Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Being ignorant of all things science, I've never understood why it is that potato chip bags are always only half-full, or why fizzy drinks in plastic bottles inevitably have that little gap near the top that leaves you with less liquid than you thought had to begin with, and I realize that the explanation has something to do with air pressure, and volume, and things settling near the opening, and I've never completely bought that scenario, truth be told, figuring, instead, that it was all a carefully prepared ploy by the potato chip companies and soft-drink manufacturers to rob us, the 'valued' consumer, out of our rightful junk-food due, and now I have proof, visible, sustained, observable proof, that such does not have to be the case, that there are companies with the guts and the dignity to fill it all the way to the top, corporate bigwigs and bosses be damned.

Of course, it might not be entire companies that are paving the way. It may, in fact, reside in the hands of one determined, dedicated individual.

Recently I've been buying Magnolia Orange Juice drink, in a bottle, from various convenience stores in the Baguio area. The first time I twisted the lid, I spilled a little bit of orange drink all over my pants. As this is not exactly a rare occurrence in my life, complete klutz that I am, at first I blamed it on myself, but then I noticed: the bottle was full. I mean, filled to the top, full. There was no gap between the lid and the liquid; there was no space; there was 'room for settling'.

I thought this was an isolated incidence.

I was wrong.

For I've now bought half a dozen of these 335ml bottles, and in every case the same thing happens. I twist the lid, and I see, smell, taste that the liquid is filled up to the neck and over the top.

How could this be so? How come I've never encountered such a surprising, satisfying phenomena with any other drink I've bought in the last twenty years?

I soon realized: This is no accident.

Most likely, it's the work of one man. A dedicated worker, yes, but one who serves a higher calling. He knows that it's a crock of shit, this 'leaving-room-for-settling' in the container that the companies keep proclaiming is the reason why they rob us of one sip of liquid in each and every drink we buy from the bottle. It may be only one sip, but one sip added up over millions and millions of bottles shipped world-wide amounts to millions and millions of dollars saved at corporate head-office, money that is undoubtedly being used, even as I write these words, to fund fox-coats for slinky mistresses and posh private schools for bratty kids. There is a worker on some assembly line, in Mumbai or Manila, Tokyo or Toledo, who understands this injustice. He is a good man, a family man, not prone to breaking the law. Not looking to risk his life and livelihood for a better social order. And yet he recognizes that all this waste need not be the case. I'm not sure exactly how drinks are put into plastic bottles at the factory level, but somehow this anonymous man, who wants nothing more from life than the roof over his head and the food on his table and the sun up above which all too rarely shines on his face, given that he has the night shift, has always had the shift, ever since the age of eighteen, and this man, he decides, on a daily basis, to buck the system. To put that extra sip of orange juice into each and every bottle. I don't think he has been caught, this man. And I don't think he craves glory, so I hope I'm not violating his privacy. And yet I cannot let this brave and noble and selfless act of his go unnoticed. Each day he risks dismissal, and jeopardizes the lives of himself and his family, and yet he will not beaten. His pay is meager. He needs the money. His family is relying on him and him alone to keep the wolves at bay. He persists, nevertheless. Always looking over his shoulder. Always keeping one eye on the assembly line, the other looking out for his boss. I don't know if he fills these bottles by hand, and I 'm not able to ascertain whether or not he has reprogrammed the automated machine that does the dirty work. All I know for certain is that he is there, in some darkly-lit factory, sweating, doing what he can to make our juice-drinking lives a little better. When his shift his over the sun is already emerging moment by moment, up, up and away, red and full in an ash-grey sky shifting from dull black to brilliant blue, and he will miss most of the day and most of this sky, asleep on his cot in his hot, cramped apartment. His children are at school. His wife is at work. He smokes a well-deserved cigarette before plumping his pillow and collapsing on his make-shift couch. The day is just beginning but his is already ending. But while the rest of the world chases ever more shallow dreams, vain and empty wisps of pride, he has carved out of life a small crest of dignity that is his and his alone, that he hides, almost hordes. When the moon begins to rise, so will he, and the half-mile walk to his work will seem all the more sweeter because he knows that there is something waiting for him a few minutes away. Something pure that he protects. A bottle, a splash of juice, a space. Endlessly repeated. He will stand all night and imagine the surprise on the faces of those who open his bottles, the shock followed by joy that only comes when something sweet and unexpected lands right in your lap.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


While waiting for the Baguio Immigration Office to open up again the other day after its one hour lunch break, a big, jovial British bloke started to chat me up, asking where I was from and what I was doing here, sounding almost relieved, if not genuinely excited, to hear that I hailed from Canada, and he mentioned quite casually that he had an aunt living in Canada, somewhere in the, where was it, the western part of the country, he believed, Vancouver, perhaps, though one could never be sure, and he smiled contentedly as he talked about how he had lived and worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, and how he had been rather nicely settled here in the Philippines for fifteen months or so with his sweetheart, and he was quite friendly, this chap was, embodying that kind of instant intimacy that seems to unite fellow strangers in a foreign land, and yet all through this short but pleasant conversation on this warm and sunny afternoon, sitting on the newly-painted blue benches next to the Korean restaurant, I couldn't help but think of this friendly, Santa-shaped Englishman as anything other than an undercover C.I.A agent, sussing me out and hoping to recruit another possible asset to his growing portfolio of underground, illicit potential.

Of course, it didn't help my paranoia that the paperback book nestled inside of my blag bag slung over my shoulder was titled: America At Night: The True Story of Two Rogue C.I.A. Operatives, Homeland Security Failures, Dirty Money, and a Plot to Steal the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election -- by the Former Intelligence Agent who Foiled the Plan.

Written by Larry Kolb, who spent twenty years in covert C.I.A. operations all over the world (including the Philippines), the book is an absolutely fascinating account of how he accidentally discovered that two possible C.I.A operatives were planning to somehow link one of John Kerrey's campaign managers with a telecommunications firm linked to Al-Qaida, and thus decisively tilt the American election in the Republicans favor once and for all and forever.

I've always loved a good conspiracy theory; I just like them to be plausible. (I finally abandoned my decades-long belief in the J.F.K.-assassination-conspiracy-industry because I no longer could find it credible, possible, or, yes, plausible.)

This book is plausible.

It's also riveting reading, because it kind of underlines what I've slowly learned for myself, living in Cambodia and the Philippines -- that the government can be corrupt, that powerful people will lie, that money rules the roost, and there's so much more going on underneath the placid surface of public life that to actually uncover the truth is not only disheartening and disillusioning -- it's also somewhat frightening.

This story also pulses with the implausibility of life itself. Months after actually having helped unravel this whole dastardly scheme, the author actually bumps into John Kerrey in New York City, as Kerrey steps out of a hotel. What are the odd of this? Check the tape, Kolb writes. Somewhere, in some forgotten canister in the corner of a dimly-lit room, there would be video tape of a certain day in December (or November, or whenever it was), tape taken from surveillance cameras on New York City intersections, or video from the hotel security camera. Quoting detective writer Dashiell Hammet, Kolb notes that since matter always comes into contact with other matter, there will always be a trail. Anybody and anything can be found.

That's the essence of the book, essentially --- the boring necessity of following random or shady leads, checking mind-numbingly arcane legal documents, sifting through dusty, moldy files. That's how conspiracies are discovered and uncovered; that's how facts are found or forgotten.

It reminded me of Bob Baer's book Fear No Evil, a similar account of an underworld that few of us even imagine, let alone acknowledge actually exists. (George Clooney's C.I.A. character in the film Syriana was modeled directly on Baer.) Both books essentially paint a portrait of a secret world controlled by people doing things we'd really rather not know about, lest sleep itself becomes a cherished, nostalgic memory.

This is not to say these authors are advocating a secrety society covertly running the planet. (Or, as David Icke insists at www.davidicke.com, a secrety society of lizard-people covertly running the planet.)

No, it's more subtle than that.

It's a world where deals are cut and plans are made that are, quite simply, not told to people. Where different people in different departments of different government agencies do not trust each other and do not trust themselves, and are willing to do whatever it takes in order not to fail, and where simple human, moral concerns are suspect and irrelevant in the cutthroat realm of commece and politics.

Where author Larry Kolb can sit in a meeting with the first George W.Bush and Kolb's close friend, Muhammed Ali (!), and Bush can enlist Ali to secretly go to Iran to talk to the Ayatollah to help close a deal that would release American hostages, with nobody in the political world, the media world, the real world, being none the wiser.

No grand conspiracies; no massive modes of deception and deceit.

Just guarded conversations in brightly lit rooms, and agents being briefed in dark expensive cars as they circle around the city so as to make detection and observation all the more difficult. Just fake names firmly stamped on counterfeit passports.

All very orderly.

And yet nobody is truly looking at the whole, the big picture, the intersecting point where ambitions collide and outcomes are determined.

As Kolk points out, in my favorite, most astute line of the book: The people who are bringing you the War On Terror are the same people who brought you The War On Drugs. And look how that turned out...

The essential point being: There are people in charge, yes, of course, but each individual has their own agenda, usually separate from that of their ostensible employers, and when these agendas collide, as they essentially must, chaos reigns.

Because people are nothing if not chaotic.

Which brings me back to my original point, that of being possibly recruited by the C.I.A. in Baguio.

Absurd, of course.

And yet...

As I wrote in this space a few years back, a Canadian gent the same age as myself I met while dining with other folks at a cafe in Cambodia gradually inquired about my Japanese ability, and then smoothly tried to recruit me into the Canadian version of the C.IA., specifically its international-eavesdropping division. When I emailed the contact person's info he provided, just for the hell of it, just to push the process as far along the path as it could possibly go, the man wrote me back and literally asked: "How did you get this email address? Here's the application information, but don't tell anyone you know who I am or that you've been in contact with me."

After that odd encounter and its aftermath (which my Social Studies class at Pine Grove Public School in St.Catharines most definitely did not adequately prepare me for), and after reading America At Night, with its constant cavalcade of undercover agents, contacts, people-who-are-not-who-they-claim-to-be, can you actually blame me for suspecting the true intentions of a kindly fifty-year old British gent who tried to strike up a conversation with me in Immigration office of a middle-sized city in the northern part of the Philippines?

After all, another middle-aged teacher I worked with here recently informed me that he did a lot of work in Virginia, for a government agency, though he wouldn't tell me which one, and that he had lived on various islands in the Caribbean that I'd never even heard of, doing work for the 'space program', and that Baguio was positively filled with C.I.A. folks, but he wouldn't say why. (There's a substantial terrorist outfit working alive and afloat down in the southern islands, but I thought Baguio was pretty safe. I thought.)

I'm probably being overdramatic.

The day is warm, and the sun is bright, and why not simply let the light of spring guide my way. To dwell in the shadows of life is a dark and lonely business.

And yet.

As I left the Immigration Office, I noticed that the rather large British gentleman I'd talked with a quarter of an hour earlier was stilling waiting for his passport to be processed. In the meantime, wiping sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, adjusting his black-framed glasses, he started striking up a conversation with the two or three Somali men sitting beside him. Where were they from? How long had they been in the Philippines? Africa, you say? Splendid!

I put my passport in my bag and hurried home.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


How much do you really know about your family?

I'm not talking about the sordid little details that we'd rather not know, but the good stuff, the real stuff, where you come from, and how, and why.

Most of us know very little about the lives of our ancestors, but researching your roots is not as hard as you may think.

Here's a fascinating site that can help you begin to trace your family's history, with an engaging host to guide you along your journey step-by -step:



There's a house at the corner of Santo Rosario Drive in Baguio that I walk by every day on my way home from work, and every day, glancing at the home, at the empty yard that lies to the left of the main entrance, I imagine a group of kids goofing off on a jungle gym that is no longer there.

A couple of years back I taught some kids there for a few months. A winter camp for ESL students from Korea. I remember one specific day in particular. I left work around five to walk home. I glanced at the set of make-shift metal climbers the kids were lazily, languidly draping themselves around. They all looked so young and happy and goofy and great. All the time in the world, they had. They waved good-bye. I waved good-bye. They went back to playing. I headed towards home, hurrying against the quickly falling dusk. I glanced back and told myself to remember that moment.

I often do that: Remember this moment. That's my miniature mantra. I use it to focus myself, to harness my faulty memory so that a particular slice of life will not fall through the creaky cracks of my subconscious. Some moments are so clearly revelatory that there is no need for a forced reminder. Those are usually the monster moments, the life-changing moments, super-sized, the made-for-TV-revelations that soon give way to the inevitable commercial break which constitutes most of our routine lives.

It's the other moments that I tend to stress to myself, to highlight and put in italics, the ones that are ordinary and completely unoriginal in the context of my life, but that nevertheless seem to somehow hint at something wonderful or unusual, ecstatic or gloomy. If I forget this, I will think, then some small part of me will die.

Like those kids on the jungle-gym. They were friends, doing what friends did: fight with each other, laugh with each other, punch each other in the gut and then cry for mercy or forgiveness. I would watch them, and quite often I wanted to take them aside and say: "You have to remember these moments. These silly moments. Because soon you will go back to Korea and you will not see these friends again, perhaps ever. They will go to their city, and you will go to yours, and all you will have between you are these moments of sunshine in the mountain city of Baguio in a country far from your own. There will be moments post-adolescence when you will wake up in the pitch-black midnight dark during a restless night of non-sleep, and you will suddenly recollect the faces of these friends, but their names will be gone, and part of your twelve-year old self will also have been carried away, and so it's crucial that you imprint these moments somewhere inside of you. You are twelve, and the air is warm, and the breeze is cool, and you will never be with these group of friends again. It's important that you link yourselves to them within yourself. Time does not linger."

Of course, I never said such things.

Why would they listen to an old man like me? I think.

And why should they understand? Age eleven, age twelve, have their own sets of rules, most of which I've forgotten in my rush to adulthood.

Almost every time I walk by that house and see that empty yard I think of that moment, though. The jungle gym is gone. Those kids, whose names I can no longer recall, are scattered somewhere across Korea, strangers to each other.

At thirty-three, I sit and type these words. Often I imagine an older man, fifty or sixty, seventy or eighty, wrinkled and old, counting the days of his life. He watches me go about my simple, daily life. Eating dinner and browsing through bookstores and typing in my blog at this Internet cafe on Session Road. He is watching me, this man is, remembering what thirty-three was like so long ago. Skeptical and disheartened by my seeming nonchalance about life itself. He wants to buy me a coffee, and lean in close, and tell me to look around, and take a mental snapshot, and force me to realize once and forever that this is as good as it gets. I imagine him hesitant to approach. "It's okay," I want to say. "Come closer. Tell me what I need to know. Show me the moments I need to remember. I will listen, and I will not laugh."

But he always hurries off without saying a word.

Who would listen to an old man like him? he thinks.

Leaving me alone with my own selfish thoughts, I imagine him leaving my sight, slowly fading with each hesitant step into the soft, tangerine dusk as he shuffles towards the long and uphill incline of Session Road, and I'm somewhat startled to realize that, from this safe distance, he looks almost exactly like myself.