found lying around the house the other day, I was struck once again by a chapter devoted to the question of why people vote, when, statistically speaking, their ballots don't mean shit.

That sounds harsh, but numbers are harsh, and Freakonomics takes a cold look at life from the point of view of probability and statistics, and, when viewed through that particularly unforgiving, clinical lens, glimpsed through that narrow numerical prism, voting makes no sense whatsoever.


We're told, repeatedly, that every vote counts. Your vote counts. You are encouraged to read up on the issues, weigh what the candidates favor and oppose, listen to the faint but insistent sound of your moral compass steadily pointing in one particular direction.

And yet, it doesn't matter.

How many elections have been decided by one vote in the entire world in the past, oh, one hundred years?

Freakonomics comes up with one, some kind of local election in Buffalo at the turn of the twentieth century.

The reality is, your vote doesn't matter. (Statistically speaking.) You could spend hours and days and weeks and months and years considering who is the best candidate for such-and-such particular office, but if you didn't vote, if you stayed at home crashed out on the couch and proceeded to watch a twelve-hour Silver Spoons marathon on Nickeloedon -- 'all Ricky Schroeder, all the time --' the absence of your vote wouldn't affect the election one little bit. Life would go on.

So what is going on when people decide to vote?

The authors of Freakonomics cite an intriguing survey out of Sweden, I think, which found that, when given the chance to vote via Internet, anonymously, from the comfort and privacy of their own homes, people en masse actually voted less than they did when they had to haul their ass out of their house and schlep their way to their local school to cast a paper vote.

Which means what, exactly?

People do everything for emotional reasons and nothing for logical reasons. (That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.) Politicians bombard us with the fact that we live in a democracy, and, in a democracy, it's our moral duty to exercise our legal right to choose our next leader. That's right: you. Me. We have a duty to perform. A sacred trust has been given to us, and we must not waste that benediction. If we choose to remain at home and marvel with glee in our living rooms at little Ricky Schroeder's latest shenanigans, instead of driving on over to the City Hall to case our votes, we have, essentially, performed an act of moral outrage, if not cowardice.

This is the cynical way of looking at it -- that we vote because we think we'll feel guilty if we don't vote. If we thought about it calmly, cooly, rationally, we'd rationalize: the dudes who wrote Freakonomics are right. Our vote doesn't change anything.

Only the collective matters.


What we have to work is here is the ongoing, endless electrical synergy that attempts us to reach outside of our individual selves and connect with something larger, greater, possibly even more noble than our own puny, fleshy, smelly human bodies.

The great irony of American electoral politics is that candidates shuffle from city to city, state to state, and in each of their speeches they state that they are merely spokesmen for the people; that it is you, the people, who are the true bedrock of the nation; that is you the people, who will make the real change.

But I don't think people want to hear that.

I think American politics reaches such orgasmic levels of intensity (and with ten months still to go before the election!) because people don't want that burden of change placed upon their shoulders. They come to the rallies and wave the signs because they are looking for, longing for somebody else to lift them up out of the muck of their lives.

"Hillary, John, Obama, Mike: Take us to the promised land, please! We're voting for you, not ourselves!"

And yet the vote is a link in the chain, a connection from one person to that other person, the one up at the podium, the one promising to lift the country to a new and more hopeful elevation. By voting, the voter may realize (rationally) that their vote doesn't make any difference whatsoever, but it stands for something else, something symbolic, something elevated, a state of mind and heart beyond logic and approaching something very close to religion.

Look at what's happening with Obama. He's become something bigger than himself. He's bringing the kind of energy that has not been felt in American politics since, I would say, the presidential campaign of Robert F.Kennedy. And people are responding to that; people are desperate for that kind of energy. (And this Canadian hopes that American, Obama, will ride the wave all the way to that distant but reachable shore of the White House in Washington.)

And there will come a day this November when the last ballot will have been cast, and the final votes will have been counted, and the result will read: 53, 543, 762. (Hopefully for Obama.)

Sitting in their living room, watching Katie Couric perkily read out those cold, static, indifferent numbers, some plumber kicked back with a beer and a smoke and a back that won't stop aching will be able to look at that number -- 53, 543, 762 -- and he will think: That's me -- that last digit. If I hadn't have voted, the number would be 53, 543, 761. That might not have made much of any difference, but Obama is now President of the United States of America, and I had a part in that, goddamnit. My wife's left me, my kids hate me, my job sucks, but I was part of the process that led to this man taking office. I made my voice heard. Tomorrow -- shit, later today, even -- that voice will have been silenced, and I'll have to resume my little life, but I helped that man get where it is we wanted him to go.

Life is nasty, brutish and short. We lead with our hearts and look for something to cling to. Usually, that 'thing' is each other. And I think a vote, at heart, is the way we latch on to somebody else. We are born alone and die alone, but a vote is a restless, hopeless stab in the dark at immortality, a middle-finger-to-the-face of statistics and probability, a means by which we can become part of that link that leads from our living rooms to a larger room, elsewhere, at the center of the nation.

Voting may reduce us to a decimal point, externally, but internally, an exclamation point has been crudely formed, one we puny mortals wield as the dagger that stabs at the universe's black hole of indifference and unfairness.

Statistically, it means nothing.

Which is why, of course, it means everything.

For who the hell wants to live their life as a mere statistic, when an silent but emphatic exclamation point is waiting to punctuate our lives from within?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


From The Last American Hero, by Elizabeth Gilbert, a non-fiction account of Eustace Conway, who lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, in a place called Turtle Island, trying to lead as natural a life as possible in this exceedingly, insanely modern world:

Eustace used his time with Dave to try to have him understand the fundamental essence of his philosophy, which centered on mindfulness. There is no way, Eustace said to Dave, that you can have a decent life as a man if you aren't awake and aware every moment. Show up for your own life, he said. Don't pass your days in a stupor, content to swallow whatever watery ideas modern society may bottle-feed you through the media, satisfied to slumber through life in an instant-gratification sugar coma. The most extraordinary gift you've been given is your own humanity, which is about consciousness, so honor that consciousness.

Revere your senses; don't degrade them with drugs, with depression, with willful oblivion. Pay attention to even the most modest of daily details. Even if you're not in the woods, be aware at all times. Notice what food tastes like; notice what the detergent aisle in the supermarket smells like and recognize what those hard chemical smells do to your senses; notice what bare feet feel like; pay attention every day to the vital insights that mindfullness can bring. And take care of all things, of every single thing there is -- your body, your intellect, your spirit, your neighbors, and this planet. Don't pollute your soul with apathy or spoil your health with junk food any more than you would deliberately contaminate a clean river with industrial sludge. You can never become a real man if you have a careless and destructive attitude, Eustace said, but maturity will follow mindfulness even as day follows night...

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Sometimes I'll be browsing in a bookstore, poking my way randomly through title after title, wondering exactly what I think I should be looking for, when I come upon a book that seems to say: I am here for you and you alone. The subject matter seems particulary attuned to whatever it is I am thinking and feeling on that particular day, at that precise moment; the book's intent can be designed for nobody else but me.

Or so I like to believe.

The novel I bought last week wasn't one of those magical tomes. It was by an author, Richard Powers, who I'd always wanted to read, but for some reason never had; it had the requisite number of orgasmic blurbs on the back cover that are usually my criterion for picking out a book. (I almost never read the jacket copy describing the plot of the book, because these concise summaries usually, if not always, give away far too many details for my liking.) This book, titled Gain, was simply a book, one that I wanted to read, so I bought it, and I read it.

Are there a lot of novels that deal with the specifics of Stage III C ovarian cancer? I don't know. I kind of doubt it.

This was one of them.

Except that it wasn't only about a midwestern American middle-aged woman who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer; it's also about the rise of consumerism in the United States over the past two hundred years, and the manufacturing of soap, and the horrid intersection between commerce and health that seems to have overrun the modern world with a savage, feral ferocity.Do we get cancer from our own actions? Has society developed itself upward in such a way that is aftereffects inevitably drag us back downwards?

The book tells parallel stories: one narrative outlines the slow but steady rise of a company in Illinois that produces soap, charting its erratic progress from a one-man operation before the Civil War and well into the end of the twentieth century, when the company has become an American conglomerate; the other story chronicles the life of a woman who lives in the town that serves as this same corporation's headquarters, and how her savage disease may or may not be caused by her own consumerist lifestyle.

It's a fascinatingly brilliant book, and Powers is one of those writers who is so clearly brilliant, in his themes, prose and execution, that it almost overwhelms the reader.

(I think he's almost too brilliant, actually. Author John D.Macdonald once disparaged the kind of fiction that draws overt attention to itself, dubbing it the 'Look-ma-how-well-I'm-writing!' kind of storytelling, and Powers certainly falls into that camp. Every sentence is pristine and insightful, offering glimpses of understanding and perception that sometimes take your breath away. Every paragraph is polished to a perfect jewel. The result is enormously complex and moving, but oddly sterile; one is always aware that SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT is being discussed, which often drains the life right out of the tale being told.)

Maybe it's because I've been in and around and within ovarian cancer for the past two and a half years. Maybe it's because I found myself somewhat startled to realize that this book I picked up without having a fucking clue as to what it was about turned out to be about a woman suffering from, or with, Stage III C ovarian cancer. Maybe it's because books find us at the right time, randomly, when we need them. Maybe it's because I realize that most of the books we read we read too young, when we haven't learned about life. About what life can do to us.

For whatever reason, I found myself having to put down the book at times, for Power has done his homework. He knows about CA-125 tests. He knows about Taxol. He knows about chemo treatments, the pacing of them, the toll of them. He either knows somebody who has cancer or is an incredibly dedicated student of the disease. Inside this woman's mind we descend, and it's a moving and haunting downward journey. Chilling, too, is his portrayal of the price of technological development, the clinical madness of the means by which we strive, almost manically, to ensure that our cleanliness is next to godliness.

It was a reminder, the book was. About how sometimes stories can seize us by the lapels, slap us across the face, and shout: "I'm talking to you, motherfucker. This is about your life. As it is now. Read it and listen."

If I had read the book three years ago, I would have enjoyed it, I'm sure, and been moved by it, I'm certain, but it wouldn't have dragged a tiny razor across my heart the way it has done for the past week.

Good art can sometimes be an aphrodisiac, or a mindless diversion, but it can also be an emphatic embrace, warm and firm, cold and bracing. One whose warmth is so soothing we don't want to let go, but whose grip is a little too tight for comfort, a needed hug so tight it bruises.