Sunday, September 21, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, while browsing in a used bookstore here in Baguio, a young Filipino man in his late twenties approached me. He seemed to be around my age -- am I still qualified as a young man? -- and normal-looking enough. (I didn't notice until later that he was clutching a small purple pillow to his chest.)

"Can I ask you a question?" he asked.

"Okay," I said.

"Do you know anything about...brain...taps?"

Slight pause on my behalf.

"Sorry?" I said.

"Do you the brain?"

Suddenly Dan Rather flashed in front of my eyes. Or an image of him, or a memory of him, ten, fifteen years ago, when a mentally disturbed person accosted him outside of the CBS studios and repeatedly asked him: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" (This incident was later immortalized in a song by R.E.M. titled with that very phrase.)

I thought to myself: This guy's not all there.

It was then that I noticed the pillow, and the slightly dazed, somewhat placid smile stuck to his face.

"Sorry," I said, walking away, despite his polite protestations.

I could be wrong. That nice young man might not have been slightly psychotic, but I didn't want to take the risk. Playing the incident over again in my head, I wondered if somehow I was the one who was out of line, refusing to answer a stranger's simple request.

However, he didn't ask me about brain research, or books on the brain, or anything remotely rational. He inquired as to my knowledge of brain taps and wires in the brain. You know. The usual stuff you ask strangers in a bookstore.

Let's assume that that man was mentally ill.

What is it like to look through the world wielding those thoughts? Does he know that he's a crackpot? Is he aware of his problem? Somewhere in the hard-to-reach inroads of his imagination, is he conscious of the fact that his words and gestures and actions and intent are nonsensical to the rest of society?

Or is he further gone than that, I wonder. Has he reached a point where the illogical becomes logical, where simple thoughts and benign propositions have somehow become skewed and off-kilter. Every thought is an avenue leading to a dead-end, though he's always able to spin himself around and head off in another direction, searching for alternate routes.

All of us are inevitably stuck inside of ourselves, so that everything has to be made to somehow seem to make sense to us, even when we're not entirely sure what we're doing with our lives. We can thus rationalize everything on a daily basis and clumsily make the enormous puzzle pieces of our erratic live into a larger, coherent picture. It's what we need to do, if only to make it through this day before waiting for the next.

What happens when the puzzle pieces don't fit anymore? When you're stopping random people in shopping mall outlets and asking about wires-in-the-brain?

If there is a soul, an essence of ourselves, trapped inside our lonely, damaged minds, in such a case is it silently shrieking, embarrassed by its outward manifestation?

Or is it content, this soul, to sit back and allow the brain and the mind and the tongue and the lips to say whatever needs to be said, no matter how foolish or insane.

I would like to think that it's only the outer part of our human form that can lose touch with the world around us. I want to believe that there's an essence, a wisp of ourselves, that cannot be damaged or frayed. That lies in wait, knowing that other, more interesting realms lie just around the corner, where brains are never tapped, and remain free from wires, forever.